Sunday, 17 March 2019

The fox and the hen – a sermon about the journey to resurrection

Sermon given at Creaton United Reformed Church, 17 March 2019. Text: Luke 13:31-35. See also earlier address about Abram and covenant.

We’re all about the animals in this passage. St Patrick is said to have chased the snakes out of Ireland (he didn't), but here we have a fox and a hen appearing. They make a nice contrast, and we’ll come back to them later.

Image: Endless Road by Margret Hofheinz-Doring,
via Vanderbilt University
So Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The gospel of Luke has a lot to say about journeys, and especially the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. We first hear about him ‘setting his face to Jerusalem’ in chapter 9, and the account of Palm Sunday is in chapter 19. In other words it takes 10 chapters, out of a book with 24 chapters, for him to reach Jerusalem after he starts on his way there. And he’s still got a long way to go, here in chapter 13. There’s an admirable sense of determination here. Jesus is absolutely sure he’s got to be there, to accomplish his task. And yet also lots of things happen on the journey. Much of Jesus’ ministry, his teaching and his miracles, his encounters with crowds and with individuals, happens on the road to Jerusalem. He’s on the journey, but part of that journey is what he does on the way.

Why Jerusalem? Why does it matter so much? That might sound a strange question, but why was his work not happening in Galilee? Or further afield, in one of the Roman garrison towns such as Caesarea Philippi, or even in Rome itself? That might sound an odd question, but the answer sheds important light on Jesus and his mission. He was going to Jerusalem because he was a Jew, and because to the Jewish people, Jerusalem was the most important place in the world. It was the place where God and humanity communicated. It was the place of worldly power and authority, but it mattered much more as being the place of spiritual authority. Everything that mattered happened in Jerusalem. It’s not literally true when Jesus says that all the prophets were killed in Jerusalem – Jeremiah died in Egypt and Ezekiel died in the land of the Chaldeans, to name two, but it expresses the truth that Jerusalem was absolutely central to Jewish life.

We do well to remember this, in our fevered atmosphere of us-and-them, of Leavers and Remainers, of Jews and Muslims, of Protestant and Catholic. There’s no us-and-them between Jesus and the Jews, and when we find Jewish leaders persecuting Jesus that doesn’t reflect some kind of separation, and should never ever have been a justification for the church’s poisonous brand of antisemitism that has marred our faith for centuries and killed so many. The Jews are not the enemy here. Likewise, the gospels are full of invective against Pharisees, but that’s mostly because Jesus was so close to the ideas of the Pharisees so it was one of those wars of small differences, like the Judean People’s Front against the People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian. There were differences of emphasis, but Jesus is forever hanging out with Pharisees, often arguing with them, but eating and spending time with them. And importantly we see Pharisees warning Jesus that Herod’s out to get him. So the Pharisees aren’t the enemy either.

So who is the enemy? That would be Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, ruler of Galilee under the Romans, killer of John the Baptist and eventually of Jesus. Herod Antipas ruled for 41 years, and while he wasn’t the worst of the Romans’ client kings, like all rulers of the day he was dedicated to power, violence, hierarchy and exclusion. And by contrast, Jesus was dedicated to the opposite of these – to living with the outcasts and marginalised, to preaching hope to the downtrodden, to proclaiming the kingdom where power would be turned on its head. He had a job to do, he said – to cast out demons and perform cures. He knew Herod was the opposite of this worldview, had the opposite mission to him in the world.

And thus the fox reference. In the Greek world, foxes were cunning and quite impressive – think of Aesop’s fables. But in the Jewish world, they were a destructive pest, and their cunning was one of evil rather than something to be impressed by. They got in the way, and they were horrible. But they also weren’t the worst of enemies that could be found in the animal kingdom. It’s not like Jesus called Herod after the kinds of animals that threatened people and sheep in Israel – say a lion, or a wild beast, or even an eagle like the Roman one. So there’s a double insult here – Jesus is being quite dismissive of Herod, at the same time as he’s saying he’s untrustworthy. He’s a nasty piece of work, but he’s also not up to much. I’ve been thinking about Harry Potter analogies here – the cunning and nasty bit sounds a bit like Jesus is saying Herod should be in Slytherin, except it would be a version of Slytherin that was simultaneously nasty and a bit rubbish.

Jesus, of course, has a nice farmyard contrast to the fox. He wants to nurture the people of Jerusalem like a hen protects its chicks under its wings. I love this image, because it’s so loving and caring. It reminds me of the Celtic blessing that ends ‘until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand’. God will hold us all in the palm of God’s hand, and will care for us under her wings. It’s also a feminine image that stands in contrast to all those God-the-father images. Many of us know perfectly well that God has no gender, yet the scriptures are saturated with masculine imagery, and sometimes they’re not good enough to capture the full nature of God. If we can only think of God as a father, and our father was abusive or controlling or absent, how can we love God? If we only have images such as Lord God of Hosts, at the front of armies, how can we react if our lives have been blighted by war? God goes beyond gender, but our images don’t. At best we might have a sense of the holy spirit as female, but even that gets resisted by some people. And yes, Jesus as a human being was male, but a man who can’t embrace feminine imagery for themselves is emotionally impoverished. So I really like this image of Jesus the mother hen.
Image: Circle of Hope
But of course Jesus notes that ultimately he was expecting to be rejected by people in Jerusalem. Because he’s realistic about what he’s facing. He knows that whether or not people saying “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, as of course happened on Palm Sunday, his ideas are too radical to be accepted. He knows that what he preaches, the way he lives, goes against the ideas that the powerful in his world will accept.

Jesus knows that when he finally gets to Jerusalem, he’ll face struggle and death. And he’s willing to embrace it, but I don’t think that’s the point of his journey. Because in this reading we hear twice about Jesus finishing his work on the third day. Not the day of the cross, but of the empty tomb. Not the crucifixion, but the resurrection.

And here’s the good news about this passage. We heard in the first reading that God formed a covenant which, if broken, required the death of God. Well we know that covenant was broken many times. We know that relationships between humanity and God broke down, and have broken down. But they broke down precisely because of the violence and oppression which Herod Antipas and the Roman Empire stood for. And they weren’t going to be cured by a continuation of the same thing again.

So for Jesus to die wasn’t enough. That wouldn’t solve anything. The cross by itself, that instrument of torture and Roman power, solved nothing. But what came next was the third day. The day when God took the power of violence and turned it on its head, when the nurturing God remade not just the covenant with Abraham but every covenant, and every idea of every covenant. On Easter Sunday, God changed the rules themselves. He brought up the powerless, and sent the rich away empty.

Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem wasn’t to go and get himself killed. He went with a much more important mission – to change the nature of the world, to set aside the power of empire and to bring forward the new reign of God on earth.

So as we prepare in the coming month to journey towards Easter, we must remember that when we stand for equality and justice, and stand against authority and power, we are on the side of Jesus. When we approach defeat by the powers of the world, we are in the same position as Jesus. And we can be assured that, like Jesus found, love and hope will prevail even in the deepest darkness. Amen.

Covenant in the dazzling darkness: Abram, qarrtsiluni and hope in despair

Opening address given at Creaton United Reformed Church, 17 March 2019. Text: Genesis 15:1-18. See also sermon about Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, which followed later in the service.

Image: Total eclipse, by Jim Friedrich
Two shorter addresses on two passages today, as they’re linked but too important to treat together.

What promises does God make to God’s people, in the depth of darkness and despair? The psalm says that “when evildoers assail me to devour my flesh, they shall stumble and fall”. What really happens then? We have hope from the psalm, but is that the experience that most people actually have? Because there are people in real despair, in real darkness. People in Christchurch whose whole world was ripped apart on Friday by a far-right terrorist. People who are living on the street, only kept going by alcohol or drugs that are also killing them. People who are watching the ones they love slowly fade and die. People who don’t know where the next meal is coming from. That kind of despair.

So to Abram, in a weird kind of despair. If you have a spare half-hour, I do recommend reading the whole story of Abram-who-becomes-Abraham, which occupies chapters 12 to 25 of the book of Genesis. He was quite a peculiar character with all sorts of peculiar events in his life, not all of them especially commendable. Genesis as a whole is a semi-mythical account of the backstory to why the Israelites were the people of God stranded in slavery in Egypt. It’s a mistake to take it too literally. And Abram is at the start of it all, representing the creation of the people of Israel through one individual, showing God’s covenant with Israel in one person. And this is a story about covenant.

Abram begins the story basically whining. He’s rich, he has plenty of power, and in the previous chapter he has just defeated his enemies in battle and been blessed by the local high priest. Yet he’s annoyed because he’s been promised an heir, a child to take up his mantle, and he doesn’t have one. That sounds trivial compared to the kind of darkness I’ve mentioned, but for Abram it’s a real issue. It’s about his future, about whether everything he stands for will come to an end after his death. If you know about the life of Henry VIII, he was desperate for a male heir because his kingdom was invested in the individual, and the Tudor monarchy was very precarious. So it is with Abram, and as I’ve said he’s not just an individual but a symbol of the people of Israel. His lack of heir means a lack of continuation of the whole people of Israel. The whole story wouldn’t get off the ground. So for Abram it’s real darkness.

And God makes a covenant with him in the darkness. And the weird story about heifers and goats and pigeons is important. Because in the later years of the Jewish people, when this text was written down, that was how you solemnised a covenant. Trigger warning for animal lovers and vegetarians: this bit’s not very nice. You take an animal, or several animals, and cut them in half, then you separate them, leave a good-size gap between them. Then the two parties who are making some kind of agreement with each other walk down the middle between the halves of the animals. And that seals the bargain. Because symbolically it’s saying “if we don’t keep our side of the bargain, may we be cut in two like the animals”. Sometimes this kind of covenanting was done with individuals, but much more often with groups. It was a collective undertaking.

So here we see God coming to Abram in what’s described as a deep and terrifying darkness. And in that dark time, that dark place, Abram sees a symbol of God, fire and smoke, passing between the two halves of the animals. God has come to Abram in the dark. God has stood alongside Abram in the dark.

I read recently that the Inuit people of the Arctic regions have an amazing word for this experience, “qarrtsiluni”. It means “sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen.” Groups sit together in the darkness, and out of that darkness comes… insight. Sometimes, in the hunting communities of the Inuit, it’s song or storytelling. And to Abram, it’s life, and it’s hope for the future. It’s the promise of God, that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

And from that experience Abram, and through him the whole people of Israel, had strength to continue. Because God had been with him in his darkness. An Anglican priest called Rachel Mann calls this dazzling darkness, and writes that “this is the God we cannot use for our purposes and devices, for deep darkness consumes us and denies us the means to chart our way. We are liberated from our own convinced power of control and talent and mastery.”

And it leaves us with the love and power of God. Because God has made a covenant with Abram, and God has guaranteed it with his own life. So that when the covenant becomes stretched and broken, the only thing that will repair it is the death of God himself. The faithfulness of Abram and the faithfulness of God lead us towards the cross. It takes us on the journey of Lent that will end in Good Friday. But the cross is not the end, and that’s where we come to in the second passage later. For now, let’s rest with Abram, accompanied and blessed by God in covenant relationship, sitting in that dazzling darkness.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Who is my enemy? Do I really have to love them?

Sermon preached on 24 February 2019 at Duston United Reformed Church. Text: Luke 6:27-38.

Image: Pulpit Fiction
Let’s imagine a parable – or at least a variation on a well-known one. Jesus had been preaching all day on a to a large crowd, teaching about God’s mercy and how we should show love for our enemies. A man came to him that evening at the house where he was saying, and asked him “Teacher, who is my enemy?”. And Jesus replied: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by thieves, passed by people who should know better, and helped by someone his people had been in conflict with for centuries. Now, who do you think was that man’s enemy?”. And alas, the man’s answer was not recorded in the parable. But perhaps we might guess it for ourselves.

And that’s my question for today. Who are our enemies? And alongside that, do we really have to love them? And what does it really mean to have an enemy? It’s tempting to domesticate this passage, to bring it to the equal of petty disputes with neighbours or at work, but the biblical scholars tell us that the word translated as enemy means people who pose you and your tribe a real threat, or the people that your tribe poses a real threat to. Armies at the town gates, terrible persecution, long history of rivalry and dispute, that kind of thing.

For much of my life I was rather sceptical about this teaching. I believed it strongly enough but also thought it didn’t really apply to me. I’ve spent my whole life as a pacifist, and never really identified with the various wars my country has fought. In my lifetime, British soldiers have been at war in the Falklands, twice in Iraq, in Afghanistan, as well as lower-key involvement in lots of other places. Then there was the Cold War, and terrorist attacks from Northern Ireland and more recently from Islamic extremists. But they always felt like other people’s battles, and I have seldom been convinced that the British response was appropriate or proportionate. I don’t say this to make a case for my politics, and I recognise that others feel quite differently about this subject. But it made me uncertain who I really could call my enemy.

Now some of this is due to privilege. I’ve experienced little sense of persecution in my life. I’m white, male, middle-class – all thoroughly privileged groups. And the wars I mentioned were far away, and although I was afraid as a teenager of nuclear war like many of my generation, these things were complicated and mostly happening somewhere else. So I’ve had little sense of persecution or threat, no real sense of enemies facing me.

And yet I’ve gradually come to realise that I do have enemies. There are people who would hate me enough to kill me because of where I live and my background, and who don’t care about the nuances of one British person against another. There are people who hold my opinions to be reprehensible and would like to see them weeded out. And there are opinions, groups, that I also find reprehensible; and I might not hate the people individually who hold them, but I certainly see myself as the enemy of their opinions and would like to see those come to an end.

Plenty of other people are in a similar position. I don’t really want to use the B-word, but political debate has become more and more heated in this country since the Brexit referendum was called. Whatever your opinion about the right outcome, the discussion has become dangerously polarised, with positions becoming harder and more extreme. Our two main political parties are dominated by the edges of their political traditions, not their centres. So many people see the other side as their enemy. We haven’t had much political violence in this country, apart from the murder of the MP Jo Cox, but MPs and activists get all sorts of abuse, online and in person.

When Jesus talked about enemies, he was speaking from a far worse context of powerlessness and persecution. The Jewish people had been marginalised and persecuted for centuries, most recently by the Roman occupation. We were on Hadrian’s Wall this week, and had a real sense of the power and ruthlessness of the Roman empire. They built their forts on an identical plan, from Britain to Germany to Palestine, they co-opted local leaders, and they expected total compliance with Roman authority in a whole range of ways. They taxed highly, suppressed local religions, and crucified rebels. And by the time Luke wrote his gospel, the temple at Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Jewish people scattered, and the great split between Christians and Jews had occurred and was becoming irrevocable, but not yet recognised by the Romans. This meant that Christians were persecuted both by the Romans as a Jewish sect and by Jewish authorities as heretics, and it’s in that context that Luke put together his gospel and chose to quote Jesus’ words in this way.

So Jesus, and Luke after him, had a lot of reason to think about people who hated them, abused them, cursed them and so on. And that’s why the passage assumes that the listeners are victims, not victimizers – these people may have enemies but they’re not the ones doing the persecution, they’re not the ones with the armies, they’re not subjecting people to abuse on Twitter.

And of course there are so many people today who are genuinely persecuted, across the world. People who are subject to abuse for their gender, or their race, or their religion, or their sexuality, or their disability, or their age – there are so many ways to persecute. And so many powerful groups treat these people as enemies. I’m sorry to say that this includes church groups, past and present – so many churches have marginalised women, or people of colour, or gay people, or disabled people, or foreigners. Too many people have awful experiences at the hands of Christians. In these places the church has turned itself into an enemy of the people of God, and it’s shameful.

But in the face of this kind of persecution, Jesus doesn’t say, meet violence with violence, meet curses with curses. He says: do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. This might sound passive but it’s incredibly radical. He doesn’t say that persecuted people should ignore their persecution, should let their enemies off the hook. He says, acknowledge that you’ve been hurt, but don’t let them think that they’ve got the better of you. They’re wrong and you’re right. But also: you’re better than they are. Their violence doesn’t need to be met with further violence, because that only makes things worse.

And then he goes further, to advise persecuted people that they should confront those who hurt them, and turn their negative experiences upon their persecutors. You may well know that there was context behind these sayings – that turning the other cheek after being struck with the right hand meant someone would either have to strike you with the back of the hand or the less-favoured left hand. Likewise if someone takes away your cloak, which for many people in Jesus’ time would be their only outer garment, then they’re depriving that person of so much protection that they might as well be stripped naked – which is basically Jesus’ advice. Because turning the other cheek doesn’t mean to be a doormat; it means radically to face down the persecutor and confront them with the consequences of their actions, not allowing them to damage you and then let it go. These are deeply subversive acts.

A good recent example of this pattern of behaviour is the #MeToo movement, where women who had been assaulted by powerful men came together to stand up to those men, to show them that their behaviour was unacceptable. They didn’t fight the men, they brought the truth into the open, showed the extent to which these men had not only behaved unacceptably, but thought they were too powerful to be challenged. And these brave women, many of them perfectly ordinary people as well as a small handful of celebrities, stood up and told of their experiences. Recounting the story of their abuse must have hurt, had to take a lot of courage. And very often their courage has stopped powerful people from continuing their abuse, frequently requiring them at last to face the justice they’d avoided for a long time. Sometimes it wasn’t enough – I’m thinking of the extraordinary testimony of Christine Blasey Ford in front of the US Senate last year, confronting the past abuse done to her by a would-be judge. In that case, politics won the day, but her voice was powerful and the judge and his political supporters left damaged by it.

This kind of active non-violence has been practiced by peaceful but assertive liberation movements on many occasions. It was the method used by Mahatma Gandhi in India, by Martin Luther King in the United States, by Desmond Tutu and others in South Africa. But it’s an old tradition, and goes back to Jesus’ call to love your enemies, to break cycles of violence and persecution through being better than them.

And being better than your enemy has spiritual value as well as being practically effective. As well as his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggles, Archbishop Desmond Tutu led the amazing Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. He became deeply aware of issues of forgiveness, and has written and spoken at length on why forgiving others is a radical act. He wrote the following:
Forgiveness is not dependent on the actions of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then, you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way. …  We don't forgive to help the other person. We don't forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest.
This is put in a slightly different way towards the end of the passage by Jesus himself, when he says “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”. Because ultimately this is about how we live our lives, and it’s about the model we take for our lives. And mercy is absolutely at the heart of the gospel of Luke, the heart of the good news that Jesus brings us. God is love, God’s mercy is absolute. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims is not one where people’s wrong-doings are counted up and weighed against them. It’s one that says that God loves us all, with a rich and deep love so great that it’s like measuring out flour, or some liquid, and keeping on pouring and pouring until it flows everywhere. It’s a love, a merciful love, that desires wholeness and peace for everyone, with more generosity than you can possibly imagine. But it’s also a demanding love, because it says that if that’s the nature of God’s love, then it needs to be the nature of our love too. The only possible response to that level of love is to share it with others, to always be on the side of the downtrodden, never to side with the persecutors or the powerful, and always to respond to violence and abuse with still more love.

That’s a tough call, and there’s one more thing to say. Some of this passage, like the Joseph story, is a bit dangerous. Ideas like turning the other cheek can be misused by the powerful to try to shut up persecuted people. Nobody has a right to do this. If people who have suffered harm choose to stand up to their abuser in this kind of way, then that is their right, and it serve them well. But this is the invitation of Jesus, not his commandment, and it can never be used to silence or tell the downtrodden what to do.

And lastly, as so often, Martin Luther King puts it beautifully. Dr King was in jail for his activism and was accused by public opinion of being an extremist. And he wrote the following, with this passage today in mind:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love… So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
May we all love our enemies, and in that way be extremists for love. Amen.