Sunday, 22 April 2018

The good leader, making us rest

Sermon preached at The Headlands United Reformed Church, Northampton, on 22nd April 2018. Texts: John 10:11-18, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24.

Let’s start with true confessions time. I’ve never met a shepherd. Now I’m a bit of a townie, but I’ve met a fair number of farmers in my time. Some of them probably even farmed sheep. And my wife grew up on a farm, so I've heard a bit about looking after sheep. But a real-life shepherd who lived and breathed sheep? Bloke with a crook and a sheepdog? Nope.

I doubt I’m alone, though knowing my luck there are people tutting even now and going “well I know lots of shepherds”. Quite so. But my point is that what was once a commonplace metaphor has progressively become less so, and the characteristics of shepherds has become less well known. But this wasn’t so in Jesus’ time, and before him in the times when the Old Testament was written. Sheep and shepherds were everywhere.
Image: Orthodox Monastery Icons
The first thing to say about them is to observe that sheep in 1st century Judaea were mostly kept for wool, not meat – so that the shepherd kept a herd together and developed a close bond with the sheep over a number of years. So on the whole shepherds had a long-term relationship with their flocks, not a short bit of guarding then off to the slaughterhouse. And they were famously brave and willing to do battle with the dangerous animals that might attack their sheep out there on the hills. Remember that King David was a shepherd boy originally, and learnt his skills with a slingshot in attacking mountain lions and the like.

The second thing is that shepherds were loners, rural folk who spent lots of time alone on the hills, weren’t rich or well-educated, maybe didn’t smell so good, a bit rough around the edges, tended not to be trusted by the townsfolk. Remember the shepherds in Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus, out there on the hills.

The third thing about shepherds is that the Old Testament is full of places where the leaders of Israel are compared to shepherds. Sometimes it’s even the same Hebrew word. And the prophets used this comparison to good effect. The prophet Ezekiel had a fantastic rant against the shepherds of Israel, in words that are very close to what we’ve heard already:
“Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” [34:2b-4]
and later Ezekiel carries on:
“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” [34:11,14-16]
Now Jesus knew his prophets, and so did his listeners. So when he talked about good shepherds, he and his listeners would inevitably have that question of leadership behind his words. Moreover, it’s clear if you look to the end of the previous chapter that he’s speaking to a group of Pharisees who have been questioning him after he healed a blind man. And the word he uses that’s translated ‘good’, which is kalos in Greek, doesn’t just mean morally right, but also noble, attractive, magnificent. It’s the kind of goodness that shines out of someone and draws you to them.

So that’s one kind of leader – one who heals, one who feeds their sheep, who leads them to good pastures, and who is willing to protect them followers to the bitter end, to willingly lay down their life. Contrast that with the other kind of leader, who Jesus refers to as a hired hand, someone who might do a reasonable job to start with, but when trouble comes will run away and leave their sheep, those they’re supposed to care for, at the mercy of the troubles around them.

Now we have all come across leaders like that. Whether it’s politicians, CEOs of large corporations, university vice-chancellors – we see some dreadful leaders in place. They swan in from outside having no experience of the organisation they’ve come to lead, sometimes even the kind of organisation they lead, only knowing money and management, but paid huge sums. And their focus isn’t on protecting the organisation and its people, but on making money or on quick change. And we see slashing cuts to staff, offices closed, unnecessary restructuring, mismanagement. All because they were hired hands rather than good shepherds. We had an example of this kind of leadership recently where I work, and it did huge damage to a fine organisation, from which we’ll hopefully recover.

The church likewise is not immune to this kind of lack of leadership. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Christian radicals such as the early Quakers preached and wrote furious invectives against what they called ‘hireling priests’, referring to this very passage. A radical Anglican theologian of the 18th century by the name of Thomas Woolston, born and raised here in Northampton, wrote a book where he offered to debate with anyone who’d come “whether the hireling-preachers of this age, who are all ministers of the letter, be not worshippers of the apocalyptic beast, and ministers of Anti-Christ?”. Which on the whole is what I think you’d call a loaded question for debate. Most of today’s clergy, and naturally all lay preachers, are not in it for the money – but there have been terrible stories of clerical misbehaviour, including sexual abuse scandals which were covered up, but also many other cases of misuse of power and authority.

And against that kind of poor leadership, Jesus sets out the role of a good shepherd. That takes us back to Psalm 23, which we heard at the start of the service. That psalm is so familiar that many people can recite it off by heart. It’s been set to music so many times, and even was used for the Vicar of Dibley theme tune! It’s read at many funerals. It’s probably the best-loved and most-familiar of all the psalms. And of course as a result, it’s not read as closely as it might be. Three thoughts about the 23rd psalm.  

First, it could be seen as a job description for a good shepherd. It shows God leading us on a journey through life, taking us to safe and good places which are full of peace and rest and nurture, guiding us past the dangers of life, protecting us from those who trouble us. What more could a sheep ask for from their shepherd?

Second thing to say about the 23rd psalm. We all have our favourite parts, but mine is in the second verse. It reads “he makes me lie down in green pastures”. The psalmist doesn’t say that God invites us to have a quick lie-down, just for a few minutes, if we’re not too busy. God does not invite, God insists. Now I’m a chronically busy person, I take on more than I should, and I struggle to stop and relax, and I grew up in a Scottish Presbyterian culture which was suspicious of not using your talents to the full and which said there was always something else you could be doing. Others here may be able to relate to that feeling! But the psalm tells us that a good shepherd will make us blooming well stop in those green pastures and by those still waters. This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

Last thing on the 23rd psalm. Many commentators observe that the final verse is a poor translation. Most versions have some variety of “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”, but the Hebrew word we have as ‘follow’ is more active than that, and means more like pursue. Last Sunday’s lectionary gospel had Jesus appearing to the disciples, pursuing them from beyond death and in the face of their scepticism, because of his love for them. The Easter encounters with the risen Christ are all about Jesus pursuing, of reaching out to the disciples in their despair and hopelessness, when they least expected it, and suddenly transforming their lives like when he simply called Mary by her name outside the tomb, or where he simply broke bread and blessed it in Emmaus. The good shepherd runs after their sheep, chases them and protects them, and rejoices when they are found, as Jesus tells in his parable of the lost sheep.

And the good shepherd will ultimately lay down their life for the sheep. Now we’re in the season of Easter, and we immediately connect this phrase with the cross, with Jesus knowingly dying out of love from his followers, to protect them and restore them to life. But if we look at the Greek again, we find that the word translated as life is not zoe, the usual Greek word for life, but it’s actually psyche, from which we have words such as psychology and psychiatry. It’s more about soul, the internal and fundamental part of life, than it’s about physical life. Jesus is laying down his soul for his followers. He is losing his shalom, his wholeness, his integrity, his peace.

The key prayer of Judaism, then and now, is the Shema, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”, and that word soul in the Greek version of the Shema is psyche. So Jesus as a good Jew is laying down a fundamental part of his witness to God. He laying down what makes him good, what makes him lovely, what makes him a unique individual, what makes him able to witness to God. When he cried on the cross “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, that wasn’t just the cry of someone who was about to lose their life, but the cry of someone about to lose their soul. And in saying that Jesus is the good shepherd, that is the promise he’s making, that’s the level of sacrifice he’s willing to make.

Note that it’s not just for those of us here in this room. Because John’s version of Jesus is the universal Christ, the Christ as we learnt about him after the resurrection. He’s not just the Messiah for the Jews. He’s not just the saviour for the Christians. He’s the saviour of the whole world. He has other sheep that will listen to his voice, and he lays down his life for them too. They might give him other names, they might not believe the same about him as we do, they might be followers of other faiths, but if they too follow in Jesus’ way of love of God and love of neighbour, if they too participate in his upside-down kingdom, then Jesus is the good shepherd for them too. And Jesus lays down his soul for them too.

And what of us? Are we also commanded to lay down our lives for others? We’re told as much in the first epistle of John that we heard earlier, the verse sometimes describes as the other John 3:16. It reads “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”. And here again it’s that word psyche. Now there are plenty of passages in the gospels about taking up one’s cross, but I don’t think this necessarily refers to physical death. What I think it refers to comes in the following verses of 1st John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” and then “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action”. This is not about death, but about change. It’s about laying down the parts of our souls which stop us from helping those in need. It’s about laying down the parts of our souls which stop us from speaking truth to power, that stop us from taking action for the good. It’s about laying down our fears and our egos and our prejudices. And just as the good shepherd takes up his soul again, we too are commanded to take up our souls again, cleansed of these things, and filled with God’s love, ready to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, ready to tend to those in need, whether it is physical, spiritual or emotional.

We are not called to be as shepherds, but we are called to live in the way of love. And as we do so, we shall be led like sheep through green pastures and pursued by goodness and mercy, and led to the peace and wholeness that Jesus offers us, to life lived in abundance, in the name of him who lost everything so that we might gain everything. Amen.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Lent & the USS strike

Today is my first day back at work following 14 days of strike action called by the Universities &
College Union in support of our pensions (held at the Universities Superannuation Scheme, USS). Very much can be found online about the rationale for the strike and I won't repeat it here.

I've been a member of the union, and its predecessor, for most of my academic career. I've not always taken strike action when called, and had reservations whether to do so this time (because 14 days striking is a big loss of pay), but I'm glad I did. Partly this is because I think the strike matters, but also because it's had a positive impact on me.

I commented to a few people before the start of the strike that it seemed appropriate that it was taking place during Lent. I mostly thought of this in terms of sacrifice - of giving up 14 days of salary, and indeed the community of colleagues.

Although the sacrifice element was true, it also reflected for me the frequent experience that Lenten 'sacrifice' can lead to a greater realisation of the things that matter. In the event I found it to be a positive experience.

First was the sense of stripping away, and a realisation of how much of my work time is taken up with ephemera:
  • I looked at no work email on strike days, and so my time was not absorbed in the constant streams of reading others' thoughts. Sometimes these are helpful, sometimes not, but they are often disruptive to deeper work.
  • I played no part in university administration during these days. As a member of Senate and a role-holder within my department, I spend quite a bit of my time worrying about how the university is run. Some of this matters, but huge amounts of the work is reactive.
  • I attended no meetings on these days. I like meetings in theory, but too many university meetings are over-long, badly-managed and without participation. It used to be the exception that people would sit in meetings with a laptop and do other things; now it's the rule.
In addition, I set aside my more fundamental work, of teaching and research, but I knew this would mostly be safely left for a little while so I could gently put it to one side. 

Now I understand that this is hardly an original list - all academics, and knowledge workers in many bureaucratised fields, would give a similar list of ephemera, of the things that get in the way of doing their job. But there was real power in stripping them away. In the process I came to realise that the important things in my work are not associated with much of what absorbs my time day-to-day. 

That doesn't stop the way that the university is run from mattering to me. We were, after all, on strike because of the way the sector as a whole is run (and underlying the pensions dispute is a wider question that relates to it, about university governance and its economic basis). And at various times I was able to discuss with various colleagues about better ways to organise the university. I didn't stand on any picket lines, which I gather was a source of such discussions. But I did take part in a march and rally in London, and I gave a talk as part of the Alternative University of the Air, our OU teach-out on Facebook Live.

And I'm left after returning to work with a residual sense of anger against the collective senior management of the HE sector and their distance from the real work and real conditions of their staff; a determination to help it to be better in the difficult times ahead at the OU; but a realisation that the things that matter in academia ultimately are not these, but are our students, our ideas, our research, and the change we make in the world. Not a bad realisation for Lent.

Monday, 12 March 2018

God’s generous love, our generous response: why John 3:16 can be good news after all

Sermon preached at Duston URC, 11 March 2018. Texts: Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21.

A couple of months ago, my son and I went to see the new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. Perhaps my favourite moment in the movie, and there are no spoilers ahead because it’s in the trailer, is where Luke Skywalker says, “this is not going to go the way you think”. Well the same is true with this passage.

There’s such a lot we could talk about here. I’m not going to spend time on the reading from Numbers, which is a very odd story indeed. It’s in the lectionary because it’s quoted by Jesus, and because there are parallels to Jesus’ story – of the people of God rescued from suffering by an intervention provided by God. The parallel to the snake on the pole, and the phrase about Jesus being lifted up, may make you think of the cross, and I think that’s part of the story but not the whole thing. Because Jesus was lifted up in other ways too – he was raised from death, which is the same word; and in later time he was lifted up to heaven in the event we call the ascension. It’s not enough to look just to the crucifixion – we have to look to the resurrection and the ascension as a package together to see the way in which Jesus was lifted up, the way he gave life to others.

But I want to spend most of this sermon unpacking one verse in the John reading. You may have noticed that the John passage contains one of the best-known verses in the New Testament – John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him may not die but have eternal life”. That’s one of those verses that appears everywhere, especially in the more evangelical parts of the church. It’s on adverts, T-shirts, tattoos. It’s a verse that a lot of people learn by heart. When you hear the 8 verses of this passage, or the 21 verses of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus that this is part of – your eye, your ear, they just jump to this passage. It takes up all the oxygen in the room.

And it’s well-known for a good reason. It’s short, it’s apparently straightforward. Martin Luther described it as the gospel in a nutshell. But here’s the thing. It’s often really badly misinterpreted. The verse itself has many subtleties that make its meaning quite different from the way it’s often treated, and the passage as a whole shows those up even more clearly. So that’s why I’m agreeing with Luke Skywalker: John 3:16 is not going to go the way you think. And that’s good news, that’s gospel news.
Image: Biblia
The interpretation you’ll often here goes like this: because of God’s love, he sent Jesus to die on the cross. We must each respond individually, by taking up a set of intellectual opinions about Jesus and his nature. If we do that, we’ll go to heaven after we die; if we don’t, we won’t.

Now I want to be a little gentle with this interpretation, because it’s a source of hope for many people. But the good news is better than that. What we see in this interpretation is a God who is unable to forgive human beings, and has to be placated by an act of violence. We see a God who separates people into those who live and those who die. We see a God who requires an individual response, based on what you think about the world. It’s not a happy picture of God at all. It’s a picture of a God of fear, not a God of love. Sadly it’s a picture of God which is held by a lot of people, and it does them harm, because we have a God of fear and violence, then the universe is built on fear and violence, and human society needs to be built on fear and violence. And then you get war, gun crime, terrorism, and so on. And it’s also a picture of God which is driving people away from the church in droves – because if God’s like that, why does he deserve any worship?

But the good news is right here in the passage if you read it different. And I’m afraid that requires me to mention a few more Greek words than many sermons.

We’re told in verse 16 that God loved the world, and indeed the word is kosmos, so that’s the whole universe rather than just our little planet. God is a God of love for the entire universe, whatever their race or nationality or religion. Flag-waving nationalism and racism have no place in the love of God.
Image: Transforming Me

Then we’re told that God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, or to judge the world, but in order to save it. Now the word translated condemn or judge doesn’t really have the same negative connotation in Greek as in English, and so although we are told that people are condemned by their own actions, it’s perhaps better to say that by their own actions they are separated from God.

Specifically, we’re told in verse 19 that the light has come into the world and yet there are those who loved darkness rather than light. The gospel of John is full of images of light – recall that phrase in the prologue to the gospel that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” – and at several points describes Jesus as the light of the world. We all know of people who hate light and love darkness, who are dedicated to causing other people pain rather than giving them joy. [more on who] Yet they have not been forced away from the light – they have chosen to turn away from it, and thus have chosen to separate themselves from God.

Often in John’s gospel we see light and life twinned together. The gospel begins by saying that “in him was life and the life was the light of all people”. And elsewhere in John’s gospel Jesus says that “I came that they may have life, and have it in abundance”. So turning towards the light or away from the light is about choosing life. It’s about choosing the eternal life that Jesus mentions.

And now we need to look at that idea of eternal life. To our modern understanding, it’s about life that lasts for ever. But that’s not the way that Jewish people of Jesus’ time understood the phrase, and it’s not really what the Greek word aiōnion, which is translated as ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’, means. That word is related to the word ‘aeon’, or age. It’s not about a very long period of time, but is rather about a particular quality of time. It’s about life which exists outside of time and inside of time at once. Jesus said in many places that the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand, or that it’s within you. The Kingdom of Heaven is not something you get when you die, if you’ve been good enough. That’s why Jesus’ promise is so important – the Kingdom of Heaven is something you can experience here on earth, right now. And there’s one more clue in the Greek to that point, which is the word ‘have’ in the phrase ‘have eternal life’ is in the present tense not the future tense as you might think for life after death. Eternal life, the life of Heaven, life lived in abundance, is something Jesus offers to us right here and right now.

Jesus is that generous. God is that generous. He came not to offer us some kind of future life after death. He came to offer us real, deep, life in communion with God right now.

And this is absolutely crucial for the way we live our lives. Because if we live in this kind of eternal life, if we choose life for ourselves, we surely can’t do anything other than choose it for others. And again I don’t mean this in an evangelical, convert-the-unbeliever, way. I mean it in the way that Jesus taught us: that the way to love God is to love our neighbour as ourselves. That if we choose life, we must choose to follow the path Jesus taught in the parable of the sheep and the goats, which also talks of eternal life: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit those in prison.

Put another way: if God has been as generous with his love as to send his son to us, we too must be as generous with our love towards others. If God loved the whole universe, we too must love the whole universe. We must love all people as individuals, and we must love them as groups. We must be agents of God’s liberation, against the oppression of the world. I was reading recently an amazing article on black theology in the face of suffering and oppression, by the Reverend Allan Boesak who was deeply involved in the struggle against apartheid. Boesak writes that:
When we fail to stand with those who suffer, we fail to stand with God, because that is precisely where, and how, God stands, not just in front of the oppressed, in protection of them; not just alongside in solidarity with their struggle but in identification with them in their struggle for liberation.
God’s love for the world involves justice for the oppressed peoples of the world. We see that again and again throughout the scriptures. But this means that if we are following the love of God, we too must stand for justice for oppressed peoples. It’s shameful to the church when it supports oppression, when it reads the Bible in twisted ways that allow it to support slavery, or the subjugation of women, or treating same-sex relationships as less than equal. Some of this has gone from the church, some of it is still around. But it is not the love of God, or experience of eternal life.

There’s one more thing to say about this passage and our response to it. Jesus says that it’s those who believe in God’s son who’ll have eternal life. Except he does and he doesn’t. Because that word ‘believe’ is another wonderful Greek word, pisteuōn, which means believing in somebody in the sense of putting all your trust in them, putting your faith in them, putting your life into their hands. It’s precisely what people mean when they say “I believe in you”. When you fly on a plane or have a medical procedure, you believe in the pilot or the doctor. This means far more than believe that they exist, or some theoretical idea about who they are. It means that you have put your trust in them, in a very deep way. It’s profoundly about relationships. In the same way, Jesus expects his followers to put their trust in them. It has nothing to do with credal statements – it doesn’t matter whether you think he was born from a virgin, or your doctrine of the trinity, or your view on atonement theories. What matters is that you put your trust in Jesus, your life in his hands, and follow in his way.

This is a difficult passage, which is full of beauty and depth but equally has the potential for misuse and misunderstanding, in ways that cause harm to those in the church and to the world as a whole. But ultimately it really is about the most amazing good news: that God loves the entire world, that those who place their faith and trust in Jesus can find their way towards the life of the kingdom of God here on this earth, and that in placing their trust we enter into a calling to show God’s love towards others.

Moses was the great liberator of the people of Israel from oppression in the land of Egypt. He knew about God’s love and its relationship to liberation, and he knew about life. In one of his last sayings to the people of Israel, he said:
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.
May we all choose life, and choose to have it in abundance and joy through trusting in Christ Jesus. Amen.