Friday, 20 December 2013

Born with no dignity

An important reminder at the time of tinsel and over-consumption as to the nature of the one whose birthday we celebrate on 25th December:
He entered the world with no dignity. 
He would have been known as a mamzer, a child whose parents were not married. All languages have a word for mamzer, and all of them are ugly. His cradle was a feeding trough. His nursery mates had four legs. He was wrapped in rags. He was born in a cave, targeted for death, raised on the run. 
He would die with even less dignity: convicted, beaten, bleeding, abandoned, naked, shamed. He had no status. Dignity on the level of a king is the last word you would associate with Jesus.
John Ortberg (2012), Who Is This Man?

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Movember: emodiment, incarnation and denying the body

So it's Movember. Or at least, it's November. And this year (for the first time) I'm growing a Mo. Years ago, I had a moustache and full beard, but eventually I shaved it off and have been quite happy with that. So why am I sporting facial hair again (for one month only)?

It's all to do with the male body, and my personal attitudes to the body. I've spent quite a big part of my life being afraid of human bodies. As a teenager, the Latin tag "sana mens, in corpore sano" (a healthy mind in a healthy body) filled me with horror. I ate and exercised well enough, but why what seemed liked the core part of me (my mind) have to be shackled to an unreliable bag of bones, skin and blood? My first beard growth, around age 23, was partly an attempt to hide myself. Since then, I've married and had children; I cook, clean, have changed upteen nappies - to some extent I've come to terms with bodies. But that early view hasn't quite left me.

In the mean time, I've become very interested in theories of embodiment. In my working life, I've written on and off about the way that information is embodied (I have often quoted Katherine Hayles' view that in early cybernetics, "information lost its body") as well as on cyborgs, those transgressive mixtures of the technical and the physical. In my religious life, I frequently describe myself as having an incarnational faith (focused on the Christian belief that God became human at a particular time in a particular place, leading us to likewise focus on our own time and place), and I am increasingly interested in incarnational mission.

And the combination is more than a little bit hypocritical: to be a creature of the mind, but deeply interested in embodiment and incarnation. Of course, I'd hardly be the first man to have this particular discordance: many men are bad at their bodies. And that's why Movember is particularly striking: it's about men being just a little bit aware of their bodies, by doing something that men can do as men, and in the process also raising awareness of the diseases that specifically affect men. So this month I'm forcing myself to be a bit more aware of my body and the things it does. Maybe it'll have a longer-lasting effect.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Seeking justice: the worship God wants from us

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 3rd November 2013. Text: Isaiah 1:10-18.

What’s the point of worship? What does God want from us when we worship? Why do we gather week after week in this and other places? The passage here raises these questions, and it suggests ultimately that what matters is not how you worship, how fine and noble are your words and songs and rituals, but the result of that worship, what you actually do as a result. So I’m here to give my first sermon at Duston & I want to start by talking about a passage where God says how much he dislikes traditional forms of worship. Perhaps a bit risky? Well maybe, or maybe not.

Isaiah presents us with some pretty angry words, quite appropriate for the time around Fireworks Night. At a first reading, once you’ve recovered a bit from the smoke and the bangs, you might wonder who he’s aiming at here. What kind of worship is God (via Isaiah) so angrily disclaiming?

First go: he’s talking about the ritual practices of a particular people at a particular time. One of the curiosities about the book of Isaiah is that we can’t really pinpoint which parts were written when – biblical scholars often talk about First Isaiah, Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah, and generally it’s supposed that this early part of the book was written in the 8th century before Christ. However, other scholars argue differently, and regard the first chapter as an introduction, a kind of overture which summarises the main themes of the later work, written much later. So it’s hard to be sure exactly who the author is aiming his fireworks at. But it’s clear from the context of earlier verses that he’s writing to the people of Jerusalem, and we know that the temple culture of Jerusalem involved plenty of the things mentioned here – burnt offering, sacrifices, sabbaths, festivals and so on.

So is Isaiah just talking to the people of the time? Can we safely sit back and say, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, “God, I thank you that I am not like them”? Surely not. The amazing thing about the Old Testament prophets is that, almost 3000 years after they spoke and wrote, God’s voice in them shines through loud and clear today. The message is not just for those long-ago folks in the Middle East with their funny practices, the message is for us here, today, now.

The version of parts of this passage in The Message makes this really clear. It says:
Quit your worship charades.
    I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
    meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
    You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
    while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
    I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
    I’ll not be listening.

It’s not hard to see that passage in terms of Sunday worship, harvest festivals, nativity plays and church meetings!

OK, next attempt to soften the blow. Various Protestant theologians down the ages have read this passage and said something like “oh, that’s ok, he was talking about elaborate rituals, full of pomp and nonsense. It’s the stuff the Catholics do, it’s not our problem. Here we do simple, Godly, prayer and reading of the scriptures.”  There are two immediate problems with this defence, and one bigger problem still. First, it’s immediately shattered by verse 15, which says that “even though you make many prayers, I will not listen” – the rejection is just as much of quiet prayer as it is of pomp. Second, we all perform rituals in our worship. We’re about to follow one – communion is a ritual meal after all – but there are ritual aspects, symbols and repetitions, at all points in any Christian act of worship. However simple our worship purports to be, it’s full of ritual. I knew an anthropologist once who had made a study of Quaker religious practices. Now Quakers are about as simplicity and pared-to-the-bone Puritan in their worship and buildings (even compared to most United Reformed Churches). But this anthropologist found that even Quakers have their rituals, their set patterns of behaviour that are repeated in their worship, and which they become fixated upon. It might be simple, but it’s ritual. It’s just the same, at the base, as sacrifices and new moons and solemn assemblies.

But this is still avoiding the point. Here’s what the prophet says is the real reason why God doesn’t want any of this stuff: it’s because the people doing the worship are missing the point completely. It’s because they get fixated on the details and fail to notice that their lives are completely at odds with what God wants from them. They have blood on their hands – literally or figuratively. Only by cleansing themselves of that blood will their worship be acceptable to God.

Let’s put that another way: WE have blood on OUR hands, and only by cleansing OURSELVES of that blood will OUR worship be acceptable to God. This is a hard message to hear, but I believe that it’s what Isaiah is saying to us.

Can we really be so terrible? Do we really have blood on our hands? Even if we do our best to avoid violence or war or conflict? Well I do. I live in a country which denies basic human rights to asylum seekers. My savings and pension contributions are invested in firms which exploit their workers across the world. I buy food which is traded and sold with no regard for those who produce it. I’m emitting vastly more carbon dioxide than the world can cope with. I care about these issues, and do my best in all these regards – I buy fair-trade, have an ethical bank account and green electricity. But frankly it’s not good enough. My individual actions, our collective actions of those of us here in this room, in this church, in this town, in this country – we all have blood on our hands.

So is our worship hateful to God? Surely not, because in the next verse the prophet gives us the answer: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Now, if you know some of the Old Testament prophets and what they said, you’ll realise that this is a common theme for many of them. Rescuing the oppressed group is what God calls us to do via many of the prophets. Much later in the book of Isaiah we find the passage which talks of proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the broken-hearted, proclaiming freedom for the captives, and releasing from darkness for the prisoners, which Jesus read in Nazareth at the start of his ministry and which sets the tone for Luke’s account of Jesus’ mission. In Micah we have the famous invocation: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy  to walk humbly with your God”. And perhaps most poetically, the prophet Amos heard God saying:
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.

Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Nor is the call for justice simply found in the Old Testament prophets. It echoes throughout the New Testament. Jesus lived at every moment a life dedicated to living with those who society had cast aside and deemed unworthy – tax collectors, sinners, foreigners, women. He spoke of the blessed ones being those who were merciful, meek, peacemakers, persecuted. His vision of the kingdom was one that encompassed the small, that turned the hierarchies and injustices of the day on their heads.

We see this call clearly in the letter of James, who wrote:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

I’m not getting into the faith & works debate today, but all this says quite clearly to me that our worship is not enough if we focus just on ourselves, on our own little community, on our own salvation. These things matter, but what we do with our lives matters as well. Living a Christian life is not something that just happens on a Sunday morning; it suffuses every moment of every day.

So what does it actually mean to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”? It’s going to differ for each one of us. Some of us are called to practical action, like volunteering at the food bank. Others are called to asking why food banks should exist, and seeking to change the system. Still others are called to neither, but to living their life in a way that makes justice possible. I don’t see that this call is tied to a particular political position, or particular lifestyle, or particular set of actions. There is so much injustice in the world. But I do think that the call is clear: our very best worship is pointless without an awareness of our impact upon the world in our daily lives.

Martin Luther King put it very well, as so often. He said that “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice”. I want to say that phrase again, as it’s so striking: “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice”. At the very heart of the universe – at God’s plan for creation – is justice.

One last example of this. The passage from Isaiah begins with a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah. Please don’t think this reference has any to do with sexual practices. As has often been said (not least by the prophet Ezekiel), the real sin of Sodom was a failure to welcome strangers properly, and a care for strangers is often added to the list of widows and orphans that Isaiah gives. The World Council of Churches has recently adopted an affirmation for faith leaders on Welcoming the Stranger, which was signed on behalf of the URC by our ecumenical relations officer, David Tatem. It includes the words:
A core value of my faith is to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the internally displaced, the other. I shall treat him or her as I would like to be treated. I will challenge others, even leaders in my faith community, to do the same. … I will welcome the  stranger. My faith teaches that compassion, mercy,  love and hospitality are for  everyone: the native born and  the foreign born, the member of my community and the newcomer. I will remember and remind members of my community that we are all considered strangers somewhere, that we should treat the stranger to our community as we would like to be treated, and challenge intolerance.”

This is just one example of seeking justice, but it’s an important one. And it’s only by seeking justice, in whatever area of life, that we come towards a pleasing form of worship.

There is one more thing to say. The passage set in the lectionary doesn’t end with the call to justice. It ends with a promise of hope – that while our sins may be scarlet, they will be made white as snow. This is not something we can achieve by ourselves. It needs God’s grace. It needs the inspiration and sacrifice of Jesus. It shows the openness that Jesus had towards Zacchaeus, and the good within him, as Simon showed us this morning. And it’s that grace which we share in at communion. We all fall short, in our worship and in our living, but with that grace we can know that we are loved by God. We are called to act in response, but we can act confident that we are starting from a safe place. There is fire in Isaiah’s call, but there is hope – for ourselves and for the world. Amen.

Worship resources on this blog

This year, I'm studying the course Gateways into Worship, part of the programme Training for Learning and Serving (TLS) of the United Reformed Church. A key part of the course is practical: spending a substantial placement in a church, leading some or all of several services of worship. I'm spending my placement at Duston URC. I'll be uploading various of the worship resources from the year to this blog. This is the first sermon I preached there. Most of my texts will be chosen from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Living in the Way of Jesus: making sense of an uncomfortable verse

Written for the March 2013 issue of the church magazine of Abington Avenue United Reformed Church.

Most Christians, I suspect, have a little set of Bible passages which they find very important and interesting, but also rather challenging and a bit worrying. You may well have a list of your own; I certainly do – verses or passages which have occupied my thoughts on and off for years. High on my list of puzzling verses is John 14:6 -
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This verse is pretty central to the expression of many Christians’ understanding of their faith, and can often be seen on posters at railway stations and the like. It is one of the seven great statements in John’s gospel attributed to Jesus about his own nature, each of which begins ‘I am’. It presents a vision of Jesus giving us a way to follow towards life. Yet the second sentence, on the face of it, is exclusive and takes away the idea that other faiths might have their own truth.

I’ve had an experience recently which has led me to reflect on this verse again, and I’d like to share my reflections. I sing with the Open University Choir, and we’re currently rehearsing a Bach motet called “Komm, Jesu, Komm” (Come, Jesus, Come), a song about a soul close to death. It contains a long fugue on the text of John 14:6 – in German, “Du bist der rechte Weg, die Wahrheit und das Leben”. There are three striking differences about this version from the standard translations – it is written from the perspective of someone talking to Christ rather than Christ talking about himself (“you are the way…”); it contains the word “rechte” (true or accurate) before “Weg” (way), which isn’t found in either the Greek original or almost any German or English translations (and may just be there to make the rhythm and music work); and it omits the second half of the saying, about no-one coming to the Father except through Jesus. The third of these in particular was what got me thinking: is it possible to believe that Jesus is the way, truth and life without saying that this is exclusively so?

If you’ll forgive me a bit more Biblical scholarship, it’s worth noting at this point that the group of highly esteemed Biblical scholars who form the Jesus Seminar have questioned the idea that Jesus actually said the ‘I am’ statements himself. Instead they argue that they were words created for him by the community who followed the words of John. This takes away any suggestion that Jesus is arrogant or self-seeking, and indeed makes the statements  stronger rather than weaker – as Marcus Borg (one of the Jesus seminar scholars) has written “if we think of these not as self-statements of Jesus but as the voice of the community, they become very powerful – if a community says about someone ‘we have found in this person the way that leads from death to life’, that is very impressive indeed” (M. Borg & T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 1999, HarperCollins, p.150).

So what does this passage mean to me? I’d like to look at the three words Way, Truth and Life in turn.

First, Way. What does it mean to say that Jesus is the way? The word sounds slightly old-fashioned, but the Greek word could just as easily be translated as ‘road’ or ‘path’. It’s the route we are meant to follow through life, the correct path in the wilderness. Jesus doesn’t say that he has come to show us the way, or to give us a map for the way – he says that he himself is the way. It is only by following Jesus’ example, by living according to his pattern (which for me is pre-eminently seen in Luke 4:18, where he said he had come to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free), that we can reach the next two parts of the saying. This vision of Jesus as the Way was crucial to the first Christians – throughout the book of Acts (9:2, 19:9, 22:4) we can see them referred to as the people of the Way.

Next, Truth. Jesus said of himself, also in John’s gospel, that “if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-2). Truth is more than the absence of falsehood (just as peace is more than the absence of war) – it is the revelation of the completely real, the lifting of the veil, the loss of pretence and convenient fictions. As the commentator Ben Witherington has written, “the term ‘truth’ in late Jewish wisdom and apocalyptic literature has the sense of revealed truth, the teaching of wisdom or insight that has a moral significance”. For the Jews of Jesus’ time, truth came from following the Torah; but instead we are told that Jesus is himself the revealed truth, the Word of God with him from the beginning (John 1:2).

And finally, the key word of the whole gospel: Life. The gospel opens by saying of the Word that “in him was life” (John 1:4), and later Jesus says that “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Jesus did not come to convince us of our sin, to rub our unworthiness in our faces, but rather to show us how to live life to the full, to become the people God created us to be. Living life to the full is quite the opposite of a selfish and self-indulgent life. It is a life full of richness, a life that experiences the kingdom of God as present here and now and not simply after death. This life is focused on others, outward-looking and generous. As the great scholar of the New Testament, William Barclay, wrote, “it is only when we live with Christ that life becomes really worth living, and that we begin to live at all in the real sense of the word”.

So what of the ‘exclusive’ part? If we really believe that no one can come to the Father except through Jesus, what does that do for our relations with people of other faiths? Do we Christians have an exclusive truth and others are simply wrong? Orthodox teaching would certainly said that is so. The commentator Tom Wright argues strongly that the whole Bible supports this view of God, and Jesus through him, as the only true rescue for the world. There are many liberal commentators who have tried to counter this, arguing (for example) that much of John is about God’s love for the whole world, and that we should read the ‘I’ of this verse not just as Jesus of Nazareth but as the universal Word of God. As the late theologian John Hick put it in a recent issue of the United Reformed Church's magazine Reform, “there is just one light, which lights many lamps, and those lamps are the religions”. I’m unpersuaded by both points of view – I don’t like the exclusivism of the verse, but I think the liberal answers are quite weak. For me it is something I still need to find an answer to; others will have their own answers already.

However I wholeheartedly feel that the first sentence of the verse (the bit which Bach used, going back to my beginning) expresses a profound truth, that Jesus gives us a way to life.

So what is life in Jesus’ way? I have already suggested that for me it is about following the path he presents, living the life he did, being on the side of the poor and the oppressed wherever we find them. Tom Wright, again, puts the implications of this life clearly: “The truth, the life, through which we know and find the way, is Jesus himself: the Jesus who washed the disciples’ feet and told them to copy his example, the Jesus who was on his way to give his life as the shepherd for the sheep.” As individuals, as a congregation, as the universal church – we are called to follow in that way, which will show us the truth and bring us life to the full.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

History of the victors - Richard III & Tolkien reimagined

History is written by the victors. (Or, as the African proverb more vividly has it, until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.) This is a commonly-enough expressed idea - history is not objective, it is a narrative constructed after the events described by a chronicler who often has a particular perspective. Sometimes that perspective is explicitly to favour a particular point of view - the official state histories of various regimes are one example, but there are many others - but it may also be implicit in the author's worldview.

Two days before I'm writing this post, a body found underneath a car-park in Leicester was been demonstrated, beyond all reasonable doubt, to be that of Richard III, killed in 1485. Richard has been the subject of black propaganda ever since his death, and the finding of his body has led to a little flurry of reconsideration of whether he was as bad as Shakespeare presented him. (None of it that I've seen has been as witty or pithy as the Horrible Histories version.) Of course, this is down to politics and perspective. Richard's death led to a shift in dynasties and ended a bloody feud between aristocratic factions, the War of the Roses.

I've just finished reading a novel which addresses these issues very clearly. The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Yeskov is a sort-of-sequel to The Lord of the Rings, but from a very different perspective of that which Tolkien presents. It suggests that Mordor was a nascent industrial civilization destroyed by a group of magic-users afraid of its power; that orcs and trolls aren't that bad at all; that the Nazg├╗l were an order of wizards rather than the undead monsters portrayed by Tolkien; and so on. The novel is entertaining, and manages (just) to be high enough quality to be said to be a sequel by another author, in the way that has been done by many respected authors, rather than more derivative 'fan fiction'.

Yeskov is a Russian palaeontologist, whose motivation for writing the book was initially scientific: he wanted to explore and explain certain geological failings in Tolkien's account of Middle Earth, and that led him to look at the climate and natural history of Mordor, which led him to think about the story further. Of course there's more: he's also rewritten the Christian gospels from a different perspective, so he is clearly open to other perspectives on telling history. And, speculatively, it's possible to consider whether as a Russian his motivation has to do with redeeming the negative tales told about an eastern power (Mordor) by a western author (Tolkien) - there's not much evidence of that, but it's an intriguing thought.

The novel is a good vehicle for asking ourselves, though, what is meant by a history of a particular time or set of events, and what is behind the history we are given. It reinforces (and I think Yeskov's doing this explicitly) a view that there is no such thing as a complete or objective history, only a partial one. And of course the same is true of any historical accounts, including those of Richard III.

The question "what is the information content of history?" is a curious one. Is there more information in a historical account which challenges the prevailing orthodoxy, in the way that Kirill Yeskov does fictionally, than in one which reinforces it? Does the idea that Richard III wasn't so bad after all contain more information than the standard narrative? My colleague David Chapman has blogged about the finding of Richard III's body in terms of information and its to identity, noting the number of different kinds of information involved, and the interesting question it raises about who we treat as important, how we identify (in David's words) "lives that matter, and lives that don't". I think the informational questions around Richard III, as about Yeskov's version of Middle Earth, are also to be found in what we mean when we say that a historical narrative has a certain information content.