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.