Sunday, 6 December 2015

A Tale of Two Prophets: a sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

Sermon preached at Paulerspury URC, 6th December 2015. Texts: Luke 1:67-79; Luke 3:1-6

Image: Jonathan Case

I shall never forget the days when I first met my two children – when they came into the world, when I was given the privilege of speaking out loud the names we had already chosen for them, when I held them in my arms for the first time. Not to put too fine a point on it, my part was a lot smaller than my wife’s in the matter. But my goodness it was a powerful experience – and it made me think about the world we were bringing them into. When our daughter was born ten years ago, I had been doing a lot of work with scenario planning, which looks into the distant future, decades hence, to ask the various possible ways the world could turn out – and I thought a lot about the year 2025 when she’d be an adult. Holding this new life in my arms made me think deeply about the future. I think it’s an experience a lot of new parents have had.

And it was the basis of the mighty song of praise and prophecy that Zechariah spoke and which we’ve just heard. Except his experience of being a new parent was even more discombobulating than most people’s. First, both he and his wife were far beyond childbearing age, this was a baby who should never have been. Second, he had spent the past nine months unable to speak because of his lack of trust in the message that the angel gave him. And third, immediately after he wrote that the child’s name was to be John, which means God is gracious, his speech comes back and he’s suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit and given a message from God. Not quite the everyday birth experience.

We’ll talk in a moment about what Zechariah said, but let’s first think about that word prophecy. Zechariah is said to have spoken prophecy. And his son John is later said to be a prophet who prepared people for the arrival of the Messiah. Neither, and this is really important, were soothsayers, foretellers of the future. Rather, they were individuals seized by God, compelled by God, filled with God’s spirit, to convey a message to the people of God. Prophecy is not about the future, it’s about the now. And it’s usually a message of change, for the people of God as a whole.

So I think in some ways it’s helpful to see the two prophets’ words, decades apart and proclaimed in very different settings – the purity of the Temple at Jerusalem where Zechariah was a priest, and the wildness of the desert where John went to preach – as being one. They’re both all about salvation – how the people of God will be saved from the things that oppress and enslave them. From their enemies, from the things they’ve done wrong, from the tyrants which beset them.

Zechariah begins with a theme of favour – that God has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. Mary talked about God looking in favour on her, in her song of justice that we call the Magnificat. Jesus begins his public ministry by reading from Isaiah about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. This is such an important starting-point, especially when we move on to talk about sin and redemption and repentance. God gives his favour to his people. Going back to parenting, it’s an absolute no-no to declare one child a favourite over another. But God is very clear that he shows favour on his people. He is not angry with his people. He is a God of love. Advent is not a time to dwell on the wrath of God, but to bask in the love of God.

But of course a loving God recognises that we live in a dark world. My translation, the NRSV, has the most wonderful phrase near the end of Zechariah’s song, that “the dawn from on high will break upon us”. Light is coming into the world. The people of God needed that light so much in the days of Zechariah and John, and the people of God need it all the more today. And that’s what Zechariah promises us – “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace”.

Our modern Christian understanding of the word ‘salvation’ which go throughout this passage has become coloured by individualism and a theology which is over-focused on atonement. The way the word salvation appears in the gospel of Luke has much more to do with the whole community. It’s the people of God who are to be saved. And what they’re saved from is sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. Imagine God saying these words through his prophet to the people of Syria, and of course they apply there just as much as they did in Palestine two thousand years ago. God’s message was not then, and is not now, “you’re free from your sins, you’ll live in the next life”. God’s message in Syria is: “You are free from the current darkness besetting you. You are free from the abomination of Daesh, and the terrible misrule of Assad, and the bombs falling upon you from warmongers in Western nations, and the perils that your people suffer when they try to flee. You are set free from all that death and darkness.”

It’s a big promise, one that goes against how we see the world. But that is the kind of salvation that Zechariah is offering. And even more strongly, that is the kind of salvation John was prophesying when he was calling out from the wilderness and quoting in turn Isaiah’s prophecy. He said that the low places would be lifted up and the high places brought down. To me that’s a clear message about power – that those in power need to be very afraid indeed. Luke emphasises it by giving us this big long list of really powerful people around at that time, to be really clear when he was talking about and also what a bunch of really horrible rulers were around – and then suddenly out of nowhere appears this wild man from the desert, proclaiming repentance. No wonder the rulers hated him, no wonder Herod had him put to death. John had the audacity to come out of the priestly class of Zechariah, but to be a renegade member of that class who wanted to put down authority. It was a kind of revolution.

There’s one more thing to be said about the kind of revolution John was proclaiming. It wasn’t just for the Jewish people. The Good News Bible has it really clear: “The whole human race will see God's salvation!” The prophecy of Zechariah was aimed at the Jewish people and could be read as just applying to them. But John wasn’t just interested in his own people. He was interested in the whole world. And of course that’s the story we see so often in the gospels, especially in Luke’s gospel – Jesus came to bring salvation to the whole world. And not just the whole world in terms of nations and peoples, but also in terms of people within nations. This is not just a salvation of the elites, of the fortunate ones. This is a salvation also for the people of the margins, the oppressed people, the ones who will be lifted up when the valleys will be raised. They’re the people that Jesus ate with and called his friends – poor people, women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, refugees. It’s those people that John says will see the salvation of God, that Zechariah says will be given light.

So how do we as individuals and as communities seek that salvation? We do it, says John, by repentance. The Greek word doesn’t just mean give up your past sin, it means a complete transformation in the way you understand the world and the way you act in the world. One commentator describes it as “rethink everything” or “question your assumptions” or even “have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values”.

Because this is what Advent is about. Yes, it’s about getting ready for the incarnation, the enfleshment, of our Lord and Saviour in a stable in Bethlehem. But it’s about being ready for that to happen in our lives. Advent is about preparing the way for the Lord in our own lives. It’s about turning away from the powers of the world, the ones which require us to obey their commands. Those powers demand that we should try to gain material wealth, that we should try to obtain worldly power. They tell us that we’ll be happy if we have the latest gadgets and a big car and holidays of a lifetime, and all the rest of it.

The message of Zechariah and John is altogether different. It calls us to repent of those things, to celebrate the salvation that God brings to all. And it calls us to prepare a way for the Lord in our own souls, to make the paths straight, to fill valleys and bring low hills, to smooth the rough and straighten the crooked. It calls us to build a six-lane highway right into the deepest parts of our hearts and right into our lives, where the living God can march straight in. And then we, and then all peoples everywhere, will see the the dawn from on high breaking upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

May it be this way for us all this Advent season, and for the whole world which needs it so very much. Amen.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

A different king, a different kingdom

Sermon preached at Castle Hill United Reformed Church, on 22nd November 2015. Texts: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; John 18:33-37.

Who is our king? Who is our Lord? To whom do we owe our allegiance? At a time when violence and war are stalking our world, when madmen with guns destroy innocent lives in so many places, when refugees are fleeing disaster and receiving little welcome, when so many people in our own rich country have little to live on and little hope – at such a time the question becomes even more urgent than ever. To whom do we owe our allegiance? Are we followers of the kingdom of power and war that Pilate represented, or followers of the kingdom of peace and truth that Jesus proclaimed?

It’s important to start at this point, because it’s easy to hear the readings as a bit weird, a bit esoteric. We keep the trial of Jesus before Pilate for Holy Week, and we keep the apocalyptic bits of Daniel and Revelation for – well for as little as possible. But what I want to say today is that they have real implications for how we live, for how we manage our society, here and now. And today is Christ the King Sunday, the Reign of Christ Sunday, and on this day we remember that the words at the start of the service from Revelation – that Christ is King, that Christ was King, and that Christ will be King.

As we discussed already when the children were in, kings are mostly not as powerful today as they once were. But at the times when the Bible were written, they were all-powerful. The book of Daniel was written when Israel had been invaded and was under repression by the Seleucid Empire, of the successor empires of Alexander the Great. Jerusalem was a city under occupation, worship of the Jewish God in the Temple was forbidden, and the Jewish people were persecuted. So they expressed themselves through a book that expressed their powerlessness and despair through wild visionary language. It wasn’t a prediction about the future but a statement about the present, a deeply political book about a different sort of kingdom and kingship. It was a call for God to intervene here and now.

In the same way, although Jesus did not really answer when asked by Pilate whether he was a king, he did set out the nature of his kingdom. And he presented his kingship as being different in two important ways. First, he denied that it would come about through violence. He could have got his followers to protect him with swords when the Roman soldiers came to arrest him. He could have started the sort of armed insurrection that many would-be leaders of the Jewish people had started against their rulers. But that would be just the same old kind of kingdom. It would be based on violence, and who could seize power through the biggest weapons. That kind of kingdom had been seen throughout history, it’s been seen many times since, and it will sadly continue into the future. But it’s a way that always fails. Violence ultimately only has one outcome – more violence, and more violence. The rulers who come to power through violence, or their successors, are destroyed by more violence. And in the mean time, people suffer. The costs of that kind of kingdom are appalling. We saw those costs in the streets of Paris. We saw those costs in Beirut, and Mali, and Syria, and Iraq. We’ve seen them again and again in modern day Palestine and Israel. We saw them a hundred years ago when so many lives were destroyed for metres of muddy ground in Flanders. And Jesus says: enough! Enough of this form of kingship. I’ve come to show you a better way.

Jesus showed us that his alternative kingship consists of service to others. It consists of being a shepherd to his sheep. It consists of being a servant, of being the last rather than the first. It consists of eating, of making friends, with the oppressed and the marginalised. And it consists of being willing to give up everything you have to serve the kingdom – even, in the end, of Jesus being willing to give up his life.

Here’s how that bit appears in The Message translation:
“My kingdom,” said Jesus, “doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.”
There’s a really important point of language here which The Message captures well. The NIV, and a number of other translations, has Jesus saying that “my kingdom is not of this world”. It’s easy to read this as a suggestion that Jesus’ kingdom has nothing to do with this world, that it is confined to the world to come. It’s a reading that has plagued certain parts of the church, who want the gospel to be solely about individual salvation rather than a call to action in this world. It’s not. Remember that Jesus taught us to pray, as we still do, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”. Rather than hearing Jesus saying that his kingdom is not of this world, hear instead him saying that he’s not the world’s kind of king. He is the king of the world but he’s a different sort of king.

This is also important for another risk with this passage. However much some of us may grumble about secularism and the sidelining of Christian values – and it’s a fair point in many ways – we live in a basically Christian society. So hear Jesus described as king can sound rather triumphalist. It leads to all sorts of dangerous ideas of theocracies, societies where in the name of God people are told what to do and lead a miserable life – the likes of Saudi Arabia or Iran. We’ve had Christian brushes with those sorts of societies too, and there are those in the United States in particular who would love to impose their version of Christian living on everyone, but that’s just another version of the kingdom of violence that Jesus came to deny and to overthrow.

Martin Luther King put it really well, as so often. He wrote:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Jesus also told Pilate that he was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. The beginning of the gospel of John tells us that Jesus was the Word of Life, the Logos, which could be translated Truth as well. Jesus is truth in himself, and he promised his disciples that by following him, they would know the truth, and the truth would set them free. So it is for us. We are set free by the truth Jesus brings – by the new relationships he promises us, of loving God and of loving others as much as we love ourselves.

So how do we live in that truth? How do we recognise Jesus as our king? As the theologian Tom Wright puts it, what would it look like "if we really believed that the living God was king of earth as in heaven?”

The first part is to recognise where our allegiance lies. We are citizens of a particular country, but more importantly we are citizens of the kingdom of God, the kingdom ruled over by Jesus. Violence has no place in our lives in that kingdom. We follow the prince of peace, not the drumbeat of war from the powerful empires, past or present.

The second part is to live in the power of the kingdom of God that Jesus described in parables – the place that is within us and among us already, that is small as a mustard seed but as precious as a pearl. The kingdom which proclaims good news to the oppressed, that turns up in the most unexpected places. The kingdom which turns away no-one, whether they are black or white, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor, settled homeowner with a good career or homeless drug user who has lost hope.

And finally we might remember some of the things that Jesus taught us about how to live our lives in the kingdom of God. He talked of the king who came to judge the nations and he will bless those who feed those who are hungry, give drink to those who are thirsty, welcome those who are strangers, clothe those who are naked, visit those who are sick or in prison; and that when do this for the least of people, those most disliked by society, we do it for Jesus. So I’ll say directly: I’m proud of the work you do through this church in Spring Boroughs, helping those in such need. I’m proud of the work you do with Streetchurch, supporting those who have lost so much. Jennie Crane’s work is brilliant, but she’s able to do the work she does because you all support her. This is the kingdom of God.

So on the day of Christ the King, know that he offers us membership in a kingdom that leads to peace and to truth, to right relationship with God and with others, to service to others. Jesus Christ is king of the universe, was king of the universe, and will be king of universe for evermore. Amen.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

No other gods: resisting false idols

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church, on 27th September 2015. Texts: Exodus 20:1-6 and Luke 12:32-34.
Who is your god? Who do you worship on a daily basis? Here is what the Nicene Creed, recited weekly in many churches, says:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We don’t use many creeds as such in the United Reformed Church, but the closest thing we have is the Nature, Faith and Order of the URC, which I last heard in this building at Jane’s induction service – it’s kept for special occasions. That says:
With the whole Christian Church
the United Reformed Church believes in one God,
Father Son and Holy Spirit.
The living God, the only God, ever to be praised.
So that’s that. We believe in one God. The writers of Exodus would be pleased. Sermon over, amen. Or perhaps not.

Because do we really believe in one God? Do we really put our total faith in the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Because here’s the thing about faith – it’s not about words. Saying the right prayers doesn’t make you a Christian. Believing the right things doesn’t make you a Christian. What makes you a Christian is the way you live your live, the relationship you have with God and with Jesus, and the effect that has upon you every single day. Of course this is the case in most other faiths as well – being a good Muslim is about the way you pray, the things you do; likewise for being a good Buddhist or Hindu or Sikh. And it’s been the case in the Jewish faith since the words we’ve heard today were given to Moses, and remains the case to the present day. Faith is not about doctrine. It’s about a lived experience of the divine in everyday life.

So the question becomes, who are our gods? Who are the idols that we put before the one true and living God? Not in our beliefs perhaps, not in the prayers we say, but in our everyday lives?

Let me start with a story of a fairly trivial example of idol worship from my own life. Are there any children present? [Nope, good.] Because I need to tell you about my idolatrous worship of Santa Claus. Now, I don’t believe in the fellow and we've struggled with wanting to be honest with our children while also keeping Christmas fun for them. So of course we do the usual things – get the kids to leave out stockings, we fill them in the night. So last Christmas Eve we filled the stockings, and then I ate half a mince pie and half a carrot. And then went to a midnight service. Now who was I worshipping in that moment? Because whatever I might believe about Santa, I was sure acting as though I believed in him.

Trivial example, you might say. The things we do for our children. Nobody really believes in Santa. But there are older gods. In ancient times they had names like Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex; or Mammon, the god of money; or Mars, the god of war and violence. And nobody uses those names any more, but many many people worship those gods through their everyday actions. Many of us here, at some point in our lives, has had one of those trio completing dominating our lives to the exclusion of everything else. Or if you’ve not been tempted by sex, money or war, how about one of the following gods: consumerism, the worship of possessions, the greedy grasping for more stuff; or work, undoubtedly a gift and also necessary to keep food on the table, but almost an addiction for so many people; or power and status and fame - seeking those completely dominate some people’s lives.

Now I’m not saying most of these things are wrong by themselves. Love, money, work, nice objects, recognition for your service to others – these are all important things. In their different ways, they are gifts from our true God. But when they become the centre of our lives by themselves, when we become separated from a relationship with the divine presence that created, redeemed and sustains the universe – then love, money, work and the rest become idols. The theologian Tom Wright has written at length on this subject. Here’s what he says:
Mammon worship, painting
by Evelyn De Morgan (1909)
Worshipping them demands sacrifices, and those sacrifices are often human. How many million children, born or indeed unborn, have been sacrificed on the altar of Aphrodite, denied a secure upbringing because the demands of erotic desire keep one or both parents on the move? How many million lives have been blighted by money, whether by not having it or, worse, by having too much of it? And how many are being torn apart, as we speak, by the incessant demands of power, violence, and war?
And he’s right. Take consumerism, that most modern of God's, the urge to buy more. We live in a throwaway society. We are surrounded by plastic packaging, irrelevant bits of tat that amuse us for seconds and then get thrown away, technology which was the latest thing last year but now is so passé that if it’s lucky it gets sent to some forgotten corner of Asia for recycling, otherwise into the landfill. And at each stage, the planet’s resources are consumed, people’s lives are blighted in seeking out the rare minerals and the oil, pollution and waste are increased. And here of course we go into debt to afford the stuff, we worry and some people are destroyed by it. Everywhere, people are being sacrificed on the altar of the false god called consumerism. And we’re told it makes us good citizens, it contributes to the economic recovery, it satisfies the market. Buy more things, it'll make you happy. And yes it can, briefly. But at such cost.

I’m not saying this with any self-righteous. I’m a slave to the worship of consumerism like so many of us. I like shiny pretty things, new technology and the like. I buy my children rubbish plastic tat which lasts for five minutes, or let them spend their money on it. In our society it’s really difficult not to worship that particular god.

And of course you could say the same thing for all the false gods, all the idols we put in front of the one true God. They all promise excitement, satisfaction, but the things they give us are transitory, fleeting, gone in a moment – and they bring suffering in their wake, across the globe. People follow them because they promise happiness, but all they do is stand between us and our God.

Now this is all sounding a wee bit doom and gloom. Is there no hope? Because it’s pretty hard to resist the pull of money, and consumerism, and power and the rest. But I want to go back to the Exodus reading and see the sign of hope in it right at the start. Verse 1 reads: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. That’s the thing that comes first, before we get into the teaching on worshipping no other gods, and then on the rest of the Ten Commandments that follow the short passage we heard.

But that coming out of slavery, that’s absolutely crucial to why the Ten Commandments were given to the people of Israel. They’d spent hundreds of years as slaves in Egypt. They weren’t free to live their own lives as they pleased. They were mistreated, humiliated, treated as sub-human. Slavery is an awful institution. And it’s absolutely central to the way the Jewish people saw themselves in the time of Moses, and in the time of Jesus, and to the present day. They were the people who were enslaved, they are now the people who are free. And they were set free by this God of theirs. So the Ten Commandments aren’t about restriction and rule, they’re a bold statement to a people previously crushed down by slavery that this is what freedom looks like, this is what it means to be a free people.

And it begins with a relationship with God. With their God, the one who freed them. The one who had the power and the love to free them from their slavery. The Israelites of that time believed in the existence of other gods, and saw plenty of them in Egypt and later in Canaan. The Old Testament is chock-full of other gods, other powerful figures, as well as Yahweh. To call these people monotheists is misleading. But they only had a relationship with this one god, with the one who had been the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but now, more importantly, was the one who had freed them from slavery. It’s said that in the Old Testament, God is referred to as the creator 6 times, but as the one who freed them from slavery 36 times.

And by worshipping their god, and setting aside idols, they were able to remain as free people in their hearts as well as in the literal sense. They weren’t going to be drawn into their own slavery. They weren’t very good at it. The Old Testament is the story of how difficult the people of Israel found it to resist worshipping idols. Sometimes they bowed down before graven images, as Moses found when he came down the mountain. Sometimes they became the enslavers themselves, as in the time of Solomon. Often they took power and war as their idols. The prophets came and warned them of this. And progressively, insidiously, the law itself became an idol, the Torah that began as the sign of their freedom.

And of course that was one of the main messages Jesus came to give the people of Israel. Don’t get trapped by your laws. The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. He didn’t come to destroy the Torah but he did come to fulfil it and allow the Israelites not to be trapped by it, to free them from their slavery to law.

And Jesus promises us the same freedom. The whole Torah could be summed up by two commandments, he said. The first was the great prayer of the Jewish people, the Shema, with which we began the service – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. And the second, he said, is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. [Matt 22:37-39, NIV]

That’s it. That’s how we can be freed from the idols, the false Gods which dominate our lives. By loving God with everything we have. By loving our neighbour. By living out our lives in accordance with the lines in the first letter of John:
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:19-20, NIV)
The question really is what you put at the centre of your being. Jesus put it so succinctly, in the final verse that we heard: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. By following the way of love, for God and for all people, we cast aside the worship of false gods and idols, and we gain freedom in all our lives. God be thanked. Amen.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

On maintaining relationships and absorbing variety: lessons from systems thinking for change at the Open University

The Open University (OU) is one of the great 20th century British institutions: visionary, democratic, free-thinking, innovative. It was founded in 1969, the year before I was born, and I've been privileged to work there for the past fifteen years. (I write in a personal capacity here, and only draw on publically-available sources.)

Like all public institutions, the OU has been hit recently by a combination of financial cuts and technological advances. Clearly these make change of various sorts both possible and necessary, and very many of these have been happening in recent years.

However, there is a plan to change it really radically, in ways that I fear may stretch it to breaking point. One of the glories of the OU is its regional structure – that we are not just a national institution, but one with a significant local presence. This is under threat with a plan to close seven out of nine regional centres in England, shifting the remaining two to a call centre model (along with a further call centre in Milton Keynes plus three offices in the national capitals of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Academics should use their expertise on their own institution at times (as my colleagues Ray Corrigan and Andrew Smith have done), and that’s what I’ll do in this blog post. Having taught and researched systems thinking for most of my time at the OU – I have authored on five modules using systems ideas, and written a book on the key thinkers in the field – it seems appropriate to ask: what can systems ideas tell us about the planned regional closures?

Image: National
Portrait Gallery
I’ll draw on the work of two classic systems thinkers, both British but from somewhat different areas of systems – Geoffrey Vickers, who applied general systems theory to management and public policy (following a long and distinguished career in law and human resources); and Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of cybernetics (who by profession was a psychiatrist with a deep understanding of the working of the human mind).

Vickers stressed the crucial importance of relationships as the most important part of human systems (which would include any group or organisation of people, formal or informal). He wrote (in a 1983 book, Human Systems are Different):
Of what then do systems consist? They consist of relationships. Surely there must be objects, entities which support these relationships? It seems probable to me that the relationships are more basic than the entities related; that we abstract or infer these entities solely from our experience of relationships. (Vickers 1983, p.15)
Organisations, in this view, are not principally about their strategic plans, or their finances, or their tools, or even their management. They are about the relationships between people – between staff members within the organisation, between staff members and their students (or service users, or clients, or customers depending on the organisation), between different service users gathered in a community, and between staff members and the wider world.

The Atomium, Brussels -
relationships in action
(Image: Mike Cattell)
Vickers did not deny the need for organisations to change – he wrote quite explicitly that an open system (one which is open to its external environment) “seldom preserves its form absolutely unchanged even for a brief period” (ibid., p.13). This is very clear at the OU – it has constantly been in flux throughout its history, in almost every possible way. Yet it remains fundamentally the same institution. This is partly because its mission and core values remain intact, but also because when it has changed its organisational structure previously, it has done so while keeping its basic form intact. And, crucially, it has managed to maintain the networks of relationships that maintained the organisation’s form.

Yet Vickers argues that relationships (both internal ones within the organisation and external ones to the outside world) can be fragile, and if pushed too far, irretrievably damaged:
All these relationships, both internal and external, have limits beyond which they cannot be pushed without escalating instability which may result in irreversible change or even dissolution of the system. Within these limits change can be accommodated sometimes almost unnoticed, sometimes welcomed. Unhappily it is often difficult to predict where these limits lie until they have been passed. (ibid., p.16)
And my fear is that in closing seven regional centres, with the staff either having to relocate or be made redundant, these relationships may be severed irreversibly, with the kind of damage which Vickers suggests. This is not just to do with the relationships within the regional centres – it also affects the relationships of those staff to other staff elsewhere in the university, to students and associate lecturers they support, and to wider stakeholders in the communities where the regional centres are based.

Image: Estate of Ross Ashby
Moving on to the work of Ross Ashby, author of the first textbook in cybernetics (Ashby, 1956) at a time when that field was at the cutting edge of technology and human sciences. The central concept in Ashby's book is that of variety: the number of possible states that a system can have. In a system with many different members with many relationships, the variety will be very large.

Ashby examined the question of how to regulate that variety, and formulated what he referred to as the Law of Requisite Variety. This law, which Ashby demonstrated mathematically, and which has been applied subsequently by many scholars, states that the only way to manage the variety of a system is if the regulator (the management part) has the same level of variety as the part of the system being regulated.

The implications for the OU arise from the reduction in the number of regional centres. The existing structure, with its set of relationships linking the university to the outside world, is able to absorb the variety of the world in which it sits. This variety will not be changed. However, shifting to two regional centres (plus the offices in Milton Keynes and the national offices) reduces the variety of the regulating system, the parts of the OU which are able to absorb that variety. It is only possible to continue the system's effective operation if the same variety in the regulating system can be maintained.

In summary: by reducing the regional centres so severely, the university perturbs the relationships which give it shape, possibly irretrievably, and puts itself at considerable risk of being unable to absorb the variety of the system with which it interacts. I have not written here of the effects upon the staff involved, which is considerable; nor of the people proposing the change, who are honourable and well-intentioned. Nevertheless an analysis from systems thinking suggests that these changes are extremely risky and likely to lead to considerable problems for the future of the university.

Ashby, W. R. (1956). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.
Vickers, G. (1983), Human Systems are Different, London: Harper & Row.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Taking up your cross and following Jesus

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church on 13 September 2015. Text: Mark 8:27-9:1.
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Do you know the moment, when someone you really trusted and looked up to, turns out to be not quite what you expected? When your deepest hopes for the future are shaken up and challenged and you’re told that no, that’s not the real story at all? You have the plans sorted out, the dreams in place, all resting on that one person and – bam! – they’re in pieces. Perhaps it’s a relationship that isn’t going where you hoped. Perhaps it’s a colleague who suddenly turns out to be untrustworthy. Or perhaps your political party elects a leader at odds with everything you’ve been working for, all these years – and yet isn’t. There are a good few people in that position in the Labour Party today.

And yet, when you look, perhaps you should have seen the signs. Your partner had been acting a bit strange lately. Your colleague had been keeping odd hours. And Labour – well they kind of knew they needed a big change. But these things are easier to see in hindsight.

And it’s even tougher when the unexpected change is something that starts from the same place as you were expecting, but goes somewhere quite different in the end.

So to the disciples and Jesus. Peter has no problem in giving his answer as to who Jesus is: he’s the Messiah. And it’s then that Jesus does two unexpected things, that shake up the worldview of Peter and the other disciples completely.

First of all, he tells Peter to shut up – this is not the time or the place. He had a point – Caesaera Philippi wasn’t the place for such a conversation, as we’ll see later. But then he goes on to completely contradict everything that the disciples thought the word Messiah meant.

The word simply means ‘anointed one’. It relates to the ancient Jewish practice of anointing kings – this is Samuel anointing David as king, a practice that was still followed in this country when the present queen was crowned. It’s a setting-aside of the king, a marker of their acceptance by God. A Messiah is a king.

But of course Israel had not had a king for generations – it had been under one sort of foreign rule or another for a long time. So the kind of kingship that the word Messiah denoted in Jesus’ day was a liberator, and specifically a liberator through war and violence. Some Jews believed in Jesus’ day that this liberation would come here and now, others that it would come at the end of the world. Jews today still mostly believe the Messiah will come at one or another of those times.

Jesus didn’t deny Peter’s statement that he was the Messiah, but he had a very different story to tell about what it meant to be a Messiah. It involved sacrifice and suffering. It involved being rejected by the religious and political establishment. And it involved his death.

Now it’s important to realise that this is still a vision of Messiahship. Jesus was not saying “I’m not the Messiah, you’re wrong”. He was saying “yes I’m the Messiah, but you’ve misunderstood what it is to be the Messiah”. Jesus did come to be a king, but a different sort of king, of a different sort of kingdom as well – a richer life, full of joy and wisdom and harmony with God and full of justice to others. He called this the kingdom of God, and much of Jesus’ teaching was designed to show people the way to this kingdom, not as something to have after death, but as something to be lived now. He talked about it through stories and metaphors rather than directly, but he showed them the way to find it – to become fully awake, as some have put it. But because that kingdom involved serving others, at the deepest possible level, part of the work Jesus needed to do to help others reach the kingdom of God, was to suffer, to be condemned and ultimately to die. And that was the message Jesus told his disciples. That was what it meant to be the Messiah.

And that’s where Peter snapped. We’re only told in the gospel that Peter “took him aside and began to rebuke him” but you can imagine the conversation. “For pity’s sake, Jesus. We’ve followed you all this way since Galilee. We’ve left behind our jobs and our families and our lives, because we thought you were the real deal. We thought you were the one to save Israel, to ride into Jerusalem in victory. And now what? You’re going to get yourself on trial and killed? Come on, man, snap out of it. You could be a great leader. The people love you. They flock to hear you preach. They’re talking in all the synagogues about your miracles. Give up on this martyrdom stuff. Get out there and lead us to victory!”

It must have been tempting for Jesus. It sounds like a nice life. Uncertain, yes. But exciting too. Who out of all of us hasn’t been tempted when the voice offering us worldly power comes calling, saying we can do this thing if only we give up what we know is right? But of course Jesus had already met this kind of temptation in the desert at the start of his ministry. Yes, Peter spoke out of love and belief in Jesus’ mission. But ultimately his was the voice of temptation, the voice of Satan.

So Jesus called together the crowd to give them the implications of his being the Messiah. And now it’s worth briefly pointing out where all this conversation was taking place. Caesaera Philippi was not a safe place. It was right up in the far north of the traditional land of Israel, near the source of the river Jordan. It’s still a dangerous area, at the border of Israel and Syria in the disputed Golan Heights. It was a place where religion and power came together – there had been an ancient temple to Baal there, then an even bigger one to the Greek god Pan, then a still bigger one to the biggest god of them all in those days – Augustus Caesar. To say there that you’re the Messiah was a really dangerous act. And to do so in a way that challenged everyone’s expectations even more dangerous.

So Jesus understood the danger he was in. And he now started to lay it on thick to those listening – they were in the same danger too. By choosing to be his followers, they literally had to follow the same path as him. The way that would lead to the cross.

Now everyone learning to preach from the scripture is taught that the basic elements of a sermon are to explain the context of the passage, and to help listeners relate it to their own lives. Sometimes that’s quite difficult work, to tease out implications and meanings of some cryptic passage. But here Jesus is so plain, so upfront, that the implications for our own lives are clear. And really really scary. Jesus puts it straight: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

The natural reaction to these verses is to shy away from them, to look for wiggle room, to try to find a way out. But there’s barely any wiggle room here. The theologian Tom Wright puts it clearly in one of his commentaries, “Jesus is not leading us on a pleasant afternoon hike, but on a walk into danger and risk. Or did we suppose that the kingdom of God would mean merely a few minor adjustments in our ordinary lives?”

I believe that this is something laid upon us whether we are lifelong Christians or new to the faith, whether we are aged 9 or aged 90. To be a follower of Jesus is to set down the things of the world, the things that make us comfortable, the things that makes life easy. To be a follower of Jesus is to be willing to embrace suffering and to embrace sacrifice.

This is not an easy calling. But it’s not one that involves hair-shirts and self-denial in the purely material sense, though it might involve those. It’s not about Puritanism, cancelling Christmas and parties. To quote an American blogger on this passage, David Lose:
We all too often view Jesus’ language of cross-bearing and denial through the lens of Weight Watchers. You know, have a little less of the things you like, don’t over indulge in the things that make you happy, cut enjoyment calories whenever possible because they’re not finally, I don’t know, Christian.
But taking up one’s cross is more radical than that. In the world of 1st century Palestine, the cross was the worst possible death imaginable. It was the death given to traitors and slaves. It was deliberately humiliating, slow and drawn-out. For Jesus to draw any sort of connection with the cross must have been a shocking thing for his to hear. I said earlier that Jesus was denying that he was the kind of Messiah who would be riding into Jerusalem on a war-horse. We know that when he did finally ride into Jerusalem it was on a donkey. But Jesus was very clearly saying that as a follower of his, you’d be going up against the authorities, and you’d be in personal physical danger.

Some followers of Jesus have done just this. I’ve been privileged to hear some of them talk – the liberation theologians of the Philippines who worked out of Christian conscience to undermine the Marcos regime; the anti-apartheid campaigners in South Africa who lost their liberty in the face of that evil system; the protestors against Trident in this country who have sailed boats in the face of submarines armed with weapons of mass destruction or cut the wire of the Faslane base to plant flowers on it. I couldn’t do those things myself, but I’m convinced that they were taking up their cross.

Yesterday afternoon as I was preparing this sermon, I read a message on Twitter, written by an American Christian activist for social justice called Craig Greenfield, who has lived most of the past 15 years in the slums of Cambodian. He writes: “Laying down your life usually doesn't happen in a blaze of glory. But rather in tiny moments of anonymous choice that you face every day.”

We can’t all cut the wire at Faslane or move to the slums of Cambodia. But we can all ask ourselves: what are we willing to risk as a follower of Jesus? What part of our lives are we prepared to lay down as his followers? What does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow him?

And Jesus offers us a mighty promise – that by doing so, we cast aside the rubbish that entangles so many of us. We get rid of the material clutter, of the hurts we cause others, of the lack of care we show to our fellow human beings. We die in Christ, and we are reborn in Christ. We are enabled to wake up to the kingdom of God, to live in the full richness of that life which he came to show us. We are enabled to live out our life abundantly and richly and so much more fully than our old lives. He promises it to us all: take up your cross, follow me, and you will gain life in all its fullness.


Friday, 14 August 2015

Reflections on power and beauty: a visit to north Wales

We were on holiday in North Wales last week - staying at Afonwen Farm (much recommended) between Criccieth and Pwllheli. Lots of great visits to beaches, a walk up Snowdon, a trip on the Ffestiniog railway, a visit to Greenwood Forest Park, castles, small towns with good local food, and the brilliant Cadwaladers ice cream. A splendid holiday. But three places have really stayed with me and have made me reflect on modern and historic Welsh identity: Aberdaron, Blaenau Ffestiniog, and Conwy castle.

Aberdaron is at the very tip of the Llyn peninsula, and a stunning place. We visited because of a guidebook recommendation, but also because we recently joined the National Trust and liked the sound of its small museum, Porth y Swnt (and to meet up with old friends also staying in the area). The museum was small but excellent - great audio guide, really good children's activity pack, lots of interesting exhibits. While in Aberdaron, we visited its rather charming and very old church of St. Hywyn, where the poet RS Thomas was the priest for a decade. I believe that Thomas wrote his great poem The Bright Field (which happens to be the theme of this year's Greenbelt Festival) during the time he served in Aberdaron. Thomas wrote:
I have seen the sun break through to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
The landscape and the beach at Aberdaron were also very special, and the light and the cliffs stay with me from there just as much. Another lovely poem of Aberdaron, inscribed in stone outside Porth y Swnt, by the bard Cynan Evan-Jones, talks of "the cliffs of Aberdaron and the wild waves on the shore".

But enough of the beauties of Aberdaron. The next day, we travelled up on the Ffestiniog railway from Porthmadog to its destination, Blaenau Ffestiniog, a very different place. The railway was built to carry slates from the mines down to the sea. Now it carries tourists who like steam trains (including our very excited five year old) up a lovely valley - a really good ride. And then it ends in Blaenau Ffestiniog, a town that grew on slate mining and is now thoroughly post-industrial, with less than half of its peak population and hardly any slate still mined. It has all the hallmarks of a post-industrial town: properties in the estate agents are eye-wateringly cheap and a drab, depressed feeling surrounds it. The people are working hard to reinvent it as an outdoor centre, to use the mines for high-adrenaline activities, but to me it didn't feel like a happy place at all. We found an excellent second-hand bookshop and the occasional attempt to make art out of the place but otherwise I was glad to get back on the train.

Blaenau Ffestiniog seemed to me to have the tragedy of so many industrial centres, from Durham coal towns to Clydeside shipyard communities, that have lost their purpose and their energy. And it's a marker of the power of capitalism to wreck lives and places. Industry came to Blaenau (and other parts of north Wales). It despoiled the landscape - there are huge piles of slate waste all around the town. It drew people in to a life that was once difficult and dangerous but had purpose and community. And then the industry left. The capital was withdrawn, to seek new opportunities in cheaper job markets in other places. And emptiness and despair were left. Capitalism is power. It comes, it steals, it leaves ruined lives behind it.

The last place that stays with me combines the two experiences of Aberdaron and Blaenau Ffestiniog, being about beauty and power in one place. Conwy Castle was built to control. One of King Edward I's 'iron ring' of castles (along with Caernarfon, Harlech and Beaumaris in north Ales) to put the Welsh in their place, to take away for ever their nascent drive to independence. Welsh people were forbidden from living within the walls of Conwy. It sits on the estuary of one of Wales' great rivers, where it meets the north coast, controlling the north-south and east-west routes at once. It ought to be a horrible place. And yet, time weathers power. Instead of soldiers, it was covered in tourists. Some were English, some were Welsh, some from other places. Time has given Conwy beauty. The town is charming. And it's set in the most amazing location, with the hills behind and the estuary in front. We stayed in the youth hostel high above the town and the views were stunning.

I'm not Welsh, so it would be impertinent of me to reflect too much on modern Welsh sources of power and beauty. The country is rich in natural beauty, in resources, in a people of versatility and poetry. But the powerful (the Welsh elites themselves as well as the English) have treated it very badly. May the country learn over time to recover from the powerful, and to find its own power amidst its own beauty.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Travelling lightly through institutions

I’m travelling to Vienna today for the summit of the International Society for Information Studies. Vienna always makes me think of the impermanence of institutions – the city that was the heart of a great empire for centuries, then gradually faded and is now left with its history and architecture (plus a residual scattering of international bodies). But the glory days of the empire of Mitteleuropa are well behind it, one with Nineveh and Tyre.

No institution is permanent. All fade away. Even the famously long-lived institutions, such as the Roman Catholic Church or the Chinese state, exist in a continual state of change – that is how they have lasted so long.

But human interactions with institutions also fade away. Coming out of Euston station in London, I went briefly into Friends House, the headquarters of Quakers in Britain, to visit the bookshop. I was a Quaker for more than fifteen years, and attended many meetings at Friends House, from small committees to the large annual gatherings over several days.

Britain Yearly Meeting, with its structures, history, norms and values played a big part in my life. My experiences as a Quaker continue to reverberate through my life in many important ways, spiritually, emotionally (I met my wife, Becky Calcraft, through Quaker committee service) and in terms of values and ideas. But as an institution, it’s not part of my present life.

I’m involved in other institutions today which I value and am proud to be part of – The Open University, the Iona Community, the United Reformed Church. Perhaps I will be connected with some or all of these for a long time to come, perhaps for a short time. I don’t know. But I do know that my involvement with these institutions will come to an end one day – and that the institutions themselves will come to an end one day. And of course we’ll all come to an end ourselves one day (I’m writing this on the day we learn of the death of Charles Kennedy, a politician of great principle and humanity who died too young).

As so often when thinking about matters of impermanence, the words of St Teresa of Avila, as set by Margaret Rizza, come to my mind:
Let nothing disturb you, nothing distress you;
while all things fade away, God is unchanging.
Be patient, for with God in your heart,
nothing is lacking, God is enough.

We must learn to travel lightly through our institutions. Nothing is permanent. God is enough.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Resurrection people: a challenge to injustice and homophobia

Christians are Easter people. We are resurrection people. Our whole faith is predicated on the idea that a man died, and in some way came back to life again. Without the resurrection, Jesus was another anti-imperial prophet, teacher and healer - great at all these things, but one of many. With the resurrection, Jesus is the symbol and bearer of new life, transformed by God into the new Adam. Resurrection really matters.

It matters in a different way. Through his life and through his teachings, Jesus proclaimed an alternative way of being, a challenge to the imperial authorities of Rome and the corrupt leaders of the Jewish people. He was born in poverty, and his family had to flee for their lives as refugees in a foreign land. In his sermons and parables, he taught love of enemies and the unimportance of material possessions. He ate and drank and talked with everyone, including those who decent society treated as outcasts - those who were morally dubious (through money or sex), women in a deeply sexist society, people of minority faiths and races, the poor, the sick.

And in his last days, the theme of challenge continued. He entered Jerusalem in an anti-imperial parade, at the time when the Romans were staging their own parade. He challenged the corrupt temple authorities and their money-lenders and their "domination system" (in the words of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan's book The Last Week). And even after his betrayal, he refused to let his followers act violently on his behalf. Instead, he was mocked, tortured, and killed in the worst sort of execution given by the Romans to traitors and revolutionaries.

And yet he came back to life. Because God chose for death not to be the last word about Jesus. To quote Borg and Crossan again, "God has said 'yes' to Jesus and 'no' to the powers who executed him. ... Easter is God's 'yes' to Jesus against the powers who killed him." And that was the message taken forward about Jesus by his first followers. In a faith which later became keen on statements of belief, the first creed had only three words: Jesus is Lord. But that was a deeply radical statement, one which stood against the power of the world - because if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not Lord, which was the empire's core belief and organising principle.

But there's more to resurrection. Rob Bell, in a recent podcast, talks of many of the issues I've written about here, but also makes the link between resurrection and incarnation. By taking on human flesh, by becoming God-made-man, Jesus affirms and celebrates creation and the human body. And by rising from the dead, Jesus and God affirm creation. As Bell says, "Resurrection isn't just affirmation that it's good to be human. Resurrection is affirmation of all creation."

So resurrection is the culmination of Jesus' radical challenge to the powers of the world, and it's an affirmation of creation. This affirmation and challenge is at the heart of the Christian faith, of the good news, the gospel, that Jesus brought.

And yet the church, the would-be carrier of that faith, has so often warped that challenge and affirmation. The church has colluded with the current powers of the world, in support of slavery, in defence of war, in the continuation of economic injustice.

Not all the church, and not always - there have always been those who have followed Jesus' path of challenge and affirmation. In our own time and place, the church has begun to challenge economic injustice - for example through the witness of the Joint Public Issues Team, or the campaigning and writing of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

Too often, it is still responsible for moral injustice, however, in particular in the continuing campaign against gay rights by too many within the church.

For a faith founded on resurrection, on challenge and affirmation, to stand against the love of two adults simply because they are of the same gender is not just illogical. It is a denial of the resurrection, of the foundation of Christianity. Homophobia has no place in the gospel. Campaigns against same-sex marriage are a denial of the truth of our Christian faith: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

We are an Easter people, we followers of Jesus. May we live it, and show the challenge and affirmation of the resurrection to those we meet and in all areas of our lives.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Riding into Jerusalem: a tale of two parades

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue URC on 29th March 2015 (Palm Sunday). Text: Mark 11:1-11.

So, who here likes a good parade? I’ve seen or been in quite a few in my time. They can be exciting, colourful, fun. Lots of floats, lots of costumes, tons of people watching and cheering and celebrating.

Here are a few parades that spring to mind. Northampton Carnival – it’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s wonderfully multi-cultural. What’s not to like? And we were lucky enough to be at Disneyland Paris a few years ago – one of the best bits about Disney is their parades. And I wasn’t at this one, but there’s the [Northampton] Saints and their fans celebrating their cup wins last year. And there are many other examples of parades, some celebratory like carnivals around the world, some political like anti-war demonstrations, and some that are a bit of both like Gay Pride parades.

The ancient world was keen on a good parade too, but their parades often had a more military feel to them – here’s an example of what Romans called a triumph. In some ways, this one isn’t very different in some ways from the Saints parade – it’s about celebrating a victory. For the really big victories, there were statues and monuments built. But being the Romans, there was probably a lot of violence involved, and of course your experience of being on the losing side was a lot nastier than those beaten by the Saints discovered.

Of course, the Romans weren’t the only ones who did victory parades. The Jewish victories were
often accompanied by parades. Two hundred years earlier, before the coming of the Romans, the Maccabees had swept aside the rulers of the day, who had no respect for Jewish worship, and entered Jerusalem to the waving of palm branches, to rededicate the Temple. But in Jewish tradition, leaders who came in war arrived in the city on a great horse. Leaders who came in peace arrived on a donkey.

We’ve talked a bit about the donkey already in Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem [using an excellent drama as the children's talk], so let’s think about the parade. And there’s one crucial thing to be said about that parade. It was not the only parade happening in Jerusalem that day. There was not one parade in Jerusalem but two. There was the one we’ve been hearing about, that we remember today, but it was another one that everyone would have noticed.

That day was the start of Passover week, the greatest festival in the Jewish calendar. People came to Jerusalem from all around Israel and beyond. As Passover celebrates the Jewish people being freed from slavery in Egypt, it was a sensitive time in the eyes of the Romans, as the current rulers of the Jewish people. So they increased the number of soldiers in the city, and the governor of the province, Pontius Pilate, spent the week in the city instead of his usual base at Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast.

And so the big parade that day was the entry of Pilate and his troops into Jerusalem. Two biblical scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan [The Last Week], have written a lot about that other parade, and here’s how they describe it:
Imagine the imperial procession’s arrival in the city. A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armour, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of the silent onlookers, some curious, some awed, some resentful.
By contrast, imagine the parade that Jesus led. He sat on a donkey, which as I’ve said was the symbol of peace. He was surrounded by peasant folk, many of them from the wild north of Galilee. They were waving some kind of branches, which we call palm leaves but may just as well have been bits of straw picked up from the fields. This was a big contrast to Pilate’s parade. It was not glamorous. It was not impressive. But to the people calling out to him it really mattered.

And we can see just how much it mattered from what they were crying out. They didn’t call out “Hallelujah” or “Hooray” or “Welcome”. They shouted out a single word, again and again. HOSANNA. We’ve heard that word so many times, associated with this day, that we’ve lost its meaning. It has come to be a word of praise, but that’s not what it means. It means SAVE US, WE BEG YOU. Save us from this terrible system. Save us from the Romans who tax us to the hilt to pay for their roads and palaces and soldiers. Save us from the temple authorities who are corrupt and demand lots of little taxes when we go to worship God. Save us from the soldiers who attack us if we say the wrong thing. Save us from all those who are controlling our lives and making it a misery. It’s a cry from the heart. And it’s a deeply political cry.

So it’s no mistake that the word Hosanna is shown here on a protest banner. Because it was a word of protest. They go on: blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of David. These are not songs of praise. They are cries to come and shake everything upside down, to bring about a new kingdom.

All these words are quotes from the psalm that we read earlier, which was used at the entry to the Temple on festivals, so they were familiar words. But they are strong statements about the kind of king they want, the kind of king they see Jesus as. This is a moment of transformation, of change. If you know the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, perhaps you remember the moment when the crowds are singing “Hosanna, hey sanna, sanna sanna ho”, and at the same time the priests are singing “Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot – this common crowd is much too loud”. This is a triumph of a very kingly sort, albeit a Jewish triumph rather than a Roman one.

But of course as the words here from that song show, the mood of the crowd gradually changed. They started by asking Jesus to like them, and ended up asking Jesus to die for them. And of course that’s where Jesus was headed as he moved into Jerusalem. His alternative form of parade was setting out a new form of kingship and a new form of kingdom, one based on justice and peace rather than on exploitation and violence. He didn’t come to be the messiah so many people expected, overthrowing the system through force, although his first action when he returned to Jerusalem the next day was to confront the corruption and exploitation found in the Temple.

But of course all this put him into direct conflict with the authorities, both the religious leaders and the Romans. And they couldn’t tolerate that. Which led him in the following week to his trial and death. But there’s a time to think of those terrible events, and the unexpected aftermath when God brought good out of evil and raised him from the dead, as Holy Week progresses and leads on to Easter Sunday.

Today I think it’s right to stick with Palm Sunday, with Jesus’ alternative parade leading into Jerusalem and the contrast with Pilate’s parade, the one everyone was talking about. Because we’re faced with a choice on Palm Sunday.

Which parade are we going to choose?

Are we going to choose the glitzy one, the exciting one, the one with the money, the one that the people in charge want us to choose? Are we going to follow the parade of the Oscars on the red carpet, the soldiers marching in their triumph, the parades of the powerful?

Or are we going to follow the humbler parade, where the leader is a man of peace who comes to challenge the ways that we do harm to other people, that we let others do harm? Are we going to follow the parade where the people are ordinary folks, rather poor, crying out for help for change in a system that oppresses them?

Because the choice is with us today. There are still two parades going on. There is a parade of power and there is a parade of justice. Can we have the courage, knowing where it leads, to follow the parade that Jesus leads us in?

Let us pray [prayer taken from Godspace by Mustard Seed Associates]
Let us enter the city with Jesus today,
And sing hosannas to our king,
Let us turn our backs on the powers that grasp and control,
And open our hearts to the son of God riding on a donkey.
Let us join his parade,
Surrounded by outcasts and prostitutes, the blind and the leper.
Let us follow the one who brought freedom and peace,
And walk in solidarity with the abandoned and oppressed.
Let us shout for joy at Christ’s coming and join his disciples,
Welcoming the broken, healing the sick, dining with outcasts.
Let us touch and see as God draws near,
Riding in triumph towards the Cross.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Losing your life to gain it

Sermon preached at Paulerspury URC on 1st March 2015. Texts: Mark 8:31-9:1 and Genesis 17:1-7,15-22.
Image: Diocese of Newcastle
So today is the second Sunday of Lent. If you’re giving stuff up or doing things differently, you’ve probably started by now. I struggle a bit with Lent, having grown up in the Church of Scotland, where they’re very good at austerity and self-denial, but in my childhood they still regarded the church year as a bit suspiciously Catholic. Nowadays I rather like the church year, but I certainly don’t fast to any great extent. Like many people I tend to give up one symbolic thing that makes a bit of a difference but not a huge one. Some years I’ve given up caffeine, but I’m not a saint so that’s just too difficult. This year I’ve given up chocolate. And I try to take up something positive too, such as some more focused spiritual reading, or a programme of giving like Christian Aid’s Count Your Blessings, or one focused around generosity like the programme called 40 Acts.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus invites his followers – that would be us – to give up something more fundamental. Their lives – or perhaps their soul, depending on which translation you read. We’re going to look in a bit more detail about what Jesus meant by that, how it relates to what we’ve heard about Abraham, and how it affects us in Lent and the rest of the year.

This conversation takes place at a pivotal point of the gospel of Mark, at the start of a series of discussions about who Jesus is and how that relates to his disciples, which lead in to the narrative of Jesus’ passion. Immediately before we hear about Jesus talking about his suffering and death, he asks his disciples who people say he is. They answered that some said that he was Elijah, some another prophet, some John the Baptist. Then Jesus asked them a crucial question, one we all ought to be able to be answer with all our heart: who do you say that I am? Not who do all those others say Jesus is, but who do you say he is? And Peter, ever impetuous and ready with a quick answer, says four words that in many ways seals his fate: “You are the Messiah”.

But what does that really mean? We know who was the Messiah as far as most people were concerned at that time – the anointed one, the one sent by God to lead his people out of servitude, to bring them to freedom, the great leader that the Jewish people were waiting for. But of course Jesus wasn’t that kind of leader. Here’s what Jesus said was the nature of Messiahship: to be rejected and condemned by the authorities, to be put to death, and ultimately to rise from the dead. Unthinkable stuff.

And unthinkable is pretty much Peter’s view of the matter too. We’re told that Jesus spoke openly of all these things, that he didn’t make any secret of them. Not too comfortable for Jesus’ best bud. Having just announced that Jesus is the Messiah, Peter can see the rosy future changing to something much darker. Lots of suffering for this man he admires and likes, and possibly for himself. So he responds a bit like child might do in sticking his fingers his in ears and going ‘la la la, I can’t hear you’; but Jesus will have none of it. He links Peter to the Accuser, haSatan, the one who undermines. Horned demons aren’t the point here – this Satan is the silken quiet voice who says “don’t worry, you don’t really have to go through with it”. Jesus is very clear: yes I do. And as he goes on to say, so do you.

Instead, in very vivid language, he lays out what discipleship is like, what it costs but what it gains. Much of the rest of passage is in strange apocalyptic language. For Lent, it’s a very eschatological passage, more like the sort of thing we read at the start of Advent – all that stuff about the Son of Man coming in his glory.

Now a word about Biblical scholarship here. A fairly reasonable thought is: did Jesus really say these things? Could he really have been so explicit about the nature of his death? Is this not one of those passages which was inserted, or at least amended by Jesus’ followers long after death given what they then knew? And if he’d laid it out what so strongly, why would the disciples have been so distraught and bewildered by the events we call Good Friday and Easter Sunday? Surely they’d be forewarned?

On the face of it, I have a lot of sympathy for this view. But actually there’s quite good biblical evidence to suggest that he might have said something a lot like this. The rebuking of Peter is a very solid tradition, and it’s the sort of thing that the early church, having been led by Peter, seems unlikely to make up. And I’m not convinced it matters that much. It fits with the Jesus that we know now. It makes sense for us.

So what does it really mean for us in practice? I’m going to suggest that Jesus lays out three steps: denying yourself or losing your life, taking up your cross, and gaining a new life.

What does it mean to lose your life? Is this a metaphor or to be read literally? Many of the disciples literally did that thing. But the word for life here (psyche) refers to one’s mind or soul. So it’s something about losing your identity, putting off the old person and taking on the new. In the ancient world, following Jesus’ call involved a profound change of identity. The disciples had already had to put aside their jobs and possibly their families to follow Jesus. They had become someone different. And Jesus is saying that to become his disciple, you have to become someone different. To take on a new identity.

We saw this in the Genesis reading, where Abram and Sarai were called upon to change their names, to take on a new identity. They’d given up their homes and their lifestyles, but now they were asked to change their self-understanding through their name. The theologian and historian Karen Armstrong, a former nun, writes very vividly of the ceremony when she took her final vows – she was symbolically buried and brought back to life as a new person. And of course, like Abram and Sarai she took a new name as a nun.

For those of us who have been Christians all our lives, or at least for many years, this is a difficult experience to imagine. However Lent gives us some experience of a partial form of losing our old identity and becoming something new. However we choose to follow it, Lent gives us the opportunity to gradually strip away the things which separate us from God – the luxuries and complexities of the world, the lack of generosity which prevents us from loving God and our neighbour. It’s about living more simply, in a more reflective and thoughtful way, and thus bit by small bit in losing our sense that what matter most in life are cars, and food, and quarterly budgets, and technological gadgets, and even church committees. It’s about seeing these things for what they are – merely vanity, like vapour trails in a clear blue sky.

So to move to the second stage, Jesus says that his disciples must take up their cross and follow him. Today the cross has lost a lot of its meaning as a symbol. It’s something that belongs to jewellery and smart symbols in beautiful churches. Even the more gory re-enactments of the crucifixion in Catholic countries on Good Friday, or movies like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, don’t really give the full sense of what it meant to those Jesus was talking.

In the world of 1st century Palestine, the cross was the worst possible death imaginable. It was the death given to traitors and slaves. It was deliberately humiliating, slow and drawn-out. Going back to the world of Wolf Hall [mentioned earlier in all-age address], it was the equivalent of being tortured on the rack and then hung, drawn and quartered. Anne Boleyn’s beheading was actually a merciful execution. Crucifixion was horrible and humiliating. So for Jesus to draw any sort of connection with the cross must have been a shocking thing for his listeners – not just the disciples, but the wider crowd – to hear. What Jesus was saying was that as a follower of his, you’d be going up against the authorities, and you’d be in personal physical danger.

This is a hard one to allegorise or soften. Yet clearly Jesus isn’t calling us today to stand up against the state and to lose our liberty or our lives for it. Some followers of Jesus have done just this. I’ve been privileged to meet some of them or hear them talk – the liberation theologians of the Philippines who worked out of Christian conscience to undermine the Marcos regime; the anti-apartheid campaigners in South Africa who lost their liberty in the face of that evil system; the protestors against Trident in this country who have sailed boats in the face of submarines armed with weapons of mass destruction or cut the wire of the Faslane base to plant flowers on it. I couldn’t do those things myself, but I’m convinced that they were taking up their cross.

But for each of us, there are undoubtedly times when we are faced with an easy choice or a difficult choice, and we know really that the difficult choice is the one we ought to take, but we’re afraid. And that’s when we need to take up that cross, to be willing to sacrifice our own good for what we know to be right. As one author I read online writes about this verse, what are you willing to risk as a follower of Jesus? If you have a measure of wealth, or comfort, or privilege, are you willing to risk these things? Whatever the consequences for yourself or those who depend on you? To speak for myself: I work in a professional job and I’m the main wage earner in our family. Imagine if I was faced with a situation where I saw such appalling practice in my work, say mistreatment of others, that I had to become a whistleblower and take the matter public, despite what it would do to my job. Thankfully I’ve not faced that situation, and I strongly doubt it’ll happen where I work now. But in principle it could, and would I have the courage to do the difficult thing?

But taking up one’s cross can happen in small ways as well as big ones, and that’s where Lent comes in again. What we take up in Lent is not so much suffering. But we take up space to be a better disciple of God, we take up reflection, we take up discipline, we take up generosity. As I said earlier, it’s St David’s Day. One of his most famous sayings was in the last sermon he preached before he died, when he said:
Be joyful and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have heard about and seen me do. I will walk the path that our fathers trod before us.
This idea of doing the little things, which is often written in cards for St David’s Day, is a powerful part of taking up your cross. Making hard choices can happen in small ways as well as big. We can see this even in our shopping behaviour. It’s Fairtrade Fortnight at the moment, and choosing to buy fairtrade is no longer especially radical or especially hard, but it does involve some cost, and for some people it involves giving up a favourite brand. In our house we’ve been trying hard to reduce our use of products containing palm oil, which is the cause of a lot of environmental damage and child labour – which is tough because very many products in supermarkets contain it, and we’re only part of the way there – but we’re trying to do those little things as well.

And last of all, Jesus promises us that if we do these hard things – be willing to lose our past comfortable identity, and to stand against the powers of the world despite the danger to ourselves – then that’s the only way to save our own lives. Despite the eschatological language of the end of the passage, I think it’s a mistake to see this primarily in terms of the life to come. The word ‘save’ is almost one of jargon in Christian circles, and some scholars suggest that the word ‘rescue’ carries the meaning better of what Jesus is offering. If you want your life to mean something, you need to follow Jesus, and in these ways that he has outlined.

This isn’t something we can do alone. Abraham and Sarah, in their new identities, entered into a covenantal relationship with God. Jesus calls us not to take on a set of intellectual views, to believe some words, but to enter into relationship with him, to follow him where he leads. And we do this by supporting each other through our struggles to take up our cross. We do it together, as the body of Christ.

And together we gain so much. This is about the richness of life that Jesus promises us here and now, living life in abundance. It’s about following the path of Abraham, to gain wholeness, and a new sense of our role in God’s plan. It’s about following the path of Sarah, to gain freedom from the expectation to be someone else’s person, and the right to be our own person. And it’s about following the path of Jesus, to gain life in the very richest and fullest sense. It’s something to be followed during Lent, and throughout our lives – individually and together.

Let us pray.

Lord God, help us to follow in the way of Jesus, when it is easy and when it is hard. Help us to learn how to deny ourselves, how to take up our cross, and how to glory in the new life you promise. Make us resilient together so that, at all times and in all places,  we will stand and give glory to you. Amen.