Sunday, 2 December 2018

Hope in the darkness, hope in the apocalypse: a sermon for Advent Sunday

Sermon preached on 2nd December 2018 at Long Buckby URC. Texts: Luke 21:25-36, Jeremiah 33:14-16.

So Advent is here, and it’s time for preachers everywhere to remind congregations that this is not a time for feasting. Nor is it just a time to prepare our houses and our families for Christmas. Because we live in the time between the first coming of Christ and the second coming of Christ. And Advent is a time to prepare for the second coming as well as to prepare to remember the first.

This is why, as a Scottish Presbyterian who grew up without much awareness of liturgical seasons, I’m now really keen on Advent. Because it’s a solemn time. The gospel readings are full of doom and woe and foreboding, solid Presbyterian themes. But let’s face it, also themes which resonate with today’s world. And they’re threaded through with hope, with words of consolation and reassurance that look forward to the future. Because we know that 2000 years ago, a baby was born in difficult times and in difficult circumstances, and that baby ushered in a new world. And we’re promised that one day the world will change, and the kingdom of love and hope will surround the whole world, when Christ comes again. And that to me is the hope of Advent.

But we can’t get there the easy way. There’s no point in Advent, no point in Christmas really, if it’s all about sentiment and jingle bells. Let’s not mince words. The world’s in a terrible state just now. Authoritarian and far-right leaders are in power in Brazil, Italy, Turkey and the United States among others. Our own country is split down the middle over Brexit, facing an uncertain future with little prospect of a positive outcome. Homelessness and food bank use are increasingly rapidly. The oceans are polluted, with coral reefs dying and plastic waste everywhere. Global temperatures are rising to dangerous levels, maybe to the point of irreversible damage. And many of us have personal stories to match.

Yes, there have been worse times in history. And who knows, there could be worse to come. But just now feels like a really dark time. So it’s timely to think about apocalyptic pieces like this one we heard, with the sun and the stars and the sea and all that. Now apocalyptic literature needs to be treated carefully. There was a lot of it written around the time of Jesus, and it had a very specific form and purpose. It’s not prophecy. It’s not to be taken literally. It’s partly poetry, partly commentary on the current world, partly a cry for help. Because apocalyptic literature grows when people are oppressed. The book of Daniel was written when a Greek king threatened to destroy Jewish worship in the temple at Jerusalem. The book of Revelation was written when the early Christians were being persecuted across the Greek-speaking Jewish world. And the various apocalyptic stories of Jesus’ time were told and written under Roman persecution of the Jewish people, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

But you need to read it carefully. In the weeks leading up to Advent two years ago, I read and blogged my way through the book of Revelation, the longest and most vivid piece of apocalyptic writing in our scriptures. That’s an extraordinary book, full of incredible imagery and poetry, weird symbolism, vicious commentary on the wickedness of the Roman empire, and texts so beautiful that they’ve been set to music by some of the greatest composers. My head was full of song as I read Revelation. But what I found I couldn’t do was look at it directly. It’s like one of those optical illusions by Escher - it only makes sense if you look at it from the side, if you look at it head-on your eyes go funny and your brain hurts and nothing makes sense. And one of the great problems with Revelation is that it’s read as if it was a weather forecast, and you get bizarre American websites tracking the events of the book against real life and scoring how close we are to the events shown, or trying to make movies and popular books showing the events of Revelation in our current world. None of that makes any sense of the book, and at worst it can be actively harmful if it’s used as a guide to policy or life.

And all this goes with our passage today. I don’t believe that the detail of the signs Jesus is talking about are important. He’s using these as symbols, within the accepted style of the time, to give a clear message about what happens in situations of disaster. He says that the signs will be clear that the kingdom of God is coming near. The form of the disaster isn’t so clear, but what is entirely clear is that the kingdom of God is coming.

So if we think of the end of the world, we can think of it as the end of this world. As the end of the world of pain. As the end of the world of oppression. As the end of the world where power is everything, where hierarchy is central, where climbing the ladder and pushing others down matters. The end of the world where violence is the heart of society. The end of the world where if you gain, then I lose. The end of the world that mistreats people because they’re black, or female, or a minority religion, or gay, or disabled, or transgender. The end of that world. Carrying on with Revelation, we’re told at the end of that book that “Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away”.

Now that’s a hopeful kind of apocalypse. And it goes back to another Jewish theme, the coming of the Day of the Lord, which is a day of judgement and trial for evil forces in society, for those who put others down, but for ordinary people is a day of hope and a day of celebration. This is the promise given through the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament reading that we heard – that God will fulfil his promises, and will save Jerusalem and Judah through the descendants of David. We hear this as relating to Jesus, as a descendant of David, but it’s a promise given to the Jewish people in a time of their great need. It’s a collective promise rather than an individual promise, a gift given to a whole people who were suffering and struggling. Jeremiah has a reputation of being a rather gloomy prophet, but that section of the book is sometimes known as the Book of Consolation and it’s full of reassurance and hope for the people of Judah in dark times.

And in the same way Jesus offers reassurance and hope in dark times. He tells us that the kingdom of God is near. That phrase is familiar and occurs throughout the gospels, but here he uses it to refer to the coming kingdom at the end of days, when the justice and righteousness that Jeremiah promises will spread throughout the whole world. He says that his words will never pass away, that redemption is coming soon.

All this is more important than the troubles that will be found in the apocalyptic times. And so Jesus instructs his disciples to be alert, to be watchful, to be ready for that day to come. Now we know when Christmas will come – 3 weeks on Tuesday, check those last posting dates and the deadlines for turkey orders – but we have no idea when that second coming will occur. The early Christians believed it was imminent – there is a statement of that in Jesus’ words that “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place”, and there are many occasions when St Paul writes of expecting the second coming happening within his own life. In the ensuing Christian centuries, people have often believed it to be imminent, and lived their lives accordingly.

In the strict sense of the calendar, they were wrong. Christ has not come again in glory, evil still walks on the earth. And yet the process of waiting, of watchfulness, of readiness for the kingdom is a very powerful one. For if Christ could return at any time, how can we not be ready? If he has instructed us to love our neighbour, indeed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked, how can we possibly not be doing those things right now? This instant! How can we possibly be so self-indulgent as to hate others, or to allow those who work in our name as churches and governments to treat others badly? How can we tolerate mistreatment of immigrants, or allow poverty to persist, or permit prejudice and discrimination in all its ugly forms? Because Christ could be coming back any moment, and he will call us to account for the keeping of his word. That’s the kind of watchfulness that I think he’s calling us to in this passage – to live as though the kingdom of God has already arrived, to live in that upside-down kingdom where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the hungry are filled with good things. And that’s a true calling of watchfulness.

The early church knew this. They were watching for the return of Christ, and they lived in that spirit. My son is called Gregory, which means watchful, and that name was so popular in the first centuries of Christianity because the church was watching for the return of Christ. And they were living in the spirit of this kingdom. And yet the passing of the centuries and the deal they eventually did with the Roman Empire meant that this spirit was lost.

There’s another way in which we can look for the second coming. Various religious groups have believed that Christ had already come again, such as the early Quakers for whom the return of Christ was an inward experience. George Fox, the founder of Quakers in the mid-17th century, said that “Christ has come to teach his people himself”, and this led them to challenge the powers of the world and still animates their mixture of social action, radicalism, and contemplative worship. In a more mainstream form of liberal theology, the late American theologian Marcus Borg wrote:
During Advent, we remember the first coming of Jesus, even as we prepare for his second coming. And the second coming occurs each year at Christmas, with the birth of Christ within us, the coming of Christ into our lives. Christ comes again and again and again, and in many ways. In a symbolic and spiritual sense, the second coming of Christ is about the coming of the Christ who is already here.
So perhaps this is the hope for Advent, and the message of this passage. In the midst of desolation, in the midst of despair, be watchful, be ready, live your life so that Christ can come again within you and among you at any time. And he will give you strength, and hope, and new life and transformation.


Sunday, 28 October 2018

Courage, faith and healing: a sermon on Bartimaeus as a model for discipleship

Sermon preached at The Headlands URC, 28 October 2018. Text: Mark 10:46-52.

NB: As an 'introduction to the theme', I spoken about healing in the understanding of the Iona Community (and my own recent experience of the Iona healing service). In particular, I stressed that 'success' in healing is not an indicator of one's level of faith; and that healing may take many forms, not just physical. I did not stress these points further in the sermon but they form an important backdrop to the sermon.

Image: Jesus Mafa
We have here one of the great healing stories in a gospel full of healing stories. But more than that, this is a story about the faith and courage of one man, and what that tells us about discipleship. Bartimaeus is a man who suffers but he’s also a man who shows great courage, and who begins to follow Jesus before he’s healed. It’s also a story about how one of the most marginalised people was able to see things that the privileged people couldn’t.

A few words about context before we look at the content of the story. This encounter is the very last passage described before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, before Palm Sunday. Jericho is about 15 miles from the edge of Jerusalem, a day’s walk or so, and there wasn’t much between the two. Remember that the parable of the Good Samaritan happens on the Jericho road, and preachers often talk of the isolation of that road. So it’s next stop Jerusalem, the donkey and palm branches, the events in the temple, and ultimately Jesus’ betrayal and death. There are no other healings in this gospel. Bartimaeus has no further chance to be healed by this electrifying young rabbi. So he simply can’t afford to be denied by those around Jesus.

That’s looking forward in the text. Looking back, the story of Bartimaeus comes after a series of dialogues that Jesus has with his disciples and with those around him. We’ll come to a few of them, but in short, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, shows himself to have more insight than any of the disciples, more wisdom than James and John, and more courage than a rich man. The ongoing theme of Jesus’ dialogues before entering Jerusalem is that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and we see this really clearly in Bartimaeus. He’s a disciple for our times.

The first thing we learn about Bartimaeus is his name. He’s the only person Jesus heals in Mark’s gospel who gets a name. As I’ve said, there’s a lot of healing in 10 short chapters of Mark, but the healed person only gets a description – the leper, or the person with unclean spirits, and so on. So he could have been just the blind beggar, and in fact that’s how he appears in Luke and Matthew’s versions of the story. But it’s an odd name. Bartimaeus simply means ‘son of Timaeus’ in Aramaic, as Mark tells us. Naming someone as the son of someone was common enough – Jesus would have been called ‘Yeshua bar Yosef’ in Aramaic, just as the most famous holder of my first name was called Magnus Magnusson because that’s still the style in Iceland. But Bartimaeus only gets his father’s name – it’s as if in his misery he doesn’t really have an identity. Commentators disagree about the meaning of Timaeus as a name, but it’s a Greek word not an Aramaic or Hebrew one, so there’s a further sense of distance, and at least one possible meaning is ‘unclean person’. Bartimaeus does get a name, but it’s the name of a downtrodden and marginalised person.

Carrying on with the story, he’s told that Jesus is here, and he starts to shout out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”. This is the first time that Jesus is referred to as the Son of David in Mark’s gospel. It’s a pretty political statement, fifteen miles from Jerusalem and just before the Passover. Son of David is a way of saying that Jesus is heir to the throne of David, that he’s a ruler; because David was an anointed king, it’s also a way of saying Messiah. The fact that the crowds are quick to silence Bartimaeus may have been simply because he was yet another person wanting something from Jesus, just as earlier in the chapter the disciples rebuked those who brought young children to Jesus. But I think there may have been a political fear as well. The Roman occupation of Palestine, and its client rulers, kept a watchful eye for political insurgents and often stamped hard on it. So close to Jerusalem, in a town such as Jericho where lots of priests from the temple lived, and so close to the Passover, they would have been really watchful. By calling Jesus the son of David, Bartimaeus was putting himself in immediate danger and possibly also those around him in danger. So they’d want to silence him for his sake and for their own.

But the attempted silencing has no effect on Bartimaeus, and he shouts all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”. He’s quite insistent – he will be heard, he won’t be silenced. As one commentator writes on this passage, the last time there was shouting like that outside Jericho, the walls came tumbling down. Because another aspect of kingship is a care for the downtrodden and the ability to heal. So Bartimaeus is almost issuing a challenge to Jesus: if you really are the Messiah, then do your job and heal me! Of course, Jesus had the compassion and healing ability of the expected Messiah, but the kingdom he was bringing was a very different kind, not based on violence and power but on justice and sacrifice.

And Jesus listens and calls Bartimaeus over, and then we have a key pair of verses, perhaps the heart of the passage. Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, springs up and comes over to Jesus. And Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants Jesus to do for him, to which he replies that he’d like his sight restored. There’s so much in that about discipleship.

First is Bartimaeus’ trust and courage in throwing off his cloak. He was blind and a beggar, so his cloak was quite likely his only possession. It kept him warm, it kept him safe. He would spread it out on the road to beg for money to live on. In throwing it off, he was making himself incredibly vulnerable for the sake of this Jesus. Now that is a sign of trust. And it compares amazingly to the rich young man who spoke to Jesus earlier in this chapter, who Jesus said had to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, in order to gain life in all its abundance. The rich man refused and went away grieving – we might imagine him walking head down, dejected, his enthusiasm lost. By contrast we’re told that Bartimaeus leapt up and came over to Jesus – full of hope and trust in this new opportunity for life.

Then we see Jesus ask a question which might seem surprising but is entirely in line with his way of thinking. He asks Bartimaeus “what do you want me to do for you?”. He doesn’t assume what Bartimaeus wants or needs, he doesn’t tell Bartimaeus what ought to happen. He waits for Bartimaeus to tell Jesus for himself. Too often, the church has told people what ought to happen to them, what’s best for them. But people know themselves what they need. This requires Bartimaeus to articulate for himself what’s wrong with him, to admit that he’s blind. This matters as well: we have to face up to what’s wrong with us. The first step to healing for anyone, whatever is wrong with them, can often be to name their condition. And if you’re not willing to give your condition a name, not willing to say out loud that you need to be healed, it’s often much harder to help.

Last week’s gospel reading had Jesus talking with James and John, who asked to sit on his right hand and left hand when he came into his glory. His question to them was exactly the same: “what is is you want me to do for you?” – but their answer was about power, about maintaining the same kind of authority structures in the kingdom of God that we have on this earth. And Jesus told them off for it, because that was precisely not what he was here to do. He came to turn upside the power, to put the first last and the last first, to give sight to the blind and hope to the downtrodden. So Bartimaeus had it right – he didn’t ask for power, he asked for sight. He asked to be able to see the world clearly, to live a life like others.

One more point from Jesus and Bartimaeus’ conversation that fascinates me. When he replies to Jesus, Bartimaeus uses the Aramaic word ‘Rabbouni’, my teacher. It’s a version of the word Rabbi, but more intimate and direct. It occurs only one other place in all the gospels, in the beautiful encounter of Mary Magdalene with the risen Jesus on Easter morning. Mary doesn’t recognise Jesus at first, until he says her name, and her response is that word Rabbouni. For it to be said by a blind beggar on the roadside in Jericho is a sign of enormous trust and faithfulness. And of course he follows Jesus on his way to Jerusalem – where else would he go now?

The story of Bartimaeus is a fascinating one, as much about the nature of discipleship as about healing. It can give us hope – if we want to be a disciple of Jesus, or if we want to be healed, or both, we must first learn to name our needs and be willing to trust Jesus. And as the church, if we really want to be able to follow the gospel, we need to look to people like Bartimaeus rather than the rich young man – to be willing to say, our mission is to these people. And then to be able really to listen to them and their needs, to build relationship with them, and answer their needs.

I want to give the last word to an American writer and activist called Ched Myers who has written and preached and based his ministry on Bartimaeus for forty years. He writes that:
What this tale has taught me over the years is this: that embracing Jesus’ call is not a matter of cognitive assent, nor of churchly habits, nor of liturgical or theological sophistication, nor doctrinal correctness, nor of religious piety, nor any of the other poor substitutes that we Christians have conjured through the ages.  Rather, discipleship is at its core a matter of whether or not we really want to see.  To see our weary world as it truly is, without denial and delusion: the inconvenient truths about economic disparity and racial oppression and ecological destruction and war without end.  And to see our beautiful world as it truly could be, free of despair or distraction: the divine dream of enough for all and beloved community and restored creation and the peaceable kingdom.  Discipleship invites us to apprehend life in its deepest trauma and its greatest ecstasy, in order that we might live into God’s vision of the pain and the promise.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Widening the circle of God’s love: a sermon on being wrong and being corrected

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church on 9th September 2018. Texts: Mark 7:24-37, James 2:1-17.

Have you ever had that kind of conversation where someone you really like and admire suddenly says something offensive or obnoxious – something racist, embarrassingly sexist, toe-curlingly old-fashioned, that kind of thing? And your heart sinks and you wonder whether to argue back. Bad enough if it’s directed to other people. Awful, really horrible, if it’s directed to you. And worse still if the person saying it has power over you, or you need something from them.

So it is in the story which begins today’s gospel reading. And yet it has a happy ending of sorts, which shows Jesus widening the circle of what he understands as God’s love, of where he sees as his mission field, going beyond the narrow confines of the people of Israel to people everywhere. Now this might sound shocking in a different way. We know that Jesus had a temper had times, that gentle Jesus meek and mild was no such thing, but the son of God being actively racist? Or the son of God learning from his mistakes? Well he was human as well as divine, and humans say dumb things, humans do dumb things, and then learn to do things better. So is a story of hope for us all.

We start by seeing Jesus in foreign lands. The city of Tyre was an important port in what is now Lebanon, and was then part of the province of Phoenicia or Syria. But as you can see from the map, to Jewish eyes it was a long way from home. Remember that Galilee, the heart of Jesus’ ministry, was already seen as the distant north to the people Israel and Judea; and Tyre was far away from Galilee. Like various of their neighbours, the Jewish people didn’t much like the people of Tyre, and those living there would definitely be seen as foreigners.

It’s not clear from the text why Jesus was in Tyre, but we are told that he didn’t want anyone to know he was there. So he could have been on some kind of retreat, or just needing a bit of space. And speaking as an introvert, I can empathise with him getting grumpy with anyone invading that sense of privacy. But then a woman comes to his door. The gospel writer takes care to describe her as doubly-foreign. First she’s described as Syro-Phoenician, which is to say from the coastline around Tyre. Second, in many translations she’s called a Gentile, but the word in the original is simply ‘Greek’, part of the Greek-speaking culture found all around the eastern Mediterranean. The point from the gospel writer is clear: she’s a foreigner, she’s the Other, she’s not one of the chosen people.
Image: Ilyas Basim Khuri
Bazzi Rahib (1684),
via Vanderbilt University

But she’s in the kind of desperation that often brought people to Jesus – her daughter has some incurable condition and she’s in search of healing and she’s heard that someone is in town who might help. She throws herself at his feet, begs for his help. So does Jesus take pity on her, proclaiming that her faith has healed her daughter?

No, he does not. Instead he continues with this othering process and he refuses to heal her daughter. His mission is to the children of Israel, and they must be fed first – to take that from them is as bad is taking food from children and giving it away. And then he uses a racial slur, comparing the Syro-Phoenician woman and her daughter to dogs. This wasn’t an uncommon comparison for Jesus’ day as a term of abuse by Jewish people towards foreigners, but it needs a few words. Here’s how we think of dogs today – pets, companions, members of a household. Whether you’re a dog person or not, most of us have a similar sense of dogs. Certainly there are badly behaved dogs, with strays and the like, but mostly they live with humans and mostly behave themselves.

In Jesus’ time, dogs were seen very differently. They were frequently wild, often scavengers. Unpleasant, wild creatures. You didn’t throw food to them, you didn’t give them little treats. If they were under a table, it wasn’t to be given food as part of a family, it was picking up what they could get where they could get it. So to be compared to a dog, to have a gift of healing compared to giving food to dogs, that was pretty insulting. And let’s be clear – this was explicitly a racialised insult. I have no wish to sully this church by speaking out modern equivalents, but I’m sure you can think of some. There are abusive words which are spoken by the powerful to the less powerful, and which are specific to the abused person’s race, or gender, or sexuality. They continue today and they’re horrible. That Jesus was in a foreign land is not relevant, because history is full of people whose culture had led them to believe themselves superior, going to foreign lands and treating the natives badly. Think about the British in India, or the Belgians in the Congo.

Now, the idea of the son of God speaking in a racist manner punctures a lot of what we like to think about Jesus, so over the centuries there have been attempts to explain this language away. The word for dog is a diminuitive form, a little dog, so perhaps he was playfully calling her a puppy. Or perhaps he was testing her, in the way that rabbis sometimes did, being deliberately provocative to bring out an answer. Or perhaps that the woman was actually part of an economic elite in Tyre and he was criticising her for her privilege. Or something else. I get why people feel the need to defend Jesus, but I’m not convinced by these, it doesn’t fit to the text. In my view, this simply shows Jesus in a bad light, but demonstrates that nobody is perfect, even the one who was sent by God to change the world and who hung out with the poor and the downtrodden, that even Jesus had his moments.

And fortunately it doesn’t last. Because the woman replies with an argument that changes Jesus’ mind. In a few words she convinces him that he’s wrong. These are calm words, the kind of words that oppressed people have often used to challenge those in power. She doesn’t dispute the dog imagery, but she says that even if that’s so, then the dogs get crumbs from under the table. This is standing up to authority. This is speaking truth to power. I like this image, because this is the image of a woman coming out from oppression and seeing her own power
Image: Ched Myers
. This is saying that she matters, that her life matters, that her daughter’s life matters. It’s the same spirit that inspired the civil rights movement in the US, and that today inspires those young people who stand up and call for gun control. It’s the same spirit that inspires gay people to march in Pride parades and demand equal marriage from the state and from the church. It’s the same spirit that inspired the women’s suffrage movement. It’s the same spirit that inspired the anti-slavery campaigner Sojourner Truth, herself born a slave in the USA, to say the words “ain’t I a woman?”. It is, ironically, the spirit of Christ, of the gospel of liberation and love, but it’s words spoken not by Jesus but to Jesus.

In fact, and I use this phrase carefully and with respect, the woman is saying that Syro-Phoenician lives matter. Her call is for racial justice. And Jesus, because all his message is about widening the circle of God’s people, about bringing justice to people in all sorts of oppression, Jesus hears her argument. And here’s a thing – he doesn’t commend her for her faith, he commends her for her argument. The Greek is logos, often translated as word with a capital W, identified in the gospel of John with the eternal Christ who comes before the human Jesus, and is the spirit of wisdom. Logos is not something you attributes to dogs, to sub-humans, to inferiors. Logos is a word you use of someone you respect. It’s a sign that Jesus has really heard this woman, that her words have touched him and affected his ministry. He immediately says that her daughter is cured. But then, as this slide says, he understood justice more deeply because of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s insistence on justice for herself and her daughter.

And then Jesus moves on, not south back towards Galilee or Jerusalem, but north, further into Gentile territory, to the city of Sidon and then back to the Romanised area of small towns called the Decapolis. He’s heard the Syro-Phoenician woman’s argument, and he’s off to heal and preach to the Gentiles. And as if to emphasise the point, he heals a man who is deaf and mute, in quite a physical way that’s described in detail by Mark. He allows the man the power of hearing and speech, by urging him to Be Opened – which is Aramaic is that splendidly unpronounceable word ‘Ephphatha’ which most of the translations preserve. Because opening is what this whole passage is about. Opening up an understanding of God’s justice. Opening up an understanding of who is welcome in the kingdom. Opening up an sense of God’s love as wider than human boundaries or categories or prejudices.

We say in the church that we’re open to all. But are we really? There are too many stories of churches which said they welcomed everyone, but only on their own terms, only if they’re willing to fit in with the dominant culture. Churches which say they’re open to children, but make no effort to change their wordy sermons or archaic liturgy. Churches which say they’re open to autistic people or those with dementia, but give no pointers to help those people make sense of their worship. Churches which say they’re open to gay people, but not if they want to bring a same-sex partner or get married in the church. Even churches which say they’re open to women, but refuse to let them have leadership positions.

The United Methodist Church in the USA has a slogan based on these ideas, ‘open hearts, open minds, open doors’. Which are wonderful words, except that members of that church have pointed out the many ways that the United Methodists fall short of that ideal [see the Pulpit Fiction podcast for this week]. And they’re not even bad as American churches go, they’re a long way from the evangelist megachurches. Openness to all really matters. It’s at the very heart of justice. But we have to be able to live out what we say.

So a quick return to the epistle of James that we heard before the gospel. A few verses before the passage we heard is the wonderful phrase which in the King James Version reads ‘be ye doers of the word, not hearers only’. I quote this version because it’s on the lectern in the chapel of Westminster College in Cambridge, and there’s something rather charming about having those words on a lectern. But it’s the way to truth: not only to hear the word of God, but to live it out.

Put in a different way, we heard in the reading from James that ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’. There was a lot said in the Reformation about faith and works, about what you believe and what you do, and Martin Luther didn’t like this book much, but I find it very profound. If we don’t put into practice what we believe, is there really any point in believing it? The church doesn’t exist as a cosy club of people who believe the right things, it exists to transform the world, to help to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a much later member of Luther’s church put it so well: without works, there’s no faith at all, and no obedience to God.

I’ve not spoken about the long and interesting story with which the passage from James began, and it would make this sermon too long, but it’s quite scary that people might judge those who come into a church and give the best seats to those they consider rich. Not us, you say, and probably not – but in some places and some times yes, and there are certainly those who are more favoured in going into new churches than others. But where it connects back to the rest of this sermon is the idea of dishonouring the poor and favouring the rich. Our society does this so well, especially if we extend the word rich to mean those with privilege and power, those who are white or male or able-bodied, those who aren’t too young and aren’t too old. Even though we know the rich, the privileged, don’t always have the interest of others, and although we know the world is stacked in their favour – we still let the world turn for them.

And yet here is the message that the Syro-Phoenician woman, speaking her truth to power, taught to Jesus and can teach to us: the circle needs to widen. The rich might always be there, the privileged might always have fortune, but the kingdom of God belongs to those who weep, to those who mourn, to those who are downtrodden by life and by the world. God is on the side of the poor, God is on the side of the foreigners, God is on the side of those who have been ruled out by those who claimed to speak for God. It’s sometimes taken the church a long time to work this out. It even took Jesus some time to work it out. But Jesus worked it out, and Jesus widened his understanding of God’s love, and with the grace of God, we can widen our understanding too, and the church can widen its understanding, and come to heal all people and to love all people and to value all people. For of such is the kingdom of God.


Sunday, 8 July 2018

Sent out to transform the world - a sermon on rejection, repentance and discipleship

Image: Rev Andy Stoddard
Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 8th July 2018. Main text: Mark 6:1-13, with Ezekiel 2:1-5.

Movie writers sometimes talk about a backstory. Behind the hero, there’s some kind of past history which can floor them completely and makes them unable to function. Perhaps it’s an undisclosed secret. We watched the movie of Les Miserables the other day, and you learn near the end that the former convict Jean Valjean has never told his adopted daughter Cosette about his past, for fear she’ll reject him. Or perhaps it’s an object that renders you powerless, like the way Superman is unable to function in the presence of the element Kryptonite. But for many people, it’s to do with past relationships. The people we used to know years ago can have a hold on us, and their over-familiarity, or their belittling, or their contempt, can reduce us as a person, and make us quite unable to be the selves we’ve become. This is why school reunions aren’t always a great idea.

Because people change over time. I’m quite different from the person I was before I became a parent, or before I got married, or before I started work at the Open University. It’s not just that I’m older. I may or may not be wiser. But I’ve gained skills, I’ve gained experience, I’ve seen and done things, and I’ve matured as a person. The same is true for all of us. If someone from your distant past comes along and expects you to be the same, or judges you according to the things they knew from those days, then not only will they be wrong, but they could well do you damage in the process.

And so it is for Jesus. He returns to Nazareth, where he grew up, and people don’t see the healer and the preacher, the one who has been wowing the crowds around Galilee. And they begin muttering about him.
“I’ve always thought there was something a bit odd about him.”
“He’s not properly educated, just some labourer.”
“And what about that story about his birth? OK he’s Mary’s son but nobody ever worked out who his father was”
“Plus he left his mother and sisters at home to be looked after by his little brothers, while he went waltzing around with weirdos.”
Image: Cerezo Barredo
Because small communities are like that. They remember gossip. They use little innuendos to put people in their place. Israel was a patriarchal society, men were referred to as the son of their father, not as the son of their mother. To call Jesus the son of Mary meant that at best his father was dead, but more likely it’s a way of saying he was illegitimate. And the word translated as carpenter, tekton, is a pretty demeaning word – it’s not a skilled role, more like a day labourer on a building site. So he’s low status, of questionable parentage, and he’s left his family behind in the village when he should be looking after them.

No welcome with open arms for Jesus. When he later told his parable about the prodigal son, perhaps he remembered this moment – but there was no fatted calf in his story. Instead: demeaning language, belittling him and his background. Sounds horrible. No wonder he couldn’t do any deeds of power there in Nazareth.

Now you might think, well he’s ok, he has his friends. There are plenty of people rejected by family and their past associations who find a new life with a set of friends instead. Except Jesus never quite does what you expect, and as soon as he’s been rejected in his hometown, he sends them all away to get preaching.

Except of course he sends them away with a purpose – to start to preach the gospel. He sends them off with a mission, to preach repentance and to heal those who were sick. Notice these two emphases fit closely with what Jesus has been calling for throughout the gospel to that point. The first five chapters of Mark are full of healings – a leper, a paralysed man, someone with a withered hand, a man with a severe mental condition, a child who had died, a woman who suffered years of haemorrhages. We’re told that he healed many more, but these are told as stories. These healings are interesting. They are all people whose conditions cut them off from society, which made them unable to care for themselves or made them outcasts, unclean and unfit to associate with devout Jews. So Jesus healing these people was not just a kind deed. It was a set of actions which challenged oppression, which challenged marginalisation, one person at a time.

But Jesus went further than this. His first recorded words in the gospel of Mark are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. In our time, the idea of repentance and good news are often tied up with a post-Easter vision of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. But the good news Jesus was talking about was a different sort. And it had to do with repentance, the key to Jesus’ preaching and the command he gave to the disciples.

Image: Kimberley D. Reisman
Jesus called people to repent. In the Greek, that’s the word metanoia, which means a changing of your mind. Not simply a change in mind about whether you want pizza or curry for dinner, but a complete mental shift in your worldview, in everything you understand about the world. The point is not to condemn yourself, but to recognise that you’ve strayed from the right path, that your true self is better than this. The Hebrew word for this idea, the lovely word teshuvah, has a sense of homecoming about it. You are a beloved child of God, you can come home to the love of God. But in the process you show love to others. So this is a repentance about changing your life around.

Image: Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
It’s a repentance that’s deeply related to the idea of the kingdom of God. It says: turn away from violence and hatred, come home to the power of God’s love. It says: turn away from power and hierarchy, come home to equality and care for the downtrodden. It says: turn away from war, come home to peace. It says: turn away from the kingdom of the emperor, come home to the kingdom of God. It was a deeply radical and transgressive message. It echoed the words of the Hebrew prophets for centuries but it was an incredible challenge to the Roman and Jewish authorities. It’s still a challenge today, in a world governed for the benefit of power and money, run by puffed-up egos such as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, full of their own self-importance and with little care for those who get in their way.

So a proclamation that people should repent, and an offer to cure them of their sicknesses – those are radical ideas for Jesus to be sending out his disciples to fulfil. This story in Mark has parallel versions in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth, and he quotes from the prophet Isaiah. He speaks words there that have been described as the Nazareth Manifesto, the foundation of Jesus’ commandments to his disciples then and now. They read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And in case there’s any doubt, Jesus says plainly that these words are fulfilled today in the hearing of the people in Nazareth. That’s what repentance is about. That’s what the healing he conducts in Mark is about – proclaiming good news to the poor and setting the oppressed free. It’s not about just about individual healing. It’s about healing society. It’s about radical social change.

Repent, and put your faith in the power of God to change the world, and you will be healed.

There’s a further challenge in the way he tells the disciples to go out. Travelling preachers weren’t uncommon in Jesus’ day, but they went equipped – spare clothes, food, money. The disciples aren’t to do that. They’re to accept hospitality wherever they can. That has its own challenge. Because leaders are supposed to be givers, not receivers. But part of the upside-down kingdom of God is being willing to receive when something is freely offered, no matter how meagre. It’s not about getting rich on others’ giving – Jesus says his disciples were to stay in the first house they entered, not to go climbing up the social hierarchy of a town. There are no private jets here for the followers of Jesus. This kind of simplicity reminds me of the Franciscans, travelling people in simple robes who accepted the hospitality they were given. And St Francis emphasised the value of action in addition to words, saying that “The deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today”.

Jesus has been rejected by his family and those he grew up with. He’s lacking in authority in Nazareth. But he has great authority in himself, and he passes on that authority to the disciples.

Yet the rejection Jesus received from his family was similar to the rejection the disciples would receive from society. Yes, they healed and they preached. They spread the good news of the kingdom, and they transformed through their lives, and they slowly built up followers of Jesus, especially after his death. But within a fairly short time, all of the twelve sent out by Jesus would be killed for their teaching and their actions, for the challenge they posed to Roman domination. And Jesus’ followers continue to be persecuted for their faith, from the Christians thrown to the lions, to Martin Luther King shot down for preaching equality and justice. They are persecuted by their own, like the singer Vicky Beeching who was the darling of the evangelical church and then ostracised when she came out as a lesbian. And yet, as Ezekiel was promised by God for his own preaching, “whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they shall know that there has been a prophet among them”.

Because it was the sending out of those twelve disciples that began the slow road towards the establishment of the church, towards the spreading of Jesus’ message throughout the world. And it’s through that message that the gospel is spread today.

The world needs repentance today as much it did 2000 years ago. People today need healing as much as they did 2000 years ago. And the pattern established for the twelve is a pattern for us today. We are called to walk the way of Jesus today. We are called as followers of Jesus to urge others to repentance, to cast off the power structures of this world, to become lovers of justice, to show the power of God through the way we live our lives. We are called to heal others in whatever ways we have power to do so, but also to heal society in whatever ways we have power to do so. We might not have to wander the streets to do so, but we can preach the gospel of love in the places we find ourselves daily, in the places we are sent when Jesus calls us to go. We might face rejection, but we will be acting in the authority of Jesus. And we will play a part in bringing about the kingdom of God.


Sunday, 20 May 2018

Catalyst and disturber: don’t domesticate the dove

Sermon preached on 20 May 2018 (Pentecost) at Creaton URC. Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21.

Don’t domesticate the dove. I read that phrase online this week. Don’t make the Holy Spirit into something small, contained, Encountering the Holy Spirit is an awe-inspiring and life-changing event. It’s not cosy. It’s not simple. It’s not easy to put into words. Pentecost is such a familiar story that we can too readily forget the vastness of the experience. It was so profound that the disciples were left scraping for metaphors to describe it. And yet it changed their lives. And experiences with the Holy Spirit can change our lives too.
Now the Bible is full of occasions where human beings encounter the divine – Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus at his baptism, Paul on the road to Damascus. They often struggled to put their experiences into words, beyond umpteen variations on the theme of ‘wow’. But images of wind and fire are common ones. Recall the pillar of fire which accompanied the Israelites in the desert, or the hurricane in which God appeared to Job, or the still small voice after the wind and fire when God spoke to Elijah.

These would all have been very familiar images to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem. With the idea of Pentecost as the birthday of the church, and all the talk of different languages and different peoples, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this was a deeply Jewish occasion. All of those Parthians and Medes and the rest were members of Jewish communities scattered around the Eastern Mediterranean who had come to Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot, which was originally the first of two harvest festivals, but was venerated as the time when the Torah was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, again with fire and cloud and wind. That event was in many ways the birth of the people of Israel – they came together through persecution and flight from Egypt, but they gained identity when God gave them a way of living. In the same way, the followers of Christ had come together through his preaching and example, but gained identity as a group when God gave them the Holy Spirit.

This year and next, Shavuot falls on the same day as Pentecost though the complexities of religious calendars means this isn’t always the case. This year, Muslims are also celebrating Ramadan just now, which celebrates the revelation of the Qu’ran to Muhammad. Both faiths celebrate by reading their scriptures right through – many Jews stayed up all night yesterday into today to read the Torah. The disciples at Pentecost received a different sort of revelation of God, a direct experience of his power and energy. They received not just the word of God, but the very breath of God – because the word for breath and spirit are the same in both Hebrew and Greek. That’s the point Ezekiel makes about the dry bones being breathed into life. The followers of Jesus, still reeling from his death and the uncertain events of his resurrection and ascension, were empty and lifeless. And then God came and breathed on them. And nothing was ever the same.

The phrase about domesticating the dove that I quoted comes from an author by the name of Danielle Shroyer. She also writes: “The Spirit of God has been released into the world. Not contained but set free. Not limited but expanding. And what else would we expect, if this Spirit of Life is indeed the One through whom God raised Jesus? This is the Spirit of Life, who God has called not only to raise Jesus to new life but to raise all of creation to new life. Without Pentecost, we’d just be people who tell Jesus’ story. With Pentecost, we’re people who live into Jesus’ story.”

So I say again: we need to be careful not to underestimate the power of this Holy Spirit and not to make the story sound too comfortable. Because it’s not a comfortable experience. Let me talk personally. Some of you know that I spent 15 years as a Quaker. If you’ve not been to a Quaker meeting for worship, it’s an interesting experience. The congregation sits in a circle in a simple room, listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit. Nobody speaks until they feel compelled to do so by the Spirit, and there are no set words or preachers. But the power of the Holy Spirit can be really compelling, a physical as well as spiritual experience. I remember once having words come to me, and wanting to speak, but not having the courage – and afterwards I felt awful. Another time I was in the annual business meeting of British Quakers, with several hundred others, and we were at the end of three days of discussion and decisions and in a closing period of worship which was normally kept silent. But words came to me about community and love, and I could not be silent, and I was shaking and my ears were buzzing but I was convinced that I was instructed by the Spirit to speak, and so I did; and afterwards others told me that they found value in whatever I said. Because at the moment I was not speaking my own words, I was speaking the words that were given to me.

Now Quakers, for all their many good works in peace and justice and social change that this experience of the Holy Spirit has made possible, are a quieter bunch than charismatics. The ecstatic experiences of raising your hands and singing for half an hour, or speaking in tongues, or healing with the touch of hands – those experiences don’t appeal to me, they feel rather alien and frightening – but I understand where they’re coming from. They come from a place of compulsion by the Holy Spirit, of being filled and being transformed and being a channel. Not my will, not my voice, but that of the Lord.
Artist and original source unknown
Of course that wasn’t a new experience at Pentecost. Peter’s sermon, once he had done pointing out that his colleagues weren’t drunk because it was too early in the day, which I’ve always thought is a good start to a sermon, Peter then quotes the prophet Joel talking of God pouring out his spirit on all flesh, and all kinds of people prophesying. A commentator on the book of Joel has some vivid words to say about this passage: “Whenever God pours out his divine energy, people are transformed; they behave like madmen, they dance frenziedly; seized by ecstasy they undress and lie naked on the ground. Moreover they have visions and enter the heavenly realm.” Quite a party. And very threatening indeed to the political and religious establishments. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit does some odd things.

Here’s something else that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit brings: justice and equality. Again this has a precedence in the festival of Shavuot. In the book of Leviticus where that festival is commanded, the next verse reads “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien”. The giving of Law is bound up with the giving of social justice, because it comes out of a place where the Israelites were oppressed and both law and justice were responses to that oppression. I talked earlier about the parallels with Ramadan, and you may know that the Muslim practice of zakat, the giving of a proportion of one’s income to the poor and to charity, is a key feature of Ramadan, as much as fasting. Law and justice are joined together in both faiths.

And we see the same thing at Pentecost. Because on that day the Holy Spirit broke down the boundaries which separated people in the very segregated society of 1st century Roman Palestine. The Spirit rested upon women just as on men. The Spirit rested on poor people just as on rich ones. It rested upon people from Jerusalem, from Galilee and from all the lands of the Jewish diaspora. It rested upon slaves as well upon freed people. It rested upon the old and the young alike. And to show that this wasn’t just coincidence, that it was part of the plan, Peter quoted Joel who said exactly that these things would happen. The Spirit came to all of them.

And it comes to all of us today. We cannot exclude women from ministry, because the Spirit came to women. We cannot exclude old people or young people or rich people or poor people or gay people or disabled people or transgender people or people with dementia or people with autism, because the Spirit came to all those people. Pentecost is a story about inclusion, a story about God’s justice being so expansive that he breathed his very Spirit upon peoples of all kinds.

And Pentecost continues today. The Spirit is moving in our world today. Where there is hopelessness and God’s people receive renewal, the Spirit is moving. Where there is injustice and God’s people are enabled to fight for justice, the Spirit is moving. Where people are pushed under the weight of oppressive governments, or the power of money-grabbing corporations, or violence of all kinds, and they say enough! – the Spirit is moving. The young people who are speaking out about gun laws in the United States, the parents protesting against food poverty in rich countries, those brave souls campaigning against female genital mutilation in various African countries – amongst them all, the Spirit is moving.

The Spirit is moving in our world today. It brings life to situations of hopelessness. The valley of dry bones in Ezekiel is the valley of the shadow of death. We all know of valleys like that in our world. There are places of death, like the waste processing towns of China, or the polluted lakes caused by industrialisation in Russia, or the desolate landscapes caused by oil sands extraction in Canada, or the impacts of plastic throughout the world’s oceans. There are places of spiritual death too, the lands where violence has stripped away hope from the people, or where financial austerity has meant life has become harder and harder, or where homeless people are walked over by the rich on their way to fat-cat jobs. And yet in all of these places: the Holy Spirit is present. And it might sound glib and just the vain prattling of preacher-talk, but God has promised to the bones that he will cause breath to enter them, that he will bring life back to them, that he will restore hope to them. And it might feel like nothing much, or it might feel like a rushing of wind and tongues of fire, but the Day of Lord is approaching, when all pain will cease, and when hope will come. And the Spirit is always with us. This is the promise of the day of Pentecost.

I’d like to close with some words from a book entitled The Fire Runs about mission and the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. It was written by a Church of Scotland minister called Ian Fraser who died last month at the age of 100. His book was the basis of a conference on liberation theology which I attended in St Andrews around 25 years ago. I remember that in one act of worship we were offered images for the Holy Spirit, and the two which have always stayed with me were the words catalyst and disturber. The Holy Spirit changes and mixes and transforms, it brings the fire that forms the spark that sets alight change in our world – that’s the catalyst. And the Holy Spirit shakes us up, it comes in with a mighty wind that blows away our preconceptions and our prejudices and our past experiences that stop us from following the path of Christ – that’s the disturber. The Spirit was a catalyst and a disturber on the day of Pentecost, and may it be so for all of us today. Here are the words of Ian Fraser in his poem:
Like fireworks lighting up the night
the Holy Spirit came;
dejected Christians felt the touch
of living fronds of flame -
and suddenly the world was young
and nothing looked the same.
For Jesus’ nearness gave them heart
to venture, come what would:
the love of Jesus bade them share
their house, possessions, food:
the mind of Jesus gave them speech
the whole world understood.
This is the Spirit who, today,
new daring will inspire
and common folk are given gifts
to change the world entire:
the sparks which flew at Pentecost
started a forest fire.


Sunday, 22 April 2018

The good leader, making us rest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 19 March 2018

Lent & the USS strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 12 March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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