Friday, March 25, 2016

Why we are like God and why God is like us

Isaiah 53.3 - 12
John 18.28 - John 19.42
In a great many ways we resemble other living things. As we've seen before, we've got an awful lot in common with a banana plant, and that's because all living things on earth are descended from the same single celled organisms that first emerged from primordial chaos billions of years ago.  Like other animals, we also feel hunger, thirst, pain and satisfaction, we wake and sleep, we reproduce, we have to breathe to live, and eventually we die.
But we're also unique, at least among life on earth. Unlike most animals, we’re capable of thinking not just about the past and the present but also about the future, and imagining what that might be.
Some animals can do the same thing up to a point. They can think about what might happen next if they do something, or something were to happen, today or tomorrow. But human beings can imagine a whole different way of living in the future. A chimpanzee can only ever imagine living in the jungle, but we can imagine what it might be like to colonise the Moon, or Mars, or get married to Mr or Miss Right. In other words, we have the power to think creatively in a way which sets us apart from all other living things and makes us more like God.
Yet amazing though that is, for believers it’s not the only thing which sets us apart from other apes and intelligent animals, because there are at least four other ingredients to being human which make us not just different from other animals but also like God!
First, believers have said that our mastery of tools and technology makes us like God. Crows and chimpanzees can make simple tools but only we can build an aeroplane. Our creativity - both practically with our hands and, as we've seen, imaginatively with our minds - makes us capable of sharing with God in the work of shaping a better future rather than simply waiting for it to evolve in whatever way Nature dictates.
For believers this is just a logical development of the idea I've already mentioned, that the power and range of our imaginations sets us apart from other animals. But in this case we’re saying that our technical prowess sets us apart by making us co-creators with God. In other words, we become responsible for what the world is like. A chimpanzee can never be responsible for the way things are, but we can and that sets us apart and makes us more like God.
Second, we also share with God the ability to use language. Other animals, such as whales and meerkats, can communicate with one another in quite sophisticated ways. They share feelings of alarm or sadness when danger threatens or a little one dies. But only human beings can articulate their fear, or joy or grief and start to explain what it's like to be afraid or sad. Language enables us to share complex feelings and ideas, and it’s no accident that one of the things which connects us most intimately with God is that he comes to us as The Word. In Jesus he speaks directly to us, and we can speak to him.
The third thing which sets us apart from other animals is the depth of our love. Many animals appear to love their offspring, and some appear to love their mate. Female spiders may sometimes eat their partner, but penguins and swans can pair for life. But what sets us apart from the animals and makes us like God is our capacity to love those we don’t even know, complete strangers who come from different backgrounds and cultures, who speak different languages and have completely different ideas from us. This is the sort of love which God reveals on the Cross. Only, on the Cross Jesus takes this capacity to love to its ultimate expression, by declaring his love for his enemies and those who hate him. We won't catch animals doing this!
The last ingredient which sets us apart from other animals and life forms isn't something which makes us like God; instead it’s something which makes God like us - and that's our capacity for redemptive suffering.  Animals suffer, of course, and mother animals often suffer redemptively for their offspring - going to extraordinary lengths to improve their children's life chances. As we’ve said on previous occasions, a pack or family of animals will sometimes go without food themselves or make extra efforts in order to look after a wounded member of their group, and human beings too will suffer redemptively for other members of their clan, or regiment or group of sworn comrades. But Jesus - by loving his enemies and those who hate him - carries redemptive suffering to a new level. If he weren't God, then he would simply be demonstrating how far human beings are capable of going in sharing their love and reaching out to others,because there is nowhere else for love to reach beyond total self-sacrifice.
Of course, we can make other people share with us in our self-sacrifice, as people sometimes do when they involve their friends and family in their suffering and downfall. So occasionally we read about people who - when things are at a low ebb - kill their entire family before committing suicide, or at least bring shame and ruin down on them through their own mistakes or misdeeds. Adolf Hitler took this approach to extremes when he decided to involve the whole German nation in his own fall from power. But these are not examples of redemptive suffering.
Redemptive suffering means suffering yourself in order to make life better for others, and Jesus takes this kind of positive suffering to its ultimate expression by suffering for the sake of those who hate him and who have never known him, as well as for his friends.
Jesus shows us that what makes our capacity for redemptive suffering like God is that God chooses to suffer redemptively for us. Previously, people had taught that suffering is a part of the human condition but not part of what it means to be God. Instead, they believed that suffering was something which sets us apart from God, because God is unchanging and therefore could not be put to suffering.

The Cross challenges that idea by turning it on its heads. God is unchanging because it has always been in his nature to want to suffer for us, to suffer redemptively. By dying on the Cross, his chosen representative Jesus, who is one with him, lays bare this eternal truth. When we suffer we are not being abandoned by a God who has no connection with suffering, instead we are being embraced by a God whose nature it is to share our suffering and bring something positive out of it.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Chaos Theory and the Story of Easter

John 12.1-8, 27-28
One of the things that scientists have discovered about our universe is that it isn't as predictable as it once seemed. There was a time when scientists believed it runs like clockwork, and at some levels it does. The planets orbit the sun like clockwork, our bodies work in fairly predictable ways and even the weather can be predicted a few days ahead with reasonable accuracy. But probe beneath the surface and the world starts to look disturbingly random.
Let’s think for a moment about my journey to work from Hemsworth to Sheffield. There are basically three ways I could go. Two of them are roughly the same length, the route which takes the backways around Rotherham and the route along the Dearne Valley Parkway and the M1 motorway. Both go to Meadowhall. The third way is longer and involves travelling along three different motorways and a dual carriageway, but it avoids Meadowhall.
I listen to the traffic bulletins on the radio, so each day I have to decide which way is going to be quicker. But other drivers are listening to the radio too. If we all hear that there’s been an accident on the motorway at Meadowhall we’ll probably choose one of the alternative routes, but if we all choose the same alternative it could actually take us much longer to get to work than if we had joined the back of the queue.
This means there’s a random quality to the way the traffic flows. Sometimes one route will be much quicker, sometimes another; and if there’s an accident at Meadowhall the effects on the traffic may be totally different on two separate occasions, depending on what each of the thousands of drivers decides to do.
It’s unpredictable, and yet it’s not totally unpredictable, because over the course of hundreds of accidents and traffic jams at Meadowhall a pattern does emerge. The likelihood of different outcomes can be predicted even when the actual outcome on any particular day cannot. And I guess that’s pretty much how weather forecasting works too.
The loose  term that’s popularly used to describe how we can forecast the way that traffic flows or the weather will unfold is Chaos Theory. I listened to a radio discussion about Chaos Theory recently and one of the contributors said that if a coin is tossed high enough into the air then even God will not be able to predict which way it will come down. That made me sit up and think!
He went on to explain that the unpredictability arises because everything depends on how the coin cuts the molecules in the air as it passes through them on the way down and that is an entirely random event. But on the other hand it's also a bit like looking at a picture made up of thousands dots. If you look at the picture close-up the pattern of the dots seems entirely random, but from a distance they resolve into a picture. When we look at the big picture, all the coin tosses that have ever happened throughout history, a pattern does begin to emerge. Half the time the coin will land on its head and half the time it will land on its tail.
So Chaos Theory suggests that, from God's perspective, there’s an apparent order to what’s happening in the world even when individual events look totally disordered or unpredictable. The individual components in the pattern will always have the freedom to fall where they will, they’re not preordained to fall into a particular place, but nonetheless over time a pattern of how individuals are likely to behave will definitely begin to emerge.
And this works for human thought processes as well as for coin tossing. The brain is enormously complex and it’s completely impossible to predict how anyone will respond to a given situation. We may choose to jump one way; we may choose to jump the other. Our impulse may lead us to do or say one thing or something completely different, depending on which side we got out of bed this morning. But over time a pattern will still emerge, and more than that, our circumstances will begin to shape the way our brain works and cause certain patterns of behaviour to predominate.
For instance, London taxi drivers have to learn a lot of knowledge about the streets of London and this has been shown to make their memories much better than other people's. And a cautious person like Judas Iscariot becomes more likely to save his own skin by planning ahead and looking for a way that will get him out of trouble, whereas an impulsive person like Peter becomes ever more likely to do or say something in the heat of the moment; to say the wrong thing, perhaps, and regret it later.
And that raises the thorny question, how far were the players in the Easter Story in control of their own actions? Pontius Pilate agonised about whether to find Jesus guilty. What if he’d decided to acquit Jesus and throw the chief priests out, even if it caused a riot? Later, after Jesus’ death, Pilate did cause a riot about something else.
And what if the chief priests had decided that Jesus probably wasn't that much of a threat and had let him go home to Galilee after the Passover instead of arresting him? Or what if King Herod had intervened and offered Jesus his protection. That’s what happened when one of his relatives listened to the preaching of St Paul. He and the governor both agreed that Christianity wasn't doing any harm. If Paul hadn't already appealed to the Emperor they would have released him.
When Jesus warned his disciples that he was going to be handed over to the authorities and put to death, how did he know that this would actually happen? I think there are two possible answers. One is that Jesus was a shrewd judge of character. He made a pretty good guess as to how things would turn out and events tragically proved him right. The other possible explanation is that God revealed to him what the future held.
You see, for God there is always an additional factor. God may not be entirely in control of events, but he is above and beyond time, so he can see from his special vantage point how things will work out in the end without necessarily having preordained or predicted them from the beginning.
It’s a bit like the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War. Down in the valley the soldiers were told to charge some guns, but they couldn’t see the guns in question. They assumed they were being ordered to charge straight down the valley on a suicidal course where they would be shot at constantly from three sides. But from the vantage point of the generals up on the hill above they were charging in completely the wrong direction. God sees how things are going to turn out even when, down in the thick of the action, we are still free to choose which way to go.
Except that neither explanation lets God entirely off the hook. What prompted Judas to betray Jesus? We shall never know, but we can’t rule out the possibility that one factor was Jesus’ own apparent fatalism about what was going to happen.
If Jesus had promised his followers that he was going to emerge unscathed from his journey to Jerusalem would Judas have dared to turn traitor? Was Judas wondering which way to turn? And did Jesus’ despairing prophecies alter the neural pathways in his brain and finally persuade him to go over to the other side? In other words, did Jesus consciously influence his own fate? And if that’s the case, how far are people like Judas and Peter responsible for their own actions?
But this isn’t just an historical question, is it? Because each of us has our own decisions to make every day. What will we do or say in the next moment? How will we respond to good times and bad? What effect will we have on other people? Is the way our lives are turning out entirely random, disordered and unpredictable, or are we shaping our own destiny to some extent?
At any particular moment what we do or say may be dictated by random things that are happening at a microscopic level in our brain, but what is the bigger pattern that is taking shape? Are we - by consistently making similar choices - laying down a way of behaving that will be reinforced by constant repetition over time? In other words, are we becoming more kind, more gentle, more caring, more thoughtful, or are we becoming more embittered, disgruntled, disappointed, fearful and self-centered? We’ve all seen people who lives went in one of those  directions.
And by turning to God, as Jesus did can we ask God’s grace to intervene and subtly reinforce the good pathways and patterns of behaviour, so that we set off on a trajectory towards holy living? Martin Luther said, ‘No.’ He believed the pattern for our living is already fixed and we won’t be able to change it however hard we try. All we can do, like Peter, is to ask God to forgive us for the wrong turns we may take.
But John Wesley said, ‘Yes.’ We can consciously choose to ask God to reshape the direction we take so that the pattern does start to be an improving one. He never claimed that this had actually happened in his own life, but he always believed that it was possible.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Economics of Good and Evil

Genesis 3.1-19, Luke 4.1-13
A new theory has taken the normally dull world of economics by storm. There's even been a lecture tour about it where the author cycles onto the stage playing a swanee whistle. However, if you want the more conventional version, the best-selling book about it can be downloaded onto a tablet or Kindle for about £4.
The author is someone called Tomas Sedlacek [Sedlachek], who is supposedly one of the five hottest minds in economics, so you may already be thinking, 'Well that’s probably not for me!' except that the title of his book is 'The Economics of Good and Evil' and he argues that economics isn't really a science, governed by lots of impenetrable mathematics and dry as dust laws, but more like a story or a parable which uses ideas and pictures from everyday life to try to make sense of the world. When he looks for inspiration, Sedlacek turns to the Bible, to myth, religion and ethics, because he believes economics is really about the eternal struggle between good and evil.
So let's begin with the curse of Adam, who had a life of ease and leisure in the Garden of Eden until he disobeyed God. As a punishment God told him that he would have to work for a living. It doesn't sound so bad, does it? After all, a lot of people like working and they get depressed if they don't have any work to do.
Yet work can so easily become a burden, can’t it? And that's because there's always more to do. The grass always needs cutting, the flower beds always need weeding, the house always needs tidying, food always needs preparing or cooking. And that's before we even leave our front gate!
But that's not really Sedlacek's complaint. He says the curse of Adam is that, however hard we work, however efficient we become, however much we earn, we'll never be completely happy because it simply isn't possible to satisfy all our desires.
Jesus seems to be on the same page as Tomas Sedlacek. When the Devil took him to the top of a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, Jesus knew that he would never be satisfied.
And that's because of another curse, the curse of Eve. What was it that Eve wanted when she wandered carefree through the Garden of Eden? She wanted the forbidden fruit. From our earliest years we're always attracted to the next shiny thing that's just out of reach.
My baby grandsons illustrate this perfectly. The other day I was sent a video of one of them apparently crawling towards a toy train because one of his sisters was obligingly ringing a bell on it to attract his attention. But then, at the very last minute when she has been well and truly suckered into believing that he only wants to get to the train, he veers off and grabs the television remote control instead - the ultimate forbidden fruit which he is absolutely not allowed to have.
The curse of Eve is that we always desire the next thing, something we don't already have.  And that means it's discontent which drives our economy gets us out of bed in the morning. We go to work to satisfy other people's discontent by making things for them, or delivering and selling things to them, and in the process we satisfy our own discontent, which makes us want the money to buy more things for ourselves.
Sedlacek says it doesn't have to be like that. We could be driven by the desire to make the world a better place, and of course some people already are. That's why Jesus resisted the temptations of the Devil. They were all about satisfying his discontent, not about building up God's kingdom.
Discontent hasn't always been in the driving seat. At the start of the Industrial Revolution many skilled workers refused to work harder, to meet the growing demand for things, because they already felt that they had enough to be content. The first factories were set up long before any machines were invented, with the ideas of making people come to work for a fixed amount of hours, and when adults refused to work in the new factories young people and children were set on instead.
The way we create demand today is a lot more sophisticated. We have alluring adverts and a relentless process of research and design to create new things that people will hopefully want to possess. Adverts are the modern way in which the Devil takes us to a high mountain and shows us something we'd really like to have.
But the economics of good and evil are not just about the curse of Adam and Eve making us work to meet demands that can never be satisfied. Tomas Sedlacek says that it is also about how we decide what something is really worth.
Some things have a price but other important things are priceless - things like love, trust, integrity and so on, simply cannot be bought. But traditionally economics tries to give everything a price if it possibly can. So there's an economics of marriage, which says that people will be attracted to upwardly mobile partners whereas in fact most people - and we might even say all sensible people - don't make life-changing decisions on the basis of how much money they'll get in return. In most cases we get married or have children because that's what we want to do, regardless of the cost or the economic benefit. In fact sometimes our decisions make us worse off and we accept that's the price of happiness.
It sounds obvious, doesn't it. And yet the temptation to value things inappropriately can be awfully strong. Where would love films be without the temptation to climb up to the highest pinnacle of the Temple and throw yourself off in the hope of receiving fame and fortune?
So, for example, we watched a film the other night where boy meets girl, girl likes boy and they become firm friends, but suddenly the girl - but it could have been the boy - is offered the chance of a lifetime to advance her career. She gives in to the temptation and then, on her very first day in her new job, realises she’s made a mistake. However, on her way to the exit someone chases after her. 'Wonderful news!' he says. 'The boss wants to see you to discuss your future. Take the elevator to the top floor and you'll find him waiting for you there.' What's the girl to do? What was Jesus to do? When economics tries to put a price on priceless values we have to resist.
And yet, how many people stay in a job which they don't like, which they feel is reducing their quality of life and harming their relationships, jut because they feel that they need the money? And perhaps they do!
Or how many people try to buy contentedness - which we already know is impossible - by putting a price on values like happiness, or peacefulness or tranquility? That is, after all, how holidays are sold to us. And who am I to say that a holiday might not actually make us happier, or more tranquil, for a while?
There are no pat answers, because temptations come in subtle form and can be very hard to distinguish from genuine opportunities. Who's to say that if Jesus had given in to temptation, and built a solid career for himself based on property or prestige, he couldn't have done a lot of good?
However, value is not the same as price. It was Oscar Wilde who said that some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, and he was right. And true values, like honour and love, are above price. They simply cannot be bought.
Economists sometimes try to argue that religion, philosophy and the arts have value only because they create jobs or offer people material benefits. So, for a example, I once helped to write a report which set out to demonstrate - and did demonstrate in fact - that religious organisations add a great deal of value to the economy of Yorkshire by employing a lot of people, and by feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Religious organisations run schools and community learning classes. They help to keep people out of hospital by making them feel cherished and so on. And yet their true value, their intrinsic worth, is beyond price. They are worthwhile not because they create wealth or save money, but because they make us better people.
So what about the temptation to turn stones into bread? Obviously, if it's just about miracle working, it's simply another variant of the temptation to raise our profile or gain prestige. But what if it arises from a genuine desire to help those at the bottom of the pile, the people who really can't afford to buy enough bread? Isn't this the Devil at his most persuasive, at least for people of faith and goodwill? Isn't this part of the attractiveness of the best religious movements, that they take unpromising material and somehow transform it?
Tomas Sedlecek sees the story of Joseph and his brothers as the first story ever told about the economic cycle, because Joseph understands that a boom is always followed by a bust and he teaches Pharaoh an important lesson, always save in the good years so that you can ride out the crisis when it comes. Other people, including Joseph's brothers, must beg for food when famine strikes, but the Egyptians are sitting pretty. They have found an honest way of turning stones into bread, famine into plenty. They haven't done a deal with the Devil, because he can't airbrush away the harsh reality of drought. Instead, they have planned responsibly to avoid anyone having to starve.
Isn't this why Jesus rejects the Devil's enticements? Because, no matter how humane it sounds to turn stones into bread, it’s only really encouraging a 'spend now, worry later' attitude and storing up trouble for the future.
For many years regeneration projects offered services to local residents for free, as though life owes all of us a living. When the money ran out people were indignant and felt they had been enticed into a culture of dependency built on the false promise that we can always have a free lunch.
Tomas Sedlacek reminds us that in the Bible, including the parables of Jesus and the Lord's Prayer, the word debt is very closely related to the word sin. I think it's pressing the case too far to equate the two and say that it's sinful to go into debt or to lend someone money, although many Muslims would certainly say that and it used to be mainstream Christian teaching too. But in Lent, of all times, we have to take seriously Jesus' challenge to the Devil.
Tomas Sedlacek says we cannot go on as we are. Our model of prosperity is based on what he calls ‘Growth Capitalism’, the idea that we always have to make more and consume more in order to be successful, but there must be a better way of organising society.

He doesn’t want a world in which the captains of industry continue to reward themselves with huge pay increases while the incomes of the poor are squeezed and disabled people have their cars taken away. Instead, he wants us to find a fair and equitable cutting what we spend by doing less and doing it more sustainably.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The hot and bothered Jesus

Have you ever had a day like this?
This is Jesus, but not as we normally know him. This isn’t gentle Jesus meek and mild. This is Jesus looking hot and bothered, or tired and frazzled, or a bit down in the dumps, or just having a bad day - or is it a bad couple of days, or a bad month, a bad 40 days even?
The sun is beating down. He’s sat on some uncomfortable looking boulders, probably baking in the heat. Either he needs a couple of paracetamol, perhaps even my favourite tipple - paracetamol and codeine, or he’s having a bad hair day, or both!
I like this picture because I think it reminds us what temptation really looks like. It doesn’t look like a pantomime villain creeping up behind you to whisper wicked enticements in your ear. It looks like this.
Someone wrote to me the other day to thank me for helping her get a job. She said she would be calling round to the office with a bottle of champagne for me. I said, ‘Drink the champagne yourself with your boyfriend and your mother, because you deserve it. Just bring us your letter of appointment so that we can use it as evidence that we helped you!’
She wrote back and said, ‘My new boss seems swamped with tasks and responsibilities, and I wouldn't dare hope for a letter of confirmation. He has been the only staff the organisation has had lately, and he just has a terribly busy and worried look about him.’
Isn’t that the problem with Christians? We often have a terribly busy and worried look about us. Worrying about the church roof, and the finances, and the stewards’ rota, and goodness knows what. And in that situation the temptation - the same temptation I am sure which Jesus faced many times - is to forget about the good things.

Well, Lent is a chance to get things properly in persective.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Rethinking the meaning of marriage

Hosea 2.16-20, Matthew 1.1-16 / John 2.1-11
This year the Methodist Church is having a rethink about marriage. Unless it’s actually someone’s wedding day marriage isn’t something we normally talk about much, except at church council meetings when we're deciding what fees to charge. Perhaps that's because it can be a touchy subject. The Babylonians had the first written laws governing marriage and already the reason they had for making those laws was to sort out conflicts between the marriage partners.
In ancient Greece marriage didn't have the same legal force as it had in Babylon, it was a private arrangement between two people, or between their families. But it was still important, as a way of deciding which of a man's  children would inherit his property. A woman could have ever so many children but, if she wasn’t acknowledged to be their father's wife, they would have to have to make their own fortune.
But the ancient Greeks weren’t just preoccupied with money and inheritance. They were also the first people to decide that strong communities depend on, and are rooted in, families where parents and children find mutual comfort, encouragement and support.
By the time of the Emperor Augustus, the guy who ordered the census when Jesus was born, many people had given up on marriage and were going through life having a series of relationships. It was more than 2,000 years ago but it sounds incredibly up-to-date. He decided to stop the rot by making the first recorded attempt to pass laws specifically designed to compel people to get married and settle down.
When the people of Israel adopted the worship of one God the symbolism of an everlasting betrothal between God and his faithful people was taken to imply that lifelong marriage between one man and one woman was also the natural order of things. If it's good enough for God it must be the right thing to do! We see this in the prophecies of Hosea, who contrasts the faithlessness of his wife with the faithfulness of God, and says that God will go on loving his faithless people just as Hosea must go on loving his faithless wife.
In the New Testament Jesus and Paul are not opposed to marriage or sexual relationships As John Chapter 2 shows, Jesus enjoyed a good wedding celebration, but they both believed that we have a great many more important things to cram into our short lives. Getting married is a huge distraction from the more important task of preparing for the Kingdom of God.
In the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew's gospel only five women are mentioned and none of them was married when her child was conceived. Matthew seems to be making the point that God isn't very interested in human institutions like marriage and works through people who aren't married just as much as through people who aren’t. For a long time Christians took this very seriously and placed a higher value on people who didn't tie themselves down with family commitments but instead devoted themselves to God, and that’s still the foundation for rules about celibacy in Roman Catholic holy orders.
However, as the New Testament period drew to a close Christians began to realise that marriage was here to stay and they began to say that husbands and wives must treat one another with love and respect. They also decided that the Church was the Bride of Christ and therefore his relationship with us became a template for married life.
This concept puts a heavy burden on couples. It sets up the idea that a marriage should be perfect, just as the love of Jesus for his friends is perfect, whereas that's just not possible. A marriage can only be good enough. It can never be perfect all of the time.
The comparison with Jesus also set up the idea that one partner in a relationship might be more important than the other. In practice that is often the case; one partner depends on the other emotionally, or financially, or for practical support, although the ideal surely has to be an equal relationship of give and take. Sometimes Biblical writers stuck to the idea of equality and shared responsibility, but more often they were happy to accept the idea that the husband is equivalent of Christ and his wife is equivalent to his followers, who are called to obey him. This brought Christians closer into line with the Roman idea that the husband was the head of the household, and helped them to avoid rocking the boat at a time when they were treated with suspicion for being different from other people, but it’s not very helpful for us when we’re trying to think about marriage today.
For long centuries after the New Testament period, marriage was just a matter of custom and practice. Two people got married by joining their hands and promising to love one another and live together. Marriage was sometimes blessed by a priest, but it didn't have to be. In Norwich two young people claimed they had got married and that the housemaid had witnessed them do it. The girl's parents were furious and made the housemaid stand up in court and deny everything, and that's how we know what happened. Today we've come full circle, with the majority of people now choosing to set up home together without having a formal marriage. Should we be as relaxed about this as our ancestors were? Families may not always have been happy then, but the Church didn't try to interfere in relationships and the sky didn't fall in.
The way marriage worked for ordinary people was based on a division of labour. The word ‘husbandman’ meant the person in charge of the land and the animals, and the word ‘housewife’ meant the person in charge of the cleaning, the cooking and the needlework. This doesn't mean that jobs weren't sometimes shared, only that people knew who was in charge. Outside the home it was the husband, inside the home it was the wife.
We've moved beyond these safe certainties and in many ways that’s a good thing because people often felt trapped by them and were unhappy with their allotted role. But now that every couple has the freedom to decide who does what, we need to help couples keep hold of the idea of sharing, not just the workload but also the responsibility for seeing that the work gets done.
Getting married in church didn't become compulsory for Roman Catholics until 1514, and until the 1750s for everyone else in England. But the Church increasingly got involved in marriage as an umpire when things went wrong. Maybe that's still a good place for the Church to be, not criticizing people who choose to get married in hotels or to live together in a common-law relationship, but helping them to strengthen their bond by recognising that it’s every bit as valid, and just as binding in a moral sense, as a church wedding.
Sometimes, when two people had fallen out of love, they agreed to lease one another to a new partner, because divorce wasn't actually allowed. So people effectively sold the responsibility for looking after their husband or wife to a different person, usually someone they already knew and liked. But, in Thomas Hardy's novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, the outwardly respectable mayor has a dark secret. He leased his wife to someone else while they were in an abusive relationship fuelled by alcohol. After he sobered up and realised what he’d done he immediately regretted his decision, but his wife believed that her new marriage was lawful and only came back to find him when her new husband died in a shipwreck. And this isn't a story about the dim and distant past, it's set in Victorian England!
It was to stop abuses like this, and brutal customs like the kidnapping of young girls as brides, that the Church started to describe marriage ceremony as sacred, with lifelong vows made before God which shouldn’t be entered upon lightly or inadvisedly.  But the main reason why most couples stayed together through thick and thin was that life was hard, and managing a household and bringing up children without a partner was even harder.
The ease with which people can now separate is a challenge to the traditional Christian view that marriage should be 'till death us do part'. I think we have to accept that relationships can go irreparably wrong, but we should still stand against the prevailing idea that it's all right simply to fall in and out of love without trying to keep a relationship together and make it work. Couples often regret breaking up, their children may be damaged by it and it's very costly to society. When people come to church to get married they’re investing in the idea of something which will endure and we should help them find strategies to realise that vision.
Being in love with your partner has been the ideal in marriage from the time of the Song of Solomon, but only the new economic freedom brought by the 20th Century allowed people to opt in and out of marriage if they felt that their love had transferred to someone else or just cooled. Being happy at all costs replaced putting up with things the way they are. Christians shouldn't be asking people to make do with second best but perhaps we do need to put more emphasis on the comfort, mutual support and security which people can find in a good marriage relationship.
A very important part of the traditional marriage service was the witnesses, the community gathered around a couple who then helped them to keep their vows, not just by discouraging them from flirting too much with other people but also by babysitting or giving them financial help and emotional support when things got tough. Getting married on a scuba diving holiday in the Caribbean is very romantic but it leaves the couple entirely reliant on one another.
Finally, it’s interesting to note that, at a time when the legal status of marriage seems to be in decline, there’s still a group of people who are fighting for the right to get married  in church. That group is gay and lesbian people. The Methodist Church has already affirmed their right to play a full part in the life of the Church. Now, in 2016, it has to decide whether that affirmation extends to sharing in all that we’ve said about the Christian understanding of marriage.
I’m not here to tell you the answer to that question. In fact, your views are being invited by the Methodist Conference. What I can say, however, is that the Christian understanding of marriage doesn’t depend on a piece of paper. It’s really a promise made between two people to love and honour one another, wherever that promise is made.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Making The Christmas Story Our Own

Luke 2.1-14 and The Royal Mail Christmas Stamps for 2015, see here for a closer look
This year' 2nd Class Christmas postage stamp is a picture of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem for the birth of their baby. Those of you read the post for Advent Sunday know that the donkey isn’t really part of the story, but here the artist - David Holmes - has imagined that Mary is riding on a donkey to save her from getting tired.
The bit about the donkey may not be strictly true, but the picture on the stamp is actually a visual interpretation of a Bible verse. It’s Isaiah chapter 35 verse 1. When “the wonderful splendour of the Lord our God” comes to us,  “Thirsty deserts will be glad; barren lands will celebrate  and blossom with flowers.” That’s how the Contemporary English version puts it, but the Authorised Version says, The desert shall... blossom as the rose,” and here in the foreground of the picture is the rose!
I’m reminded of an Alpine walk we went on when our children were teenagers. My elder son, who was 14 at the time, said, ‘Why are we walking through this barren wilderness?’ Which would have been a good question, because the sun was beating down on us and the pathway was very rocky, except that all around us there were millions of wildflowers. And since then he’s sent us photos of Alpine flowers he’s seen on other mountain walks.
I don’t know what the deserts of Palestine are like, but the Bible envisages them blossoming not like the picture, with just one rose discreetly tucked away on the edge of the path, but like an Alpine meadow. And that’s because Jesus is “the wonderful splendour of the Lord our God.” And that’s what we are celebrating at Christmas, God’s wonderful splendour coming to live with us.
And then, of course, there’s the 1st Class picture of Jesus lying in a manger, under a makeshift shelter in the fields. Again, we saw in the Advent Sunday post that the only part of this story which is recorded in the Bible is Jesus being laid in the manger. The rest is down to the artist’s imagination - except for the star.
The Bible says that, ‘Some day a king of Israel will appear like a star.” And it also says that some people saw the new king’s star, when it appeared in the eastern sky, and came to worship him.
In the £1.52 picture there are three wise travellers and again, in my Advent post, we saw that isn’t strictly true either. The prophet isaiah warned that people who “study the stars and tell the future” are “as helpless as straw in a flaming fire.” But the people who followed the star to Bethlehem to see the newborn Jesus weren’t trying to predict the future, they were coming to praise God for something that had already happened. Psalm 148 says “bright stars come and offer praise” whenever God appears, and so do “kings and rulers, men and women, young people and old.” And that’s why the wise travellers came, and why we have come here this morning, to celebrate God appearing among us, in the baby Jesus lying in the manger in Bethlehem.
And the shepherds came, as depicted in the £1.33 stamp, because they heard the angels’ message, while they were in the fields near Bethlehem, that the birth of Jesus brings ‘peace on earth to everyone who pleases God.’
But, unfortunately, not everyone does please God. The Prophet Isaiah warns us that sometimes dumb animals can be more loyal and trusting than supposedly intelligent people. The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib, whereas God’s children turn against him and never learn to love and trust him . Psalm 148 says, “All creatures on earth [shall] praise the Lord… Every wild and tame animal [shall] come [and] praise the Lord.” And Psalm 150 says, “Let every living creature praise him.”
The Bible doesn’t say anything about lambs lying down with camels, as David Holmes fondly imagines them doing on his £1 stamp, but the Prophet Isaiah does say that when the Lord’s reign is finally established on earth “wolves and lambs will graze together; lions and oxen will feed on straw.”
But what are we to make of the final picture in the series, the £2.25 stamp which you have probably never seen unless you are a stamp collector and bought the whole set? Is this the Prophet Simeon, who was told by God’s Spirit to go to the Temple so that he could bless the newborn Jesus? Or is it the Prophet Anna, who served God night and day and praised God when she say the baby Jesus and talked about him to everyone?
The artists says it’s actually a depiction of the moment when Mary learned she was going to have a baby. The angel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come down to you and God’s power will come over you.”

But I think the picture is a reminder that the Christmas story is only a story unless we make it our story, by inviting God’s Spirit to enter our lives and our situation and make the story come alive for us, so that Jesus is born in our hearts this Christmas as well as in Bethlehem.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Bible Misconceptions About the Christmas Story

A meditation inspired by the Bible Society's 'Bible Misconceptions' quiz. 
This is the time when we traditionally prepare ourselves to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. But when is the birthday of Jesus?
A long time ago the Church decided to celebrate his birthday on 25 December because it was already an important holiday. But in the first of our Bible Misconception's pictures we see Jesus trying to fill in one of those annoying electronic forms on his tablet, and he’s stuck because he’s got to the bit where you have to fill in your date of birth, and he doesn’t know when he was born!
Have you ever had that feeling where you’re not sure what day it is, and you have to look at your phone, or a calendar, to find out the answer? Well. often in the past people weren’t sure exactly what day it was, or even what month it was, so they didn’t necessarily know when they were born and no one knows the birthday of Jesus.
All we do know is that it was God’s plan for Jesus to come, and that he grew up believing he’d been sent by God to show us that God loves us, and has a purpose for each of our lives, and wants to makes us the best people that we can possibly be. And the proof that Jesus was right about this is that he was the best person anyone who met him had ever come across. They felt that God’s love was shining through him to them. And he achieved God’s purpose for his own life, by dying to show us just how far God’s love is prepared to go to reach out to each one of us.
But I’m getting ahead of myself because that’s how the story ends, whereas in Advent we’re only at the beginning of the story. And in the next Bible Misconceptions' picture Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem, the place where some of the stories about Jesus say that he was born. But how did Mary get to Bethlehem?
We don’t know that, either. In one version of the story Mary and Joseph were already living there, and in another version they travelled there from a place called Nazareth which was 90 miles away.
One of the things people say about cars is that they’re no good unless you can find somewhere to park them. Without a parking place, you’re condemned to drive round and round until you run out of petrol. And that might be how it was for Mary and Joseph too. Only wealthy people - or people who were working for the government or someone rich and powerful - would take a horse, or a donkey or a camel on a journey, because you’ve got to find somewhere to tie it up for the night and something for it to eat.
So if Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem they probably walked, which reminds us that when God decided to show us what he’s like he didn’t send his representative in a fancy car or on a big white horse. Jesus and his Mum and Dad walked everywhere. So next time we’re walking somewhere, let’s remember that walking was good enough for him.
The next Bible Misconceptions' picture asks, 'Where did Mary and Joseph stay in Bethlehem?'
One of the stories says they stayed in a house and another story says that there weren’t any guest rooms for them. But it was quite normal for animals and people to live in the same space, with the people at one end of the house and the animals at the other. And if you needed to keep warm, perhaps because you were poorly or you were a newborn baby, the warmest, snuggest part of the house was where the animals slept.
Lying in a manger full of hay is warm, and cosy and comfortable, so it’s the best option really if you can’t afford a cot or a cradle. When God decided to show us what he’s like he didn’t send his representative to live in a palace but with ordinary people who had to squeeze in with the animals to keep warm and safe.
And then the Bible Misconceptions' quiz asks us, 'Who were the people who came to welcome the baby Jesus on the night when he was born?'
According to the Bible, it was just some humble shepherds. In the picture they’re waiting in a queue and they’re not going to be allowed in until the wise men arrive too. But that’s not how it was. The story says that only ordinary people realised how important Jesus was and came to welcome him when he was born. In fact the story says that Jesus is bad news for rich and powerful people, because he turns their world of privilege upside down. He wants a more equal and just world where ordinary people are not just nameless faces in the crowd but where everyone matters.
And finally, I guess we’ve all played Where’s Wally - even if it was only in the dentist’s waiting room. This Bible Misconceptions picture invites us to find where the wise men are. They’re easy to spot because of their red and white striped hats. But how many of them are there?
At first glance it looks as though there are three, standing near each other in the foreground, clutching their gifts. But on closer inspection you’ll find there are six! And that’s because the story doesn’t say how many wise people there were, or even whether some of them were wise women.
All it tells us is that people came from far away places to celebrate the birth of Jesus - not on his birthday, but as soon as they could get there, because it was a long way to go. It’s worth travelling a long way, it’s worth making a special effort, to meet Jesus. He may have been an ordinary person but he was a person with an extraordinary message for the whole world - not just long ago, and not just in a far away place, but here in Yorkshire today.
So what inspired these pictures? Well, they’re from Twitter and they’re part of a  marketing campaign for Christmas.
This week a Methodist minister said that someone was paying for a banner outside his church to advertise the true meaning of Christmas, and he asked on Facebook for suggestions about what slogan to use. The people who were paying for it had suggested, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season,’ or ‘Put Christ back into Christmas,’ but he wanted something new and fresh. Someone suggested, ‘Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man’, but that’s a lot of words to squeeze onto a banner. Someone else suggested, ‘Innkeeper welcomes refugees,’ and another person suggested, ‘We all need a stable influence.’ But, as we’ve heard, the innkeeper and the stable aren’t really part of the story. I suggested, ‘Get Jesus for Christmas. No batteries required.’

Well the marketing campaign which these pictures come from is #BackToBible. And it’s an ad campaign paid for by the Bible Society. Someone else is running an amusing Christmas ad campaign for luxury handbags, saying that it would be better to worship a £900 Mulberry handbag than the Baby Jesus, but the Bible Society wants us to go back to the actual Christmas stories in the Bible - which are all online - and to read on to see how the story ends, not just at Christmas but at Easter too.