Thursday, April 16, 2015

Jesus and The General Election

John 20.19-25, John 20.19-25
A number of years ago someone made an official complaint about me because, on the Sunday before the general election, I preached about the election. Now admittedly, if she had a postal vote, it was a bit late to bring up the subject, but that wasn't her complaint.  She said was sick of hearing about the general election and she had come to church to get away from it.
She had to withdraw the complaint, because that's not actually a good reason for coming to church. Church shouldn't be the place where we go expecting to get away from things, it should be the place where we go to engage with things, to think and pray about what’s happening in the world, and that includes the general election. You see, church isn't a quiet space, a sort of holy grotto to which we can retreat when everything gets too much for us. Instead it's a sacred space, a special opportunity in the week for us to share our concerns, our fears, our anxieties and - yes - even our boredom and our fatigue, with God and with the rest of the Christian community.
To try to take refuge from the general election in church is to become like the first disciples, hiding behind locked doors, trying to take refuge from the uncomfortable and painful reality going on outside. But Jesus bursts through the bubble. He comes and stands among us and urges us to be at peace in the world as it is now, the world where good people get crucified but love still has the power to triumph. He breathes his Spirit upon us and he gives us a commission to go out and change the world, challenging error, telling truth to power, encouraging people towards the right paths and condemning the wrong paths that people sometimes take.
However, Thomas, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the others when Jesus appeared on that first Eastertide, and he refused to accept this new commission unless he could see for himself that the Jesus who was now challenging him to go out and confront the world was the same Jesus who had himself confronted the authorities - and been put to death - only a few days before.
We often criticise Thomas for his lack of courage and conviction. But it seems to me that he was right to be sceptical. A sanitised Jesus, a Jesus who has been rescued from the Cross by God, or who has been magically kissed better - like a little child running to her mother for comfort after falling down - would not have the moral authority to challenge us to unlock the church doors, go out into the world and face the music. Only a Jesus who has been through the fray, and still bears the scars to prove it, would be worth following.
This Jesus was the person whom Thomas would later acknowledge to be his Lord and his God. And this same Jesus is our Lord, too. That's why Christians cannot run away from the general election, however baffling, bewildering, boring or plain annoying the competing claims of the politicians might be. And that’s why the Baptist, Methodist and URC Churches have come together to run a campaign of their own during the general election campaign, called, "Love Your neighbour: Think, pray, vote." Because thinking and praying about life is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.
So what exactly do the Churches want us to think about? If you really are tired of the election coverage this might cheer you up, because they've got nothing to say about deficit reduction, or the NHS, or the future of the United Kingdom, or the personalities of the party leaders. Important as these things may be, the Churches have decided to focus on just four things which they would like us to think and pray about before we cast our votes.
The first is climate change and making economic growth more ‘sustainable’. It's not a popular subject at the moment. Even Natalie Bennett, the Leader of the Greens, hardly dared mention it in the first televised leaders' debate, and we've come along way since the last time David Cameron hugged a husky in a bid to turn the Conservative Party green.
When I’ve talked about climate change to house groups or in worship I’ve often been surprised to find that a lot of people are very dubious about it. The fact that the vast majority of scientists believe in global warming impresses them not a bit. So I don’t want to get into a debate with you about whether or not climate change is happening, and what is causing it. I just want to pose one question, ‘What if?’
You see, you can ask the ‘What if?’ question about anything to do with the general election. What if we borrow more money for a few years to get the economy going again, as Labour want to do? Or what if we carry on with austerity, in the hope of lightening the ship of state so that it can float off the rocks of economic stagnation all by itself, as the Conservatives want to do? What if we leave the European Union, as UKIP wants to do? Or break up the United KIngdom, as the Scottish Nationalists want to do? These are all very important questions, and to say that there is no difference between the political parties, as many people seem to want to do, requires us to ignore those questions completely.
But the really important question - the Numero Uno question - is about climate change, because if we take the wrong direction on any of those other issues it won’t be the end of the world, whereas - if unprecedented climate change is really happening, and we are causing it - the end of the world is truly nigh. So when we cast our votes, as I hope we all shall, the Churches want us to ask ourselves, ‘What have the candidates got to say about global warming and greener energy?’
The second issue that the Churches want us to think about during this election is immigration. The question they pose is this, ‘Is there really no room at the inn?’
Now I work in an area, Darnall, where there have been very high levels of immigration - first from the Yemen, then from Pakistan and Bangladesh, then from Somalia, and finally from Eastern Europe. I know, therefore, that sometimes immigration can  create problems. An area like Darnall can easily become over-burdened with new arrivals, so that its schools and medical services and housing provision can no longer cope.
In the recent waves of EU immigration there have sometimes been problems with people not knowing how they are expected to behave. And there have been people who came just to get child benefit. But for every person like that there have been many more who came to work hard - harvesting potatoes, cleaning offices or picking and packing things in warehouses - and settled in unobtrusively. Darnall has become a much more interesting and exciting place to live in as a result of all these people mixing together. Strangers, outsiders, sometimes drive through Darnall and imagine trouble. They wind up their car windows and lock the doors. But people who live in Darnall see new opportunities to learn and share. Is there really no room in the inn?
And if we leave the European Union, and all the East Europeans have to go home, are we ready to welcome back all the British emigrants who left the UK for Europe and will have to come home again? My son’s hoping to go halfway around the world to work, so if UKIP wins the general election and he isn’t able to go to some countries, my wife may not be too sorry. But before we cast our votes, the Churches want us to ask ourselves, ‘Are we really ready to say that there’s no room any more at the inn?’
The third issue which the Churches want us to think and pray about is peacemaking. The days are gone, it seems, when we had enough soldiers, planes and ships to invade someone else’s country, but do we still think we have a role to play in helping bring about peace in today’s world, especially as so many of the world’s problems seem to revolve around the relationship between Christians and Muslims, and that’s still very much an issue for us here at home, as well as for people far away? And we could also ask, do our nuclear missiles help us to maintain a fragile peace or do they undermine our credibility when we argue that other countries should manage without them?
There are some people who would argue that it’s time to pull the drawbridge up on the rest of the world and abandon our role as peacemakers. After all, it has often been a controversial role, and we’ve often done it badly. But, before we cast our votes, the Churches would like us to ask ourselves: ‘Do we have an obligation to be peacemakers, or would it be better to stop interfering?’
And the fourth and final issue which the Churches would like us to think and pray about is what they call, ‘the true story of poverty’ in our country. Now I happen to think that Church leaders sometimes wear rose coloured spectacles when they think and pray about poverty. They want us to tell the true story of poverty and how it affects people and blights communities, but I work with disadvantaged people and I know it simply isn’t true - for instance - to say that everyone who has their benefits sanctioned is being unfairly treated. Sanctioning them, or in other words ‘stopping all their benefit payments’ and forcing them to rely on food banks if necessary, might be a very blunt instrument and its impact on the rest of their family might be wrong and unfair, but the fact remains that some people do refuse to help themselves, or let anyone else help them, when it comes to looking for a job. Lots of disabled or mentally ill people have been unfairly denied benefits, and lots of young people would love a job if they could find one, but there are some able-bodied people who are determined not to work for a living, and they ought to be confronted just as much as wealthy tax dodgers need bringing to book. To deny that is to deny the true story of poverty, and - while it’s right to criticise the proliferation of food banks - church leaders ought to be careful about that.
Nevertheless, before we cast our votes, the Churches would like us to think and pray about poverty in our country, and to ask ourselves whether we want to go on living in a society where poor people bare the brunt of putting right the mistakes of the past, mistakes which they were certainly not responsible for, or whether we want to create a society where rich people have to put their hands in their pockets to help put things right. And then we need to ask ourselves what the candidates intend to do about it.
I hope I’ve said enough about the Churches’ concerns to convince you, if you weren’t already convinced, that we ought to be thinking and praying about the general election. St Paul said that we should be subject to the governing authorities, and that could be read as an excuse to stay out of politics and simply do as we’re told, as many German Christians tried to do in the 1930s. But Paul was making two assumptions. The first was that the government itself is trying to keep the peace and create a well-ordered society. In Nazi Germany, particularly after the regime got well established, the opposite was true and the government became bent on plunging the world into chaos and destruction. 
Paul’s second assumption is that we don’t have any influence over who governs us, and therefore we have no option but to do as we’re told. However, in a democracy we, the people, are the governing authority instituted by God. We, the people, are the servants of God, given the task of promoting what is good and rooting out what is bad. in a new book called ‘Who Governs Britain?’ Professor Anthony King explains that all the politicians are scared of us - the people. They daren’t campaign for what is right in case we don’t like it! That’s why the general election is something we cannot afford to ignore. We all have a God-given duty to think, pray and vote.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Jeremiah, Jesus & The Moral Compass

Jeremiah 31.31-34
John  12.20-36
These passages tell us about two important moments in salvation history which have helped people to decide which way they ought to go. The first is the promise God made to Jeremiah, that God's People will no longer need to ask for directions but will be given their own internal satellite navigation system.
In some ways it's a bit like the colleague who told me that she has an internal sense of direction which means she never gets lost. To which I replied, 'So that' why, when we got to the fork on our way to the synod in Harrogate - this way to Spoforth, that way to Knaresborough - you instinctively knew which way to go - not! What's different about the promise made to Jeremiah is that the navigation system actually works, and also that there's nothing instinctive about it.
Jeremiah's assessment is that the People of Israel had taken a series of wrong turns in the past. They had eaten sour grapes, as Jeremiah puts it. But, as a result, it was their children teeth which were being set on edge.
The children found themselves in the same place as the traveller who asked the countryman how to get back to the town. 'Well if I wanted to go there,' he replied, I certainly wouldn't start from here.'
Jeremiah's generation was lost and didn't know which way to turn, and that was because of the mistakes of their parents. And finding their way back to God wasn't proving easy to do. The children had no moral compass, they were hopelessly lost.
So, according to Jeremiah, God's new solution is to give people an internal compass, or an internal Satnav, which will always be able to direct them onto the right path, wherever they're starting from. It's not something they can learn from their parents or their teachers, or something they can acquire by their own persistence or from experience, nor is it an innate sense that that they're born with - it's a gracious gift from God. God will put his law within them and write it on their hearts.
In our Gospel reading John portrays Jesus as facing the same dilemma. The right way to go is counter-intuitive, it doesn't make common sense. Instead, it is all about trusting in God. It means dying in order to bear fruit, hating this life in order to find everlasting life. No wonder that Jesus feels troubled and wants to be saved from death. He realises, however, that his death is - in fact - the decisive moment, his hour in the spotlight of history, to which his whole life has been leading him. He has to walk this way, the way that leads through the valley of the shadow of death, the way of the Cross, if he is to give glory to God's name.
And John emphasises, at the same time, that servants cannot expect to be greater than their master. If Jesus had to accept that being lifted up on the cross to die was his manifest destiny, what is our internal moral compass telling us to do? Where Jesus goes, there must his servants go also. Whoever serves him will therefore follow him.

The Snakes & The Cheshire Cat

Numbers 21.4-9
John  3.14-21
The passages we read today tell us about two important moments in salvation history when people have had to decide which way they ought to go. The first happens when the People of Israel are wandering in the Wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.
As they have been rescued from slavery and ethnic cleansing we might expect the People to be grateful. But their memories are short. There aren’t yet enough of them in the loose federation of rootless and landless tribes which gathered under Moses’ protection to be able to challenge the ancient civilizations of Edom and Canaan with their walled cities, settled governments and citizen armies. Indeed, the Bible tells us that Edom had its own kings long before Israel, and the Edomites weren’t about to have their authority challenged by this bunch of ne’er-do-wells and Johnny-come-latelies. So the People of Israel couldn’t go through Edom, they had to go round it - wandering many miles out of their way through inhospitable desert.
That’s when the some of the People started to become impatient, and to speak out against Moses and even against God. However, in those days it was clearly not a good idea to exasperate God.
The writer Garrison Keillor sums up the dangers like this, in his book “Lake Wobegone Days”: ‘In the Bible people who did wrong tended to get smote, and that at a time when God smote hard: when he smited you stayed smitten, smiting was no slap on the wrist. Mrs Tollerud illustrated this in Sunday School with a flannelgraph: a cloth-covered board on which she placed cloth figures and moved them around. Pharaoh, though decent in some ways, didn’t obey God. She took down the figure of Pharaoh the ruler and put up the figure of Pharaoh with his hands over his face. It made us think twice about striking out in new directions!’
Well, the price the People of Israel pay for challenging the hard way that God needs them to go and striking out in new directions is to be bitten by poisonous snakes. Fortunately, though, there is an antidote. If they turn back to God and start following again the direction that Moses is urging them to take, God is prepared to relent. He tells Moses to make a bronze image of one of the poisonous snakes and stick it on a pole. Anyone who looks at the image will be healed. Problem solved.
John interprets this strange story as an allegory. The snakes or serpents represent temptation. People easily complain about following God’s way - the hard and narrow way that leads to salvation. They wander off into the undergrowth and then they get bitten by temptation.
But there is a cure, a way of getting back onto the track which leads to new life and rebirth. And that is to follow the difficult but ultimately rewarding way which signposts us to the Cross - which is easily identifiable because, like the bronze serpent nailed to the pole, the Son of Man has been lifted up and nailed to the Cross to die, as a permanent reminder of the right direction of travel and - like the bronze serpent - as a remedy for sin and disobedience.
So, in John’s interpretation of the story, being enabled to make a fresh start and strike out in the right direction is inextricably linked to dying - dying to sin and disobedience with Jesus on his cross. But it is also linked inextricably to eternal life. For God does not stay angry with us. Rather he loves the world so much that he gives his only Son so that we might not perish in the end but be enabled, instead, to find life in all its fullness.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Moses, Paul and the Cheshire Cat

The passages we read today tell us about two of the most important moments in salvation history, moments of decision when God’s people had to decide which way to go. The first is the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. We tend to think of it as a key point in the life of Moses, but he is only the Cheshire Cat in the story, if you like, the person who can tell the people which direction they should take.

And Moses is unequivocal about it. He doesn’t sit on the fence like the Cheshire Cat did, at least metaphorically anyway. he gives the people a clear set of instructions because he relays to them what he considers to be the direct word of God.

They are to have only one guiding principle in their lives, not a pantheon of different options and creeds. They are not to pretend - to themselves or to others - that they are going in one direction while taking another that leads somewhere else. They are to show an example of just stewardship of all their resources, including the people who work for them or are dependent on them. They are to care for the weak and the marginalised, show proper respect for the elderly, respect family values and the sanctity of life, and avoid an acquisitive lifestyle.

It’s not an easy path that’s offered to them here. No wonder that they were afraid and trembled. They recognised that they were not being offered an easy choice, wherein it didn’t much matter which way they took.

Paul similarly spells out stark choices to the Christians in Corinth. They can follow the way of the cross, the way of Jesus, which seems foolish to people who base their reasoning on cold, hard logic. They can, in faith, stick to this way even though there is no positive proof that it is the right way. They can choose a path which others will despise and ridicule. Or, they can take the wrong path - the path dictated by wisdom, cleverness and power. The right way, the way of Jesus, is full of stumbling blocks that trip up those who can’t suspend their disbelief in the redemptive power of self-sacrifice and suffering, or who fall by the wayside.

We live in a culture that finds the way of the cross hard to accept. It’s a culture which believes in self-fulfilment, not self-sacrifice; in reward not loss; in healing rather than suffering; in happiness rather than joy. Christianity, therefore, remains just as counter-cultural as it was when Paul first dictated his letter. The Gospel seems to be pointing down a dead-end, a cul-de-sac, whereas we believe that it has surprising twists and turns which will bring us out at the end in the presence of God.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Abraham, Sarah, Jesus and the Cheshire Cat

Genesis 17.1-7,15-16 and Mark 8.31-38
The passages we read today tell us about important moments of decision for Abraham, Sarah and the disciples of Jesus. God invites Abraham ‘to walk before him’ and it certainly does matter which way he decides to go at this point. If Abraham and Sarah listen to God’s call their direction of travel will take them from being a minor clan chieftain and his childless wife to becoming the ancestors of a great nation. It’s a choice between lifelong obscurity and - as the Bible says - ‘everlasting’ renown.
Could that be the choice for our churches in the Aire and Calder Circuit? A choice between a daring decision to walk before God and become a new type of church for the Twenty-first Century and beyond or a safer, but less glorious decision perhaps, to fade into obscurity, before becoming - if we’re lucky - a blue plaque on the wall that says, ‘Such-and-such Methodist Church once met here,’ and - if we’re not so lucky - a carpet warehouse!
Jesus leaves his disciples in no doubt that it certainly is a decision filled with risk that does require great daring. When they come to the parting of the ways at Caesarea Philippi he challenges Peter to choose the right path. There are three choices - those who think Jesus is a reincarnation of one of the great men of history, those who think he’s just a charismatic religious teacher and those who think he is the chosen representative of God - the Messiah, the ‘anointed one’. Peter makes the right choice, but without realising what the implications will be. For, just as it had been with Abraham and Sarah, this is a decision which really does matter.
Believing that Jesus is God’s chosen representative takes his disciples down a very particular path which leads to suffering, rejection and death. Immediately he realises this, Peter regrets his choice and tries to take it back. But to turn back is to choose the human way out, not the divine path. And this is not a decision for Peter only. Jesus calls the crowd and his disciples and offers the same uncompromising choice to them. How far are we, as individuals and as a church, prepared to accept the challenge to take up our cross and follow him?
Someone once said, 'Following Jesus and the way of the cross begins with small steps. Later we'll look up and discover where he's led us.' Someone else said, 'Being a disciple means embarking on a lifelong journey of allowing Jesus' identity to gradually shape our own [identity].' And, finally, John Wesley said, 'Embrace the will of God, however painful, daily, hourly, continually. Thus only can we follow him in holiness to glory.'
'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?' Alice asked.
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
Alice didn't much care where-- but that's not an option for followers of Jesus.
It does matter which way we go, because we have somewhere to which we need to get. We want to follow Jesus to holiness in glory, and that means travelling the way of the cross. And, with the Spirit of Jesus to guide us, we're sure to get to glory if we walk for long enough and keep on going on the risky adventure that the way of the cross entails.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Cheshire Cat and Jesus' First Day

Gospel Reading Mark 1.21-39

I'd like to read a short passage from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll:
Alice was a little startled by seeing the Cheshire Cat sitting on a bough of a tree a few yards off.
The Cat only grinned when it saw Alice. It looked good-natured, she thought…
‘Cheshire Puss,' she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name..., `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
`I don't much care where--' said Alice.
‘Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
`--so long as I get somewhere,' Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.'
I've been on sabbatical recently so I've had chance to attend a good many services conducted by other people. At one of those the preacher read this passage from Alice in Wonderland, but it seemed to me that he threw it away. He promised that he was going to come back to it later, but he never did, and I fell to thinking what I might say about it if I were preaching - and so here we are, because now I am!
I suppose one of the reasons why the passage appealed to me is that I was using my sabbatical to finish a degree in business studies. When you're running a business, or in my case a charity, it's generally bad advice to have no plan, so most successful businesses, or charities, have a broad vision of where they want to go, which is sometimes called a 'mission statement', and then they usually have  some more specific aims, and finally a series of detailed objectives or milestones, which will tell them where they've got to on their journey. Sometimes all of this is written down but in smaller organisations the planning process often happens inside the heads of the managers. However, if there aren't any plans at all, the business or charity will find itself in exactly the same place that Alice was in when she met the Cheshire Cat.
The businessman and entrepreneur John Harvey-Jones, who was for a while the chairman of the chemical giant ICI and also a TV pundit offering advice to struggling firms, once said this: “Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. And the nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.”
Maybe that's why the Cheshire Cat's advice has so many resonances with the way people lead their lives. If we don't much care where we're going or how we get there, we're sure to arrive but when we do our destination will be unplanned and it may come as a complete surprise to us.
But lack of forethought isn’t just part of the modern condition. People have always gone through life without making plans, not much caring where they get to. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, was a clergyman and here he makes a sly dig here, I think, at popular attitudes in his own day. The social commentary underlying the Cheshire Cat's conversation with Alice flies over the heads of children, for whom this is just another example of whimsical wordplay, but I believe Carroll was in earnest. He wants his adult readers to ponder the Cheshire Cat's words.
One change since the Nineteenth Century is that I don't think so many people now are concerned about where we ought to go. 'Ought' has become a dirty word. We're accustomed now to asserting our moral autonomy, by which I mean that we don't expect anyone else to lay down rules for us - parents, teachers, partners, the Church, politicians or society at large. Instead we tend to feel that we're free to do just as we like, so long as it doesn't hurt or inconvenience anyone else too much. In fact, quite a lot of people would say that we're free to do whatever we can get away with.
Of course, Christians should never taken this attitude. That's because we don't believe we have moral autonomy, and that's one of the reasons why Christianity has lost much of its former popular appeal. There were always a good number of people who didn't really feel obliged to go the Christian way, even if they sometimes pretended to, but now all pretence has gone.
Instead, people are increasingly drawn to forms of spiritual direction that seem to preserve their freedom to make their own rules, or at least to put their own interpretation on the rules. That's why pick-and-mix forms of spirituality have grown in popularity; they allow people to pick an idea which appeals to them from one religion or spiritual code and put it together with an equally appealing idea from somewhere else. The world's great religious and spiritual leaders - the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Lao Tzu and Confucius - are reduced in status to personal gurus.
In a pick-and-mix culture Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat's becomes more relevant than ever. When we're picking and choosing what we believe, where we ought to go from here depends a good deal on where we want to get to, and a great many people still don't really know the answer to that.
Of course, Christians should know where we want to get to. That's because we already have a vision to live by. We want to get to the Kingdom of Heaven, or - if we're not too sure exactly what that means - we at least want to make the world a better place than it was when we found it. And if we have a sense of mission or vocation, a conviction that we've been endowed with certain gifts or opportunities to use for the benefit of others, we should be able to pray and think our way to a set of more specific aims.
Unfortunately, from our perspective at any rate, many people live entirely in the moment, without any vision or purpose, just waiting for a fancy to take them. They don't feel they ought to go in any particular direction. They don't even have anywhere in particular that they want to go. In fact, they don't much care where they go, so long as they go somewhere.
They might want to save up for a shopping spree, or an exotic holiday; or they might have fifty things they want to do before they die; or they might have some very specific aims - finding love, having children,  getting promotion, buying a house, saving for their retirement - but they have no ultimate goal, no final destination in mind. They may have a series of milestones on their journey, but they still don't know where the journey's taking them.
It''s a bit like driving to the nearest motorway and then flipping a coin to see which way to go from there. Life's milestones become like the service stations, stopping off points, but the direction of travel remains purely arbitrary and unplanned.
This sort of nightmare journey isn't just a metaphor or a way of picturing our broader dilemma. It has actually overtaken motorists in real life. One man embarked on a journey from Kent to Northumbria, missed his turning on the M25 and drove round it for nine hours before he ran out of petrol. That's what some people's whole lives are like. They not only miss the right turning, they have no particular turning in mind.
And it's not just individuals who don't much care where they want to get to so long as they get somewhere. Organisations can drift along aimlessly as well, and that includes churches. There's even a name for it. When organisations lose their sense of direction they're said to be in "mission drift".
I've sometimes heard people say that they don't much care where their church is going so long as it's still here - roughly where it is now - until after they've died. And I've been to churches - though not in this circuit - which didn't have any worked out vision at all, nor even any practical aims beyond paying their circuit assessment and keeping the rain out. But if secular organisations need a mission, then churches certainly need one too because our role is to be caught up and play our part in God's overarching mission for the world.
That means we can't possibly say that we don't much care where we get to, or which way we go so long as we get somewhere, because if we say that we're no longer remaining true to the Gospel we preach about or listen to every Sunday. Maintenance, keeping the show on the road, jogging along with no particular place to go , is absolutely not an option. We always have to be asking which way we ought to go from here, and that means which way God wants us to go from here.
The passage we read this morning / evening is a day in the life of Jesus. In fact, it’s his first day on the job. We see him preaching in the synagogue, having a break for lunch, healing and taking time out to pray.
Right from the beginning of his public ministry Jesus' authority is contested. He shows up at the synagogue and begins preaching, and immediately someone wants him to stop. Jesus' message is uncomplicated: 'Repent - that is 'change direction' - and start going towards the Kingdom of God.' But powerful forces are ranged against him, resisting this message, driving people's lives in different and often futile directions. And immediately he gets up to speak someone asks him, 'Why are you picking a fight with us?'
Today those resistant forces might be financial ones, driving us towards short term goals like paying the mortgage or meeting the rent, helping children and grandchildren with university fees or the cost of setting up home and perhaps getting married, saving for our retirement or getting by in retirement, or making a profit for ourselves, or earning a profit for our employer. Or the forces controlling our direction of travel might be political forces that are encouraging us, collectively as a nation, to be more inward-looking, more antagonistic to foreign workers and their families. And then there is the relentless pressure in our culture today to focus on ourselves and seek self-fulfilment.
When we encounter Jesus he immediately challenges us to think about which way we ought to go from here. One commentator on this passage from Mark says that Jesus, simply by his presence among us as God become human, upsets the way things are and challenges our direction of travel. He writes, 'Jesus' authority will [always] be a contested authority. His presence, words, and deeds threaten other forces that claim authority over [our] lives [and] these other authorities' have to stand up to him, because they 'have something to lose.'
In the synagogue the contest with the evil spirit is short-lived; Jesus easily overcomes its opposition, which begs the question, 'Why are the influences at work in our lives - which carry us away from the KIngdom of God and in other directions - so much harder to resist?' Is Jesus unable to deal with the control they have over us, or is it that we are we unwilling to let him change the course of our lives by helping us to deal with them?
The man in the synagogue appears to have no part to play in the encounter. The way Mark tells the story he seems to act like a zombie, taken over by the evil spirit. We're not told that he's got, in the professional jargon, any agency, any freedom of manoeuvre, but it may be that he did have partial control and that he actually chose to confront Jesus, hoping that Jesus would be able to set him free from his condition.
If something in our life, or in the life of our church, has taken us over and is leading us in the wrong direction or preventing us from thinking clearly about where we want to get to, there's nothing better that we could do than simply imitate the example of the many people who crowded round the door of Jesus’ house that evening, asking him to help them confront their problems.
But notice that Jesus doesn't eliminate the forces which dominate or control our lives and stop us from getting to where he wants us to be. Instead, he just helps us to banish or overcome their influence. He silences their insistent voices, but we have to remain vigilant and determined to make sure that we stay on track.
Jesus announces his mission, and then he gets right down to it, pausing only to eat and pray. It's no good praying about, and deciding upon, an exciting vision or mission for the future and then filing it away somewhere to gather dust. We have to get up and get going, and constantly recommit ourselves to finding and keeping on the way we ought to take from here.
Of course, the striking thing about Jesus is that he claims to have the insight to be able to tell us which way to go. He isn't vague and noncommittal like the Cheshire Cat, which never answered Alice's original question. Instead, when the disciples come looking for him, wondering - like the crowd - where he is going next, Jesus tells them that he is on a mission, a quest if you like, to proclim the message throughout Galilee.
Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, 'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?' But the Cat only reinforced her lack of direction by telling her that it didn't much matter which way she went, because she was sure to get to somewhere if she only walked for long enough. In contrast, Jesus speaks with authority, knows for sure what he must do and declares which way we should go too. His teaching and example set out a definitive and reliable road map that we can interpret to help us know which way to turn.
So, to paraphrase Alice's conversation with the Cheshire Cat, we might ask Jesus, 'Would you tell us, please, which way we ought to go from here?'
And Jesus might say, `That depends a good deal on whether you want to walk with me.' And we might reply, 'You are the Holy One of God so we do care about walking with you so long as we get somewhere at the end of our journey.' Ánd Jesus might say to us,`If you follow me you're sure to draw near to the  Kingdom of Heaven if you only walk with me to the end of the way.'
As we travel through Lent and beyond, and as we read our way through Mark's account of Jesus' ministry, we shall learn more about the implications of that journey - the costs both to Jesus as well as to ourselves, and the rewards that await us.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

World War I

Isaiah 49.13-19, Matthew 5.1-11
When I was born the First World War had been over for a little over 40 years. It seemed a long time ago when I was a child, but really it was recent history - more recent then than the moon landings or the assassination of President Kennedy are now. I knew people who had taken part in the War, most notably my grandfather, who had never talked about his experiences until I questioned him about them as a small boy.
My grandfather's reticence didn't mean that the War was not important to him. Later, when he got Alzheimer's Disease, he formed the impression that my mother and father were military policemen and spent ages fumbling for his leave papers in an imaginary tunic pocket while repeating his service number over and over again. Throughout his adult life he also had terribly vivid dreams, during the worst of which he would kick my grandmother out of bed. They certainly weren't all about the War, but it's difficult to believe that some of them were not about it.
He was not a volunteer. By the time he was called up from a reserved occupation in the middle of 1917 he could have been in no doubt how dangerous it was to serve on the front line. His sole aim was to survive and come home in one piece. Beating the Germans did not seem to have interested him at all.
As early as January 1915 Lloyd George had wondered how long people would put up with the slaughter of so many young men for so little gain. He anticipated the same sort of revolution that eventually took place in Russia. But my grandfather's family were phlegmatic about his call up. He had the usual photograph taken, in his dress uniform posed beside a little picket fence. He looks very dashing.
Once of his most annoying experiences, he told me much later, was when he had been on sentry duty all night and was then given a field punishment, by the officer inspecting his company, for being on parade the following morning without shaving. 'Why hasn't this man shaved?' The officer asked. The accompanying NCOs offered no explanation and my grandfather was set to work immediately peeling potatoes for the whole company even though he had gone without sleep.
He saw action just twice - once in the Battle of the Menin Road near Ypres and then in the Battle of the Piave River to the north of Venice in Italy. Crossing No Man's Land in the first battle was, he said, his baptism of fire. He found that he was stepping on the bodies of the fallen and it was impossible to avoid them. Then he looked down and found that his trouser leg was soaked with blood. He felt no pain but knew that he had been hit. Soldiers falling out of the line without good reason risked being shot, but a thigh wound was a good enough reason. I don't know how he got back to his own lines - he talked vaguely of turning back. Perhaps he crawled, perhaps he did simply turn and walk back without thinking.
He recuperated by the seaside in Northern France, making the acquaintance of a pretty-looking young nurse whose postcards to 'Johnny', (my grandmother always knew him as John), he kept to the end of his life. In the summer of 1918 he followed his unit to Northern Italy and recalled marching up a very steep hill to the front line, toiling through crippling heat with a 90lb pack on his back and carrying a very heavy Lee Enfield rifle. When the Austrians saw that a fresh battalion of men had deployed opposite them they welcomed the new arrivals with a few shells. One man was wounded and my grandfather, who was a countryman, was immensely amused when the medical orderly fainted at the sight of blood.
I asked my grandfather if he ever fired his gun in anger, but he said that he never got close enough to the enemy, even though he was  marksman. His last experience of battle was when his unit advanced across open ground only to find that the Austrian or Hungarian soldiers ranged against them had already abandoned their trench and retreated to the second line of defence.
He and his comrades had a smoke and waited for further orders. Eventually they were told to withdraw back to their own lines. On his way back my grandfather must have been walking just in front and to the side of three other men, two of whom were carrying the third who had been wounded. A shell exploded in between them, killing the other three instantly.
My grandfather's back was peppered with shrapnel and a small piece lodged in the joint of his middle finger and had to be removed during an operation using laughing gas. The surgeon fused the joint, making it impossible for my grandfather to release the safety catch on his rifle in the prescribed manner, so he was repatriated via Marseilles. I still have his postcard telling his mother that he had got a Blighty One and was coming home at last. He had played his own, totally indecisive part, in a great victory which all but destroyed the Austrian army as an effective fighting force on the Italian front, but I don't think he ever knew that or cared about it.
Many people came back from the War with their faith shaken or destroyed. My grandfather seemed to come back with his faith strengthened, and he became a local preacher and Sunday School Superintendent. Perhaps it helped that, apart from the girl he met in hospital, he never felt close to any of the people he served beside. As a Methodist he was a bit of a fish out of water, because he prefered not to spend his money on drinking and gambling.
However, he did surprise my grandmother by revealing, many years later, that he still had a taste for rum - acquired from the daily ration doled at the front, with a double ration just before battle. And, like my wife's grandfather, he also took up smoking in the army. Her grandfather died from cancer aged 50, but my grandfather mostly smoked a pipe and survived into his 80s.
He probably came as close to death in the Second World War as he did in the first. Harvesting corn a long way from the farmhouse, he and his crew had to run for the nearest ditch when a returning fighter plane interrupted its flight home to try to machine-gun them. But my grandfather seemed to take both world wars in his stride and thought this barely worthy of comment.
The military historian John Keegan said in one of his Reith Lectures that he was concerned to make sure that never again did families accept the inevitability of War, and the tragedy it causes, in the way that both my grandfather's generation and his parents' generation had done. At least now every single death on active service is accompanied by an inquest into what went wrong.
The days when British generals unthinkingly consigned thousands of young men to death and injury just to relieve the pressure on another part of the Front, and with no other obvious tactical objective, would seem to be a thing of the past. However, costly wars continue to be fought by combatants from other countries and in some ways the world now seems just as dangerous as it was in the summer of 1914. The risk of another large scale conflict can never be said to have gone away entirely.
How can we as Christians play our part in making sure that something like the First World War doesn't happen again? After all, no one really wanted that war to happen. The Germans and Austrians probably started it, in the erroneous belief that they could win a quick and clear-cut victory, but they had been sorely provoked by the French, who in turn were anxious to avoid a rerun of their previous, catastrophic defeat in 1870, and it was the Russians - not the Germans - who mobilised their army first in support of their own allies in the conflict between Austria and Serbia. Only the British seemed to have no real interest in fighting, but it was always unthinkable really that we should allow a powerful, hostile enemy to deploy on the French and Belgian coastline, as Hitler was later to do and as Napoleon had done before him.
Isn't the European Union, for all its faults, one of the guarantees that we will never have to rerun that kind of desperate conflict? Even if you believe, as some people do, that the EU is simply a bloodless way of allowing the Germans to achieve the kind of European domination that evaded them in the two world wars, at least no one has had to die this time around. Should Christians vote 'Yes' in the coming referendum, if only to try to secure the future peace of Europe? I don't know. It's something for us all to ponder, though, as we weigh the other arguments for and against.
One of the problems for many returning soldiers after the 1914-18 war was that they could no longer believe in a God who has inscribed all our names on the palms of his hands, and who can no more forget any of us than a nursing mother can forget the cries of her hungry baby. They now felt that either God does not exist or else he does not really have compassion for us.
Sometimes too they had encountered chaplains who were happy to say prayers for them before a battle but not to accompany them into danger, and the hymns they had sung at parade services no longer seemed relevant. They could no longer sing for joy when they heard the promise that God would comfort his people.
If they had previously been church-goers, they might also have been familiar with the many stories - often taught in loving detail in Sunday School - of Old Testament heroes such as Joshua, Gideon and Samson who had slain Israel’s enemies without mercy and occupied their lands in the name of the very same God who was supposed to have compassion on us today. This suggested a double standard at work in the Bible, where enemies of God could be shown no mercy whereas friends of God would be spared. But both camps in the First World War had claimed that God was on their side, so this argument made no sense at all unless, like some Christians, you argued that the more bloodthirsty stories in the Bible belonged to an earlier, primitive time, where a true understanding of God’s nature was still emerging, or - like others - you argued that stories like these are in the Bible as a test of our faith. We simply have to believe them if we wish to be saved and go to heaven.
There were also Christians, like the German army chaplain, Rudolf Bultmann, who tried to respond to the pervading sense of disillusionment by coming up with a radically different picture of what God is like. They stressed that God really does share our sufferings and know our names, but that he has no miraculous power to save us from harm or prevent wars and disasters from happening. This meant rethinking the miracle stories in the Bible and turning them into allegories, which had long been a way in which Christians interpreted obscure or difficult passages of scripture.
Another argument was that human free-will means we have the freedom to make disastrous mistakes and inflict terrible suffering. God is as appalled as we are when these things happen, but cannot intervene to stop them without removing that freewill. However, the soldiers who were condemned to die in mass attacks had no freedom either and might have welcomed God’s intervention, just as suffering civilians in Palestine, Syria or Iraq would probably welcome it today. So this argument did not really work when faced by the bitter cynicism of so many veterans of the Great War.
The repercussions of these arguments are with us still, like the ripples which radiate across a pond after a large stone is dropped into it. The years before the First World War were the high point for church attendance in Britain and the hundred years since have - with the peculiar exception of the years during and immediately after World War Two - seen a steady decline in organised Christianity, which has turned Britain into a more or less secular country.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that a very popular direction of travel for Christians has been towards pacifism. The relatively peaceful years between Waterloo and World War One had seen the emergence of a complacent sort of Christian nationalism spelled out in the hymn, ‘I vow to thee, my country’. Conscientious objectors were roundly condemned as unpatriotic, unless they volunteered as stretcher bearers. But gradually in the years since the First World War Christians have become more and more uncertain that war can ever be justified.
I still think, however, that there is room for the older concept of the Just War, a doctrine invented during the late Middle Ages in an attempt to limit the destructiveness and cruelty of war. The First World War could never be called a just war because all other ways of resolving the arguments between the combatants had not been exhausted first, the means used to try to prosecute the War - such as massive explosives, machine guns and poison gas - were not proportionate, many innocent non-combatants were harmed - especially in occupied territories, and there was no reasonable chance of success except at the price of a hugely disproportionate slaughter on both sides.
But there are wars that can be more easily justified. The intervention by British soldiers in the civil war in Sierre Leone comes to mind. A war which had lasted for eleven years causing the deaths of 50,000 people, as well as the maiming of thousands of civilians - including children, by cutting off their hands - was finally ended by a few British soldiers with local air support. It’s hard to see that this was anything other than a good thing - except that it helped to inspire Tony Blair to believe other just wars could also be waged in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
All told, the legacy of the First World War has had a massive impact on Christians. We need to continue to think about it, and to seek to draw out the right lessons for building a better, safer and more caring world for our children and grandchildren.