Sunday, December 07, 2008

Pure Evil?

Isaiah 40.1-11
Mark 1.1-8

Several things strike me immediately about the prophecy of Isaiah when I think about it in the light of recent events. First there is the trial of Karen Matthews, described by the policeman who led the investigation as 'pure evil'. She has become a hate figure not only for West Yorkshire Police, but for the people of Dewsbury and for the nation as a whole. And, certainly, her plot to kidnap her own daughter and collect a reward from the newspapers for Shannon's safe return was monstrously wicked, as well as monumentally stupid.

In the prophecy, Israel is compared to a prisoner who has also committed monstrous and monumentally stupid crimes. She has betrayed her God, acted unjustly towards the poor and oppressed, and shown arrogant complacency in imagining that, when her enemies invaded the land and besieged her capital city, nonetheless, God would save her from the consequences of her folly. God - and his Prophet - have every right therefore to point the finger at Israel and continue to condemn her, but instead God calls upon the Prophet to share words of comfort with her and speak tenderly to her.

Israel received a heavy sentence, double the usual tariff says the prophecy, but once she has served her time, her penalty will be treated as paid and the slate of her wrongdoings will be wiped clean, and they will be forgotten forever. In other words, even the nation of Israel - after a catalogue of awful crimes including child sacrifices and terrible mistreatment of the poor - will not be condemned as pure evil, and treated as though she were beyond all hope of redemption.

Israel won't be like the prisoner who is left standing penniless at the prison gates on the day of her release, clutching nothing but a battered suitcase in her hand, and with no option but to trek home as best she can. Instead, the Prophet is asked to imagine that the way home from imprisonment and exile will be smoothed out for her like a vast motorway being carved out of a barren range of rugged mountains and deep valleys, and this amazing act of generosity will - says the prophecy - reveal the true glory of God.

And then comes the second striking image, one which highlights the inconstancy and fickleness of human beings. 'All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field... The grass withers, the flower fades...' In other words wildflowers are here today, but gone tomorrow, and in just the same way human beings can shift their allegiances and change their opinions almost overnight and seemingly without warning.We can see this fickleness and changeability at work in the ups and downs of political fortune. Gordon Brown enjoyed a wonderful honeymoon in the opinion polls when he first took over as prime minister. His standing was so high that he almost called a general election. But, instead, he dithered and his reputation plummeted. For a time people said that they wanted a new broom in Number 10, a digital politician rather than an analogue one, as David Cameron put it. And then, suddenly, the pendulum swung back. Gordon Brown's reputation recovered again as he took decisive action to try to stem the worst effects of the Credit Crunch. In this latest twist to the political game of Snakes and Ladders, the electorate seems once more to prefer experience. Gordon Brown sought to capitalise on the current mood when he joked recently, 'Everyone knows that I'm all in favour of apprenticeships, but let me tell you this is no time for a novice.'Stephen Frear's wonderful film 'The Queen' tells the story of how the country turned briefly against the royal family after the death of the Princess of Wales, and people started calling for the abolition of the monarchy. The story ends two months later, with a meeting between the Queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair when the two discuss these recent events. The Queen observes sorrowfully that she has spent her whole life trying to serve the British people, and sometimes they seem to love her but - at other times - they turn against her. Then she looks shrewdly at Mr. Blair and warns him that the same thing will inevitably happen to him. And, of course, as the audience looks back at these events ten years later, we know how insightful this is.But people are fickle and changeable in their personal allegiances as well as in their politics. The other day I heard the shocking news that the couple who ran the young people's fellowship where my wife and I first met more than thirty years ago, have just separated after nearly forty years of marriage. He went on to become a minister, but has resigned from his appointment and gone off with another woman. If it can happen to a clergyman and his wife, after more than thirty-five years of marriage, surely it can happen to almost anyone!

Observers have condemned Karen Matthews because she had seven children by five different lovers, but if this makes her any worse than other people, then it is only a matter of degree. Plenty of human beings are as fickle and changeable as meadow grass when it comes to their relationships. And, of course, this is in stark contrast to the nature of God, whose 'word will stand forever'. God never lets Israel down, or betrays her, or abandons hope in her, or stops loving her, no matter how badly she might behave.

In the third picture painted by the prophecy, the prisoner is returning from exile, but she is not returning alone. God is coming with her. Not only does he prepare a smooth road for her to travel, but he bares his mighty arm to sweep aside all opposition. He will be a true and inspiring leader for the nation, gathering the lost and caring for them, and offering reward and recompense to those who have suffered.

He is, I suppose the ultimate Keynesian leader, that is to say - an interventionist like the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, who said that when things go wrong in the economy the government should put people to work building roads and hospitals instead of letting them lose their jobs and end up relying on welfare payments. Keynes was the polar opposite of the monetarist school of economics which inspired Mrs Thatcher, and which led a generation of later politicians to believe that the government should never intervene in troubled times. Thank goodness, then, that in the midst of our current crisis the pendulum has once again swung back to Old Testament Keynesianism. In the same spirit as Keynes, the Prophet is sent to call Jerusalem to go up to a high mountain and proclaim the news of the Lord's return, because God is going to intervene and put things right again.

Our Gospel reading picks up the same themes as the prophecy, but gives them a new gloss. Israel is still depicted as a sinner in need of punishment, but this time there is a way out. Her people need not suffer the harsh punishment of exile so long as they are prepared to confess their wrong-doing and be baptised, symbolising a new beginning, turning over the page of history to a new leaf.

John's was not the only fresh start available to the people of Israel. Another popular movement also offered baptism, and the chance to repent and start again. The Essenes, based in their desert retreat centre at Qumran near the shores of the Dead Sea, encouraged people to join them there and become part of a new nation of Israel, leaving behind the fickleness and falseness of the old Israel.

John's new start is different. He promises that a mighty leader is coming once again to put things right and, by implication, the leader he looks forward to would seem to be God, coming again to dwell with the people and baptise them with his Spirit. Of course Christians have no hesitation in identifying the new leader as Jesus, who claimed that he was so closely identified with God that there was a complete moral unity between the two of them. In other words, the things that Jesus said were - just like the prophecies of Isaiah - things that God was saying to the nation. And, more than that, the mighty acts of Jesus, whether they be be his acts of healing, or his cleansing of the Temple, or his death on the Cross, were also things that God was doing to save his people, just as he acted of old when he rescued the nation from exile and slavery.

Finally, Christians also have no hesitation in claiming, like the Essenes, to be creating a new nation of Israel. But whereas the Essene community at Qumran was a gathering together of a holy remnant of true and godly Jewish people, the Christian community was - after a certain amount of heated argument - opened up to everyone, worldwide, who wishes to lay claim to God's promises revealed in Jesus.

Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have recently unveiled their package of measures to save the nation from its past mistakes. Only time will tell whether those measures will work. But Christmas unveils God's package of measures to save the entire human race from the consequences of all the folly, selfishness and disobedience which has piled up in human history. The package is about peace on Earth and goodwill, and it is embodied in the person of Jesus, who was born, and died, and was raised to life so that God might gather us in his arms, and carry us in his bosom, and gently lead us.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Credit Crunch and Harvest Munch

Exodus 20:1-11
Matthew 21:33-46

Today's lectionary reading from the Old Testament is one of the foundation texts of the Jewish faith - the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, which sit at the heart of the Jewish Law. It's a fitting reading for a harvest festival because it reminds us, first, that - however wonderful the natural world might be - it is not in itself a fit enough object for contemplation or worship. A beautiful view or a glorious sunset might take our breath away. The image of the earth seen from outer space might be awe inspiring. The wonderful intricacies of sub-atomic physics might boggle our minds. Knowing what happened in the first split second after the Big Bang might give us a theory of everything. The birth of a baby might reduce us to tears of joy. But in the end the sum of all these things does not comprise everything that exists, so our contemplation cannot stop with what we can sense and measure.. It must reach beyond these things to something greater, to the all encompassing presence of God brooding over creation like a mother hen. To say that the universe - in however many dimensions - is all there is to existence, to celebrate the meaning in music or in any other aspect of nature without celebrating the source of all meaning, these are forms of idolatry where human beings elevate a part of creation to a level of significance greater than it deserves, for the Bible asserts that God made heaven and earth.

Of course, this short passage also contains within it the seeds of an even greater controversy, the continuing dispute between evolutionists and creationists. There need not really be a conflict between science and faith, but people with strong opinions on both sides of the debate are determined to be antagonistic. Only a couple of weeks ago Professor Michael Reiss, the Royal Society's director of education, was forced to resign because he dared to say that children should be taught about creationism in science lessons. He didn't mean that they should be taught that creationism is true, but even proposing that they should be told about it at all was too much for many of his colleagues.

So what exactly is the problem. Scientists say that the universe as we know it has evolved over the course of many billions of years. Christians and other people who believe in God also believe that the universe was created by God. The two positions are not mutually exclusive. There are many scientists who believe both in evolution and in a creator God, and there are many people of faith who accept scientific theories about the origin of the universe. The problem is that the Bible says, not only in Genesis but also here in Exodus, that the world was created in six days. For that statement to be compatible with the theory of evolution, the six days could not be twenty-four hour days. They would have to represent six much longer periods of time stretching over billions of years, a sort of cosmic week rather than a calendar week. But, of course, the most extreme proponents of the inerrancy of scripture, and the most extreme proponents of the idea that religion is superstitious nonsense, cannot accept that compromise. They insist on the complete incompatibility of the two systems of thought, and the media goes along with their claims because it makes for a much more interesting story than people getting along.

However, to claim that the God of the Bible is a God of subterfuge and magic, who created the world as we know it in six days of ordinary times, and then laid a trail of false clues - such as fossils, ancient rocks and distant galaxies - simply to confuse the unwary and mislead the arrogant, is just another form of idolatry for it is to posit a God who is totally unlike the Father revealed by our Lord Jesus Christ. To insist, therefore, on the truth of the doctrine of creationism is to make wrongful use of God's name, and today's passage from Exodus solemnly warns us that the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Today's Gospel reading draws on another long tradition in the Jewish scriptures, the picture of Israel as a vineyard, the king or its people as the often careless and negligent tenants of the vineyard, and God as the long-suffering owner. The vineyard is often depicted as gone to rack and ruin, overgrown with weeds or producing sour grapes that set the eater's teeth on edge. But in Jesus' version of the story the tenants are diligently tending the vines. Their moral failing is not laziness or ignorance of what to do for the best, it is greed. When the absentee landlord sends his representatives to collect his share of the crop, they refuse to pay.

Many of the people in Jesus' audience would have been tenant farmers themselves, or would have known tenant farmers, who were struggling to pay extortionate rents, so it would be understandable if the tenants in the story tried to negotiate a fairer price. But, instead, their behaviour is totally unreasonable. Some of the landlord's agents are beaten or stoned, another is killed. Eventually the landlord sends his son to collect the debt.

On the face of it, this is crazy. If the tenants are capable of such murderous violence, how can it be safe for the landlord to send someone so precious to try to argue his case? But we have to bear in mind that the earlier representatives of the landlord were mere slaves. The worst that could happen, even in the case where the tenants had killed the landlord's slave, was that he could add the cost of buying a new slave to their unpaid debt. Whereas the penalty for beating or murdering a free man, especially someone from the ruling class, was death, so the tenants could surely be expected to exercise some restraint when at last they encountered the landlord's son.

Not so, of course. Jesus' audience would have been amazed at their totally irrational behaviour. The tenants are so blinded by avarice, or so sure of their own strength, that they dare to kill the son in an outrageous attempt to seize ownership of the estate. Do they imagine that the landowner is so enfeebled that he will be incapable of avenging his son's death? Or do they think he will be so fatalistic that he will simply accept what has happened and resign himself to losing the vineyard to his son's murderers? Or do they believe that the landowner will forgive them, no matter what they have done to hurt him?

Of course, Jesus didn't answer these questions. He left that to his audience, but they were in no doubt. They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

We might expect Jesus to say something like, "You are right! Remember that Israel is often compared to a vineyard, and God is often compared to the owner. So how might we expect God to deal with the people of Israel given that they have rejected and killed his prophets? Be careful that you behave differently from our ancestors otherwise the Land will be taken away from you and given to more deserving people!"

However, Matthew tells us that instead Jesus reminded them about the text in the Psalms which says, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes." That's a bit odd really, because it's not an obvious response to the comments of the crowd. It is more likely that the early Christians added this ending because they recognised the obvious parallel between the fate of the son in the story and the death of Jesus.

So what does the story have to say to us in these volatile times? Is it a coincidence that Jesus focuses on the irrational greed of the tenants? Although the story came out of a totally different time and place, when tenant farmers were pitted against wealthy absentee landlords, and where their business was growing wheat and tending vines, the theme of runaway greed is surely something that we can readily identify with and understand.

We have already seen that the crowd might have expected Jesus to condemn the unscrupulousness of the owner of the vineyard, and to commend the tenants for standing up for their rights and demanding a fair deal. It's easy to condemn the rich for being greedy, isn't it? No one today has much sympathy with the wealthy bankers who took huge risks by borrowing imprudent amounts of money on the international wholesale finance markets in order to expand their businesses and make bigger profits. But, as Jesus pointed out, ordinary people can be greedy too. Millions of us were only too happy to cash in our shares when the banks and insurance companies were demutualised. And millions more benefited from easier mortgage terms and rising house prices. When we're blaming the bankers for the mess we find ourselves in today, let's not forget the many ordinary investors who bought a string of buy-to-let houses to rent or the home owners who borrowed far more money than they could afford to repay. The story seems to be reminding us that greed always leads to disaster in the end.

But I think the story reverberates down the centuries in another way, too. Like the tenants in the vineyard, and the people of Israel, the land we occupy does not belong to us. In the first instance, it has been handed down to us from our ancestors and we are holding it in trust for our descendants. If we allow irrational greed to spoil the land and its natural resources we will leave a poisoned legacy for our children and grandchildren. Is this what the Book of Exodus means when it talks about the iniquities of the parents being visited upon their children? And that lesson - about the iron law of cause and effect - applies not just to our own islands, but to the entire planet and its human occupants.

However, our responsibility extends far beyond the debt we owe to our forbears and the legacy we must leave to those who come after us, for Christians believe that everything we possess belongs ultimately to God. If we imagine, as people have done, that the earth is ours to do what we like with, we become like the tenants who arrogantly challenged the owner for control of his vineyard.

Harvest Festival is a chance to get things into their proper perspective. It's a chance to remember that, just as the markets self-evidently need careful and diligent regulation, so the entire human race needs to regulate its behaviour with reference to God's law, and to live according to the values of God's Kingdom. Above all, it's a chance to remind ourselves that the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. So be it! Amen.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Moment of Decision

Exodus 1.8 - 2.10
Romans 12.1-8
Matthew 16.13-20


Today's Old Testament reading from Exodus seems to be a mixture of history and legend. On the one hand it says that the Israelite people were more numerous, or in danger of becoming more numerous, than their Egyptian hosts. On the other hand it says that there were only two Israelite midwives. Even if we take them to be the chief midwives of a nationwide team these two statements simply cannot be reconciled! Two people could not possibly have headed up the vast army of midwives which such a large population would have required, especially in the days before a modern health service.

Against this slightly muddled background, the charming story of Moses being rescued from the bulrushes helps to explain both his name and his origins, as an Egyptian prince of Hebrew descent. The story also explains how God is able to work through human history because human beings work alongside him to ensure that the right thing can happen. If Moses' mother and sister had not used their initiative, even God could not have helped him to survive.

Besides being an example of faithfulness in action, the story is also an example of racial and religious cohesion and tolerance. Pharaoh's reaction to the hard working migrant workers is to see them as a threat, not least because their birth rate is higher than that of the indigenous population, but his daughter refuses to share her father's prejudices. She doesn't see Moses as yet another frightening statistic to be combatted but only as a vulnerable child in need of care.

Sadly, later in his life, Moses would indeed become a threat to her compatriots, first when he killed an overseer for abusing a Hebrew slave and then when he brought the waters of the Red Sea crashing down on the Egyptian army as they pursued the escaping nation of Israel. But, nothwithstanding the way things ultimately turned out, the princess's instinctive reaction was still the right one. We should treat our fellow human beings as our brothers and sisters and offer them protection and help when they are in trouble. If her father had taken the same attitude, Moses and his God would never have caused the Egyptians any trouble at all.

When he grew up and fled into exile, Moses underwent a complete makeover. First he tried to change himself, from a prince turned rebel and murderer into a peaceful and obscure shepherd. But then, when he encountered God at the burning bush, he found that what was really necessary was for God to transform him and empower him to undertake his true calling, which was to use his knowledge of the Pharaoh's court to help God liberate the people of Israel from oppression. He had to make himself a living sacrifice, giving up the quiet life which he had craved with his wife and her family in the desert in order to become a prophet and community leader.

Peter's "burning bush" moment came at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus took his disciples away from the frenzied activity of his ministry in Galilee so that he could challenge them to think about all that they had seen and heard. Who did they suppose that he was? Ducking the question by telling him what other people were saying was not what Jesus wanted from them. So it is that Peter was forced to confront the truth, not just about Jesus but also about himself. For if Jesus is the Messiah, God's anointed leader of the human race, Peter must be the first shepherd of his flock - the rock around which the new Christian community could establish itself. Like Moses he was challenged to become a community leader.

Each one of us is called, in a similar way, to put our lives, our experience and our gifts at God's disposal. This is the essence of real worship. "To work is to pray."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Breaking out of the prison of the past

Genesis 45.1-15
Romans 11.1-2a & 29-32
Matthew 15.21-28


The writers of this passage wanted it to be clearly understood that God works in human lives and human history, and that events which seem tragic and troubling to us in the present moment are sometimes part of - or can be woven into - the longterm out-working of God's purposes for us. There is a danger here, of course. People of faith will always try their hardest to look back on what has happened and impose a pattern on random events so that they seem to make sense and prove that God was with us all of the time, shaping the way things turned out. But I think that is to misunderstand how God works through history. We cannot absolve ourselves of all responsibility when things go wrong simply by imagining that they are part of some grand scheme of which we are totally unaware - although they may be, and how else are we to make sense of the Cross? However, the truth is more complicated than that. God is like a master weaver, patiently mending the broken threads and putting right the mistakes which the apprentices make as they contribute their share to the big picture. And we are the apprentices, of courses. Our task, like that of Joseph, is to remain faithful to the work of bringing order and harmony to creation, and to continue looking for ways of serving God by helping to bring all things together for good.

We must not assume, however, that there is only one God-given shape which events can take if they are to be made perfect. God's future is constantly shifting, like a kaleidoscope, as current events make their impact on the pattern. It is neither possible, nor even desirable, for God to unpick the mistakes we make. He can only put them right by incorporating them into the pattern in such a way as to minimise the damage we have caused and bring as much good out of them as possible. This is why what seemed like a God-given opportunity, for the children of Israel to move to the land of plenty in Egypt and prosper there in spite of the famine, would later turn into a nightmare of oppression from which they had - in turn - to be rescued again.

Paul describes the process whereby we are given access to the pattern-making, and therefore the freedom to make mistakes and change the big picture, as being imprisoned by God. At first sight this is a shocking idea and we might be tempted to dismiss it as contrary to God's loving nature. But we should bear with the idea, for it merits further examination.

Paul's point is that, although the freedom to do what is right seems like a wonderful gift, human nature makes it absolutely certain that we will in fact go wrong. However, Paul is not blaming God for giving us too much freedom, and therefore causing us to become imprisoned - like naughty children who are given to much leeway by their parents - in a nightmare of our own making. He is merely noting that the unique freedom - to change the course of events - which is enjoyed by human beings inevitably brings its own down side. As we choose to make bad decisions, that freedom to choose rapidly turns human life into a prison where we are repeatedly hemmed in and punished by the consequences of all our earlier mistakes until the freedom that we seemed to have at the beginning turns out to be an illusion.

It is this kind of reasoning which infuriates atheists. Why do bad things happen if there is a good God? they ask. 'Because we all have freewill,' the believer replies. And this draws the retort, 'So why does a good God allow freewill if it is so corrosive and harmful?'

One possible response to the atheist is that life is unavoidably complicated, and believing in God does not remove the complications. But that is not Paul's answer. His answer is that God has himself provided a solution to the problem in the person of Jesus, who gives us the power we need to break free from the prison created by our mistakes.

In the passage from Matthew's Gospel we see a snapshot from life's rich tapestry in which a gentile woman is caught in the act of changing the big picture, but not this time by her mistakes but by her insistent pleading for help. Challenged by her great faith, Jesus changes his original plan - to work only with the people of the lost house of Israel - and heals her daughter. Does this mean that Jesus, too, had been a prisoner of the moment - trapped by narrow prejudices which made it seem as though the people of Israel must be rescued before he could reach out to others? Does he, at this moment, break free from these confines and grasp a wider vision? Or, as seems more likely, is he simply pointing out that - in order to undo the mistakes of the past - it is necessary for him to begin remaking the picture at the most logical place, rather like someone sitting down to do a jigsaw puzzle and working outwards from the corners instead of starting with the sky.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Sound of Silence

1 Kings 19.9-13
Romans 10.5-11
Matthew 14.22-33


A few weeks ago the administration of a town somewhere in England changed from Labour to Liberal Democrat, and with the change of administration came a change for the voluntary and community sector, too. The new Council decided that, while community work is valuable it isn't an immediate priority. It was suggested that there was almost a surplus of community work going on in the town, made possible by the good times when the City benefited from a lot of grant funding. Now that the grants are being targeted elsewhere, it was suggested that the time might have come to let things return to normal and allow some of that community work to wither on the vine.

Coupled with endless delays and complications in releasing what little grant funding remains, and continued debate about what it can - or cannot - be spent on, this suggested that lean times might lie ahead. The only way that most community work can continue in these circumstances is if organisations can win contracts to deliver services to the community or attract small grants from charities and foundations.

Many of the staff and trustees of one local organisation are people of faith, Christian and Muslim. Some of them fell to hard prayer, hoping that God would show them a way forward. They submitted various tenders for pieces of work that they might do. Letters and emails were sent to councillors, MPs and the other powers that be, imploring their help and arguing the case for their community work to continue. And, against this backdrop, they waited for God's will to be made known.

I'm not quite sure what they were hoping for - a change of earthquake proportions in the Council's policy, perhaps? The wind of new contracts filling their sails and helping them to continue on their way? Fire burning up all the sloppy thinking which suggests that much of what passes for community work might be unnecessary and expendable, that getting rid of it won't bring hidden costs which the Council eventually has to pick up anyway, and that many community organisations aren't serving a real need but are really just self-perpetuating?

This isn't to suggest, by the way, that even sloppy thinking cannot contain a grain of truth. Doubtless there are some community organisations, and some pieces of work, which need reviewing to see if they have served their purpose. The sloppiness creeps in when it is suggested that any organisation which cannot mostly fund itself, or sell its services to someone or other, is probably past its sell-by-date. But that is a digression.

The point of this story is that God was not in the earthquake, wind or fire. The Council hasn't changed its mind. So far the organisation I mentioned has only won one or two contracts which, by themselves, are not enough to fill its sails and keep it moving forward. And there has been no refining fire. Although the Council is reviewing the community work that happens at the moment, by the time they have completed their review much of the work may well have ceased for want of funds.

So where is God in all of this? Perhaps God doesn't believe that community work is a priority, either. Perhaps he has more pressing prayers to answer. Or perhaps we just have to accept that God's answer isn't always in the earthquake, wind or fire - big events that turn things around in a spectacular fashion. Perhaps God is in the still, small voice.

The hymn talks about 'a still small voice of calm' as if God's silence were actually a cause for peaceful, calm repose and serenity. But that's not a very accurate translation, and it certainly isn't how people feel in that vulnerable community organisation. A more accurate translation is 'the sound of sheer silence'. That's what the answer to the prayers of those community workers and volunteers actually sounds like - the sheer silence of rebuke, or emptiness, or aloneness.

Of course, in the great scheme of things community work really is of relatively low significance. What about all the people waiting for answers to their most urgent prayers about the war in Georgia, or about illness, personal loneliness and the difficulties of coping with rampant food and energy inflation, or who are simply praying that they might survive the impact of real earthquakes, hurricanes, forest fires and other emergencies? How many times do they, too, hear - or seem to hear - the sound of sheer silence?

It seems to me that we do a disservice to faith and religion if we pretend that the answer to prayer is always loud and clear. Sometimes we find ourselves, like the disciples, in the boat - being tossed about by the wind and the waves, by the storms and tempests of life - and either God seems to be asleep, or else far away and unable to help us.

Elijah the Prophet had derided the prophets of the false god Baal because their prayers and incantations were not answered, whereas his prayer was answered - and in the most spectacular fashion. A storm blew up out of nowhere, seeming to begin in a tiny, distant cloud. And an enormous bolt of lightning brought a thunderbolt from heaven to light the fire for his sacrifice. Yet, if Elijah felt any pride or sense of achievement, this is the moment when it was dispelled. On Mount Horeb he discovered that sometimes God answers our prayers with the sound of sheer silence!

In the moment of victory Elijah had triumphantly ordered the crowd to murder the unfortunate prophets of Baal. Doubtless he felt at the time that they had sealed their own fate by praying to a god who does not answer prayer. Now he discovers that humility and graciousness would have been a more appropriate response, for even the one true God sometimes answers our prayers with the sound of sheer silence.

But then, in apparent contrast with Elijah's sense of desolation, we have the witness of St Paul. When we're in trouble of any kind, Paul says that we should not say in our hearts, 'Who will ascend into heaven...to bring Christ down [to help us].' Nor should we say, 'Who will descend into the abyss...to bring Christ up from the dead [to save us].' This is because we don't have to go in search of him. Even in the sound of sheer silence the Word - that is the wisdom of God, and the proclamation of God's love revealed in Jesus - is always very close to us, part of us in fact, not only on our breath but also in our hearts.

Paul is very sure that we should have no anxieties. In any situation, so long as we continue to say - and to believe - that Jesus was raised from the dead, we shall be saved. And we won't be put to shame - like the Prophets of Baal - by appearing to have our prayers unanswered. How does this bold claim match Elijah's experience, and ours sometimes, when prayers seem to be answered by the sound of sheer silence?

I would suggest that these two, apparently contradictory, experiences are reconciled by the story of Jesus' death on the Cross. Jesus' death seemed to be the moment of defeat for all that he represented. His cry of dereliction, 'My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?' was met with the sound of sheer silence. No doubt the onlookers concluded either that Jesus had been deluded all along about his intimate relationship with God, or that the God he was calling to didn't exist or wasn't interested in him. In that moment, his situation was not unlike that faced by the Prophets of Baal, and like them he met an untimely death - taunted and despised by his opponents because his prayer was not answered.

Of course, there the similarity ends. The Prophets of Baal died there and then, and their cause in Israel died with them. Despite immediate and continued setbacks, the battle to overcome the false worship of fertility gods took a decisive turn that day. Whereas, in an unforeseen event that must have seemed about as possible as a thunder storm on a clear day on Mount Carmel, Jesus was raised from the dead. His desperate cry from the Cross was answered with the sound of sheer silence. He died and was buried. His disciples fled. Apparently his cause had been defeated. But not so! For on the third day he was raised from the dead, as the promise that - even when our prayers are met by the sound of sheer silence - we are never alone, for the Jesus who felt abandoned on the Cross is always with us, in our hearts and on our lips.

Matthew's story about Jesus walking on the water reads a bit like a resurrection story. Alone in the boat, battered by waves and with the wind against them, the disciples think that God is not going to answer their prayers. When they see Jesus coming to join them, walking on the water, they're not reassured. Instead, they think they are seeing a ghost and they cry out in fear. That might be because they don't recognise him through the mist and spray, but it might be because they think he is already dead.

Be that as it may, when Jesus comes to join us on our storm-tossed journey through life he does so as the risen Jesus, bidding us to take heart and not to be afraid. And the message of the risen Jesus is not that we can expect a calm crossing, easy sailing with clear blue skies, but that we must be faithful. Even when our problems and difficulties are met with the sound of sheer silence we must not doubt, for he is with us.

This story is evoked in the film 'The Truman Show', where the hero Truman - played by Jim Carrey - is an actor in a film within a film. At one point he tries to ride out a storm in a yacht and the god-like director of the film tries equally hard to make him turn back. But Truman won't do it. He lashes himself to the boat and says that he would rather die than give up.

In a sense, that is what Jesus is calling us to do - to lash ourselves to the boat and keep on going, come what may, except that - in the Gospel story - it isn't God who is trying to overturn the boat. Instead, God is with us - in Jesus - holding out his hand to catch us when our fear overwhelms us and we think we are about to drown.

Because he has endured the Cross for our sakes, because he has overcome that sense of abandonment and desolation which we all sometimes feel, we need not fear the storm. Like a swimming instructor waiting to catch us as we take our first faltering strokes through the water, Jesus is always there for us - even in the sound of sheer silence.

Who knows what the Simon and Garfunkel song 'Sound of Silence' means. But these words from the song could echo the sentiments of Paul, and the words of Jesus to Peter on the Lake.

"Silence like a cancer grows.

[So] hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Discerning Good and Evil

1 Kings 3.5-12
Romans 8.26-39
Matthew 13.31-3, 44-52


The wisdom of Solomon is proverbial. But he did not ask God for wisdom. He asked only for "an understanding mind able to discern between good and evil." God was so impressed by Solomon's selflessness and maturity that he gave him the gift of wisdom too.

It would be nice to be guided by wise leaders, wouldn't it? One of Gordon Brown's difficulties is that on television he appears less wise than he apparently is in person. Someone commented that, at an award ceremony this week for former members of the Women's Land Army, he was dignified, relaxed and good humoured. He gave a short speech, without any notes, in which he said just the right things to impress everyone there and he captured precisely the mood of the occasion.

But, unlike Tony Blair, he cannot do this in front of the cameras. Tony Blair always looked assured and at ease on television. Love him or hate him, he often found just the right thing to say, whereas Gordon Brown looks wooden and uncomfortable, both on television and at Prime Minister's Question Time in Parliament.

Yet, who is the wiser of the two? The man whose hubris convinced him that he could pull off the invasion of Iraq, or the iron chancellor who presided over so many years of economic prosperity and - at the same time - managed to ease the burden of debt for poor people in Africa? It is Gordon Brown who often seemed better able to discern the difference between good and evil, which is why - in the end - he was able to ease his rival out of the way. How odd then that he now seems unable to govern people in the assured way that Solomon did.

I mustn't be partisan, so it's only fair to say that David Cameron and George Osbourne have their own approach to wise leadership. Barak Obama is interested in it, too. It's called 'libertarian paternalism', but that's just a complicated way of saying that they hope to nudge or influence people into making wiser choices. For instance, one way of nudging us towards better behaviour would be to give us a discount off our council tax if we agree to have our bins emptied less often. Another idea is to give us a cooling off period before we are allowed to borrow money. They also want our electric and gas bills to tell us how much the average customer pays, and to go back to the old system of giving tax incentives to couples who get married. All of these ideas do seem sensible, especially from a Christian point of view, but they're not exactly earth shattering. They won't deal with anti-social behaviour, knife crime or binge drinking. They don't really compare with the wisdom of Solomon.

But then perhaps we expect to much from our politicians. Some people have had to put up with leaders who were not only unwise but who could not discern the difference between good and evil at all, and who plunged their countries into turmoil as a result. Examples which come to mind are President Mugabe in Zimbabwe and President al-Bashir of the Sudan. And then there is Radovan Karadzic, a man so obsessed with ancient myths - about the little Serbian nation being threatened by the peril of Islam - that he was prepared to sanction mass murder, rape and ethnic cleansing in order to create a pure Serbian state. Shamefully, Western diplomats parleyed with him - trying to work out a peaceful way of meeting his absurd demands. They included top-ranking politicians like Lord Carrington, Lord Owen, Lord Hurd and Sir Malcolm Rifkind. And equally shamefully, Christian monks have been some of the people who helped him to evade capture, which just goes to prove that it isn't only leaders who need to pray for wisdom and discernment.

One of the hallmarks of democracy is that we all have a part to play in making decisions, so we all need to able to discern between good and evil. And, in the life of the Christian community, we also need to be able to make wise choices that will help to build up the church, sustain its mission and proclaim the gospel. The problem, as always, is knowing the right thing to do. The Bible points us to the need to rely on prayer - in other words, to immerse ourselves in a relationship with God so intimate and strong that God's discernment of right and wrong will soak into our perception too.

Romans 8.26-39 is a beautiful summary of the unbreakable power of God's love, from which nothing can ever separate us. But this protection does not seem to be available to everyone. The passage begins by narrowing its focus down to those who have been called by God and who have received the gift of his Spirit, which overcomes our own weakness and gives us the discernment to know what God wants us to do. However, Paul seems to be saying that only the elect - chosen by God before the beginning of time - can enjoy this gift and experience this indestructible love.

At first sight, this would seem to be completely contrary to the teaching of the Methodist Church but, in his Notes on the New Testament, John Wesley argues that Paul is only describing here the step by step process by which God calls all human beings to follow him, because he has always intended the whole human race to be in the same kind of perfect relationship with him as Jesus, so that Jesus might be the firstborn Son of a very large family. Therefore, says Wesley in his commentary on this passage, all human beings have been justified by Jesus' death and the possibility of completely discerning God's mind, or being glorified, is also open to absolutely everyone.

When Paul talks about people being 'elect', Wesley says that the 'elect' doesn't mean an exclusive club of pre-determined lucky winners. It means everyone who has identified themselves with his chosen people - that is to say, everyone who has freely chosen to put their faith in Jesus. And Wesley justifies this claim by pointing out that, just as in the old covenant with Israel the Chosen People included everyone - good and bad alike, so God clearly chooses to include everyone in the new covenant, just so long as they are prepared to put their trust in Jesus.

You may think that Wesley is forcing Paul's words to fit his argument here, and that Paul actually did believe God has chosen some people to receive the Spirit, through faith in Jesus, and so to be able to discern the difference between good and evil and enter into a loving relationship with him, while others will never have that gift or enjoy that love and were never even intended to be part of God's People. Paul was certainly disappointed that so few Jewish people had adopted the Christian faith, and his talk of people needing to be chosen or elected by God in order to be put right with him, might be part of his explanation for why Jesus was so unpopular with his own countrymen and women.

But perhaps the difference between Paul and Wesley is not so great as it seems. Predestination - the idea that some people are destined before their birth to be in relationship with God while others are already destined to reject him - is not really about our freedom to choose. It's about God's ability to know, before they happen, what choices we will make.

The famous theologian Jurgen Moltmann has said that God is the Future, the destination to which everything in the universe is travelling, and he has argued that God has not yet made up his mind about that future. It's still wide open to change and development, and God still wills all things to opt into it and share the future with him. That's pretty much what John Wesley was arguing nearly three hundred years ago. But perhaps that's not incompatible with arguing that some people will still decide not to be part of the future and sometimes even we can glimpse who they might be.

Last week I heard a detective talking about cold cases on the radio. Cold cases are unresolved ones where the trail for evidence seems to have gone cold but, of course, new DNA evidence is allowing some of those cases to be reopened. He talked about the people who committed these crimes and he said that, broadly speaking, they fall into two groups. There are the people who feel guilty and troubled about what they have done, and who are always looking over their shoulder expecting to be caught. They are, perhaps, the sort of people who - no matter what they might have done in the past - are capable of changing and seeking redemption. But then, he said, there is another group who feel no remorse at all, because they convince themselves either that they never even committed the crime in the first place or that it wasn't their fault. 'If you really believe that you never did anything wrong, then you never have to worry about it,' he said. Perhaps that's how one murderer managed to be so surprised when he was finally arrested. 'You must be joking!' he told the arresting officers, even though the DNA evidence was stacked against him.

One suspects that Radovan Karadzic had convinced himself that he was innocent too, even while he was authorising his generals to shell civilians or carry out massacres. Despite all the reports to the contrary, he denied that he was doing anything wrong and portrayed himself as a man of culture, a poet and a healer who cared about the well being of other people.

Is that the kind of person who might be predestined to remain outside God's wonderful love? According to Wesley and Moltmann, even when people have convinced themselves that they are innocent of terrible crimes we can't say for certain what the future holds for them. Having to face a war crimes tribunal in the Hague is unlikely to bring Karadzic to his senses, but who can say what encountering the love of God might do?

The Kingdom parables in today's passage from Matthew's gospel do give us a hint as to what to expect from an encounter with God's way of doing things. The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast have the same message as the parable of the sower. They remind us how much can be achieved, even by a very small nucleus of people, if they are inspired and guided by God's Spirit and act in God's power. We don't need the majesty of Solomon, or even the influence and status of a councillor or MP in order to influence the community in which we live. We can all subtlely act for good in the choices that we make and the causes we support and, in so doing, we can make a difference out of all proportion to our size as a Christian community - like a tiny lump of yeast mixed into three measures of flour or a tiny mustard seed growing into a huge bush where birds can hide and build their nests.

But then the next set of parables makes a different point. Is the person who finds the buried treasure, or the merchant who finds the pearl, meant to represent the ideal disciple, someone who hears the message of God's amazing love and devotes their whole life to following him? Or are the treasure and the pearl meant to represent you and I, diamonds in the rough whose true worth will only be recognised when we are discovered by someone who has as much discernment and love in their heart as God? Like the merchant or the treasure seeker, is God prepared to give up everything he has in order to save us from getting lost, because - being a true expert in human nature - he recognises our ultimate value? Or are the pearl and the treasure meant to represent things like the ability to discern good and evil? It's something that might not be immediately obvious to everyone, but it really is one of the most precious gifts we could ask for or hope to possess.

And, then, there's the story of the net full of fish - a story that is acted out in some of the traditions about Jesus. Is this another reminder of the openness of God's future. The fisherman in the story hasn't gone out looking for just one special kind of catch. He isn't using a pot or a line, with a particular kind of lure or bait to attract a particular species. Instead he's trawling for fish or reeling in an enormously long drift net, and as a result he scoops everything out of the water indiscriminately. We would now say, perhaps, that it's not a very environmentally friendly way of fishing. In fact, there is no attempt here to discern good from bad, edible from inedible, valuable from worthless. The fisherman simply winches in the lot, sails back to shore, and then gets his staff to sort the catch on the beach. The good fish are kept and the useless ones are thrown away.

This story is not unlike the story of the wheat and the tares. It could be seen as a warning that if we are worthless God's love will be withheld from us, but I think it's a story which bears out Wesley and Moltmann's understanding of God's grace. God has limitless ambition. He has chosen to save everything, if he possibly can. So he has set out to catch us all in his net, in the hope that - as the future unfolds - we will all discern where truth, goodness and value lie and commit ourselves to live for him. Then, all being well, none of us will need to be thrown away.

God is like an antique's dealer who has gradually amassed treasures old and new - things which other people might have felt were past their best, or out-of-date, or unlikely to catch-on, but which the dealer saw would be of lasting value. Like the fisherman, the antique dealer's motto is to hang onto things to see how they turn out over time.

But, of course there are bound to be some failures - some fish that simply never grow to the right size or some antique things that never become marketable. So we are reminded to make sure that we have understood all this, and that we really can discern the mind of God, and the difference between good and evil.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

When a Little Produces a Lot

Isaiah 55.10-13
Romans 8.1-11
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23


We haven't seen much snow for a long time but we do get plenty of rain, don't we? It might not be as much fun as the sunshine, but it does help the plants to grow. Most vegetables, for instance, need plenty of water in order to grow big and strong. God's word has the same effect. It stimulates spiritual growth making us more rounded people, closer to the image of God.

Of course, the rain which stimulates the growth of vegetables and garden flowers also helps the weeds to grow, which is not a good thing. Fortunately, the word of God is not like this. It doesn't cause the indiscriminate growth of good and bad things. Instead, it tends to suppress what is bad and promote what is good.

The Prophet Isaiah gives too examples of bad plants and two examples of good ones. The cypress tree was valued because its timber was highly valued in the ancient world. It was used, for instance, to make the coffins of the pharaohs. The myrtle was sometimes waved by worshippers during Jewish festivals. It was prized because it made a sweet smelling oil used in medicine and in perfumes, and also a drink. What, though, was so wrong with thorns? The Bible gives them a very bad press and yet their wood was often burnt during sacrifices because of its sweet smell, and honey from the nectar collected by bees feeding on the blossom of thorn or acacia trees is highly prized for its flavour. Perhaps the problem with thorns is simply that they are prickly. Or, more likely, Isaiah is using the word thorn as a synonym for briers or brambles - which also have sharp prickles or thorns, and which grow like weeds, choking out other plants. Wild brambles often have very small fruit, unlike cultivated blackberries. Either way, what God wants is to encourage in us those things which will bring a rich and fruitful harvest, making us better and more user-friendly people.

Romans 8.1-11 uses the image of dying to our old life, and rising to a new and fuller life in Christ, to express the same idea. With God's help we can root out those parts of our nature which would otherwise choke out the more selfless, gentle and loving side of our personality and help us to flourish and become more rounded and complete.

Jesus' parable of the sower, in Matthew 13, is a story which vividly illustrates the tremendous effectiveness of God's message. No matter how much of the work is wasted - because the message falls on deaf ears or on barren hearts and minds - there will always be a good harvest because, when it does take root, it has a tremendous impact on the life of the responsive hearer. It leads them to do different things from what they might otherwise have done, and to influence countless other people by their words and actions.

On the face of it, today, religion - and Christianity in particular - doesn't have much influence on the life of our nation and our city. But, actually, that's not the case. Because religious people make up the majority of those who volunteer for charitable or community work, and who join in any efforts to make the world - and their neighbourhood - a better place. That means our influence is out of all proportion to our numbers, and the harvest of goodness that results is still something to be amazed at and to celebrate.

For Matthew this message is simply too obvious. He looks, like Mark, for a hidden meaning. Each element of the story takes on a special significance for him, because it represents one of several different responses to God's message - ranging from indifference, through an initial enthusiasm that doesn't last, to a response that is deep-rooted and enduring.

We all know that Matthew is right when he identifies these different ways that people respond to the message. But it isn't quite so obvious that the number of people in whom the message takes root is necessarily always going to be so large. Matthew was living in a situation where the Church was rapidly expanding. While that is still true in many places around the world it doesn't reflect our experience.

It's easy to get dispirited when our efforts seem to reap so small a harvest. That's why Jesus' original point - about the huge impact that a few dedicated people can have - is so important for us today. Like us, he was living in circumstances where the number of faithful followers of God's word was quite small. Unlike us, he knew that - nevertheless - they could change the world.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

True Religion

Zechariah 9.9-12
This passage is part of the answer to those critics who claim that religion causes hostility and aggression. While it is true that religion is often used as an excuse for aggressive behaviour, the Prophet Zechariah makes clear that the true mark of religious leadership is a resolute determination to see peace prevail. Not only does the true leader choose to ride on a humble beast of burden, but he also cuts off the chariot and the bow, and positively commands peace. He may choose humble symbols like the donkey, but his aim is a worldwide dominion of peace. In other words, true religion is - by definition - almost aggressively peaceful.

Romans 7.15-25a

The great difference between Christianity and its sister religions, Judaism and Islam, is that while Christianity recognises that holy laws are good in principle, it also recognises that human beings cannot rise to the challenge of being holy - at least not without divine help. There is something about human nature which makes us incapable of doing good even when we know what is right and we want to do it. And, of course, sometimes we don't know what is right anyway, or we believe we are doing right when we are actually doing wrong. It's also possible to have the best of motives and the worst of outcomes.

It is Jesus who rescues us from this predicament. His death shows us that God loves us and is ready to forgive us despite our weakness. But Jesus' death is more significant even than that. Paul explains in his letter to the Church at Rome how we can identify ourselves completely with Jesus' death by crucifying our self-centered self with him and making ourselves his slaves, instead of slaves of human nature, rising to new life in him.

Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30
Religious people may not be responsible for all the hostility in the world, but they can be contrary and hard to please. One vicar, or minister, is criticised for preaching badly even though he's a tireless visitor, with an exemplary pastoral ministry. The next vicar or minister is criticised for spending too little time visiting even though she spends many hours crafting wonderful sermons. Even Jesus encountered exactly the same problem.

If only religious people would relax into the sort of childlike attitude that Jesus describes in his prayer. If we adopted his gentleness and humility we could find rest in him and let go of our constant striving to outdo other people and our critical and fault finding attitudes.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Good News for Pessimists?

Jeremiah 28.5-9
It's easy to see how Jeremiah's name became a byword for pessimism. The Prophet Hananiah had prophesied that everything would turn out for the best; the exiles and the booty taken away to Babylon would be returned. It was the message that everyone wanted to hear, but Jeremiah would have none of it.

In his opinion a true prophet is like Private Fraser from the old TV sitcom "Dad's Army". He - or she - only speaks words of doom about war, famine, and pestilence. If a prophet speaks words of peace we should be on our guard and believe them only then those words come true.

We might feel that Jeremiah is exaggerating a bit. He leaves no room for prophets who speak words of inspiration and encouragement, who dream of a better world or of new possibilities. Martin Luther King was this kind of prophet, and there were prophets like this in the Isaiah tradition.

As someone said recently on Radio 4's "Start The Week" programme, pessimists like Jeremiah are never disappointed. If things turn out as badly as they expected, then they get to say, 'We told you so!' If things turn out better than expected, they are pleasantly surprised!

But I'm sure this wasn't the motivation for Jeremiah's harsh view of prophecy. To his mind prophecy is really about judgement, about warning people when they are taking unnecessary and foolish risks or behaving in an immoral way. To this way of thinking, you don't need a prophet to announce good news.

This is why it's always dangerous when Christian commentators tells us not to worry too much about global warming or injustice. It's true that the Christian message is supposed to be good news for humankind, but that doesn't mean Christians can safely become carefree optimists. We have a duty of care for the earth and our neighbours which means that we are always under judgement when things start to go wrong. Those who too quickly tell us that we need not worry after all, and everything is putting itself to rights, are just as dangerous as the little boy who cried "Wolf!" They can lull us into a sense of false security.

Romans 6.12-23
Paul reminds us here that we can never plead human frailty as an excuse for doing things which we know are actually wrong and contrary to God's will. Because we have the free gift of God's grace working in us, we do receive pardon for the wrong things we do, but we are also expected to strive to meet God's standards of behaviour. The more time we spend thinking about God's goodness, identifying ourselves with God's will and seeking to be in relationship with God's Spirit, the harder it will become to do wrong. In fact, we should allow ourselves to become just as much enslaved to God's nature as we were once enslaved to human nature. It may never happen, but that should always be our aim!

Matthew 10.40-42
Are these gnomic sayings telling disciples that practical deeds of goodness, and a readiness to identify ourselves with the truth - wherever it comes from - is more important than party allegiances or the labels we attach to one another?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Ishmael

Genesis 21.8-21
Something about this story doesn't quite add up. According to an earlier episode in the saga of Abraham and Sarah, Ishmael - Abraham's son by the slave woman Hagar - is already more than thirteen years-old and is therefore, in Jewish tradition, already a man when he and his mother are sent away. However, in this passage the story reads as though Ishmael were still only a little child, not old enough to understand what is happening. His mother is described as casting him under a bush when she sits down in the desert to die, and then - a little later - she lifts him up and holds him fast in her hand. It would seem, therefore, that he is really little more than a toddler in this particular version of the Abrahamic tradition.

The Hadith, a traditional collection of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, preserves a similar version of the story, in which Ishmael is not yet weaned. In both the Hadith and today's passage from the Bible account of Ishmael's life, the infant Ishmael and his mother are saved from death in the desert through God's gracious intervention.

From this point on, however, the two faiths diverge. The Qur'an tells how Ishmael, presumably now reconciled with his father, goes on to help Abraham found its greatest shrine in Mekkah, whereas in the Bible Ishmael drops out of the story. But the discrepancy in the Bible between the earlier account of Ishmael and Hagar living as part of Abraham's family when he was a teenager, and the alternative description of their estrangement when he was still a small child, led in turn to one of the biggest controversies between Jews and Muslims. Whereas the Bible sees Ishmael as the illegitimate son, cast off by his father and sent out into the desert to carve out a new life for himself apart from the chosen people, some Muslim scholars used this story to argue that he was in fact one of the rightful heirs of Abraham, especially when it comes to Abraham's spiritual legacy.

The Bible does acknowledge that Ishmael was blessed by God and that God heard his cry, and the Hadith says much the same thing, but some Muslim scholars go further and claim that - after an early reconcilation with his father - it was really the thirteen year-old Ishmael, and not Isaac, whom Abraham was asked to offer as a sacrifice, and therefore that it was Ishmael whom God saved from death a second time when he provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead. According to these scholars, then, the greatest test of Abraham's trust was not the call to sacrifice his wife's son, but the son of his slave. And so, in this version of the story, it is Ishmael who is more special than Isaac, both in God's eyes and in the eyes of Abraham. And because, in the Bible at least, the two stories about Ishmael do not quite add up, this allows Muslims to argue that - long ago - Jewish people deliberately obscured the truth in order to show their own spiritual inheritance in a better light than it deserved.

The difference between the two versions of Ishmael's story also allows Muslims to claim the moral high ground. Sarah, the ancestor of the whole nation of Israel, is depicted in the Bible, as capricious, callous and cruel. She doesn't know, and doesn't even care, that God is going to bless Ishmael. She only wants him sent away, so that he will not share - or take away - the precious family inheritance from her own son. And this is despite the fact that it was, in the first place, her own idea for Abraham to have an adoptive son with her slave woman, Hagar, because Sarah thought at the time that she couldn't have any children.

Not only does the Bible cast Sarah in the stereotypical role of the wicked stepmother, but Abraham too - in agreeing to expel his own son from the family - is also depicted as weak and vacillating, prepared to do something very wrong simply in order to appease his jealous wife, whereas, in the Qur'anic account of the story Abraham treats Ishmael throughout as his true heir, and the separation comes about purely as a test of his faith.

And then the Bible version of the story definitely identifies Ishmael as inferior to his brother simply because his mother was only a slave, and not his father's wife, whereas the Muslim version makes clear that every believer is equal before God no matter who their parents are. Unfortunately, no such moral can be drawn from the Biblical account.

Finally, in the Bible story, Hagar sits down in the desert and despairs whereas, in the Hadith, she sets a wonderful example of perseverance as she desperately searches for water to save Ishmael's life.

Of course, the most striking thing about the story is that it shows just how ancient is the antagonism between the Arab and Jewish nations. In Biblical times the Arab people were not that important. Occasionally they raided the land of Israel, but otherwise the two nations went separate ways. However, after the rise of Islam and until the Twentieth Century, the Arab nation had the upperhand over Israel. And then, since the re-establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, the tables have been turned. The bombings of July 7 and th airliner hijackings of 9/11 have both been blamed on the continuing oppression of Muslim and Arab people in Palestine today, making the conflict acutely relevant - even to us in the United Kingdom - and perhaps it's no coincidence therefore, that the Bible version of the story is about the oppression of Ishmael and Hagar by Sarah and Abraham, and about God's concern to rescue the oppressed. It's never right for one nation or faith to act unjustly towards another, even if the oppressors sincerely believe that God is on their side, for God never condones injustice and cruelty.

The story reminds us, then, of the need for compassion towards people who are different from ourselves, especially when they are in need. This could apply to any refugee or asylum seeker, but also to any minority group which finds itself under pressure from the majority. Today, as we read this story, we need to acknowledge that Muslims in our country sometimes find themselves in an uncomfortable place, vilified because they are considered guilty by association of terrorist outrages and hate-filled preaching. The story reminds us of the need not to over-react but to go on patiently loving our neighbours, whatever their creed.

Romans 6.1b-11
Paul had never been to Rome but his reputation had preceded him. Detractors were saying that he encouraged Christians to feel it was all right to go on sinning because it is God's grace which saves us from condemnation, not any actions of our own.

They had a point, of course. Some Muslim community workers were asked to design a poster for a cultural festival. The organiser wanted his country's national flag printed as the background to the poster itself. But the community workers identified a snag with this. The flag of his country includes the name of God, printed in bold Arabic letters. What if one of the posters dropped off a noticeboard onto the floor and someone accidentally trod on it? They would then be dishonouring the name of God, which is a mortal sin. My immediate reaction on hearing this story was that I was sure God can't be all that concerned about people treading on a poster, and that is essentially a Pauline response to the problem. That is to say, I chose to emphasise God's graciousness over and against the idea of his inflexible holiness and justice. According to Paul, God's default position is to show forgiveness and mercy, to be compassionate and gracious in the face of our weakness and disobedience. All God seeks from us in return is an honest acknowledgement of our sinfulness and of our need for grace.

Of course, it's possible to use this starting point to argue that, if God is always willing to forgive us, it doesn't really matter how we live or what we do. Some of the early Christians interpreted Paul's teaching in exactly this way and thought that he was giving them a licence to behave disreputably without losing favour with God. The Emperor Constantine certainly thought this was what Paul meant. He spent his years as emperor committing crimes which would make modern day politicians seem as white as snow by comparison. But then, on his death bed, he confessed his sins and received Christian baptism. From now on he resolved that he would be a good Christian. Too bad that he was about to die!

But this isn't what Paul means at all. In this passage from his letter to the church at Rome he painstakingly argues that, if we believe in Jesus and in the power of his death to put right our relationship with God, then that belief has to shape - and become the pattern for - the whole of our life. If we believe in the goodness of Jesus, we have to strive to live like him, and if we believe in the power of God's gracious love to free us from sin and disobedience, then we have to begin living in that freedom at once. Anything else would be totally hypocritical.

Because of our trust in God's graciousness, mercy and love we don't have to worry about accidentally dishonouring his name if we step on a poster that's fallen onto the floor. But we do have to respond to his love by treating others with the same graciousness, compassion and forgiveness that we ourselves would like to receive from him.

This is where Abraham and Sarah went wrong in their relationship with Hagar and Ishmael. They thought that they could love and honour God and yet still continue to act unjustly. And, in Sarah's case, she forgot that, if God cared about her and Isaac, he also cared just as much about Hagar and Ishmael. In other words, God has no favourites!

Matthew 10.24-39
This collection of disparate sayings reinforces some of the issues which we have already explored. The disciple has to behave like her master. We can't adopt a radically different lifestyle from Jesus and still claim to be part of his team, nor can we pretend that we are not his followers and expect him to acknowledge before God that we are his friends. But if we are loyal to Jesus we can be sure that, when the going gets tough, he and God will be on our side. Like Ishmael and Hagar in the desert we are never alone. God is with us and cares about us. In fact, as Abraham discovered, God cares about everyone. No one is ever insignificant or unimportant in God's eyes, not even tiny sparrows. And also, like Ishmael and Hagar, we shall find that or relationship with God goes deeper and is more enduring even than our relationship with our own parents or children. Finally, just as Hagar feared that she and her son were about to lose their lives, but then discovered that in God life is never lost, so we shall find that our relationship with God endures even beyond suffering and death.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Forgotten Part of Jesus' Ministry

Matthew 9.35-10.8

During his earthy life there were three aspects to the ministry of Jesus. He went around teaching, proclaiming good news and healing the sick. His teaching was not written down until long after his death, but much of it survives because it was treasured and carefully remembered by his followers until - eventually - it was committed to paper. The good news which he proclaimed was not just spoken, it was enacted. Jesus was not a First Century spin doctor dreaming up headline grabbing stories about God, or trying to put a positive spin on events. He lived the good news, proclaiming it in action as well as in words. Indeed, he would not have imagined that it was good news at all if people had not been able to see it unfolding before their very eyes.

Ultimately, of course, his proclamation of good news was to culminate in the tragic events of Good Friday, when he was put to death as a sign of God's self-giving love, and in the mysterious but powerful resurrection life which he continues to enjoy, for death could not hold hm in its power. But, before that, his proclamation of God's mercy and love was also declared in the healings which he performed and in his compassion for all who were harassed or helpless. It's remarkable how, while the teaching and proclamation of Jesus still receive much attention, even the Church - at least in secular countries like Britain - is strangely silent about this healing ministry.

Why are we so reticent about it? No doubt it's partly because Jesus not only healed others but also called upon his followers to do the same. He asked God to send out labourers into the fields to bring in the harvest and, in case we might think this is just a reference to persuading people to believe in him, Jesus is very explicit about what else is involved. He tells us that it includes casting out unclean spirits and curing every type of disease and sickness, cleansing people from leprosy and raising the dead. That's all right, then!

And, needless to say perhaps, there is no mention of taking pills and potions or medical textbooks along with us on the journey. His followers are commanded by Jesus to travel light, with no cash or bag for the journey, no change of clothes and no stick to fend of wild animals or thieves. They must expect the people they meet to feed and shelter them, and do their laundry. Jesus' instructions about participating in his ministry of healing are so uncompromising that it's no wonder we sometimes hesitate to follow in his footsteps.

But, of course, there are some other reasons, too. Until quite recently people in Europe had turned their backs on the value of spiritual healing, preferring to rely exclusively on medical science. However, as doctors get better and better at treating people for some of the more common causes of disease, so it becomes steadily clearer that there are still huge limitations to their knowledge. Doctors are not so easily baffled as they were in Jesus' time, but they are still baffled, nonetheless, by many of their modern patients. In addition, it has become clear that some therapies once scorned by modern medicine are actually strangely effective. In particular, people who believe in something - in the power of prayer, for example - get more out of life, and live for longer, on average, than those who don't. And that's just one of the reasons why the NHS continues to invest in hospital chaplains. They save money by helping people feel more well, more quickly.

We mustn't forget, mind you that I am talking about averages. Just because, on average, people feel better thanks to the power of prayer, that doesn't mean everyone who receives prayers for healing is going to make a miraculous recovery.

We are told that everyone who came to Jesus got well again, but he was someone very special. And he lived in a society - as some still do - where, in any case, no one ever got critically ill. If they got ill, and then got a bit worse, they simply died. He would have been amazed that we can keep people going, when they are very sick, by feeding them through tubes, taking over their heart and lung functions for them, giving them cocktails of drugs and operating on almost every part of their bodies.

Even when Jesus and his followers raised the dead, these were usually people who hadn't been dead - or didn't appear to have been dead - for very long, because in Palestinian culture it is normal to bury the dead within twenty-four hours. It is probable, therefore, that some of the people who were raised were deeply comatose rather than properly dead. Incidents where people are pronounced dead by mistake do still occur from time to time.

And finally, there is the issue of possession. There is little doubt that people are sometimes taken over by evil forces which impel them to act in wicked and wholly negative ways, harming themselves and others. But much so-called possession by evil has often been a misdiagnosis of mental illnesses like schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder, or of purely physical illnesses like epilepsy.

I guess these are the reasons why Christians have sometimes been hesitant about taking up the commission from Jesus to get involved in his healing ministry. The task has seemed too big and has overwhelmed us, as it sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. His achievements seem so much more emphatic even than the wonderful work done by hospital chaplains. And we wonder just how far the Bible's understanding of illness and death differs from our own, anyway.

But the challenge remains. It will not go away. Proclaiming the Gospel is not just about telling people nice things. It is about healing the sick. And we must begin - as Jesus' first followers did - with prayer, with the laying on of hands and by anointing people with oil. Then we must trust in God to work his healing in people's lives - perhaps not in the ways that we anticipate but in ways that continue to proclaim the good news of a God who has compassion on all who are sick and suffering, and who goes with us - hand-in-hand - even through the valley of the shadow of death.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

God's Righteous Anger

Hosea 5.15-6.6
Romans 4.13-25
Matt 9.9-13, 18-26

This passage is just one of a series of quite disturbing oracles in which we learn that Israel has incurred the wrath of God and he is going to tear and devour her much as a young lion might or, if she were already prostrate or dead, a swarm of maggots.

There is an uncomfortable ambiguity here, for the Prophet acknowledges that although God smites Israel he also loves and cares for. The oracle is not unlike the protestations of a partner who perpetrates cruel acts of domestic violence, only to shower the victim afterwards with love and attention. We are told that God will tear Israel, and then heal her; strike her down, and then bind up her wounds.

Of course, there are clearly differences here from genuine domestic violence. First, this is metaphorical language. God is not going to inflict actual bodily harm on Israel. Instead, she will be attacked by some of her human enemies. The Prophet's message is that God is so angry he will not protect her from harm, which begs the question just how far God intervenes in history to do his will through human events such as invasions and wars.

Second, Israel is not an innocent victim. The nation has been faithless - although isn't that the justification that's often used for domestic violence, too?

Third, the tone of the oracle changes completely if God himself is being wounded and torn by the suffering of his people, despite their guilt. There is nothing in the original oracle to suggest this, except the interesting parallels with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Hosea says that on the third day God will raise up his people, just as Jesus will one day be raised up from death on the third day after suffering for the sake of other people's guilt.

'On the third day' is a turn of phrase in Hebrew meaning 'very soon'. So God's rescue mission to Israel after she has been punished is as predictable, and as close by, as the new dawn or the next shower of rain. What a pity, then, that Israel's repeated faithlessness is also as predictable as the evaporation of dew or early morning mist when the sun rises.

Paul makes the point, in today's passage from his letter to the Romans, that trying to be obedient to rules and laws is not the way to avoid the wrath of God, because the task is impossible. Being put right with God, and avoiding his righteous indignation, is a matter of faith and relationship. It is about trusting God to save us from ourselves. It is about loving God, and relying on God's love for us. It is about depending on God to give us the capacity we need to be more truly human, and then relying on that God-given power to enable us to act as if God also depends upon us to be his servants and co-workers.

Abraham is the exemplar of this kind of relationship with God because he was trying to get close to God before the religious laws of Israel even began to be codified. That meant he had no alternative but to embark on a pilgrimage of faith.

The two short passages from Matthew's Gospel also give priority to faith over law and offer the antidote to Hosea's vision of an angry God, striking out at his people in spite of his love for them. In Jesus' understanding God is no less intolerant of sin, but he desires mercy rather than sacrifice and only wants to end suffering, not to cause it, and to give fresh heart and new life to those who are in despair.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Coping with Floods

Genesis 6.9-22, 7.24, 8.14-19
Romans 1.16-17, 3.22b-28
Matthew 7.21-29

One year on from the serious flooding in Yorkshire and the Humber, this week's readings are all about floods! The original 'Flood' was probably caused by the retreat of the ice sheet at the end of the last ice age, so to blame it on human sinfulness seems a bit unfair. But the next flood could indeed be the fault of humankind and some experts think significant climate change is now unavoidable. If so, what sort of ark are we going to build to protect the threatened flora and fauna of the world, not to mention the many millions of people living in low lying lands? There can be no doubt that God is calling us to radical action. Are we listening? One suspects that the current clamour for lower petrol and diesel prices tells us the answer.

Noah is a proverbial example of faithfulness, battling to save his family and, one presumes from the tiny dimensions of his frail three-decker craft, as many breeds of domesticated birds and animals as he could find, but acting on the strength of nothing more than personal conviction. It was Jesus who observed that his neighbours must have scoffed at Noah's endeavour right up until the moment when the storm broke.

But, of course, Jesus himself is the supreme example of faithfulness. The good news of his life, death and resurrection reveals God's righteousness 'through faith for faith'. This is because the Gospel shows us what 'righteousness' means by focusing on the life and witness of Jesus, a man who obeyed God's call to radical obedience even when it took him to a shameful and agonising death on a cross. So great was his faith that he believed God could transform failure into success and defeat into victory. So great was his faith that he believed he would be vindicated even if it only happened through his death. And so great was his faith that he was prepared to battle fearlessly against hatred, prejudice and privilege, armed only with the weapons of truth and love. And because he did this, his story can inspire the faith we need if we are to be put right with God ourselves.

Paul repeatedly emphasises that, without faith in the story of Jesus, our efforts to do what is right and live as God requires are doomed to fail. But Jesus' own message is slightly more subtle than that. He recognises that some people will declare allegiance to him without really listening to his true message of love and compassion. They will claim to be his followers, and even appear to have an effective ministry doing many deeds of power, but if their faith is not truly centred on his teaching and example it will be empty and they will prove - ultimately - to be false prophets and leaders. So faith by itself is not enough. It has to be the right kind of faith; a faith built on the kind of radical obedience to God's love which Jesus himself exemplifies; a faith which has the strength and quality to withstand whatever shocks life might throw at us.

We started by thinking about the very real threat of large scale flooding as a result of global warming. Jesus' teaching brings us back to the image of storms and floods, but this time as a a metaphor for everything which life might throw at us when things start to go wrong. He promises that, through faith in him, we can overcome.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Do we need to worry?

Isaiah 49.8-16a
1 Corinthians 4.1-5
Matthew 6.24-34
Today's Old Testament reading from Isaiah includes two striking images. The first is a feminine image - comparing God's faithfulness and care to that of a nursing mother. What mother, asks the prophet, would abandon her tiny baby? But, of course, it does happen occasionally - whereas God's love for us is so profound and tender that he - or she, perhaps - will never abandon us.

The passage concludes with the second striking image, which is a word from the Lord to the Prophet, "See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands."

Sometimes when I find myself with nothing to write on I write names or phone numbers on my hands. This is a technique which only works if I remember to transfer this vital information to a more permanent place before I next wash my hands! Often, as I dry my hands, and remove the last vestige of the data, I remember the funny moment in the first episode of Cold Feet when one of the characters has written the phone number of a girl he has met in the dust on his car windscreen, which is fine until it starts to rain!

When the Prophet says that God has inscribed our names - and indeed all the vital information about us - on the palms of his hands, I guess he is thinking of something more permanent than a biro. He must mean that the details are safely tattooed there. And, of course, tattooing would have been a much more painful and painstaking process than simply whipping out a pen. Not only that, but like the person who today gets the name of their lover tattooed on their body, it would have been a sign of real and lasting commitment.

The oracle means that God holds us close and cherishes everything about us. What a wonderful thought, especially given that Paul tells us - in the passage from his first letter to Corinth - that it is this same caring and compassionate God "who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart." How fortunate that this is a God who is clearly much more willing to commend us than to judge us!

When Jesus says that God's concern for human beings is greater than his care for the birds and wildflowers, which are in any case more than adequately provided for, he is not suggesting an anthropocentric view of creation in which we are superior to the other living creatures. He is simply asserting that we can, unlike the rest of the created order, enjoy a conscious and personal relationship with God.

This privileged intimacy and knowledge not only assures us that we really are loved by God, giving us the confidence not to worry unduly about tomorrow and its problems, but also brings with it the responsibility to share with God in the task of caring for the rest of creation. And herein lies the rub. What happens if we have not been caring properly for our planet and its other inhabitants but instead have behaved selfishly and destructively? What if we now risk upsetting the balance of nature through untimely global warming? Then our partnership with God will have broken down and it will no longer be true to say that the birds of the air are certain to be fed, or that the lilies of the field will always be clothed more gloriously than Solomon. In that situation it will become necessary, after all, to worry about the worries of our children and grandchildren as well as today's troubles. And, unfortunately, that situation has come to pass!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Our relationship with God

Exodus 34.4-6,8-9
2 Corinthians 13.11-13
Matthew 28.16-20


These passages, specially selected for reflection on Trinity Sunday, illustrate that the doctrine of the Trinity is not so much an attempt to discern the essential nature of God as to describe God's relationship with creation, including ourselves, and with Jesus - whom Christians believe to be a human being in perfect relationship with God.

The passage from Exodus contains the unpleasant verse about God's wrath visiting the iniquity of parents on their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, and the editors of the lectionary have chosen to miss it out. However, there is a truth here. We cannot hope that our mistakes will not have implications for future generations. The slate is not wiped clean after things go wrong and we recognise the error of our ways. If we wanted proof of this uncompromising truth we need only think about global warming.

However, people suffering for the iniquity of their ancestors is not the key note in this passage. What Moses discovers in his encounter with God is that God keeps steadfast love with the human race for thousands of generations, despite our mistakes and wrongdoing.

Paul doesn't talk about doctrine when he prays to God as Father, Son and Spirit and this should not surprise us, because the doctrine of the Trinity did not exist when he was writing. He talks instead about grace, love and communion - all ways of expressing God's relationship with us. Because Jesus perfectly understood God's love for us, and was truly 'in love' with God himself, he was prepared to die for us so that we might receive the gracious gift of having our own relationship with God restored, and that loving relationship with God which we now enjoy through the grace of Jesus finds its expression in our inner communion with God's Spirit.

This conviction that we can know God in three ways - as our creator, as the suffering servant who shows the depth of his love for us by dying on the cross, and as the Spirit living deep within each one of us - is such a distinctive part of the Christian message that proclaiming its truth has become the essential rite of passage to membership of the Church. But it is one and the same God whom we are meeting. God encounters us in the universe around us, in the person and work of Jesus and as the source of inner peace and inspiration, but in saying this we are simply acknowledging that the one God is in relationship with us in three distinctive ways that express his steadfast love.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Mobilising for Mission

Numbers 11.24-30
1 Corinthians 12.1b-13
John 7.37-39

The point of the strange story about Moses surely lies in its punchline. We don't need to worry too much why the Lord should have commanded Moses to gather a symbolic group of seventy elders around the tent of his presence, in order to bestow on them a share of the prophetic spirit which he had already given to Moses himself, although a quick look back at the earlier part of the story shows that it was part of God's response to Moses' complaints about the intolerable burden of leadership which he felt that he had to bear on his own two shoulders.

So part of the story's purpose is to remind us that God's people can never rely on one or two charismatic leaders to carry out God's mission for them. Mission is a shared enterprise which requires team leadership at the very least.

This much might seem obvious. But the punchline then takes the lesson of the story to a new and unexpected level which is much more challenging. Moses tells his sidekick Joshua, "Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!"

"Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!" For 'prophets' we must read 'people prepared to take on leadership roles and play an active part in God's mission.' This is a message which speaks to Methodist circuits struggling to cope with fewer ministers and new ways of being church. How far are congregations willing to mobilise in support of the mission of the local church to their neighbourhood and in support of other congregations which might need additional support?

Of course, no one pretends that it's easy to engage in mission or to lead other people, which is why we need the Lord's spirit to help us. Only the Lord's spirit can give us the courage and the resolve that we shall need to play our part effectively.

Paul develops these ideas in his own teaching to the church at Corinth. He believed that no one ever receives all of the gifts which God has to offer. Instead each Christian receives just a part of the kaleidoscope of gifts and graces which the Church needs in order to function effectively and to become an expression of Jesus' power and presence.

Some of us are enabled to give a lead when wise and astute counsel is needed. Some are enabled to study and comprehend difficult ideas. Some receive the gift of faith, enabling them to encourage and inspire those around them when the going gets tough. Others find that they are empowered to heal and work miracles, and so on.

Without doubt, Paul saw all of these gifts as essentially miraculous rather than as natural abilities or acquired skills. This is why his list includes gifts like discerning spirits and speaking in tongues, which might seem to have no obvious leadership potential today. But the key point is that for him, as for Moses, mission and leadership are a shared enterprise, a team exercise. They are never things which can be done for us, or which belong exclusively to ordained ministers, or even to elected or self-nominated lay leaders. To be truly the body of Christ, the Church has to be mobilising all of its resources and all of its people.

The most striking thing about today's passage from John's Gospel is John's very clear identification of the Holy Spirit with Jesus. It is the Spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus which transforms believers into agents of God's mission.

Jesus himself offered the living giving water of God's sustaining presence and love to his hearers in First Century Palestine. If they believed in his message, that God loves us so much that he has come alongside us both in life and even in death, then they need never be spiritually thirsty again - no matter what times of drought, uncertainly, pain and fear they might face in the future. However, John says that Jesus' mission to bring hope and salvation to the world continues in all those who truly believe in him and are filled with his spirit.

Does that include us? Do 'rivers of life-giving water' flow out of our hearts? Are we a source of comfort, strength and sustenance to everyone we meet - our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues? And if not, why not?

For John, it is this power to proclaim God's message, in word and by example, that is the true mark of the Spirit's presence, and it is much more important to him than the other gifts mentioned by Paul. However, the common theme which emerges from all three passages is that if we are filled with the life-giving Spirit of Jesus then the role of ministers and leaders becomes merely to support, encourage and enable our own share in Jesus' mission. They become, if you like, the back-office team rather than the people on the front line who spear-head the Church's mission. That is because the front-line belongs to people like you and me, out there in the world and in the community, witnessing to the Spirit of Jesus within us day by day.