Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Freedom through discipline

Exodus 20.1-17
1 Corinthians 1.18-25

In 1944 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem in his prison celI. It’s called Stations on the Way to Freedom. It begins:

If you set out to seek freedom,

then learn above all things

to govern your soul and your senses,

for fear that your passions and longing

may lead you away from the path you should follow.

Chaste be your mind and your body,

and both in subjection, obediently, steadfastly

seeking the aim set before them;

only through discipline may one learn to be free.

‘Only through discipline may one learn to be free.’ It’s the kind of sentiment which would have appealed to Moses. His encounter with God at Mount Sinai was a formative moment in the history of of Israel and indeed for the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition. Plenty of Methodist churches have proudly inscribed the Ten Commandments in a long arc stretching around the walls of the sanctuary area.

The people of Israel wanted to be free from slavery but, after some fruitless wanderings in the wilderness, it was borne in upon them that in order to find freedom you have to learn discipline. Over the centuries that followed, their passions and longing did lead them away from the true path, many times, and they had to learn to be steadfast and obedient.

The milestones for their journey were the Ten Commandments. There could be only one God, who must not be represented by any human images because he is far above and beyond the limits of human imagination. God’s name must not be misused or taken in vain. The sabbath must be kept as a special, holy day. Parents must be honoured. Murder, adultery, theft and false testimony were proscribed. And, finally, covetousness was placed out of bounds.

It’s a fairly comprehensive list. ‘Do you want the bad news or the good news first?’ Moses asked the people of Israel. ‘Let’s have the good news first,’ they replied. ‘I’ve managed to negotiate the commandments down to ten,’ Moses said, ‘But the bad news is that adultery’s still in!’

And yet Paul goes on to describe the way of The Law as the way to destruction. Greek philosophers, he says, have tried to argue their way to righteous living. Jewish people have tried to get there by dogged obedience. But faith in Christ nailed to the cross is the real way to freedom, for the weakness of God is stronger than human strength, and the folly of God is wiser than human wisdom.

So why does Bonhoeffer, the advocate of freedom, come down on the side of discipline?

At our Lent course last week - based on this year's Churches Together in Britain and Ireland Lent course - the leader told the story of the Revd Cecil Pugh, who was an RAF chaplain on the troopship Anselm, which sailed from Liverpool to the Gold Coast of West Africa in June 1941. Because of engine trouble The Anselm missed its convoy and continued alone, carrying 1300 allied airmen to what I suppose they thought would be an easy posting. However, in the early hours of the morning on 5 July The Anselm was hit by two torpedoes and sank in 22 minutes.

Years later, a staff sergeant wrote to a London newspaper with his recollections of that night. His letter provoked a deluge of responses from other survivors, and from their accounts it emerged that Pugh had been the hero of the hour.

Apparently, after the torpedoes struck, there was panic and confusion in the darkness. Unskilled airmen tried to help the crew launch the lifeboats, with the result that some got stuck and others landed upside down in the water.

Pugh, 42 years-old, had been a patient in the sickbay and came up on deck in his dressing gown, but he soon ‘seemed to be everywhere at once’. ‘Because he was not thinking of himself, his presence calmed the panic around him.’ The chaplain went round the ship encouraging men to jump to safety and swim to the upturned lifeboats. One man, hesitating on the deck, felt a hand on his shoulder and a voice in his ear which said, ‘Go with God.’

When the time came to evacuate the last men from the deck, Pugh was told that a number of men - some wounded - were still trapped in the hold where the torpedoes had struck. There was no hope of getting them out. He spoke to a group of marines who were standing around the open hatch leading to the hold and asked them to tie a rope around him and lower him in. The sergeant in charge refused, ‘If you go down there, Padre,’ he said, ‘You’ll never get out.’

Pugh, who was senior in rank, ordered him to do it. His last recorded words were, ‘My faith in God is greater than my fear of death. I must be where the men are.’ So they lowered him into the hold, which was already awash with water. Their last sight of Pugh, before they abandoned ship, was of the Chaplain standing up to his shoulders in water praying with the men.

When the story came to light Pugh was posthumously awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian award for bravery. The citation read, ‘He had every opportunity of saving his own life but, without regard to his own safety and in the best tradition of the service and of a Christian minister, he gave up his life for others.’

His is not the only example. Chaplains are usually left behind in the attack and can only imagine the horrors of the battlefield, but on board stricken troop ships they seem to come into their own. In February 1943 another troop ship - The Dorchester - was hit by a torpedo near Greenland shortly after the 900 men on board had retired to their bunks following an impromptu concert organised by the four chaplains. Three of the chaplains were Christians, one of them - George Fox - a Methodist, the fourth was a Jewish rabbi.

After the attack, with the ship again plunged into darkness, the four chaplains were seen persuading frightened men to climb down ropes into the lifeboats. All four gave away their own life jackets when the supply ran out. One gave a sailor his gloves. That man - who spent several hours thereafter clinging to an upturned lifeboat - recalled that without the gloves he would have lost his grip and been swept away.

Perhaps the chaplains had concluded that, in the ice cold water, they stood little chance of survival anyway, but as the evacuation continued their voices could be heard above the panic, still encouraging the other men not to be afraid and offering them words of comfort. At the last, before the ship went down, they were seen linking arms and praying together - in Hebrew, Latin and English. For their example of selflessness and bravery the American government decided to award them the Congressional Medal of Honour, but when it was discovered that this could only be awarded ‘for bravery under fire’ Congress created a special medal, The Chaplains’ Medal for Heroism, and awarded it to them posthumously in 1960.,

Of course, as we saw last week when we talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to return to Germany at the outbreak of War, the better to galvanise opposition to Hitler’s criminal policies, these are exceptional examples of the folly of the cross, the steadfast obedience to Christ example which leads to true freedom. But there are plenty of ordinary, everyday examples too where Christian people have disciplined themselves to follow the path of Christ.

Friends and family members were reminded when my mother died how, in years gone by, she used to organise - with other church members - a Christmas Day celebration for thirty or so isolated people who would otherwise have spent the day alone. One of her allotted tasks was to visit them beforehand, to confirm whether or not they wanted to come, and she was given a list for this purpose by Social Services. But, of course, she quickly discovered that these people were not only isolated on Christmas Day but all year round, and she soon fell into a discipline of regular visiting to those who were in greatest need. Many became her friends. One had a song played on the radio for us when Helen and I got married.

Social Services asked mum to visit one person, in particular, who had worn out the patience of several previous Good Samaritans. As it happened, this woman was never well enough to leave her apartment and attend the party on Christmas Day, but mum visted her every week, collecting her pension and other essentials and liaising with her home-help, simply refusing to be put off by the woman’s off-hand attitude. In the end, they become very close.

And, of course, there are examples of people in our own congregation, some still living, some who have died, who have been wonderful examples of the same sort of discipline which Bonhoeffer is talking about - doggedly working to support good causes or minister to people in need. But this is not just the sort of discipline which consists of trying to follow a rigid set of instructions for living, however inspired they might be. It’s the discipline which comes from accepting the folly and weakness of the Cross. It is about making ourselves vulnerable, just as Christ made himself vulnerable. It is, as someone has put it, about constantly striving to ‘open our hearts to the God who is present in all of life’.

I conclude with a poem which we read on Wednesday, as part of the Lent course, written by someone called Isobel de Gruchy.

The Combatants:

In this corner of the ring,

sitting waiting, ready and still,

Discipline; lean and tough,

stripped to the bare essentials,

plain and unappealing;

of mature years, though some

would claim long past it,

few fans, little publicity;

an unknown entity.

And in this corner of the ring, focus of all eyes,

Indulgence, prancing dancing, posing

to show to maximum effect,

amid the cameras’ flashing lights,

stunning looks, copious gold chains,

flamboyant robe: young and self-confidant,

the idol of many.

The time: today tomorrow, always

The referee: the arbiters of today’s values,

whenever it is today

The trophy: freedom

The venue: the world out there and the world within

The duration of the fight: till death – yours and mine

The Winner: all those acting, suffering, disciplined and dying, for Jesus

Christ’s sake.

The most revolutionary person on earth

Romans 4.13-25
Mark 8.31-38

What does it really mean to be free? In 1939, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to return home from the United States to Nazi Germany even though Germany had just embarked on a disastrous war and even though he was a sworn opponent of Adolf Hitler. He chose to leave a free country and return to a dictatorship. He chose to give up his freedom.

Explaining why he had done so he wrote thus to a friend: ‘I must live with the people of Germany through this difficult period in our national history. Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation, in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.’

This wasn’t a sudden change of heart. It was what Bonhoeffer had always felt deep down about his Christian faith. In a sermon given in 1932, he had said, ‘To be free is to be in love, is to be in the truth of God. Someone who loves because they have been made free by the truth of God is the most revolutionary person on earth.’ From that moment he was casting himself as the kind of person who can only be really free if they are standing up for what they believe to be right.

Paul says that Abraham was a revolutionary too. He and Sarah struck out into the wilderness, leaving behind a safe and secure lifestyle, and choosing instead to live purely by faith alone, believing that what they were being called to do was right. They went on hoping even when hope seemed hopeless. They believed in sheer grace, in the God who makes the dead live, who keeps his promises even when they seem impossible.

Christians, says Paul, are called to be heirs of Abraham - to live dangerously, placing themselves outside the law of Moses, relying on ‘the God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead’. For Jesus was raised from death as the proof that revolutionary faith, not hidebound tradition, is what counts.

No wonder that Bonhoeffer went back to Germany. he also had the example of Jesus, who began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man had to endure great suffering, and to be rejected and put to death. He spoke about it so plainly that Peter rebuked him. But Peter was not thinking like a revolutionary. He was like Bonhoeffer’s friends, who pleaded with him not to go back.

What Peter failed to understand was that there can be no resurrection without self-renunciation. Any would be follower of Jesus must take up his or her cross and follow the master. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it. What does anyone gain by winning the whole world, by clinging onto the illusion of freedom, at the cost of their true life or what they truly believe?

What can he or she give to buy back their life once it is lost? Instead, we must not be ashamed to hold fast to our faith in Jesus Christ crucified. That’s why Bonhoeffer went back.

But Bonhoeffer lived a long time ago. ‘Thank God,’ we might say, ‘That the challenges which faced him no longer face us.’

It strikes me that Abu Qatada is a religious revolutionary too. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer he has been prepared to go against the tide of public opinion, to speak out in God’s name, to challenge the prevailing authority and to lose his freedom. And it’s we, or at least British governments of both Left and Right, who have locked him up - and rightly so. His teaching incites people to acts of hatred and violence. He’s a menace to civilization not a bulwark of it. And, unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he isn’t willing to go home. He’s spent years fighting extradition to his own country. Most of all, although he believes - like Bonhoeffer - that he’s living and preaching the truth of God, although he is a kind of revolutionary, he isn’t the right kind. He isn’t someone who loves, or who lives and acts in the power of love.

In our Lent course - based on this year's Christians Together in Britain and Ireland Lent course - we have been thinking about ordinary Christian people who, like Bonhoeffer, have had the courage to stand up for what they believe - like the Christians who have challenged decisions by their employers to prevent them wearing crosses or crucifixes at work, or who have argued their right to practise what they believe even when it prevents gay people from enjoying the rights they also have enshrined in law. However, unlike Bonhoeffer, I guess these modern champions of Christian freedom might not see themselves as revolutionaries so much as counter-revolutionaries. Their mission is to turn back the tide to an era when more traditional Christian values prevailed. And we have to ask ourselves, therefore, whether their actions are always motivated by love as well as by a desire to uphold the truth. Remember how, in his sermon, Bonhoeffer linked the two things inseparably together. ‘To be free is to be in love,’ and ‘to be in the truth of God.’

Freedom in Christ is not the freedom to be self-indulgent, to have, or believe or do whatever we like or happen to think is true. But neither is it the freedom to tell other people what they should do. Nor, in the final analysis, is it even freedom of speech, or freedom for minorities - such as believers - not to be oppressed. It’s nice to have those freedoms. They are our right as human beings. And that’s why we can get into trouble with the law when our rights clash with the human rights of other minority groups. Yet in the end what matters most before God are not these human rights but the freedom to love our neighbours, the freedom - in other words - from self-absorption and self-centredness so that we are enabled to know and to feel what it must be like to be in someone else’s shoes, and to love them as we love ourselves.

Ultimate freedom is the freedom to let go and let God, to renounce self and, to lose life itself - if necessary - in the pursuit of truth and love. That is what Bonhoeffer did. He went from a free and democratic society in the United States back to a dictatorship in Nazi Germany, where he ended up on a scaffold in the pursuit of what it really means to be free.

Sir Walter Scott is a romantic poet who is now out of favour, but in 1993 he was quoted by the heroine of the film Groundhog Day:

The wretch, concentred all in self,

Living, shall forfeit fair renown,

And, doubly dying, shall go down

To the vile dust from whence he sprung,

Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.

Those lines, from his poem, ‘Breathes There The Man’, encapsulate the theme of the movie - that it’s only when we stop being self-obsessed and inward-looking that we become someone who is no longer a wretch but, instead, is worth knowing; someone who changes the world for the better and makes other people feel better about themselves. In the film the anti-hero, self-regarding weatherman Phil Connors, spends an eternity learning this lesson. In real life there isn’t much time to learn it. Only God can save us from ourselves.

So, how do we do it? How do we let God saves us from self-absorption and set us free? John Wesley said, ‘Embrace the will of God, however painful, daily, hourly, continually.’ Someone else has said that in order to live we have to stop being afraid of dying. And finally, another Christian thinker has said that following the way of Jesus and the way of the cross must begin with small steps. Later, he says, we will look up and discover how far Jesus has led us along the way to freedom.

What's in a name?

Genesis 17.3-8 & 15-16

A baptism or christening used to be the time when babies were given their names, usually very soon after they were born. That’s changed, of course. Parents now have to register our names with the government instead, and usually long before we’re baptised. And, of course, some people aren’t baptised at all, but they still have names!

Giving someone a name is something that most of us don’t get to do very often. We might get to name our pets, but even the most fortunate of us only get to name a child a very few times in our lives. People have asked me whether I like my grandchildren’s names, but that’s neither here nor there. I didn’t get to choose their names, or even to have a say. They are who they are. I got to help name their mother.

A long time ago I worked with a minister from Fiji. It’s the custom in Fiji to choose at least one name for each of your children which reflects the place where they were born. So he called one of his daughters Rose, because we were living in the county of Lancashire - the red rose county - and another one he called Wigan, because we were working in Wigan. It’s just her good luck I suppose that we weren’t working in Pontefract at the time!

Does anyone know what their name means? (If not, why not visit a site like www.mfnames.com to find out?)

Names are very important in the Bible. Abraham means ‘father of many nations’. God chose the name for Abraham as a sign that - because of his faithfulness in following God and believing in him - he would become an example to, and the ancestor of, millions upon millions of people.

Before God changed his name, he was called something very similar, Abram, but although Abram sounds like Abraham it has a very different meaning: it means high father. Perhaps that’s because he was supposed to be an ‘important father’, or perhaps it means he was expected to be someone very tall.

Sarah, Abraham’s wife, had a name which means ‘princess’, and her name was changed by God too. But I think that was just to make her feel that she wasn’t being left out, because Sarai - her old name before God changed it - means exactly the same thing as Sarah. However, she too had shown great faithfulness and courage, so they both deserved a new name.

Simon, the friend of Jesus, was given a new name as well. Simon was a perfectly fine name. It means either ‘someone who’s a good listener’ or ‘someone who is listened to by others’. But Simon wasn’t a very good listener. He didn’t always hear what Jesus was really saying. And even when he did understand what Jesus meant, he didn’t always say or do the right thing. He wasn’t always someone who should be listened to. So Jesus gave him a new name, Peter, which means ‘Rock’. In the end, although he didn’t always listen properly or say the right thing straightaway, Peter was a solid kind of guy, someone dependable and trustworthy.

Jesus means ‘God saves’, someone who can rescue us or hold our hand when we’re in any kind of trouble, and ‘Christ’, the other name by which Jesus is often known, means ‘God’s chosen leader’. Funnily enough, people are often called Jesus - especially in other languages, not in English - yet no one is ever called Christ. But people can be called Christians, which means followers of Jesus, and baptism is one of the signs that we belong to Jesus and are being called to follow him all our lives.

Paige means ‘servant girl’ and ‘Elisa’ means ‘God’s promise’. So the name Paige Elisa is a reminder to us all that God will keep his promise to love and care for us, and in return he asks us to be his servants all our life long.

Doing our duty

1 Corinthians 9.16-23
Mark 1.29-39

I guess a lot of preachers will understand how St Paul was feeling when he wrote, ‘Even if I preach the gospel, I can claim no credit for it; I cannot help myself; it would be agony for me not to preach!’ It was something that he just felt impelled to do. And when he was under arrest, and couldn’t preach in person, he carried on his ministry in letters which he entrusted to his many visitors. Today, of course, he would be in his element! He would be able to blog, or even tweet, his thoughts and reach people far and wide.

Preaching is something that people feel called to do. But not just preaching. As St Paul himself recognised, we can be called to a great many different tasks by God. And then we can claim no credit for what we achieve; they are things that we couldn’t help doing; it would have been agony not to do them.

The removal of Sir Fred Goodwin’s knighthood has called into question the whole ramshackle honours system. Why should some people be rewarded and recognised for doing what is really just their duty, while other people’s efforts pass unnoticed and unremarked? Aren’t we all just supposed to do what God wants us to do, without claiming any credit for it or receiving any honours?

Inadvertently perhaps, St Paul also reminds us how frustrating it can be for people who like doing things, but can no longer do them. We live in a culture, for which St Paul himself is perhaps partly responsible, that doesn‘t give enough value to simply being, or reflecting, or praying, but sees doing as more important.

St Paul goes on to make a point against other leaders of the church at Corinth, whom he thought were perhaps a little too highly regarded. It would seem that some of them had accepted payment for their work, but St Paul had always made a point of paying his own way by making and selling tents, so that his ministry was ‘without expense to anyone’. Not that he thought for a moment that he didn’t deserve payment. He himself said that the labourer is worthy of his - or her - wages, but in Corinth he was prepared to waive his entitlement so as to be free to say and do exactly what he thought was right, and so as not to be a burden on anyone.

This attitude has coloured the approach to ministry in the Church ever since. To this day, for better or worse, ministers do not receive a salary, but an allowance to meet their needs and release them from doing other work.

The banking crisis has, of course, thrown up another hate figure to rival Fred Goodwin, and that is - of course, the current chief executive, Stephen Hester, who has been forced to forego his annual bonus. People have asked whether he really needs a bonus on top of his salary to incentivise him to run the Bank.

Interestingly, I heard Greg Dyke, the former Director General of the BBC, talking on the radio the other day. He was asked whether it really made sense to cut the next Director General’s salary by a third and he said that it probably did. When he took the job, he said, it wasn’t about the money. He had taken a huge cut in his income just for the prestige and satisfaction of getting the best job in broadcasting! That I guess is the kind of spirit in which ministers are expected to work.

Being free to say and do whatever he thought was right didn’t mean, however, that St Paul felt entitled to lord it over the people he was preaching to and pastoring. He had tried, he says, to make himself ‘everyone’s servant, to win over as many as possible’.

Ministers often say, no doubt to the infuriation of some lay people, that they are nobody’s servant but God’s. It’s interesting that St Paul doesn’t take the same line. People can’t boss him about, he owes them absolutely nothing, but nonetheless he tries to do what they would like him to do if he possibly can.

This approach doesn’t recommend itself just to ministers. I was intrigued that, in the same interview, Greg Dyke said the reason why he was so well loved and well respected by the staff at the BBC was because he had listened to what they wanted him to do and then he had tried to see whether he could make it happen. Things didn’t always work out as his staff might have liked, but at least they trusted him to be on their side.

St Paul concludes this passage with a fascinating insight into his strategy for mission. He has always tried, he says, to get alongside people, to see how it feels to be in their shoes. It could seem like running with the crowd or bending with the wind, striving to fit in with other people and please them at the expenses of his own values and beliefs. But St Paul insists that his actions have been shaped by a deeper imperative, to share God’s love with all sorts and kinds of people.

I think it’s one of the justifications for doing interfaith work, as well as for trying to get alongside people in the pub and the cafe, or on the stock exchange. The key thing is to remember that it is ‘to them all’ that we have to reach out, not just to some.

So, for example, the recent decision of an Anglican Diocese to get rid of their social responsibility officer while at the same time creating a new post to help them get alongside and minister to corporate businesses caused bewilderment and disappointment, not because the world of corporate business doesn’t need, or somehow doesn’t qualify for, spiritual support but because the poor and disadvantaged need support as well.

It follows that our task, here in Sandal, is to make ourselves everyone’s servant, so that we can help to share the blessings of the gospel with all the different communities and interest groups on our patch.

Our gospel reading begins with another story of someone who, like St Paul, became a servant of all - in this case quite literally meeting the needs of all the guests in her home - after she met Jesus. In this way she becomes a paradigm of all those who willingly undertake their work, and seek to do their very best, for love of and in response to Jesus their Lord.

And then it continues with a vivid reminder that the gospel really is for all - for people with every kind of need and from every place. Above all, it reminds us that just as St Paul felt impelled, by his calling from Jesus, to preach, so Jesus felt compelled to proclaim his message wherever he could.

And, as we have seen. all of us have a part in that same calling; some of us as preachers and some of us as doers of the Word. St Francis of Assissi is supposed to have told his followers, ‘Go out and preach the Gospel. If you have to, use words.’ Actually, what he really told his followers, in the Rule he gave them, was: ‘Don’t preach without the proper permission. However, you can still preach by your actions.’ It’s not quite as catchy, but I’m sure we all understand and share the sentiment.

Isaiah and the emoticons

Isaiah 40:21-31

The Prophet reminds us of all the different feelings we experience when we think about our world. If we were to think it’s only here by chance, or by accident, then we would just have to take what comes - the rough with the smooth. But if we think the world is here because God set the universe in motion and gave it the potential to evolve the way it has done over billions of years, then the feelings we are likely to have could be very mixed.

As the Prophet says, we might feel surprise - surprise that, compared to the vastness of the galaxies, we matter to God at all.

We might feel worried or puzzled at the immense changes that happen each year, which can sweep politicians and chief executives away like straw being blown about in a storm, or carry off towns and cities. Why does God allow these things to happen? Are they part of a plan, or are they just chance events brought about by the coming together of lots of different causes?

When we look at the immense beauty of the world, and the universe beyond, we might just feel like rejoicing and being glad. When bad things happen, and we wonder why, we might feel glum, or even angry with God for letting things go wrong. Ad when we’re tired, we might fee down-hearted.

But in the end, the Prophet thinks that if we believe in God the strongest and most enduring feeling we will have is trust. Whatever happens, and whether we can explain it or not, we will trust that the world is basically good and God cares for us and wants the best for us.