Sunday, September 10, 2017

Changing Tradition

Exodus 30.1-10, 22-33, Hebrews 9.1-12
The rituals surrounding incense may seem irrelevant to Methodist worship in the Twenty-first Century, and yet they raise intriguing questions which are still relevant to us.
When I was a minister in the inner city, twenty years ago now, there was some discussion about joining our congregation with the equally small and struggling Anglican congregation next-door. But there was an insurmountable problem. For many years, until the man who mixed the incense left the church, they were in the habit of using incense during their services. At intervals they would waft great clouds of it over the congregation, the lectern and the altar.
‘If we worship there the incense will get on my chest,’ one church steward declared. The fact that she was a heavy smoker probably got on her chest too, but seemed to be of less concern. She would have sympathised with the more traditionally minded worshippers of ancient Israel, who had their own concerns about incense.
Originally a special altar for offering incense was more closely associated with paganism than with the worship Israel’s one true God. So the whole idea of using incense was treated with some caution, as though it were an alien idea, just as it was to my Methodist congregation in the inner city.
As late as time of the Prophet Ezekiel, who lived during the exile in Babylon, incense finds no place in his vision of what reconstructed Temple worship should look like when his people return from exile. But, of course, people who liked incense were bound to ask, ‘Why not?’
There were some aspects of pagan worship which were clearly abhorrent to all right thinking people, such as Temple prostitutes taking part in fertility rites or the offering of child sacrifices to appease the gods. But what could be wrong with a bit of nice sweet smelling incense?
Even if people no longer believed the primitive idea that God would only be pleased with their sacrifices if they were accompanied by a nice smell, wouldn’t incense and sweet smelling ointment be bound to make things and people holier, and somehow cleaner and fresher, when they were anointed? And wouldn’t it be an appropriate way of setting them apart or dedicating them for worship of the most holy God?
As late as the Nineteenth Century, people still thought that diseases were transmitted through the air by the bad smell that came from putrefying things, so making people and things smell nice would help to purify them and make them antiseptic. It’s easy to see, therefore, why there was pressure to introduce more incense into Temple worship after the people of Judah returned from exile.
Didn’t incense have the potential to make worship better and more pure? And even if that was dismissed as superstitious nonsense, what possible harm could it do unless you had a bad chest?
Once the innovators had won the argument and created a space for incense in the restored Temple worship after the exile, their next task was to make it seem like an old tradition that was being rediscovered. Religious people always like to think that what they believe and do has a long and distinguished pedigree, that they stand in a long line of true believers. So what better proof could there be than to rediscover a link going right back to Moses and Aaron, the founders of Israelite worship? And that’s  where this section of the Book of Exodus comes in. It legitimises a new innovation by making it seem old and respectable.
Even assuming that we’re not very interested in using incense or perfume in our own worship, this passage still raises intriguing question for us is. If holy scripture legitimises this kind of change and innovation, does it then give us permission to change and innovate the way we worship and what we believe? Are we allowed to revisit our own Methodist traditions and introduce what might otherwise seem to be new ways of worshipping, and new ways of thinking, which seem to us to be in keeping with the past and legitimate ways of developing those traditions?
If we’re just thinking about worship, the answer is pretty straightforward. We can, of course, introduce new songs, new patterns of prayer, new styles of worship, if these things seem to develop and build on what our ancestors in the faith did in the past. They too were innovating. John Wesley was persuaded to preach outdoors, which he at first considered to be a terrible comedown from preaching in church. Hymn writers like his brother Charles wrote new words to fit folk melodies and country dance tunes. At its beginning, Methodist worship was daring and cutting edge. If anything, by clinging to the Methodist traditions which these innovators created, we have lost touch with what they were trying to do, which was to make worship popular again and bring it to people who had lost touch with church.
BUt what if we go further, and revisit some of the traditional ideas which Christians assume are unshakably true? Doesn’t the same principle apply? So long as it does no harm, but only good, shouldn’t we be open to exploring new ways of thinking?
There will always be lines which we cannot cross if we are to remain in touch with and true to the past, like the refusal of the innovators in the Jewish Temple to allow sacred prostitution even though it was commonplace in pagan religion at the time. But, for instance, does it legitimate a re-examination of what Christians think about human sexuality and gender, given that human development and psychology are now understood very differently from the way they were understood - for instance - in the time of St Paul?
Less controversially, this passage also allows us to build on Biblical tradition to draw new conclusions about many other things which were beyond the imagining of our forebears in the faith - global warming, assisted conception, genetic engineering, nuclear physics, the list is endless. The same litmus test applies as was used to decide about using sweet smelling ointment and incense in the Temple. Could one of these innovations do any harm or cause an irreconcilable break with our tradition? If not, are there ways in which we can engage with them from a Christian point of view, rather than simply shrugging our shoulders and admitting that the Bible and tradition have nothing to say about them? To avoid becoming increasingly irrelevant, don’t we have to respond to new and changing circumstances, while keeping appropriate safeguards to protect the unchanging core of what we believe?
What this passage from Exodus shows us is that religious tradition is not set in stone. It’s a journey of discovery; a journey that must stay true to its roots but which doesn’t have to cling to them unquestioningly; a journey which allows us to build on and develop what happened in the past.
New life and meaning can be breathed into decayed traditions when they are radically transformed by our openness to God’s new purposes for them. That, after all, is what happened to the old tradition of the altar of incense, and the priests who served before it. Once it too had been a startling new innovation, but it was superseded in its turn when  Jesus himself made holiness available for all of us by taking an old and cherished tradition and reinterpreting it through his death on the cross.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Plato's Republic and the Teaching of Jesus

Matthew 10:26-28, Luke 16:19-31
In his book The Republic, the philosopher Plato wondered what would happen if we could do anything we liked without being detected and punished. He drew on the fable of the shepherd Gyges who, after an earthquake, stumbled upon an ancient tomb where he discovered a magic ring. By twisting the ring in his finger or in his pocket he found that he could make himself invisible. Using his new gift Gyges went to the palace, crept into the queen’s bedroom, seduced her and then persuaded her to help him kill the king, a task for which the invisible ring also came in very handy.
In The Republic Plato's mentor Socrates poses the question, ‘What might we be tempted to do if we thought we could get away with something wicked without being detected?’ The virtuous person would, of course, behave just the same way if they thought they were invisible as they would if they thought someone could see them. But are we really that virtuous?
A security guard was the only person who worked in his office block at night. He could go anywhere he liked and in fact he was encouraged to patrol all around the building to make sure it was secure. Only one place was out of bounds, and that was the boss’s office!
Of course, curiosity soon got the better of him and after a time he became determined to look inside. He tried every key he could find, but none of them fitted the lock. Eventually he realised that the only way to see inside the boss’s office was to peer through the keyhole. Imagine the surprise he got when he saw an eye staring straight back at him. The boss had put a big poster of an eye on the opposite wall from the door so that it would look as though someone was also staring through the keyhole straight back at him on the opposite side of the door!
The boss knew that his security guards would never be able to resist the temptation to peek. By the same token, Plato wondered how many people would ever be virtuous enough to resist the temptation to do something they shouldn't if they thought they could really get away with it!
Jesus warns his follower that there’s no such thing as a secret disciple. He wants megaphone disciples, but elsewhere he poses an even harder challenge than Socrates. He asks how many of us are virtuous enough to do our good deeds in private, where no one else will ever know about them? Aren't we always tempted to let people to know how good we are so that we can get the recognition we think we deserve?
Plato also told another story in the Republic. He said that life is a bit like being imprisoned in a cave. The prisoners are chained up so that they can’t look behind them. All they can see is the wall of the cave in front of their faces. But behind them the guards have lit a fire, to keep warm and light up the cave. The prisoners cannot see the fire, only the shadows that it casts on the wall they’re facing.
Suppose one of the guards walked up to the fire behind them carrying a rabbit, maybe intending to cook it for dinner in a pot. The prisoners would see only the shadow of the rabbit. If they asked the guard what he was was holding, and he told them it was a rabbit, that’s what they would think a rabbit looks like. It would be similar to a game of shadow puppets, where someone makes the shadow of a rabbit’s head and ears on the wall, only in the cave the guard would actually be holding a real rabbit which the prisoners couldn't see.
But suppose that at long last one of the prisoners escaped, wriggled out of her fetters, went to the entrance of the cave and saw rabbits running about wild in the fields. Suddenly she would know how things really are, instead of how they just seemed to be in the cave. And what if she then came back to visit the prisoners and tell them what she had seen, or even to set them free too?
Of course, the cave is just an allegory. Really it’s us who are the prisoners! We imagine we're seeing what's really going on when actually we're only seeing part of the picture. But what if someone were able to put that right and show us what we're missing?
Jesus tells us a story like this too, the Parable of Dives and Lazarus, the rich man and the poor man. Dives leads a life of luxury and ignores the poor man, Lazarus, begging at his gate. But when they die Dives finds their roles are reversed. He’s now the one facing multiple disadvantages, as he burns in Hell, while Lazarus is now the one enjoying all the privileges of life in Heaven. Dives wants to go and warn his brothers what life is really like, but Jesus points out that they're unlikely to believe him. They’ve always lived in the world of shadows. Why should they believe the truth about what it’s like to live in the real world outside the cave?
And Jesus concludes that even if, in the real world outside the story, someone came back from the dead, most people would choose not to believe it was true. People are imprisoned in a false world view, but that prison is sometimes more comfortable than the truth.
There’s a proverb which says that people see only what they expect to see, like the crew of an allied bomber that flew back from a night-time sortie over Italy during World War II towards their base in northern Libya. A strong air current picked up the plane and carried them across the Mediterranean much faster than they’d expected, so they refused to believe their instruments when the dashboard told them that they’d arrived back over their destination. They carried on flying and by the time they realised their mistake they were deep into the desert. They crash landed when their fuel ran out and only years later were their bodies recovered, sitting beside the  plane, together with a brief account of what had gone wrong written in their logbook.
Are we the kind of people who always want to do the right thing or who only do what's right because we're afraid of getting caught if we transgress? And are we the kind of people who prefer a miserable but familiar captivity to the risk and excitement of true freedom, or the kind of people who want to live life to the full? Are we the kind of people who prefer to continue in trusted routines, the way we’ve always done, until we run out of fuel and crash land, or the kind of people who are waiting - not to be tempted by the Devil, as Jesus was in the wilderness, to do reckless and dangerous things - but  for God to show us new opportunities or new directions of travel so long as they're the right way to go?
Jesus said, ‘If you obey my teaching you are really my disciples, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.’

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Don't Give UP

James 4:13-5:11
I work for part of my time as the manager of a community organisation in Sheffield called Darnall Forum. It provides adult community learning, especially for people who didn’t grow up speaking English, gives employment advice and runs the local post office. But ‘austerity’ has hit us hard.
Older readers will remember a song about a Wild West settler called George whose wagon - loaded with all his possessions and carrying his wife and children  too - is being pursued by Cherokee Indians. ‘Three wheels on my wagon,’ he sings, ‘But I’m still rolling along!’ That’s how it often feels at Darnall Forum. The wheels are coming off the wagon, one by one, but we’re still just about rolling along.
My wife sometimes asks me, ‘How long is Darnall Forum going to keep going?’ and I never know the answer. James tells his readers, ‘You should know better than to say, “We’ll do business in the City for a year and make a lot of money.” What do you know,’ he goes on, ‘About tomorrow?’ Well I certainly think Darnall Forum will never make a lot of money any time soon, but, as I said to someone the other day, ‘Tomorrow continually surprises me.’
And it continually surprises politicians, doesn’t it? I predicted a month ago, when we were reflecting on the lessons we might learn from the sudden and unexpected defeat of a proud and mighty ruler in the time of the Prophet Isaiah, that Theresa May would be in trouble if she didn’t win a landslide in the general election. It seems her advisers would have done well to consider James’s words, ‘What do you know about tomorrow?’
The same advice applies to every one of us, doesn’t it? Human beings are hardwired to be optimistic and to make plans for the coming week, the coming month and the coming year, on the assumption that life will go on much as before. If we weren’t made that way our ancestors would never have dared to get up in a morning and go out onto the plains to hunt and forage for their dinner. They would have been so worried that a leopard was going to jump on them that they would have pulled the covers over their heads and stayed by the embers of last night’s campfire.
No one goes to a concert, or out to dinner, or sightseeing, or to pray, or to bed in their own home, thinking that some terrible tragedy is suddenly going to unfold around them. But James asks, ‘How can you be so sure about your life?’ He doesn’t want us to be totally dismayed, but he counsels that ‘[our life] is nothing more than mist, which appears for only a little while before it disappears.’
That could seem a rather bleak way of looking at things and, as I said, thinking like that runs counter to the way we’ve evolved as a species. Except that James doesn’t tell us we shouldn’t be optimistic. He just reminds us to temper our optimism with a bit of humility. He advises us to think like this, ‘If the Lord lets us live, we will do these things.’ In other words, life doesn’t owe us a living. We should place our trust in God and hope that - whatever comes our way - he will help us to accept and deal with it.
This doesn’t mean that James is fatalistic. He isn’t suggesting that everything which happens in life is the way God means it to be. There used to be a verse in ‘All thing bright and beautiful’ which went,
‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.’
That’s far from the way James thinks about life. If he wants us to be humble, and not to expect too much out of life, that doesn’t mean he wants us to be passive and put up with injustice and wrongdoing. As one commentator puts it, ‘For James holiness without justice is an impossibility,’ so we can’t be holy just by putting up with things the way they are now. We can only be holy by working for change.
James warns wealthy people, ‘Here on earth, you have thought only of filling your own stomachs and having a good time. You keep on storing up wealth in these last days. You refused to pay the people who worked in your fields, and now their unpaid wages are shouting out against you. The Lord All-Powerful has surely heard [their] cries.’
Is James thinking here about the parable of the rich farmer, who built bigger and bigger barns to store his surpluses in, only to die before he could enjoy the benefits? If so, he’s referring to a longer version where it turned out that the farmer was amassing so much wealth only because he was exploiting his workers.
We may not be farmers but the lesson still applies to our situation. In Sheffield the City Council reluctantly gave planning permission for a big new store, but on the strict condition that the store’s owners employed as many local people as possible. This was partly because the Council’s public health officers had warned that traffic pollution, caused by cars queuing to get into the store car park, would shorten the lives of local residents. However, having a job helps people live a little longer, so the officers hoped to balance out the harm caused by extra pollution with the benefit brought by providing extra jobs for unemployed people.
Unfortunately it didn’t work out like that. Only five per cent of the jobs went to local residents. And this is just typical of a pattern of broken promises, where local people - who will be the worst affected by a new development - are given assurances that turn out to be just as elusive as the mist that James described.
Of course, the same sort of thing happens around Pomtefract sometimes, too. This week I conducted the funeral of someone who, back in the 1950s, helped to build the British Coal power station at Grimethorpe. As he went on to hold a very responsible position, working on contracts across the North of England, I surmised that he might also have been involved in a groundbreaking experiment at Grimethorpe to see whether electricity generated by burning coal could be made more efficient and environmentally friendly. If you’ve not heard about this so-called ‘clean-burn technology’ it’s because in 1988 the government decided to stop funding it.
One of the local MPs protested to an empty House of Commons. He said, ‘The project has been very successful. The decision to withdraw funding is somewhat shortsighted, not only because of the continued threat to jobs and the community in that area, but because of the mounting pressure both in Britain and throughout the world for more environmentally acceptable methods of producing electricity.’ But, of course, his and the protests of other local MPs fell on deaf ears and we all know how the story ended.
Of course, our problems pale into insignificance compared to the issue of cladding high rise tower blocks with materials that weren’t fire resistant, just to save £5,000 out of a £10 million project. No wonder James warns that people who make these kinds of decision may sometimes ‘have condemned and murdered innocent people, who couldn’t even fight back.’
What is James’s answer to injustice and wrongdoing? Well, he tells us to ‘be patient like farmers who wait patiently for the spring and summer rains to make their valuable crops grow and don’t give up.’
I’ve been trying to grow dwarf runner beans and French beans this summer. I must have planted a couple of hundred seeds. At first I planted them under cover. The first batch either didn’t come up,because of the cold, or rotted because the compost was too damp. I tried again, and this time those that survived withered in the hot sun. So then I planted them either directly into the ground, in a raised bed, or in containers, only to have the birds hunt for them very efficiently, leaving me with about five plants so far  to show for all my efforts! I must admit my patience is running out.
But James says, ‘Be patient and follow the example of the prophets who spoke for the Lord. They were patient, even when they had to suffer.’ Notice again how James doesn’t ask us to do nothing, to stoically put up with what’s wrong. He tells us to be to be like the prophets and speak against injustice and wrongdoing, even if we have to suffer. There’s nothing easy about the faith of James. He expects us to have to struggle for what is right, to endure setbacks and to face hardship and challenge. However, he offers us this promise, ‘Finally [the Lord will help us]… because he is so merciful and kind.’

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

London Bridge and the commandments of Jesus

Exodus 20.1-17, Matthew 22:36-40
Do you have any school rules at  your school, or did you have school rules when you used to be a pupil? One of the rules when I started secondary school was that boys must wear a cap, so my parent dutifully bought one for 7/6, which was a fair bit of money in those days. On my first day I turned up wearing the new cap but one of the older boys said, ‘Put that away right now or someone will snatch it off your head and you’ll spend the rest of the day chasing round trying to get it back.’ So I stuffed it in my pocket and never wore it again. My parents were not pleased.
But that was nothing compared to the money we wasted on two knee length pleated woollen skirts which the school rules said my daughter Jenny must wear when she went to secondary school. On her first day I dropped her off just as an older girl walked in front of the car wearing nothing - well, I mean she did have shoes and tights on - but otherwise nothing more than a little tie, a blouse, a blazer and a fairly broad black cotton belt . She had no skirt on of any description, so far as I could see, and certainly not a knee-length one. I knew immediately that we’d been had! And Helen had to set to and make Jenny two new plain skirts which weren’t as cheeky as the belt version but only came down to an inch above the knee.
Well anyway, we were taking tea in the servants’ hall at Hanbury Hall the other week, as you do, when some other rules caught my eye - the house rules for the servants. Someone had helpfully put them up on the wall in case we were new servants, or visiting for the first time to look after our master or mistress during their stay.
There are only ten commandments in the Bible, and Jesus boiled them down to three, but at Hanbury Hall there were 17 rules to be obeyed. The first one forbade servants from playing games for money and using abusive language. That’s two rules really, isn’t it? But presumably whoever drew up the rules felt that people who use abusive language are likely to be the same sort of daredevils who are apt to play Monopoly for real money.
The rules don’t say what they mean by abusive language, either. Is it calling someone else ‘fat’ or ‘stupid’ because they’ve beaten us at Tiddlywinks? Or does it mean swearing? Perhaps we’d better not test the boundaries! Who knows what might happen if we did?
When I was a child my grandmother used to say that bairns should be seen and not heard. This never seemed right to me, and fortunately it didn’t seem right to my parents either. But that’s how it was for servants at Hanbury Hall. They must be seen but not heard!
They couldn’t even talk to one another in the hearing of their so-called ‘betters’’. And if they met a member of the family, or one of their guests, on the stairs they had to stand aside to make way for them and look away instead of looking at them.
Although they weren’t allowed to answer back - or start a conversation with - the people they worked for, even just to say ‘goodnight’, the servants still had to pay careful attention when they were being spoken to. They had to stand still and look at the person speaking to them - unless, of course, they met on the stairs. And they had to say, ‘Yes Sir’ or ‘Yes Ma’am’ when they were given an order, just to show that they’d heard.
You might think that when they heard the doorbell ring the servants ought to have  stopped what they were doing to answer it. But no, they were to ignore it. Only the butler could answer the door!
And there could be no snacking in their bedrooms - not even a biscuit and a cup of cocoa. The servants could only eat in the servants’ hall and they had to be punctual for meals otherwise, presumably, they didn’t get to eat at all.
And that wasn’t the only time when punctuality was called for. They had to be in for the night by half-past ten sharp, and if they stayed in the house on their evening off, they had better have a good book to read or some sewing or model-making to do, because there wasn’t any TV or radio and they couldn’t have any visitors - not even members of their own family.
Any maid servant who was found with a member of the opposite sex when she was off work would be dismissed, ‘without a hearing’ the rules say. This only applied to girls, mind you, not boys. So long as they were meeting members of the opposite sex outside the house, boys might get away with it. And boys were allowed to smoke too, whereas it was forbidden for female servants to smoke. So these rules were never about fairness, let alone equality.
You may say, of course, that - like school rules - the servants’ rules were made to be broken and the servants probably ignored them cheerfully. You may also say that you never missed an episode of Downton Abbey and a lot of these rules were broken there.
But at least we live in a different sort of society now, don’t we, where most houses don’t have servants any more and even those which do wouldn’t dare to treat them like this. We like to feel that we have a lot less rules and we can do more or less as we wish. The servants’ rules are still on the wall at Hanbury Hall, but no one takes any notice of them except as a reminder of a bygone age.
Yet those rules I mentioned from the Bible - the Ten Commandments and the commandments of Jesus - still apply to us. They haven’t gone away. But like us with the rules we’ve inherited, Jesus takes the roles from the Old Testament and boils them down to what really matters: ‘Love God and love others as much as you love yourself,” or - in another version - “love one another the way I have loved you.”
When we baptise a small child we obviously don’t expect her to make all the promises we might expect from an older person but we are asking something of her family, her friends and the church where she belongs. We’re asking them, you, us, to be a good example to her - to love God and love one another the way Jesus loves her and the way we should like to be loved.
No other rules really matter, but these rules are exacting enough. In the second version of his commandment about love, the one in John’s Gospel, Jesus told his friends, “Now I tell you to love each other, as I have loved you. And the greatest way to show love for your friends is to die for them.” In fact St Paul pointed out, in his letter to his friends in Rome, that Jesus’ love went even further than that. He wrote, “God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful,” in other words even before we were his friends. Can we love like that?
Kirsty Boden, a 28 year-old nurse, died last weekend “because she ran towards danger in an effort to help strangers who had been attacked on London Bridge.” I hope it never comes to a matter of life and death, but we’re asked to love others that much. The men who stabbed her claimed they were doing it out of love for God, but the true expression of love for God is to show love to one another.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Three Characteristics of Genuine Mission

Luke 2.1-20
The story of God’s mission in Jesus straight away introduces us to three of the essential characteristics of any true missionary enterprise. If our mission doesn’t look like this then we’re deluding ourselves that we’re really engaging in Christian mission at all.
First, real mission involves a journey. At the most basic level it means travelling outside our comfort zone. More than that, it involves going out into the world rather than staying inside the stockade. More even than that, it means going to new places - not necessarily new places on the map of the world but also places where we don’t normally go in our own communities. That might be the pub, or the school gates, or the elderly people’s lunch club.
When he moved to live near us, my Dad said he was more than happy to join the local Methodist Church but he drew the line at going to the elderly persons’ lunch club, because he said he was sure that he wouldn’t have anything in common with the other people there. It was impossible to test this hypothesis, because he wouldn’t try it even once. But even if it were true, is that a reason not to go?
As Christians we’re supposed to be on a journey, and that means being prepared to go not just to a different church but into totally new situations where initially we may feel uncomfortable. Mission is about meeting new people and trying new things. But, of course, it’s a challenge - something that’s much easier said than done.
Second, effective mission is characterised by weakness. God’s mission in Jesus begins on a bed of hay. It doesn’t depend on having loads of resources. It doesn’t depend on having all the answers. It doesn’t depend on instant success. It grows instead from tiny beginnings, as small as a mustard seed or a baby in a manger. Setbacks and rejection are an inevitable part of the process.
Someone was asked why he’d moved from England to Silicone Valley in California. He gave a number of reasons. It has the best infrastructure in the world for IT companies. Lots of people there are willing to invest in IT. There's lots of groundbreaking research going on. But, crucially, it doesn't matter in California if you try something out and it fails. There people are always ready to give you another chance. Weakness and failure are seen as phases that we all have to go through.
If our mission isn’t characterised by failure and weakness then it isn’t real Christian mission because it means we’re not taking enough risks, we’re playing too safe. But, unlike Silicone Valley, weakness isn’t a temporary phase that we’re supposed to grow out of. It’s a permanent characteristic of true Christian mission patterned on Jesus. His mission began on a bed of hay and reached its culmination on a cross. True Christian mission should always be risk-taking. It should always make us vulnerable.
Finally, real mission always gets a mixed reception. Some people welcome and embrace it. They’re like the shepherds in the Christmas story. Other people are hostile and reject it. They’re like King Herod in the parallel story about the magi. And then there are the fence sitters, the people who hear the shepherds saying wonderful things about Jesus but reserve judgement or turn a deaf ear because they don’t want to be challenged or disturbed.
They’re the mirror image of the Christian community which doesn’t engage  in real mission because they prefer to play safe and talk only to themselves. In the same way the fence sitters and the deniers don’t respond to real mission because they feel safer or more comfortable sticking to their own certainties or their own established way of life. They do hear the shepherds but they pretend not to have heard them or shout them down.
If we don’t get a mixed response to our attempts at mission, if everyone’s kind about it, and encouraging and says they’re sure to be along next time we do something, it can't be real mission. We might be engaging with the community, but we’re not engaging in Christian mission until we get a mixed response.

Friday, May 19, 2017

When God is Pierced by Grief

Luke 2.27-35
Simeon is the sort of purveyor of doom and gloom whom we can well do without when we’re celebrating something good, like a new birth or a christening, because he’s likely to spoil our mood. Mary and Joseph were feeling happy and optimistic because they were dedicating their firstborn son to God in the Temple, and at first Simeon made them feel even better when he told them that their son was destined to be a guiding light, pointing all the nations of the world to God’s way for them. It’s amazing stuff. But then he spoilt it all by revealing that, from his perspective, the glass was only half full and a lot of emptiness remained. And it was an emptiness filled not just with uncertainty, but with rejection, denial, pain and suffering.
The definition of a parent is someone who worries about their children. The columnist Gaby Hinsliffe said that after the suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena 'all parents were reminded of the never-ending dread of losing a child.' And that goes for grandparents to! She wrote, 'To love is to fear, and that is what I never really grasped before parenthood... Having children is one long process of daring yourself to let go' because you know that 'they need to make their own way in the world... To love is to fear but learn not to show it.'
When a couple are expecting a baby they often say, ‘We can’t wait for the baby to be here, then we’ll  be able to stop worrying.’ Ha, ha! As if that’s going to happen! They will worry about their children until their dying day, and - if they grow to adulthood - they’ll still be worrying about their children long after the children have started to worry about them as well.
Simeon’s prophecy was included in the Gospel because the early Christians felt it revealed something about Mary, how her soul had been pierced to the quick by the sword of grief when her eldest son was rejected. When a parent grieves, they grieve forever. The wound is always fresh. However, she came to terms with her grief sufficiently to turn from being one of the first opponents of Jesus’ ministry to becoming part of the inner circle of his most committed supporters.
I think the other reason why Luke included this unsettling story is because it reveals something about the nature of God, for God is Jesus’ parent too. Much is often made, in traditional theories about the Cross, of the need for God’s wrath about human sinfulness to be satisfied or dealt with in some way. God is bound to feel wrathful about a lot of what goes on in human society - things like the abuse of power, especially when that power is used to hurt innocent victims, or the careless damage we do to the planet, and so on. These things hurt him deeply and cause him great offence. He is also pierced by the sword of grief whenever people suffer and the world is harmed, and - like Mary - he was pierced by grief when Jesus was rejected and killed.
Through Jesus people were able to see with their own eyes what God was doing to save the human race and the world in which we live. He was a light for all nations and to some people this was the gift of peace. But it brought out darkness and rejection in others. So what should have been a cause for rejoicing brought grief instead.
Of course, because - like Simeon - God can see into the future, what happened to Jesus on the Cross can hardly have surprised him, but nonetheless it must have disappointed and dismayed him. Grief still comes as a shock and hurts us profoundly, even when we know that someone we love is about to die.
When we are pierced by grief God grieves too. And when we plumb the depths of grief we can know that he has grieved before us and understands how we feel. God is not aloof and untouched by suffering and harm, he experiences it with us. He too has had to dare himself to let go of a creation that he loves so that we can learn to make our own way in the world with his help.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Building the New Jerusalem

Isaiah 26.1-9
Revelation 21.1-4
This is a picture of what God’s perfect world order would be like. Of course, for the Prophet, it would be centered on Jerusalem. For Christians it would be centered on the New Jerusalem, which could be anywhere. When I was at college in Manchester there was a giant tapestry on the wall. It depicted the New Jerusalem, but if you looked closely many of its buildings were actually famous local landmarks. The artist was saying that Manchester could be the New Jerusalem if its people obeyed God’s will.
And that message comes straight out of Isaiah’s prophecy. The gates of the New Jerusalem will be opened to welcome in those who keep faith with God, who are unwaivering in their pursuit of peace.
The Prophet sets up a stark contrast with another mountain city, which thought it was better than Jerusalem, which has been brought low because of its disobedience. ‘The poor and the needy, or the abused, stomp all over that city!’ he says.
But although Jerusalem is on a mountain it’s not clear where this rival city was, nor even if it’s meant to be an actual place, because in any case the Prophet says that God will makes the path straight or smooth for those who trust him to bring about justice, who are earnestly seeking to know his will and are ready to obey him.
Verse 9 might mean that God ‘wants to teach everyone on this earth how to live right,’ and - in order to bring that about - we just need to make people more aware of God’s way. Or it might mean that when God’s judgements or decisions start to be enacted on the earth then its inhabitants will learn the right way to live.
I think it’s this latter meaning which is more appropriate to Christian Aid Week. There’s a place within Christian Aid, and similar organisations with the same charitable purposes, for education, for telling people how we can  all have better lives, and how the way can be made smoother for those facing the greatest challenges, if everyone just learns to live right. This is one approach to ‘making the ask’, challenging people to donate to the cause.
But in the end our primary purpose has to be enacting God’s decisions, smoothing the way ourselves, so that the earth’s inhabitants will learn the right way to live not by what we say but by seeing our example. That’s the other way of ‘making the ask’, inspiring people by showing them what the New Jerusalem could be like if we all started keeping faith with God’s will.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

False News

Isaiah 28.9-19, Matthew  13.13-16
In verse 9, the Prophet ponders how God is going to get across his message to the heedless people of Israel, North and South. Without Sir Lynton Crosby to help him distill his message into a few telling one liners, it will be like trying to explain the subtleties of Brexit to toddlers newly weaned from the breast who are just starting to speak a few words.
Imagine me reading a book to my two grandsons, both aged two. If it has plenty of pictures, and I set about it at a brisk pace and with plenty of animation, there’s a good chance we’ll get to the end of the story before they lose interest - but only if it’s well written, punchy and absolutely engages them.
The problem for God is that his message may be gripping and punchy, but it’s not a message that people really want to hear. When the Prophet Amos called for justice and fairness to roll down like a river in spate, that never runs dry, there was something delightfully vague about it. He was appealing to the people of the Northern Kingdom to mend their ways and include social justice in their definition of how to do the right kind of religion. But when Isaiah renews the challenge, perhaps 40 years later, Amos’s appeal has been turned into a very specific threat.
The Lord is going to send someone mighty and strong - the Emperor Sargon II of Assyria - who will come like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest, or an overwhelming flood. God’s hand will hurl Sargon down to the earth, where he will trample the heedless people of Israel underfoot like an avenging angel. It’s gripping stuff, but it’s not necessarily what you want to hear if you’re looking for hope and comfort in difficult times.
Is it surprising, then, that this rather bleak message doesn’t really engage people? They prefer to switch channels. Isaiah’s dilemma is quite a modern one really. Just as today we surf the Internet looking for the sort of news we want to hear, and ignoring unwelcome or unpalatable opinions, so the people of Israel and Judah tune out whenever God tries to tell them how disaster might still be averted. The message comes across as, ‘Blah, blah, blah… Precept, upon precept, upon precept, line upon line, upon line.’ Boring or what? And as for the impending disaster, what disaster?
When Isaiah tries to communicate God’s message it’s as if he can’t get the words out right or is speaking a foreign language. People just don’t respond, and he wonders whether God even expects them to hear. After all, even when God had offered rest to the weary they wouldn’t listen. It still seemed like precept upon precept, line upon line. So why should they listen now? Perhaps God has been laying a trap for them all along, gradually hardening their hearts to his uncompromising message so that they will focus only on the news they want to hear.
Jesus takes up the same idea in some of his teaching. He’s fond of saying, ‘Let anyone with ears listen,’ as if some people are bound to be on a different wavelength. And in Matthew chapter 13 he complains, borrowing words from Isaiah himself, that people’s ears are stopped up and their eyes are covered. They don’t seem able to see, or hear, or understand, because if they could they would surely turn to him and he would heal them.
But here Isaiah takes the idea in an intriguing direction. He’s convinced that some of the scoffers, who are rubbishing his message and encouraging others to ignore it, are actually peddling false news, an alternative narrative that makes sense of the world in a way they would like to be true.
So the rulers of the southern kingdom, based in Jerusalem, accept that the overwhelming scourge of the Assyrians is going to pass through Palestine, threatening both North and South, but they’re convinced ‘it will not come to us.’ It’s as if they think they can have their cake and eat it. They can disobey God, and ignore his precepts, yet still come out on top.
But the really intriguing thing is that Isaiah is convinced they know their narrative is false. It’s not as though they really believe they can make a covenant with death and the underworld to stay away from their land. They know it’s a ridiculous idea. They fully accept that they’re taking refuge in lies and sheltering behind falsehoods. But if it keeps the people happy, and stops them from taking to the streets, it will have served its purpose.
The story that Pope Francis had made a covenant with Donald Trump was exactly the same kind of cynical deception. The perpetrators knew it was false, but if they could only get enough people to believe it then they could soften Trump’s image, at least at the margins.
And we could say the same about some of the Leave narratives in the Brexit campaign, not least the bold claim that leaving the EU would be good for the NHS. My brother was in a lift with two hospital cleaners at Pinderfields Hospital just before the referendum. ‘Which way are you going to vote?’ one asked the other. ‘Well I’m going to vote for Brexit because we’ve got to save the NHS,’ the other replied.
The BBC has responded to its lamentable failure to call out false news by appointing a fact checking correspondent to weigh the competing claims of the party manifestos in the general election. And Facebook has published guidance about how to recognise false news, although one suspects that the people who are most drawn to the eye-catching headlines of false news stories won’t find the guidelines a riveting read. They certainly haven’t stopped the endless stream of false news stories about the sudden death of celebrities like Graham Norton, who has died a number of times recently on my Facebook page.
Isaiah says that God has his own answer to false news. ‘See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation. I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet.’ Or, to put it another way, ‘Justice and fairness will be the measuring lines’ for calling out the lies of false news. Isaiah concludes, somewhat optimistically, that the false news ‘will be swept away.’
It’s optimistic because of course the uncompromisingly stark narrative of the real news remains, and people still don’t want to hear it, even when the out and out falseness of the false news has been exposed. The scourge of Sargon II will still pass through. The false leaders and all their followers, North and South, will be beaten down by it and as often as the Assyrian army passes through the land it will claim fresh victims. Even Isaiah admits that it will be ‘sheer terror to understand [his] message.’ Who can blame people for continuing to click on the false news they prefer to hear even when they know, in their heart of hearts, that it’s highly problematic, to say the least?
Is that what continues to feed the popularity of climate change denial, and the false hopes that house prices can continue to rise without deepening the housing crisis, or that immigration can be reduced without affecting the availability of goods and services, or that good health and social care can be provided without raising taxes, or that pensions can be sustained without a radical rethink of what retirement means and how it’s going to be paid for?
All we can do is encourage our people to use justice and righteousness as the measuring lines for distinguishing truth from falsehood, right from wrong, and perhaps put out some narratives of our own, or at least give some likes and endorsements to the stories which seem to be most true, as a tiny corrective to the deluge of false news in the social media.