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.