The importance of remembrance

Menin gate

For the hundredth anniversary of the armistice we’ve had an incredible flower festival with the theme “A stillness heard around the world”. Many of the displays linked to selected poems from the First World War. The focal point of the exhibition was this 3½m high model of the Menin Gate, complete with lion, that had been constructed at the front of the church. As part of our remembrance service this morning I offered these words.

The Menin Gate was built to commemorate the missing, soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth known to have died but whose bodies were never identified. There were 89,379 of them.

Commemorating the dead is easier than honouring the survivors. They place no continuing burden on us and we can tell their stories for them. We can assume that, united in death, they shared a common story. We can retell that story in words that are comfortable for us. They have no voice to correct us, no voice to tell us how it really was, no voice to express different opinions.

That is why the words of our war poets, those commemorated by our flowers here today, are so important. They are the words of those who were there, those who saw and smelled the truth. Different poets wrote different poems. Many wrote words to comfort, protect or inspire those at home. A few wrote to express their pain, their anguish and their anger. It is easier to read those poems designed to comfort, but it is more important that we read of the harsh reality. More important because those words remind us that this is not what God wants.

Laurence Dennison
This is my Great Grandfather, Lawrie Dennison. At 21 he volunteered for the East Yorkshire regiment and fought for 18 months on the Western Front. His name is not inscribed on this arch or anywhere else, not inscribed because he survived – at least part of him survived. On 22nd October 1918 almost exactly three weeks before the Armistice his thigh bone was shattered by a bullet requiring his leg to be amputated.

My great grandfather survived to tell his story, but chose not to. Perhaps his memories were too painful. Perhaps he wanted to protect others. Perhaps he knew that the truth he wished to speak was not the story that others wanted to hear.

Eventually, in his eighties, after his wife of over sixty years had died and he had gone to live with my grandparents, he did tell part of his story. What emerged, was bitterness, bitterness for those politicians who had allowed the war to happen, bitterness for those generals who chose how to wage it, bitterness for those who, even after they had seen the carnage, refused to stop.

He had served as a machine gunner. His role was not to stumble underprotected through the mud towards enemy guns but to ensure that his gun continued to fire at those who stumbled underprotected towards him. After the war he returned home where he  became a greengrocer and served as Sunday School superintendent at the Withernsea Methodist Church.

His story is uncomfortable, but it is one that needs to be heard. It needs to be heard to remind us that this is not what God wants. What God wants is for us to beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks. “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord”.

After this the congregation watched the video below as an introduction to our prayers. It is the winner of a recent competition to write a new hymn to commemorate the 1918 armistice. You can read the words of the other finalists at this link.

Another memory of Great Grandad

Having posted this my great aunt, Lawrie’s daughter, contacted me. She reminded me that, despite his involvement in the local church, Great Grandad would not attend remembrance services or wear a poppy. Perhaps his views of the how the War should be commemorated may have been similar to those of Siegried Sassoon as expressed in his poem, “On Passing the New Menin Gate“.

A colleague of mine had a similar conversation with family members about her grandfather, a veteran of World War II, who was also a committed Christian but chose not to attend remebrance services. Her mother remembers this as the one day in the year when the family didn’t go to church.

In the present climate its difficult to question how we choose to commemorate the wars but I wonder how common a reaction this was amongst those who had served.

Advertisements

Living for God’s kingdom at a time when it seems to be getting further away

A sermon following the lectionary readings, the first half of Psalm 22 (see here for a powerful Australian paraphrase) and the story of the rich young ruler as told in Mark’s gospel

Introduction

I’ve found this a rather difficult week. I have very real reservations about how many things in society are heading at the moment. The rational scientist in me looks at how things are going and concludes a bleak future awaits us all. The feeling Christian in me grieves for all those who will be caught up in this process and the struggles they will have to endure. When I read today’s Psalm, which starts off as a lamentation, it struck me as a powerful, poetic description of what it is I feel. The only difference perhaps being that the psalm is written as a personal lamentation whereas the grief I feel is for our community.

Monday saw the publication of the latest report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change. The report makes salutary reading. Scientists opinions on this subject are always estimates and their analysis of the growing evidence is that these estimates have been too generous in the past. The effects are being seen earlier and more severely than they had expected. They are now saying that we need to take even greater actions even earlier than their previous recommendations. Of course this report comes at a time when world governments are failing to meet even the looser earlier requirements.

But it’s not just climate change. There are a number of other large-scale environmental factors including loss of habit and biodiversity, acidification of the oceans, degradation of soil, pollution of the atmosphere and oceans, and increasing shortages of fresh water (these are summarised well, and not too bleakly, in Kate Raworth’s book, Donut Economics). On all these fronts the future looks bleak if we progress as we now are.

screen-shot-2017-04-05-at-08-26-50-768x766

Then there are economic factors. There is growing inequality in wealth distribution with the rich flourishing and the poor being left to fend for themselves. Economic growth is largely funded by personal and governmental debt which is clearly unsustainable. Within our own country the health, education, law enforcement and social care provision is being starved of funding and is failing to support the most basic needs of many of our population. We see this particularly in the growing debate, in the second half of the week about the consequences of continuing to roll out universal credit in it current form.

And all of this is contributing to a growing crisis in our mental health services. Wednesday was UN World Mental Health Day. It is essential that such days are used to remind ourselves on the scale of this problem but it led to another slice of confronting publicity. We were reminded that mental health problems, and particularly those amongst the young are getting worse. At any given week one in six people experiences as common mental health condition and the funding of mental health services is simply nowhere near what is required to satisfy this need.

The stereotype of the old street preached is based around the message, “Repent all ye sinners for the end of the world is nigh”. The modern equivalent is perhaps not a pronouncement that this world is going to end but that is going to change beyond our imagination in the decades to come and that most of that change is going to be in a direction that we would rather not imagine. I don’t think its healthy to dwell on this all the time but every so often I think it is important that we acknowledge what is going on in our world and how we feel about it.

Reading the story of the Rich Young Ruler as a critique of contemporary society

At first sight the gospel reading doesn’t seem to align with either the psalm, or the reading from the book of Job which is set as an alternative, or the introduction I gave to this service earlier. The story is almost always taken as referring to a particular individual, the rich young ruler. Indeed some commentators have suggested that Jesus teaching should not necessarily be extended to anyone else. This man had a specific problem, they say, and Jesus offered a specific solution. If don’t have that problem then the teaching needn’t apply to us.

It might not surprise you to hear that I don’t buy into this and I’m actually going to take a different slant on this story. I’m going to suggest that this story and Jesus’ subsequent teaching can be taken at a societal level. Indeed when the man has departed disappointed and turns to his disciples Jesus doesn’t lament for an individual, he expresses a generalisation, “How hard will it be for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God”.

Note the difference here between what the man asks for and how Jesus talks afterwards. The man asks what he need do to “inherit eternal life”. Jesus reflects on what is required to enter the “Kingdom of God”. This is characteristic of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, which contain probably the best record we have of what Jesus actually said.  “Eternal life” is obviously tied up with ideas with what will happen somewhere else after we die and is rarely on Jesus’ agenda. He is much more interested in proclaiming the “Kingdom of God”, a vision of how the world is and will be, “on Earth, as it is in Heaven”.

Jesus’ linkage of the coming of the Kingdom to our attitudes to wealth is important in our modern context because almost all of the environmental problems that our world currently faces are a consequence of our focus on accumulating wealth, of wanting more stuff for ourselves and our children and our grandchildren. Whilst our lives are immensely enriched by that stuff, it is the factories and agricultural processes that we use to produce it that are causing the problem. Our industries pump out vast amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere and our farming expands to satisfy our needs leading to environmental degradation, habitat loss and eventually extinction of many species which used to live where we now grow food. The problem isn’t limited to our material wealth. Our wealth is now expressed as much through the experiences we crave for as well as it is through the stuff we accumulate. Travel for tourism is a particularly damaging for the planet through the carbon dioxide emissions from air travel, degradation of once vulnerable and once inaccessible ecosystems, and distortion of local economies to serve the needs of tourists rather than local inhabitants.

Many of our economic and social problems are also, essentially, a consequence of our societal pursuit of wealth. The drive for wealth creation, gross domestic product, under current economic models is leading to suppression of wages for those on low incomes to fund large pay outs for investors and exorbitant salaries for those at the top of industry who maintain this system. The desire for houses and furnishings and cars and holidays keeps us enslaved to our jobs and exacerbate worries about income and job security which are two of the largest drivers of mental health problems.

In short, our society’s obsession with wealth accumulation and economic growth is one of the largest barriers to the coming of God’s Kingdom in our modern world. Jesus clearly didn’t respond to this Biblical incident with a critique of the twenty first century market economy, but he did recognise, in the earlier and more localised economy of which he was a part, exactly the same factors operating as wreak havoc in our world today. There is no doubt in my mind that there are important societal messages in the words we have heard read this afternoon as well as the requirement for a personal response that preachers normally focus on when preaching from this text.

Re-focussing on and celebrating Kingdom priorities

Changing societal attitudes to wealth and wealth creation is a huge political challenge. Where do we start?

Perhaps the first thing is to realise that we don’t have to “start”. The church, at its best, has engaged with this question over the centuries. There have been celebrations this week that Archbishop Oscar Romero is tohas been made a saint. He we must remember was martyred for standing up against the evils of the economic system that was developing in El Salvador in the 1970s. The Archbishop of Canterbury has made important pronouncements about the creation and management of wealth in the modern world. The task has already been started, all that we are invited to do is join in seriously.

The next thing to remark is that we will almost certainly get nowhere by simply criticising wealth. One of the most obvious aspects of this gospel story is that when asked to do give up his wealth the young man simply walked away. If all we do is criticise wealth then the population will simply walk away as he did. We will be left preaching to ourselves.

What Jesus did, and what he continues to do, is to offer an alternative. To allow us to judge success not by the quantity of our possessions but by the quality of our lives and particularly of our relationships. It is interesting that in the final verses of todays readings, the reward that the disciples are offered is new and deeper relationships. We have to show the world that a life following Jesus, whatever income, is a much richer one than a live spent pursuing wealth.

The only way we can do this, as individuals and as a church is to live lives that exemplify this, that show how much more rewarding our lives can be when we turn from pursuing wealth and engaging in pursuits that are destructive of our planet. We need to celebrate those lives and show others how fantastic they can be. About a year ago I decided avoid eating meat and dairy produce as much as possible because of a growing awareness of how much damage modern meat and diary farming does to our planning. Initially this seemed daunting but with the help of a couple of well-chosen cookery books and the wider resources of the internet I’m now revelling in fantastic diet of wonderful food that I would never have considered before. There is no doubt that my life has been enhanced by cutting down on foods that are produced using destructive practices.

For a longer period I’ve tried to cut down on the amount of flying I do. Of all the things that most people can do to help the environment, stopping flying is the easiest and most effective. But by making this choice we have begun to re-discover the beauty of our own country and particularly to revel in the seasons rather than trying to escape them. Of course many people have always lived much more simple lives than I’ve lived for the earlier part of mine and in this case our role is to honour and celebrate those lives and to encourage people to continue within them rather than to beat them up for not being even better.

Living faithfully in a deteriorating world

But how does this fit in with the rather bleak picture I set out in the earlier part of this service. Whatever we achieve at a personal level, it is extremely unlikely that we are going to prevent at least some of the cataclysmic changes that face our world. One of the assertions of the IPCC was that we only have another 12 years to change the way the world operates in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change. The world’s economic and political systems simply don’t work that quickly. It is inconceivable that we, as a planet, are going to take action quickly and effective enough to avoid extremely serious changes to our climate. We are going to have to live in a world that appears to be growing away from the vision of God’s Kingdom.

The Bible does offer us guidance here but it is very tough guidance to accept. In many Biblical visions of the future the eventual coming of the Kingdom is preceded by some apocalyptic disaster befalling the world. Those who eventually enter the Kingdom are often those who manage to preserve their faith through that apocalypse. In the past those visions were often regarded as prophetic of real events that God would bring about. In the modern world they are perhaps better interpreted as metaphors that allow us to make sense of the coming challenges. Things are almost certain to get worse on this planet, quite possibly, catastrophically worse, but however bad they get it will still be possible to live in accordance with God’s will, to love him and to love other people as we love ourselves. It is only when the whole world bends to this will that we will start to make real progress towards the coming of his Kingdom and, however rocky things become in future years it is our responsibility as Christ’s followers to live in such a way that the vision of that Kingdom is preserved in such a way that eventually all people will come to recognise its power and to work for its realisation. This will not come for many years, and it will only come on an earth that is almost unrecognisable from that we enjoy today, but our Christian hope is that it will come. Each of us has a part, all be it very small, in keeping that vision alive and passing it on to generations yet to come, however, unlikely that its realisation seems.

In conclusion I want to read the second half of the psalm that we heard read earlier. A psalm of lament for the state of our world is transformed into hope filled manifesto for the Kingdom that is yet to come.

At your table, God, the needy will feast;
……..those who hunger for you will be fed till they burst with praise!
……..They will be able to live it up, now and forever!

In every corner of the earth people will wake up to themselves
……..and turn back to you, LORD.
Every race, nation, tribe and family
……..will offer themselves to you in worship,
for you have the last word on everything;
……..what you say goes.

Even the dead will bow down to you, LORD;
……..those who are trampled in the dust will look to you in hope,
…………….and I will live for you and you alone.

Our kids and their kids will serve you, LORD;
……..as we pass the message down from one generation to the next.
People not even born yet will hear the story;
……..they will be told of what you have done to set us free.

Nathan Nettleton, 2001

Does a changing world require changing rules

Sermon preached on the lectionary readings for the 17th Sunday in Proper time, Song of Songs 2: 8-13, and Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

This is the only Sunday in the whole of the three-year lectionary cycle when a reading from the Song of Songs is set as one of the primary readings, so we better make the most of it. The Church, of course, has a long history of doing completely the opposite and trying to ignore this particular book of the Bible. It is rarely read. When it is read we tend to limit that reading to a rather small number of sections. If we do read the whole book we tend to do so with translations that often tone down the language to an extent that the original meaning is lost.

Why? Because the Songs of Songs is a selection of erotic love poems which get quite raunchy in parts (at least by the standards of the time when it was written). It is one of just two books in the entire Bible in which the word God does not appear (the other, for trivia quiz geeks, is Ester). No-one is quite sure why it was included in the Bible. One article I read in preparation for this sermon listed at least 12 different ways it is possible to view the poems. The most common is probably that they should be treated not at face value but as an allegory for the loving relationship of God (or Christ) with His people (or Church). It is a little ironic that this view is particularly popular amongst fundamentalist Christians who insist on a literal interpretation of every other book.

Taken at face value, however, it is an evocation of sensuality and sexual love. It presents physical lovemaking in a positive light as something to be celebrated. It can be argued that viewing the poems as an allegory for our relationship with God places that sexuality on an even higher pedestal. Surely only the images that we hold in the very highest regard are suitable for describing God. If God’s love is depicted as urgent and passionate and physical, and our idealised response is depicted in the same terms, then surely those qualities must be ones which are to be admired and honoured.

However we read this book we are thus forced to the conclusion that the authors considered our physical sexuality as a gift from God which we should honour and express thanks for. As such it is a very welcome counter-balance to other passages of the Bible which tend to dismiss our sexuality as distasteful, distracting or downright sinful; passages which whilst small in number are generally read much more frequently than these poems.

By comparison the second lectionary reading seems rather dull. It’s a story of how a group of Pharisees complained that Jesus’ friends didn’t wash their hands before meals as was required by Jewish law.

The Jews had a real passion for making rules. According to tradition Moses received 10 commandments from God. The books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers, however, are stuffed with many more. A third century rabbi called Simlai counted 613 of them. This wasn’t all, there were more rules in the Oral Torah, and then there were books of case law which effectively introduced more rules. There was so many rules that it needed the specialist “Teachers of the Law” referred to in this passage to remember what the laws were and how to apply them.

Jesus was fed up with all these laws. He thought that Jewish society had lost the plot. They were so obsessed with imposing all those laws that they’d forgotten why the laws had been introduced in the first place. Many were almost certainly irrelevant now. They had been developed in one context and no one had noticed that they were now living in an entirely different context. Some, like handwashing before meals, were probably still useful but had been blown out of all proportion into elaborate rituals.

Most importantly though people were beginning to think that the whole purpose of life was to live without breaking any of the laws. Living in accordance with the Law had become more important than developing a relationship with God. What a miserable existence! Jesus, according to John, came that we “might have life, life in all its fulness” (John 10:10). You don’t live a full and God-filled life by obsessing over rules and regulations. Rigorous adherence to those laws was now actually preventing people living fulfilled lives and cutting them off from God.

“‘These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”

So we’ve spent some time looking at the passages separately. How on earth (or in heaven!) are they related? … and how do they apply to our lives today?

The Church as a whole, and Christians as individuals, have struggled with its rules about sexuality for centuries. This struggle has been exacerbated by the sexual revolution within wider society over recent decades. The debate has been most vocal recently about gay and lesbian sexuality but it is more general issues that I want to focus on today. There is growing disconnect between the church’s official teaching on sexuality and our lived experience. In 1994, the last time Methodist Conference voted on the issue, it reaffirmed “the traditional teaching of the church on human sexuality, namely chastity for all outside marriage and fidelity within it” and this remains Methodism’s official position.

But this teaching differs quite markedly from our lived experience. Many of us here will have unmarried adult children or grandchildren or nephews or nieces living in responsible, loving, fulfilling relationships which are clearly not chaste. Some of us may have initially reacted to this with dismay or disapproval, but most, over time, will have come first to accept and then to value those relationships, and the happiness and joy they bring to those individuals. There are several young people in the next generation of my family whose lives are being enriched and affirmed through such relationships. My life is being enriched and affirmed by observing the joy that those relationships bring. It seems crazy to me to assume that there is anything inherently wrong with this way of living.

Sometimes these relationships will end, the joy will die and be replaced by pain and grief. But I would much rather that this happens when it is only the two individuals involved, than after a premature marriage and the birth of children.

So how do we align this lived experience with the church’s traditional teaching on sexuality. Can today’s readings help us? I think they can.

The first reading helps draw us away from the notion that sexual activity is inherently distasteful, distracting or sinful. Some types of sexual activity certainly are sinful, we should have no tolerance of exploitive, violent or coercive relationships. Sensitive, consenting, respectful expressions of love, by contrast, are a blessing. We need to recapture the positive vision of that sexuality which is evoked by the Song of Songs. This at least is in line with our church’s teaching which in 1994 affirmed “the joy of human sexuality as God’s gift”.

The second reading reminds us that Jesus rejected slavish adherence to religious laws and appears to have been particularly critical of laws that had been developed in one context and then applied uncritically within a different later context. If there is one thing we can say with any certainty in this area, it is that the context in which we express our sexuality has changed massively since the church’s traditional teaching in this area was first formalised.

Jesus said virtually nothing about how our sexuality should be expressed. Paul did say a little more but what he did write was always specific to a particular context. He was writing at a time when most parents arranged marriages for their children, often in their middle or late teens. Marriage marked the transition of a woman from being the possession of her father to that of her husband. It allowed clarity in how money was to be inherited. Throughout most of Christian history marriage has been more about maintaining order in society than it has been about ensuring the happiness of husband or wife. Today, by contrast, most of us would see mutual fulfilment of husband and wife as the primary purpose of marriage.

Given these changes it shouldn’t surprise us at all that traditional teaching needs reviewing (and this is without any mention of the effect of technological advances such as the widespread availability of reliable contraception). Maybe we need to take our cue from Jesus and, in the light, of scripture, tradition and our contemporary experience, review how our teaching can best support our young people in the context in which they are living today.

Following this morning’s gospel reading we should perhaps be suspicious that this will be best achieved through specific and detailed quasi-legal pronouncements (the sort of thing that the Pharisees and our Conference so dearly love to debate). I suspect a much better approach would be to develop softer guidance aimed at supporting individuals to reflect on their own faith, their own experience and their own relationships in discerning how they should live out their own lives. As a parent I would much prefer guidance, which opens up the prospect of conversations with my children, to pronouncements, that close them down.

Such guidance needn’t pull its punches. It must be completely intolerant of any exploitive, violent or coercive expressions of sexuality (whether within marriage or outside). It can stand against societal acceptance of increasingly early sexual activity, and stress the need for individuals to have the psychological and emotional maturity to make such important decisions. It must allow for those who want to continue to observe traditional church teaching to be supported in this. It is my personal belief, however, that it should also ensure that those who, after thoughtful and prayerful consideration, decide to live otherwise can still feel loved and accepted as part of our church community without feelings of guilt or shame or a need to conceal the lifestyle they have chosen.

As in all areas of life, Jesus calls us to live life in all its fullness through loving God and our neighbour. He calls us to do this in the light of the personal relationship we have with him. I pray for guidance to choose my path in the light of my relationship with Jesus. I also pray for welcoming love for those whose different relationship with Jesus may lead them down a different path.

Living life to the full with God

A sermon about the church’s response to the current mental health epidemic based on Luke 5:27-32 and Philippians 4:4-9.

31 Jesus answered them, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call respectable people to repent, but outcasts.”

Luke 5:27-32

These words of Jesus were considered to be important enough is recorded by Matthew and Mark as well as Luke.  Given this we assume that they were considered important by the early church. If you think about it, however, they run rather counter to the vision of mission that the church has adopted since that time.

For most of church history, however, the driving theology of Christian mission, which comes from many other parts of the Bible, is that all people need salvation. This is at the root of Methodism and summarised neatly by the first of the Four Alls, an early 20th century summary of the theology of John Wesley:

All need to be saved.
All may be saved.
All may know themselves saved.
All may be saved to the uttermost.

Can you see the difference? Jesus’ in the words we’ve heard read from Luke’s gospel,  defines his mission as to those who are sinners or outcasts, whereas the church from its very earliest days has generally assumed that its mission is to everyone. Of course you can pick other Bible passages to support this later view but if you look to the synoptic gospels (Mark, Luke and Matthew), which scholars generally assume were the first to be written and the most likely to reflect what Jesus actually said, then the focus of Jesus mission is definitely on the sinner and the outcast.

Of course the church has often got around this apparent contradiction by assuming that we are all sinners , the doctrine of original sin. Thus if the mission of the church is to save sinners then this must include everyone. I’m not convinced that this is what Jesus meant in these verses, however. He explicitly defines two categories of people, the healthy and the sick, or the respectable person and the outcast, and chooses to focus his mission on the latter rather than the former. If we really want to be inclusive, perhaps we come summarise it by saying that all need salvation but some need it more than others. Perhaps a more subtle variation might be that all people need salvation but some (the sinners and the outcasts) are more likely to appreciate it than others.

This is important because we have a problem with church growth in Western Europe, and have had for getting on for a hundred years now. Attendance at traditional churches and belief in Christianity within the population has been diminishing for a considerable period now. The Methodist church in the UK is facing a crisis as numbers fall and the age profile of those left behind increases. Bramhall has been able to buck the trend to a certain extent but we cannot be complacent about what the future holds. Considerable effort and resources have been put into mission over the years. There have been small pockets of success, but the overall picture has been unaffected.

Perhaps we’ve been focusing on the wrong people. Perhaps we’ve ignored these words of Jesus. Perhaps we’ve focussed our mission on the healthy and the respectable and ignored the sick and the outcast. Perhaps if we realigned ourselves with Jesus teaching and focussed our efforts on the sick and the outcast then we would find people who are more receptive to the gospel message, people who are more appreciative of the salvation that we offer.

But what does this look like in an affluent suburb like Bramhall? I’ve spent quite a lot of time recently looking at economic and health statistics that describe the two wards that this suburb is divided into (North and South) . This is one of the healthiest and most respectable places to live in Britain, certainly in Greater Manchester. If we want to focus our mission on the sick and the outcasts then how do we find them in Bramhall?

This is where we have to might benefit by looking at the one of the great challenges facing our society, the current mental health epidemic. I preached on this theme at a Thursday morning service in Mental Health Awareness Week in May and drew on figures that had been produced for a survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Mental Health Foundation. Three quarters of those questioned had been so stressed at some time over the last year that they had felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Of those people nearly half reported depression, over half reported anxiety. About 1 in six had self-harmed at some point in their lives and almost a third had had suicidal thoughts or feelings. Around half a million people report clinical levels of work-related stress. If we look just at the National Service then 15 million working days were lost in 2016 to absences due to work-related stress.

Just pause, think of your own experiences at work, think of your colleagues, think of your family. These are not just statistics, this is a lived experience. If we want to take Jesus word’s seriously, if we believe that people who are well do not need a doctor but only those that are sick, then we have no shortage of people who are sick. The people of Bramhall may be wealthy and physically healthy, but there are plenty of people here who are struggling with their mental health.

Let’s extend that pause and reflect through the words of our next hymn: O Christ the healer, we have come, to pray for health to plead for friends.

So what would mission to people with work related stress and other health conditions look like? To work effectively here we need to marry our traditions and theology to the insights provided by modern medicine and clinical practice. If you go to the NHS Choices web-site you will find that contemporary approaches to mental wellbeing focus on five steps:

Connect
Be active
Keep learning
Give to others
Be mindful

With the exception of being active aren’t these the core activities of our church? What are we all doing in church, before church, after church, in our weekly activities if we are not connecting? The focal point of our worship is a sermon in which we also learn and teaching has always been a core focus of our Christian activities. We give to others monetarily and through our time. And Christianity has a traditional of meditative prayer which goes back two thousand years, well before the extremely recent secular alternative of being mindful. We don’t often wee physical activity as a core component of our faith lives but we can work on this. If you think about it the NHS is really advising people to go to church to look after their mental health (particularly if we can encourage them to walk to get there). Wouldn’t it be great if we could build on this and make this an explicit focus of our mission.

The only approach to treating people with mild and moderate mental health problems which has any serious evidence base is called cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT. It’s based around a simple theory of how our thinking, feeling, physical feeling and behaviour are inter-related. They are envisaged as being linked in a cycle.

CBT cycle

Starting off with our thoughts. If something happens us it might change the way we think about things. So for example if we lost a job we might think that this is because we are not good at that job or that we are useless. This can lead to altered thinking or emotions. We might feel guilty or ashamed or anxious or irritated. These emotions often lead to physical symptoms, anxiety can often lead to nausea or sleeplessness. This in itself can lead to altered behaviour. We might feel so tired from poor sleep that we stop doing things, even things we enjoy like going out, meeting people, getting to church. The really important thing is that this altered behaviour can then have a further effect on our thoughts. If we are not careful we get into a vicious cycle where things get worse and worse and worse.

The power of CBT is to recognise that whilst, if we allow ourselves to be altered in a negative sense we can get into a vicious circle, all our negative responses in each of these four areas will reinforce each other, if we can alter ourselves in a positive sense then those positive changes will also work in a reinforcing cycle. We will have a virtuous cycle which offers us a path our from where we are to a new life. We can choose to start this process at any part of this cycle and the most obvious is to start by altering our thinking.

Let’s go and look at that section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard read earlier:

In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable. Put into practice what you learned and received from me, both from my words and from my actions. And the God who gives us peace will be with you.

Paul didn’t know it at the time but he is effectively recommending that the people in Philippi undertake a programme of CBT. He is recommending that they start thinking about the world in a different way and promising that if they do this effectively, following his teaching, that the God who gives peace to all will be with them. If we want to focus our mission on the sick as Jesus suggested then Paul is providing a methodology for doing this which is very close to contemporary clinical recommendations.

This is why I’m looking for your support for an initiative I want to lead for the new Church year. It is to offer a programme called Living Life to the Full with God to our local community. The programme marries insights from modern CBT with the traditions and theology of Christianity. It’s a series of eight classes, designed for people who want to improve their mental wellbeing, or support those they love in doing so using these tools. I’m looking for your prayers. I hope that the explanation you’ve heard today for my motivation will support you in doing this. I’d love to have practical support for anyone who feels they have time to help me offer the programme either through helping lead sessions or in providing hospitality for those who attend. I’m also looking for help in promoting this. If you feel you would benefit please come along but perhaps more importantly if you have family members, friends, neighbours or colleagues who might be interested then please tell them about it encourage them to come along. Planning is at its early stages at the moment, look out for details in Contact and the Notices.

Let’s take those words both of Jesus and Paul seriously. Let’s offer new life and the peace that passes all understanding to a community that so desperately needs it.

An end to child sacrifice?

A sermon for Action for Children Sunday when we remember the current and past links between the charity and the Methodist Church based on Genesis 22:1-19.

This morning’s reading, known in Jewish as the Akedah or binding of Isaac  is one that is shared and revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims. In Christian theology the take home message has often been considered to be that we should admire Abraham for having a faith so strong that he was prepared to sacrifice his own son when God told him to do this. In the Letter to the Hebrews it is listed in this light as of one of the great examples of the faith of the old testament patriarchs. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son is a precursor of the statement in John’s gospel that God so loved the world that he was prepared to give his one and only son that we might all be redeemed. At times, we are taught, it may be necessary to sacrifice everything we hold dear for the sake of a better world and we, as Christians, should have the faith to make this sacrifice.

I’ve preached on this reading several times now and have found that the congregations I have preached to do not share this admiration for Abraham. Let’s see what you think. I’m going to ask you to think about what you would do if God asked you to do what he asked Abraham to do. There are two options:

  1. I hope that I’d have enough faith to sacrifice a child if I was sure that God wanted me to do.
  2. I would never sacrifice a child even if I was certain that this is what God wanted me to do.

Just so that you aren’t influenced by what others think I’m going to ask you all to close your eyes and then ask for a show of hands for each option …

… Open your eyes now and I’ll share the result. Not one of you put your hands up for the first answer. No-one would sacrifice a child even if they were sure that this is what God wanted them to you. Almost all of you say that you would never sacrifice a child even if you were certain that God had asked for this. (A small number of you didn’t raise a hand for either option). If the intention of this story is to persuade modern Christians that we, like Abraham, should place blind faith in God, whatever he asks of us, then it is clearly failing (at least in this congregation). Given this should we simply ignore the story or is there a different way of understanding it?

To explore this we need to think a little more deeply about the story. Perhaps the first question that might arise is, “Why was Abraham so willing to even think about the prospect of sacrificing his own Son?”. There is no record of Abraham making any protest when he hears what God wants.  He goes directly from receiving the message from God to making preparations for the sacrifice. Doesn’t that strike you as strange? Even if you were convinced that God had asked you to sacrifice a child wouldn’t you first response to be to argue with Him and persuade Him otherwise.  Abraham’s silence here is perhaps even more surprising when we remember how he argued with God when he heard that He was intending to destroy Sodom in Chapter 18 of Genesis. Abraham seems more willing to accept God’s command that he should sacrifice his own son than he is to accept God’s intention to destroy a city of immoral strangers.

Part of the answer is almost certainly that this story took place in a different culture. Abraham was living in a middle-eastern iron age culture which was very different from our own. There is strong biblical evidence that child sacrifice was a part of that culture.  2 Kings 23:10 refers to Topheth, a site where children were sacrificed to the Canaanite god Moloch which is also mentioned in Jeremiah 7:31 and 19:4-52 Chronicles 28:2-3 gives an account of King Ahaz sacrificing his own son “imitating the disgusting practice of the people whom the Lord had driven out of the land as the Israelites advanced” and his Grandson Manasseh is remembered as performing similar acts (2 Chronicles 33:6). Pagans are also accused of child sacrifice in four passages in Deuteronomy and Leviticus (Deuteronomy 12:31 , 18:10, Leviticus 18:21, 20:1-3)  followed by commandments forbidding Jews to act similarly. There is an argument that such commandments would not have been necessary unless some of the early Israelite community where involved in child sacrifice. Backing this up there is some historical and archaeological evidence of child sacrifice around the eastern and southern Mediterranean, areas populated by the Phoenicians who originated in Canaan, until as late as the time of Jesus.

On balance child sacrifice may have been relatively common in the area at the time. In this case Abraham’s acceptance of what God was asking reflects that he was only being asked to do what many other people in the society in which he lived were doing anyway. (This might also go some way to explaining why Jephthat proceeds with the sacrifice of his daughter as recounted in Judges 11:34-40).

With this understanding of the context in which this story arose the startling thing about this story is not that Abraham thought that God required him to sacrifice his child but that God sends the Angel of the Lord to tell him he is wrong and to offer an alternative. God’s people do not have to follow the ways of the world, they do not have to sacrifice their children. God offers  an alternative. At the time the story was written that alternative was to sacrifice another animal, but later in the history of Judaism the prophets, particularly Micah came to realise that even sacrificing animals was missing the point. In  Micah 6:6-8 we read this most clearly:

What shall I bring to the Lord, the God of heaven, when I come to worship him? Shall I bring the best calves to burn as offerings to him? Will the Lord be pleased if I bring him thousands of sheep or endless streams of olive oil? Shall I offer him my first-born child to pay for my sins? No, the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.

God does not want our sacrifices, God wants our love. He doesn’t want us to sacrifice our children, he wants us to love them.

So how can this story help us in understanding how to respond to the modern world. No-one in the modern world would dream of sacrificing a child would they? Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth. We live in a society where we are prepared to sacrifice the basic needs of the poor for the general well being of the many. We live in an increasingly divided society and this has a greater impact on children than on any other sector of society (although the elderly and those with disabilities don’t come out well from the deal either). More than 1 in 3 children in the UK now live in poverty. Things are getting worse. When I first started preaching sermons like this, about 5 years ago, the figure was 1 in 4 but changes in government policy in general and the effects of how benefits are allocated in particular are leading making things worse. As Universal Credit is rolled out across the country the situation is predicted to get even worse. Although these figures sound bad they get even worse when we consider particular areas.

child poverty

We’re currently in Stockport which “only” has 27% of children in poverty, if we go to East Cheshire where I live the figure falls to 15%, but in Central Manchester it rises to 47.5%. Nearly half of all of children in Central Manchester are living in poverty. Child poverty is not only a consequence of unemployment. Two thirds of children living in poverty are growing up in a family in which at least one adult works. Poverty is being driven by the  low wages we pay people in low-skilled jobs, through contracts that only offer partial or casual employment and our progressive removal of in-work benefits that have partially compensated for these factors in the past.

It is not just through poverty that children are suffering. At any one time 1 in 10 children has a recognised mental health condition. The are strong correlations between poverty and mental health but even so many children from relatively wealthy backgrounds are struggling with their mental health. Most of us know of children, and perhaps more particularly adolescents, within our own families and friendship groups who struggle with their mental health. The causes of this are complex and multi-factorial but they are essential a consequence of how we choose to structure our society and of the false gods we worship within it.

We are living in such a way that we are sacrificing a generation of children. Some are being sacrificed to live in poverty, others to a life of despair, obsession and anxiety, many to all of these. They are being sacrificed by the way we live. Child sacrifice was so common in Abraham’s time that he showed no surprise when God asked him to sacrifice his own son. Child sacrifice is so common and endemic in our own culture that we no longer express surprise when we hear the statistics or are confronted with the facts. But this is wrong and it must stop. We need an Angel of the Lord to intervene, to tell us we are wrong and to offer an alternative.

To my mind organisations like Action for Children are the modern equivalent of that Angel. Through their campaigning, and that of organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and the Campaign to End Child Poverty, they are telling us that we, as a society are wrong and must change our ways. Through the services they, and other charities like the Children’s Society and Barnados, are showing us an alternative. Let’s hear the Angel of the Lord speaking to us through these organisations and let us take action.

Child sacrifice is never right, and never will be, we must fight against it whenever we see it. This morning we give thanks for the work of Action for Children in taking on the role of the Angel of the Lord and fighting for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Notes

There are some important issues with the text of this story that continue to puzzle biblical scholars. Early on, the word Elohim, translated in the Good News Bible as God is used. Later on the word JHWH or Yahweh, translated the LORD is also used. Modern biblical scholars generally believe that these two words come from different traditions within early Judaism (the Elohist and the Yahwist) and that stories in the Old Testament using one or the other thus indicate that they come from different sources. There are also stylistic differences in the way the story is told at different points that reinforce the idea that material from different sources has been used.

Scholars generally agree that the basic story up to verse 10, “Then he picked up his knife to kill him”, comes from the Elohist source. After this the two appearances of the Angel of the LORD (and other verses) suggest that material from a Yahwist source has been added. There are, however, other verses in the later part of the story which may be from either source. We thus come to the conclusion that the story we read to day is a combination of material from two earlier stories. Unfortunately we don’t know what those earlier stories were, we don’t know exactly which parts come from which story and we don’t know why they were put together in this way.

Several theories have been proposed to address these issues (The Wikipedia article on the Binding of Isaac is a reasonable introduction to some of them). Possible explanations include:

  •  the original story was essentially as we read it today but has been embellished with  additional detail from a similar story from a different source,
  •  the original story had Abraham complete the sacrifice but the story has been modified as abhorrence of child sacrifice became rooted in Jewish culture,
  • the original story had Abraham make his own decision to sacrifice the ram when he saw it rather than Isaac, but the story has later been modified as otherwise Abraham would have been seen to be acting on his own volition rather than God’s

There is also a theory that the different usages of God and the LORD are intentional and do not reflect the use of different sources. In this case it is noted that the word translated as God can be used to refer to gods in general whereas the LORD is only ever used for the one true God of Israel. In this case Abraham is misled by a god (who is not the true God) into wanting to sacrifice Issac, but the Angel of the LORD then intervenes to prevent the sacrifice.

It should be noted that this discussion has been limited to the text as found in the Bible. If early but non-Biblical Jewish texts and Muslim versions of the story are also included then the picture becomes even more complicated!

In earlier versions of this sermon I have used some of these theories to try and justify the points I was trying to make but on reflection I’ve come to the conclusion that all of them are essentially conjectural. We will probably never know how or why this story took on its present form. We need to accept that this is a story that has probably been modified as it has been retold, and eventually written down, and thus be cautious in just accepting it at face value. On the other hand we also need to accept that attempts to explain that process are essentially conjectural and be even more cautious in using these to reinforce the points that we want to make.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All may know that they are saved (now!)

A sermon for Aldersgate Day 2018.

Two people had a word with me last week to point out that today is Aldersgate Day. They thought it would be good if I could preach on the topic, I suspect what they really meant was that it would be good to sing some of Charles’ well-known hymns. I hope I’ve been able to deliver at least on that front.

It has been quite a challenge for me. The Wesleys are, of course, the founders of our denomination and I had to learn a certain amount about who they were, what they did and what they believed when I trained as a local preacher . For all that, however,  I find even the modern translations of John’s sermons quite impenetrable. It’s not just the antiquated language. They are sermons addressed to a specific context which is very different to the context in which we live today. There is a huge gulf in culture and concerns between mid 18th century England and the present day.

I think if we want to look for contemporary resonance in the Wesley’s theology we need to look to broad themes rather than individual sermons. Perhaps the best starting point is the four alls.

All need to be saved

All may be saved

All may know that they are saved

All may be saved to the uttermost.

I’d always assumed that these were framed by John Wesley. I discover, however, in my reading preparing for this sermon that they weren’t. They were actually first written down  more than a hundred years after his death by a Methodist minister called William Fitzgerald who, like me, was trying to make sense of all those sermons that John had written addressed to a different time and in a different context.

I haven’t got time to do justice to all four of these so I want to focus on the third. I choose this one because I think it is perhaps most distinctive contribution of John Wesley’s theology and also because I feel it is most relevant to the present day.

For most theologians before Wesleys (and for many since) salvation was fundamentally about what happens to us when we die. There is no doubt that the Wesleys saw salvation in this context, but they didn’t just see it in this context. Salvation for them was something that we start to experience in this life. Experience is perhaps an understatement. Salvation is something that transforms our lives now. The experience is so remarkable that we are granted complete assurance that we are now living in the power of God’s Spirit.

This wasn’t book-learned theology. This was their lived experience. John and Charles had been ordained clergy in the Church or England for over a decade. By any judgement, they lived model Christian lives. They term Methodist was coined to reflect their meticulous approach to living out their faith. Yet both knew that something was lacking in their lives. On this day 180 years ago John, at a meeting in Aldersgate Street in London, felt his heart “strangely warmed” and, as he later wrote, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” This followed an uncannily similar experience that his brother Charles had had three days earlier. The point I want to emphasize today is that the Wesleys didn’t see this assurance as a promise of some salvation they would receive in the future, or confined to the question of what would happen to them after death. They saw it as a part of their lives from that time forwards.

The meeting John had been at in Aldersgate Street had been at a reading of Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans”. If we read Romans we see the Apostle Paul describing this same experience that the Wesleys had had. Romans Chapter 8 verse 11, as we heard read from the Good News Bible earlier, says:

If the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from death, lives in you, then he who raised Christ from death will also give life to your mortal bodies by the presence of his Spirit in you.

Just as in Wesley’s time, today we often assume that our salvation is primarily about what happens to us when we die. If we read this verse carefully though, we see a different picture, life is given to our mortal bodies, with the implication that it is given now, rather than to our immortal spirit (or whatever) after death.

Other translations make the point even more forcefully, take the Good as New Bible:

If God’s spirit has taken possession of you, then just as God brought back Jesus from the dead, so the same Spirit will give your humanity a new lease of life.

or JB Phillip’s translation:

Nevertheless once the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead lives within you he will, by that same Spirit, bring to your whole being new strength and vitality.

or the Message:

When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s.

In this text salvation is not about a transformation after death it is about a transformation in the midst of life. It is a transformation we can experience now and be assured of forever.

In many ways this message is even more relevant to the modern world than the people to whom the Wesleys were preaching. Most people in Europe at the time believed literally in heaven and hell and one of their primary concerns was where they were destined for themselves. Many of them came to Christianity primarily to protect the fate of their immortal souls.

beliefThe modern world is very different. Most people in the UK now do not believe in life after death as revealed in numerous surveys. The most recent I came across (conducted on behalf of the BBC in February last year) suggested that only 46% of people in the UK believe in life after death (and amongst those about a third believe in reincarnation rather than in an afterlife).

It follows from this that if we want to proclaim a Gospel that will draw people to faith then we need to emphasis the transformative power of that Gospel within life (which will be relevant to everyone in the population) and focus less on its impact on any after-life (which only about a third of the population believe in anyway). The Wesley’s doctrine of a faith through which all may know they are saved does just this.

life after death

As well as exploring the implications of this survey for our mission to those outside the church it is interesting to reflect on those for Christians within it. The large majority (85%) of “active Christians” believe in life after death and it is important to emphasize that so did the Welsleys. Their belief in spiritual transformation in the midst of life reinforced their belief in life after death, to them it was a foretaste of the feast that was in store.

But the survey suggests that about 1 in 7 “active Christians” do not believe in life after death. These, I assume, are people who in the light of a modern understanding of how the person, the mind and the brain are inter-related cannot believe that the person can persist once the brain has died. If we extrapolate this number to the current congregation then there are perhaps 7 or 8 of you here this morning in this position. The first message is to reassure you, if you think like this, that you are not alone, there are 6 or 7 like-minded people here today – it’s just that you don’t know who they are. But the more important consideration is that the Welsleys’ conviction that salvation can be experienced in the midst of life opens an avenue for how the Christian gospel can make sense to people who can’t believe in life after death. I suspect the number of these people will grow as the implications of modern science become more widely accepted. In saying this I must acknowledge that nothing could have been further from the minds of the Wesleys living right in what was still, essentially, a pre-scientific age.

The promise of transformation within life is also increasingly important to the modern world in the light of the epidemic of mental health problems that we are facing. I spent considerable time exploring this last Sunday at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week and don’t want to repeat what I said then, but we are facing an extraordinary rise in the number of people who are stressed, depressed, anxious, obsessed and even suicidal. In medical terms these are people who are ill, but in theological terms they are people in need of salvation. That salvation needs to be a lived experience offering transformative change now rather than just a promise of a better life to come once their current torment has been lived through. This is exactly what the Wesleys’ theology is offering. It is also what Jesus and the early disciples offered when they cast out demons -and offered wholeness to the broken-hearted. There can be no more pressing need today than for the church to cast out the demons that blight the current age and offer wholeness and meaning to those who can see no purpose in life.

In summary then, on Aldersgate Sunday, I invite you to embrace our Methodist heritage. Let’s celebrate the promise that we can all be assured of our salvation now. None of you who know of my passion for Christian Aid will be surprised to hear me conclude by stating that this aspect of the Wesleys’ theology can be summarised by the most powerful advertising slogan I have ever heard – “We believe in life before death”. Let’s go now, and offer this to our community and our broken world.

 

A short history of time?

This is a sermon preached to commemorate the death of Stephen Hawking and based on a reading from the first chapter of Genesis.

As I said in introducing the video we’ve just watched, the death of Stephen Hawking was announced yesterday. He was one of the iconic figures of the late 20th and early 21st century. This was partly because he had an extraordinarily brilliant mind, partly because of his passion to communicate his ideas with the general public and partly because he achieved so much despite the extent of his physical limitations.

In the popular imagination Hawking is linked to the quest for a scientific understanding of the origins of our universe. This probably comes more from his popular writing and his collaborative work than from his most creative individual work which was into our understanding of black holes. There have been remarkable advances in this area over his lifetime of which he was a part. We are now at a situation where the origins of the universe can be explained in terms of the same physical laws that we see operating in both the natural world and the highly artificial extreme environments created within facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider. The theory is, of course, now known as the Big Bang. It tells us that about 14 billion years ago the universe, both time and space, came into existence in an unbelievably immense burst of energy and has been expanding ever since.

Many Christians see this as a threat. Putting it bluntly, it allows the origins of the universe to be explained without any need for God to have been involved in the process at all. But it doesn’t have to be a threat, it can also be regarded as a revelation of how the universe is that needs to be worked into our theology, rather than fought against.

In some ways it is similar to the theory of evolution. This allows the origins of human life to be explained without any need for God to have been involved in that process either. Initially theologians saw that as a threat and fought doggedly against it. Some of course still do, but most mainstream theologians now accepted that man is the product of an evolutionary process and have woven that revelation into their theological thinking.

This process hasn’t been without casualties. Belief in Christianity in the affluent world has been falling dramatically over the last 100 years. There are many reasons for this, but I’m convinced that an important one is that the Church is still regarded as opposed to science. This is partly because there is a section of the contemporary church that is, essentially, opposed to that science, and partly because the section that is more willing to embrace science has not communicated that willingness convincingly. This is quite simply unacceptable to the majority of the educated population who see how successful science has been in explaining the natural world and allowing us to interact with it more constructively (and of course destructively on occasions). If we want a faith that is going to flourish in the affluent educated world in the 21st century then it is going to have to be one that embraces the revelations of science rather than fighting against them.

So how can we embrace the theory of the Big Bang and yet remain true to our faith? How can we both honour the reading we’ve heard from the first chapter of Genesis the morning and accept the insights of modern cosmology? Well the Big Bang theory is less than 50 years old and has only really been accepted universally within science for the last 25 (The name was originally coined as derisory term for such an outrageous theory). Mainstream theology is like a super tanker that takes centuries to alter its course, so it is far too early for there to have been definitive response. This is like other issues I’ve talked about from this pulpit; one in which individual Christians need to arrive at their own understanding  and where we have to acknowledge that different Christians have different opinions. Unlike those other occasions, however, I’m going to offer my own personal opinion this morning in the hope that it may help in others in that process. In offering my opinion, however, I openly acknowledge that other Christians may have different opinions.

To me, this progress in cosmology over the last fifty years confirms the opinions that many Biblical scholars have voiced for over two hundred years, that the account of the creation in Genesis was never intended as a scientific understanding of particular events. It is not a literal account of what happened. The Biblical account of creation was written in what we refer to in other contexts as the Iron Age. The authors can’t possibly have had a sufficient understanding of cosmology to write a scientific account of what happened at the beginning of time.

So what do I believe that first chapter of Genesis is? I believe it is one of the most powerful and significant poems that have ever been written. I believe it is powerful and significant not because it gives insight into how the world came into being but because it gives insight into how the world is today. At first, sight, and particularly if we view the universe through a purely objective scientific lens, our lives appear formless and desolate. It’s as if there is a raging ocean that is engulfed in darkness. For many of us this is an academic exercise but for some, the anxious and depressed, or those facing major challenges in their lives perhaps, this is a vision that tears at the very substance of who they are. At its extreme it is the scream in Edward Munch’s famous picture.

It is only when we acknowledge a sense of purpose in the Universe that it starts to take form and make sense. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we start to distinguish between night and day, sun and moon, light and dark. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we stand in awe before the wonders of natural world, the profusion of plants and the diversity of animals. It is only when we acknowledge that sense of purpose that we can value the gifts that each and every individual on this planet can offer to enrich our lives.

To me this poem doesn’t say anything about how that sense of purpose came into being (and I’m happy to leave that as one of the great mysteries of human existence) but it does scream from the rooftops that there is no point living, no point in us ever having been created, if we don’t acknowledge that sense of purpose.  Jews and Christians all attribute that that sense of purpose to God and understand that we express that acknowledgement through worship.  The first chapter of the first book of our shared scripture is, to me, a great hymn to God, that which gives our life purpose, and an invitation to all people to join in worshipping that God. It is a poetic statement of what it is that makes our lives worth living.

I thus find the cosmology of Steven Hawking and others liberating. By providing me with an alternative, and to my mind much more plausible, explanation of how the Universe was created, I am freed to appreciate this poem for what it really is, for what it tells us about what it is that makes my life worth living. Having read it in this way I am led to welcome the God into the heart of my life and to bow down before my God in worship.

This is my opinion though, and it is one opinion amongst many. Why don’t you discuss your opinions over a cup of tea of coffee after this service.