Being open to the Spirit

Today is Pentecost. This is often referred to as the church’s birthday. Christians from different traditions wear red, sing, dance, clap, celebrate in different ways. At one level though this is puzzling because I suspect that most Christians, if asked, “What is the most important day world history?” would answer, “Easter Sunday”, the day Jesus rose and issued in a whole new beginning. Why don’t we see Easter as the birthday of the church?

When we people ask us for evidence of the resurrection we look first to the Bible. But if people are not Christians and don’t accept it as a standalone authority we often point to the amazing growth of the early church and say that in order for the disciples to behave like that, in order for the church to grow like that, in order for a group of poorly educated Galileans to start preaching a gospel of love to the world like that, something truly miraculous must have happened.

Except if we look at the Bible that isn’t what we read. The gospel stories of how the Disciples reacted to the resurrection give a very different picture. The thing that strikes me, given the enormity of what they had experienced, is how little they seem to have been affected. Their immediate response to the Resurrection wasn’t to burst out and tell people about it. According to Luke they stayed in Jerusalem, they continued to worship in the Temple but to meet behind locked doors, presumably for fear of what might happen if they ventured out in public. Their response was to shrink into themselves.

The author of John’s gospel also remembers those meetings behind locked doors. His memory is slightly different in that he remembers the Disciples returning to their homes in Galilee to resume their own jobs fishing. It is difficult to imagine a less enthusiastic response to such an overwhelming miracle. “Oh its all over, let’s go home, let’s return to doing what we used to do.” Although we now point to the resurrection as the most important and life-changing event in the whole of history, that is not how the disciples saw it immediately after it happened.

What happened? Pentecost happened. The Disciples were the first people on earth to experience the power of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is referred to in the Old Testament, in terms of that story about David that we celebrated earlier for examplem but the Spirit encountered at Pentecost seems qualitatively different. The Spirit, God’s power, is something that is impossible to pin down by its very nature. On this occasion the disciples remember it as a loud noise, a noise so loud that it attracted other people in the neighbourhood to come and see what was happening. They remember it as tongues of fire. They remember it as the gift of being able to communicate with people who spoke different languages. In different times and in different places the Spirit manifests itself in different ways, but always if manifests itself as God’s power inspiring us and empowering us.

After this service we are going to have a meeting to explore where and how God’s Spirit might be leading this congregation. You’ve each received a sheet that Philip and I have prepared suggesting a series of questions to lead us into this process. These focus on the Calling of the Methodist Church which is

to respond to the gospel of God’s love in Christ and to live out its discipleship in worship and mission.

If we assume that God’s love in Christ is revealed to us most clearly in the Resurrection, then these Bible stories teach us that there are two ways to respond to that love. The first is an essentially human reaction. It is to respond to that love personally and passively. We can appreciate that love but continue doing what we have always done. Like the disciples who stayed in Jerusalem worshipping in the Temple we can stay where we are worshipping as we have always done. Like the story in John’s gospel we can experience this amazing gift at Easter and then return home to the lives we have always lived, go back to fishing or whatever is normal to us. We can respond to God’s love introspectively, perhaps not actually behind locked doors but metaphorically so. We can share our faith with each other, people who share our traditions and experiences and think like us, people who share our language. There is nothing wrong in any of this, but if this is how we respond to God’s love then nothing will happen, things will stay the same. That love of God, revealed through the Resurrection will touch us but go no further.

The second way we can respond to God’s love as revealed in the resurrection is to be open God’s Spirit to inspire and empower us. If we do this then nothing will ever be the same again. The Disciples turned from worshipping in the Temple, assuming that God was remote and only accessible in a specific location at a particular time, to worshipping in their homes assuming God was accessible wherever they were. They moved from focusing inwardly on the needs of their own small community and assuming God’s love was there to console each other, to looking at the wider world and seeing God’s love for everyone. They stopped talking in a language that only they could understand and started communicating in a way that touched everyone, sometimes through preaching, sometimes through service.

As a result, the church grew. If we take the author of Acts at his word, 3,000 on the first day were baptised on the first day and growth continued afterwards. The way we distinguish between a human response to God’s love and a spirit-filled response is though how it grows. A human response will be introspective. It may change us, but it will change nothing else. A spirit-filled response will look out, it will be contagious, it will infect others. It will lead irresistibly to growth.

Philip has challenged us to grow and develop as a congregation in such a way that we baptize or confirm 12 new members by this time next year. The number has been chosen to reflect the number of Disciples but isn’t really important. It would be fine if we had ten it, would be absolutely wonderful if we ended up with twenty. The importance is not in the number but in the fact that we are growing, because that growth will be evidence of the Spirit at work amongst us. It will only be if we open ourselves to God’s Spirit to be inspired and empowered that such growth will be possible.

Opening ourselves to God’s spirit does not require change for the sake of change. We need to reflect on what we are already doing and celebrate and continue those activities in which we are already inspired and empowered by God’s spirit. But that reflection will almost certainly reveal areas where we have become closed off or introspective and need to re-invite God’s Spirit to dwell within us. The meeting after the service in the Fellowship room is an opportunity to set out on that reflective process.

One-way of looking at this process is in the light of our experience of Fresh Perspectives. We’ve had some really invigorating sessions with those who have come along which, I think has generated real excitement. But very few people have come. Those who have come are those who have responded to a personal invitation from an existing member, particularly where that member has come along with them. Growth is most likely to occur if we, as individuals, feel comfortable and excited about inviting others to share our worship and way of living.

My impression is that very few of us feel comfortable, let alone excited, with the idea of inviting a friend, a colleague, a neighbour or even a family member in this way. Certainly, there isn’t much evidence of this happening on a week by week basis.  I’ll be honest, it’s not how I feel at the moment myself. An interesting way of thinking about the way forwards is to think about what would need to change about the way we worship and live as a community in order that each of us would feel excited at the prospect of inviting a colleague to come along and join us.

After the wind and the tongues of flame at that first Pentecost, Peter was inspired and empowered by the presence of God’s Spirit to preach a sermon. That sermon was essentially an invitation to everyone that was listening to repent and be baptised – to share the disciples’ experience of their risen Lord. Peter preached that sermon in a language that could be understood by everyone in the crowd, wherever they had come from, whatever their faith. This Pentecost let us open ourselves to God’ spirit that we can be inspired and empowered to invite others to share our experience of the risen Lord in a language that is meaningful to them.

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Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’arche community died last week and his funeral is this afternoon. You can read more about his life at this link. I dedicated this morning’s service to his life making extensive use of his words rather than my own. This included an excerpt from a radio interview which you can access at this link. I chose the section from 2 mins in until 5 minutes but the whole interview (best part of an hour) is well worth listening to.

I also included the following prayer based on a number of Jean’s writings which I culled from a web-site that I can’t now rediscover!

Let us Pray,

 “A tiny child needs not only food and shelter but something more… much more… a feeling of love, that someone cares for him, ready to die for him, that he is really loved, that he is important… precious. And so he begins to live and begins to sense the value of his being. And so it is that life rises in him and he grows in confidence in himself and in his possibilities of life and of creation.”

We give thanks for the promise of life that has risen in each of us. We look back over our lives,  recognise the love that we have received, and give thanks.

 “There are forces of selfishness and fear in each of us, but where there is good spiritual nourishment, the power of love rises up.”

We acknowledge the presence of selfishness and fear within us limiting the life that was created at our birth and preventing us from becoming the person we were intended to be. Let us be open to spiritual nourishment, that the power of love might rise up inside us.

 “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”

We acknowledge our weakness and difficulties, the things we struggle with in life. Let us have the confidence to share our vulnerabilities that we might nourish each other.

 “It is important to enter into the mystery of pain, the pain of our brothers and sisters in countries that are at war, the pain of our brothers and sisters who are sick, who are hungry, who are in prison; brothers and sisters who do not know where they will sleep this night. It is important to enter into the pain of all those for whom no one cares and who are alone; all those who are living grief and loss.”

Let us enter into the pain of our broken world and of our broken brothers and sisters, both close to us, those far away and those unknown.

 “When an activity or a person fills our lives, inspires us or gives us a zest for life, their absence can plunge us into this feeling of total emptiness. We live a kind of inner death. Life no longer flows forth in us. We are filled with a sense of loss and of grief; a heaviness, which resembles depression, permeates our whole being. This pain and this heaviness are not a sickness but a normal, natural reaction to a loss that touches the very meaning of our lives.”

Let us enter into the pain of those who grieve the loss of a person or activity that has given them a zest for life.

 “A community is always built around people; people should not be shaped to suit community.”

Let us build a community around people; around the people we know and love and around the people we should know and love.

 “Genuine healing happens here, not in miraculous cures, but through mutual respect, care, and love. Paradoxically, vulnerability becomes a source of strength and wholeness, a place of reconciliation and communion with others.”

Let it be a community that, through sharing vulnerability, offers reconciliation and communion, and a vision of God’s Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven.

Let us share the Lord’s Prayer…

Amen

 

 

Invitational church

Sermon preached on Palm Sunday after a reading from Luke 10:1-11 & 16-20 the story of Jesus sending out 72 disciples to towns in Galilee (we read from this Australian paraphrase)

It was a great pleasure to go along to our annual Newcomer’s tea a couple of weeks back. These are an occasion when a few of the Stewards and Church staff put on a tea for those people who have joined our congregation over the last year. About a dozen people came. We sat around and had a chat about first responses to the church. Almost everyone commented on how welcoming it was. I think all of us on the church side came away feeling very proud and satisfied that this is the way the church is perceived. Well done. This feedback wasn’t really on the personalities or the behaviour of the staff, or even the stewards,  it was on the whole congregation. So let me take the opportunity to pass on this feedback. If hearing it makes you feel good, so it should, give yourself a pat on the back and give thanks for yourselves and give thanks for each other. At least on the basis of the feedback from these people we can be confident in describing our selves as a welcoming church.

Then on Friday Alan Jacob and I went up to Durham to a reception and meal for those who had been funded by their Scientists in Congregations scheme. By random chance I ended up sitting next to a guy called Michael Harvey and fell into conversation. He works for an organisation called the National Weekend of Invitation and he started to talk about the concept of an Invitational Church which I’d never heard of before. He explained that if we want to be a church that grows and thrives that being a welcoming church is not enough. Church growth will be extremely slow if we just sit back passively and wait for people to come, even if we have the warmest welcome imaginable if they do come. If our church is serious about growing then we they need to move on from this platform and come more active. We need to start inviting people to join us.

It was one of those times when someone explains something that is so obvious that you come aware wondering how it can never occur to you before. How stupid could I have been. Of course, if we want to grow we need to invite people to join us.

We are here on Palm Sunday. If you think about it that day Jesus’ actions were one enormous invitation to join him. He hires a donkey and manufactures a procession, something highly visual. Then his disciples start shouting hosanna and singing songs of praises, they are making a noise. The whole event is staged to attract attention to the group. Then he processes into Jerusalem. What is a procession if it is not an invitation to join in, to join the movement both physically and metaphorically? The account of this story in John’s gospel is more explicit in saying that a crowd of people did respond to that invitation and join in with the procession. In our own little way this morning we have acted this out within church. I invited you to join in a procession led by our children, and you did!

In the other reading we’ve heard from Luke’s gospel this morning Jesus sends his disciples out, in pairs to offer an invitation. The context is difference, the location is different, the action is different, but the intent is the same. Jesus is inviting people to join in the new movement.

So is this church, our church, an invitational church? Do we as its members feel confident in inviting other people to worship with us? If we think back as individuals, when was that last time we invited anyone to join us in church (leaving out perhaps members of our own family, and friends who are already Christians who have come to stay with us). I know that this is something that I am very bad at. I told this to Michael (the guy in Durham in case you’ve forgotten!) and he was quite gracious. “You’re not alone”, he said, “we’ve done some surveys which give repeatable results across a range of churches. 8 out of 10 church members have absolutely no intention of inviting anyone to come to church”.

This was another statement that hit me with some force. Philip, Hannah and I have invested a lot of time recently in planning for our Fresh Perspectives course. This is a project to encourage people from the margins of the church to come and explore the difference that Jesus can make to their lives in the 21st century. The sessions clearly won’t work unless we get people to attend and the main strategy we’ve adopted to get them here is to ask  members of the congregation, you, to invite them. You should all have received two invitation cards and our hope is that you will use them to invite other people. But that seems pretty stupid in the light of Michael’s suggestion that the vast majority of church members have no intention of issuing and invitation to church to anyone.

“Why”, I asked, “do you think that is?”. Well it’s not because they don’t know anyone. Was the reply. Michael’s team had done some more research. Given the opportunity to think about it 7 out of 10 Christians can think of somebody in their circle of acquaintance (family, friend, neighbour, colleague) who they feel God might be prompting them to invite to church. It might be someone who’s gone through a particular life experience, it might be someone who appears lonely, it might be someone who has actually come on to our premises at some other time of the week, it might be someone who actually says something about wanting to explore deeper issues or a Christian faith a little more. Given an opportunity 7 out of 10 of us can think of someone who falls into that category. So, I’m going to stop for a few seconds to give you that opportunity. Who, in your life, might God be prompting you to invite to come to church? Who, in your life, might God be prompting you to invite to Fresh Perspectives?

What Michael’s research does show, is that most church members are afraid to be invitational, afraid, more specifically of failure, afraid of the invitation being rejected. This is a reasonable fear because part of this process is beyond our control. We cannot compel anyone to come to church, we can only offer them an invitation. So he suggests that we define success in a different way. Our task, he argues is to offer the invitation. The measure of success should not be whether the person accepts the invitation, which is largely out of our control. The measure of success should simply be whether you give out the invitation or not. See the offering of the invitation as what you are doing for God. Leave the question of whether it is accepted or not to how God works within the recipient. We are asked to be “good and faithful” servants, not necessarily “good ans successful ones”.

A similar principle is at the heart of Jesus’ instructions when he sends out the 72. “Go to different towns”, he says, “If they welcome you then stay. If they do not welcome you then simply move onto the next town”. The disciples’ preliminary outcome measure is not how many people respond but how many invitations they have issued.

So you should all have the invitation packs for Fresh Perspectives. (There are more available at the back on the way out if you haven’t). Some of you will have offered the invitations already, but many more of you will have the invitations still sitting around in your kitchen or hallway or study, wherever it is that you have that pile of letters and bits of paper that you are going to get round to looking at at some time in the future. Go and find those invitations and offer them to someone. Don’t worry about whether the invitations will be accepted or not, simply be satisfied that once the invitation has passed out of your hands your task has been completed successfully.

The final point that Michael made, and that can be drawn out of the story of the sending of the 72, is that the focus of this exercise should be as much on you, who offer the invitations, as on those that it is offered to. One thing that is remarkable about Luke’s story is how little concern Jesus shows for the towns that the disciples have visited. He’s not like Paul, setting up new churches, organising a support network and writing regular letters of encouragement and asking for reports on progress. He just seems to move on in the confidence, that having been told about God’s Kingdom those individuals will respond to their invitations in their own way.

He is much more interested in those who offered the invitations, in how they have grown and developed in their own faith. “You see, the world is full of snakes and sharks, but I have given you the ability to stand against them” – the focus is on the way that those who were sent out have been transformed by their experience. “All the same, the most exciting news for you is not that evil will give way to you, but that your names are on the books in the pay office of heaven.” It is almost as if the reason Jesus sent those disciples out was more to give them an opportunity for personal growth in faith than it was for the results of their actions.

So maybe we can take this the same way. Maybe we can see this process as a way for us to grow in our own faith. Maybe we can take that invitation in our own hands and think, “how am I going to take the next step in growing in my own faith through the act of offering that invitation to someone else?”. How am I going to be transformed by taking the gospel seriously and passing it on to someone else? How am I going to get my name “on the books of the pay office in heaven?”

Who is church for?

A sermon based on the lectionary reading telling of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth after he first preached to his local community as told by Luke (Luke 4:21-30, click here for the Australian paraphrase that I used).

When I first read the passage set for this morning my first response was a sense of puzzlement. It feels like half a story – the second half of last week’s story (Luke 4:14-21) to be precise. Both passages are quite short and could easily been cobined for lectionary purposes. Assuming that the creators of the Lectionary were not just trying to spin the material out to fill the weeks available, why have they chosen to split the story up like this?

The lectionary reading last week told of Jesus’ first pubic words after his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. If you remember, he was handed the scroll of the Book of Isaiah and opened it to a passage which promises good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, sight for the blind, and the coming of the year of the Lord’s favour. When he has finished reading, he handed the scroll back and told his listeners that this scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing.

But that was last week’s reading, this week’s takes off from there and records his audience’s response. Initially they seem pleased, they were impressed at how graciously spoke and expressed surprise that this was Joseph and Mary’s son, a local lad made good. Jesus keeps on speaking, however, and within minutes has managed to turn this favourably response into a riot in which he gets extremely close to being lynched. If this passage is important, if the creators of the lectionary have been genuinely insightful in how they’ve divided Luke’s Gospel up, then the key question for this morning is, “What was it that Jesus said that had such a disastrous effect on his audience?

On frist reading there doesn’t seem anything particularly offensive in what Jesus says. He says some stuff about a prophet never being popular in his own town, which is a bit odd seeing as Luke has just told us how well he has been received, and then retells two rather obscure stores from the Hebrew Bible. The first is about Elijah travelling to help a widow in Sidon and the second about Naaman, a Syrian, coming to visit Elisha to be healed of leprosy. What was so offensive about this, and what can we learn from the situation today?

Well we are clearly going to have to think of the context and use our imaginations. This is taking place in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee. Galilee was known at the time as a hot bed of radical Judaism. It was a remote province with no big cities and was not subject to the game of power politics that the Temple priests in Jerusalem played with their Roman overlords. The local people were far more influenced by the pharisees who fired them up telling them that they were God’s chosen people, they were the fragment that were holding God’s true purpose. When salvation came through the promised Messiah then they, naturally, would be the first to be saved. They were special.

But Jesus is having none of it. First, he exposes their underlying feelings, “you’ll start demanding that I do here in my hometown the things that I’ve done elsewhere”. He identifies that there is something greedy and self-serving about their expectations. Then he picks two stories very carefully, two stories about God’s wider purpose. These are actually quite difficult to find in the Hebrew Bible which is almost entirely about God’s covenant with the Jews. The stories are about earlier prophets offering God’s message to gentiles rather than Jews. The first is about Elijah who, during a crippling three-year drought which was causing misery in Israel, travelled well over 100 kms, presumably on foot, to help a gentile widow in Sidon to the north or Israel. The second is about Elisha, who despite living in a country in which leprosy was endemic chose to offer healing the Naaman the Syrian who had travelled a similar distance to see him.

Jesus was telling the local congregation, you’ve got it wrong, God’s Kingdom is not about you, or at least not just about you. It is about something much bigger, it is about the whole world and people who are poor, in prison or blind wherever they are and whether the worship God the way you do or not.

This is what inflamed the local community. They saw the way they worshipped God as the only way to worship God, they saw the relationship they had with God as exclusive. They had come to regard God as being for them. Jesus told them they were wrong. They should not see God as existing for them, they should see themselves as existing for God. It was this that turned them against him.

There’s a warning here for us isn’t there? Because the assumption that we are doing things the right way and that we are particularly special in the eyes of God is a very human failing. It’s what has fuelled the formation of almost every new Christian denomination over the last 400 years. We can get very comfortable within congregations and assume that way we have always done things is the right way. Our mission comes to be to draw people into the way we worship, the way we express our faith, the way we have always done things, rather than to empower them to find fresh ways of expressing their faith that are meaningful to them (and who knows, might be reinvigorating for us as well).

At a time of falling church attendance we need the humility to accept that the way we have done things in the past, the way that many of us feel comfortable in expressing our faith through worship, is not working for the wider population. Maybe we need to be challenged by this morning’s reading to move away from the comfort of the way we have always done things to explore fresh ways of being church which might be more meaningful to those who come from different backgrounds.

One of the reasons that I found this passage so engaging at the moment is that we’re have had a very strong response to our Living Life to the Full wellbeing classes. The current classes are over-subscribed with 29 booked in and a further 7 people waiting for the next series. They are coming for a series of eight 90-minute sessions on our premises. Some are church members, but the majority have no previous connection with our church. The temptation is to see them as potential recruits to the way we do things, to see them, through increasing our numbers as a way of enhancing how we worship. But the passage we have read this morning alerts us to a danger in this way of thinking, our mission should not be driven by a concern for what we need, it should be driven by a passion for what they need.

So this morning I’m asking for your prayers. Prayers first of thanks that so many people, who may not have been inside a church for a considerable period of time, are attending these classes. But prayers also that we will find ways of helping and supporting them to live out their lives to the fullest in ways that are meaningful to them. Prayers that, if necessary, we can put aside assumptions that our way is the only way, and work imaginatively to draw them into the love of God in new ways.

Let us pray that God’s Kingdom will come, not necessarily as we assume it should come, but in ways that include everyone, whoever they are, whatever background the come from, whatever life experiences they struggle with. After all it was Jesus who first prayed, “yet not my will, but yours be done”.

 

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Baptism as a political statement

Today’s lectionary reading is the story of baptism of Jesus from Luke’s gospel (Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22).  Three of the gospels tell of Jesus being baptised but one misses out, anyone know which one?

You might be surprised to hear that Jesus’ baptism is not explicitly mentioned in John’s gospel. You probably think, “of course it is, John saw the spirit descending in the form of a dove and recognised Jesus as the Lamb of God”. If you read the text carefully, however, you’ll find no mention of any baptism. Yes, Jesus goes to visit John where he is baptising people in the Jordan. Yes, Jesus, meets John. Yes, John recognises Jesus as the Messiah. Yes, John proclaims this to the crowd, but there is no mention of John baptising Jesus. Because the story is told by the other gospel writers, we tend to assume that John records it as well. If you read the text carefully, however, it’s missed out. Why?

Well it could be because John just forgot to mention it, or because he thought his readership knew the story so well that he didn’t have to mention it, or because he thought other aspects of the story were more important. But there is another explanation. John thought that God was within Jesus from his very birth, in fact before that birth, “In the beginning the word already existed and the word was with God and the word was God” (John 1:1).

John the Baptism baptised people who repented of their sins and to restore their relationship with God. But Jesus was God and had always been God. How could he have sinned and how could he need his relationship with God to be restored? John, the gospel writer, has left Jesus’ baptism out of his story intentionally, it doesn’t fit with his view of who Jesus was and of his relationship to God. This theory is further confirmed by his omission of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. If Jesus is God how can he be tempted by the devil, or anyone else?

The more interesting question, given that most modern-day Christians accept John’s view of who Jesus was, is not why did John leave the story of Jesus’ baptism out but why Matthew, Mark and Luke included it?

It tells us that the writers of these three gospels saw Jesus differently. Biblical scholars think that John’s gospel was written later than the other three, probably 20 to 30 years later. During that time the way that the early church thought about Jesus and God  changed and this is reflected in how John tells the story differently to the other three. Indeed, if you look at the other three gospels, they all tell their stories differently to reflect their individual views of exactly who God was. Just as around this congregation different individuals have a different understanding of  who God is and who Jesus is, so that is reflected in the heart of our Bible. The four gospels all present somewhat different understandings of who Jesus was and is, but are still united in proclaiming Jesus as Lord. It’s a model for how those Christians today can relate to each other despite having different views. Depsite those different views we can still see God working in each other and come together jointly to proclaim that Jesus is Lord.

Luke and Mark, and to a lesser extent Matthew, consider the political significance of Jesus baltism as more important than did John (who focussed on his spiritual significance). Baptism to them was not just a spiritual act it was also a political act.

People in Palestine in the first century lived in a domination system. Society was extremely hierarchical with the rich people at the top, poor people in the middle and a large underclass of outcasts, the disabled, beggars, prostitutes, lepers who had no place in society at all. This structure was enforced primarily by economic power. The poor people had to work so hard merely to survive that they had no time or opportunity to even think about any alternative, let alone revolt. Without any safety net those who had a little money feared they would be demoted to absolute poverty if they didn’t play their part in the system.

This was bad enough within the Jewish society but the system was made much worse by the Roman invasion. The Roman Empire was the ultimate hierarchy with the Emperor at the top and everyone else in a series of layers below him down to the slaves who had no rights whatsoever. This structure did not just depend on economic power however, it was reinforced with brutal violence. Crucifixion was a particularly painful method of execution which was reserved for revolutionaries and those who defied the political system.

John the Baptist, and others at the time, saw that this domination system was not what God wanted. The books of the Jewish law lay out an economic structure that ensures that God’s gifts are shared amongst his people. If economic imbalances develop over time they are corrected in a year of jubilee. All people were deemed equal in the eyes of God. John did not want to be part of the domination system and separated himself from it by going and living in the desert and surviving on what little food the desert had to provide, locusts and honey. That was a subversive step. John was saying, “You do not need to be part of this domination system, there is an alternative, you can live by God’s law instead”. This was really dangerous because those who had wealth and power depended for that wealth and power on those below them in the domination system accepting that system and their place in it. John was a dangerous revolutionary and would pay for this a little later with his life.

Baptism has been referred to from very early times as a sacrament, from the Latin word sacramentum, but does anyone know what the original meaning of the word was? The sacramentum was the oath of allegiance that a Roman Soldier took when he joined the Roman Army. It was an oath of allegiance to the Emperor and, effectively, to the domination system that he represented.

In undertaking the sacrament of baptism people were stating their allegiance to a different authority, the authority of God. Baptism was a seditious act that signified a rejection of the domination system. Today we think of repentance as referring to turning from our past way of life as individuals, but to John the Baptism it almost certainly also referred to turning from our past way of living as a society. This is brought to full fruition in Paul’s teaching that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor gentile, freeman or slave (Galatians 3:28). We need to step outside a domination system based upon exploitation and see everyone as equal in the eyes of God and united by love.

Against this understanding, Jesus’ baptism makes perfect sense. Jesus wanted to make a statement that he too objected to the domination system, that he too had read the Torah and that he too recognised that God’s intended Kingdom was very different from how the world was functioning. It was the Kingdom that Mary foresaw when she sang the Magnificat, as recorded by Luke:

He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away with empty hands.
He has kept the promise he made to our ancestors,
and has come to the help of his servant Israel.

Luke 1:52-54

Through his baptism, Jesus’ ministry starts with a statement of political as well as spiritual intent.

But baptism isn’t just a statement of intent it is also an embodiment of the methods for achieving change. When the Roman soldier took his sacramentum he did so in full armour, in front of his commanding officer who signified the full might of the Roman empire. His role was to uphold the empire through power and violence. When people where baptised they stripped off and entered a river to be baptised by a man clothed only in camel’s skin secured by a leather belt. God’s kingdom cannot be entered by violence and power but by rejecting violence and making ourselves vulnerable.

What can be more symbolic of that offer of our vulnerability than to be lowered backwards into water trusting only on the baptiser to support us and restore us to life? I can think of only one thing and that is of an innocent man allowing himself to be crucified.

Jesus’ baptism is a powerful statement that not only can the world be different, but that it will be made different by our making ourselves vulnerable through the giving of love sacrificially and non-violently.

We’ll explore how these ideas might affect our lives today in our prayers, but I wanted to think of an illustration of this and will leave you with a video clip from the film Gandhi. The British Empire in India was a domination system similar in some ways to the Roman occupation of Palestine. One way the British exerted power was to control the supply of salt. The Indians were taxed heavily for making their own salt and forced to buy it at inflated prices. In the past the Indians had made their own salt from sea-water but the British deemed this illegal and enforced the law with violence. In 1930 Mahatma Gandhi led a march to the sea to start making salt again. He was arrested but his followers continued to march to the old salt-works …

As the reporter said, “Whatever moral ascendancy the West has held was lost here today”. India gained her freedom when those ordinary Indians rejected the system that the British had imposed upon them, when they offered up their vulnerability to the violence of their oppressors. So too our freedom has been gained when Jesus rejected the system within which he lived and and offered up his vulnerability to the violence of his oppressors. Let us give thanks for his self-sacrifice and let us seek the courage to follow it.

This sermon has been inspired be reading Alan Street’s book, Caesar and the Sacrament – Baptism: a Rite of Resistance.

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.

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.

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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