Month: October 2014

Relating to other faiths

This is a sermon preached on 26th October based on the readings Revelation 21:22-22:5 and Luke 6:27-42.

I want to talk about our relationship to other faiths this morning. What I have to say will be generalisable but will focus on our relationship with Muslims. Clearly there is much fear in our world about Muslim fundamentalism. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to preach since the beheading of Alan Hennings. He was the Salford cabbie who went to Syria  to try and help. Although I’ve never met her his wife, Barbara, works in my department at the University where there has been  a particularly strong and emotional reaction to the news.

We heard yesterday of the death of Muhammad Mehdi Hassa, the fourth of six young men from Portsmouth who went to fight for Islamic state. Somehow, we don’t know how, they and an estimated other 500 British Muslims have been convinced that this is what their faith requires of them. Most of us are horrified and bewildered. An all too easy response, particularly I think amongst Christians,  is to assume that this is  further proof of  the error of Islam. It’s this that I want to explore this morning.

The first and most obvious point I want to make is that there are a wide spectrum of beliefs within Islam just as there are within Christianity. My daughter has just finished her GCSE and is now taking A-level religious studies. At GCSE it was considered appropriate to write about “what Christians believe” or “what Muslims believe”. At the new level she is working at she has been told that this is no longer appropriate. She needs to write about “what some Christians believe” or maybe about “the official view of the Methodist church” or to mention the views of a specific individual who has a particular faith. Just because we are appalled by the actions of some Muslims does not mean we should condemn all Muslims or the faith of Islam.

We lived in Northern Ireland for several years just after the first IRA ceasefire was announced. During that time we lived within a Christian community that was appalled about the deeds that had been done by people who considered themselves Christians and truly believed that they were doing what God wanted. We as Christians wanted nothing to do with the acts of Catholics working within the IRA or of protestants within the Unionist paramilitaries. Most of us within this church this morning would be appalled to hear those acts portrayed as the acts of Christianity. Why then, do we fall into the trap of assuming that the isolated acts of small groups of Muslims involved in terror activities are representative of Islam?

We also need to develop some historical perspective. The trauma that some parts of Islam are experiencing now is extremely similar to trauma that some parts of Christianity passed through several centuries ago. 16th and 17th century Europe was riven by religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants every bit as brutal and uncompromising as the current rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East today. On St Bartholomw’s day in 1572 between 5,000 and 30,000 innocent French protestants were murdered by Catholic mobs in Paris and across France. (The only hard evidence for numbers is a bill for workers in Paris to remove 1,100 bodies from the Seine and bury them).

This is just, of course, one particularly horrendous example but history is littered with others of how feuds within Christianity have led to tyranny and death in different communities across the world. (The secular world does not escape either of course. There can be no stronger example of the senseless beheading of innocent victims than the French revolution, perhaps the first time a secular state emerged within the Western world).

In our reading this morning we’ve been reminded of Jesus’ words that we “should take the plank out of our eye” before “taking the speck out of our brothers”. In looking at the state of parts of current Islam we need to recognise that this is where we, as Christians, have already been. Our first response should be one of recognition. Our second response, perhaps, should be more positive, in recognising that  this is a place that we have come from (albeit more recently than many of us would care to acknowledge). Perhaps there is help we can offer their community from the previous experiences of ours.

Of  course this assumes we would want to. Why should we offer support to a different religious community, one who some would see as  in competition with our own – a community that some within Christianity would see simply as wrong and misguided? Shouldn’t we be fighting against that community as part of our responsibilities as Christians?

Whilst there are certainly writings within the New Testament that can be used to support such attitudes I don’t think that those we’ve heard read this morning do. The injunction of Jesus for us to love our enemies is perhaps one of the most preached about and least implemented in the Bible. What credit do we get for loving people who are just like us? What God wants is for us to love people who are different to us. How, in the modern world can we best love Muslims? That is the question we should really be asking. Of course the paradox within this is you cannot love your enemies – if you love your enemies they become your friends.

There is disagreement here within Christianity (its actually a good example of the variety of opinion within Christianity that I outlined above). Some Christians are extremely confident in their particular brand of Christianity. They believe that through the Bible and Jesus that we know the truth and that everyone else is wrong (there are plenty of passages of scripture that can be cited to reinforce this view). For this group of people the most loving thing we can do for Muslims is to show them how wrong they are and convert them to our way  of seeing and doing.

My faith, and the faith of many other Christians, is different. I don’t have the same faith that the Bible represents the Truth in this way. Within the Bible are so many contradictions that you can’t say that it convey a simple truth. One of the Ten Commandments is that “Thou shalt not kill”. The teaching of Jesus would appear to reinforce this message. But then in Joshua we read of how God stopped the sun in the sky so that the Jews could complete their slaughter of their enemies. That’s just an example of a contradiction within the Bible. I’ve already given examples this morning of what happens when on top of this we layer the competing claims of different denominations and different interpretations of our scripture. It is ludicrous, in my eyes, to see Christianity as a single embodiment of the Truth that is either possible or desirable for us to inflict upon other people.

My faith sees all of us, all people throughout the world, as trying to make sense of life. For me it is important to start in humility with an assumption that we know very little. This is, to me, what Paul meant when he talked of our “childish ways” and how now we see “as through a glass darkly”. Christianity offers a framework through which we can explore what meaning life might have rather than a rigid prescription of what that meaning is. Before it was called the church the early Christian movement was known as “the Way”. It was a way of being in community, a way of exploring faith, a way of drawing closer to God. A God that was defined by people’s experience rather than by what had previously been written in the scriptures. For me the New Testament has a unique place in guiding my spiritual development but it is not the only place.

The images of the End within the Bible are incredibly important. I, with many other Christians,  believe they are poetic and metaphorically images of what we should aspire to rather than literal accounts of what will happen but they are no less important for that. (Indeed as science gives us clearer and clearer predictions of what how the physical universe is likely to end  I’d argue that a metaphorical understad=nding becomes more important.) The image we’ve had presented to us from towards the end of Revelation has very little to do with what we see as Christianity today. The reading says very explicitly that there is no Temple. In a sense religion has been brought to an end. When all people see the Truth there is no longer a need for a Way to guide them towards it. There is an undefiled city where all people can dwell, there is a river filled with the crystal clear water of life. There are trees that bear sufficient food to feed us all and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

This vision is of something bigger than the Christianity we practice today. It has no denominations, it has no church councils or preaching plans of flower distribution rotas. It is something different. It is somewhere I hope I am traveling towards  but it is also somewhere that I know I am a long way from. I look to Christianity as a guide  on that journey.  But this guidance will be needed less and less the closer I get to arriving, the closer I get to seeing face to face.

If I see myself as an individual who knows little and is travelling on a journey then I have no real difficulty in seeing members of other faiths as people who know little and but are traveling on a journey also. The journey is along a different path with a different guide but may still be towards the same destination. I have no doubt that the scriptures I revere and the faith experiences that I have had can support others on that journey. I will not stop preaching the gospel in which I believe. But I will offer that to a fellow traveller acknowledging that they may still want to walk along a different path.

Perhaps most importantly though I want to listen. If what I know and what I have experienced can help others then maybe what others know and have experienced can help me. If we are all one day going to share the same city, the same river and the fruit of the same trees, maybe we should start sharing more of our lives now.

One of the most special evenings of my time in Melbourne was in the home of a Muslim family. One of the responses of the Australian Muslim community’s responses to 9:11 was to issue an invitation through the local churches for people to join an Iftar feast within a local home. The Iftar feast is that which starts at dusk on each night of Ramadan when Muslims who have been fasting throughout the day can eat again. A group of us turned up on at a suburban house in the north of the city and were welcomed by a young woman wearing a head scarf. She and her husband sat us down and told us of their faith and gave us an opportunity for us to tell them of ours. As the sun set we turned on the television to hear the Muezzin’s call to prayer. They left briefly to say their prayers and then returned to serve food over which we continued to talk. Despite many experiences within Australian churches this was probably the most spiritually moving encounter I had in the nine years we were there. Driving home I felt truly blessed.

When people talk to me of Muslims the image that comes to my mind is not of a bearded terrorist. It is of a young Australian woman in a head scarf  whose house I entered into in a state of unknowing and left in a state of grace. For her role in helping me on my journey, I give thanks to God – whatever we may both choose to call him.

I’d selected the hymn, God is love let heaven adore, after I’d selected the theme but before I’d decided what to say. As we sang it in church just before I preached I was struck by just how closely its theme’s mapped on to mine.


Maggoty world? A harvest sermon

This is sermon I preached at our harvest festival this year base on two readings: Exodus 16:1-8, 13-20, 31-32 and Luke: 12:22-34

I want to start my sermon this morning by asking why, in the modern, world we celebrate harvest in the way we do?

Modern food production doesn’t require a great deal of ploughing the fields. Most of it is now based on forcing hydroponic crops hidden within poly-tunnels. There’s little scattering of seed either, its all drilled in exactly the correct amounts to produce the yield that the farmer thinks the land can sustain. Food supply is now a multi-million pound industry. There are multi-million dollar investments and corresponding profits for the processors, distributors and retailers (but often very little for the original producers). There is little seasonal variation, just modest fluctuation in prices. The only changes we see are at the checkouts where we now know that toffee apples indicate the lead up to Halloween, mince pies the long lead up to Christmas and  chocolate eggs the even  longer lead in to Easter.

For most of us living in this town and worshipping in this church, food is constantly available and (despite having risen in price recently) reasonable affordable. At one level if we look back to the reading from Luke and Jesus’ teaching that we shouldn’t worry about where our food is going to come from then we are already there. In  a very real sense we don’t worry about where are food is going to come from (even if we sometimes grumble a bit about how much it costs.

Jesus was talking, however, to a very different audience when he told them not to worry about what they are going to eat. In New Testament time and for the poor rural community that  he was talking to things were very different. Most of the people in that audience would have had very real concerns about where food was going to come from. Many small-holders would have been reliant on storing the produce from one harvest well and hoping that it would last through to the next. For the poor there would have been little margin for error, little money to buy food if they got it wrong. Even immediately after the harvest there would have been a concern not too eat too much in order to make it last. There would have been a constant tension over food and its availability. Can you imagine living like that?

Of course there are a growing number of people in today’s society who can tell you exactly what that feels like. At a time when the rich are being given tax breaks to try and stimulate the economy many of the poorest people in our society are finding their benefits cut  and councils are having to reduce services. The Christian Fellowship up the road have felt a need to set up a food bank  and, rather depressingly, it is doing swift business. Even in a relative prosperous area like ours people need its services. All the food we’ve brought forward this morning is going to a similar food bank in Salford. I travel from here to Salford for work every day. I can see the very different economic environments. If we need a food bank here just imagine how much more this food is needed in Salford.

If you think about it Jesus’ contention that we should “not worry about the food we need to stay alive” has two sides to it for those of us who don’t worry about where our food is coming from. One is that we, who have food we need, should worry less about the food we want. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray only for bread, we don’t pray for caviare or champagne or even microwave tagliatelle. The other side is that we who have food, need to make certain that those who don’t, don’t have to worry either. In the good News Bible today’s reading is divided into two parts the first is headed “Trust in God” and is about Jesus telling us not too worry. The second is headed “Riches in heaven” where we are told to give our wealth to the poor. This is wrong, the passage as we heard it this morning is a coherent whole becasue the poor will never be free from their worries about food while the rich refuse to share.

I started off by asking why, in the modern world without seasons, a world with a constant food supply,we need to celebrate harvest.  May be the answer is that  there is a need once a year at least to remember the people who have a very difference experience – who are worrying from day to day about how they will feed themselves. This of course, is what we already do, all the gifts of food that people have brought this morning will be being shared with people who are considerably less well off than ourselves. In a small but prophetic way we are living out Jesus’ teaching.

Maybe harvest in the modern world is a time not just for giving thanks but for expressing anger. If the UK is the sixth largest economy in the world why is it that so many people struggle to put food on the table? If we can afford tax breaks for the rich why can we not afford food for the poor? What is wrong with the society in which we live? I think one of the problems lies in our democracy. For a long time through the late 19th and most of the 20th century the majority of people in the UK could be classed as poor. Democracy tends to favour the majority and over that period there was a general improvement in the condition of the poor and many families were able to work themselves out of poverty. I think we’ve reached a position now that the majority of people in the UK can be classed as well-off (maybe not rich, but well-off). There is a very real danger now that in pursuing the votes of the majority, our political parties will forget the needs of the poor. We as a church are one of the few organisations that still have a concern for the poor and, at the modern harvest, that is one of the messages we need to scream from our pulpits.

But there’s another reason why I think harvest is so important for the modern world. The story that I think best illustrates it is that story of the Jews wandering in the wilderness for forty  years. Early on in their journey they were starting to feel what it is to live without food, they thought they were going to die. Moses took their plight to God and God provided for them. Each morning he sent a substance like bread to coat the ground and instructed the Israelites to pick up just as much as they needed for that day. But who was listening closely? What happened if people gathered more than they needed for the day and tried to hoard it? Yes, it went maggoty and started to smell. I want you to hold that image in your head. Maggoty bread that has started to smell. We don’t need to believe in the literal truth of the story to be captured by the power of this image. Maggoty bread that has started to smell.

Is this not what always happens when we try to take too much? Look at the environment within which we live. Look how we have taken more than we need from it over the last two hundred years and see how it has responded. Think of it as a world that has gone maggoty and has started to smell. Remember the earlier part of my sermon. Think of how within Britain the well off have taken more than we need. Think of this as a world that has gone maggoty and started to smell. Think further afield, perhaps to the people of Burund that the Methodist Relief and Development fund would like us to remember this Harvest. Remember how the people of Africa have been exploited by the developed worlds desire to take more than it needs. Think of this as a world that has gone maggoty and started to smell.

The Biblical message is clear – if we only take what we need then we will live. If we take more  then we will die. It’s interesting to contrast this with the message of all the political parties at the moment (indeed that of mainstream economics throughout the developed world). They say that we need our economy to grow in order for us to move out or recession. But think about that. What is “growth”? Growth is wanting more. Growth is not being happy with what we have. Growth is the very antithesis of what God asked of the Jews in the wilderness or of what Jesus asked of his followers in Galilee. Where God and Jesus asked us to be content with what we have, western governments and asking us to be greedy for more. This cannot work. Continued growth on a finite planet is just not possible. The faster we grow the sooner we use up the resources. Growth of the rich in a divided world will only lead to a more divided world. The last thing the developed world’s economy needs is growth. Very few people in positions of power recognise this, very few people voting for them in western democracies understand this.

Solutions aren’t easy. Working out how the World’s economy might work if not driven by growth means challenging the whole basis of consumer capitalism. But solution’s don’t come unless someone, somewhere, first recognises the problem. Maybe this is a role for the modern harvest festival. To give thanks for what we have first but then to go further and to proclaim that it is sufficient. We do not need any more. Heaven will be made real on earth when we acknowledge the sufficiency of what we have. It will certainly never arrive if we continually strive for the things we haven’t got and don’t need. It’s a message not just for the Church but for the whole world everywhere and, along with our concern for the poor, it is a message that we should be preaching from every pulpit this harvest.