Month: July 2018

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.

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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.