sermon

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?”

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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.

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

Does a changing world require changing rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living life to the full with God

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

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

Luke 5:27-32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connect
Be active
Keep learning
Give to others
Be mindful

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

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

CBT cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An end to child sacrifice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

child poverty

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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