sermon

Helping our community grieve for its planet

I’ve been struggling recently with how we respond to the degradation of our environment which seems to be continuing so uncontrollably. I feel a need to express my grief. The little video below is an attempt to do this which I shared in worship last Sunday (using a felt board and laminated cut-outs of the animals and plants).

We followed this by singing selected verses of “Think of a world without any flowers” which is becoming a more and more poignant song for me:

Think of a world without any flowers,
think of a world without any trees,
think of a sky without any sunshine,
think of the air without any breeze.
We thank you, Lord, for flowers and trees and sunshine,
we thank you, Lord, and praise your holy name.

Think of the world without any animals,
think of a field without any herd,
think of a stream without any fishes,
think of a dawn without any bird.
We thank you, Lord, for all your living creatures,
we thank you, Lord, and praise your holy name.

The nearest Biblical parallel to what we are facing seems to be that of the Jewish exile in Babylon and the experience that is articulated in Psalm 137, This  sermon attempts to draw out those parallels and offer our community a way through its grief.

In 597BC, after a revolt against Babylon, the new superpower in the Middle East at the time, a three month siege resulted in Jerusalem being pillaged, the Temple being destroyed and a large part of the population being captured and taken into exile in Babylon. They remained there as captives for approximately 70 years.

The effect was devastating on the people. They had lost everything they held dear. Many had lost family members in the wars or siege or had been separated from them when being forced into exile. They would have lost their possessions and homes and in many cases land that had been passed down through the generations. Perhaps most importantly, though, they had lost their God. Before the exile the Jews believed in a tribal God whose main purpose was to look after Israel. But Israel had been destroyed. That God had failed. Imagine what it must feel like to have a God who has failed. It would drive you to sit down by a river and weep. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

How does that reflect our experience today? For almost as long as Christianity has been around it has felt that society has been progressing – moving in the right direction. The expansion and development of Christianity has occurred at a time of progress and development for humanity. It has been possible to see human progress as moving towards the coming of a Kingdom where slavery is no more, where women are no longer subject to men, where even poverty might be eradicated. Every successive generation has known a better world than its parents. It has been very easy to assume that a beneficent God has been looking after us and guiding that progress. In the words of Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

But now we see a world that is deteriorating, that might even be destroyed. The issues aren’t just about the environment. Throughout the world the gap between rich and poor is increasing, and the poor are really suffering. “Progress” has not brought happiness,  mental illness is rising rapidly. In many regions, including our own, there is political instability bordering on chaos and a feeling that our democratic institutions are failing. The current state of the environment is not only a depressing fact but also a metaphor for the state of our current society more generally.

It really feels to me as if the God who many like me believed to be guiding human progress has failed. There is a resonance between the grief of those Jews in exile in Babylon, who had lost everything including their confidence in God, and our present generation, who are in danger of losing everything and may already have lost their confidence in God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?

The Jews were in exile for 70 years. The generation that went into exile and wept so bitterly died in exile. A whole generation grew up in exile and never knew any other way of living. It was only later generations that finally returned to what they had been told was their homeland.

When we look at the projections for how the climate will change over coming years then we face a similar but exaggerated situation. We, the generation present here, will almost certainly not live to see a return to anything that is seen as progress. Many generations will almost certainly live in a severely denuded environment, and probably with currently unimaginable political instability as rich and poor fight for what little food it is still possible to grow.

I do believe that eventually a generation will emerge who return to its homeland, who eventually recognise that the only way we can all live life to the full, on a finite and degraded planet, is to accept the gospel of love and community that is offered freely to all … but it will be a very long time coming.

Of course, some will see our predicament as God’s judgement and others will see the state of our earthly existence as essentially irrelevant when we look forward to spending eternity in God’s presence. Such ideas may comfort others, but they do little to comfort me. What I feel in my heart is an aching sadness for the world as it could be but isn’t. A sadness I can only describe as grief. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

So I place myself alongside those exiles in Babylon and want to learn from them how to express, and live through, that grief. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying identified 5 stages of grief and we see many of them in that Jewish experience, and in our experience today.

First is denial and isolation. The Jews could not deny that they had been physically removed but they did continue to live in isolation from their captors and continue the religious practices that, one could argue, had led them to be in that position. Today we  definitely see denial of what is happening to the world and a desire to carry on as usual.

Then there is anger. We don’t often hear the second half of psalm 137 read out but how can wishing your enemies’ children’s heads be crushed against rocks be anything other than an expression of anger. I feel anger today for how the planet is changing. I suppress it, but that only means it emerges as tears rather than violence. Greta Thunberg feels that anger and expresses it far more powerfully than I can.

Bargaining comes next. How many of the psalms (many of which scholars now believe where written or at least edited during the exile) embed some element of an attempt to bargain with God. As we read in Psalm 137:

If I ever forget your holy city, LORD,
may my arms be turned into twigs and burned.

How often do we attempt to bargain in our response to environmental change, “Surely if I choose to cycle more often and install solar panels I will have done enough” or “we as a nation should only act if other nations are willing to act alongside us”. The bargaining is doomed to failure because it fails to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

Then depression, sitting down and weeping by the river, descending into mental ill-health as individuals and as a society.

But finally comes acceptance.  Eventually the exiles did come to accept that the exile was real and learnt that they had to accommodate to their loss. Many of the stories of the exile are of Jews flourishing as individuals or as a group within their new circumstances. Acceptance doesn’t restore what is lost, but it does allow us to begin to live fulfilled lives again despite that loss. In terms of how our planet is changing we will eventually accept that the planet has lost much of the beauty we appreciate today, but when we do we will find different ways of living fully as God intended.

That is why it is so important for us to work through our grief because it is only when we have accepted it that we will look for these new ways of living. I included our gospel reading earlier (Mark 15:25-37) that it is only when we have accepted the grief of what Jesus went through on the cross that we are able to embrace the new way of life that we experience as Resurrection.

At this time helping our community to grieve may be one of the most important roles the church has. The support we offer at funerals and otherwise during grieving is one of the last points of contact that we still have with many people in our community. We know how to support people through grief when they lose a loved one. Maybe we should develop our expertise in allowing people through their grief for this planet. Maybe acts of lament like the story I told earlier on might be one way of allowing people to express and live through their grief.

It is also important to work through stages of grief because grief is disabling and disempowering. We become paralysed and unable to help ourselves. What could better describe our human society at the moment than paralysis and inability to help ourselves? Moving through the stages of grief to acceptance frees us to act and to transform.

Accepting the awful reality of what is happening to our planet can break us out of that paralysis and empower us to act as agents for change. Jeremiah was a prophet at the time of the exile. He is famous for his lamentations, for his grief for his nation. It was through embracing and working through that grief, however,  that he became one Israel’s greatest prophets and one of the most powerful advocates of societal change and a demand for social justice that the planet has ever seen.

That is what our society today needs. It needs prophets to advocate new ways of living on a finite planet with finite resources. It needs the imagination to dream up a new economic system that are not dependent on continual growth and the inevitable increases in consumption of resources that this entails. It needs demands for justice in the sharing of our human and natural resources. Above all it requires prophetic voices to remind us that what is required is for us to love the Lord our god with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

We cannot do this if we are paralysed by grief, but if we work through that grief to accept our loss then we can be liberated to work for the coming of the Kingdom. The world will almost certainly be transformed by climate change, but, if we liberate ourselves to action, there is still a chance that the physical and biological changes can be limited. Perhaps more importantly, that change will only be brought about if we can direct our society away from competitive individualism to the social cooperation and justice which is the heart of our gospel. We must work through our grief and be liberated to go once more into the world to love and serve our Lord.

My thinking has been influenced heavily by three different sources:

  • reading Walter Brueggemanm’s classic, “The Prophetic Imagination” at our theology book club,
  • being led in a staff retreat in February on “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” by Jasmine Devadson earlier in the year,
  • attending workshops with Extinction Rebellion at this year’s Greenbelt Festival.

 

 

 

 

The Church and Political Protest

On 18th August our church held a “pop-up” event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. It was inspired by an earlier celebration at Manchester Cathedral which had pointed out that committed Christians had been involved on both sides of the political divide at Peterloo. Many non-conformist Christians had been helped organsie the protest but there were prominent clergymen amongst the group of magistrates who ordered the troops to disperse the crowd. We thus had a session to explore whether and how individual Christians and the church as an institution should engage in political protest today. This started hearing from two Quakers who are involved in protests against the arms trade, a representative of Extinction Rebellion and a Methodist minister involved in opposing expressions of hate against minorities. After this we had a time of open discussion of the issues followed by an act of worship.

During the worship we read Luke 19:37-48, the story of Jesus entry into Jerusalem and Palm Sunday and leading to him turning the table of the money-lenders in the courtyard of  the temple which led into this sermon.

Should Christians engage in political protest?

We’re so used to thinking of Jesus as a preacher and religious teacher that we often ignore his role as a prophet and political agitator. We sometimes consider him other-worldly, but much of his teaching reveals a very shrewd understanding of human nature and how the world works. He knew that the common people that he had grown up with were oppressed. The most obvious oppression was that coming from the Roman occupying forces, but Jesus also knew that within the local population the poor were oppressed by the rich. He was particularly saddened to see the many pharisees supporting this oppression either implicitly or explicitly. Much of his teaching, particularly through his parables, and many of his actions, make as much sense as political theory as they do as theology.

Let’s look at the story of Palm Sunday. We’ve heard this told so often in church services accompanied by children’s processions, the waving of palm branches and the singing of upbeat worship songs that we assume that this was originally a religious event. Jesus leads a procession into the city of Jerusalem from the east. It certainly had religious overtones, but it was also highly political. The only other person who would process through the city gates into Jerusalem was the Roman Governor accompanied by his troops.

It’s quite likely that the Governor, Pontius Pilate, was processing into the city from the west on that very day. Jerusalem always filled up with people at Passover. The crowds were generally peaceful but, just as the Magistrates at Peterloo considered it expedient to have over a thousand troops available just in case, so Pilate wanted troops who could disperse the crowd if necessary. In the lead up to the festival each year he would lead them into the city to remind the people who was in control. By staging an alternative procession into Jerusalem, Jesus was promoting himself as an alternative to Roman authority. His procession was no accident, Jesus had made elaborate plans (Luke 19:30) to ensure that a colt is available and that the demonstration would have maximum effective.

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38) sounds like a religious chant but it is first and foremost a political claim. If this is the King, then what authority does the Roman Governor or even Caesar himself have?

It’s for this reason perhaps that the pharisees rebuke Jesus (Luke 19:39). There was an uneasy coalition between the Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. If the Jewish leaders ensured that the people were peaceful and paid their taxes, then the Romans allowed them to continue in positions of power and influence. The Pharisees are trying to hush Jesus and his followers up. “Keep quiet”, they are saying, “don’t you realise what trouble you could get into, and get us into”.

Jesus reply? ”I tell you if we keep quiet the very stones will shout out” (Luke 19:40). The signs of oppression and injustice are so clear that it doesn’t really matter whether we draw attention to them or not. This recognition drives him to tears (Luke 19:41). He weeps for a society that cannot even see the way to peace through justice and is destined for destruction as predicted by prophets like Amos (e.g. Amos 8:1-8).

Following his entry into the city he proceeds further to the Temple. He’s been there before. He knows what to expect. Although the Jewish authorities know that the Temple should be a house of prayer, he knows that they tolerate the money lenders as long as they are given a share of the profits. His actions are not an impulsive outrage at a surprising finding, they are pre-planned to create maximum effect in a response to a situation he knows he is going to encounter.

Although the procession appears to be in defiance of the Roman authorities and the turned tables were those of the money lenders, both protests are effectively against the Jewish authorities and their complicity with power (the Romans) and money (the money lenders). The Romans and money lenders didn’t, or couldn’t, know better but the Jewish authorities, so well versed in the Torah and words of the prophets, were guilty of ignoring both.

Jesus realised that imposing a solution with force could never work. The Romans imposed peace, and did it very effectively, but that imposed peace had a huge human and financial cost and could only last for as long as the force was there to impose it. Jesus advocated God’s peace, a peace that would last forever. That is only possible if it arises out of the people’s desire for justice.

Jesus’ chose particular actions not because they were likely to be effective in themselves. He knew that a small group of unarmed Galileans led by a man sitting on a donkey was no match for the might of Rome. He knew that upturned tables could be replaced almost immediately. Instead he wanted the people who saw what he was doing to start questioning what they regarded as inevitable and unchangeable. He wanted them to be incensed by the injustice of what was being imposed on them by the forces of power and wealth. He wanted them to first glimpse, then desire and then work for the peace that comes through justice rather than the sword.

So if you ask me, “Should Christians become involved in political protest”, I will answer with an unequivocal “yes”. Jesus planned and executed political protests himself, he showed us how to do it, he wrote the rule book. If we are called to follow Jesus then we should be following both his political agitation as well as his religious teachings. The question for me is not so much “if?” but “how?” and “when?”. It’s this that we’ve been tussling with earlier in the afternoon and that I hope we’ll pray about in the rest of the service.

The riddle of prayer

A sermon looking at three different gospel accounts of Jesus teaching on prayer; Matthew 6:5-9Luke 11: 5-13, John 14:9-14.

Today is one of those days when a number of things have pointed me towards what I have to say. As I’ve explained earlier several coming events in our churches life (Peterloo pop-up, Day of prayer for Britain and our Science and the Language of Prayer seminar series) relate to prayer. We had our 4th Sunday two weeks ago when we don’t feel compelled to use the lectionary but if we have found Luke’s memory of Jesus’ teaching about the Lord’s prayer. Seeing as we missed out on it then I thought we might pick up that theme today and spend some time thinking about prayer in general and the Lord’s Prayer in particular.

Although prayer is central to a fully Christian life, many Christians find prayer difficult. I remember a couple of months ago Philip ran a series of sessions on prayer after church. In advertising these he emphasised that they were intended for people who found prayer difficult. Having marketed the sessions this way we found them to be better attended than any study group either of us can remember.

I don’t think the difficulty comes form one single issue, there are multiple reasons. Some people lack confidence that they are praying properly (whatever that is). Others may wonder how sensible it is to ask God to intervene in a world that we know functions according to well established scientific laws? Others may have felt that their prayers have gone unanswered in the past? Others may find that they get little out of prayer and it becomes a chore?

So what do we make of Jesus teaching on prayer? Well there is a riddle here, particularly in relation to the Lord’s Prayer. The riddle is that when we read Matthew and Luke’s different accounts of what Jesus taught when he introduced people to the Lord’s prayer we appear to get very different advice on how to pray.

Matthew places Jesus’ teaching of Lord’s prayer within the Sermon on the Mount and leads into it with the sentence:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Matthew 6:7-8

There is Certain sense in this. If we believe that God knows everything then what is the point of spending a long time explaining a situation to Him? Indeed what is the point of telling him about the situation at all? In the light of this autumn’s prayer events – what is the point of a group of Christian’s travelling to London to tell God about the problems that face Britain? Surely God already knows that Britain is going through a trying time?

Luke remember Jesus introducing the Lord’s Prayer at a private conversation amongst the disciples after they had watched him praying himself. Jesus continues afterwards with the parable that I retold to the children earlier and the message could hardly be more different to Matthew’s:

I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

Luke 11:8

He then goes onto the famous passage on which our hymn was based about “ask and it shall be given unto you”. This teaching is mirrored in the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) which Luke relates a little later in his gospel. A widow comes and pesters a judge repeatedly until he finally gives in and grants her the judgement she is after.

But if you think about it, Matthew and Luke appear to be saying quite different things.  Matthew seems to be saying keep you prayers simple and short, because God already knows what you want, and Luke seems to be saying the opposite, keep on reminding God of your prayers and he will award your persistence. How do we make sense of this riddle?

I think the starting point is to look at the Lord’s prayer itself. So often when we talk about prayer, and particularly whether it works or not, we focus on those prayers when we ask God to do something for us. We pray for God to reconcile our country or to heal someone we know who is ill or to rectify a situation is some remote part of the world. These are our prayers of petition and intercession, petition if we are praying for something for ourselves and intercession if we are praying for other people.

Yet these types of prayer are entirely absent from the Lord’s prayer. The closest the Jesus comes in the Lord’s prayer to prayers of petition or intercession is “Give us this day our daily bread”, which is fairly basic request for minimal sustenance. Nowhere else is there any suggestion that we should be praying that God will do what we want him to do. There is absolutely no suggestion that when we pray to God we should offer him a long list of people or situations in the expectation that he should intervene and sort them out.

What we do have is a clear injunction to listen to what God wants

“The kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.

Matthew 6:10

Prayer as presented in the Lord’s Prayer is not fundamentally about us telling God what we want – it is about us listening to what God wants. Perhaps we can personalise this a little further – it is about listening to what God wants us to do. Once we have understood his purpose then we also stand a possibility of understanding the part he wants us to play in bringing that purpose about.

With this understanding of prayer, the teaching of Matthew and Luke can make sense together. Matthew says do not use long prayers because God already knows what you want. Of course God knows what you want, what is important however is you finding out what God wants. You shouldn’t use lots of words because the main point of prayer is not you telling God what he should do, but you listening to God telling you what you should do.

Viewing prayer like this also alters how we view Luke’s call for persistence. If the aim of prayer is to understand what God wants rather than persuading him to do what we want then the result of persistence is not to persuade him to change his mind, but for us to eventually understand what it is that he wants. Think about that phrase, “seek and ye shall find”. Thinking about making a real effort to find something. If we persist in our search we don’t expect to change the thing we are looking for. If we are looking for an apple we don’t, by searching persistently, expect to find an orange. What we expect to do is to increase the probability of finding the apple. What will be given to us, if we ask persistently enough is a vision of what God requires of us. If we gather in London, physically or virtually, to pray for this country, our prayer is not to persuade God to implement our vision of what will bring healing to our nation, it is to discern God’s vision of what will bring that about and act accordingly.

In case we have any doubts about prayer as a time for us to discover God’s will and the persistence that is required to do this, we need to move forwards in time to Jesus prayer in Gethsemane. Jesus knew by this time that adhering to God’s vision of the future was to live continue to live a life of truth and love which would inevitably lead to his execution by crucifixion. Despite this his prayer was not to be rescued but to have the strength to persist.

“Yet not my will but thy will be done”.

Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42, Matthew 26:39&42

I want to add on a note about Jesus teaching on prayer as recorded in John’s gospel and specifically on the understanding that:

“If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

John 14:14

If we are lazy then we take this just as a form of magic words, we assume that if we end our prayer by saying “we ask this in the name of Jesus” then we are in some way guaranteeing that our prayer will be granted. If we’re honest, most of us will recognise that this doesn’t work. How often have each of us asked for something in prayer in Jesus name only to find that nothing changes.

Praying in Jesus name is not just a form of words we add onto a prayer to guarantee its success. Praying in Jesus name is a test of our prayer. Are we really praying for what Jesus wants or for what we want? It goes back to the Lord’s prayer, are we praying to do God’s will or for God to do our will? It is only if we are praying to align ourselves with God’s will, to pray in Jesus name that our prayers have any chance of success.

So what does this mean practically?

Prayer is a conversation and a two-way conversation. It’s not just about telling God what we want – it’s about listening to god telling us what he wants.

We need space to listen. If we are having a conversation with someone who is our equal then we should expect to spend at least as much time listening as speaking. If we are having a conversation with someone who is wiser or more knowledgeable than us, then it is only sensible to spend more time listening than talking. With God we should spend far more time listening than talking.

In listening we need to become aware of how God speaks to us. I’ve spoken to many people who experience prayer just like a conversation with a friend when they hear an almost audible voice. My experience of prayer is more like listening to a voice deep down within myself, a nagging of my own conscience. Listen for how God is speaking to you, and acknowledge his voice however you hear it.

But we also need persistence in that listening. It might be that the first time we listen we cannot hear God responding, or that we do hear but it doesn’t make sense, or that it does make sense but we are not comfortable in what it seems to be requiring of us. The chances are that the more difficult the situation we are praying about the more persistent we will have to be to discern God’ will. God will answer, if we invest enough time in listening.

Finally, if prayer is ultimately about listening to how we can do God’s will, then we should spend more time praying about those issues that we can do something about effectively than those that are remote form us. We should never forget people who are struggling and desperate on the other side of the world, or even this nation, but our prayers to bring about God’s Kingdom are far more likely to be effective if they are about situations in which we have some personal involvement and agency. If you only have a limited time for prayer, and everyone does, then it only makes sense to focus those prayers on people and situations that are close to you.

So let’s pray Biblically:

  • Let’s limit the words we use in order that we can listen to God.
  • Let’s pray persistently to ensure that we hear God’s will and act upon it.
  • Let’s test those prayers to ensure that they are offered and recieved in Jesus’ name and not our own.
  • Let’s focus our prayers on situations where we are likely to be most effective in working in order that God’s Kingdom comes, that His will is done, on earth as it is in Heaven

Singing praises while feeling low

A sermon based on the lectionary for this week: Psalm 30 and Galatians 6:7-16 exploring how we can continue to praise God despite poor mental health. (The links take you to Nathan Nettleton’s paraphrase of the readings which spoke to me particularly this week)

Preparing my sermon has been particularly difficult this week. We’ll be holding a meeting after church about future and whether we might be able to adapt what we do on a Sunday morning to help us to grow in the depth of our discipleship and in numbers. Trevor’s chairing and I asked him if there was any particular theme it might be useful to address to support that meeting. Not particularly he said,  but “we might have a focus on God’s love and goodness towards us and a real opportunity to worship”.

This seems quite innocuous, except that it’s not particularly in tune with how I’ve been feeling recently. For perhaps five years or so I’ve struggled on and off with my mental health. Quite a lot of the time I feel fine but every so often I go through patches when I just feel low and drained. I find it difficult to concentrate and start to feel very tired quite early in the day. Given this there are often days when I don’t achieve very much and this can make me feel worse. Feeling tired I can be tetchy and irritable and my family suffer.

Over the period when I’ve experienced these feelings I’ve got to understand them more but I still don’t know what triggers them. There’s an element of feeling helpless and devastated when I look at the challenges that face us in all in the 21st century, climate change, Brexit perhaps. It didn’t help to go into Manchester on Wednesday evening and be confronted with all those people living rough on the streets. It doesn’t help[ that my mother is in hospital with much, much deeper depression than I have. But there is something internal as well, something darker, which I can’t explain.

I do know that given time, a couple of weeks perhaps, I’m likely to start feeling better, again without really knowing what drives this. Then I’ll be relatively fine for a period. It doesn’t feel serious, just like having a minor physical ailment that recurs every so often and knocks the sparkle out of life. It does mean, however, that leading a service of worship focusing on God’s love and goodness and offering the congregation a real opportunity to praise is a challenge.

I’m not alone of course. The statistics estimate that at any one time as many as 1 in 6 of us has some sort of “common mental disorder” (that’s the official term). I’m sure many of you will recognise the symptoms I describe. Some will be feeling like me now, others will have been through periods like this in the past. Many may have family members who are affected. An increasing number, like me, will be finding that this is the way life is, and learning to live with it.

Although the statistics suggest an increase in mental health problems within our society it is something that has always been there but has been hidden or has manifested itself in different ways in the past. Today’s psalm was written by someone who clearly knew ups and downs in their life. There is nothing in the psalm to suggest whether this was physical or mental (or indeed whether it had anything to do with health at all), but the words speak to me. I see in them a reflection of my own situation. I also hear, in them, a note of hope. The psalmist is someone who has experienced darkness in the past but has felt rescued by God and he gives thanks correspondingly:

You turned my tears to laughter;
you set my dragging feet dancing;
you dusted me off and dressed me up for a party.
So now I’m singing your praises
from the bottom of my heart,
and no one can shut me up!

I may not feel good about myself now, but I have hope that with God’s help, it won’t be long before I start to feel better and am more in the mood for celebration.

One of the risks of responding to the psalm in this way, and of a certain more general strand in Christian thinking, however, is that we respond to our situation passively. We can get trapped into thinking that all we have to do is to offer our situation to God and wait for him (or her) to act. This is almost exactly the opposite of what modern psychology prescribes. The worst thing that most people with mental health problems can do is give in to the feelings of hopelessness and despair and wait for something to happen. Rather than abandoning ourselves to God we need to open our lives to him and work with him. What is required is not passive surrender but active engagement.

The passage we heard read from Galatians earlier is, at one level, a collection of throw away lines that Paul assembles to encourage the readers after he’s given them a particularly harsh talking to about a completely different issue. But just as in the words of the psalmist I recognise a description of how I am, so in Paul’s words I see a description of what I can do about it.

What you put into life determines what you’ll get back.

This is not a gospel of passive acceptance of where we are, of allowing God to do all the work. It is an invitation to start thinking about how we can make a contribution to life.

If your investments are all in your selfish impulses, they’ll pay out a dividend of degradation and misery.

If when we are low we give into the demons and allow ourselves to sink to where they are dragging us then we will only get worse.

But if you invest in the way of the Spirit your investment will yield rich dividends.

If despite how low we feel we can invite God back into our lives then we are on the road to recovery. The paraphrase uses the concepts of investment and rewards whereas a literal translation would speak of sowing and reaping. Whichever, the important message is that if we do small things now then we set ourselves onto the path to a better place sometime in the future.

If we don’t lose patience, but stay in for the long term, we will be richly rewarded.

If we expect dividends immediately, we will be disappointed. People with mental health conditions very rarely just snap out of it, but if they start taking small steps, moving in the right direction, they can get better. Once we start to walk with God, God will start to walk with us. It is, as Paul says, a matter of patience, and we can trust that if we stay in it for the long term we will be richly rewarded.

The final relevant point that Paul makes in this section is that the key to improvement is to move away from introspection.

Let’s take every opportunity, then, to contribute our energies to making the world a better place for everybody.

The fundamental task of Christians as individuals and the church is to work for the coming of the Kingdom. In the passage that was set from this letter for last week Paul makes the commandment to love our neighbour the single most important test of everything we do. It is through giving for others that we find ourselves. Probably the most restorative action that anyone feeling low can take for themselves, is to do something caring for someone else.

And as a starting point, let’s especially care for our co-workers in the community of faith.

The easiest place to start is with those who are closest to us, our families, our neighbours our colleagues and our co-workers in this community of faith. Let this community be a place in which we can all support each other. Importantly let’s value what each and everyone has to offer. It’s very tempting to be most accepting of what is offered by those who are dynamic and thrusting and forceful, but let’s also be receptive to accept from those who are timid and lack confidence. Let’s welcome the meek, because they will inherit the earth.

There is hope even for those who feel at their lowest. There is hope for me, who’s only feeling a little bit down. The psalmist talks of passing from that place of despair and death to one of hope and healing. This is not some fiction, it is lived experience of how God can restore once we have invited him into our lives. It is an experience that was real to the psalmist 3,000 years ago and can be just as real in our lives. If we don’t experience it today then we can still hope for it in the future. I can give thanks and praise in anticipation.

Paul maps out the pathway to that healing. We need to open ourselves to God and to work with him. Our expectation should not be of immediate, miraculous, recovery requiring nothing form us. Instead we are offered an opportunity to start to walk with God and each other. The progress we make with each small step may be imperceptible, but over time and with patience, those steps will mount up and bring us closer to coming Kingdom. Our lives will be restored and one day we will sing God’s praises once more. Let me give thanks and praise now for that promise of a brighter future.

Testing the beliefs we’ve inherited from our past

This week, Methodist Conference accepted (by a large majority) a report proposing,  that we should:

  • Be open and positive about sexuality and relationships. We hope to enable the Methodist Church to speak openly, positively, and joyfully as well as wisely about relationships and sexuality as one aspect of God’s gracious goodness and of who God has made us to be.
  • Value all relationships of grace. We invite the Methodist Church to value all committed faithful loving relationships that bear the marks that we can see in the love of Jesus, and are within the law of the land. We encourage the Church actively to offer greater dignity, inclusion and restoration in the community of God’s new creation to those who cohabit, are single, or are developing relationships, irrespective of sexuality and gender.
  • Widen and justify the understanding of marriage as being between two persons. We offer to the Methodist Church a theological reflection on marriage as a particular form of ‘gospel’ relationship between two persons, and propose that we take steps to enable same-sex couples to get married in the Methodist Church. At the same time, we recognise that not everyone will agree with this and so we ask that the Church seek to protect the differing convictions of those who do not agree.

The report will be reflected upon and prayed about at a local level before a definitive vote on these provisions that will be held at next year’s conference. 

This sermon was preached last Sunday, before the vote, and based upon the lectionary reading, Galatians 5: 1, 13-25.

The lectionary is racing through Paul’s letter to the Galatians at the moment. It seems to be going particularly quickly because how much we read from Galatians in any particular three-year cycle is dependent on the timing of Easter in the third year. If Easter is late, as it is this year, then we don’t get to read much of Galatians. Blink and you’ll miss it.

This may or may not be a bad thing. I say this because Galatians is either one of the most important letters Paul ever wrote or is almost completely irrelevant to the modern church. To explore which we need to understand a little of the context in which it was written.

Galatians may be the earliest of the letters in the New Testament. Paul was probably writing towards the end of his second missionary journeys to a group of churches in the Roman province of Galatia, in what is now part of Turkey. He had visited the cities on his first two journeys and had helped establish “churches” there. On those journeys he developed a particular way of operating. When he went to a new town, he would base his activities at the local synagogue. His approach is very similar to how many of us would respond to a move to a new town – we’d probably go to the church, the place where we feel at home and expect to find like-minded people.

There was generally a mix of people at the synagogue. There would be some people who were ethnically Jewish, whose families had emigrated from Israel at some time in the past. Some might have been persecuted, some might have been economic migrants. They preserved their Jewish culture and identity principally through adherence to a code of laws that covered just about every aspect of their lives. They assumed that their relationship with God depended on how closely they followed these laws. Along with them would be non-Jews who were attracted to Jewish ideas about God, they were known as god-fearers. The ethnic Jews apparently encouraged these non-Jews to join in with many of their activities but they were still considered them as separate outsiders.

Paul was adamant that the death and resurrection of Jesus defined a new way of relating to God as individuals which made the distinction between Jews and non-Jews irrelevant. Ethnicity was not an issue. God was for everyone. Perhaps more importantly a personal relationship with God superseded the requirement to adhere slavishly to the law codes. Paul, thus, encouraged these communities to treat Jews and non-Jews as equal before God. The Jews could continue to adhere to the law if they wanted to, but the non-Jews didn’t have to. Having set these communities up in this way, Paul then moved on.

The letter to the Galatians is clearly Paul’s response to hearing news that this way of living was breaking down. We don’t know how he got the news or exactly what he was told, but it is clear that the ethnic Jews were insisting that if the god-fearers wanted to continue in the community they were going to have to start adhering to the Jewish law and, more specifically, that the males would have to be circumcised. Paul let rip; he was furious. The letter to the Galatians is a short  and an angry letter with a specific focus on this one issue.

Which brings us to the question of whether or not the letter is relevant to us today. It was written in a very specific context. If the letter is taken simply as advice to a group of Christian communities in first century Galatia about whether non-Jews should be required to adhere to the Jewish Law, then it is almost entirely irrelevant to us in Bramhall today. We, as Christians, see no requirement to follow the Jewish law and there is no pressure on any male to be circumcised. These are purely historic concerns. If this is how we view Galatians, it would be in everybody’s interest to forget about the letter altogether whenever Easter occurs in any given year.

But we can look at the letter it a different way. We can see it as Paul’s more general advice on how to deal with any religious beliefs which we may have inherited from previous generations and the culture in which we have grown up. The book becomes highly relevant if we read it like this because many of our most deeply held beliefs are rooted in the culture in which we grew up and many have been passed onto us by our parents, both biological and spiritual.

The starting point is for us to be honest and accept that the beliefs that the church has held to over the years have been bit of a mixed bag. Much of what the church has believed in the past has been true to the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Along with this, however, are many beliefs which, in light of a modern understanding of God, we now see as at best distracting and often quite simply wrong. The church accepted slavery as inevitable part of God’s created order for nearly 1800 years, for example. Just over 100 years ago the countries of Europe slipped into the most devastating war there has ever been all believing that the Christian God was on their side. Over our own lifetime the  way we view certain parts of the Church’s historic teaching have changed. Methodists now celebrate the gifts that women can bring to ordained roles in the church (even if other denominations do not). Most of us now accept that divorced people should be offered a second chance through remarrying in church. Our understanding of God, and the way we live out our lives in response, has changed.

When we look back, we are forced to accept that the faith we have inherited from past generations is a mix of the good and the bad, the true and the false. On this basis, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, becomes incredibly relevant in providing us with tools to look back on that inherited faith and discern which elements we should hold to and which we should move on from. So, what is that advice?

Perhaps the most obvious thing to state is that he does not simply dismiss that inherited faith. He sees it as something that the Jews should continue to honour, but they should honour it by testing it seriously against the new understanding of God as revealed in Jesus. Those parts of our tradition that pass that test we should continue to celebrate, but we should move on from those that fail.

So what is that test? Earlier in the letter Paul has repeated his understanding that our relationship with God is based primarily on how God loves us (as demonstrated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus). He sees our response to this as reflected in and how well we love our neighbours. He sees this as “summarising” or “fulfilling” those huge volumes of the Jewish law. Paul’s teaching here is very close to Jesus’ repetition of the commandment to love each other as you love yourselves or his gift of a new commandment, that we should love one another as he has first loved us. The test of the faith that we have received from previous generations is firstly then, whether it fulfils the commandment to love our neighbours.

But Paul sees faith as more than just intellectual assent to ideological beliefs. He sees faith as something that leads to radical transformation of who we are and how we act. If we allow that Spirit to dwell within in us then we will exhibit its fruits, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” When we look at those beliefs that we have inherited we need to judge them in the light of the people they help us become. Are they leading us towards love, joy, peace and kindness?

The final point that I think is relevant today, is that Paul is telling the Jews to welcome people who have very different lifestyles to their own. I don’t think there is anywhere in the whole of Paul’s letters where he tells the Jews that they should stop adhering to the law. If that is what works for them, brings them closer to God, results in the fruits of the Spirit, then by all means continue. But, and this is a really big “but”, don’t assume that this is the only way to honour God. Jews had to accept that the non-Jews might honour God through lifestyles that were quite radically different to theirs but of no less value in the eyes of God.

The report that is to be debated at Conference this week, and which we will have an opportunity to discuss in various forums over the coming year, can be seen as an application of Paul’s teaching as embodied in the passage we’ve heard read this morning. First, it offers us an opportunity for us to examine the beliefs that we have inherited from previous generations of Christians – an opportunity to discern which of those we should continue to hold, and which we should decide to move on from. Secondly, it offers a test to help us make this decision: What best expresses our love for our neighbour and what allows ourselves and that neighbour to be open to the gifts of the spirit? Thirdly, it offers us an opportunity to welcome into our community people who love God but who’s lifestyles may be different to our own. It does this without this requiring us to give up those lifestyles that have allowed us to live God filled lives until now.

So in the rest of this service and throughout this coming year let us pray for a vision of how God’s church should move forwards in a way that honours what we hold most precious from the past but also welcomes those who love God in different ways and have different lifestyles. Above all let us pray that whatever decisions are made, they will express our love for our neighbour and open channels for all people to have their lives transformed by the blessing of God’s Spirit. Let us, through sharing our different views, unite to work for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

 

Inclusive Church

Sermon preached on today’s lectionary readings: Galatians 3: 23-29 (which we heard read as Nathan Nettleton’s paraphrase) and Luke 8: 26-39 and having watched this video:

Over the last six months or so I’ve become aware of a movement that you might have heard referred to in the video we watched earlier, it’s called Inclusive Church. Amongst other things the movement has made available resources to allow churches to reflect on how inclusive they are and a logo to use if they particularly want to promote their inclusivity as a part of their outreach.

They identify six area that churches might want to explore in regard to how inclusive they are:

  • Disability
  • Mental Health
  • Sexuality
  • Poverty
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender

I think at lest two more could easily be added to this list:

  • Age
  • Marital status

The movement is rooted in a number of passages in the Bible that proclaim the radical inclusivity of God. One of these passages is that which we’ve heard today which included the statement:

There is no longer any preferential treatment on the basis of your ethnic or religious background, your education or employment status, or even your sex. All of you are related to Christ Jesus in exactly the same way and are regarded by him as equals.

Galatians 3:28

Which, is of course translated more formally as:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Except that Nathan Nettleton’s paraphrase lifts the text off the page. Paul was making a statement about the radical inclusivity of God’s love as revealed through Jesus Christ. He rooted that statement in the context within which he was writing. What were the great divides in the society in which and for which he was writing? The biggest division, to the Jewish diaspora to which he was writing, was that between Jews and Gentiles. In the wider secular world of the Roman empire at the time another great divide was that between slaves and free. Finally of course there is that division between the sexes which has been such a source of division throughout most of recorded history.

But to be faithful to this text we need to lift it out of its specific context and look around at our world to day and see where there are divisions. When we identify those areas of division we need ask how can we honour what Paul wrote. How can we overcome barriers within our society and within our church. How can we truly accept that all of us are “related to Jesus Christ in exactly the same way and are regarded by him as equals.

I think one of the big issues here is how we can bridge the gap between what we accept intellectually and theologically and how we react at an emotional and instinctive level as individuals and as a church. I don’t want to dwell exclusively on the sexuality issue, but as long ago as 1993 (26 years ago) in Derby our conference accepted this resolution.

Conference recognises, affirms and celebrates the participation and ministry of lesbians and gay men in the church. Conference calls on the Methodist people to begin a pilgrimage of faith to combat repression and discrimination, to work for justice and human rights and to give dignity and worth to people whatever their sexuality.

Regardless of such a strong statement, made so long ago, many in our congregations still find it difficult to relate to people who are openly gay or lesbian and to accept their role in ministry (at whatever level), let alone affirm or celebrate it. But radical inclusivity is not just about intellectual assent, it is about challenging ourselves to love all those who come through our doors, and all those who don’t. To be really radical we need to be prepared to change what we do in anticipation that it will make someone feel welcome and included rather than waiting for the situation to arise before we respond.

As an example, there was a mother in church with a young toddler while I was taking the service in the main building on Easter Sunday morning. They were sitting on their own at the front. The toddler wanted to move around and wasn’t silent but wasn’t particularly disruptive within the busyness of the first part of the service. It became a bit more obvious as I started to preach and, quite sensibly, the mother chose to take the toddler out a little way in. As she did so, however, there was an audible sigh of relief from the congregation. I think any individual member would have been horrified to think that their personal response was detectable, but when everyone released their tension at the same time it certainly was. What did that say about how much, collectively, we wanted that woman and her child as part of our congregation?

Intellectually we all want to be welcoming, but we often betray our instinctive and emotional response that church is for a particular sort of person, generally someone like us. The question isn’t so much, “How did we react at the time?”. The question is, “How could we have acted in anticipation?” Could someone have had a word with that mother about the service at the same time in CentrePoint which is less formal and has more people of her own age and family situation? Could someone have gone in search of some toys or suggested she sat somewhere where it would be easier to distract her child? Could someone simply have sat with her to reassure her that we wanted her and her child to be with us?

Part of the power of the gospel is that we do not just read about what Jesus believed and taught, we see how he lived and acted. There can’t really be a more archetypal depiction of the disruptive outsider than this man possessed by demons. He is different from us, so much so that he was forced to live in the tombs. He’s not just different though, he is also potentially disruptive having broken the chains that others had placed to constrain him.

Yet something had drawn the man to present himself to Jesus. The man had come to Jesus, not Jesus to the man. Jesus was a busy man with lots of things to do and could easily have brushed him aside to get on with more important work. Had he done so I don’t think anyone would have commented, they might have breathed a collective sigh of relief. But he didn’t, he spoke to him and asked what the problem was, and he did something about it. He allowed his own schedule and expectations to be disrupted in order to make that man feel welcome. The radical inclusive love of God is not just something to be preached about and debated, it is something to be acted upon.

What happens afterwards is also telling. There had been such a commotion that the people of the surrounding region came to find out what was happening. What they found was the man, dressed and of sound mind, just like them, sitting at Jesus feet. What was there reaction? They were afraid. They were afraid to find that this man who appeared to hem so different, who appeared to them to be so disruptive, was actually just like them. He was relating to Jesus Christ just as they did and regarded by them as equals. They were afraid that the psychological barriers that they had erected to define what is normal, what is acceptable, who is included in God’s love, are false and valueless. They were frightened to be reminded that we are all created in God’s image and, as such, are all bound to each other as His children.

There is also a missional element to this. As you know, Philip and I have been holding a series of classes for those who would like to know more about Jesus called Fresh Perspectives. We have to be honest and accept that it has not been particularly well attended, but those who have come along have generally responded really powerfully to what we’ve presented. The topic we talked about last Sunday was Jesus and Diversity. We talked about a range of different aspects of diversity and of a range of stories about how Jesus responded to a number of people who were different from them. But we also talked specifically about how the Methodist church lives this out and particularly about the resolutions that are being put before conference regarding relationships and marriage to our coming conference. The women who had come along were genuinely excited to hear of a church that was engaging so positively and inclusively with the world in which we live. One of my sorrows with regard to the current debate is that through focussing on internal tensions within our denomination we are missing glorious opportunity to proclaim an all-embracing God of love to those out there who most need it. St Emmanuel’s and St James at Didsbury did lose members as a consequence of choosing to preach a radically inclusive gospel, but they attracted far more. Theirs is now a diverse, growing and thriving congregation in which people can encounter together the God of radically inclusive love.

To end though let’s go back to the words of that older member of the congregation who was interviewed towards the end of the video clip. He talked of how he had been taught that the Bible regards homosexuality as wrong but that he has now overcome that, as he says, “I can see now it now. The people I talk to are just lovely people, and they love the Lord.”

Let’s go into the world, free ourselves from our preconceptions and what we have been taught, and treat every person we meet, no matter how different they are from us, as someone who might just be a lovely person who loves the Lord.

Being open to the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invitational church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is church for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Baptism as a political statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 1:52-54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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