Unity through Diversity

A sermon preached at the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity based upon Romans 14:1-9.

Christian unity is quite an interesting concept. In theory most of us are in favour of it … but only if everyone starts believing and behaving the way we do. As soon as there is any suggestion that we might have to change then we start getting a lot more reticent. Of course there is a good reason for this. We are right and everyone else is wrong! The prospects for any significant movement towards unity from this background are quite limited. What I’d like to do today, however, is to challenge the assumption that just because we believe we are right we must necessarily assume that other people are wrong.

The underlying issue here is that many of have been taught that there is one true way to be a Christian. I think this has been rooted in the assumption that the Bible presents us with a single understanding of God – it’s just that different Christians have developed different ideas about what that understanding is. One of the insights of modern theology, however, with roots going back nearly two hundred years, but more intensely over the last fifty years, is that the Bible gives us multiple different ways of understanding God. In retrospect it is amazing that we ever thought anything else. The Bible is a collection of books written by different people, from different cultural perspectives, at different times.

The example we looked at in CentrePoint on Sunday (link to that sermon) was the question of why Jesus was crucified. Paul, in his letters, particularly to the Romans, sees Jesus’ death as God’s response to mankind’s sinfulness. “We were God’s enemies, but he made us his friends through the death of his Son.” This has been adopted as the predominant opinion for Protestants since the Reformation. It’s only fairly recently however, that Bible scholars have spotted that Luke writes virtually nothing, in either his Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles, that links the crucifixion with our sinfulness. In the parable of the Prodigal Son (which is only reported in Luke’s Gospel) the son’s sins are forgiven by a loving father rather than requiring the placation of a wrathful God. There has been some backlash to these ideas more recently, particularly from evangelical Christians,  but I think there is an emerging consensus that the theological perspectives of Paul and Luke, whilst not actually contradictory, are, at least, very different.

The simplest explanation of the very different ways in which Luke and Paul write is that they actually had a different understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death. We are thus seeing evidence from the Bible that even as early as the New Testament period different Christians writers had different ways of understanding God. Of course if we go back to the Old Testament the differences become even more apparent.

Paul himself picks up this theme towards the end of his Letter to the Romans in the passage we have heard read this morning. It is clear that within the early Christian community in Rome there were groups of people who believed different things and as a consequence behaved differently. There were at least two issues: what food Christians are permitted to eat and which days should be set aside as holy. Paul does not side with either group on either issue, in fact he specifically councils against Christians judging each other. He considers it important for us each to make up our own mind but not to assume that people’s whose opinions differ are necessarily wrong, they are just different. It is not important that we as humans judge who is right and who is wrong because that is ultimately for God to decide.

Here is a model for Christian unity. The model is not uniformity but the honouring, and even celebration, of diversity of beliefs and behaviours. If the modern theologians I referred to earlier are to be believed and the Bible does represent a collection of books written by authors with different understandings of who God is, then there is a solid Biblical foundation for this model.

This is not of course to claim that all beliefs and behaviours are tolerated, you don’t need to know very much about Paul’s writings to understand that he saw some beliefs and behaviours as completely unacceptable, but equally he is here quite dogmatic that there is more than one acceptable way of approaching and understanding God.

I think we can go further. Because if we can accept that just because people behave differently and believe different things to us that they are not necessarily wrong, then it may be that we can learn from them. The purpose of dialogue between different Christians who believe different things is not to convert them to our own opinion but to try and understand where their opinions come from. The result of that dialogue may not be that they are changed but that we are changed. The result of that dialogue may be our own growth and development as Christians.

That is certainly my experience. I’ve learnt and grown very little from discussing my faith with people who see things the same way that I do. Where I have learnt and grown most in faith has been where I have honoured those with different beliefs and engaged in conversation with them. The two people I have learnt most from in my home congregation, and would most like to emulate in my growth in discipleship, are both people whose theological opinions are quite different to mine.

In the past our prayers for Christian unity have focussed on inter-denominational unity but in the modern Methodism there is often as much diversity in what we believe within the congregation as there is between us and the local Anglican or United Reformed or Baptist churches. If we are going to honour, celebrate and explore that diversity, and grow as Christians through this process, then we have an opportunity to do this within the congregation as much as with other denominations. In many ways this is what excites me about small group discussion in general, and our rejuvenated life groups programme in specific. The groups gives us the opportunity to do just that. If we share, honour and celebrate our different perspectives then we grant ourselves an opportunity to grow and flourish rather than to shrink into our own hardened shells.

So I’d like to encourage you all to join a Life Group and through fellowship and discussion with people who have different perspective to yours to flourish into the abundance of life that we are promised through our faith in Jesus.

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Why was Jesus crucified?

A sermon preached as part of a series looking at different hymns. This sermon is in response to Charles Wesley’s great hymn And can it be? (see video clip below to hear it sung). The Bible reading was Romans 5:1-11.

“Why was Jesus crucified?” is not the sort of question I would normally address in a sermon. The answers to this question provided by a most theologians get very complicated and very abstract and esoteric very quickly (if you don’t beleive me look up the Wikipedia article on The Atonement in Christianity). I much prefer more concrete theology – ideas that relate more to the way we live our lives in the world today.

There is, however, a particular reason for reflecting on this particular question within our congregation now. At Easter we are hosting an event call Risen! We’ll be inviting children from many of our local schools into our church to tell them the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. Imagine a child coming home to a parent and saying, “Mummy, mummy, what happened to Jesus was horrible wasn’t it? Why was he crucified?”

How do we prepare parents to answer that question? How do we answer it ourselves? Let’s just pause for a minute. Think about how you would answer that question to a 10 year old child born in the twenty-first century. “Daddy, daddy, why was Jesus crucified?”

I’d guess if we wrote those answers down secretly and then compared them that we’d get a wide range of responses. Those different answers would reflect the different ways that each of us think about God and Jesus. Some of us will feel very strongly that there is one correct answer and that the all Christians should share this. It wouldn’t surprise me if several of you felt there was only one correct answer but had different opinions about what that answer was! Some of us might feel less certain about our answers. Some of us might feel uncertain to the extent that we are unable to give a simple answer.

Some of us will have based our answers on particular Bible passages. Perhaps the passage like that we heard from Romans which suggests that Christ had to die to save sinful men and women from God’s anger. One of the hot topics in contemporary academic theology , however,  is whether the Bible presents a single consistent view of why Jesus had to die, or whether the different early Christians who wrote different chapters in the New Testament had a number of different views.  (To learn more try Googling  “Atonement in John” or “Atonement in Luke”. If you do though be aware that much of the content is a backlash from commentators who oppose the original ideas and thus that the material is rather one-sided – you’ll have to dig a bit deeper to get a more balanced argument).

Luke for example, writing in either his Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles, says virtualy nothing that links Jesus death to our sinful nature. Jesus was crucified because he offended the Jewish and Roman authorities. The central message of Luke’s gospel, epitomised in the story of the Prodigal Son, is not that we are saved from the anger of a wrathful God, but that we are forgiven by a loving Father. There is also considerable debate about the purpose of Jesus’ death as related in John’s gospel and letters. Many extremely authoritative scholars suggest that John saw Jesus’ death as a revelation of God’s love rather than as a specific response to our sinfulness.

So we need to be very careful about stating that the Bible provides us with a single explanation for why Jesus was crucified. It doesn’t, it provides us with a number of different explanations. Some of these link Jesus’ crucifixion to our redemption, and others don’t.

Explanations of why Jesus was crucified have changed within the church over time and these views have reflected the changing context in which Christians were living. In the very early days, when Christianity was still heavily influenced by Judaism, Jesus’ death came to be viewed in terms of an animal sacrifice. This is reflected in some of Paul’s letters and gives rise to the image of Christ as the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world. Slightly later Christians tended to see Jesus’ death primarily as an example of how we should live. This was at a time when the Church was very heavily persecuted and many Christians were being martyred. Jesus’ death became seen as something that Christians were called to share in, often literally.  (It’s interesting that neither the Apostles’ nor the Nicene creed make any reference to why Christ died. This suggests either that the issue was not seen as particularly important at the time or that the people writing the creed could not agree amongst themselves.)

Perhaps the most well known change in emphasis in our understanding of why Jesus was crucified came at the time of the Reformation. The significance of Jesus’ death was one of the major differences between the reformers and the Catholic church. By this time the established church (which we now know as the Catholic Church) was corrupt and raising money by selling the forgiveness of sins. The reformers’ response was to emphasise a view that the price of our sins had already been paid by Jesus’ death on the cross. It follows from this that  this is not an something that is under the control of contemporary church authorities.

So where is this getting us? We’ve found that the Bible presents us with a number of different ways of understanding the significance of Jesus’ death and that, over time Christians, have chosen to pick and choose between these depending on the time, place and context in which they have been living. The viewpoint that we have inherited from the Reformation is probably that most prevalent in Methodism today, but I’m personally not convinced that it is any more Biblical or fundamental than any of the others.

I find the variety of explanations useful. I respond extremely positively to some of the images – I’m particularly drawn to Luke’s ideas that our sins our forgiven by a loving father. I respond quite negatively to others – I am really put off by images of Jesus death as the sacrifice of the lamb of God. (I find the notion of being washed in the blood of the lamb particularly repellant). But that is just me, other people have come from different life experiences and find different images helpful.

If we drop our need to impose the particular explanation that appeals to us on other people and see these as a range of reasonable alternatives, then we open up the Gospel to be understood in different ways by different people. We can liken this to the day of Pentecost when Peter preached to people in one language and was understood by people speaking a range of different languages. The gospel message was for all, not just for those who spoke a particular language.  Similarly, Jesus died, most of us believe, for all people, not just those who think like us.

Behind everything I’ve said so far is the question, “Does it matter?”

The important thing is not whether or how we can explain our redemption but that we have experienced it. The central truth of our redemption is that we are liberated from the imperfection of our previous lives (call it sinfulness if it helps) to dedicate ourselves to living a God-filled life in the future. However much we have failed in the past we are offered a new opportunity in the future and no-one can take that away from us.

This can be truly liberating and life-changing. Many of us are imprisoned by what we have done or what has been done to us in the past. We carry the burdens of our life experience. In a few seconds silence just pause and reflect on what separates you from God. It may be guilt for something you have done or not done in the past. It might be pain from something that someone has done to you in the past. It might be disappointment that something that you hoped passionately for at one time has not coe to fruition. It might be grief for someone or something that used to be important in your life. Whatever it is, the liberating Gospel truth is that that is in the past and that all you need do to find God’s love is to live for him in the future.

All you need to know is that God is holding out his arms to embrace you. It doesn’t matter whether you see those arms as those of a dying saviour nailed to a cross to pay the price of your sins or the arms of a loving father who is willing to forgive them. What is important is that you know that those arms are always open – and that they are waiting for you, whoever you are and whatever you have done.

Amen

 

PS The more attentive will have spotted that, having been asked to preach on this hymn, I made absolutely no reference to it in the sermon! This is because it was the words of the hymn that inspired and are implicit in the whole sermon. Wesley’s hymns are often  prescriptive in their theology but this one isn’t. If you read the words carefully this is a powerful celebration of the redemption that Wesley (and his brother John) had experienced so powerfully without imposing any particular way of understanding it. Indeed the take home message of the second verse is that this is a mystery that is beyond our understanding.

 

Making the most of our talents

My heart sank when I looked up the lectionary reading today – the Parable of the Talents. The story is so familiar, how on earth could I think up anything novel to say about it. It’s so familiar that an English word has derived its meaning from it. The message is clear,  unmistakeable and above all simple – what can I say. I normally have some ideas of a direction to take a sermon but I was flawed on this one and turned to the Internet for inspiration. Most of the material followed the traditional understanding of this story but a couple of threads stimulated me to read further. Maybe the parable isn’t as simple as it first seems.

One of the first things you are taught as a trainee preacher is that it can be dangerous to preach from short isolated Biblical texts. If you do you run the risk of missing the context in whigh they are set and of delivering a message that fits the text but not the wider gospel message. Here, some people would suggest, is a whole parable that doesn’t fit that wider context.

Let’s start off with the conclusion that

for to every person who has something, even more will be given, and he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing, even the little that he has will be taken away from him.

On the one hand this sounds obvious enough, indeed it is an obvious reflection of the economic environment in first century Palestine and 21st century Britain. Those who already have wealth generate more wealth, whilst those who are poor have it taken away. But how does this square with the wider gospel? In four weeks time one of the lectionary readings will be the Magnificat with those wonderful lines,

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.

The early focus of Matthew’s own gospel is the Sermon on the Mount which contains the Beatitudes amongst which we find:

Happy are those who are humble;
    they will receive what God has promised!

and

Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires;
    the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!

The apparent message of the parable simply doesn’t fit with the core message in the wider gospel. What is going on?

There are also problems with the style of the parable. Jesus is reported as having told a number of parables to explain the Kingdom of Heaven and many of these take pride of place in Matthew’s gospel. In most of these the Kingdom of Heaven is envisaged as being radically different from any Kingdom on Earth. There is generally a twist in the parable. It is thus the Samaritan who is the good neighbour. It is the son who wastes his money and repents who is welcomed home effusively by his father. Workers will get the same pay regardless of the hours they work. As commented above, in the Parable of the Talents, the Kingdom of Heaven appears essentially similar to most Kingdoms on Earth. The expected twist never arrives.

A more general issue is in how we all tell stories. In most stories with three characters it is the final character to be introduced who is the hero. The Good Samaritan is the third person to pass the beaten man, in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins we read how the foolish virgins acted first and then how the wise virgins acted. In wider literature Bassanio is the third person to choose a casket in the Merchant of Venice, Cordelia is the last daughter to be asked her opinion of King Lear. Even in the Three Little Pigs it is the third pig who builds his house of brick. This is simply the way we tell stories. Yet in the Parable of the Talents it is the first and second characters who are the heroes and the third is cast out into the darkness to cry and gnash his teeth.

Another problem is the advocacy of lending money for interest.Jews are expressly forbidden to expect interest when they lend to fellow Jews in several places in the Old Testament.  Just one example is in Exodus (22:25)

If you lend money to any of my people who are poor, do not act like a moneylender and require him to pay interest.

The master is thus acting unlawfully in accepting interest from the first two servants. His reaction to the third servant that

Well, then, you should have deposited my money in the bank, and I would have received it all back with interest when I returned.

is demanding that he contravene Jewish law.

A historian called Duncan Derret (Quoted in Herzog, page 160) who has studied various legal codes operating in the Middle East in the first century suggests that the system described by Jesus is very similar to the one outlined in the Babylonian Law of Hammurabi. Long term loans would be given in the expectation of 100% interest accruing but above this the lender could keep any proceeds for himself. Why would Jesus be teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of a Bablylonian lending system that was contrary to Jewish law? Perhaps he is doing this intentionally to indicate to his Jewish listeners that the point of the parable is not that the first two servants have successfully served their master.

It’s not only Jews who outlawed lending for interest. Through most of Christian history it has been illegal for Christians to charge interest either. The main reason why Jews, like Shylock, became involved in money-lending in late mediaeval Europe was because Christians, who were barred from charging interest, were reluctant to lend money. Jews, who were permitted to charge interest on loans to non-Jews, were much more willing to do so. Yet this story, as we read it today, seems to be a ringing endoresement of interest bearing loans. If the mediaeval papacy, with its strong, and often corrupt, links to the great financiers of Northern Italy, had read the parable in this way, surely they would have used it to reverse the Jewish teaching and allow the use of interest. Maybe there is a way of telling this parable, which gives it a different meaning, but which we have lost in the church today?

The final problem I want to draw your attention to is the proclamation that the third servant makes in front of his master (vs 24 and 25):

Sir, I know you are a hard man; you reap harvests where you did not plant, and you gather crops where you did not scatter seed.  I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground. 

Why on earth, given the understanding of the parable with which we are all familiar, would the third servant say this? He must be expecting to be punished and we might expet him to be apologetic to ameleiorate that punishment, but no, he is defiant and even accuses his master of wrongdoing. This is despite the point of the story appearing to depend on the master and the first two servants being taken as examples of how we are required to behave. The sentence simply doesn’t fit.

The parable isn’t as simple as I’d first assumed is it. It’s almost as if we are missing something – that we are perhaps telling the story in the wrong way. Is there another way of telling this story in a way that does make sense? Well my browsing led me to some references  (Parables of Subversive Speech, W.R Herzog) to the interpretation placed on this story by a group of poor Latin American farmers when they were first told this story. They recognised, from their own experience, that returns of 100% can only be made if someone has been exploited and they were used to being exploited. They rebelled at the idea that God would give to those already have. They wrestled with the same issues that I’ve been wrestling with and came up with a radically different interpretation.

Then I found a sermon by an Australian Baptist pastor called Alison Sampson which retold this imaginatively in a contemporary context. I’ve chosen to re-tell it differently, using my own words, but acknowledge my debt to her. I’ve also chosen to add a little extra section at the end which goes beyond a direct interpretation of the parable but which reminds us that Matthew groups this with several other parables and sayings which Jesus shares with his disciples in Jerusalem in Holy Week and concludes with predicting that in two days time he will be handed over to be crucified (Matthew 26:1-2).

I’ve actually published my version as a separate post so that people can read it without the preamble, you can read it at this link.

 

The parable of the talents reimagined

The reason for suggesting a contemporary re-imagination of the extremely familiar Parable of the Talents is outlined in the sermon you can read at this link. It is heavily influenced by an earlier sermon published by Alison Sampson in Melbourne which you can read at this link.

Once upon a time there was a very rich man. Like many self-made men he had got where he was by focussing closely on his own interests. If costs or corners needed to be cut he would cut them, regardless of the consequences to anyone else. His ruthless exploitation led him to amass a considerable fortune which he stashed in a number of different tax havens. Most of this, he was amazed to find out from his lawyers, was entirely legal but, not satisfied, he’d started in dabbling in schemes that were borderline, to say the least. The tax authorities in his own country were catching up with him and it was provident to spend a few years abroad to ensure that he no longer qualified as resident for tax purposes.

He still had considerable business interests so called in his three closets advisors. To his most trusted advisor he allocated 5 million pounds and to the next he allocated 2 million. There had always been something he considered a little strange about the third, so he only allocated him 1 million. He then left for somewhere sunny.

The first advisor was delighted at the freedom this gave him. He set up a small venture capital company which bought up start-up companies who had demonstrated early profitability from making new and more devastating weapons. He stripped them of their assets and relocated production to parts of Africa where he could pay rock bottom wages. He used his network of business contacts across the Middle East selling to a number of dictators who were often fighting each other and occasional needed to silence minority groups of one sort of another in their own countries. He made money hand ver fist and in no time at all had doubled his master’s stake. He considered that enough to give back and secreted the rest in the same tax havens his master had used so that he could keep it for himself.

The second advisor only(!) had 2 million pounds so had to be more modest. He took over a boutique fast food restaurant that specialised in locally sourced organic burgers. He soon realised that he could buy much cheaper meat from factory farms on  the international market. They fed their cattle on cheap soya from farms in what had once been the Amazon rain forest. The advisor only ever employed 16 and 17 year olds in his restaurant as the legal minimum wage for them  was considerably lower than for anyone older. He outsourced his deliveries to “sub-contractors” which meant he didn’t even need to pay them that much. Again the money rolled in. He doubled the original stake even given the huge salary that he paid to himself and his wife who he’d appointed as company secretary.

The final advisor was different, he’d never liked his master’s business methods. He’d been disgusted by them but, coming from a poor background, had little choice but to carry on to keep his employment. Had he once given a hint to his master of what he truly felt he would have been dismissed immediately. Here was an opportunity. He was his own man while his master was away. He’d earned well over recent years and could actually afford to do nothing for a while if he didn’t want to.

What should he do with the money while he took his break? He’d read that even the paltry interest that the local banks offered was often derived from exploiting workers in different parts of the world and indirectly to climate change. He didn’t want to be dishonest, so he chose to just bury the money. It felt like a weight of his back. He went into the surrounding country and got together a small group of friends. They wandered around telling people of the wonders of God and the immanence of his Kingdom. They cast out demons, healed the sick and even gave sight to the blind.

Eventually the very rich man’s tax consultants thought it was safe for him to return and he summoned his advisors to give an account of their activities. He was delighted with the first advisor, his prodigy, a real chip off the old block. He slapped him heartily on the back, “Well done, I’m going to appoint you to an even more senior position than you have already, but first join me tonight for a feast, where there’ll be rich food and fine wine and loose women.”

He was no less delighted with the second advisor who he thought had done equally well. He slapped him heartily on the back, “Well done, you’re going to get a top job as well, but first join me tonight for a feast, where there’ll be rich food and fine wine and loose women.”

When it came to the third advisor he looked with disdain on his original million pounds which was presented back to him. “I always thought there was something wrong with you … “he started to rant. But the third advisor stood his ground, he’d had enough. “I’ve always hated working for you”, he said, “the way your bully and intimidate your managers and exploit your workers. You reap where you don’t sow and gather where you have scattered no seed”.

It was no surprise that this incensed the very rich man even more. He summoned his security guards and ordered them to escort the third advisor off the premises immediately. He took the final million pounds and handed it to the first advisor to manage, “more productively”.

.. but the story doesn’t end there. The rulers of the country had been watching the third advisor. They were alarmed that he was encouraging people to turn from accumulating needless wealth for themselves and instead to spend time giving thanks for the gifts with which God had already endowed them. They saw him encouraging people to think of each other and work collectively to oppose oppression.  They saw him teaching people to think for themselves and challenge authority. The rulers recognised that if this went much further the whole economic and political system would collapse. They foresaw that they would lose their power and status. What would happen to the wealth and luxury to which they were accustomed?

They sent a small cohort of soldiers to arrest the man. They convicted him at a sham trial held at night. Then they stripped him, mocked him, bound him and whipped him. Eventually they led him to a hill outside the city and nailed him to a tree. They left him there to die.

Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires;
    the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!

Matt. 5:10

 

 

 

Tutus and tiaras

A sermon preached on 16th November 2017.

“Let boys wear tutus says Church of England” was a headline on the front page the  Daily Telegraph on Monday with a similar one in the Daily Mail. Both referred to a report from the Church of England entitled “Valuing all God’s children” (link is actually to a previous version as the most recent seems to have got lost  in cyberspace – last seen at this link) which provides guidance for its 4,700 schools on challenging homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. The theme was picked up in the Thought for the Day on the BBC today programme on Radio 4 on Tuesday and was the subject discussed in the Moral Maze last night. Louis Theroux has also explored the issues in a recent TV documentary (although I admit that I haven’t yet seen that).

It’s tempting to think this is an issue for other people but there are now two trans-gender people in my circle of acquaintance. One, a teenager, has derived considerable support from the love and acceptance that she (who was born he) has received from her grand-parents in particular.

The world is much more complicated than the one we grew up in isn’t it? When I was at school there were girls and boys and that was that. Boys and girls did different things. Nothing could have been clearer to me growing up in South Liverpool. The boys played football all the time and the girls, well I don’t know what the girls did because I was playing football.

Things are very different now.  We are now very conscious that just assuming that boys will be boys and girls will be girls may be oversimplifying things. Growing evidence from genetics, endocrinology and psychology has made this very clear. Most people are born with either two XX chromosomes or an X and a Y chromosomes which determines whether they are female or male. We now know however that some people are born with different combinations of chromosomes and don’t fall into this neat categorisation. On top of this there are people who are born chromosomally normal but have different levels of hormones which can cause them to take on characteristics of the opposite gender both physically and psychologically. A final group are those who have no apparent genetic or hormonal issues but simply feel they are a man trapped in a woman’s body or vice versa.

Although things feel different there is no scientific evidence that things actually are different. It is virtually certain that the people I’ve described above has always been born into society but that this has been hidden by the way society has behaved towards them. Further, particularly, with regard to those trapped in the body of someone of the opposite gender, the growing evidence is that this is the way that people have been born and is often apparent from very early childhood. This is not something that has developed from the way children have been brought up or as the result of some illness, it is simply the way they were born.

As with many advances in our scientific understanding of the world, this is something that challenges some Christians. In this morning’s Bible reading (Genesis 1:20-31) we read that “he created them male and female” there is no mention that there might be any alternative or that some of those males may desperately want to be females or some of those females might desperately want to be males. Then again, of course, the Bible only says that God created animals “domestic and wild, large and small”, it doesn’t feel a need to list every single type of animal within this category. Just because the full gender spectrum of humanity is not listed in Genesis does not mean that they are not part of God’s creation.

The verse that the Archbishop of Canterbury draws attention to in his introduction to the report is the previous verse, “And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us” in the Good News Bible or “so God created man in his own image”, in old money. All humans are created in God’s own image, all humans, not just some. We are called to celebrate the paradox that that whole rainbow of humanity, different races, different talents, different personalities, different expressions of gender, are created in the image of a single God.

What follows from that is the simple understanding that what God has created we are called to love. Our role is not to change those who God has created into our own likeness, it is to allow them to flourish into their own likeness to God. The other text the Archbishop cites is the one that I include in my e-mail signature. John 10:10, “I come that they may have life and have it more abundantly”. If children are born with a psychological gender that is different to their physical gender then they are going to have much less chance of living life abundantly if they are forced to conform to our stereotypes of how they should behave than if their natural inclination is accepted, nurtured and the valued.

The statistics on this are stark. 84% of trans-gender young people have self-harmed. 45% of them have attempted to take their own life (all statistics in this seromon are taken from the Valuing all God’s Children report). This issue is not a trivial one about whether little boys should be allowed to wear tutus and tiaras from the dressing up box – it is a matter of life and death. Part of this is because of the considerable psychological turmoil that being born feeling trapped in the body of the wrong gender causes, but this is augmented by the stigma that these people receive from wider society. Nearly 1 in 10 transgender children are subjected to death threats while still at school. Overt bullying is not the only problem. Transgender people are often made to feel different and unwelcome. Much of this is not intentional, it is simply that the rest of us are insensitive to who they are and how they need to be. We use language loosely without intending offense. We say the wrong thing simply because it may never occur to us that it is wrong.

So, I follow the Archbishop’s example and encourage you all this morning to celebrate the dazzling rainbow which is the full spectrum of humanity with all its many hues. I ask you to recognise that, whatever hue, we are all created in God’s image. I want to encourage you to do your part to ensure that all God’s people, whatever they feel about their own gender, are allowed to flourish on this earth and nurtured to live life as abundantly and fully as they are able.

This may feel like an agenda for a different generation but please acknowledge the importance of your own role as parents, grand-parents, great-grandparents, uncles and aunts. The wisdom of age is often honoured more within our family circles than we ever appreciate. And who knows? – your love, support and understanding may make the difference between a child who lives in anguish, turmoil and self-hate and one who is at peace with themselves, with you and with their God.

The sermon was followed by the hymn, Let love be real. I’d chosen this before I’d written my sermon and was amazed, when we sung it, just how well the words fitted with the message I’d preached. (In our hymn book it is set to the Londonderry Air).

 

Science and religion

As part of the Seasons of the Soul series it has been suggested that I talk about transitions in some sense this morning, but I’m also conscious that today is Bible Sunday, that Halloween is coming and that 31st October is the 500th Anniversary of Luther making public his 95 theses and thus starting the Protestant reformation. I’ll be making reference to all of these in what I say this morning but whether I address any of them appropriately will be up to you to decide.

As part of the Seasons of the Soul material we’ve been asked to reflect on transitions in our own faith lives. I’ve certainly been on a journey with God but it has generally been a process of gradual transition rather than any “blinding light” revelation. Perhaps the most fundamental transitions were early in my life. I was born into a church family with a father who was a local preacher and a mother who was Sunday school superintendent. In my early teens, however, I decided to stop going to church. There was probably an element of revolt against parental authority in this and it can’t have helped that I was one of very few boys of my age at the local church. At least equally important, however,   a growing awareness of a disconnect between what I was being taught in science lessons at school and what I was being taught at church and in Sunday school.

I didn’t go into a church after that for the best part of a decade. I completed a degree in physics and theoretical physics, then a PhD and embarked on a career of scientific practice and research ending up as a university professor. I am, to my very deepest roots, a scientist.

In my early twenties I felt something, something I would now describe as God, calling me back to the church. An important part of that transition was learning how to become a Christian and a scientist at the same time. It’s been a slow progress to feel truly comfortable being both. Sometimes I’ve been helped by the Christians I’ve encountered on my journey and sometimes, to be quite honest, I’ve found other Christians a particular hindrance. Eventually though I’m happy with the position I’ve arrived at and thought it might be worth sharing in case it is helpful to others.

The best way I can think of doing this is in the form of a mini lecture and I hope you’ll indulge me in this for a few minutes. (You can view this in the video below)

When presented like this the idea seems so obvious so why haven’t we started to think about things in this way a lot earlier. One answer of course is that many theologians have, but I think a large factor preventing others doing the same is that it requires theologians to have a better understanding of science than most do at present. In Britain at least we have a model of education that assumes  that you specialise in either the sciences or humanities from quite an early age and those who go on to study theology tend, as a consequence, to have a poor understanding of science.

I think another issue is that the amazing success of science can feel like a threat. It can feel as if religion will be overwhelmed by science. To face this we need confidence that science and religion address different questions. There are questions which in the modern world science answers much more convincingly than religion but the are other questions which science can give no insight into whatsoever.

Crib Goch ridge

This is a picture of Snowdon and the Crib Goch ridge. Science can tell us of how the mountains were created by geological processes and weathering over an unimaginably long period of time, but it cannot tell us that the result is beautiful, because science has no concept of beauty.

Syrian child

Science can tell us how this child in a Syrian hospital is suffering from malnutrition because he is not receiving the appropriate nutrients, but it cannot tell us how that child’s life is valued by his parents, because science has no concept of value.

Windgather

This is a picture of my daughter and her friend at Windgather Rocks. Science can tell us that those variations in the colour of the sky arise because dust particles in the atmosphere scatter the sun’s light differentially depending on its wave length, but it can tell us nothing of the joy that is causing those two girls to leap into the air and celebrate, because science had no concept of joy.

Science and religion tell us very different things, and those of us who are religious need the confidence to assert that what relation tells us is far more important.

The final issue with this way of looking at theology is that, at times, it appears that science and scripture disagree. Given that it is Bible Sunday it is probably appropriate that we finish by looking at this in a little more detail. I think the key to this is to realise that the Scripture and Science have different objectives. The aim of science is to give an objective explanation of how the world is, something we might call literal scientific truth. Scripture on the other hand was written, primarily, to embody a vision of God, something we might call religious truth. If we approach the Bible looking for literal scientific truth then we are going to come away disappointed because even though it was inspired by God it was written by people in a pre-scientific age. On the other hand if we approach the Bible looking for religious truth then we are going to come away empowered by the writings of the most inspired religious geniuses that have ever lived.

Let’s illustrate this by the story I told you earlier, the story of creation. Scientists tall us that the universe was created about 14 billion years ago in unbelievably short event which we now call the Big Bang. The sun was created about 4.5 billion years ago when a great gas cloud condensed and earth was created a little later as a byproduct of this progress. Scientists are a little less sure about how the moon came into being but the most likely explanation is that it was produced when an object the size of Mars collided with earth. None of this maps on to what we read in Genesis but we shouldn’t expect it to. Genesis was not written by people who had any knowledge of astrophysics, it was written by people who wanted to express the significance of creation.

If we want to find out what that significance was we have to read the Bible in  a different way and seek out the religious truth that is embedded within the story. To do this we look at the text and find that one short phrase is repeated seven times, “and God saw that it was good”. The religious truth embedded in Genesis is not that the universe was created in six days but that the universe is Good. Science has no perspective on the universe as good, bad or indifferent. Only religion can tell us that the universe is good. If we free ourselves from the expectation that the Bible must be literally and scientifically true then we are liberated to appreciate the religious purpose for which it was written. Not only that but we reach a conclusion that almost all humans on this planet can agree with instead of setting ourselves up for losing another battle with science.

There is a tendency to think that if we admit that the Bible is not literally and scientifically true that it is diminished in some way, that it is less than true. My favourite theologian, Marcus Borg, states this differently. He sees the writings of scripture as “more than true“. The significance of the religious claims in the Bible is far more important than the question of whether the stories are literally and scientifically true or not and it is only if we can free ourselves to concentrate on this that we will be able to appreciate what those claims are.

So over the next weeks and months, when you pick up your Bibles and come across those passages where what is written seems to contradict a scientific understanding of how the world is, pause for a moment and seek out the religious inspiration of the original author. Don’t worry about what is less than true, focus on what is more than true. Problems in Biblical interpretation will dissolve in front of your eyes which will be opened to a new and fresh understanding of our faith which speaks powerfully to the modern world out of the experience of the ancient world. That understanding is based on justice, mercy, faith, hope and love, five concepts which science can tell us absolutely nothing about, but which are infinitely more important to us as humans than any of the 2.5 million scientific papers published each year.

Praying with hope – I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!

I was the third preacher ask to addressed the issue of prayer and given the title Praying with hope and the text, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief”  (Mark 9:24). You can read this in context at Bible Gateway.

This is a sermon in a short series on prayer. Philip has asked me to preach this morning on how we can pray with hope. Given the gospel story and specific text he has suggested he would appear to be expecting the emphasis to be on situations where it is difficult to have hope. The issue is particularly important because many of us will go through times when it feels difficult to maintain hope.

The story I shared with the children earlier (Sally’s place) is principally the story of two parents coming to terms with the death of an adult child to disease. Put yourself in their position, where is the hope in that situation? What about people who are facing death themselves or the death of a spouse? Moving away from death many people in our contemporary world are struggling so hard to find employment that pays sufficiently well to support their families, where is the hope in that situation? What about the people sleeping rough on our streets, people who may once have held down a secure job and lived in the heart of a loving family but have fallen off the rails for some reason, where is the hope in that situation? All of us, yes all of us, know directly or indirectly of someone who is living in a situation which appears desperate, where hope is difficult if not impossible. I’m just going to stop for a few seconds to allow you to focus on someone who you know, or know of, who’s situation appears desperate and beyond hope.

It is not just at a personal level that we have a problem. There are so many aspects of our society that seem desperate. A glance at the papers, or a short time listening to the news on television or radio is all that we need to be reminded of this. Our planet is being degraded at an alarming rate and we are already in a period of mass extinction that hasn’t been experienced since the dinosaurs died out. There is an epidemic of obesity across the world which is threatening to overwhelm the health care resources of even the most advanced economies. Floods and hurricanes devastate parts of the planet in one way whilst forest fires and drought destroy others. A madman opens fire on people enjoying a music concert for no apparent reason.

In considering a Christian response to such situations we have to start off with an acknowledgement that they are real. Many individuals are living through truly bleak experiences. Our physical world is really threatened. Our society, from many different perspectives, is progressing in the wrong direction. Glib prayers that pretend that God is good and that all will be well if we only trust in him sufficiently are not appropriate. How does it help a parent who has just lost a child to be told to focus on how loving God is? Despair, in many cases, is not a failure to see how wonderful God is, it is a rationale response to the desperate situations that we find ourselves in.

This is a sermon about prayer, how should we respond?

I think it can help to ask where God is in such situations. We can be helped here by a modern understanding of the world. So often in the modern world we see science as an enemy of religion but I think it is more appropriate to see it as an ally. We can use what we now know of how the world is through science to inform how we think about God.

For most of human existence people have simply now known what causes disease or earthquakes or drought and it was assumed that these were, in a very literal sense, acts of God. We now know better. Cancer is not caused by God, it is caused by defects in the DNA within the nucleus of cells within our body. Earthquakes are not caused by God, they are caused by stresses that build up in the earth’s crust as a result of tectonic activity. At a societal level, global warming is not caused by God, it is caused by humanity generating too much carbon dioxide and methane. The obesity epidemic is not caused by God, it is caused by people eating too much inappropriate food as they become more affluent. Even mental illness, the focus of our gospel story, is not caused by God, or evil spirits either, but by a dysfunction in the biochemistry of the brain.

Modern science let’s God off the hook. We do not need to see God as the cause of the ills of the world, as the source of our despair, we now have alternative and much more convincing explanations. I am with Isaiah, God is not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire.

But, of course, if God isn’t causing these things in the first place then it is illogical for us to pray for him to stop them. If cancer is caused by defects in DNA or earthquakes by seismic forces (literally) then it doesn’t make sense to pray to God and expect these things to stop or even to change.

So what can we pray for? If God, isn’t in the cause of the ills of the world, where is he?

I believe that God is not in the cause of those things that challenge us but in our response to them. God is not in the cancer, he is in the loving response of those affected by cancer. Nothing will ever convince me in the story that I told earlier that Sally’s cancer was in any way ordained by God for any reason that we couldn’t understand then and still don’t understand now. But I know that God was in the way Ray and Barbara and the rest of that family responded and in the building of that creche in Africa.

Nothing will ever convince me that the hurricanes that have recently ravaged the islands of the Caribbean and parts of the United States were summoned by God. But I know that God is in the way that governmental and no-governmental age agencies have responded to the crisis, are providing emergency relief and are re-building communities.

Nothing will ever convince me that God had anything to do with that madman who sat in an upper room at a hotel shooting indiscriminately at peaceful people attending a music concert. But I know that across Las Vegas and beyond, God is in the way that families and churches and communities are comforting the families of those that died and allowing them to come to terms with their loss, and eventually to overcome this and be re-born into new life.

So, if God is in our response, both individually and collectively, to the events that assail us and others in life, how should we pray. We should pray, of course, to allow God into our lives so that we can be agents of that response.

There is a tendency, in many parts of Christianity, which is mistaken in my belief, to see prayer as a passive activity. We can see prayer as a way of handing problems over to God and assuming that this is enough, that, in handing over the problem to God, we have been absolved for taking any responsibility ourselves. In my view prayer is much more an opportunity for God to hand responsibility to us.

Another way of looking at this is of the absolute arrogance of the Christian who expects prayer to be a time when God should listen to them. Maybe we should be more humble and see prayer as a time when we should listen to God. When we pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done” we are not making a demand of God, we are accepting a purpose and discipline for ourselves.

And this should give us hope, even in the most desperate situations, because however bad any situation becomes, however, bleak the future looks, there is always something we can do to make it better. In the face of personal tragedy there will always be a word of comfort we can offer or a loving embrace or a time simply to sit in silence with a person who cannot face the future. We cannot remove the cause of the tragedy but we can be part of the response.

Societal problems can be more challenging but are still fundamentally something we can respond to through the way we live and the way we give. We may feel that as an individual our actions are worthless but we need a vision of ourselves as part of the people of God. There are two billion Christians on this planet and a further four billion followers of other religions who are all, fundamentally, seeking a better world. Imagine how much could be achieved if, rather, than using prayers as a time to tell God what to do, we all used them as a time to listen to what he is telling us to do.

Go, in peace, to love and serve the Lord.

This was followed by my hymn “God of Love, where are you?