Tax credits and development goals

A sermon preached on 25th October 2015 based on the readings from Deuteronomy (15:1-11) and Luke (6:20-26).

I’ve felt called to move away from the lectionary readings this week and instead talk about Christian attitudes to wealth and poverty. This is a response to the news that we’ve been reading about in our newspaper’s, listening to on our radios or watching on our televisions.

I don’t think anyone can have escaped the public debate over the last couple of weeks about the cuts that the government is proposing to tax credits. Taking figures from yesterday’s Daily Telegraph 3 million families are going to lose an average of £1,300 of their income. This is one in every six families. These are not a randomly distributed 3 million families these are 3 million of the poorest working families in the country.

Many of us will have watched as Michelle Dorrell, the mother of one of those families, talked of the affect that this would have on her family on Question Time last week. Others will have heard the maiden speech this week of Heidi Allen, Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, calling on the government in general and the chancellor in particular to change his mind. She reminded him that whilst this might appear to him to be an abstract decision to balance the books that to many of her constituents it was a very concrete threat to take away a considerable part of their income.

Less than a month ago our Prime Minister, David Cameron, was in New York addressing the General Assembly  of the United Nations at the launch of their new Sustainable Development Goals. The first of these is to “end poverty in all forms everywhere”. The first sub-clause of this is devoted to ending extreme poverty defined as individuals living on less than $1.25 a day (about 80p). We should be thankful  that there are very few people  in the UK living on those incomes that low. The second sub-clause is to “reduce by half the number of men, women and children who are living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions”. This is going to be difficult to assess for children in the UK because in July the government announced that it was no longer going to capture data on relative child poverty in the UK. Without that we won’t know whether child poverty is increasing or decreasing. Perhaps we  can now see some method in the government’s apparent madness as the withdrawal of tax credits is almost certain to increase substantially the number of children living in relative poverty in this country.

The third sub-clause of the end poverty goal that out Prime Minister signed up to was a commitment to ”implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all”. At the moment tax credits are one of the UK’s primary social protection systems and the government are significantly reducing these. Poverty and how to address it is well and truly on the national agenda this week.

Most of the world leaders were extremely positive and welcoming of the sustainable development goals. The Pope was a little more reserved saying, “We must avoid every temptation to fall into a declarationist nominalism which would assuage our consciences.” It’s a bit wordy but what he was pointing out was that these are only goals. There is no concrete plan as to how to achieve them. Particularly in relationship to the poverty goals there is an implicit assumption that these will be achieved simply by allowing economic development to continue the way it has for the last fifty years or so. If we simply allow the world economy to continue to grow then some of those benefits will trickle down to the poor. Essentially the UN appears to be saying that if we do nothing then extreme poverty will disappear as a consequence of the trickle-down effect. As the rich get richer and the very rich get stupendously rich, then the poor will get a little less poor.

Other critics have gone further, examining the language used by the UN. They claim that this language treats extreme poverty as a disease. The first sub-goal is to eradicate poverty very much in the way that we have eradicated small-pox and are close to eradicating polio. It assumes that poverty is something like a virus, a malignant germ for which we are not responsible, but which we must fight against. Nothing could be further from the truth they say. Modern day poverty is largely a consequence of how man-made economic structures operate. Modern poverty is not a consequence of our failure to generate wealth, as assumed by the development goals, it is a failure of our capacity to fairly distribute wealth. Poverty, they argue, will never be eradicated by allowing capitalism and the God of the free market to flourish unrestrained because this is precisely what has caused the problem in the first place.

So what does the Bible say? This is quite an easy question to answer because so much of the Bible, including, large parts of Jesus’ teaching, is about attitudes to poverty and wealth. The picture that emerges is remarkably consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments. It is reflected in both our readings this morning. It’s  radically different form the Sustainable Development Goals because throughout the Bible concern for the poor is balanced by condemnation of the rich. The rich are portrayed as part of the problem.

Luke’s version of the beatitudes, which we have heard this morning, is read much less often than Matthew’s perhaps because it is much less comforting. While both heap blessings on the poor, Luke includes condemnation of the rich:

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.

For those of us who are rich, and from an international perspective, this includes all of us sitting here this morning, this is extremely challenging. It clearly identifies us as part of the problem.

But this is not an isolated text. Jesus words on this occasion reflect a substantial theme of Biblical writings tracing right back to some of the earliest texts ever written down. The acknowledgment that the rich and powerful are responsible for many of the ills of society can be traced to passages in Deuteronomy, Job, Jeremiah, Isaiah, the Psalms and Proverbs, Amos, Hosea and Micah.

In many places the Bible goes further and either demands or foretells a radical redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. Our reading from Deuteronomy this morning is of the law regarding the year of Sabbath. The basic principal was that at the end of each seven year cycle all debts were cancelled. Debt are generally owed by the poor to the rich so this is effectively a redistribution of wealth. This was done explicitly to ensure that there “will be no poor among you”. At the end of seven such cycles was a year of Jubilee when all wealth and land were distributed back to its original owners. The books where re-set and everyone was given a second chance. This redistributive mechanism is at the heart of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and was put there to ensure that the poor in society should never be allowed to get too poor and that the rich should never be allowed to get too rich.

The Sustainable Development Goals look through the wrong end of a telescope and see the poor as the problem and aim for their eradication. The Jews perhaps 2,500 years ago were far more advanced in their thinking in seeing that it is not the poor who are the problem, it is the rich. As one commentator said in the aftermath of the UN conference, we will never eradicate extreme poverty if we do not also set out to eradicate extreme wealth.

Even if eventually a trickle-down effect operating within current financial systems does eventually remove absolute poverty it is driving an even more unequal distribution of wealth within society. This is essentially the substance of Thomas Picketty’s recent book, Capitalism in the twenty-first century and is confirmed by almost all contemporary analyses of wealth distribution at national and international levels. The fundamental requirement for tax credits arises because incomes amongst the lowest paid in our economy have fallen so low over recent years that they are impossible for a family to survive on. This has occurred at the same time as the income of the highest paid in our economy have continued to escalate.

If anything our current tax system is reinforcing this inequality rather than resolving it. Figures released in July, and reported in the Independent, showed that the top 20% of households actually pay a smaller percentage of their income in tax of all forms than the lowest 20%. The planned reductions in tax credits will make this even more extreme.

Even if extreme absolute poverty is eventually eradicated we will have even more extreme relative poverty. The poor, as our Old Testament reading reminds us, are not a disease that can be eradicated, they will always be with us. The challenge for Christians is not how to eradicate the poor but how to welcome and accommodate them within society. It is not about how to generate ever more wealth, at the expense of the natural resources of a finite planet, but about how to distribute what we’ve got. It is about adopting a concern for the poor as a driver of our economic systems and acknowledging that this will require a redistribution of wealth from the rich. Above all it is about making Jesus own prophecy central to our economic goals:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.”

Will our offspring outnumber the stars?

A sermon for early Advent 2014 based on the story of Abram and Sara (Genesis 12-21) and 2 Peter 3:8-15a (the lectionary reading for today).

The story of Abram and Sara is one of the oldest known to human kind. As far as we can tell it refers to sometime between 1500 and 2000 years before Christ. This is in the middle of the Bronze age, a little after the completion of Stonehenge. It pre-dates writing in the region so, if it refers to real people and real events, it must have been passed on by word of mouth for many generations. It would have been told by people sitting around a fire and telling each other stories to pass the time. It would have been passed from parent to child and from grandparent to grandchild.

Most biblical scholars suggest that it was probably written down during the Jewish exile in Babylon in the early 6th century BC. This means that if the stories are based in fact then they must have been passed down by word of mouth for nearly 1,000 years. Imagine relying on word of mouth stories to learn about events at the Battle of Hastings. I’m not sure we’d consider that very reliable would we?

There are a lot of “ifs” in what I’ve said so far because many Biblical scholars question whether the stories are true in a historical sense at all. They suggest that the most likely origins of these stories is that they were created by the people who wrote them down. They probably didn’t create them out of thin air but from existing folk stories. Even if the stories had some basis in fact then they were almost certainly heavily adapted. The writers felt free to do this because they weren’t writing them to record history, they were writing them to express religious truth.

Whether the stories are based in fact and handed down orally over the generations or were largely the invention of 6th century poets we have to come to the conclusion that the events recounted may not have occurred in the way they are recorded. To put it a little more bluntly – the stories may not be true.

So how should I preach from a story which may not be true? At one level this is the story of a miracle. A 99 year old man and a barren woman who is only a little younger have a baby. Many preachers have told the story as proof that God can work miracles. We need to tale a step back though. If the story may not be true then it can’t be used to prove anything. If we take modern biblical scholarship seriously then we can’t preach about the story in that way. A miracle may have happened but this story is very far from conclusive evidence that it did.

If we take that scholarship seriously then we have to think much more about what it tells us about the people who wrote the story down than about the original characters. The people who wrote the story down were probably in exile in Babylon. They were a community that believed their faith to have deep roots over many centuries. They believed it was rooted in the experience of the Canaanite patriarchs, that it had survived slavery in Egypt and the Exodus. That faith had supported the community through the time of the judges and found fruition in the Kingdom of David and with the completion of Solomon’s Temple. But now Israel had been defeated in war, the temple had been destroyed and what was left of the population had been taken into exile in Babylon. The community had a strong sense of the past but real fears for the future. It must have seemed to many in that community that their faith would die out within a generation. It must have seemed to many in that community that their faith was barren.

Does it therefore surprise us that one of  the stories that they picked up and developed was of a barren women who gave birth, of a childless old man who was promised that he would have descendants who would outnumber the stars?  Perhaps most importantly this Advent, is it surprising that one of the key themes of that story is one of waiting in hope and faith over a time-scale that is far greater than that of an ordinary human life. That community was in crisis and the stories they adopted reflected that crisis. Those stories drove them to keep their faith alive, to look to the future. If an ageing man and a barren woman could maintain a faith to pass on to the succeeding generations then so too could they regardless of how bleak their own situation looked. If they could keep their faith alive as the politics of the world swirled around them then one day surely it would burst forth again with life and vitality.

The power of thinking about this story in this way is that it speaks to us today. Most of us within British Christianity fear for the future. Traditional churches are in crisis, declining in numbers. Pews are populated with people almost literally as old as Abram and Sarai. We are not physiologically barren but we are spiritually barren, many of our churches are devoid of children. Within our own area Methodist churches at Bollington and Wood Lanes have closed over recent years. There are many others that will not last another decade. If we stop and consider the situation rationally then our faith faces a similar crisis to that faced by Judaism in Babylon.

We can gain reassurance from the same stories. Stories that remind us that God works on a much longer time-scale than we can ever imagine. Stories that remind us that God’s love will prevail regardless of what happens in the world around us. Stories that remind us that our part in this is to wait patiently in faith and hope.

This is a real challenge in the modern world. It is not just the dwindling size of our congregations that worries us. We see a world that seems to be sliding further and further from the vision of God’s Kingdom that the Bible presents. We see a world in which divisions between rich and poor are growing more quickly than at any time in history. We have a government who has this week announced further massive cuts in spending on welfare. We know these will impact on the poorest members of our society at a time when the government are obstinately refusing to raise taxes on the rich. Further afield we see workers exploited to provide cheaper and cheaper consumer goods. The natural world over which many of us believe God granted us stewardship is being raped for its resources. Despite clear evidence that burning fossil fuels is going to lead to the destruction of the planet we continue to expand our search for oil and gas and coal. It is all too easy to give up, to lose, hope, to abandon God.

Yet I still have faith that God’s Kingdom will come. I believe this because of the state of the world rather than in spite of it. It is all too clear to me that a world that drifts so far from God’s will is destined to fail. The more I watch the world descend into an abyss, the more certain I become that it must one day rediscover God’s will. It becomes clearer and clearer to me that the only way that we will be able to survive in harmony as a race on this planet is if we rediscover the the commandments to love our God and our neighbour. Over the coming years I predict we will will face many hard lessons but eventually I am convinced that the  world will realise its loss and will return to honour those commandments. I don’t know when this will happen, I suspect it will be a very long time, far beyond the limit of my life, but I have absolute certainty that it will. I have certainty because I can see no other option.

In the meantime, our role is to wait patiently in faith and hope like Abram and Sara. Patiently but not passively, we must continue their journey. Our role is to be faithful to the God of our ancestors and to nurture that faith for the benefit of our descendants who will eventually outnumber the stars. It will almost certainly be to continue to be a member of declining, niche community. It will be to share communion with the small group of friends who want to share the task of nurturing that faith with us. We must  do this because one day, some time in the distant future, the world will realise the error of its ways and start to look for an alternative. It is essential that we have lived and acted in faith and hope in the meantime in order that we can provide that alternative.

Peter chose some rather flowery and apocalyptic language to describe it in the passage we heard earlier but I believe he is saying the same thing:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to [the day of the Lord], make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.

 

My Christ smelt.

This was written many years ago in response to a “happy clappy” mission in Dundee which enthused and invigorated me for a couple of evenings but then left me feeling quite empty for the rest of the week.

My Christ smelt. His one robe was stained by the dust of the road and the sweat of his body. He had a hooked nose and the dark, scorched complexion of one who spent his days under the savage Mediterranean sun and his nights under the cold impersonal stars. No amount of scraping with a knife’s point could dislodge the ingrained grime from his fingernails. His coarsely stubbled jaw held a row of rotting and broken teeth. Lice infested his sweat starched hair, but his eyes held a secret.

He had experience of all of life. He had grown up into a carpenter’s family with hands blistered from long hours at of work. He had known love, grief and sin; what it is to betray and to be betrayed. He had known despair and temptation and what it is to live without faith. But he had felt and he had thought and he had prayed. God showed him himself. Understanding himself he understood all people. He knew what he could do to help them. Self-assurance and compassion radiated from his face, and his eyes told a secret.

He loved the spirit of the religion into which he had been born but everywhere saw it stifled by the limited imagination of religious men. He lived the life of love and faith which had been obscured by a shroud of liturgy and legislation evolved to guide his ancestors but used to confine his friends. Sometimes this led him to pity, often it led him to anger, eventually it led him to Jerusalem. Always it led him closer to God. God’s love burned in his eyes.

Relating to other faiths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maggoty world? A harvest sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experiencing God through good and bad

Sermon preached on 17th August 2014. There was one Bible reading (Genesis 1:1-9 and 26-31) and another reading from the Guardian newspaper about recent events in Gaza.

I’ve had a fabulous holiday this year and the two parts of my sermon are going to reflect on different aspects of my experience of God during that time.

For the last week my wife, daughter and I stayed in a self-catering cottage in Pembrokeshire. We are into “wild swimming” particularly in lakes and rivers and had found some wonderful places to do this. On the way back we drove over to the Irfon valley in central Wales to a place called Wolf’s Leap which was highly recommended in our guidebook.

It was absolutely incredible. The valley itself is remote and beautiful but the river in its base runs through an extremely narrow gorge down to about shoulder width at times and several metres high. The gorge links a number of broader pools and includes several small waterfalls. It’s possible to swim up sections of the gorge linking these pools and scramble over those waterfalls. It felt like swimming through a sequence of caves. If you are into that sort of think it was absolute heaven – and it was all ours, there was no-one else there.

The first swim was the best because it was all so new. The three of us swam up one part of the gorge, had a natural jacuzzi sitting under one particularly exhilarating waterfall and then came back down to where our bags were. The three of us got out bubbling with delight and shivering with the cold and just couldn’t stop giggling as we huddled together to get warm and eat our lunch. It felt as if that particular moment in that particular place had been created by God just for us.

Except, of course, there are other explanations. The rock of the gorge, so the geologists tell us, was laid down in the Silurian period between 440 and 420 million years ago when the part of the earth’s crust that we now call Europe was south of the equator and beneath the sea. Over time the sediments in that sea settled on the bottom in layers of silt so deep that the lower level got compressed under the immense pressure to form rock. Great convection currents in the molten rock in the earth’s mantle carried the whole tectonic plate to its current position and lifted it out of the ocean. The immense stresses acted on small imperfections within the rock and caused it to crack. Sheets of ice formed on several occasions and scoured the valley we know today and, over an unimaginably long time, the river that formed in the bottom found one of those cracks and scoured it out to form the gorge we can swim in to today. It is quite possible to tell the whole story as a consequence of random and chaotic processes within a framework of physical laws which govern everything in the Universe. There’s no need to mention God at all.

Modern Christians have to balance these two different stories – one written by priests and poets in the Middle East perhaps 4,000 years ago and the other by scientists over the last 100 years or so. There is no consensus within the church as to how these stories should be balanced. Some of you will regard the biblical version as sacrosanct, others will be convinced by the scientists. Many will fall somewhere in between exclusive belief in either. Some perhaps will find it all too much and not think about it at all.

I’m not going to add in my view this morning. This is partly because it is just one opinion where there are too many already but more importantly because I think it is a colossal distraction. Every minute we spend haggling over how we should interpret our experiences theologically is a minute lost to us to simply immerse ourselves in that experience God and to respond to it.

It simply isn’t important to worry about how I came to experience God so clearly at that particular time and that particular place. What is important is to acknowledge that experience and to celebrate and respond to it.

I emphasize the response because I think this is at least as important as the experience. The response to that day in mid-Wales, and many more throughout our lives, is gratitude – simple thanks. We need moments like this to remind us that all we have needed our god has provided. It’s important for us but it is also important for the whole world. Our world is in a mess now largely because we don’t give thanks for the gifts with which we have already been blessed. We are always striving for more –for new clothes, a better holiday a new i-phone. We are striving for these things so hard that we have little time to care for our neighbours. We produce plenty of food to feed the whole planet but don’t because those of us in the rich world demand more than we need.

If only everyone in the world could recognise the presence of God within their lives and be immersed in thankfulness for that experience and satisfaction with the gifts with which they have already been blessed. It is this, surely, for which we pray when we say “thy Kingdom come”.

We’re going to sing our prayers of thanks. I’ve chosen one of those hymn that has particular resonance to me through memory of previous occasions when I’ve sung it. We chose this hymn for our wedding, we sung it at my grandfather’s funeral and, I hope, others will sing some day at my own funeral. All I have needed thy hand has provided – great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

 Break to sing Great is thy faithfulness

The other experience of God I want to talk about is quite different. I’ve had one of these little boxes (smartphone) for the last two years. I now effectively carry around several national newspapers wherever I go and can read them whenever I want. The day before our trip to the Irfon valley I sat on a Pembrokeshire beach and read the article we’ve just heard.  We’ve heard a lot of reports from the Middle East over the last decade and particularly from Gaza. I’m not sure why this one affected me so much but it left a really empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps it was that the acts it reports were so unnecessary whatever the military objectives of Israeli incursions into Gaza. I felt sick and powerless –but this too, I believe, is an experience of God in my life.

Gaza is just as much a part of creation as that valley in mid-Wales. How on earth can we explain that?

Again there are two stories. One is that God is all-knowing and all powerful and that he is in control of the destiny of the world. It may be difficult to see what his or her purposes are in the events we hear reported in the News but that is because we as humans can never see the mind of God. Now we see darkly as in a mirror, then we shall know face to face. I suspect many of us struggle with this much more than the question of how God is present in the experiences of our life but these are really too sides of the same coin.

There is, of course, an alternative explanation which doesn’t involve God at all. We can pick it up with the Jews winning the Palestinian civil war in 1948 and establishing Israel as an independent state. Many Arabs who had been living in the region felt they had to flee to surrounding areas and some have been living as refuges for over 60 years. There are now estimated to be over 4 million of them. Many fled to the Gaza strip a small enclave of Egyptian territory between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea. In the six days war in 1967 Israel invaded Gaza but Egypt closed the border to the south and the refugees have been trapped there ever since. The poverty and desperation led the people of Gaza to rebel politically and militarily. Israel and Egypt have both felt threatened and applied economic sanctions to suppress that threat. This has set up a vicious cycle of growing repression and growing  resentment. The Isreali’s have been so threatened by this that they have felt it necessary to invade three times within the last six years each time bringing even greater devastation to an already desperately poor region of the world.

So again there are two stories. One developed by priests and poets over 4,000 years ago and seeing God as the central player. The other told by historians and sociologists without any reference to God. Again we, as individual, Christians have to balance these two stories because there is no consensus within the wider church as to how they should be balanced.

But again I am not sure that the theological niceties are all that important. Every minute we spend arguing about God’s role in all this is a minute when we are distracted from what is important – our experience of God and our response to it.

I suspect our experience of God is clear and common to us all. It involves experiences of grief, sorrow, anger, desperation and powerlessness, but what about response? What can we do?

I don’t often cite conservative peers in my sermons but Baroness Warsi responded. It’s clear to me that, despite being a Muslim, her experience of God through these terrible stories was the same as ours. As a member of the government she clearly argued passionately that something must be done and when the rest of the government decided otherwise she resigned. If we remonstrate too strongly with our friends in Israel we will lose what influence we have, they argued. If that influence is too weak to prevent the massacre of 1,500 innocent people then can it be worth having?, she replied.

But of course most of us have no place in the government and can’t respond in this way. What can we do? Zoe was asked to read this morning because she did something. She wrote an e-mail to the stewards last Monday expressing her horror in what was going on in Gaza and Iraq and suggesting a retiring collection for the people of that region after the service today. Many of you may already have responded to the news stories through giving through a variety of channels already and we give thanks for that.

I also feel that we can respond by praying for the poor and oppressed and broadcasting those prayers to the whole of society. So often the political authorities focus on the agenda of the rich and powerful. They can look after themselves, what we really need is an agenda focussing on the needs of the poor and impotent. Every morning as I climb the stairs at work I am confronted by a poster with the words of an Auschwitz survivor:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. (Elie Weissel).

It is through prayer that Christians can break that silence.

Short term 12

Not really a sermon but I used this in place of a sermon on 29th June 2014. The reading I chose was John 14:1-13.

The kids were away on Friday night so my wife and I could choose the film we wanted to watch. Freed of the kids desire for action/adventure or romantic comedy we could choose something a little more quirky, maybe something a little more challenging. It was difficult to fond anything just flicking through the films BlinkBox suggested so I visited a list of the best 50 films of last year and my eye was caught by an entry for Short Term 12.

This is a low budget independent film which only had a very limited release in UK. It’s set in a home for troubled teenagers in Los Angeles. The main characters is Grace one of the care workers and the story focusses on her relationship with her boyfriend and three of the kids.

In the opening scene Grace and her co-workers are having a conversation outside the front door of the facility. Sammy, clearly having distressed, bursts out of the house and starts running for the boundary. The policy is that staff can restrain the kids within the grounds but can do nothing if outside so Grace and her boyfriend Mason set off in pursuit. They catch Sammy who is distressed and violent and they just hold him safely and securely while his anger passes. Once this has happened Sammy reverts to a sad and introverted young boy who meekly allows himself to his room where he just lies motionless on the bed. No-one knows what thoughts are passing through his mind.

Marcus is one of the older residents who is approaching his 18th birthday and the time when he will have to return to his physically abusive mother. His emotions are focussed by the death of the goldfish that he has nurtured. It is grace who finds him slumped on the floor after he has attempted to commit suicide and reacts quickly to save his life and get him to hospital.

Finally a Jayden comes as a new resident. She’s quite hostile to the other kids believing that she’ll be returning to her father before long and that there’s just no point building relationship for the short time while she’s there. Grace discovers that they share a common love of drawing and through this starts to build a relationship. Jayden opens up enough to tell Grace a children’s story she has written. Grace interprets this of evidence that Jayden has been abused by her father and is able to support her to come to terms with this.

Throughout this we see Grace as the central person in the small team of care workers within the facility. Her position comes from her personal qualities. It is quite clear that her position within the staff hierarchy is quite a junior one.  It is her that is bonding most powerfully and constructively with the kid though. For several of them she is the only person that can communicate effectively with them. The only person who they can see cares for them. She is … Grace – a gift of God which, when people experience it, allows them to make sense of their lives and gives them reassurance.

But this story of Grace as a provider of comfort and a giver of life is only one side of her character. As the plot progresses we come to realise that Grace is mixed up and vulnerable herself. We are shown glimpses of the intimacy of her relationship with her boyfriend but also of these unravelling for no apparent reason. It emerges that she herself was been abused by her father who was imprisoned for what he had done and is shortly to be released. In one scene when Jayden has been cutting herself Grace shows her the scars on her legs where she cut herself as a child.

Grace is who she is, and can offer what she does, because of the experiences she herself had been through and has survived. We begin to realise that the strong relationships she is able to develop are born of empathy and understanding. Out of her brokenness she is able to create wholeness.  Her brokenness is not just a thing of the past. It is a thing of the present. She is still broken, she still needs to come to terms with her own experience, but in the depths of this turmoil in her own life she can still bring wholeness to the lives of others.

The final scene mirrors the first one. Grace and her co-workers are chatting outside the front door. Once again Sammy bursts through the door and starts running for the entrance. Grace and the others aren’t quite so quick off the mark this time and it looks as if Sammy is going to make it to the entrance and to freedom. At the last minute, however, just as he’s going to get there, he veers off course and allows himself to be caught. We realise that he’s not been running to break free. He’s running to be captured. Captured and held in the arms of the one person who understands him and  loves him. Captured and held in the arms of Grace.

Equal marriage meeting

Report from the Circuit Open Meeting on Human Sexuality and Equal Marriage contributed to my local church magazine.

34 people from across the circuit met. After a brief act of worship David Walton, an ex-Vice President of Conference talked about the Same Sex Marriage Act, which the government passed last year, and its implications for the Methodist Church. The Act allows religious organisations to choose whether they will conduct same sex marriages or not. This means that Methodist Conference, our Church Council and the presiding Minister would all need to agree before such a marriage could take place on our premises.

At present Methodist Standing Orders state that ‘…marriage is the gift of God and it is God’s intention that a marriage should be a life-long union in body, mind and spirit of one man and one woman’. Our Church cannot, therefore, hold same-sex marriages unless it changes its Standing Orders first. The church responded to the government consultations on the Act from this position. At the last Conference, however, a working group was set  up to “to consider whether the Methodist Church’s position on marriage needs revising in light of changes in society, undertaking this consideration with reference to scripture, tradition, reason and experience”.

David also gave us a short history of how Christian attitudes to marriage have changed over time which I found particularly interesting. Did you know, for example, that it was only in the 1215 that the Church decreed that marriages had to be carried out in public in the presence of a priest? Before then many marriages were either informal (for the poor) or a form of legal contract (if money was involved).

We then broke into small groups for discussion of six questions that guided us through some of the issues that our church faces. Within my group were people with the widely different views which I’m sure characterise most congregations. The questions led us through these, however, in a way that allowed us to explore how we had all come to hold those different views. I got a real sense of a community joining the “pilgrimage of faith” that had been advocated by Conference when human sexuality was last discussed in 1993.

After that there was time for us to come together and reflect jointly on the conversations that had been held separately. Again there was honesty and openness in that sharing and a willingness to listen respectfully to people who had different opinions.

As we’d started in a short act of worship, so we ended in a short act of worship. For me, however, the whole morning had been a deeply moving act of worship. It was worship as I imagine the early church worshipping – sitting around in small groups, talking to each other of the things that deeply concerned them and, through that shared experience and in the presence of the Spirit, trying to discern how God wanted them to respond to a changing world.

Those of you who weren’t able to be there might like to draw into communion with those who were by reflecting on the words of the two hymns we sang: “Sacred the body that God has created (StF 618)” and “Let us build a house where love can dwell (StF 409)”. Think about how God speaks to you through the words first to affirm what you believe and then to challenge it. Then imagine a fellow Christian with different views to yours on human sexuality. How would God speak through these words to both affirm and challenge what they believe? Then pray for yourself and then for your imagined friend.

Same sex marriage act

This is a sermon preached on Sunday 1st June the week before a circuit level “open meeting” on human sexuality and same sex marriage. The readings I chose were Matthew 15:21-28 and Acts 15:1-19.

Introduction to theme

This morning I’d like to suggest we talk about same sex marriage. Such a topic is not every Christian’s cup of tea but our church has asked us to prayerfully consider the matter so let’s give it a go. It’s probably worth starting off with a bit of background before we get to the sermon proper.

The Marriage (same sex couples) Act came into force in 2013 and first same sex marriages took place on 29th March 2014. The Church of England is prevented by the law for constitutional reasons from holding same sex marriages but the other churches have the choice to opt in or opt out. The Quakers have already announced that they will welcome same sex marriages.

The Methodist response has been quite legalistic and technical. Our standing orders currently state that “marriage is a gift of God and that it is God’s intention that a marriage should be a life-long union in body, mind and spirit of one man and one woman”. This is the tradition of the church which was reinforced after the last substantial debate on the topic in 1993. The official pronouncements have really just hidden behind this. Our formal definition of marriage explicitly states that it is between a man and a woman then clearly we cannot acknowledge marriage between two men or two women. At that Conference in 1993 however the Methodist Church also resolved that it:

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.

Things are thus not quite as clear cut as the pronouncements suggest. How can  we “recognise, affirm and celebrate” what lesbians and gay men have to offer and then deny them the opportunity to form relationships and have these recognised and celebrated in church? At last year’s Conference our church thus asked a working group to “consider whether the Methodist Church’s position on marriage needs revising in the light of changes in society“. The meeting next week is a part of that process.

The other issue that the meeting will address is how to deal with the consequences of any such decision. It is very clear that there is a wide diversity of opinion within the Methodist church on this issue with some people at both ends of the spectrum holding very deeply rooted an opposing views. However the decision goes, a substantial part of the church are likely to be quite unhappy. They will feel the church has turned away form the will of God. Are there actions we can take now, before we know the outcome of the debate, that might make it easier for the church to address the consequences whichever way the decision goes. In my sermon this morning I’d like to address the issue of whether we should revise our understanding of marriage and afterwards I hope we might have time  for a little discussion on how the church can accommodate people of opposing views.

Before I do so I just want to finish off the “information session” by pointing out that whatever happens it is not going to happen quickly. If the working party proposes that we should consider revising our definition of marriage then there will be a period of consultation before that decision is made. If that decision is to broaden the definition to include same sex marriage then there will need to be further consultation and debate for Conference to allow such ceremonies on Methodist church premises. Our rules will then require each Church Council individual to decide whether to host such ceremonies or not and the Minister will also be allowed to take a personal decision as to whether they feel able to officiate at the ceremony or not. There are a lot of ifs in what I’ve just said and the different levels of decision making are going to take a considerable period of time.

Sermon

In thinking about how to preach on this subject I was struck by the  phrasing of the resolution of Conference last year: “to consider whether the Methodist Church’s position on marriage needs revising in the light of changes in society“. I want to focus on the last seven words: “in the light of changes in society“. This isn’t the way that many of us think about our theology is it. We tend to think of our understanding of God and God’s will as being the same in the beginning, now and forever more, Amen. In a rapidly changing and bewildering world many of us take considerable strength from our faith as something the is steadfast and unchanging. We want to believe that there are certain truths that simply do not change.

But our church’s governing body is saying something different. It is saying that our beliefs may need revising, not only that they may need revising but they may need revising in the light of changes in society. Is our understanding of God to be dictated to us by society?  I suspect there are many within the church who would be horrified by this thought once they hear it expressed in this way.

But there are clear precedents in our communal history. The early church’s attitude to non-Jews is, I would suggest, such an example. There is no real doubt that the historical Jesus saw his mission as to the Jews. He was raised in a part of Palestine were he probably never met anyone who didn’t consider themselves Jewish. He clearly saw his teaching as a fulfilment of the Jewish religion and the teaching of the prophets. We catch a glimpse of this in the reading we’ve had from Matthew this morning. When approached with a request from a non-Jewish woman he replies quite harshly, “I was sent here only for the lost sheep of Israel“. This was his teaching to his disciples who after his death continued in the assumption that early Christianity was a movement within Judaism which required Christians to accept the requirements of Judaism including circumcision and adherence to food laws.

The first Council of Jerusalem, which was probably held in about 50 CE and is recorded in the passage we heard form Acts changed that. From that point onwards the official church position was that Christianity was open to all and there was no specific requirements for Christians to adhere to Jewish customs and practices. What changes? The scriptures certainly didn’t – they’d been formalised a couple of centuries earlier. Jesus’ teaching didn’t – he’d been dead for 20 years. What I’d like to suggest had changed was the society in which the church was operating. The church had moved away from Galilee which was overwhelmingly Jewish to Jerusalem which was a cosmopolitan city embracing individuals from many backgrounds. More than that, particularly through Paul’s ministry, Christianity was being proclaimed across the eastern Mediterranean in cities where the Jewish community were a very small minority. It was not scripture or Jesus teaching that had changed – it was the society in which Christianity was being lived out that had changed. In a very real sense the First Council of Jerusalem had revised its teaching in the light of changes in society.

Another slightly more recent example might be the church’s position on slavery. For nearly the first 1800 years of its existence the church had just assumed that slavery was part of the economic order – the way in which God had created the world. Despite spending long periods in slavery as a nation the Jewish people clearly didn’t see anything wrong in the concept. Solomon built the first temple with slaves. Paul’s letter to Philemon is written to accompany a runaway slave, Onesimus, who Paul is returning to his master without the slightest suggestion that Paul sees anything wrong with slavery. Yet we all know the story of Hannah More and William Wilberforce to convince the Church (and the nation) that slavery was wrong and should be abolished.

What changed? Clearly the scriptures hadn’t changed. Again what I believed had changed was society. It is interesting that the debate over slavery in England really only started after the Revolution in France. It was a time at which the concepts of  liberté, egalité and fraternité where starting to spread beyond France (and inspiring American independence of course). In a very real sense the fight against slavery was a consequence of the philosophy of the Enlightenment which was largely secular, if not atheist, rather than religion. The church, through Wilberforce and others, adopted those views and allowed their theology to be fashioned by them. A theological understanding of slavery was transformed in the light of changes in society.

So what can we learn from these two episodes that might help us in considering the issues that face the church today? The first thing is that decisions look very clear and obvious with the respect of hindsight. No-one in today’s church has the faintest belief that Christians need to be circumcised or obey Jewich food laws. No-one int today’s church has the faintest belief that slavery is anything but totally abhorrent. But those truths which we now accept universally where far from obvious to the Christians involved in debating the issues at the time. There was considerable resistance within the church to opening up the early church to gentiles and, even more remarkably to modern Christians, there was considerable resistance within the church to the abolitionist cause.  When we consider how the church should be interpretting God’s will for today I think we should use the imagination that God has given us to consider how the decisions we make today will be looked back on from the future. How do you think the church will look back on the current debate on same sex marriage in fifty years, in a hundred years, in a thousand years?

If you want  more recent examples think about the church’s attitudes to women in the ministry or to the re-marriage of divorced couples when you were growing up. What were your attitudes at the time? Have those attitudes changed with the passage of time? Is the church a better place for the decisions it took, in the midst of considerable internal discord, all those years ago.

I want to conclude with another angle, and that is that our understanding of God’s will is not just affected by our experiences of society as an abstract entity. They are affected by our direct experience of the individuals that comprise that society. During Jesus Galilean ministry his disciples probably never met anyone who didn’t consider themselves Jewish. In Jerusalem they would have started to meet gentiles as individuals and Paul’s ministry led him to strike up many personal relationships with gentiles. It was almost certainly the strength of those relationships and the growing appreciation of what gentiles had to offer the growing church, and of what the church had to offer the gentiles that led to the decisions of that First Council. The theology of the early church was forged through experience of personal relationships.

Similarly with  the anti-slavery movement. One of the things that characterised England in the late 18th century was the growing number of black people within society, many of whom would have been those who had escaped from slavery by some means or other. Black people were becoming very common in London with a  fashion amongst the upper classes to employ them as servants. An important part of the anti-slavery movement was that people were meeting with ex-slaves on a more and more regular basis and assumptions that blacks were different and naturally inferior were being eroded away. Through personal relationships people were able to see that slaves were human just like you or me. The theology of the anti-slavery campaign was forged, in part, through the experience of personal relationships.

I think in many ways the biggest weakness we have with the current debate about the theology of same sex marriage is that many of us within local church congregations don’t actually know that many gay or lesbian people. It’s difficult to get reliable statistics on just how many people who are homosexual  there are in Britain, but the background reading I’ve done over this week suggests that they probably comprise somewhere in the region of  5% of the population. Within this is quite an age difference so friends of our age are much less likely to be open about their homosexuality than younger people. Then of course there is the fact that traditional attitudes to homosexuality mean that many homosexuals choose to avoid the church. All in all, most of us have very little contact with people who are homosexual. This is sad because it may mean that we don’t have those experiences of personal relationships that might have the potential to influence our views. Its interesting that the Archbishop of Canterbury himself has made it clear that one of the most important influences on his thinking in this area is the quality of the relationships he has with people who are homosexual and what he has observed of the quality of the relationships that they have with their partners.

So I’d like to conclude by suggesting that, in considering the issues that our church is placing before us, our main concern in our thoughts and in our prayers should be for the people that it affects most directly. If you do know people who are openly homosexual then think and pray about them. Talk to them. What do they need, how can we best express God’s love for them – the god who created all people in his own image. If you don’t know anyone who is openly homosexual then ask yourselves how your views might be altered if you did. Use your imagination, pray for them, ask how we can make God’s love as open as possible to everyone in the modern world.

We should all ask ourselves if our personal beliefs do need to change in the light of changes in our society.

Amen

Afterwards we sang the hymn Come all who look to Christ today which seemed to resonate with the theme of my sermon even more than I’d recognised when choosing it two days earlier.

Resurrection and The Resurrection

This is a sermon I felt called to preach on 25th May 2014 in which I explore what I mean and believe about resurrection. It refers to 1 Corinthians 15:35-44 which was read earlier in the service.

This is the last but one Sunday in the Easter season and I’d like to use it to talk about resurrection. For some reason I’ve spent much more time thinking about resurrection this Easter than I’ve done for some time. I think the main stimulus for this has been reading Graeme Smith’s book “Was the tomb empty”. I’ve become a bit of a Graeme Smith groupie, I went to his book launch, I’ve read his book in a couple of days and I made a special effort to get to the evening worship he contributed to here a couple of weeks ago. I’d like to publicly thank him for stirring my thought processes and I really would encourage everyone to read the book. You might not believe it for a book on biblical scholarship but it is a remarkable good read.

So why six weeks after Easter do I want to re-visit the concept of resurrection? Well I think it’s in reaction to those events earlier this year. In parts of his book, and particularly in the evening worship he led, Graeme assumed that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus must be a cornerstone of any Christian’s faith. It isn’t a cornerstone of my faith, and I’d like to explain why.

Why do I want to provide this explanation? Well I want to provide it for three different reasons for three different groups of people.

I know, from conversation that I’ve had in the past, that several people in the congregation fall into the first group and I suspect that there may be others. They are people who have difficulty accepting the more supernatural aspects of the Christian story. The resurrection of Jesus is perhaps the most supernatural aspect of that story and the most difficult for them to believe. In some cases they can have a real struggle to reconcile their personal world view with the viewpoint that the church often appears to demand. I’m preaching to them to give reassurance that there are a multitude of ways of coming into a relationship with Jesus as saviour and that there is a place for them, as for me, in today’s church. In my house are many rooms.

I also know from previous conversations, that there are many people within the congregation, and I suspect there are others, that fall into a second group. I have no doubt that Graeme is one of them. They are people for whom the supernatural aspects of the Christian story are essential for their faith. For most of them a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is what makes a Christian a Christian. I’m not trying to undermine their faith. Nothing I say this morning is intended in any way to suggest that they are wrong. What I am hoping is that, by the end of this morning, they will have a deeper understanding of, and respect for, the views of some others who are sitting among them this morning. Whenever I listen to others talk about their faith, my faith grows. Generally speaking, the more different is the faith I hear talked of, the deeper my personal growth. I hope I can offer you that opportunity this morning. In my house are many rooms.

The third group who I want to preach to are not here at all. They are the large section of British public who have been educated to respect the laws of science and be extremely dubious of any talk of the supernatural. My children are part of this group, yours maybe as well, or your grand-children, or your spouse. In a very real sense they cannot believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. If we insist that this is a pre-requisite to being a Christian then they will never be one. They will never be able to make even the first step towards a personal relationship with Jesus as saviour. They will be excluded from the love of God. If we want the church to grow in the modern western world then we need to preach a gospel that makes sense to the people who live in that world. It is to them that I really want to preach this morning – unfortunately they have already left.

So what is the problem? It’s the level of evidence. Graeme lays this out very well in his book. In essence this is what the book is, a presentation of the evidence. He claims, on the cover, that he is doing this objectively and dispassionately as a judge would. How good a job he does of this you’ll have to decide for yourself after reading and it. I find the level of evidence really interesting. If you are already a Christian and accept the gospel accounts as essentially, even if not literally, true, then the evidence is convincing. If, however, you are a non-Christian who sees no particular reason to accept the Bible as any more likely to be true than any other book written at the time, or if you are a Christian who accepts the questions raised by the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship, then the evidence is very far from convincing. For these two groups it is just not possible to take a belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus as a starting point. If we want to encourage members of these latter tow groups into a deeper relationship with Jesus then we need a differnt approach.

The book I’ve found most helpful in this regard is called “True Resurrection“. It was written by an Anglican priest called Harry Williams who was the chaplain of one of the Cambridge colleges for many years but later moved to a secluded religious community. In his book he makes a distinction between Resurrection and The Resurrection. The Resurrection is whatever happened to Jesus – the historical event. Resurrection is the religious truth at the heart of Christianity. It is the belief that life triumphs over death. Most importantly it is a truth that is not confied to a remote period in history but something that we experience in our lives today on an ongoing basis. He sees Resurrection and The Resurrection  as separate but linked, it’s a viewpoint that I find really helpful. Rather than trying too hard to talk about this theologically let me give you some examples.

Two weeks ago Christan told us about the work of the Message Trust. They work with young ex-offenders. Young people, often from difficult backgrounds, who have got caught in a cycle of hopelessness, done something reckless and ended up in trouble with the police. The Message is offering them hope. It’s inviting them to a new faith, new experiences of worship, new opportunities for training and employment. Several of you have been to the Mess, their cafe, to see what they are up to. They are doing what their slogan says transforming lives. That to me, is resurrection.

Those of us who went along to John’s film night earlier in this month watched Freedom Writers. It is a based on the true story of a group of young people who attended school in Long Beach, California. They locality was, and still is, riven with gang culture, gun violence and death. The young people are part of this, their lives are conditioned by their locality and there seems no escape. A visionary young teacher, Erin, comes to the school and refuses to admit the inevitablility of death, both real and metaphorical, for her class.  The whole film is a record of the new life she brings. That, to me, is resurrection.

Williams goes further however. Resurrection isn’t merely about restoring life as it was. If we beleive that Jesus resurrection was merely a resuscitation of a dead body then we’ve missed the point. Jesus life was not just restored by the resurrection it was transformed. Williams quotes the passage we’ve heard this morning from Corinthians. Paul says different things about the resurrection but in this, probabliest his earliest mention of the subject, his focus is on a transformative process not just a restorative one:

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable;  it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.

Williams explores the consequences of this. If we are to be transformed then we have to let that part of us that is going to be transformed die. You cannot have new life without first experiencing death. Resurrection isn’t just a belief that life triumphs over death it is a belief that it is sometimes essential to die in order to experience life in all its fullness. Just as Jesus’ death was something he had to go through to experience resurrection, so throughout life we often need to allow things to die in order to discover new life.

We can see this in a sub-plot of  Freedom Writers. Erin’s success affects the relationship with her young husband, Steven who  has failed in his own earlier career aspirations and stuggles with the way that Erin’s devotion to her profession takes over her life. Erin is faced with a choice between the passion and vitality of what she is achieving with her students and the love she has for her husband. Erin realises that, in order to live the life she seems to have been born for, she will have to allow her relationship with her husband to die. Her marriage does die, she descends into the hell of this broken relationship, but that death is not the end. She emerges from the pain she has born better suited than ever to offer hope and new life to her class. That, to me, is resurrection.

When you start looking, you can see resurrection all around you. You can see it in the nearly trivial. How many of us have allowed a grudge to die and found an old relationship has been re-born. You can see it in the sorts of situations I’ve already talked about. You can see it in the great stories of our time. What is the story of Nelson Mandela if it is not a story of resurrection? What about the Malala Yousafzai the Afghan girl who was shot by the Taliban and spent her 16th birthday addressing the Secretary General of the United Nations last year? What about Stephen Sutton the 19 year old boy who raised 4 million pounds to enhance the care of other teenagers with cancer before his death? What about Sally’s place? All of this, to me, is resurrection.

The proof of resurrection is all around us. It gives my life hope and purpose. My faith isn’t grounded in the experiences of other people   shouded in the mists of time, it is founded in my lived experience today. So it is that, without sharing Graeme’s conviction that the Biblical evidence for the resurrection is sufficient to satisfy a court of law,  I can still join with him, and with all of you, whatever your beliefs, and proclaim this morning – Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.