Friday, 24 June 2016

on freedom from things that try to control us

Trinity 5 | Year Compared
Galatians 5.1,13-25

The letters of St Paul the Apostle, which appear towards the end of the Bible, are full of advice on how to be a Christian. These 'epistles' were written for the early Christians who were part of the very first churches, many of which St Paul himself set up. In them he sets out what it means to live a Christian life as well as how to be a church together.

These brand new churches sometimes got it badly wrong in trying to figure out how to put their faith in Jesus Christ into practice. Paul wrote his letters to help steer them back onto the right track, and they are full of helpful teaching and pointers for us today.

One of Paul's very first letters was to the churches in Galatia, small Christian communities scattered across an area that today is part of Turkey. What prompted this letter was that Paul felt they had already drifted from the truth of the gospel, and were spending too much time squabbling over the question of how Jewish you needed to be as a practicing Christian. (Remember that Jesus and his twelve disciples were Jewish but, as the faith spread, many non-Jewish people starting to become believers. So it all got a bit complicated).

This letter is remarkably bad-tempered, and Paul gets into a real strop in places. "You stupid Galatians," he tells them at one point (Galatians 3.1).

Towards the end of the letter, from where today's reading comes, he seems to calm down a bit and writes very practically about how to be a Christian and in particular what it means to enjoy freedom in Christ.

This idea of Christian freedom, like so much of the way of Jesus, has a strange kind of upside down feel to it. We might be used to thinking about freedom as meaning we are uninhibited and can do what we like. Paul explains that the spiritual freedom which Jesus offers doesn't work like this. Doing whatever we feel like, whenever we want, turns out not be very freeing at all. Paul calls it a kind of slavery, because we become trapped by our desires, compulsions and obsessions, and our behaviour can lead to a breakdown in our relationships with others.

The constant craving to find fulfilment is never satisfied when we think only about ourselves. As Christians our fulfilment comes from God, through Jesus Christ, but when we free ourselves from the tyranny of self-centredness to live for God and for the good of those around us. Or as Paul puts it, "The only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Galatians 5.6).

When we choose to live God's way we discover a new freedom that liberates us from being trapped by our old habits and obsessions, as they give way to a life that bears the fruit of God's Spirit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (v22-23)

Fr John Woolley, in his beautiful devotional book I Am With You, envisions Jesus saying to us:

If you earnestly wish to leave old ways behind I lift you above them! You can take My hand and step out into the realm of freedom … where I am fully in control, and in which there is great blessing for you.

Where in your life could you use more of that? Which of the qualities of a spirit-filled life would you like to be more present in you? As we strengthen our walk with God through prayer and discipleship, these things gradually become more a part of who we are. As our faith and understanding mature, it becomes easier to see where we can show the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives. When we become more prayerful, more open to God's presence in us, more generous in meeting the needs of others, we get to enjoy a taste of all the good things that the kingdom of heaven has to offer. Heaven comes to us here.


It doesn't seem like a difficult choice, and yet we all know how life gets in the way. In today's gospel reading (Luke 9.51-62) Jesus' generous invitation "follow me", an invitation to experience the kingdom of heaven here and now, falls by the wayside for those who are too caught up in their lives to recognise a good thing when they hear it.

What are the excuses we make to that invitation? When Jesus says to you "follow me" and offers you a way to break free from the slavery of those things that try to control you, what do you say?

Paul says:
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (v13-14)

In trying to arbitrate the squabbles that were tearing the church in Galatia apart, Paul tells them that continuing with the old rituals of the Jewish faith is not what matters. It is in the way we behave and whether we choose to live by the Spirit of God that counts.
Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let is also be guided by the Spirit. (v25)

The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

when words are not enough (and sometimes too much)

This has been a heartbreaking week.

We're used to hearing the media report terrible incidents, but I don't remember a week where so many different bad events took place in the course of seven days.

And I don't know what to say.

I've been glued to news websites and social media all week. In one sense I feel I have nothing new to add to the endless articles and posts that have analysed and commented on this week's terrible events. And there is also a part of me that doesn't even want to try and construct a narrative, to say something that tritely and tidily wraps up this week's stories.

Which is strange, because the one thing I'm clear about is that they are all related.

Instead of writing a sermon I have collated pieces of writing and prayers that others have written about three events —the shootings in Orlando, Florida, the murder of MP Jo Cox, and the dismal depths of the debate about the EU referendum.

The first tragedy we heard about last Sunday after we got home from church. A gunman had walked into an LGBT nightclub in Orlando and shot dead 49 people and injured many more, because he couldn't stand the sight of two men kissing. It was America's biggest singlehanded gun massacre.

'Archbishop Cranmer' a pseudonymous blogger wrote the following response:

An Orlando shooting in which 50 blissful LGBT people were murdered in cold blood. Politicians have tweeted their horror, and the entire civilised world is appalled. There is no apparent end to the column inches and broadcast hours which are being dedicated to analysis of the tragedy. And there is no end to the judgmental agenda-pushing, cause-appropriating, blame-apportioning, score-settling, guilt-inducing commentary. Some target society’s homophobic attitudes, some Islamist terrorism, and some Islam’s view of gays. Others focus on America’s corrosive gun culture, others on partisan delinquencies, and still others on those heartless Christians who seek to uphold the sanctity of holy matrimony. Thousands are offering up a prayer for Orlando, while some tweet their scorn at the futility of those prayers. Even enlightened atheist-secularists can grind an axe in the blood of suffering.

Jesus just weeps with those who weep. He doesn’t only weep with those who consider themselves a touch righteous or morally upright, or with those whose behaviour meets certain standards of chaste perfection. He doesn’t only weep with Christian heterosexuals who live each day by grace, or with repentant LGBT people who have earned his mercy. He weeps with those who weep, and mourns with those who mourn. There are no conditions on his compassion, and no limits to his love.

You can read his full piece here:

My colleague Fr. Simon Rundell wrote the prayer below in response to the shootings:

Jesus, friend to the scapegoat and the victim,
you were always found with those who others hurt and despised.
Stand now with those LGBTI communities who live in fear, suffer violence, and face exclusion.
Come now to challenge human prejudice and restore human dignity.
Strengthen us now, that we would not turn away from anyone who bears the image of God.

While we were still coming to terms with the consequences of one man's inability to cope with those from whom he believed himself both different and better, Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, saw fit to unveil a new campaign poster which drew directly in sentiment and imagery from the Nazi's anti-Semitic propaganda in the 1930s.

This was a new low in the referendum campaign, which admittedly didn't have that far to fall given how dismal the debate has been so far. Both sides have used fear as their main campaign tactic, issuing threat and counter-threat, assertion and denial —as well as peddling barefaced lies.

What has been largely missing in the debate is anything rooted in vision or hope. One of those who stepped into this vacuum was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who has written that our vision for the future of Britain "cannot be only about ourselves."

At the heart of Britain’s Christian heritage are certain glorious principles. They are what make the best of our nation, whether we are Christians, of another faith or of no faith. They come from Jesus’ teaching, especially in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.

Among those principles are a vision of peace and reconciliation, to being builders of bridges, not barriers. We demonstrated it in the years after 1945. The vision of the founders of the European Union was also peace and reconciliation... Peace and reconciliation exist in Western Europe today. It is the greatest cause for thankfulness that we can imagine. It is a blessing to be shared with the whole world.

The principles Jesus taught and which have so shaped us also include love for the poor, the alien and the stranger. The EU came together in a Europe broken beyond description by war, and has shaped a continent which until recently has contributed to more human flourishing, and more social care, than at any time in European history.

Jesus taught us to love our neighbour, and when questioned about what that meant gave the extraordinary story of the Good Samaritan. In that story the one who turns out to be a neighbour is the one who shows respect, mercy and love to the stranger, even to an enemy.

[He goes on to write about the role Britain played in liberating Europe from the tyranny of fascism, before continuing with:]

Sacrifice, generosity, vision beyond self-interest, suffering for others, helping the helpless, these are some of the deeply Christian principles that have shaped us. They are principles that show us at our best, as an example to other countries, as a home of freedom and democracy, as a beacon of hope that shines around a dark world. They are forward looking virtues. Those who fought in two world wars were not looking back but forward. Those who built the EU after the two wars, in which millions of Europeans had died, looked forward.

The vision for our future cannot be only about ourselves. We are most human when we exist for others.

You can read the full article here.

The Church of England's prayer for the referendum:

God of truth,
give us grace to debate the issues in this referendum
with honesty and openness.
Give generosity to those who seek to form opinion
and discernment to those who vote,
that our nation may prosper
and that with all the peoples of Europe
we may work for peace and the common good;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

The heartache continued on Thursday. In West Yorkshire Jo Cox, a new MP, former aid worker with Oxfam, with a passion for helping the most disadvantaged including Syrian refugees, was shot and stabbed as she prepared for a surgery with her constituents. She died from her injuries. Her attacker is said to have shouted, "Britain First" or "Put Britain First." Jo was married and the mother of two young children.

Is this the outcome of all the toxic language and arguments that have been used during the EU referendum debate? A man charged with her murder appeared in court yesterday and gave his name as "Death to traitors, freedom to Britain."

The words we use shape other people's minds. As one commentator put it:

If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen.

Our words matter. But today's politics and press is geared towards toying with people's fears. We are being emotionally manipulated by those who stand to gain from getting our votes, or our readership for their newspaper.

What do the Orlando shootings, Jo Cox's murder and UKIP's vile campaign poster have in common? Vanity, pride, ego, arrogance, hatred, distrust, scaremongering —all seeking to sow seeds of division.

Yet as Christians in the kingdom of God, we are called to unity and not division. St Paul wrote:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3.29-29 NRSV)

In the kingdom of God, Christ seeks to break down the barriers we create with others, knitting us together into one family. That line in Galatians about the offspring of Abraham alludes to the covenant that God made with Abraham, in which God promised to make Abraham the ancestor of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17.4-7). As it turned out, he also became the ancestor of the three great Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

From the start of the Hebrew scriptures in Genesis to the end of the Christian Testament in Revelation, where a multitude of people of all nations and languages are envisioned worshiping God together (Revelation 7.9), it is clear that God longs for us to unite with our brothers and sisters in spite of our differences. Not to sow seeds of division, but to work for the common good and build the unity of the kingdom of God.

But for when there are no words, or too many words, we can stand together in silent unity as we did this morning, lighting a candle as a prayer — for Jo Cox MP, for the Pulse nightclub victims, and for grace in our national politics.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

on how rash judgements backfire

I wonder if Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7.36-8.3) came to regret inviting Jesus for supper? I wonder if he wished he'd bitten his tongue, instead of opening his mouth to pass judgement on the sinful woman who pays such loving homage to the Lord? In speaking to condemn her Simon inadvertently brings judgement on himself.

Which, in fact, is almost always what happens when we are judgemental towards other people. We might think, deludedly, that we are establishing our own 'rightness' over and above another, when actually we are trumpeting to all within earshot how desperate we are to validate ourselves at the expense of others. And who hasn't, at times, wished they could wind back the clock to retract a remark they've made about somebody, knowing how badly it reflected on ourself?

In judging others we broadcast our insecurities to the world: we may be insecure about those who are different from us, with different values or standards; about those who are not part of our narrow set or in-crowd; our judgements may come from a need to scapegoat others in order to avoid confronting our own shortcomings; or a need to keep a tight grip on our pride and not let it crack; or to misdirect attention away from our own sense of shame and throw the spotlight on somebody else instead. When we make rash judgements about others we open the door to our own complicated psychology and allow others to peek at the most disordered aspects of our mind.

There is a good reason Jesus taught his disciples to avoid passing judgement on others, aside from the fact that judgement is God's work alone – which, for us, should be reason enough. But also, when we adopt the mantle of judge for ourselves, our criticisms and put downs invite others to draw conclusions about our own shortcomings; our lack of humanity, or grace, or self-insight. Judge not let ye be judged, indeed.

When the Pharisee passes harsh judgement on the sinful woman, he certainly invites judgement on himself. Jesus shines a light on Simon's failings in comparison to the woman, making it abundantly clear to Simon that he is in no position to judge.

Yet Jesus generally tends to be remarkably non-judgemental in his encounters with people in the gospels. Think about the Samaritan woman at the well; Zaccheus the tax collector; the Roman centurion with the sick slave. All of them are people of whom respectable first century Jewish society would have had plenty of derogatory things to say. Instead Jesus' ire is reserved for one particular group of people — respectable first century Jewish society. Or more specifically, the temple elite. People just like Simon in fact. Pharisees, Sadducees, high priests and scribes often tended to feel rather pleased with themselves because of their magnificent religious credentials and would look down on everyone else.

Jesus' judgement in the gospels did not play the game we play of looking down on others. It was the game itself he judged, and the self-righteous religious hypocrites who played it. That should be enough to cause any Christian pause for thought before speaking to condemn or criticise others.

Which isn't to say that the Church doesn't sometimes have a role to play in speaking out against what is wrong in the world, to be discerning about individuals or to act out of prophetic witness. But discernment about people is slower and more considered than rash judgements (often involving establishing a relationship or offering support) while prophetic witness is aimed at systems and powers which oppress and exploit. Indeed I think Jesus' conversation with Simon is actually an expression of prophetic witness about religious hypocrisy rather than an attack on Simon the man.

Christ is also our judge. Jesus' judgement is not some far off eschatological event, but a gift he offers to us here and now. It is something that becomes present to us when we spend time regularly in prayer and devotion, as these steer us towards self-reflection. When we give attention to Jesus he in turn helps us to build a picture of our true-self. This is a gift because rather than being condemnatory, Jesus judges out of mercy: out of having walked the way of humanity.

When Christ became one of us he entered fully into the human experience, as ‘one who in every respect has been tested as we are’ (Hebrews 4.15). His judgement is tempered by mercy rooted in the incarnational experience of undergoing life as we have. As our judge he is able to ‘sympathize with our weaknesses’. He judges us then, not to condemn us but to illuminate our lives and to lead us on the path of humility, where we let go of all our self-illusions and see ourselves as we truly are. And not just our failings, but our strengths and our good points as well.

This is the life of prayerful self-examination that we are called to as Christians. One where we focus on noticing the plank of wood in our own eye and working to gradually remove it over our lifetime, rather than bickering about the speck of dust we see in our neighbour's eye.

As one of the Desert Fathers put it, 'Abandon the heavy burden of self-justification, and take up the light burden of self-criticism.'

So often the judgements we make on other people are an attempt to proclaim our own self-righteousness. And yet we have no need to expend any energy or effort in justifying ourselves. We've been liberated from that by Jesus who justifies us through our faith in him. We are gloriously freed from any need to be judgemental towards ourselves or others, and simply to live in the confidence that comes from being a new creation in Jesus. As St Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

2 Corinthians 5:16-19 (GNB)
No longer, then, do we judge anyone by human standards. Even if at one time we judged Christ according to human standards, we no longer do so. Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come. All this is done by God, who through Christ changed us from enemies into his friends and gave us the task of making others his friends also.

Scriptures marked GNB are taken from the Good News Bible published by The Bible Societies/Collins © American Bible Society.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

on luke 7.11-17: the widow of nain

Jesus and his weary band of followers have been walking for over 25 miles. Let's join them and see where they are going.

It is hot and dry, and very dusty. We are all looking forward to arriving and having a long cold drink and something to eat. We can see our destination in the distance, a town called Nain, sitting on top of a rise of land. We'll be glad to get there, our aching legs already have to find the energy for one last push to climb that uphill stretch. Plus we have to walk past the burial caves that line the road here. It's a bit creepy and, given we're followers of the law of Moses, we're mindful of the ritual impurity of coming into contact with the dead. We spur ourselves on quickly, heading for the town gates. A crowd like this, not just the Rabbi Jesus and his disciples, but all these others followers too, are bound to cause a bit of a stir when we turn up in a little town like this.

But as we get closer, we begin to see there is already something of a commotion in the town. A crowd is coming out of the gates and heading our way. Let's hope there isn't going to be any trouble: they don't seem very happy. As they draw closer we begin to see why. This is a funeral procession, making its way to the burial caves with a body on a bier, carried by some of the men of the town.

Hopefully, Jesus will lead us on past this procession quickly and let us get the rest and refreshment we crave. Yet more people continue to pour out of the town gates. This is a particularly large funeral. Half the town's residents must be here. We can soon see why. The chief mourner is a woman, wearing the clothes of a widow. Not only has she lost her husband sometime in the past, but now her only son has died.

You always see a bigger crowd at the death of a young person, and there is nothing more against the natural order of things than a parent having to bury their child. And we understand she won't simply be grieving for her loss. This death is bad news for a widow who, without a husband, would be relying on her son to look after her in old age. She's bound to be wondering what will happen to her now. She may, like many widows, be reduced to begging if there are no other family members to depend on.

Come on Jesus, keep walking. Let's get to the inn where we can rest our tired bodies and slake our thirst. Oh typical. He just can't pass up an opportunity to get involved, can he? He's talking to the widow and comforting her. Honestly, these bleeding heart liberals just don't know when to stop, do they? The crowd is simmering down now, ever alert to the possibility that this wandering Rabbi could do something surprising. He's moved over to the corpse and is putting his hand on it now. Eugh! He'll have to purify himself now before he eats any supper.

Over the hushed murmuring of the people we can just make out what he is saying. "Young man, get up I tell you." He really doesn't know when to stop this Rabbi, does he? Talk about a messiah complex. Sure, he's healed some pretty sick people, but raising the dead to life? Come on.

And then...surely not? It's getting harder to see as the people all crane their necks for a better view, some even sitting on the shoulders of others. But just through a crack in the crowd we can see movement on the funeral bier. The young man is stirring, peeling off his burial shroud and sitting up. Now he's saying something, but we can't hear because the crowd has set up a cry, so astonished are they by what they are seeing.

Clearly this is no ordinary Rabbi, trailing from town to town with his band of grubby disciples. This, surely, is the work of God; this man a great prophet like Elijah. In fact, now we come to think of it, isn't there a story in our scriptures where Elijah brings the only son of a widow back to life? That 's an odd coincidence... This man Jesus must be as great as the greatest prophets of old, maybe even greater.

And now, years later, in our old age we often think back on the events of that remarkable day. Yes, it was an amazing thing to witness, but in the light of later events surrounding Jesus we have come to realise that this miracle is rich in deeper meaning.

Of how it has shaped the way Jesus' followers continue his ministry, by looking out for situations that seem hopeless or despairing and finding ways to bring new life to them. How his church has made it a special mission to seek out people who have nobody to look after them, and offer them care and support. Of the way that this episode perhaps makes us think about our own pain and grief, and the voice of Jesus, full of compassion, saying to us "do not weep", all the while knowing that he weeps with us. As the crowd gasped in awe at the glory of God seen in Jesus, his followers today must never stop being astonished or joyful at how great God is.

Lord of compassion and mercy,
you give back to us
what we fear is lost beyond recall:
may your word resound
to the limits of our grief
and life arise
in place of despair;
though Jesus Christ, to whom all is entrusted.
Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Canterbury Press 2008