Sunday, 20 November 2016

we need to talk about donald

Christ the King

Today is the feast of Christ the King. Next Sunday, the cycle of the Church year begins again with Advent, where we wait with hope and expectation on the coming of Jesus. But today we mark the end of the journey, celebrating Christ who, in St Paul's words, ‘…God raised from the dead and seated at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come’ (Ephesians 1.20-21)

As today is the end of the church year, it is perhaps fitting to look back on the last twelve months and take stock. It has been a challenging year in many ways, and the political landscape has been markedly changed by two keys events: the referendum in which Britain chose to leave the European Union, and the election of Donald J Trump as the new President of the USA.

One of the things that links these two events is that they were the outcome of campaigns characterised by barefaced lies, xenophobia and racism. It has been said that we have entered a post-truth era where it no longer matters if what politicians say is true, just so longs as it feels like the truth their supporters want to hear.

This slippery slope is one of the outcomes of individualism — a cultural mindset where people no longer believe in anything except their own truth, experience and feelings. Experts are discarded because nobody wants to listen to someone with real knowledge or experience if it contradicts one's own personal outlook.

The trouble with this approach is that people’s personal truth, if uninformed, is not always shaped by the highest ideals or aspirations, or even by empirical fact, but by fear and anxiety.

Fear causes us to withdraw from one another, to reject those who are different from ourselves. It is the polar opposite of Jesus' command that we should love our neighbours as ourselves. But in today’s politics, people are encouraged to love themselves and hate those who are different.

Much of this is stoked by the press, who have long understood that scare-mongering sells newspapers. And many papers are no longer interested in reporting facts, but in simply selling more copies. So they tell their readers what they want to hear.

Newspapers make their money from advertisers. The more readers that buy their paper, the more they can charge businesses to place advertisements.

But last week, we saw the first brick in the wall tumble in the popular media’s hate-filled, judgemental and prejudiced view of the world. And this was no ordinary brick.

It was a Lego brick.

The makers of the popular children’s construction toy was the first company to be persuaded to stop placing adverts in the Daily Mail because of the hateful, divisive and untruthful stories that particular paper prints about migrants. (They are not the only paper to do so).

The same kind of toxic antipathy towards migrants was also to be found in the pre-election speeches of Donald Trump, which were vile in their language and sentiment about immigrants as well as many other topics.

As with many of you, it was with deep despair that I heard that Trump had won the election. He has given encouragement to racists and bigots across America, and since the election result was announced there has been a spike in hate crime and attacks on minorities by people who feel emboldened by a President-elect who they believe supports their divisive views. And we saw the same rise in hate crime after the Brexit referendum in this country, because some people felt that those who encourage tolerance and inclusion are no longer in charge.

How are we, as Christians, to respond to all this?

Firstly, let us recall St Paul’s words that when we have the Spirit of God within us, our behaviour is characterised by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23). Are these qualities found in the things we say and do? Do they inform the political decisions we make? Are they nurtured by the newspapers we choose to read, or the television shows we like to watch?

And if that long list of qualities feels daunting, why not choose just one to practice this coming week. What if, for example, we all made a conscious effort to practice kindness — in the way we talk about other people, the way we talk to other people, the way we act towards them. What sort of world might it become if each of us paused before saying or doing something and asked ourselves, ‘Is this kind?’

‘Hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When people lose the hate, they are forced to deal with the pain beneath.’ Kindness goes a long way to enabling that to happen in other people. Life is not an ‘us versus them.’ We are all God’s people. All made in the image of God. The Feast of Christ the King is a good time to recall that wonderful vision in the book of Revelation, imagining all God's people standing before the throne of Christ in heaven:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’ (Revelation 7.9-12 NRSV)

When I hear bad news, whether it is the loss of a loved one, or something bad going on in the world, I am so glad that I have a bigger picture into which I fit my understanding of what is taking place.

Things in life will always go wrong. Being a Christian doesn’t mean God magically makes all the bad stuff go away for us (although there are plenty of Christians who do think that is the point — like a kind of divine insurance policy). No, one of the gifts faith gives us is that we have something to anchor ourselves to so that we can better withstand the knocks and blows of life.

And the image of Christ the King on his throne, ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come’ is a very powerful one. Christ rules over all the earth, over all earthly rulers. His rule is eternal (Donald Trump’s is limited to eight years). He is bringing about a new creation, the kingdom of God, where all the troubles of the world will be banished.

And we have this amazing privilege and opportunity, to encounter a glimpse of this when we pray. It is in prayer that we anchor ourselves to the big picture that Jesus shows us, remembering that there is another story unfolding, not the gloom and misery and lies that you’ll find in the newspaper, but the joy and love and truth of a God who reaches out a hand to us in turbulent times and say, ‘Here, grab a hold of this.’

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

on being so heavenly minded to be of no earthly use

Year C | 3rd Sunday before Advent

Luke 20.27-38

Today's gospel reading puts me in mind of an old saying. When someone was obsessively spiritual or overly pious they were said to be 'so heavenly minded they are no earthly use.' It's not an expression Jesus used, but if it had been then I think we find in this passage the occasion on which he might have used it.

Jesus has been called upon to mediate in a religious argument. He is presented with two religious factions. In the blue corner are the Pharisees, who believe in the resurrection of the dead. In the red corner are the Sadducees who don't. They had a vested interest in resisting the idea of the dead rising to life in a new world. The Sadducees, you see, were drawn from families of the aristocracy who were major landowners and whose sons would grow up to become great high priests in the Temple. So they were powerful in both secular and religious terms. (It is perhaps not dissimilar to the Oxbridge-educated sons of the landed gentry who were fast-tracked to become deans and bishops in the Church of England until not so long ago.)

The Sadducees therefore wanted to see everything remain exactly as it was because they were doing very nicely thank you. The idea that the dead would come back to life as part of a new creation threatened their status.

Interestingly, Jesus does not come down firmly on one side of the argument or the other which may come as a surprise, as Christians very clearly do believe in the resurrection of the dead. But it isn't that Jesus doesn't believe in resurrection, he just thinks it's a subject that is too easy to get obsessed about; risking becoming so heavenly-minded to be of no earthlyp use.

Remember, the thing Jesus taught most frequently is that the kingdom of God (aka the kingdom of heaven) is at hand. Through Jesus, heaven has already broken through into the world and become available to us here and now. And he wants his followers to get stuck into the work of the kingdom ('thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven'), not to project all their thinking and energy into what happens after we die, because that is beyond comprehension. The human mind simply cannot conceive of what the after life is like, because it will be so different from the kind of life we experience on earth.

I often think of this passage when people ask me if they will be reunited with loved ones when they die. Will they see their parents and grandparents again, their husband or wife or children? What about pets? And I think the answer to that question is, 'It will be even better than that.' Whatever you imagine is the best thing eternal life can offer, whatever you hope for in the future, I think we will discover that our imaginations are too small, too limited to understand what it means to be perfected and present in the glory of God. We reduce it to the best things we can imagine, based on our experiences of life in this world. But Jesus very clearly tells us life in heaven is different.

But enough about then, what about now?—because this is essentially Jesus' point. Stop wondering about what heaven is like, or arguing about who does or doesn't get in (as too many Christians spend their time doing, cheapening grace in the process). God is not God of the dead, but of the living. It is here and now that matters. For us eternal life has already begun. We are called by Jesus to join in with the work of creating a new order which he came to inaugurate—the kingdom of God. In this realm, as we saw last week, the poor are blessed, strangers are welcomed, the hungry fed, the grieving consoled.

Jesus locates the experience of godly living and spiritual fulfilment in the present. The fullness of life that he offers comes to us by living in the moment, in the here and now. The potential to glimpse an experience of heaven—of stillness and peace and fulfilment and contentment—is not found by getting caught up in questions about the past, as the Sadducees did, or placing all our hope and expectation on the future, as the Pharisees did. The kingdom of heaven is at hand for us when we prayerfully open ourselves to God in the present moment and, in the stillness of now, encounter the God of the living.

This is the spiritual wisdom that Jesus brings to his followers. Don't get caught up in point-scoring religious arguments, instead become caught up in the love of God that is present to us right now, a love that enables us to become agents of change in the world, bringing that love to those people and situations that need to encounter it most in the world today.

Don't become so heavenly minded that you are of no earthly use.