Saturday, 29 August 2020

Christian leaders need be radical

 Romans 12:9-end 

It occured to me that this reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans might help us with the American election. At this week’s Republican convention one of the president’s supporters said: “This election is about whether you want Church, Work and School or Riots, Violence and Disorder. What I found interesting about this was not the extreme exaggeration or questionable truthfulness of the effect of voting for Joe Biden but the Republicans positioning themselves with the ultra conservative, solid core ideas of church, school and work when only the week before at the democratic convention their delegates had explained that a vote for them was a vote away from extreme change and a return to normal. Both candidates I believe have laid claim to Christian credentials which are aligned with …….

Well, there is the question, what should today’s Christian be modelling? Paul begins his instructions, and they are after all expressed as imperatives, with things that are easy to agree with: Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, love one another with mutual affection, rejoice in hope and more but soon the messages get harder if not hardest. Bless those who persecute you, do not curse them, if your enemies are hungry feed them.

It is worth, I suggest, remembering who Paul was at the beginning of the book of Acts: 

“Then they dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. And Saul approved of their killing him. And a few lines later to emphasis his character we read: “meanwhile, Saul still breathing threats and murder agianst the disciples of the Lord, “

What a change has been wrought in this young man. He of all people may have been the least expected to advocate nourishment, fondness and blessing for his enemies. Paul’s manifesto is completely changed and not even to  a pre-existing one. Early Roman writers commenting on the Chritians are all amazed at and praised the way they “loved one another and cared for the poor, the destitute and the widows.” Paul’s and the Christian  manifesto was changed to a radically new one unknown in Roman times. 

And surely this is what we need; it will not be enough to return to the doctrines of national self interest which have been ever present until now.  I do not want to go back to a normalcy or to a sentimental nostalgia for a past that never really existed. If we have learned anything over the past few months it is I suggest that our systems of international cooperation do not work. As a world people we have failed. 

Back to Paul: “Live in harmony with one another, do not claim to be wiser than you are, extend hospitality to strangers, do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”

Imagine, that we, and here I am talking about nation states, had been living to this agenda, how different would the last eight months have been? 

In this light the manifestos of the presidential hopefuls and certainly the manifestos of Christian leaders need to be radical.


Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Including Eunuchs Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

The verses from Isaiah that we have just heard are very few but very deep. I started by wondering “ What would be an acceptable sacrifice to God? ” and I will return to this question but first I realise that the passage is not about what but about who can offer sacrifices. Our reading as it was set in the lectionary has some verses missing. Verses 3 and 5 speak of the foreigner : “Do not let the foreigner say ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people and do not let the eunuch say ‘ I am just a dry tree ‘ For thus says the Lord to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths I will give them an everlasting name. “ I do not know why the lectionary compilers left put these verses, perhaps to avoid talking of eunuchs - which is a pity. Montesquieu gives a description of harem life explaining that ordinarily in a noble's house there would be between six and eight eunuchs whose job is to insist on obedience, order and silence in that strange world. Strange world indeed and it must have been strange for Isaiah’s audience to hear that these too will be welcomed by God and will be brought to the Holy mountain and that their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on his altar. 

Isaiah writing more than 500 years before Christ, so more than two and a half millennia ago would be shocked to discover how little progress we have made.  Only a few years ago, a Catholic couple one of who had been divorced came to be married in our Church of England church. Because of the divorce they were not allowed to take communion in their own church. I wondered if they would like a marriage with Holy Communion they were overjoyed so that is what we did. Now they were faithful parishioners coming to our services on Sunday for their own integrity - they did not need to as they qualified to be married by living in the parish - and they went to saturday evening mass with their children to maintain the connection. This carried on for a year. Listen to Isaiah again:

And the foreigners who joined themselves to the Lord

To minister to him, to love the name of the Lord

And to be his servants all who keep the sabbath

And do not profane it and hold fast my covenant

These I will bring to my holy mountain

And make them joyful in my house of prayer.

I do hope and pray that our wedding couple are still joyful.

When will we truly absorb what Isaiah is telling us? That the Lord’s house shall be a house of prayer for ALL nations and that He will yet bring home all that remain to be brought in. …. All that remain to be brought in …. Why are some people’s sacrifices not acceptab;e to some denominations or even some wings of our own churches?

What is an acceptable sacrifice to God? Isaiah and the jewish thinkers who followed and even later Paul make clear it is not about physical descent, or nationality; there is no longer Jew, or Greek, no longer slave or free there is no longer male or female or for that matter EUNUCHS -the covenant outweighs all other considerations. The acceptable sacrifice is

That we should love our God  with all our heart, with all our soul with all our mind and with all our strength. 

And when we do this we may come to the Holy Mountain and be filled with joy.



Saturday, 8 August 2020

Where do we look?

After Elijah’s extraordinary demonstration of the power of the Lord at Mount Carmel, where he set fire to his sacrifices on an altar surrounded by water simply calling on the Lord to set light to them he took all the prophets of Baal to the Wadi at Kishon and killed them there. For this reason he is fleeing for his life he is on the run from Jezebel and her forces and is hiding in a cave. Now often when we are in peril we turn to God for help  and Elijah of course does just this. But the question then will be where do we look for God and how do we find him? I went through  a phase of reading books about mountaineering not so much Chris Bonnington but storires of much earlier climbers with little more than ropes who climbed the Swiss alps, one book I recall was called Summits and Secrets and it provided insight into the climbers’ minds, their delight and awe they found in crossing glaciers, camping on ridges, and naturally on attaining summits. They were inspiring accounts and certainly a mountain would be a very good place to connect with the divine. 

So we need to imagine ourselves in shelter high up on a mountain having been told that the Lord is to pass by. Now this is a stimulating idea, how would we feel if we were told that the Lord is to pass by out there just next to St. Clements? We would surely go to see and we might be even more inclined to go if there were a mighty wind, after all God is big and all powerful so a wind so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks could seem to be exactly what we expect, but the Lord was not there. An earthquake, likewise deeply resonant, terrifying literally earth shattering but the Lord was not there nor in the flickering tongues of fire and the crackle and snap of burning woodland. And then there was the sound of sheer silence.


I doubt any of us has ever heard it - maybe Mike Tapper in his submarine lying on the ocean bottom - but even then I am not sure. It is so difficult to find total quiet, deserts are claimed to be the best - here is Gertrude Bell writing to her father during her first desert journey: “Shall I tell you my first impression, the silence. Silence and solitude fall around you like an impenetrable veil.” Usually there is always something making a noise somewhere, and in any case this silence is not an absence not arrived at by stripping away the sounds of animals, birds, insects, twigs or heartbeats but it is a presence. The Lord passed by bringing the SILENCE of the very beginning with him.  This may be more terrifying than all that went before, the earth was a formless void and the darkness covered the deep and God said “What are you doing here Elijah?” Contemplate that for a moment, that you have gone to look for Godin one of your favourite and expectant places, on the marsh in a cathedral, p a mountain and God comes in this great silence and asks:

“Steve what are you doing here?” 

John Greenleaf Whittier, an American Quaker poet born in 1807 in Massachusetts is known to us as the author of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,. We all recall the final line of the hymn referring to our passage from 1 Kings “speak to us through the earthquake wind and fire, O still small voice of calm” but in the original poem, called “The brewing of Soma” which is about priests seeking the divine there is this verse omitted from the hymn:

With that deep hush subduing all

Our words and works that drown 

The tender whisper of your call

As noiseless let thy blessing fall 

As fell thy manna down.

The Lord passes by and brings down the impenetrable veil subduing our words and works which are filling God’s silence which is there within us - and when we find this deep inner peace than we are ready to face the question:

“What are we doing here?”


Saturday, 25 July 2020

Sourdough Bread

It seems amazing that it was only a few weeks ago, well actually it was just before June the 6th, that I dropped a mustard seed of an idea in Frances’ direction. It was the smallest of seeds but as Jesus told us it grew into the greatest of shrubs and ever   since I planted it I have been a sourdough bread widower. All I suggested was that it may be fun and interesting to try to make some and ever since …..

Which brings me to the second of Jesus’ metaphors.  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” If only it were so simple: actually it seems the science of sourdough is simple but the mythology extensive. Of course we all know we need a starter with or without grapes, to American or European recipes, and that only a small amount retained from a previous dough is needed to make another starter which by the way, you treat like a small pet creature but there are questions of temperature, fridge or windowsill, of catching it at the peak of her rising, of blending with the bread flour. Never apparently to knead, oh no,  but stretching and folding every thirty minutes on the dot for uncountable hours and then allowing the whole to rise in a preferred corner of the room for a very long time and then kneeling in front of the glass door of the oven like someone from bake off watching a curious thing and waiting impatiently for it which is called the oven bounce whilst protecting the crust from blackening.  The first few loaves had holes deemed too small so researches were made into the viscosities of various mixtures. Two or three times a week Frances rose so early as to disturb even the dogs to begin this day long endeavour straining at the worktop to continue her experiments.

So I ask how is this the kingdom of heaven?

It might be that the King James’ version is easier in this instance because it says:L “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until the whole was leavened. “ So we have not yeats and doughnut leaven and leaven. The word that is translated as measure in our version comes from the Greek and three sata  is about 50 lbs of flour, a huge quantity even more than Frances used up. Also we need to take the right viewpoint - what did Jesus mean when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven?

Jesus came to us and so in himself brought the kingdom of God which is not a place but an activity, not a territory but a whole new society described and inaugurated by His coming and of course it is a society that is radically quite different from ours.  My favourite commentator Matthew Henry talking about leaven considers this yeast as the word of the Gospel working in our hearts . Only a small amount is needed, and I like to think of it as no more than a whisper which once there,  in our hearts, rises silently yet purposefully to change us, just as Frances’ sourdough starter after many hours will produce a dough that will become a beautiful bread. But, notice the story of Frances’ experience is useful, for she has been working at the process, not simply hearing the word and leaving it unattended but putting in hours of practice, adapting and refining her ways until  …..

Well I have to say I think the loaf is perfect now.


Saturday, 11 July 2020

God's Word and Joy

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 and Isaiah 55:10-13

I am presently reading a huge book of fiction where a nineteenth century Hungarian politician is introduced to us as having “an enormous mouth which seemed to have become over-developed perhaps by the tremendous number of words that were constantly emerging from it.” This made me stop to think and to wonder at our ambivalent relationship with words.  Often we dismiss them as just so much hot air  but occasionally we want to pin people down with the “but you said”  that children say and actually so do a lot of grown ups.

This morning we are contemplating our relationship not with other people’s words but with God’s word. These are of course special and singularly worthy of contemplation. Many Bibles including the one in front of me now use red ink for Jesus’ words to highlight this which means that almost all the reading which we have heard from Matthew is in red. I was struck by how using a parable to explain how words work becomes self referencing. A parable is itself a particular type of word - they do not work directly but need to be listened to, sucked on slowly like a sweet in the mouth, allowed to develop as a seed in fertile ground. This parable of the sower is about the quality of our listening. The second half of the reading uses the word “hear” five times in as many sentences. We are prompted to ask how well do we listen to God’s word, should we not listen to it more carefully and thoughtfully than to an Hungarian politician say?

But then we might ask, “How do we know what God’s word is?” Even if our ground is not paved, rocky or thorny how can we be sure that the interpretation we have made from our fertile earth is sound? It is a puzzle and archbishops, bishops and theologians use words like discernment or seeking to understand to describe it. They appointed working groups to develop the Living in Love resources that we are all waiting for (Now postponed to November by the way)
 It seems it is more difficult to discover God’s word than simply  looking for the red ink.

But let us return to Isaiah. Chapter 55 begins with an invitation, an invitation to everyone that says let everyone who thirsts come to the waters and includes the lines:

“Listen to me and eat what is good, incline your ear and come to me, listen so that you may live.”

Isaiah is so sure about God’s word : “my word that goes out of my mouth shall not return empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And what is the purpose:

“For you shall go out in joy and go out in peace, the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”

Listen carefully says Isaiah, and  I want to add that if what we discern does not meet the invitation to everyone and does not bring joy then it most likely is not the word of God we are hearing.


Saturday, 4 July 2020

Back to Church

There are many emotions in church this morning. For some it will be a joyful return, others may be perturbed by the differences that we have had to introduce, not a few will be anxious and some of you will be bringing the sadness of loss with you. During these lockdown weeks I have really enjoyed and taken advantage of the National Theatre streaming among whose notable productions were Twelfth Night, A streetcar named desire, Frankenstein and most recently Midsummer night’s dream. Although they were called National Theatre LIVE of course they were not but were recordings made in earlier seasons. A particular live theatre production is special and each one unique, created by the individual cast performance and by the audience whose reactions to and with the play form a vital ingredient of the whole experience. It has been good,  might say very good to see these plays from my armchair but it is not the same as being there.

And so this is what I feel about today ; the online services from the great cathedrals and dare I say in one case from a kitchen have not been the same as being here. There is an indefinable but nonetheless completely palpable sense of coming together, in sharing the liturgy, saying some of the words, feeling the presence of others, of being in the same space and intent on worshipping, confessing,  taking communion, praying, giving thanks, receiving blessing, looking at one another, being one body.

This particular service will not happen again and that mix of emotions that you have brought is part of what will make this a unique event, we shall not feel exactly the same again so let us keep a short quiet moment to feel the spirit and atmosphere of now.

Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel “Come to me all that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest “  is perfect for today. It always reminds me of walking up steep dry mountains in Yugoslavia as it eh was carrying backpacks and coming across the refreshing cooling steams that flow down to the beautiful blue lakes below. Which of us has not felt weary at some point, the aching tiredness brought on by the drudge of daily toil or perhaps an unwanted and unexpected burden. As ever Jesus seems to offer a paradoxical answer - already burdened he says we are to take his yoke upon us. The point is that in jewish literature the “yoke” was the total of obligations which according to the teaching of the Rabbis must be taken on to follow the law. The yoke of the Torah would have been  a well known expression and  Jesus is saying “Throw this off, take on my teaching, learn from me. How easy are my simple commandments compared with the regulation and legislation of the Pharisees - discard these ideas and learn to love your neighbour as yourself and to believe in me.

So after 100 days of closed churches, here we are welcomed back with these beautiful words. Slough off the burdens, the claustrophobia, the fatigue, the anxiety the sadness, “Come to me all of you” and find rest for your soul.


Wednesday, 1 July 2020

So what advantage ... ?

Romans 6:12-23

So what advantage did you get from things of which you are now ashamed?

Fagin, in Oliver Twist condemned to death is given a chapter in the cell as he waits for his execution.

“He had only one more night to live. It was not until the night of this last awful day that a withering sense of his helpless desperate state came in its full intensity upon his blighted soul.; not that he had ever held any defined or positive hope of mercy but that he had never been able to consider more than the dim possibility of dying so soon. He had sat there awake but dreaming. Now he started up every minute and with grasping mouth and burning skin hurried to and fro in such a paroxysm of fear and wrath that even they who waited on him recoiled from him with horror. He cowered down on his stone bed and thought of the past. “ 

Now Fagin is cruelly painted throughout the book and we cannot draw a line under nor be but horrified at Dickens’ antisemitic language which is especially strong in the early chapters but reaching the end after many hours of audio book I found myself asking exactly the question that Paul asks us this morning and at the critical moment I suppose Fagin asks himself when he thought of the past.   “So what advantage did you gain from things of which you are now ashamed?”  Was Fagin, the receiver of stolen goods, the thief and teacher of boys, the author of Nancy’s murder ever happy? I want to say no; he may have had a pride momentarily in the artful dodger and a deal of self conceit for his own imagined ingenuity and control of others but I read of no joy taken in any moment.

Reading Paul always takes us to the Damascus road for as much as any man Paul understands the transformation wrought in our lives when we understand the full meaning of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. He was if you like pulled up by his bootstraps and turned from persecution to belief. He tells us “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness but present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” He explains that if God is our master then we are informed by his teaching and our road will not be from iniquity to iniquity but from blessing to blessing and ultimately to eternal life.

We live, says Paul under grace , or we may say by grace, and grace is something free: God bestows it on us all we do not need to earn it or hoard it or steal it or teach others to steal it for us, it is not accumulated but simply given. It is by the grace of God that we are forgiven for things of  which we are now ashamed, that we wish we had not thought or said or done and who better than Paul to tell us that, Saul who ordered the stoning of Stephen and is now Paul.

There is much in biblical teaching about reaching heaven and the rewards of a good life. So with this in mind the contrast between Fagin on his stone bench in the prison a few steps from the scaffold and Paul’s conviction that he will receive the free gift of eternal life could not be greater. Let us not miss however that following Jesus is joyful - we move from blessing to blessing as we grow and learn and live so please let us see the advantage of living under grace now.