Sunday, 9 February 2020

Religious leaders can be wrong

Isaiah 58: 1-12, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Matthew 5:13-20

Our three readings this morning, Isaiah, Corinthians and Matthew have I think something in common. Each of them is critical of religious leaders. Isaiah, robustly, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!”  How is it he says, that day after day my people seek me and delight to know my ways, fasting overtly in sackcloth and ashes, yet have misunderstood?  How do you not see that I want you to fight injustice with effectiveness, to look after the poor and the hungry, find shelter for the homeless?

Paul writing to the church in Corinth criticises them for their worldliness; your faith is not to rest on worldly wisdom, he says, but on the power of God. “I did not come to you proclaiming the mystery of God to you in words of lofty wisdom.” No I came in weakness, fear and trembling relying only on the life and death of Jesus Christ. “We speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden.”

An idea amplified by Jesus teaching the disciples: Look he says, through what I am teaching you, you are the light of the world, do not, now your lamp is lit, hide it. No, put it on a lampstand where all can see it. And do not misunderstand, I have not come to abolish the law or previous understanding but to build upon it and to fulfill. Your righteousness, your good works must exceed those of the scribes and the pharisees, the religious leaders of the time.

The people of Israel and their leaders were wrong, those expecting to find God through Greek, logic, rhetoric and philosophies were wrong, the disciples had misunderstood and we know they will continue to misunderstand, they were so frequently wrong and so we might not be so surprised that Bishops can be wrong.

The mind of God is troublesome to discover.

As Paul reminds us, what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart conceived - this is what God has prepared for those who love him. Humans he tells us, know human things.

Well, actually, I know only very imperfectly what I think I know. I say imperfectly because my mind has changed in more than sixty years and I am not ready to stable it away yet, hoping that it remains open to run with new ideas. Maybe they will come from good arguments, from my mind’s  own energies but hopefully mostly by the work of the Holy Spirit.

The house of Bishops got itself in hot water last week, and a number of people mentioned it to me, many more mentioned it to them and so they came with an apology. The pity of it is, that the statement was unnecessary, it simply reaffirmed the views expressed before. So where are we?  A while ago the Bishops committed to prepare a teaching document called “Living in Love and Faith” which is now to be presented to the Lambeth Conference in July. I expect that General Synod may debate it after that.

The mind of God is troublesome to discover.

So: we wait and see, and pray that this report or range of resources will in Paul’s words speak God’s wisdom secret and hidden, that  in Isaiah’s words the ruins will be rebuilt and that in Jesus’ words “our light may shine before others.”


Happy is the person who reads the Psalms

Psalm 1

As always it depends on the translation you use whether the first word of the first Psalm is blessed or happy. Either way it seems significant to me that a worship song book begins in this way. The NRSV has “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.” which is not so poetic as Coverdale’s “Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly” but I would like to keep hold of the word “happy” as we look more closely at this piece. The Psalm contrasts the Godly in its first half with the ungodly in the second. Notice that the beginning talks about not walking in the counsel of the ungodly nor standing in the way of sinners. This is not about the unhappiness of sinning (this comes later) but about avoiding the lure of the siren voices, it is saying something about not exposing ourselves to the word or images of temptation. Rather, as verse two goes on to say, instead we should take delight in the law of the Lord and in meditating or musing on it day and night. Some translations use the term Torah of the Lord and this is helpful in directing our thoughts for we know the Torah was seen as guidance from the creator on the meaning of creation; it was to be studied and the point made is that life is lived fully if we can discover its meaning. Important then that this is told us in the first Psalm; it is like a preface to a modern book it is telling us why we should read on, why we should read the Psalter. Verse three explains that we who do read the Psalms, we who study God’s word shall be like a tree transplanted to flowing and healthful streams, we will flourish and our leaves will not wither an image of constant freshness. This is not eschatalogical, the Psalm is not speaking of the eternal promise of heaven and the after life but of now: this healthy, happy and hopeful state is now, it is a result of our meditating not a distant reward to be waited for. Happy is the man who reads the Psalms.

By contrast in verse five we see that this shall not be so for the ungodly who seek  not deep understanding  but temporal things. The winnower throws the scythed wheat into the air and while the heavier grain falls to the ground the lighter frivolous chaff flies away in the wind. The image not only forecasts the impermanence of the ways of the wicked but underlines the lightness and the scanty substance of these things. Again this is not about the afterlife, although it may apply. The way of the ungodly shall perish not as a punishment but as a result.

Now I am sure that this evening I am preaching to the choir, that you have worked out the truer values the things that make you happy such as praying, coming to church being generous and kind, taking lessons from God’s creation and a long list of others  but to remind you this is Psalm one. This is all important for here at the beginning of the Psalter is a sort of evangelism that exhorts us not to be swerved by the words of the wicked, not to be scornful, not even to place ourselves within earshot of the temptation but by doing the right things to be delighted and happy - here and now. Think of that, not scripture that some see as saying follow these rules of denial and you will be blessed and the same scoffers say “can you be sure?”  but a message that says this is the way and if you follow it you will discover blessing and happiness in your lives,. This is  a message we should take joy in sharing with those who seem not to have discovered it yet.


Tuesday, 4 February 2020

On the steps of the Temple

Luke 2:22- 39

There is a moment at the end of this passage from Luke’s Gospel which I would like to draw. I imagine Mary and Joseph with the 40 day old baby Jesus standing at the top of the Temple steps looking at one another and in that exchanged look we see an audible, palpable long sigh of relief. I need an artist to encapsulate that instant somehow in that crucible of vision everything must melt:  “We’ve done it, we can go home now, back to our own town of Nazareth.”

From the instant of the angel Gabriel their lives have been shaken up. An angel after all, do not tell me that it was not terrifying. Looking past those renaissance pictures of Mary in blue, meek and mild, sitting comfortably and accepting lilies, imagine the suddenness, those huge wings, the news, planning to tell Joseph, telling Joseph, the pregnancy, the visit to Elizabeth, her reaction, the awe of it all. Then travel to the chaos of Bethlehem, more pregnancy, a birth shepherds, angels again, wise men, fear threats, doubts. And even now a strange man who has been waiting, waiting for Him,  and who taking a close intrusive look at her new born less than seven weeks old prophesies about him, only partly reassuringly and more mysteriously in words of swords that will pierce Mary’s heart and soul.

Now they are on the steps setting out, a poor family just managing the Temple offering of two pigeons, on the top step about to walk down. Can we capture that moment?

It is a little like looking at your eldest son or daughter as you leave them in their college or hall of residence room. There has been a flurry beforehand, the anxiety of the forthcoming exams, the cramming (or not), then the  exams, the waiting for the results, the gathering of the possessions, the books the music the kitchen utensils, the clothes drier (there is always a clothes drier it seems) and a long drive somewhere to a registration and some confusion of where to go - and then a moment when you leave and they stay - and you go back to your own home and something has changed - they have become a proper student and you have a boy or girl at college.

Mary and Joseph have become proper parents now - they have come full circle. Jesus was given to them by God and they have been to the temple this morning and dedicated him (back) to God they have done everything customary.  And this is the important point - up until now Luke has strained everything in his account to relate the divinity of this child we are in no doubt that he is come of God. Gabriel said:

“Do not be afraid Mary, and now you will conceive in your womb - he will be great and will be called, The son of the most high, he will reign over the house of Jacob and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

But now we are assured of Jesus’ humanity. It is a liminal moment - literally, on the threshold, Mary and Joseph leave the Temple portico to start to be with their baby, to take him home, to enjoy him, to teach him, to be together. We do not know anything of their time in Nazareth, which seems to me to be both helpful and essential to our understanding of Jesus as a man. We need these years of calm, of ordinariness for we need to deeply see that Jesus has come to be one of us.

So come with me, with Mary and Joseph, to their home, away from the pressure, the fervour and the noise  and let us exchange a glance there towards the altar that says “Yes we have come to your house, to know you, to be with you, to know that you are God but as well that you are with us and in us just as you were there in the home of Mary and Joseph.”


Thursday, 30 January 2020

What we share

I was thinking of telling a jolly story about Patrick and a ginger cat and then I read Paul’s well known letter to the Corinthians and I changed my mind - well I suppose Paul was always about changing minds.

“I appeal to you brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you  but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

So I rethought, reflecting on the past year and our various divisions and decided to save the jolly ginger cat for another day.

What Paul does not say is how easy it is to make divisions and revel in them. There is nothing easier than to decide to fall out with someone or these days often a group of people (by gender, by religion, by race, by wealth, by fondness for the Europeans or any other stereotype you can think of.) and then to needle away at it with or without purpose. Think of those separated or divorced who can find fault with past partners at the drop of a hat. My old friend Lisa for example discovered in the petition for divorce that she had never folded Alan’s shirts well enough. Oh it is easy to pick a quarrel with Apollos or Cephas and side with the other man; it is easy even in churches to point up differences: “they won’t accept women priests”, “they are very high”, “they have too many candles” , “their sermons are too long”   and so on.

What is difficult in our modern culture which thrives on news of conflicting opinion (Europhile, Eurosceptic, for Harry and Meghan, against Harry and Meghan,  ) - yes you see if on the Today programme you begin your answer with “I agree” then the next word from Sarah  Montague will be “but” as she probes for a fissure into which she may poke her bodkin.  What is difficult is to attune ourselves to what we have in common, what we share with the other. For example when walking from Overy hard to the beach we meet many people, we know nothing about some of them, are they day-trippers, longer term vacationers in holiday cottages, second home owners, common right holders, guests at the Hoste, residents we simply have not met before? None of these apparent classifications or demarcations matter, it does not matter whether we are for Apollos, Cephas or Paul it matters that we have in common walking on the bank, enjoying the features of the day, landscape, bird life, tides, marshland - this is the basis of our relationship.

I am afraid that in the coming months what is to come is  a period of talked up divisions: the UK and Europe, Scotland and independence, trade deals, good and bad, and we may need the words of Paul to remind us that we are all to live together “in agreement, that there be no divisions among you, that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Back to ginger cats though - another ginger not the one I had first in mind but Henry who lives in the rectory may have something to teach us. He lives with Nina and Rosie, they curl up together, sharing the carpet, the bed, the garden, biscuits they sometimes guard the entrance all three with shared purpose - well if a cat and dogs can do it ...................


Monday, 20 January 2020

Unshakeable Conviction Isaiah 49:1

Could you resist preaching on a passage which begins “Listen to me O you coastlands?” Well of course not, for here we are on this most beautiful of coasts able every day to see the sea, the marshes, the birds, the geese, the sand the tides, the tussocks and to be blessed with it all. Isaiah is an extraordinary prophet known for his grand imagery, use of poetic language and the the musicality of his writing - this passage from Isaiah 49 is known as one of the five Servant songs - not that there is any suggestion that this or other parts of the writings were ever sung  but the writing of these five is distinctive and especially lyrical. But as well as these things a chief characteristic of Isaiah is his unshakeable certainty.  He wants to communicate that above all, whatever has happened to the people of Israel who were beginning to believe that God, had abandoned them, that he was certain that this was  not so.

We find ourselves in a world where the Babylonians who had taken the people of Jerusalem into captivity and exile are the world power but are about to collapse and fall to the emerging Persian empire under the leadership of Cyrus. One great empire is about to fall before another ; Cyrus will in time create an administrative system that will last a thousand years and was unusually tolerant of the customs and religions of his conquered peoples and will indeed allow the Israelites to return to rebuild the temple. But we have not got there yet and right now Isaiah is writing to the second generation of exiles who are losing heart are becoming inured to the Babylonian way of life and need to be propelled back to their mission.

There is a question as to who is speaking for Isaiah does not make it explicit he says only  “The Lord called me before I was born” but for me at least and for many Christians this prophecy is about Jesus Christ  - even before the formation of the worlds Jesus was formed for the task of proclaiming, redeeming and saving. Like a sharp sword he was always ready , with powerful words, but as we know He will be rejected and despised by those who received him as John says in the opening of his Gospel:  “He was in the world yet the world did not know him - and his own people did not accept him”. As Isaiah foretells:  “I have laboured in vain. I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” But again following this lament of despair and failure Isaiah’s unshakeable confidence bursts through - “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord and my reward with God.”

“Listen to me you all you peoples far away” this summons in contrast to those previously in earlier chapters is not directed just at the house of Jacob but to the whole world - the message is to be proclaimed to everyone even to us, who live on the very edge of the land.

In some ways this is surprising, after all the jerusalem and the tribes of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and now were to be subject to the Persians; It is if the refugee Syrians of today set about a mission to bring their beliefs to all those who have overrun their country and sent them is a modern diaspora. Yet here is exactly what the Lord commands - the geat commission of the Old Testament:

“O it is too light a thing that you should talk only to Israel, I will give you (my servant) as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.””

Isaiah talking to the tired and forlorn, discouraged exiles in Babylon reminds them of what their mission is - to proclaim the Lord everywhere to everybody, friend and enemy alike  - he foresees the coming of the suffering servant and importantly for us in these days of empires clashing with empires, of a world with more than 65 million refugees , where our stewardship of the earth is questioned, Christains are persecuted and the churches less attended, he reminds us to be unshakeable, that even though we may not be believed it does not diminish our faith or its truth.


Choosing Words

Ezekiel Chapter Two

He said to me “O mortal stand up on your feet and I will speak to you and I heard the Lord speaking to me.”
“You shall say to them. Thus says the Lord God.
Whether they hear or refuse to hear do not be afraid of their words But you mortal hear what I say to you”.
And actually there are a few more says and hears and speaks in this short passage before the dramatic conclusion where Ezekiel in his vision eats the scroll.

Language is important - the words we choose are rarely neutral. Their accidental misuse or deliberate bias causes me to rant at the wireless and television - take this from Look East this week: “The chief executive of the Norfolk and Suffolk healthcare trust  admits there is more work to do.” You see how loaded that is, they admit and immediately we hear suggestions of guilt, culpability, something confessional, but it need to have been so: I hope the chief executive does think there is work to do, otherwise why are they there? Surely the chief executive SAID there is work to do.

But I am  not alone in ranting about language, this week in a  Church Times piece a contributor was if not ranting then at least lamenting the falling away of the general familiarity with Shakespeare, the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer. The imagery of these books through their language once so familiar to the English could be used even in conversation to make a point powerfully, dipping into allusions that were ingrained in all. Now I am not sure that they are entirely right about that for we all have our favourites: 

From Shakespeare, for example I am likely to respond to an injury with Mercutio’s line “Marry tis not so wide as a barn door but twill suffice”
Or on my way to bed from the Bible with “Sufficient unto the day the evil thereof”
And of course there are many beautiful phrases from the Book of Common Prayer:
“We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.”

Phrases beautifully constructed where their authors have laboured over the choice of every word - think of the Eucharistic prayer that Cranmer created where his object was to be poetic, prayerful, profound, precise and to express protestantism.
So this sermon was moving towards being an empathic if curmudgeonly agreement with  the CHurch Times BUT this week I went to Wells Primary school to sit on a lesson planning meeting with six English teachers (by which I intend teachers of English) and I emerged excited and buoyed up by Beowulf.

Yes one of the plans was to rediscover this oldest of the freat long poems in English, possibly completed in the eighth century. They were not going to use the Olde English but two modern versions remodelled for the young by Michael Murpogo and our own Kevin Crossley-Holland. These versions are individual, they begin the story in a different setting yet as you would expect from these and especially in reconnecting with a classic each word is chosen with care, for its nuance and all the richness of its meaning.

It seems to me that this present generation is slightly sidetracked by speed of response - an immediate tweet, a quick e-mail, a phone call a vox pop to the interviewer and we have lost the art of taking just a little longer to pace the right word.

But firstly I am encouraged that the next with a return to literature and perhaps a boredom with the rapid will be better equipped and secondly I think of God preparing Ezekiel to go to the house of Israel - God gave him the nourishment of a whole scroll to inform the things he wold say. Let us continue to read the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer (and Shakespeare) so we may imbibe the language and make it our reflex to choose carefully and powerfully.


Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Crossing the Jordan

Here is the beginning of a new history, after 40 years, a generation of wandering in the wilderness the Israelites are to cross into the promised land. Moses is dead, the covenant has been renewed and Joshua appointed to lead in his place. The book of Joshua begins “The Lord spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ assistant saying “My servant Moses is dead, now prepare to cross the Jordan you and all this people into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. This is the land promised to Abraham and his descendants in the book of Genesis. In between the Israelites have received the Law, they know that what they must do first and foremost is to place their trust unequivocally in God. “They came to the Jordan and camped there (before crossing).

There is something about being on one side of a river especially when it is a boundary. I remember the thrill of crossing the Tamar into Cornwall. So many times I have made this journey and always there was a moment of elation, of joy that Cornwall had been reached - it was a long way from the deep countryside of Kent, that for a little while the way of life would be different, something new was beginning. The boundary was tangible and visible.

Now near Jericho the Jordan in Spring overflows its banks and in places is more than a mile wide and treacherous to cross. How to do it? The people followed Joshua not knowing how but with great faith. The ark of the covenant was the most sacred of the tabernacle furnishings and symbolises the throne of of the Lord. So in the account the Lord himself went ahead of his people, as he led them to the land of Canaan. The significance of this cannot be overestimated for the manner of crossing will bring assurance to the nations, that the one true God is with them and that he will surely dislodge the present inhabitants of Canaan. Those on the other side of the river worship Baal, thought by them to be the most powerful of their Gods for he triumphed over the sea-god. By opening the waters of the Jordan, for us a reprise of the parting of the Red Sea, God shows that he is Lord of the waters, just as he was Lord of of the flood and of course of creation (the spirit of God hovered over the waters) Such clear power over water will strike fear in the Canaanites and boost the confidence of the tribes of Israel. Notice too that the ark remains in the river bed until all have crossed. It is through the Lord that the people reach the promised land, they came through the Jordan by his power.

Paul in his letter to the Hebrews begins by reminding his readers of God’s permanence.
“In the beginning Lord you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands, they will perish but you remain: you are the same.”

God’s promises are everlasting, they can be relied on in ways unknown for the promises of man. No matter what the circumstances, God will fulfil them - so the priests after three days on the edge, looking at the waters, without bridge to cross follow Joshua’s instructions and dip their feet in the edge of the water .

Imagine that - the promised land (think of my Cornwall maybe) waited for, for so so long and it comes down to dipping your toes in the water and trusting.