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?”