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[sticky post] On the move!

After many years of faithful service, I'm upping sticks from livejournal and decamping to Wordpress.  I'm trying to get back into the habit of blogging and thought a fresh start elsewhere might help.  I'm also finding livejournal increasingly clunky, and not good-looking in all honesty!

I won't be shutting down my livejournal account, but there will be no new content here from now on (not that there was much content anyway!!).

Find me on Wordpress here:

http://alastairnewman.wordpress.com/

Where was the Holy Spirit on Pentecost?

Not last Sunday, but the Sunday before, the Western Church celebrated the feast of Pentecost, or Whitsun if that is what you like to call it.  On that day we recall that period in the history of the early church when God as Holy Spirit was particularly manifest to the early followers of Jesus.  In a short period of time they were transformed from a ragtag band eager to return to the safety of their fishing nets into an embryonic missional church community ready to go out and spread the news of what had happened to the man called Jesus of Nazareth, and, if necessary, to suffer and die trying.  The moment of the Holy Spirit's manifestation was, as reported in the Acts of the Apostles, accompanied with a dramatic ability to speak in foreign languages, "other tongues", allowing the followers of Jesus to tell their message to anyone who would listen, regardless of nationality or background.

We were treated to an excellent sermon that Sunday from the Reverend Lu Gale, Officer for Lay Mission and Ministry in Southwark Diocese, who has helped and supported us greatly through our interregnum.  We heard how for some God's presence as Holy Spirit manifests as exuberant, extravagant, lively praise and worship; in others humbled silence.  "Some the Holy Spirit bucks up; others the Holy Spirit shuts up!", as our preacher was informed by Ronnie Bowlby when he was Bishop of Southwark.  (I think I veer towards the latter...)

Was the Holy Spirit with us at St George's on Pentecost?  Well, I should hope so - a denial of that would give a pretty bleak outlook of any church.  So, "yes".  But there are always moments within any church service, within any experience, any day in the life, where perhaps God feels more than usually present.  Most Christians would probably describe those moments as being when the Holy Spirit was present.  An increased awareness of God's presence as Holy Spirit might be a better way to describe it, I'm not sure.

In true CofE fashion, our celebration of Pentecost was a relatively low key affair.  There was no manifestation of what the Pentecostal or Charismatic churches would consider the "gifts of the Spirit" - no praying in tongues, no prophesying.  There was no particular euphoria, no collapsing of people overcome, no altar call, no Toronto Blessing.  There wasn't even an invitation for the Holy Spirit to rest on God's people - one of the peculiarities of Eucharistic Prayer E (the best, I think).  So where was God present as Holy Spirit?

It was quite an emotional Sunday for us.  It was only the second Sunday we had taken our new baby, Sebastian, to church due to Serena having been too unwell to go the week before.  It was emotional, for me, in the sense that Sebastian was blessed in my arms not once, not twice, but three times during the service.  One blessing at the communion rail as the rest of us receive the sacrament, and the usual benediction on us all at the end of the service.  A further blessing on him, and on all of us, was bestowed when the congregation were anointed individually with holy oil - a high(ish) church Pentecost rite which was beautiful in a very understated way.  Was the Holy Spirit present in that threefold blessing on our new son?  Well, again, a "yes", but a "yes" in the same "yes, of course" sense.  Even those three blessings on Sebastian were not what I'm thinking of in particular.

Let me tell you about our friend Heather.  I will always remember Heather as the first person who really made us feel welcome at St George's.  Not welcome in the meeting-and-greeting of new people sense, but genuinely welcoming us by taking us under her wing the first Sunday we attended and just being herself for us.  (I say this about someone fifty years my senior).  She's kept a prayerful eye on us ever since, I am sure.

Heather's life is not currently easy.  Her husband died many years ago.  One of her two sons has been mentally very unwell for the whole of his life, and Heather does more for him than many her age could - she is always up and down to his residential care home, takes him away on the most wonderful holidays, is always there for him.  But Heather's sight is now threatened by macular degeneration.  It is being treated, but success is never guaranteed.  Her primary concern is that if her sight deteriorates she won't be able to drive to see her son.  The last time we spoke she hadn't told her son.

But Heather is not someone visibly weighed down by what may have happened in her life.  She is a kind, loving, patient person who always wants to know about you and your week first.  Like my Gran Gran she is one of those people who says that they have prayed for you, or will pray for you, and you know that will happen; sincerely, validly, lovingly.  And she likes Formula 1.

When Serena had been ill we received some beautiful flowers from Heather.  The first opportunity we had to thank her for them was as we were waiting in line to receive communion and she was returning from the altar.  We exchanged the briefest of conversations, during which we thanked her for her kindness and she told us that she had lit a candle for Serena when she had been at church the week before.  She kissed us both, and then Sebastian.

It was an additional blessing, in the truest sense of the word, and in those brief moments God was present by the Holy Spirit.  Two or three of us were gathered, and Jesus was present amongst us.

No fireworks on Pentecost, just the true fruits of the Holy Spirit "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control".

May God bless friends like these.  Amen.

Christmas reflection

Today is the final day of the church's season of Christmastide.  I have had a good Christmas: I hope you have too!  

If I put my rose-tinted glasses on and think back to the "best" Christmases of my youth I go back to when I was 8, 9, maybe 10 years old.  The last few weeks before Christmas at my school were always very special.  I was at a Christian Prep School, and the school carol service in the local parish church was always a big affair.  I sang in the choir and loved all of the rehearsals, loved putting on a cassock for the service and loved singing in the choir (and occasionally reading) in the service itself.  Our school Christmas party was great fun too - a couple of hours of playing games in the afternoon, carol singing by candlelight in the school chapel and then a Christmas dinner in the dining hall where, most exciting of all, the staff waited on the boys!  

The Christmas things at home as well: going out as a family a few weeks before Christmas to buy a tree, decorating the tree and the house together, carols playing on the record player (or possibly an early CD!), a Christingle service, and the celebrations on the day itself.  When we were still young enough there was also the ceremonial glass of sherry and mince pie for Santa by the fireplace and carrot on the window ledge for Rudolph.  The sherry and mince pie were always gone, and the carrot left with convincing bite marks!  

I did love those Christmases.  I don't know what my parents would answer if you asked them how easy and relaxing they found Christmas when my two brothers and I were small and unruly, and they also played host to demanding relatives!  I hope they did find them enjoyable.

What did Christmas actually mean to me as a child?  In truth, I don't remember.  I do know that it was a magically exciting time of year.  Did I ever really understand the Christmas carols I was singing?  Or even the lessons I might have read in the carol service?  Possibly, probably not.  Did I even listen to the sermon?!  Something about a baby born in a stable, but who was the baby and was it important?  I'm sure a donkey came into it somewhere too...

Christmas 20+ years on doesn't quite have the same magical air about it.  This is not to say I do not enjoy it.  I do very much!  It is different, though.  I understand a bit more of what we are celebrating now than when I was a child - I certainly hope that is not responsible for feeling less magical about everything.  I think being stuck in work up until just before Christmas may have something to do with it.  

I also find it strange that we basically celebrate Christmas during Advent rather than the season of Christmastide - I went to two carol services and two Christmas parties in the middle of Advent!  What always makes Easter feel so special is how it follows on from the penitential season of Lent and the increasing tension and drama of Holy Week.  The particular liturgies all add to this.  But it feels as if Advent has become lost as a penitential season in the CofE, and the liturgy feels inadequate in preparing us for the feast of Christmas.  Advent, a season of waiting, looking forward and preparation has become about the fulfilment and celebration instead.  I suspect friends in the Orthodox Church would tell me how it is done differently there!

In the sermon I heard preached on Christmas morning we were warned against chasing after the idealised secular Christmas sold to us by the media.  Perhaps the Christmases I remember from the past are all rose tint and no substance.  Perhaps I do just need to remember "the reason for the season" as that preacher put it.  I'm not a great fan of slogans like that and the annual "put Christ back into Christmas" campaign.  I think they largely fall on deaf ears, particularly if that is all we say as Christians, just louder and louder each year.

And yet, we do have something to say as Christians at Christmas: it is a question of knowing how to say it.  We need to be clear that we have GOOD NEWS for people at Christmas - please no more sermons about the definition of marriage.  The good news for all people at Christmas is not to be found in the turkey, the wine, the office parties, the chocolates, the presents, but strange as it may seem in the baby born in the stable in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.  This baby is excellent news - it shows God loves us and identifies with us.  In this baby, God himself is found.

The Franciscan Richard Rohr says: "In Jesus, God achieved the perfect synthesis of the divine and the human. The incarnation of Jesus demonstrates that God meets us where we are as humans. God freely and fully overcomes the gap from God’s side. The problem of redemption is already resolved once and for all, long before its dramatic illustration on the cross. Bethlehem already revealed that it was good to be a human being."

It is good to be a human being.  We don't need the eating, the drinking, the presents and the partying to convince ourselves of that, it is far too fundamental to depend on those things!  It is part of who we are.  It is part of who God has made us to be.  And we are shown that in the infant Jesus: heaven and earth in little space.  We are shown it not in some divine fireworks display but in a very human thing - the MOST human thing - a woman giving birth to a baby.  

And that, thank God, has made all the difference.

Tuesday's vote at General Synod

I was (and still am) utterly devastated by the result of the vote at General Synod on Tuesday.  On a whim I decided to go down to Church House after leaving work as early as I could for the end of the debate and the vote itself.  The public gallery was full by the time I got there at 5pm (unsurprisingly) so I sat with a dozen or so other latecomers in the overflow “Abbey Room”.

Every house at the Synod was in favour of the motion.  The overall number in favour was around 75%.  However, the rules for passing this measure were that each house had to approve the measure by a two-thirds majority, and the percentage in the house of laity was only 64%.  By six votes the measure did not pass laity and did not pass at all.

I was gutted.  Silently gutted, unlike a particularly unpleasant little (literally) anglocatholic man who was also watching in the Abbey Room.  After hearing that the measure had not carried in the house of laity he shouted “Yes” at the top of his voice.  Prior to announcing the result ++John Sentamu had requested that all those watching in the Church House were to please keep respectful silence on hearing the result.  Clearly this message hadn’t transmitted to this particular man, or he chose to ignore it.  It was an incredibly ungracious moment…

I will admit it – the legislation was not good.  It was not the legislation I wanted to see before the Synod, and was not the legislation I wanted to see passed.  I want our church to declare that anybody can be a bishop regardless of colour, sex, sexuality, whatever, with no exceptions, get outs. 

What we had instead was a bit of a fudge that tried to provide “provision” for those who could not accept the ministry of women.  Those “provisions” were not far reaching enough for some, they were not “proper provision” – they voted against.  We don’t know who exactly voted for and against, but it is thought that some of the supporters of women bishops also voted against, as they felt the provisions gave too much away.

It was bad legislation, but I still wanted it to pass.  The legislation did make some provision (although clearly not enough for some) and possibly just, although I’m not sure, avoided enshrining discrimination in the legislation.  What I wanted to see pass would be seen by those opposed as even worse legislation.

The mood at Church House was incredibly bleak.  One young vicar watching with me in the Abbey Room threw his dog collar on the floor as he was taking in the result.  As I talked to him afterwards he asked me, “What am I going to say to my friends who I can’t get into church anyway?  What am I going to say from the pulpit on Sunday?  What indeed.

This result is not the absolute catastrophe some have portrayed it as.  There will be women bishops, and hopefully with no discrimination in the legislation; the majority of Synod voted for this legislation as did the diocese (42/44); and Christ is still risen, let us not forget that small detail!  The waiting, though, is ridiculous now.  This vote is hugely damaging for the church of england.  Anyone saying this was a good result for church unity hasn't got a clue - I cannot see how divisions are not simply going to grow on this issue.

It has been a gut punch, something that’s left me completely deflated since Tuesday evening.  What made it feel worse was that I’ve been cooped up in work for the last two days (as you’d expect?!), when all I wanted to do was whatever I could to help and support those I love in the church I still seem to love.   There have been many female ministers/priests who have played such an important part in my life of faith: Annabel Shilson-Thomas, Maggi Dawn, Julia Binney, Kathryn Fleming, Carol Jones.  (So many apologies if I have left anybody out.)  How this result must make them feel I can only begin to imagine.

Leaving me so deflated could have left me wanting nothing more to do with this church.  Some people have talked about leaving: I can see why some people would want to run a mile.  But it hasn't had that effect on me.  If anything, it’s made me want to get more involved, and help to right what I see as an injustice.  The church is hurting (as am I), needs healing and I want, if I can, to help.

Trinity XVIII

Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Psalm 26
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

"Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’  He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’  They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’  But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.  But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.”  “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.  He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them."

The allegations that have emerged this week and last about Sir Jimmy Saville are very disturbing.  I am not quite old enough for Jimmy Saville to have been an integral part of my childhood, nor was I ever a fan of Top of the Pops.  But I do remember looking forward to Jim'll Fix It each week, and seeing what amazing experiences would be organised for the children who wrote in - often ill, disabled or otherwise vulnerable children.  I suppose I didn't have a particular view of Jimmy Saville - that he was a good, slightly eccentric person seemed to go without saying.

Stories have now emerged from over a dozen women that Jimmy Saville used and abused his position of power and trust at the BBC to have sex with girls as young as thirteen.  These are, of course, allegations at the moment.  But there are concerning reports (some anonymous) from Saville's colleagues at the time in the BBC that yes, they had seen this and that, or yes, they had heard this and that.  It seems that complaints had previously been made, the police involved, but no charges brought.  That these allegations have only been made now perhaps says something about how different our attitudes now are, particularly towards women.  Casual sexism in the workplace is no longer acceptable, and it is not seen as flattering (as it once was) for a girl of any age to receive the attention of a man, wanted or not.

What Jimmy Saville is alleged to have done is criminal, and if he were still alive then I suspect that prosecutions would follow.  What has been interesting is that I have not heard a single church leader, or any church group, condemn his actions since the allegations surfaced.  Not one.  It may be that statements have been made, and I haven't heard them.  And yet, the conservative evangelical group in the CofE, Reform, at their conference last week somehow found time to pass a resolution affirming that  (and I quote) "marriage is a creation ordinance and a gift of God for the good of all. It cannot be redefined to include same-sex couples nor subjected to a distinction between ‘marriage' and ‘christian marriage'."

Priorities, priorities.

What is it that makes the church speak out on certain sexual "issues" (in inverted commas) but not others?  Why do certain more conservative Christians just never shut up about homosexuality and gay marriage, but we hear comparatively little about rape...child abuse...human trafficking?

I am not someone who believes homosexuality is wrong in any way.  That is such a clumsy way of saying that!  Love between two people, two people of the same sex, two people of different sex, is a wonderful thing.

But those who do think homosexuality is wrong, is a "sin" (inverted commas) must surely recognise that as sexual "sins" (again, in inverted commas) go, it is pretty low down on the list.  Consensual sexual activity between two adult partners, who just happen to be of the same sex, versus non-consensual sex: rape, sex with a minor, sex which abuses a position of responsibility, or which takes advantage of someone who is weak or vulnerable.  There is just no comparison.  And yet, which do we hear about more often from so-called Christian voices?

Today's gospel passage is one of only a few where Jesus talks about sex and marriage.  There are others, but really not many.  I have heard this passage used as evidence that Jesus was a supporter of "traditional marriage" (again those inverted commas), whatever that is supposed to mean.  Some conservatives say that when Jesus talks about a man leaving his father and mother and being joined to his wife, and the two becoming one flesh, this confirms their view that homosexuality is wrong, and that gay marriage especially is wrong.  Jesus talks about a man being joined to his wife, not being joined to another man - that must mean that Jesus was against homosexuality, right?

Well, not necessarily.  The entire point of this passage of the gospel is divorce, not homosexuality.  Jesus talks about how marriage cannot simply be dissolved - in marriage two people become as one flesh, joined by God, they cannot be separated.  This is simply not in the context of homosexuality, whether it is right, or whether it is wrong.  I think the only honest answer to what Jesus said about homosexuality is "we don't know".  It is not discussed, it is not considered.  This answer will be unpopular with lots of people for lots of reasons.  Some won't like the idea that Jesus does not support their own views on sexuality.  Others won't like the idea that we can't divine a view other than "we don't know".

It does seem strange that this passage is used more often to justify a view on homosexuality, not divorce.  I don't why that should be.  

Perhaps those who make the sort of anti-homosexual arguments I'm thinking of feel threatened by homosexual couples in a way they are not threatened by the prospect of divorce and remarriage.  Does a homosexual relationship between two men or two women as equals jar against the one-sided, male dominated view of relationships that some people still hold to?  

Perhaps some people, however dedicated they are to their marriages, would not want to rule out the possibility of divorce in extremis?  The question of divorce is something that might actually be encountered in a marriage; homosexuality and gay marriage is unlikely to be.  It is far easier to criticise something which will never affect you than something which could.

It is easy to portray Jesus as a conservative on sex and marriage, but much more difficult to justify it.  In this week's gospel passage Jesus actually displays a progressive attitude in this area, compared to what had gone before.  Jesus asks the disciples about Moses's command about divorce.  It seems to be fairly permissive - ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’  Deuteronomy 24:1-4, for example, supposes that a man enters into a marriage with a woman, and finding something objectionable he writes her a certificate of divorce.  There were some circumstances where the right to divorce could be forfeited, but on the whole it seems it was a man's prerogative to divorce his wife.  

A man's prerogative.  Only a man's, and not a woman's right.  If a woman was in an unhappy, possibly abusive marriage, probably no divorce option under the law of Moses.  If a man had got bored of his wife, issue her a certificate of divorce.  Jesus's stance that if a man or woman divorces his/her wife or husband then they should not remarry can, if seen in the historical context, be seen as a progressive step.  Firstly it includes both wives and husbands being able to divorce.  It also puts a penalty on anyone who simply chooses to divorce their husband or wife and remarries.  That is adultery according to Jesus.

This doesn't, for me, address very well the situation of a woman (or man) trapped in a cruel or abusive marriage who feels that the only way out is divorce.  If they get a divorce and then wish to remarry (hopefully to someone who is not cruel or abusive) then...is that adultery?  Is that forbidden?  

Well, I don't know (again)!  My heart says divorce and potentially remarriage in that case is not forbidden.  What do I have to back that up?  Not much perhaps.  I find it appalling when I hear certain neo-Calvinist theologians, John Piper for example, saying that women should remain in abusive marriages and submit to their husbands in accordance with God's will.  

Erm, I just can't see (or hear) Christ saying that somehow.  I find it helpful to remember that Jesus did not come to replace the Law of the Old Testament with just another rule book.  Jesus said he had come to fulfil the law, to fill it full, to give it meaning, to show the truth behind it - to show us that behind it is God and God is Love, and Jesus is Love Incarnate.  

If we approached things from Love's perspective I wonder what we might see, and what we might see a bit differently.  If we brought fresh childlike eyes to any situation - the question of divorce and remarriage, the question about who it is legitimate to love and be sexually attracted to.  Any question about anything really.  What would we see if we came to these things in an open way - with eyes to see and ears to hear - without the baggage of what we had been taught and we had been told to believe.

Perhaps we might just find the Kingdom of Heaven.  Amen.

Trinity XVII

Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19.7-14
James 5.13-20
Mark 9.38-50

"John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’  But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.  ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.  If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.  ‘For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’"  

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

The appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury is a nervous time for the Church of England, and for the Anglican Communion at large I would imagine too.  The liberals are worried a conservative will be appointed; the conservatives are worried a liberal will be appointed; those in favour of the consecration of women bishops are worried that the new archbishop will oppose women's ordination and consecration; those opposed to the consecration of women bishops are worried that the new archbishop will support women in the house of bishops.  It is sad to say that we probably think about what we want to avoid in the next ABC more than thinking about what positive features we would like to see: prayerfulness, humility, a promoter of justice, and of course a deep love of Our Lord.  We fixate on what we are against, rather than what we are for.

Christians of different denominations, and Christians of different "flavours" within denominations have not traditionally been very good at getting along with one another.  I remember seeing very sad scenes from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem last year when physical fights broke out between Greek and Armenian Orthodox clerics during their preparations for Christmas.  This is sadly a regular occurrence.  You don't have to think too far back in history to find Roman Catholic Croats at war with Orthodox Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.  The Thirty Years War between Western European Catholics and Protestants in the 17th Century killed, in percentage terms, almost as many people as either the First or Second World Wars.  The history of Western Europe is stained with the blood of Christians shed at the hands of other Christians.

And you do not have to look as far as the battlefield to find antagonism between different groups of Christians.  Aggressive assertions by certain groups of Christians that they are the only "real" Christians are rife.  The position seems to be that if you don't subscribe to certain groups' particular doctrines then you are not one of them, not a real Christian, and you don't really know God or Jesus.  I find this a cruel and dehumanising attitude to take.  Why Christians cannot see past their differences to the core of others' beliefs - Jesus Christ - I don't know.

The disciples in today's passage from Mark's gospel seem to have taken a similarly dismissive attitude to someone they didn't know who was performing miracles in Jesus's name.  It's interesting what John says to Jesus.  He DOESN'T say  ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following YOU.’  What he says is ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following US.’  Their rejection of this other follower of Christ is not based on some defect in this person's relationship with Jesus, it is based on a perceived defect in their relationship with the disciples.  This other healer is not with the disciples, he is not part of them.  Therefore in the eyes of the disciples he (or she) is a rival, a threat.  He is not with them, so he is against them.

No, Jesus says, do not stop him.  This person who is doing deeds of power in Jesus's name is not someone doing or speaking evil against him.  They should let him alone.  This person is not against Jesus, so he is for him.  This is despite not following the disciples!  Despite not believing the same things as the disciples.  Perhaps despite not believing the same things as Jesus?!  We don't know.

So why do we insist on applying a stricter standard to others than Jesus does here?  Why do we insist on excluding others who don't believe exactly what we do, who don't belong to our little group?

Well, for whatever reasons we do it, we do.  And for us, this week's Gospel passage contains a warning.  If anyone puts a stumbling-block before any vulnerable person who believes in Christ, the consequences will be so grave that you'll wish you'd been thrown into the sea with a great millstone around your neck.  A pretty barbaric punishment!  It sounds rather like an ancient version of the gangster punishment of embedding someone's feet in concrete blocks and throwing them into a river or the sea.

Don't try to trip up other followers of Christ says Christ himself!  Why question what they're doing and how they're doing it if they're doing it for God, for Christ?  Why put them to the test?  Why try to make them conform to our own way of being a Christian?  Why ask why they're not following us, if they're trying to follow Christ?  That is all that matters.

We are all guilty.  Not one of us is innocent of this, whether conservative or liberal, progressive, traditional, evangelical, catholic, orthodox, reformed, whoever...  

There may be behaviour we find challenging in other Christians, and there are some things which should be challenged.  But perhaps we can move to a different way of doing that?  A way that doesn't say "you are against me".  A way that doesn't say "you are not a Christian".  A way that isn't cruel and doesn't dehumanise.  But a way that operates by love, instead of just paying lip service to it.  A way that recognises that everyone, even those with whom we don't agree, is a beloved child of God.  A way that sees our mutual love of Jesus as central, as THE most central thing, rather than putting Jesus second after our own beliefs and preferences.

As the new ABC is being chosen, we can only hope and pray that he shares Jesus's view that whoever is not against us is for us.  Amen.

Trinity XVI

September 23—Trinity XVI
Jeremiah 11.18-20: A reminder of the lamb being led to the slaughter: justice secured through sacrifice.
Psalm 54: God stands beside us in times of trouble.
James 3.13-4.3 & 7-8a: Blessed are the peace-makers and those who live for others rather than for themselves.
Mark 9.30-37: As Jesus looks towards Calvary, his disciples jostle for status.

"They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’  But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’  But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’"

Sometimes people just don't understand what is right in front of them.  

In last week's gospel reading Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was.  Who was this strange figure wandering about the Holy Land with a ragtag band of followers: performing miraculous healings, feeding multitudes, teaching with unexplained authority, standing up to the religious authorities.

Who was he?  A madman, a religious fanatic?  The disciple Peter guessed it right - he was God's Chosen One (as they said, Messiah) who would come to save and rescue God's people.  But then he went on to explain that being God's Chosen One was not what they expected.  He was not who they wanted him to be.  They may have wanted a warrior who would lead a victory, but that was not who God was choosing.  Being God's Chosen One was about dying in enemy hands.  Dying, not killing.

Jesus's followers didn't understand.  So he tells them again.  He tells them what must happen to him.  He must be betrayed and betrayed to his death.  But that death would not be the end - three days later he would be alive again.  Oh, what on earth does that mean?!  People don't just die and then come back to life again!  

You know, I feel for the disciples in this episode.  We all have people we look up to in life, and whose causes we look up to.  People do, for better or worse, like to play follow my leader.  Death is inevitable for all of use, but we don't expect our leaders, those we look up to, to go on about their own deaths.  And saying they would be alive again after dying?  It's not surprising Jesus's disciples could not believe their ears.  They didn't know who they were dealing with.  They didn't understand what was right in front of them.

At the end of their journey when they arrive at the house where they were staying Jesus is aware that there's been some disagreement on the journey.  So, he asks them, what they were arguing with one another about on their journey?  I wasn't part of it, so let me in on the secret - perhaps you were arguing about how best to serve your God...how best to help the poor...how to serve your Father and Mother?

But they were silent.

Eventually one of the disciples may have come clean and explained red-faced to Jesus what had been going on.  Perhaps Jesus had overheard them on the road, or perhaps he just knew.  They had argued about which of Jesus's followers was the greatest.  Jesus had just told his disciples for the second time that he must die, and all they could do was to argue about who had the highest reputation.  Perhaps who would succeed Jesus when he had died.  Because nobody comes back after death, right?

Who was the greatest?  The last time Jesus had told his disciples about his death he had said to them "‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."  Let them deny themselves - not in the sense of denying the world and those around you, shutting yourself away in a safe little bubble away from the dirty reality of the world.  Not in that sense.  But in the sense of forgetting about your own interests, thinking about others before yourself, in short not being selfish.

But they didn't care about that.  They cared about which one of them was greatest of all!  Perhaps they really had learned nothing at all.  They hadn't really listened to what Jesus had said.  They didn't understand what was right in front of them.  They didn't know who they were dealing with.

All they cared about was who the who the greatest was.  How on earth can Jesus get through to them now, when they have shown themselves so capable of ignoring what he has been saying?  He then tells them again "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."  Deny yourself.  Live without interest for yourself.  Be a servant: obedient, obedient to death, and even death on a cross.

But they've not done such a good job with listening to what Jesus has said.  So then he takes a small child and puts him or her amongst his followers.  OK they think, what's going on now?  Is this child the greatest?  Now they really have no idea what's going on!  Perhaps the idea is that Jesus sees this child as being as important as his chosen followers.  Children in the 1st century AD were not seen as being of any importance at all, and barely even human beings in their own right separate from their parents.  

So now Jesus puts this small, insignificant child amongst his jumped up followers who had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest.  All humans, all significant to Jesus, all significant to God.  Whoever welcomes this insignificant child welcomes Jesus and welcomes God.


Jesus, who was welcomed into the world himself as a new-born baby in the stable in Jerusalem.  Who, looking at that tiny baby could have known what significance He held?  Could they see past the child, to Jesus, to God?  Some could, or thought they could.  Would we have known if all we saw was a baby?  Would we have understood even if we had seen Him right in front of us?

Welcome everyone, says Jesus, no matter how insignificant.  It does not matter how great you are, you should be welcomed and treated just the same.  Child, adult, man, woman, straight, gay, black, white, rich, poor, priest, bishop, lord, lady, king or queen - all the same to Jesus and to God.

This is probably a fitting reading to have in the week that the Crown Nominations Committee draws up their short list for the next Archbishop of Canterbury.  Who should be the senior cleric in the church?  Who should be the "greatest"?  Whoever it is must be prepared to be last of all, and servant of all.  They should be in our prayers this week.

Trinity XV

[Ed. So this might have been ready for a (late) Evensong, but certainly not Eucharist!]

September 16 - Trinity XV
Isaiah 50.4-9a 
Psalm 116.1-8
James 3.1-12
Mark 8.27-38


"Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’  And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’  He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’  And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ "

The Last Temptation of Christ is not a film I have ever seen.  It's not one I particularly want to see - not for any reason of considering it blasphemous or anything like that, it's just not on my list to watch!  It's more famous for the furore it caused than its plot: depictions of Christ having sex were never going to go down well with some people.  But the plot is quite interesting.  The film depicts a very human Christ who struggles with everyday temptations - fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust.  

Along with many other departures from the version of Christ's life depicted in the gospels, the film concludes with Christ on the cross from which he is rescued by a guardian angel.  He marries Mary Magdalen and settles down to a comfortable family life.  After Mary Magdalen's death He marries Mary and Martha (both?!  Lord, have mercy...).  There is even a bewildering encounter with the Apostle Paul along the way.  Finally on his death bed as an old man, and in the midst of a Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem, Jesus is visited by the twelve.  His last visitor is Judas who reveals that the "guardian angel" who rescued Him was in fact satan .  Jesus ends up begging God to let him fulfil his purpose and to let Him be God's Son.

At that point, Jesus finds himself back on the cross, crying out "It is accomplished" with His dying breath.  Fade to white.

Had it all been a dream?  It had all been a temptation.

It might sound faintly ridiculous to us - of course Jesus would never have been tempted in this way!  But this passage from Mark's gospel could well be called "The Last Temptation of Christ".  Or possibly "The ongoing woes of Peter"!

At the beginning of this passage Jesus takes the time to ask his disciples for the lowdown on what people are saying about him.  He has performed powerful miracles - healing, resuscitations, miraculous feedings, walking on water; he has taught with an arresting authority; he has defied the most powerful religious authorities of his day.  But who does this make Him?  John the baptist...Elijah...another of the prophets?  No, he lets them go on...

Peter chimes in... "You are...the Messiah".  Got it.  The Messiah, the chosen one of God, the long awaited one, the one the prophets were talking about, the one who would finally redeem Israel, who would finally end the exile.  Physically the Israelites had returned from the exile in Babylon, but they were still under the heel of a foreign oppressor.  The Romans occupied their promised land.  The Herods were puppet Kings at the mercy of the imperial overlords - a far cry from the high days of King David.  The temple, once destroyed, had been rebuilt but the shekinah glory - the sign of the presence of God - had not returned.  The ark of the covenant had been lost.  The temple was empty.  Where was God?  Had he abandoned Israel for good?

The Messiah, the Messiah, finally the Messiah had arrived.  They had got who He was.  Well, almost.

But only now would he tell them who He really was and what he must do.  Only now would they really understand his mission.  When they thought they knew who he was he would take their breath away once again.

Jesus explained that he must suffer and die.  Perhaps he told the twelve about those passages of the Hebrew Scriptures that foretold this; today's Isaiah passage maybe.  Yes, he was the one they had waited for, the Messiah, the Christ.  But it was that that meant he had to suffer and die.  A different sort of Messiah: a different sort of God.

Peter again.  Peter said "no".  No, you can't die.  The Messiah can't die.  Why had Peter and the other disciples given up everything they had - their jobs, their possessions, their families - to follow someone whose mission was to suffer and die?!  The Messiah was supposed to have been the great saviour who would rescue Israel...but how could that be if he was going to die, to leave them?  The Messiah should be slaughtering Israel's enemies, not being killed by them!

No gentle word to Peter.  No private put-down to this most outspoken member of the twelve.  No enigmatic silence.  No parable.  No disarming question.  No - public, violent, awful to say and hear.

The cold in the room where they were gathered.  The rising adrenalin in each disciple's throat "Get...behind...me...satan".

The last temptation...resisted.  The way ahead now clear - Jerusalem, the mockery, the beating, a cross, cruel nails, the pain, the agony, and only then death.  The Messiah's way.  God's way.

To hear a loved one tell you they must die must be an awful thing to hear.  To hear a loved one tell you they must die, and then to hear them tell you that you must suffer the same fate...what do you do with that?  If Jesus had not appalled his disciples already, then surely that must have happened now.  Jesus told them that he would die, and horribly, and that they too must walk the way of the cross, walk Christ's way.  It is a wonder the disciples did not up sticks and run that very moment.  That was only to come later, only in the very shadow of the cross itself.

But really, haven't we been running from Jesus's invitation to walk his way ever since it was made?  Take up thy cross, live to die, die to live, deny yourself.  There have certainly been examples of those in our christian history who have taken this on board.  But now?  In what we call the church?  As a whole, an institution?

One of the greatest sermons ever preached (I think!) is Fred Cradock's sermon on this passage from Mark.  Look it up on youtube.  In it he poses the question that we all need to face: "Why do we act as if the death of Christ was the saving of the world, but as if the death of the Church was the end of the world?"  In Cradock's sermon - delivered to a chapel full of ministry students about to be released into the wider world - he warns them of the constant challenges they will face in churches.  Times will always be hard, he says, and you will be told that by cutting back on this church programme here, by reducing your outreach to the poor, vulnerable and needy there, yes the church can go on, it can be maintained, it can survive.  At any cost it can be made to survive!   No, no, no, he says: get behind me satan.  Take up thy cross.  For the sake of the gospel, for Christ's sake, take up the cross.  It applied to the disciples then; it applies to us now; it applies to the church now.

What would a church look like, what would a world look like where we did just that?  We can only begin to imagine.  It is so far from our comprehension, and yet it is what Jesus - that most unlikely suffering and dying Messiah - seems to be calling us to do here.

I'll finish with a poem by Charles Sandburg that Craddock shares in his sermon:

"Take up your cross and go the thorn way. 
If a sponge of vinegar is passed you on the end of a spear, 
Take that too. 
Souls are woven of endurance - - God knows"

Amen

Trinity XIV

September 9 - Trinity XIV
Isaiah 35.4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2.1-17
Mark 7.24-end

Oh dear, this week's lectionary readings are almost embarrasingly rich in wonderful language.  The Isaiah passage is a wonderful vision of the restoration of God's creation.  I can just hear Harris's wondeful musical setting (Strengthen ye the weak hands) as I read it.  Psalm 146 feels like the social gospel in condensed form.  James 2 is renowned for infuriating Martin Luther.  How can you justify a justification by faith alone in view of a Bible passage which says "faith without works is dead" or "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead".  Well, Luther didn't like that very much!

But oh dear is the fact that I've really not given enough time to looking at these passages this week to justify anything that might approach a sermon.  I have a few thoughts on the gospel passage - two very different miracles compared with many more conventional miracles.  The first miracle is interesting for the nationality of the person healed (and that of her daughter).  Does Jesus really dismiss someone from the scope of his healing ministry simply because of where they have been born.  Is "dog" a racial slur akin to "n*gger" as I recently heard suggested from an african american?  Does Jesus really change his mind in this passage?  Can God change?  Does God change?

The second miracle has none of the racial questions of the first.  It is perhaps interesting in that it happens in a very private place.  This is not a healing for everyone to see.  It is also a very physical healing - the healing action of Jesus is accompanied by physical actions: placing fingers in ears, spitting on someone's tongue (!) or spitting on your finger and touching someone's tongue (still !).  It reminds me of the sacrament in that an outward physical sign is accompanied by an inner change.

Well, as I said, just thoughts.  No time to even think about working them into something useable as a sermon.  I continually get the feeling that I am too busy for God at the moment.  There's an expression that is trotted out when people say "I'm too busy to pray" or "I'm too busy to go to church" which goes "You're too busy NOT to pray/go to church".  Well, maybe, but I'm not quite sure how much grounding that has in the world that most of the populace inhabits.  Yes, we are all too busy, yes we all work too hard, yes we all worry about money too much.   But we also have to keep up our mortgage and council tax payments, we have to keep putting food on the table amidst rising prices - almost entirely due to shadowy market forces way beyond our control and understanding.  Assertions that we're too busy not to pray/go to church don't commute for hours every day to boring jobs with unpleasant bosses and work-weary colleagues.

There's an expression "the God of the gaps".  It's normally employed in discussions involving science and religion.  The God of the gaps is what is required to explain all of those things in nature that are beyond our understanding.  Such a "god" has slowly been whittled away as human science has explained nature.  But in my recent experience there is another "God of the gaps".  At the moment that "god" for me is the "god" for whom I don't have enough time, the "god" who doesn't get as much attention as my job, the "god" who is constantly being pushed into the gaps between the other things in my life.  That "god" doesn't feel much like the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob, the God revealed in Christ.  What is worse is that I don't seem to be actively doing anything about this...Kyrie eleison

Trinity XIII

Well, after a blog absence of over a year (!) you must be wondering what on earth is going on here.  I'm back again writing?!  Who I am kidding - noone is actually reading but I am actually writing.

One thing I am really feeling in my life at the moment is the need to preach again.  I used to preach quite a bit at our old church, but since leaving there around a year ago I haven't preached once.  The opportunity has not really arisen at our new church.  Also, being an Anglican church those who preach are essentially all clergy or at least Lay Readers.  (What I need to do to preach in church is another thing, of course...)  We're also blessed with a lot of clergy in the parish (although no incumbent or priest in charge) and Lay Readers so there are plenty of people to preach.

So, no pulpit...or lectern from which to preach.  However, I can use my blog to collect my thoughts as I would for a sermon, and I hope you'll indulge me in doing so!  It really is a written reflection, rather than exactly what I might say, but the thoughts are probably the same.  As seems fitting, I thought I would use the weekly lectionary texts as the basis for my thoughts.  Much easier than having to choose a text each week, and much less danger of just choosing favourite passages.

Despite my best intentions, it is now 2330 on Saturday evening, so if I were a jobbing priest or preacher this would really be very last minute for a Sunday morning sermon.  But, it's been a hectic week.  I also gain a certain degree of perverse pleasure thinking about the number of others also writing their sermons at the last minute on a Sunday evening!  This will really be a collection of random thoughts I've had about the passage(s) this week rather than anything rounded at all, so do forgive me in advance.

The texts for Trinity XIII are Deuteronomy 4.1-2 & 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1.17-27; and Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23.  I only really have time to consider the gospel passage, although I think the pairing with the Deuteronomy passage and that particular Psalm is a little ironic.  The prohibition of lending money at interest in Psalm 15 should also be food for thought for, well, just about anybody.  Every had a credit card?  Ever had a mortgage?  Work in the financial industry?  How do you deal with Psalm 15?  Really not enough time!  (Now 2335...and I must hit the sack at midnight).

So, the gospel...

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me; 
 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.” 
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
[...]
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
[...]

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’ 


A slightly odd chopping up of Mark 7, but that is what has been put in the lectionary!

What is all this business about excessive hand- and pot-washing all about?  Yet again Jesus and the strict set of the scribes and Pharisees seem to come into conflict with one another, and again over something which seems fairly trivial on the surface.  Yes, washing your hands before eating is the hygienic thing to do, but not worth arguing about surely?!  Well, it goes a little bit deeper than that I think.

Firstly, it's worth noting that Jesus did not attack the practices of the Pharisees directly.  It only became an issue for him when they (the Pharisees) started questioning the behaviour of Jesus' disciples.  Through that they were really having a go at Jesus himself.  "If the pupils are doing this or that, it must have come from the instruction or example of the master..."  It is when the Pharisees in effect ask why the disciples are not behaving like good people of God that Jesus' anger is provoked.  He calls out the Pharisees' obsession with external cleanliness as a mere human tradition which pays lip service to God but shows how empty their hearts are of true affection for God or his people.

The issue with washing of hands and vessels goes way beyond simply wanting to be clean, and to avoid food poisoning!  Whole swathes of the Old Testament are devoted to discussions of what sort of things make a person unclean, how long it makes them unclean for, and how to ritually wash to make oneself clean again.  Unclean things include pigs, lepers, dead bodies, menstruating women, bodily discharges etc.  The Law in the Torah clearly demarks who is "clean" and who is "unclean" and therefore "untouchable".  Those outside and those inside the lines of acceptability.  The Pharisees in Jesus' time would have been washing themselves ritually to decontaminate themselves after having touched the wrong sort of people.

Jesus in this passage, and in his behaviour throughout his ministry recorded in the gospels roundly criticises this.  Think Jesus touching lepers, touching dead bodies or at least being in close proximity to them (Lazarus, Jairus's daughter), being touched by the woman who had been bleeding for years.  Jesus says that no more should people be made untouchable outcasts.  Yet again the message of Jesus is a radically inclusive one.  You might have read in the Scriptures that to touch a leper makes you unclean, but look this Jesus character is happy to touch a leper and then pronounce that they are healed and their sins forgiven.  Who does he think he is?!  Who is he?!  What gives him the right to do this for God's sake?!

It sometimes feels that the church hasn't moved on very far from the attitudes of the Pharisees in this story.  People don't tend to worry so much about ritual washing and cleanliness, but there are some groups of people that the church is very uncomfortable associating with - drug addicts, alcoholics, the gay community and others deemed to be sexually "other".  There are those within the church who worry that other's perceived sin might rub off on them if they get too close.  They need to stay clean.  They cannot be contaminated.

There is another sense in which the church indulges in this sort of Pharasaism.  That is in terms of what beliefs are and aren't acceptable.  The church is hugely fond of saying to others "Why do you not behave in accordance with our tradition?"  "Why do you not do what it clearly states in the bible?"  Laying aside questions of exactly what IS part of tradition, and exactly what the bible DOES say, this sort of behaviour looks very questionable in view of this passage from Mark.  

Any time the church says "Why are you not like us?  Why do you not believe what we do?  You must be like us and do what we do in order to be a Christian, or to be a good Christian" it is falling into an ages old trap.  This is not the time and place to discuss right beliefs or practices (and at 2358 I must go to bed!), but there is something inherently problematic in an attitude which looks at others and asks them to justify themselves.  This applies to all: conservatives, liberals, progressives, evangelicals, progressives, whoever.

It seems far more consistent with the message of Jesus that we should be looking at ourselves and asking difficult questions of ourselves instead.  What do you think?

[And at midnight I'm calling it a day, or night, or whatever, without quite getting round to the next bits of the passage]