Saturday, 14 November 2015

Paris, terrorism and a theological reflection

I went to bed last night with news breaking on the BBC of the latest atrocity in Paris and awoke this morning to radio news and newspaper headlines full of the appalling details.

It didn't take long for my Facebook newsfeed to be full of related posts both from friends of faith asking for prayers for Paris and posts from friends of no faith. The picture above is from the latter group.

I am always struck how such responses from both perspectives are inadequate.

Let's start with people of faith: "Pray for Paris" I am urged.


It's a serious question and at it's heart lies the conundrum of intercessory (asking for) prayer: what's it for and what does it say about my understanding of God? What does "pray for Paris" actually mean? Am I suggesting that God hasn't noticed such trauma and needs nudging into action? That's a preposterous idea, surely? As if God, if He exists - and I know that's a huge "if" for many people - isn't aware. Surely that goes against the belief systems of all Theistic faiths.

In this approach intercessory prayer becomes my wish list. "Dear Santa, could you fix it for me that ......"

Accepting then, that people of all faith groups believe God is All-Knowing and All-Loving what do I need to ask for, and am I not wasting my breath, if not my emotional energy in such an unnecessary process?

Well, I'd contend that I am not.

We are always told that prayer is a dialogue and if I don't take time to listen, (as very often in my rush to get my list out in the open), it isn't: it's a monologue. In my bit of the dialogue I am not making God aware of anything other than my own understanding of the situation. There is a meme that does the rounds on social media from time to time that goes like this:

Change the concern to fit the situation and to my mind you have the missing part of the dialogue. I am aware that there is an issue; I believe something needs to be done; why am I making the assumption that the "doing" should be done by someone else? What is my responsibility? What should I be doing having recognised a need?

To me intercessory prayer is a dangerous strategy for the person of faith because it makes us aware that if we want to see change we need to be part of it and it bothers me that in some quarters prayer is seen as an end in itself and if it is an end in itself are we not guilty of the worst piety?

As a rider to that I'd also ask "Why Paris?" as in why just Paris? I've been a bit queasy at the number of Facebook French flags that have appeared over the last few days. How does that gesture look if viewed from, say, Beirut, Baghdad or Homs? What's the sub-text? Only European "Christian" lives matter and need a show of solidarity? A Paris event happens in Syria and Iraq every day.

Now to my Atheist friends: firstly, get a grip. Some of your posts are so hate-filled you should be ashamed - not just those which deal with Islam but those which deal with the phenomenon of religion in general. I may have to block some of you. What also strikes me about posts from my most vitriolically Atheist friends is their misunderstanding of faith, or perhaps their certainty that people of faith believe things which, actually, they don't. Why am I surprised that Atheists misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent religious faith?

If that's what you really think religion is about I'm not at all surprised you have no time for it.

The picture at the top is a great example. It is a graphic I would have used it myself in other circumstances were it not for the speech marks around "prayer". What's that all about? Has this particular friend perceived my own misgivings about the piety of having said I'd pray for something? What's the overt message in that graphic? Prayer's a waste of time. Get on and do something useful! As I've outlined I think that's a misunderstanding of the nature of prayer.

What I do notice in the responses of my Atheist friends is often an anger - to my mind, a misdirected anger - about responsibility. "Why didn't God intervene to stop this dreadful act?" At a stroke the eight terrorists in Paris become demoted to bit players in the drama with their responsibility downgraded. We are angry primarily at God and while I understand the argument to a degree, it's not one I accept. No one is responsible for what happened in Paris but the eight terrorists and their helpers and backers.

Because He isn't interventionist people don't believe in God, seems to be the bottom line and I think that's deeply problematic. It's problematic because it takes away all human responsibility for moral failings. In this scenario God is seen as a sort of Mary Poppins figure who comes along with a smile, a song and a spoonful of sugar and puts everything right, clearing up our messes. If that's the sort of God people want I'd have to ask where they draw the line. So genocide and terrorism need divine intervention to stop them but, say, a bit of cyber-fraud can be left alone? What about careless driving? Political and financial corruption? Where does the intervention end?

I believe it's all or nothing. If God intervenes once to stop an immoral act, then surely he must intervene every time and if he does, how do we ever learn moral responsibility? If Mary Poppins God is always there to sort things out why do I ever need to worry about my morality? I can do as I please in the certainty that there will be no unpleasant consequences to my actions.

To go one stage further with this argument there are those who assert that if God exists he needn't clean up behind me because He has it in His power to stop me ever making wrong moral choices.

In this scenario God becomes the eternal puppet master forever pulling my strings, or I become a robot only pre-programmed to do good. Where then is my humanity? Surely my humanity is characterised by my ability to choose to do good or evil and that, of course, has potential consequences. If I have free moral choice, who is ultimately to blame when I get it wrong?

So, Atheist friends, I ask you, which would you prefer? Mary Poppins God or Programmer God?

Clearly then, I don't subscribe to the doctrine of an interventionist God and I don't think among people of faith that I am unique in that position. However, people who claim no faith are often taken aback by that position, assuming that our faith IS in an interventionist God.

However, I have a rider to that position: all the major faiths have a strong moral element and we believe that down the ages there have been key people who have grabbed the attention and imagination of their people and set out in clear terms what our moral responsibilities are to our neighbours. Those moral positions have become central to our various faiths and subsequently subsumed into our civil codes. We can't claim ignorance. We know the difference between right and wrong.

That's my view of God's intervention. How often do we need to be told?

There are wicked and dangerous people out there and they should be held to account but I can't accept the narrative that it is religion that is at the root cause. If that were the case we would only see such acts perpetrated by those claiming religious allegiances but that is clearly not the case. Can you imagine a set of circumstances where someone would say, "Look at those mad Atheists at it again with their drive-by shootings, their meth-driven excesses and genocides." No. Me neither. The wicked and evil are out there in all walks of life with their various agendas of opportunism, greed, power-hunger and a complete disregard for the sanctity of human life: they corrupt and destroy whatever they touch whether it be in the secular or religious realm and they subvert religion and politics to their causes.

It is, as one Atheist friend has been at pains to remind me, the role and responsibility of all people of good faith (and I don't here mean religious faith) to challenge them with words and actions.

How we respond at this point is the key. Will we respond with prejudice, fear and the isolation of the other in our society, or will we unite with generosity, empathy and compassion towards our beleaguered Muslim friends and neighbours and say, "We stand with you. Not in our name"? Let's be clear: part of the agenda of the terrorist is to cause a backlash; one that enables them to perpetrate the myth that there is a war against (in this case) Islam.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Sunday Sermon Mark 13.1-8 The End Times


As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

I really do feel as if I’ve drawn the short straw here: what a passage! End-times theology? Well out of my comfort zone. The problem is that down the ages every generation has had its prophets of doom announcing that the end-times are near. Only this week I read that a former American presidential hopeful for the Republican Party, Michele Bachmann, has gone on record as saying that she feels the end of the world is near. She says, “Events are speeding up so quickly right now, and we see how relevant the Bible is, and we’re reading our newspaper, at the same time we’re learning about these biblical events, and it’s literally day by day by day, we’re seeing the fulfilment of scripture right in front of our eyes, even while we’re on the ground. We recognise the shortness of the hour…” For the record, her pronouncements are based on the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine. So, we’re straight into it, trying to fit the events of our age into some template of the fulfilment of scriptural signs. It’s tempting to dismiss her if only on the grounds that if her grasp on theology turns out to be as tenuous as her grasp on politics was, we should all be perfectly safe.

Of course you may also remember Harold Camping – another American – who announced the end of the world and the second coming of Christ that many times, with specific dates, always revised after each non-apocalypse, that you’d think public humiliation and ridicule would have led him to be more circumspect.

These people are not alone: a whole industry of spurious theology has grown up around the idea of The End Times: you may have heard of the Rapture, the belief that Jesus will gather up his faithful suddenly and dramatically, leaving the rest of the world scratching their heads as to where they’ve gone and of course this is good film material: we have the film “Left Behind” depicting what happens after the Rapture, “The entire planet is thrown into mayhem when millions of people disappear without a trace -- all that remains are their clothes and belongings. Unmanned vehicles crash and planes fall from the sky, overwhelming emergency forces and causing massive gridlock, riots and chaos.”

Only Nicholas Cage can save the day – if not the film from a critical panning.

What are we to make of all this?

It is true that scripture seems to drop tantalising hints about the end times but not in any credible, helpful timetable. Taken individually, or as a group of “prophecies” – and I put that word in inverted commas – they are as vague and misleading as the prophecies of Nostradamus, and he still pops up with monotonous regularity.

If I sound deeply cynical at this point … that’s because I am. In every Christian based Myers-Briggs type personality profile or on the Enneagram, I come out as a Thomas in my pattern of discipleship. (I am strangely proud of that.) Thomas the doubter, you may remember.

And yet there is a strong discipline of Biblical scholarship called Eschatology, the study of the destiny of humankind as described in the Bible. The major issues in Christian eschatology are death and the afterlife, Heaven and Hell, the Second Coming of Jesus, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Rapture, the Tribulation, the end of the world, the Last Judgment, and the New Heaven and New Earth of the world to come. Eschatological passages are found in many places in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments. There are also many extrabiblical examples of eschatological prophecy, as well as church traditions so perhaps people like me need to curb the impatient cynicism that is our default position when the Michele Bachmanns and Harold Campings of our time take to the media.

So what are we to make of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel passage?

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

And this is the problem: every time there is an earthquake or a famine, are we to think of the end times? Every time there is a war?

Now it isn’t in today’s Gospel passage, but Jesus goes on to tell Peter, James, John and Andrew some disturbing things that would by anyone’s standards be seen as predictions – false prophets; false Messiahs; conflict; persecution; suffering; religious desecrations and the like and he suggests that they would live to see it – as has every subsequent generation. So should we seek to read the signs like Bachmann and Camping and seek to be Christian clairvoyants?

Well, as ever scripture needs to be seen in its own wider context. What else are we told about the end times? Or at least what are we told that is helpful? Later on in this chapter Jesus tells his followers, But about that day or hour, no one knows, neither the Angels in Heaven, nor the Son but only the Father. We also have Jesus’ words from the opening chapter of Acts, It is not for you to know the times and periods that the Father has set by his own authority. To put it another way, I think we are being told not to waste our time speculating because like Nostradamus or Harold Camping it is something of a pointless exercise. It is time wasted when we should be concentrating on other things.

We live in the in-between times. We always knew that, surely? We live between the start and the finish; between the start and the finish of God’s plan for the institution of his Kingdom, that reign of peace and justice ushered in by God’s intervention in history in the incarnation of Christ.

Yes we can look at the “signs” but to read them as any more than reminders of the fragility of human existence seems to me to be missing the point. Personally, I see such signs – if I register them at all – as akin to punctuation marks in a narrative, points to pause and reflect on before we move on.

So, there is a famine, an earthquake, a war and I am reminded of the fragility of human existence and, mindful of that and of the fact that there will one day be an end, I move on.

But it is how I move on – how we move on - after that period of reflection that is important, because we move on as Disciples. We move on in this in between time, conscious of the ultimate finality of the Kingdom of this world, as those called to the mission of bringing God’s Kingdom closer.

In some respects it is a shame that the Lectionary leaves Mark’s Gospel at this point as it heads to Christ the King and Advent in the coming weeks so I don’t feel too bad about looking a bit beyond today’s reading because I won’t be guilty of spoilers for next week’s preacher when I tell you that Jesus tells his followers to be alert because they don’t know when that time is coming. Remember, these were people who expected the return of Christ and the end times within their own generation.

Given the time lapse, such a sense of urgency seems rather lost on us – well, it’s lost on me anyway. I don’t live with the urgency of an imminent Second Coming ushering in the end times. I’m sure I should, but I don’t and I guess you don’t either, but we are still in the in-between times. So what is this sense of urgency all about? Remember too, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids: some were prepared when the bridegroom finally arrived and were admitted to the reception: those that had gone off to get more oil for their lamps missed his arrival and got left outside. It seems to me to be a similar warning.

But what is it a warning about? What’s the urgency about?

I always remember an episode of the Vicar of Dibley, where Dawn French has a postcard on her wall: Jesus is Coming – look busy! I’m sure I had a vicar who had that on his coffee mug too, but that is the essence of the warning to urgency: because we don’t know when it’s all going to get eschatological and apocalyptic we are in danger of not being busy about the Lord’s work.

What does that mean in practice?

We are all called to discipleship but beyond that the nature of that calling is individual and personal: our individual discipleship has different patterns and emphases so I am reluctant at this point to try to offer answers which will inevitably appear glib. This is a congregation noted for its spiritual maturity. What is it as a church and as individuals that you feel is your calling? And that’s the answer: do that. Carry on doing that, being that, whatever it is that the Holy Spirit has given to you as your template of discipleship. There aren’t many Christian congregations as aware of their sense of mission as this congregation. That’s your warning, that’s your urgency as we seek to grow the Kingdom of God while there is still time.

If there is anyone still in doubt about the nature of their call to discipleship, I would leave you with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats: He will separate them “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” He says to those on his right, the sheep, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” The righteous will not understand: when did they see Jesus in such a pitiful condition and help Him? “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25.31-46)

Saturday, 31 October 2015

A sermon for All Souls/All Saints


John 11:33-45

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Oh, the joys of the R.E. teacher. I was looking back in my teacher’s planner recently and came across this – some of which I shared a few weeks ago at the Wednesday morning Communion:

Today I have hormonal 15 year olds who are largely resistant to education in any form and particularly resistant to R.E.

“Why do we have to do this Sir?

“Sir, is the Pope a Christian?”

Oh blimey! Here we go.

 “Sir what is a saint?” I should be used by now to being the fount of knowledge relating to all things randomly religious, but we were supposed to be looking at Buddhism and the environment at the time. I was going to launch into an explanation about key figures of special holiness throughout the history of the church when my inner voice told me to stop and think.

I was sure the New Testament implies that all disciples of Jesus are saints - not just the inner group of twelve. So I looked it up. Yes, there are about fifty references to saints and the word is frequently used of those who were followers or who had “died in the faith”. Well if it was true of the earliest disciples, is it such a leap to assume that it applies to latter day disciples like you and me?

Anyway, I tried this explanation out on Darren in a subsequent lesson. He was not impressed. “You a saint Sir?” (In a voice which seemed to carry more than just the seeds of cynical doubt.) A little harsh I felt.

Many of us are a bit suspicious of the idea of saints. It’s all a bit Roman isn’t it? But the Protestant churches have become more comfortable with the concept of saints, especially recognizing that all those redeemed by Christ are saints. Saints are merely sinners who haven’t given up. We don’t so much seek to appreciate the moral and miraculous lives of the famous – some of whom, if we are honest, we aren’t even sure were real people - as to remember that those who have gone before us in the faith are united with those who share the faith in the here and now in what we call the communion of saints.

Part of the mystery is that the Bible tells us very little about death and the afterlife and what it is like for those who have gone before us in the faith, and what there is, is tantalisingly vague and raises more questions than are answered. We’d like a few more details please, and failing to find them in the Scriptures, we often turn to ideas found in poetry, and song – or Eastern traditions, as if faith were an eclectic off-the-peg set of options. Pick the bits you like.

“Sir, Christians believe in reincarnation don’t they?”


“Well I do!”

“Good for you then.”

That we continue to live on in the memories of our loved ones is obvious: we have an immortality of sorts based on photos and videos and shared memories, but unless we are very famous like Mozart or Shakespeare – or infamous like Hitler or Stalin – once those who have known us have also gone, we really do cease to be.

When my parents died and we were sorting through their stuff, there were so many photos. I lost track of the number of times Rachel said to me, “Who’s this?” and I had to reply, “I’ve no idea.”

 We live on only as long as there are people still living to remember us.

What we do know from the minimal details found in Scriptures is that God has prepared for those who love him, and that there is no condemnation for those who are followers of Jesus. Beyond them there is the assurance that we, who have been buried with Christ through baptism, will also rise to newness of life. Details may be fascinating to us, but they often have little to do with ultimate truth. Truth is sometimes better communicated in brevity, in symbol, and in mystery. How could the writers of scripture give us concrete details to go on? They had never experienced it first-hand. And they rightly, I think, chose not to speculate too much.

In today’s Gospel lesson, a man dies and is restored to life, sisters complain and weep, and the crowd comments, weeps and complains. In the centre of this story, however, is Jesus. He is the focal point of the story, not Lazarus. He determines what will happen. He says, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” So it is with our own understanding of life and death. People weep and commiserate. They wonder what happens next, to them and to the one who has gone ahead. But Jesus, the way, the truth and the life, is the focal point at the moment of death. He says, “Peace be with you.” He alone will determine what happens next, so when we have Jesus, we should be prepared for anything that follows. As Jesus approaches Lazarus' tomb, we realize that it is an in-between time for him. Jesus here is at a moment between life and the death that awaits him on the cross. And even though he will rise again, just as he will resurrect Lazarus, that fact does not negate the pain and suffering and dying that he will choose to walk through for our sakes.

One of the things Jesus does in this in-between time is weep. In the in-between time there are tears. No matter how sure we are of God's promises and how strong our hopes are, we will still be moved to tears. When John says that Jesus was deeply moved and troubled, his words literally mean that Jesus groaned violently and was shaken to the very depths of his being. Weeping is not a sign of a lack of faith. Mary and Martha and God in Jesus wept tears at the pain, struggle and sorrow. We live with hope in our future but here and now we live with the reality of the confusion and chaos of our world.

It is interesting, too, that Jesus gave others work to do. Jesus could have raised Lazarus any way he wanted to. Instead, he chose to ask others to roll the stone away. He chose to resurrect Lazarus with his grave clothes on, and then he asked others to help take off the linen shroud.

God seems to be like that - always seeking human cooperation in accomplishing his purposes. He doesn't have to. He chooses to. It is a model of mission: see where God is already at work and join him there. Jesus told his disciples - and us - to follow him: to love as he loved; to serve as he served; to lay down our lives for others just like he did. It is a serious calling that honours each of us. We are invited to join God in his work of redemption - to be part of his church and help roll stones away and remove grave clothes from people in this world who are entombed in fear or loneliness or failure or resentment or a need for healing. We don't raise people to new life in Christ, but God lets us help. That is the privilege and purpose he gives us, and it is not to be taken lightly.

Today is a day when we remember those who have gone before us in the faith. We know that all those who believed in Jesus have seen the glory of God and now share a joy in which details of who we were and what we did are not important, neither to us nor to them.

We thank God for his grace in the lives of these saints, and for the ways in which they have touched and influenced us. We remember them by name in our prayers today. We may be at different places in our grieving for those who have only recently been lost to us, but we know that death has no power over them nor does it have power over us.


Thursday, 24 September 2015

Sunday sermon: Mark 9.38-50 Squabbles, stumbling blocks and salt.

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 afterward 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.”
 What a difficult passage! Squabbles over authority between Jesus’ inner group of followers and others, unknown to them but acting in Jesus’ name, warnings about being stumbling blocks to the faith of others and instructions to be the seasoning the world needs. There are three sermon topics in there alone.
 Here’s a clue to which one I’m going for: The primary school teacher had just finished the lesson. She had taught the portion of the Bible that told of how Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. She then asked if anyone had any questions or comments.

 Liam raised his hand. “My mum looked back once when she was driving and she turned into a telegraph pole!

 Ah, salt. I’m going with the salt option.

 Good old Sodium Chloride. Even though humans require a certain amount of salt for survival, most of us take in too much, and ingesting excessive amounts has been linked to major health problems. Individuals who eat too much salt are at a risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even stomach cancer. A friend and I were talking about food over lunch recently and we both acknowledged low salt diets. I don’t know about you but we no longer add salt to cooking, haven’t done since I can’t remember when, and there’s almost a sharp intake of breath in our house if a guest asks for it now. Those of us trying to eat healthily quickly learn the need to limit daily salt intake to an amount equal to one teaspoonful.

Salt is very inexpensive in our culture. In addition to small amounts of salt for the table, we buy it in big bags for use in the dishwasher or on icy pavements and by the lorry load to melt ice on motorways.

Of course, the way in which modern people view salt – abundant everywhere – is very different from those of centuries ago. In Biblical times salt was rare, hard to obtain, and considered a very precious commodity. Perhaps we can better understand why Jesus used the image in today’s gospel story: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves …”

Jesus used an analogy people could easily understand to let them know he expected something extraordinary from them for the sake of God. He placed a high value on his followers and on what he required of them – just as the first-century culture placed a very high value on salt. He taught his followers to act for God in ways as important and varied as salt was in their world. For us today the meaning has lost a lot of its impact because of how easily available salt is to us.

Now I don’t know about you but I’ve heard this passage of scripture numerous times and when I was mulling this morning over I was asking myself what the salt analogy means for us. What is the practical application?

It sort of works like this: salt does such-and-such/has such-and- such qualities therefore we, as latter-day Disciples, should also do such-and-such/have such-and-such a quality.

Right: over to you. Let’s see if your minds are working in tandem with mine. Think about a couple of qualities of salt that Jesus wanted us to emulate.

Flavour: Salt brings flavour to food. “Christian faith can provide spiritual seasoning that gives life joy and meaning. To keep life from being bland and unrewarding, we season it with Christian commitment and understanding of God’s love for his children. Being salt to the world means adding flavour to life wherever and whenever possible. It means adding a zestful spirit to life and love. It means pursuing meaning in all we do and in all we encounter. It means acting in love with all whom we touch.”

That last bit’s not mine. I read it in a commentary and thought, “How unutterably twee!” Right. Let’s try that again. What do I add to the world around me by being “salt”? I make a difference. I make a change because I’m new to the recipe, if you like. There is impact just by virtue of the fact that I am there when I wasn’t before.

I remember going out for a meal with Rachel once and ordering crab chowder. It was inedible because it was so salty. Let’s be clear: the change we bring isn’t necessarily positive and we can be too much in certain circumstances. Too brash, too in-your-face in our religious certainties; too lacking in sensitivity to the needs of those around us; too unaware of where people already are in their searching for spirituality and answers. Too much a stumbling block for others? When I quoted what Jesus had to say about salt earlier, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves ...” I missed off the ending, “… and be at peace with one another.” That restaurant got the recipe wrong and the food was a disaster. Let’s not forget the optimum amount of salt: it seasons. It doesn’t dominate or we shall be a disaster in God’s name in our turn, and that isn’t a recipe for being at peace with one another.

When I was younger I was very much in awe of a group of other young Christians. They seemed to have got it all sown up: they were slick operators and incredibly holy, but theirs, I realised, was not a joyful faith. It was a legalistic piety and they wound people up. I look back on it now and it was a little like I imagine Iran to be today, with its religious police. Those young people were the God squad and I sometimes wonder whether they caused more damage in the name of Jesus than they caused good. Did they, in fact, become stumbling blocks to faith? There’s a lesson there, I think.

On the Yorkshire Ministry Course we were taught about mission. The one thing that really struck me from that module was the idea of Missio Dei – God’s mission. We take the initiative from God: we see where he is already at work and we join in, in whatever way we can. We become the additional flavour in that situation. Mission flows from God: too many people take their own initiative, albeit on God’s behalf, but they overpower the recipe because they’re trying to lead God and not follow and in doing so they may very well get in the way of that mission – and become stumbling blocks.

“In Jesus’ day, salt was often connected with purity. The Romans believed that salt was the purest of all things, because it came from pure things: the sun and the sea. It was used by the Jews to purify their offerings to God. If we modern Christians are to be the salt of the earth, we must accept a pure and high standard in speech, thought, and behaviour – keeping ourselves unspotted by the world’s self-centeredness. Jesus calls us to be a cleansing presence, constantly witnessing to the good that is found in God and the values of God’s realm.”

Again, not mine.

I know what is being got at here but it sounds self-righteous. I think there are people driving backwards and forwards between Dover and Calais right now; people who have stood by roadsides in Hungary offering bottled water to refugees; people who have stood on the beaches of Kos and waded into the water to help the exhausted and terrified: they’ve understood this aspect of salt – it’s purity. They stand up to violence, injustice and intimidation, as do those who protest against countless acts of governments, both overt and covert around the world, against right-wing and fascist groups; against abuses both public and private. To me that’s more about moral purity than swanning around being ever so Christian, like the old God Squad used to do - and in a way like the Pharisees of Jesus time with their legalistic following of rules - and to me that links salt with its cleansing and healing properties. When I was preparing I read a sermon by Pastor Niemoller, delivered just days before his arrest by the Nazis. It was a sermon about standing up for what was right in the Third Reich. Scary stuff. Not at all twee.

That other sermon writer goes on: “Salt was also used to aid healing. As salt in the world we can promote healing through prayer, caring for others, and supporting the least, the lost, and the lonely – holding hands with one another and administering the holy oil of anointing.” And this time I agree but let’s not misunderstand: we aren’t all Florence Nightingale. We aren’t all going to do the high profile stuff that gets us the attention because when some people do that, others see right through them – and that can be a stumbling block. We are going to heal in quiet unobtrusive ways: we’ll be the listeners and mediators, the shoulders to cry on, the friends in need.

God can enable us to do the work Jesus commands us to do – to make a difference in the world: giving hope where there is no hope; forgiving where there is sin; embracing where there is loneliness and despair; showing tolerance where there is prejudice; reconciling where there is conflict; bringing justice where there is wrong; providing food where there is hunger; giving comfort where there is distress or disease.

The power of God supports and sustains us and stands with us if we risk whatever it takes to become salt to the world. And when we fail in this effort, which we will, repeatedly, God will give us other opportunities and renew us and give us strength to persevere, again and again.

Unlike many modern people whose health depends on moderation in eating salt, we are charged to become the salt of the earth. Let us ask for God’s strength and guidance to reach out to our various groups of friends and colleagues, our families and our neighbours in a world in desperate need of what Christian seasoning can provide and let us accept the responsibility to be a congregation more and more aware of our calling to discipleship.


Friday, 18 September 2015

Kim Davis: a theological reflection

There has been so much printed about Kim Davis recently that I am almost reluctant to air my own views.

Almost, but not quite.

Mrs. Davis has come in for a great deal of stick and I have to say I have little sympathy. While I would describe myself as liberal, gay-friendly and affirming of same-sex marriage, I must, though, be clear that I am not gay, Republican nor even American.

I am also a Christian, and this is where the problems seem to begin because, certainly in Republican terms, I am off message: it is not possible in the mind-set of many Republican Christians to support same-sex marriage and be a Christian. Because these two can't be countenanced together I can only be a Christian and not be gay-friendly or be gay-friendly and not be a Christian. 

But I am both.

I am both - and tired of being told that I need to repent of my sins/accept Jesus as my Saviour/read my Bible/etc.

I have done all those things and gone one stage further: I am an ordained minister.

This opens a new line of vitriol because in the Republican Christian worldview none of this computes. I am a "false priest" teaching a "false Gospel" in a "false church" to my "poor, misled" congregation because of my "sin-darkened mind", the remedy for which is to repent/accept Jesus as my Saviour/read my Bible/etc.

And so the conversation becomes circular.

It may just be a cultural thing: where I am from, it would be judged as a gross impertinence to attempt to second-guess the spiritual status of another before God. It is considered best to leave all matters relating to someone else's soul to the grace of God, who alone can know the truth. But no, in the land of the free having the temerity to disagree, have alternative perspectives or question received wisdom is tantamount to sin against the Holy Spirit.

Kim Davis has chosen to make a stand on an issue which, she has stated, goes to the heart of the principle of religious freedom: as a practicing Christian she can not, in all conscience, issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

I have some sympathy for the principle of religious freedom but in this case I believe Mrs. Davis has chosen the wrong issue to fight for. She has claimed that she is fighting over an issue central to her faith when no one could credibly claim that human sexuality is a matter which is determinative of salvation: I can think of a number of things I would list as "central" to the Christian faith - a committed and personal relationship of obedient discipleship with the living Christ being top of that list. Gay marriage - indeed, homosexuality in general - isn't on the list at all. It is not a matter of salvation, so the suggestion that one can not be gay and be a Christian is untheological and unsustainable.

Why can not a gay person be a Christian?

The general argument is that it is about unrepentant sin but that ignores the fact that "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." No one ceases to be a sinner because they have repented. To argue so would be to go against our everyday experience of temptation and failing. In addition, if indeed "All have fallen short of the glory of God", surely all sexuality is fallen - yours, mine, his, hers, theirs - regardless of how anyone's sexuality is characterised.

Part of the "Christian" ant-homosexual polemic also relates to the teaching of scripture: passages so well known they don't need to be repeated here. It is worth noting, though, that there are a mere half a dozen passages specifically referring to homosexual acts. What is overlooked are the vastly more significant numbers of scriptural injunctions and judgements about heterosexual sexual ethics and behaviours. One could, on that basis alone, argue that straights, as opposed to gays, are the ones who are the problem and are the ones in greater need of condemnation and close supervision. It is a travesty of theology - indeed, a perversion of scripture - to assert, on the basis of a few Biblical verses, that God holds a special place of hatred and contempt for homosexuals while claiming, despite such contrary overwhelming scriptural evidence, that God somehow loves and favours the heterosexual more.

In the light of God's searing judgement there is no hierarchy of sin. Sin is sin. It is not God, but we who continue to ascribe levels of severity to sin, passing over some while emphasising others.

 No, sin is sin.

But even this misses the point. If all are created in God's image it is difficult to argue that homosexuality is somehow not of God but, rather than recognise what we have learned through medicine, sociology and psychology - that sexuality is a continuum and certainly not a conscious choice (when did you choose to be straight?), we persevere with a pre-Christian understanding of sexual ethics. In doing so we fall back on the anti-intellectualism inherent in some branches of Christianity that the wisdom of man is as nothing to the wisdom of God, as if our intellects were not gifts of God to be used to bring his Kingdom closer.

We also need to be clear that there is no "Biblical marriage". Scripture gives us a variety of alternatives in terms of sexual relationships, many of which would seem completely alien, unethical and unsavoury today. One man and one woman may now be the norm but it is merely one of a number of options all of which were accepted in their day and recorded in scripture.

The anti-intellectualism I have alluded to would have us, in theory, bound to a whole range of conducts and behaviours deemed as scriptural and yet, with no apparent sense of irony, Christians down the ages of all churchmanships have claimed to be Bible-believers while knowingly picking and choosing which parts of scripture suit them. We are not obedient to the whole canon of Biblical injunctions and moral codes, so this meme of being obedient to scripture is a nonsense and we should be more honest about it instead of hiding behind the fantasy of "scriptural authority" and obedience to it.

The same anti-intellectualism would have us believe that, notwithstanding the on-going work of the Holy Spirit, God's self-revelation ended the moment the canon of scripture was set. Too many Christians view the insights of modern scholarship and hermeneutics as akin to heresy and so they give themselves permission to go on accepting the untenable and never give themselves the option of examining new interpretations.

There is a theological illiteracy at the heart of much that today passes for Christianity and at present it is most apparent in discussions about human sexuality: people quote verses without looking at, let alone understanding, the wider context; people have little understanding that what we are reading in scripture is the end result of a long process of translation (and mistranslation) from ancient Hebrew and Greek, where some of the words and phrases rendered into English are so obscure and with no absolute modern equivalent, that scholars are unsure of the exact meaning. The outcome is often a best-guess stab at the meaning. One of the words translated as "homosexual" would, it now transpires, be better translated as "pederast" which changes the whole meaning of the text.

Regardless of the fact that as Christians we believe the incarnation ushered in a new covenant and regardless of the fact that the whole tenor of Jesus' ministry was to challenge and reform the existing religious order, at the same time as preaching a Gospel of equality, many Christians prefer, instead, to stick with the idea that, in the words of Matthew's Jesus, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them" while ignoring the rider, "but to fulfil them." These people are the Old Testament Christians, or Leviticites, more concerned, like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, to observe to the letter the laws that oppressed the people.

It has been long known that the alleged teaching of scripture in both Old and New Testaments on homosexuality is, in fact, a warning against apostasy: a warning to God's people not to follow the cultic sexual practices of Israel's pagan neighbours and yet, we refuse to let-go of our innate belief that these verses are a polemic against all forms of homosexuality, including the faithful, monogamous aspirations of those to whom Kim Davis would deny a marriage license. The two could not be further apart. They are not two sides of the same coin.

If for generations we have been picking and choosing which parts of scripture suit us theologically and culturally (and one could argue that in relation to Mrs. Davis's marriage status) and, given the dreadful history of the churches in getting it wrong on issues such as slavery and race, why have the attitudes to homosexuality stuck? It can only be that these attitudes reflect human sin: the sin of prejudice and closed mindedness; the sin of fear of the different and the other in society; the sin of being judgemental; the sin of superiority and the sin of believing we know the mind of God.

I noted earlier that I thought Kim Davis had chosen the wrong issue to take to the battle of religious freedom. Let's be clear: in America no one is being stopped from worshipping freely. No one is institutionally disadvantaged by being identified as a person of faith. No one is at risk of losing their home, their reputation, their livelihood, their education or, indeed, their life as a consequence of being an out and proud Christian, so let's stop this narrative of persecution. 

You see, while I think Kim Davis is wrong and that in her case the injunction in Romans to obey the laws of the land because they have been instituted by God is a sound principle for a state employee to follow, I do not subscribe to the idea of a blanket ban on civil disobedience.

Kim Davis has chosen not to obey a law, which had she enforced it would have caused no disadvantage or danger to any third party. In so doing she has chosen the wrong fight. There may well be occasions in the future where Christian civil disobedience would be absolutely the right course of action. This is not it and she has diminished the whole principle of Religious freedom as a consequence. 

It seems that when Christians such as Kim Davis and the Republican politicians who have sprung to her support talk about Religious freedom, they are really talking about Christian religious freedom.

This has yet to be tested out in the courts, although it is surely only a matter of time, but can we imagine the fuss if a Quaker clerk refused a gun license on the grounds of religious freedom? Or if a Muslim shopkeeper refused to sell alcohol on the grounds of religious freedom? Or if a Jehovah's Witness doctor refused a blood transfusion on the grounds of religious freedom? Or if a Jewish supermarket checkout operator refused to handle ham on the grounds of religious freedom? There would be uproar, and rightly so.

That is not religious freedom, it is freedom only to impose your own beliefs on others and that, surely, is no freedom at all.