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.