Category Archives: Bible

‘Do Not Worry’: Sermon Preached at St Oswald’s, Glasgow, 19 February 2017 (Epiphany 7)

Matthew 6: 25 – 34

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

We seem to be living in a ‘through the looking-glass’ world, with ‘alternative facts’ being accorded the same status as real facts. Tweedledum or Tweedledee (does it matter which?) said something to the effect that ‘the words I use mean what I want them to mean’, and examples of this approach abound in certain kinds of political discourse. Serious journalism is being discounted in favour of social media, and there is a sedulously cultivated  disdain for scientific and other kinds of expertise.

It is a time of anxiety such as I personally have not experienced for half a century. What does the post-Brexit future hold for our country? What will the most powerful leader on the globe say or do next?

The advice in today’s gospel not to worry seems, at first glance, rather naive; we are not, after all,  ‘birds of the air’

The passage could also encourage us to assume that God will sort out all our problems for us, and consequently that God can be blamed when things go wrong: ‘Where was God on 9/11? Why did God not prevent it?’

If, however, God were to communicate with us directly, he would probably say something like: ‘I can’t guarantee to protect you against all difficulties, especially those created by your folly and selfishness, but please try to trust me. I’m still here; I haven’t gone away. But I gave you freedom so that you could take sensible decisions about your future. Furthermore, it would help if you prayed a bit more, if you reflected on my nature and my lordship over creation in the light of scripture, and took responsibility for co-operating with each other, and even with those who still don’t acknowledge me, to build my realm of peace and justice. It will be tough, but you are not alone.’ As one of my fellow-students remarked, during our training for ministry, ‘God engages, but doesn’t micromanage’.

The gospel passage is really about excessive and self-centred anxiety, the antidote to which is trust, and turning outwards from our own concerns to respond to the needs of others. In short, the traditional triad of faith, hope and love is as relevant as ever.

Paul knew about sustaining hope in difficult times, and in the passage from the Epistle to the Romans which formed our second reading (Romans 8: 18 – 25), he articulates it very forcefully. ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Rom. 8:18). He had good reason for referring to the ‘sufferings of this present time’, for he himself had been the target of suspicion and hostility from the Jewish converts at Jerusalem, some of whom could never quite bring themselves to believe that he was either a genuine Jew or a genuine Christian, since he had been a persecutor of the church (rather like the situation of Muslims in the US or the UK, who often don’t feel they are regarded as really American or British). Furthermore, by the time he wrote the Epistle to the Romans, he had suffered imprisonment, had been beaten severely, and was the target of a murder conspiracy. Throughout all these dark years, however, he was sustained by hope.

For Paul, the hope promised in the resurrection is the start of a dynamic process which will ultimately be completed when Christ is all in all, and all things are brought under the rule of love.

It has fallen to us to live in dark days, but others have been there before us. As Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, he knew that it had been destroyed before, that the cohesion and identity of the nation had been shattered, their government and institutions destroyed, and the population imprisoned in a foreign land. A situation comparable in some respects to what we are experiencing now. Despite all this, the Israelites had survived as a people of faith.

It is not given to us to know what the future holds, but in the meantime we are called to look for and to nourish life, to hold fast to faith, hope and love: a faith that can, if necessary, withstand the destruction of all we hold dear; a hope that even if ‘All humanity is grass’, in the words of Isaiah, nevertheless, ‘the word of the Lord remains forever’; and a love which will make us support and encourage each other in the work of building the kingdom of God.

Sermon preached at Christ Church, Lanark, on 28 February, 2016 (Lent 3)

Lk. 13:1–9

Last week, I purchased a birthday present for my wife. I searched for it online, in the course of which I discovered I could arrange to collect it on a stated day from a location near to where we live. In due course I received a text message telling me to check my e-mail, which would contain a bar code, which I was to print out and take to the collection point, along with some form of photo ID.

So far, so efficient; but also so impersonal, and so super-contractual. For although I had agreed to purchase the item, and paid online, I could not receive the package into my hands unless all the paperwork was in order. The bar code was useless without the photo ID, and vice-versa.

It set me thinking about how much of our interaction with others is contractual. Every day we enter into binding arrangements which impose obligations – to provide goods or services in exchange for payment, or to incur penalties in case of default. Our society makes intensive use of the discourse of entitlement, and much of our interaction is predicated on a system of rewards and punishments – every quid has a quo.

Even some of our intimate relationships with family and friends can have contractual character: ‘If you give up smoking, I’ll take you on a cruise to the Bahamas’ (‘and if you don’t, I’ll take you on a cruise to Rockall and leave you there’).

But God doesn’t make contracts with us, nor should we try to make contracts with God, even though we do it all the time, especially in Lent: ‘If I give up wine or chocolate for six weeks, can my daughter get that place in university she has applied for?’

True relationships, relationships of value, between humanity and God, and among human beings made in God’s image, are not contractual but covenantal. A covenant is a relationship of support and trust, in short, of love. We speak of marriage as a contract, and in respect of its legal status it is. But as an interpersonal commitment to lifetime fidelity, patience and support, it is, or should be, a covenant.

The trouble is, we go on thinking of our relationship with God in contractual and legal terms. So sin is thought of as the infringement of a rule, for which we have to pay a penalty. Today’s gospel provides a good example of our tendency to assume that evil and suffering are punishment for sin: those whom Pilate killed, and those on whom the tower of Siloam fell, must have been very wicked. Most of us can remember the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when many people professing to be Christians were only too eager to say that this devastating illness was ‘the wages of sin’.

If our relationships, with God and with each other, are truly covenantal, impairment of any relationship is primarily a failure of trust and love. To be sure, there are occasions when restitution (say, of improperly obtained wealth) is a contractual necessity if the relationship is ever to be healed. But this is only the first step, and real restoration of trust and love can only happen through repentance and forgiveness.

Repentance is not quid-pro-quo restitution, but an acknowledgement of failure. It involves trusting that we shall be forgiven; it means dropping our defences and accepting our vulnerability. Jesus’ statement in today’s gospel (‘unless you repent, you will all perish as they did’ [Lk. 13:3, 5]) is not a threat or a statement about punishment or penalty, but a recognition of the destructive effects of lack of repentance, which is essentially the refusal to trust, to acknowledge our failure.

But what is the parable of the fig tree doing here? It provides a strange and seemingly irrelevant coda to the passage, but it is one of the many expressions in the Bible of the theme of the second chance, of the new beginning, of God’s patience. Time and time again, the Old Testament shows God ‘repenting of the evil which he had intended to do’. Even at the very end of the last book in the Bible, Revelation, that favourite of many a fundamentalist, with its dire warnings and terrifying images, the angel says (Rev. 22:10-11): ‘Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.’

Rowan Williams has said somewhere that hell can be envisaged as a place where God is trying to push the door open while those inside struggle to keep it shut. What these words from Revelation suggest is that up to very last second of time, God holds door open to our repentance and return, for God’s generosity and patience are infinite. If we want to enter into true Christian freedom, we have to realise this, not just in our minds, but in the depths of our being.

Lent, then, is not a time of ‘doing things’ or imposing mortifications in order to redress the contractual balance, but a time when we reflect on whether we are living as people of the covenant, a covenant of love and trust in one who is infinitely generous and patient:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (Is. 55:8-9).

Revenant

I’ve been away from blogging nearly two years, and it’s time I made the effort again. My illness in 2014 and my recovery period rather upset the rhythm, and I got lazy about taking it up again.

Anyway, it seems that some of the congregations I visit during vacancies are interested in some of my sermons being given a wider accessibility, so here is what I said on Sunday, when we celebrated the feast of the Presentation:

‘Lk 2:22–40

The story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple is characteristic of Luke’s generally serene and uplifting tone. Joseph and Mary travel to Jerusalem in the confidence that they are doing the correct thing required by the Law of God in presenting their child in the Temple and carrying out the required rituals.

– Simeon has lived all his life looking forward with quiet trust to the time when the faith of Israel will be vindicated, and the Messiah will appear to inaugurate God’s rule. We meet him at the very moment when his hope is justified, when he finally knows that salvation is at hand, and that he can depart this life in peace.

– Finally, the narrative of the return to Galilee speaks of a family settling down to a happy and fulfilled home-life in ‘their own town’, where, we may infer, they are known and respected: ‘The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him’ (2.40).

This picture of peace, growth and fulfilment depicts not only an ideal of domestic harmony, but it is close to shalom, the essential characteristic of the Kingdom of God as described throughout both the OT and the NT.

And yet…and yet…

– Luke’s optimism is always tempered by a healthy dash of realism. The child Jesus, as he reaches maturity, will of course cause the ‘rising’ of many of those he encounters, i.e., will heal their wounds, liberate them from guilt, and open up hitherto unseen vistas of new possibilities, of a different kind of life.

– But he is also destined for the ‘falling’ of many. He will be ‘a sign that will be opposed’ (2.34). The tranquil life of his home in Nazareth will be shattered by his determination to follow his destiny, even to death.

– A sword will pierce the soul of his parents, especially his mother; his family will be bewildered and hurt by his behaviour, to the point where they will seek to restrain him and obstruct his mission.

– During his public ministry, his teaching, and, above all, what he does and what he is will challenge those who are comfortably settled in their conventional ways. The religious establishment will be outraged by his easy-going approach to Sabbath observance, ritual purity and social hierarchies. And they will resent being jerked out of their comfort zones to the point where they will kill the bearer of the Good News.

All through his public ministry, Jesus failed, for the most part, to convince his followers that discipleship was costly, and, especially, that his mission would lead to his death.

– Peter, vehemently denying that this would happen, was sharply put in his place with the rebuke, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’.

– Arguably, one of the ironies in the NT is that possibly the only person who really understood the demands of discipleship was the rich young man who came to Jesus seeking to know what he was required to do, but went away sorrowful because he was unwilling to accept that if he took Jesus’s invitation seriously, he would have to change, and change to the point where his wealth ceased to be his personal possession, but became the means of compassionate service of the poor.

Many of us, like that young man, understand the demands of discipleship all too well.

– How far do we embrace them?

– Or do we, too, turn aside sorrowful?

– We are called to follow the gospel in the first instance in the circumstances in which we are placed. Nevertheless, the stark, uncompromising challenge remains.

– If we truly respond to Christ’s call, we cannot set prior limits to our response, cannot make the mental reservation that we will follow him only so long as he doesn’t unsettle us and lead us where we don’t wish to go.

One person who knew all about the cost of discipleship was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Before he died, he wrote these words about discipleship: ‘It is nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone, completely breaking through every programme, every set of laws…Beside Jesus nothing has any significance. He alone matters’.

The babe in arms taken to the Temple rightly conjures up a reassuring image of vulnerability, tenderness and love.

But Jesus cannot be domesticated.

– As Rowan Williams has wittily expressed it, ‘God becomes our last and best alibi for not being disturbed.…The tightly swaddled baby is a gift-wrapped object, passive and docile for use in our business, our transactions; a lucky mascot; the sleeping partner in the firm’.

– But Jesus comes to offer not only what Simeon recognised as ‘the consolation of Israel’, but also to challenge us, to shake us out of our complacent, off-the-shelf religious ideas and practices. As Malachi reminds us, with his violent imagery of cleansing fire, ‘who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’

Most of us can say, without a trace of dishonesty: ‘This is not the stuff of which martyrs are made’. But there will be times when our souls are pierced by a sword:

– when betrayal by a friend whom we trusted shakes our faith in human nature;

– when the prevalence of violence and injustice in the world tempts us to despair;

– when we are faced with situations where the only ethical and Christian thing to do is to give up something we hold dear (a deep-seated prejudice, a job, a relationship).

The story of the Presentation in the Temple offers us the reassurance that if we respond to Jesus’ call, we will see salvation, and be a light to lighten the nations and to give glory to God’s people.

Amen’

Yesbuttery

Recently our elder son commented on Facebook: ‘I wonder what would happen if we all gave up ‪#‎breakingnews for Lent? For me, ‪#‎slownews epitomizes the season of pause and reflection’.

This struck a chord with me, for there is so much pressure in our preaching during Lent constantly to emphasise discipline and austerity, something which, if you are an Anglican, our printed liturgies and prayers reinforce. Nothing wrong with discipline, so long as we recognise that it is needed all year round, not just in Lent. So long as we realise, too, that it can turn into a kind of reverse arrogance: ‘If only I could make myself a better person, I would be in better standing with God.’ Do we really suppose that we would ever reach perfection? If we persuaded ourselves that we had, would this not constitute pride, which can be guaranteed to lead us away from God towards our own self-preoccupation?

I was reflecting on these issues when I came across a passage from Martin Smith’s A Season for the Spirit (a title which is as good a description of the essence of Lent as one might wish). He says that hat we should give up is

‘resistance to the One who loves me infinitely more than I can guess, the One who is more on my side than I am myself. Dwelling on this thought of letting go, and handing myself over to the Spirit will bring me much closer to the experience of Jesus than the word “discipline” which so many of us have been trained to invoke at the beginning of Lent. It should help us smile at our anxious attempts to bring our life under control, the belt-tightening resolutions about giving up this or taking on that. What we are called to give up in Lent is control itself! Deliberate attempts to impose discipline on our lives often serve only to lead us further away from the freedom which Jesus attained through surrender to the Spirit, and promised to give’.

The hardest thing about Lent, and about the life of faith in general, is to accept the depth and breadth of God’s love for each one of us, to avoid what I would call ‘Yesbuttery’ You know the sort of thing: ‘God loves you’; ‘Yes, but… – I’m not a very charitable person / I don’t love God enough / I’m not grateful enough’. It’s as if we want to arrive at Easter entitled to give ourselves a pat on the back for what we have achieved on the way to self-perfection. Our lives will not be transformed by deliberate self-focused discipline, but by accepting that however much resistance we put up, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

The fudge has turned rancid

A while ago, I posted here about my gratitude and joy at the announcement in 1992 that the Church of England had removed the canonical impediment to the ordination of women to the priesthood. My feelings last Tuesday were exactly the opposite: grief mixed with anger at the waste of an opportunity to set right a long-standing injustice. With hindsight, though, the seeds of Tuesday’s débacle were sown twenty years ago when ill-considered concessions were made to those who stubbornly held out against the settled will of the Church, concessions which gave a spurious legitimacy to continued discrimination against half the human race. A Church which behaves in this way cannot complain if it is regarded as an irrelevant anachronism by the rest of society.

A Jobbing Pastor Repents

I spent most of last week at a very stimulating conference in St Andrews, devoted entirely to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. As a non-specialist who doesn’t know Greek, I found a lot of it was above my head. Why, I thought from time to time, are we spending 30-45 minutes at several points in the conference analysing two words of text, or an obscure Greek particle? When I was doing my Master’s at St Andrews, exegesis was of zero interest to me, and in my essay on it I was far from covering myself with glory. Indeed, I had a friendly disagreement with the relevant lecturer, insisting that I couldn’t see the point of detailed technical exegesis for the kind of work I was doing at the coalface of ministry. I don’t think we managed to convince each other.

Yet there were moments of real illumination during the conference, when things suddenly jelled, and the relevance of this meticulous approach became clear. For example, a good deal of time was spent on the phrase pistis Christou, which can be read either as ‘faith in Christ’ or ‘the faith of Christ’, depending on whether Christou is taken as a Subjective Genitive or an Objective Genitive (things well known to New Testament scholars, but news to me). Just at the point where this was threatening to become mind-numbing, it struck me that this has far-reaching implications for faith, for pastoral care, and for preaching. ‘Faith in Christ’ can take one in the direction of requiring assent to doctrinal formulae as a qualification for membership of the Christian Church. ‘The faith of Christ’ seems to me to be more open-ended and spacious. If it means our sharing Christ’s faith, his trust in God even in the midst of apparent rejection, continuing to trust despite not being able to see the future, then it is more congenial to the notion that God is always doing a new thing, and that the working out of God’s intentions will take us further than we can possibly imagine now. The implications of this for opening up new understandings of those parts of the Christian tradition which have, for example, oppressed women and stigmatised gay people are profound.

So I came away convinced that the jobbing pastor needs to understand the relevance of this highly academic work to the everyday task of accompanying his/her flock in their journey towards and with God. And yes, I shall make an effort to learn Greek.

Hear what uncomfortable words…

Yesterday, preaching on Luke 10:1-20, I experienced a familiar dart of irritation at the sanitisation and bowdlerisation of our lectionary. It seems that anything that is likely to upset people by offering a challenge to our easy-going liberal assumptions about scripture is, nine times out of ten, excised from the text used in worship. In the present case, vv. 12-15 were left out. This is where Jesus, after urging his disciples to shake off their feet the dust of any town that doesn’t accept the Gospel, says, ‘on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.  Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!…’, etc.

Pope Benedict has recently caused a certain amount of superior amusement by his statement that the present travails of the RC church are the work of the ‘enemy’. Whether he really believes in the Devil is still an open question, but the embarrassing fact is that Jesus, his disciples, Paul and the NT writers did, and saw the rejection of the Gospel as the result of superhuman forces of evil. We do no service to our congregations by concealing the fact that the mental universe of the NT was different from ours, and that the beliefs of a pre-scientific age cannot be normative for contemporary Christians. As Lucy Winkett has said somewhere, ‘We teach the faith in the light of what else we know’.

To discount these difficult passages, on the ground that we no longer believe in the literal existence of devils, is to avoid facing the awesome responsibility involved in rejecting the Good News. We have abandoned the imagery of superhuman beings , but as Sallie McFague has written, ‘In ways that have never before been so clear and stark, we have met the enemy and know it is ourselves’.