"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sunday Sermon. "But you: Who do you say that I am?" Mat.16.13-20

I’ve been an Anglican for most of my adult life but before I joined the congregation here I’d spent the last few years worshipping with the Lutheran Church. Through them I was sponsored to go to Vicar School and I graduated a couple of years ago. But the Lutheran church wasn’t for me in the end – or perhaps, more to the point, I wasn’t for them (far too Anglican I was told) and so here I am, a returner to the Anglican fold.

Now, I suspect most of you have little experience of Lutherans, but you may have come across the American Author Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone stories set in deepest Minnesota. Keillor’s Lutherans, mainly of Scandinavian origin, were a morose lot who flourished in a cold climate, believing that adversity and suffering were given as moral instruction. Their religion was primarily Christianity but made room for the ancient Nordic precept that the gods were waiting to smack you one if you were having too good a time. So they believed in the inevitability of suffering - far better to anticipate disaster: if life was not miserable now it would be eventually, so you might as well get a head start on the weeping and gnashing of teeth in the here and now.

Their big theological debate was over the issue “Will we recognise each other in Heaven?” One Lutheran might say: “My sainted Grandmother is waiting for me beyond the pearly gates, free from suffering and care, and if you are saying I won’t know her, you are ignorant of scripture and you’re going to Hell you heretic!” Another Lutheran might reply: “It’s not important to me one way or the other but if you think your face is something God will allow in a place of perfect bliss, maybe you ought to take another look.”

They were also theologically divided on the best way to make coleslaw.

Pastor Inqvist was the Lutheran Pastor of Lake Wobgone. His congregation hoped for a sermon with a storming start and a storming finish….and as short a space as possible between the two. So here we go:

Peter's confession in Matthew’s Gospel. These verses are among the most studied, debated, and disputed verses in the New Testament because historically, they’ve been central to issues of authority in the church, especially the authority of Popes as successors to Peter.

You may remember a couple of weeks ago, Fr. Derek reminded us about one of the key things we need to bear in mind when we read the gospels: who was this portion written for? Who was the target audience, if you like, because it changes? And understanding this helps us to understand more clearly the message in that portion of scripture. Sometimes we see Jesus talking to his disciples but the message he speaks is clearly intended for the Pharisees. The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying but the Pharisees certainly did. They were his audience on those occasions rather than the disciples. So to develop Fr. Derek’s thinking we need perhaps to recognise that sometimes there is an implied audience. Again in today’s Gospel we’ve heard Jesus speaking to his disciples: they were his target audience on this occasion but at the same time we need to ask ourselves who else might Jesus be speaking to? And this time we should see ourselves as the implied audience because we, too, are disciples. What Jesus said (in the past tense) to his friends – and particularly to Peter, all that time ago, he is saying to us today: is saying - present tense. Now. This morning.

I’d like us to reflect for a moment on this Jesus. Here is a man who has left his mark on history, which is fairly surprising given that he lived a long time ago in a remote corner of the middle of nowhere, came from a poor family with no political or social clout, didn’t travel extensively, never wrote down his thoughts and ideas and died in fairly ignominious circumstances. In the normal course of events he ought really to have been lost to history. Yet this man became one of the most revered and talked about people who ever walked the human stage and I’m entirely confident that those three or four years of his public ministry have had a profound impact on the lives of each of us here. The problem is that there is a dearth of material from Jesus’ own time and mountains of conflicting material from every generation since. So which Jesus are we talking about? Gentle Jesus meek and mild, as the hymn would have us believe? (Small children and fluffy bunnies?) Remote, mystical Jesus championed by an army of conspiracy writers such as Dan Brown? Radical-revolutionary Jesus so beloved by the downtrodden in the liberation movement? Nerdy-precocious Jesus sitting at the feet of the rabbis in the temple in his youth? The Jesus of the American televangelists (“put your hands up to the screen and Jesus will heal you”)? Jesus: Remote? Or close?

Will the real Jesus please stand up!

Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus poses a key question. He starts the exchange with his disciples with the opening gambit “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” We can imagine the disciples processing this: “The Son of Man” is a term found a number of times in Jewish Scripture, so however rough and ready and uneducated his followers might have been, they should have known the term. But they don’t at this stage seem to have made the connection between the title “Son of Man” and Jesus himself though, because they come up with a variety of first-thing-that-come-into-their-heads answers.

Not satisfied with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and various other prophets, Jesus prompts them further: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Now they know that Jesus is referring to himself, and you can’t help but wonder at this point how foolish the disciple who offered “John the Baptist” as an initial answer is now feeling. Perhaps there is some friendly teasing at this point as they laugh at the daft answers they’d come up with…… but out of the midst of the laughter and banter Simon-Peter’s voice is heard clear and confident: “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” We can imagine at this point the hush descending on the group as the others realise the implication of what Simon-Peter has just said and begin to consider it themselves.

Perhaps there is a similar mental back-tracking taking place here as we also realise the implication of both the question - and Simon Peter’s response: after all, every time this passage is read we are forced to consider the question ourselves as if it had just been asked of us. As modern disciples we are the implied audience for this segment: it’s not just a story from back then. It’s a challenge for us today. No, it won’t hurt us at all to consider that Jesus is still asking the question of you and I today, here, this morning – and every time we hear this story, so when we ask: “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” his counter question is “Who do you think that I am then?” with a reply swiftly supplied by Peter: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”.

If Peter was actually the first to have fully understood the nature of the man he had been travelling with and sleeping cheek by jowl with, what had he thought before? How had the others understood this Jesus who had called them from their ordinary routines to this life on the road as religious itinerants? Which of the disciples’ answers best represents ours? Are we at that stage of spiritual awareness where we are still seeing Jesus as a “good man”? A prophet, perhaps, which is where my Muslim friends get stuck? Or a preacher? A religious hothead cut down before his time? A political activist with a bad sense of timing?

Or like Simon Peter, have we recognised something beyond that? Have we had that moment of dawning realisation where we recognise that Jesus is….not was….is indeed the Christ, the son of the Living God?

Yes, Jesus, the Living Lord of the Church, responds, present tense, persistently down the generations “But YOU: who do you say that I am?” How we answer that question has a lot to do with whether we see a dead Jesus or a live Jesus in our lives. How anyone answers that question is a matter of huge significance.

It goes to the heart of our relationship with God; it goes to the heart of our understanding of ourselves; it goes to the heart of how we lead our lives; to the heart of the relationships we have amongst ourselves and to the heart of the very motives which drive our lives and our decisions.

When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the Living God, Jesus begins to become known for whom he is and things begin to change: Jesus promised to build his Church upon this confession of faith but the true foundation of the Church is the one whom Peter confesses not the confession. So we need, perhaps, to ask ourselves again “Who do I think that he is?” And when we do, we re-live this Gospel story. As we individually and personally reply to Jesus, “you are the Christ,” he says to us - to each of us - “You, too, are Peter and with you, too, I am building my church.” What happened to Peter continues and it includes us – present tense: it includes us. It’s in the here and now.

Look at the last 2000 years and consider them as rings of time - a ring for each decade say, scores and scores of such circles. We are in the very outermost circle, farthest away from the centre - and at the centre is the Cross. We are brought into the circle, into the faith, in large part because somewhere, somehow, someone in the circle just before ours took us by the hand, so to speak, and said, “come,” and so drew us in. That is one very important reason why we are here. That person was able to do this for us because someone else had taken him or her by the hand and had drawn them in and that’s what we in our turn should be doing to others. And way back we are in continuity with someone who was there at the start: with Jesus himself.

That continuity is a continuity of Christ’s presence, a continuity of faith, a continuity of tradition and doctrine, and a continuity of people - each connected to those who went before because we’ve recognised Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Part of the identity we receive from the Lord, is the same as Peter’s. He was the first stone of the edifice the Lord is building - is building, present tense. That structure is the church. Not a building, a community of disciples past present and to come. Peter was the first stone of a building which God is continuing to build. We continue to be called to be who Peter was called to be. Through us, and by us, Christ continues to build his church. Through us, Christ continues to be present in his world.

But we only play our role in that process when we answer his question “Who do you think that I am?” with the reply “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.”


Monday, August 15, 2011

Adjusting to life in a new church

I’d forgotten what fun going to church can be: not, I’m aware, an utterance one might hear often.

I don’t want to be unfair to the congregation of St. Smalls who were always encouraging and supportive of my ministry, but it was hard to fully appreciate that in the climate of suspicion and perpetual criticism which emanated from the central leadership.

At St. Local’s, though, the pervading culture is quite different. It is one of enabling, of affirmation, of encouragement and of support. I have read and led intercessions in worship on a number of occasions now and my observation is that the congregation and the leadership love to give positive feedback. People come and tell you that they enjoyed what you said, or how helpful they found it, or how nice it was to hear another voice out there. They tell you that they have thought about what you said or how they felt challenged and they thank you for bothering.

I shall be preaching for the first time there this week. When I asked my new vicar if she wanted me to submit my sermon in advance so that she could check it for doctrinal error she was astounded.

“No, why would I do that? I trust you. I work on the basis that people should preach what they believe. If people in the congregation don’t agree it will be a good discussion point. No, I look forward to hearing the unexpurgated version.”

I also seem to have joined the Mothers’ Union, seduced by the company of my new sparky pensioner friends and the prospect of a three course lunch for £5.45.

One of the Churchwardens sidled up to me the other week. He touched the side of his nose. “I know you’re here on work experience.” he said. “Ordination and all that.” I expected him to wink. I have, it seems, been outed.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Various perspectives on public unrest

Wolverhampton Wanderers have just signed a new Italian striker - Grabatelli.

This is a passanger announcement. For those alighting at Wolverhampton, the nearest branch of JJB Sports is 150 yards to the right of the main station exit.

In Wolverhampton, rioters and looters have done £3.6m worth of improvements.

The Metro offered us some Blitz spirit with
Clapham broom picture goes viral as Londoners defy looters

Alternatively, for those wishing to avoid further displays of British phlegm, you might find Zoe Williams' article on the psychology of looting an interesting read in Thre Guardian. How can you cease to beleieve in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear?

Taking an alternative approach, Camila Batmanghelidjh, writing in The Independent, offers The insidious flourishing of anti-establishment attitudes is paradoxically helped by the establishment. It grows when a child is dragged by their mother to social services screaming for help and security guards remove both; or in the shiny academies which, quietly, rid themselves of the most disturbed kids.

Nothing newsworthy from Leeds or Bradford I am proud to say.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

In praise of Sat-Nav

I am now the proud owner of a satellite navigation system. There's posh then. Notwithstanding the apocryphal stories of people being sent up one way streets, through fords and down back alleys I thought it was time. If I have to aplogise to my friends once more as the lunch spoils for getting lost in Bradford I may not be able to hold my head up.

My sat-nav's voice is that of a firm but kind English lady. I understand I can play with gender, accents and even languages but as I can't find the manual just now, that may have to wait. I'm interested to see how my driving might change if I am being given directions from an excitable Italian or a firm German. I'd like to improve my grasp of other languages in everyday situations too, so I wonder if I can get that Czech actress who does the Prague transport system on the machine. In fairness I'd probably still get lost but with a voice like that for company, who cares?

My beloved and I went to Ilkley the other day. It's a journey we've done lots of times before and so it was a good opportunity to try the technology. I was impressed. My guide was so patient: when our own local knowledge led us to take a different route from the one on offer I was half expecting to hear a sharp intake of breath and to be told in no uncertain terms to shape up and concentrate. Who did I think I was to use my own initiative? It was nothing of the sort: her gentle voice calmly suggested an alternative to get me back on the original route offered. I was driving a car, had chosen a different route and the female voice beside me chose not to have a row. I like this.

"It's unconditional love." my beloved offered, a woman herself so pathologically polite that she wouldn't talk over the sat-nav's spoken advice because to do so would be rude.

My sat-nav's persona needs a name. I shall ponder this.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reflections on media coverage of the Norwegian atrocity

I was on holiday and away from the computer when news hit of the atrocities in and around Oslo. I watched the events unfolding with the same shock and horror as everyone else and followed the editorials in various newspapers and the talking heads on T.V. and radio. The media didn't come out of it very well at all. It seemed to me that significant chunks of the media fell into all the pitfalls I normally associate with the blogosphere as various outlets pandered in the most partisan way to the prejudices of their constituents, throwing out some incredibly ill-informed and dangerous opinion as fact.

In the U.S. on the night of the shootings, Laura Ingham, speaking on Faux News, opined about "two deadly terror attacks in Norway, in what appears to be the work, once again, of Muslim extremists" adding, "In the meantime, in New York City, the Muslims who want to build a Mosque at Ground Zero recently scored a huge legal victory."

Boom Boom: point scored there, then.

And so the tone was set: Its those uppity Muslims again. The early stages of the media coverage in my opinion was similar to garnering your sense of reality from the INTERNET. The mainstream media usually provides a balance to those who rely on the often perverted views of the conspiracy theorists found all over the web, "a vicious spiral of groupthink, reinforcing the worst kind of ideology, an internally consistent, systematic worldview, totally divorced from everyday humanity." as described by the journalist Timothy Garton Ash of the Guardian, but the reason and common sense the mainstream media ought to have provided seemed to be even more lacking than usual. There was too much jumping to conclusions, making two plus two equal five and running with that.

In the mainstream media I kept hearing that this was the work of a terrorist sleeper cell with links to Al Qaida and time after time these people, trotted out as informed commentators and experts, would talk knowledgeably about extremist Islamist terrorism, moving seamlessly from a 7/7 type bombing to a Mumbai style massacre. The problem was that these experts were speculating: they were wafflers, pontificators, guessers and ill-informed punters. They might just as well have been pulled into the studio from the street because they knew about as much as I did and often, it seemed, were less well informed. Don't get me wrong, I like experts on the T.V. but I do expect them to be better informed than me.

The script didn't strike me as very credible either: why Norway? Ah, because of its support for the war in Afghanistan and because its newspapers had reprinted the offensive cartoons of Muhammad first published in Danish newspapers, the talking heads told us. Really? Why not Denmark then, presumably as "soft" a target as Norway. It didn't ring true.

And then it all fell apart for the media commentators as frantic tweets and texts from the island confounded all this speculation by identifying the shooter as a blond, white man which didn't meet the off-the-peg terrorist profile one bit. Ah, but Muslims had been very busy trying to recruit "local" people to their extremist ideology all over Europe, so its probably still those Muslims. This was the view of The Sun which also noted, "We do not know if yesterday was the work of al-Qaida, which has threatened Norway before .... The lesson for us are clear. Osama Bin Laden may be dead. But the tentacles of al-Qaida, and groups linked to it, spread deep into the heart of Western nations." So having admitted it didn't know who had been responsible, the Sun still went in for a little Muslim bashing by throwing in Al Qaida and leaving its readership to join the dots.

Charlie Brooker of the Guardian sums up the next stage neatly: "By the time I went to bed, it had become clear to anyone within glancing distance of the INTERNET that this had more in common with the 1995 Oklahoma bombing or the 1999 London nail bombing campaign than the more recent horrors of Al Qaida .... The next morning I switched on the news and the Al Qaida talk had been largely dispensed with, and the pundits were now experts on far-right extremism, as though they'd been on a course and qualified for a diploma overnight."

Anders Behring Breivik, as we now know the killer is called, has had contact with a number of other European far-right groups including the English Defence League, with whom I have had a few tussles myself. And do you know, its still all the fault of those Muslims? After all if there hadn't been "wholesale" and "unfettered" immigration into Europe, folk like Breivik wouldn't have had a manifesto to promote and act on in the first place. And let's not believe his attitudes are the preserve of the fringe. Mainstream media outlets to their shame, now distancing themselves from Breivic as fast as their little legs will carry them, have been laying the "respectable" foundations for such views for decades. The Islamisation of Europe - Eurabia, the hatred of multiculturalism, dishonesty in mainstream politics about immigration subservient to the mantra of "political correctness" and all wrapped up in the language of "Christian values." As I asked one young man on an EDL rally in Leeds, "When did hatred become a Christian value?"

And now Breivik appears as a self-identifying Christian. Let's be clear: Breivik is to Christianity what Al Qaida is the Islam. NO RELATION AT ALL! So, while we are demonizing ALL Muslims on the basis of the actions of an unrepresentative few, we'd better start treating ALL Christians in the same way.

No, it doesn't make sense, does it?

Let's remember, too, that on these islands "Muslims" are the Johnny-come-latelys of the world of terrorism. While we may on occasion have been a bit short with our Irish neighbours and co-workers I don't remember a backlash against the IRA resulting in descriptions of Catholic terrorism.

How embarrassing, too, for columnists of the right-wing mainstream to find their views so widely used and directly quoted in Breivik's "manifesto". Poor Melanie Phillips, writer for that scion of all right (in every sense) thinking Little Englanders, The Daily Mail. Who in the end, Melanie and colleagues, actually stoke the flames of Islamophobia? Yes Dear. You do, together, of course, with our own Prime Minister who, to the unalloyed joy of the EDL has announced that he will now be taking on the "non-violent extremists" (definition please) because they influence those who embrace violence. Are we talking about those British Muslims who question British foreign policy? Ah, the fifth column. How different to the Norwegian Prime Minister who is determined that in the midst of grief and anger the voice of reason must be heard.

I await the day when I can read a balanced newspaper article that covers the achievements and contributions in a celebratory and positive way of ordinary Muslims in Britain, and indeed in Europe more widely. I shan't be holding my breath.

I'll leave the last word to Canon Dr Alan Billings, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day on 25th July: "There is a very revealing passage at the beginning of the Christian gospels where Jesus goes into the wilderness to reflect on his coming public career. In the account, the gospel writers tell us how the devil puts before him a series of temptations to achieve his objectives by inappropriate means. At one point the devil quotes scripture in justification. For this is how evil works. It uses something good – in this case a sacred text – to rationalise evil means.

We saw the same mechanism at work with Islamic terrorism where the concept of jihad - an inner struggle to overcome weakness - was hideously distorted to justify something evil – the casual disregard of human life.

If this savagery in Norway is alerting us to the possibility of another religion being hijacked in a similar way, then the religious response to it has to be as vigorous as the response to Islamic terror eventually became, namely, the bold assertion alike by religious leaders, ordinary believers and the institutions that guard the faith that there is no justification for such indiscriminate violence.

What stands in the way of those who seek to give a religious and moral justification for their violent actions, are the living convictions of others. And that may be all that stands in the way. But if we are to stop this repeating, those convictions may be the one thing that can make the difference."