"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

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Teenagers and Angels. A reflection for Compline that should have been about miracles.

My Yr 9 students - aged 13/14 -  have been studying Miracles as a topic this term and it has been a struggle from the outset, if for no other reason than spelling. If I have to correct “miricals” one more time, even though they have copied it from the board, I may run screaming from the building. You see “miracles” on the board, look down to your book and write “miricals.” How does that happen? Repeatedly?

Of course, the first issue is that of definition: what are we talking about when we talk of miracles? Blank looks from the hormonal hoards. It takes some time, and with heavy guidance from me, to decide on “A dramatic and unusual event which goes against the laws of nature and is caused by God or one of his agents.” This is where it all starts to unravel as we are taken down an unexpected line of discussion in relation to what constitutes an agent of God. Predictably angels come in for some considerable forensic examination and I find myself explaining the mindset of the medieval artist.

O.K. I say, I’m a Medieval Pope. They look less than convinced.

Jordan, you’re Michelangelo. Jordan looks pleased.

Michael, Old Boy, I need a nice fresco on the ceiling of my new chapel. Nothing fancy, just a Biblical story. How about the Nativity?

Right you are Guv.

So Michelangelo goes away and gets out his Bible. What’s in the story that I need to include? Stable, check. Mary and Joseph, check. Infant, check. Cattle, check. Shepherds, check. Wise men, Check. Innkeeper, check. Angels, ch … Angels? Oooh, Angels.

What does an angel look like? I ask.

Surprisingly for a group of avowed Atheists they soon build up a picture: M & S floaty nighty, pigeon’s wings and a tinsel halo.

Musical Instrument of choice? I venture.

“Harp.” They chorus happily, entering into the spirit of the occasion.

(I ponder, briefly, how far we have moved in five minutes from my lesson plan on miracles – sorry: miricals.)

I draw said angel on the board. It takes about six pen strokes but they pronounce themselves happy with the result.

So I ask them, How did we get to this?

“Well, it’s in pictures.”

“And adverts. Sir, Sir, Have you seen that advert for cream cheese where …..?”

And so it goes on. Having established that this image of angels is firmly established in the international psyche I try to point out that medieval artists were faced with a no-win situation in attempting to representing something visually where there’s not much in the way of description to go on.

I explain, They needed to get over the idea of something spiritual rather than human otherwise we’d be looking at these paintings asking “Who’s that man in the background?” or “Why are those women falling out of the sky?” The angel as we know it is an artistic compromise.

“Are you saying they don’t look like that then?”

I’m saying they might not.

“What do they look like then?”

O.K. I take a deep breath.  What does “angel” mean?

There is no response.

I offer them a clue, It’s a Greek word. Why did I tell them that? This is bottom set Yr 9. What are the chances?

Still no ideas.

There’s no real reason why you should know. I was just wondering if anyone did. It means messenger – or more specifically, God’s messenger. What does God’s messenger look like? Perplexed looks. This is marginally encouraging as it indicates some level of mental activity above and beyond maintaining a heartbeat.

Do you remember when Mrs. Cooper sent a pupil down with a message last lesson?

“Are you saying Emily was an angel?”

I’m saying Emily was a messenger. What does a messenger look like?

“Could be anybody.”


“I don’t get it.”

I sigh. I do that a lot with Yr 9. Why does God’s messenger have to look picturesque?

“Coz it’s an angel.”

And angel means messenger, I persevere. Why couldn’t anyone be God’s messenger? Please don’t say “because we don’t have wings.”

“So, right? Are you saying Sir that anyone could be an angel because they’d be being God’s messenger? Would they know they were an angel?”

Maybe. Not necessarily. Some angels appear to be spiritual beings: I’m just saying that the images of medieval artists might not always be helpful, that’s all. What was an aid to faith in the middle ages seems to be quite the opposite today: "Who'd believe in one of those winged things?"

“Yeah. Too right Sir.”

I remember going to a primary school nativity where the Head had dressed the angels as postmen.

“I don’t get it.”

Postman – messenger – angel.

“Oh right. Now I get it.”

“So…” We all turn to look at Lauren who has been looking at one of my inspirational posters above the board. It is one little corner of some huge painting. I don’t know who the artist was, but the breadth and scope of the painting must make him to the art world what Cecil B. DeMille was to the world of film. The little segment, so easy to overlook, shows two cherubim - or possibly seraphim – chubby winged infants anyway,  looking rather bored, it has to be said, peering down over the edge of a cloud as if at the pupils in my room. Underneath their imagined conversation is printed: I bet they don’t revise for R.S. Losers. “Are they baby angels?” Lauren is pointing.

No. That’s another artistic attempt to describe the indescribable that’s stuck in our collective consciousness.

Amazingly, they seem satisfied with this.

I make a mental note to put together a little unit on religious art and ponder, on the basis of this lesson, whether I actually have the confidence or knowledge to put such a unit together and have a moment of blind panic at the possibility that someone should innocently ask about demons.

We move on from angels and go on to talk about Prophets and Saints and, of course, Jesus as agents of God. There is a glimmer of hope that we might, at last, move on to talk about miricals.

Any questions on anything we’ve looked at so far?  Yes Jordan?

“Sir, who’s Michelangelo?”

Update: It was well received.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Jeremiah and the Prophets for today's generation. Sunday Sermon for Evensong

Jeremiah 6.16-21

16 Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
   and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
   and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
Also I raised up sentinels for you:
   ‘Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!’
But they said, ‘We will not give heed.’
Therefore hear, O nations,
   and know, O congregation, what will happen to them.
Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people,
   the fruit of their schemes,
because they have not given heed to my words;
   and as for my teaching, they have rejected it.
20 Of what use to me is frankincense that comes from
   or sweet cane from a distant land?
Your burnt-offerings are not acceptable,
   nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me.
Therefore thus says the Lord:
See, I am laying before this people
   stumbling-blocks against which they shall stumble;
parents and children together,
   neighbour and friend shall perish.
Jeremiah was one of the Old Testament Prophets. I don’t know about you but my knowledge of the Old Testament Prophets isn’t really as up to speed as I now realise it should be: I’m afraid the prophets rather exist in my mind as a broadly interchangeable amalgam of angry men who I’m always reminded of when I encounter the street preachers who lurk outside Harvey Nichols on a Saturday berating passers by with their one-theme theology of Hell and Damnation.

What do we know about the Prophets? We know that they spoke to their own generations and that theirs were generally words of rebuke: rebuke to a people who in different ways at different times had abandoned God’s ways, whether it was to do with issues of social justice in the way that the rich treated the poor, or with issues of apostasy in the way that the people forgot God and went their own ways. They weren’t much into prophecy in the way the name implies today – not foretelling the future, not in terms of detailed specifics so much as in their warnings of outcomes and consequences, along the lines of “If you carry on like this ……”

We also know that the Prophets were often ignored and despised in their own times and, again, I think of the street preachers outside Harvey Nicholls. I watch as people scurry past with their heads down, resolutely determined not to engage, and then, at a safe distance, their demeanour changes and their pace slows, their posture becomes upright  and the smile returns. They may even look back at those who made them feel uncomfortable and with a rueful smile raise their eyebrows at other passers by as if to say, “What a load of rubbish eh?” Of course there are those who are much bolder and who stand and heckle and jeer.

We’ll be long dead by the time history judges whether, like the Prophets of the Hebrew Scripture, these preachers have had anything worthwhile to say and so I’m not suggesting that we necessarily stop and listen to - or engage with - the street preachers but I am saying that in another time and another place men probably not so different from these felt called, as these folk do, to proclaim God’s judgement to their own people…… and received much the same reaction: indifference, amusement, a sense of superiority, aggression, the wish that they’d shut up and go away – after all, the last thing you want on a sunny day in the town centre is someone ranting on about God’s judgement … isn’t it?

How different are we from the people of Jeremiah’s day?

And what of Jeremiah himself?

The Book of Jeremiah tells us that he was called by God to prophesy Jerusalem’s destruction. In contrast to Isaiah, who eagerly accepted his prophetic call, and similar to Moses who was less than eager, Jeremiah resisted the call. However, the Lord insisted that Jeremiah go and speak as commanded, and he touched Jeremiah’s lips and put His words into Jeremiah’s mouth.

Jeremiah’s prophecies are permeated with a sense of disaster: Jerusalem would be destroyed at the hands of invaders because Israel had been unfaithful and had forsaken God by worshiping Baal. Israel had deviated so far from God that they had actually broken the covenant, causing God to withdraw His blessings. Jeremiah was guided by God to proclaim that the nation of Israel would be faced with famine, be plundered and taken captive by foreigners who would exile them to a foreign land.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, throughout his prophetic ministry Jeremiah experienced opposition, persecution and imprisonment. You can’t help but wonder how many people scurried past with their heads bowed determined not to listen or engage and feeling irritated that their routines had been interrupted by this merchant of doom.

So, lets have a look at Jeremiah’s words: Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.

Well, we have the benefit of hindsight: we know how all this worked out for Jeremiah’s generation: But they said, ‘We will not…”

So what has this to do with you and I? It often strikes me with the Hebrew Scriptures that we are so far removed historically and culturally from those events that it really is hard to identify with the people at all. After all, we don’t live in a society which has built altars to a false God upon which to burn our children as offerings … but I guess some of you are already ahead of me here because we constantly build altars of one kind or another and while we may ignore the street preachers there are plently of prophets out there. They may not come from a priestly clan like Jeremiah and they may not speak overtly as men and women of faith but  let’s not fool ourselves that there aren’t prophets clamouring for our attention - be they politicians, economists, environmentalists, social scientists …. or Archbishops.

In Jeremiah’s time it’s clear that God’s solutions were known and the people had turned their faces against them and its hard for us here – because there is only so much that each of us can do – to fully identify with Jeremiah’s message. Should we be applying his message to the whole of society … or to the Church – and its legitimate to do both. Where are we to start?

It strikes me that whenever we are confronted with a passage from the Prophets we really ought to be challenged to make a comparison between our own times and their issues, and those of these angry and disturbing men. What can we learn? Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.

I wonder about the people of Jeremiah’s generation as they are presented in this passage: are they refusing to accept Jeremiah’s world-view or are they refusing even to engage with the issues?

How like them are we when we are faced with the big issues of our own time? What are we putting our trust in for the future that might be bypassing God? Whose voices aren’t we listening to?

What debates can we enter into about the nature of these ancient paths where the good way lies? Who are we engaging with in these discussions? Are we having these discussions at all?

I’ve heard preachers tackle this sort of passage in the past and their conclusion has been quite simple: we must follow God’s ways, of course. Quite simple and quite simplistic. What are God’s ways in the comlex world of the second decade in this millenium? What are the ways of God two thousand years after the death of Christ and nearly three thousand years after Jeremiah? Are the ancient ways prescriptive rules or are they general principles? Are we bound by the moral, theological and cultural solutions of the late seventh century BC or are we empowered to look for more innovative solutions for our own generation guided by God’s Spirit?

Now, those are questions Jeremiah and the faithful of his age would not understand: the ways of God were indeed prescriptive as set out in the Books of the Law but we are not bound by those laws: We read in the book of Romans, “But now we are discharged from the law; dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” (7.6) and Hebrews (8.13), “In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”

So we are freed from the guidance of the legalism of the code of Jeremiah’s day and freed for a “new comforter” in the guidance of the Holy Spirit today.

So how does that work? Let me give you an example: many of you will remember the 
excellent American T.V. series The West Wing, which charted the trials and tribulations of fictional president Josiah Bartlett and his staff. In one particular episode called Take this Sabbath Day, President Bartlett is struggling with a terrible political and moral dilemma. During the course of the episode the president, a cradle Catholic, is visited by his childhood parish priest and seeks his advice. One of The President’s senior staff is Jewish and is interrupted in the Synagogue in the middle of the Rabbi’s sermon, which can be heard in the White House over the mobile phone. A little later, a more junior staffer, coincidently a Quaker, is asked for her opinion. Each of the three, without knowing of the other two, offers the President their advice. It is the same advice. The President is reluctant to take it until his Chief of Staff points out to him The Lord sent you … “a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President. What more do you want from him?”
In terms of guidance, I’ve often referred to that event in my prayers as “that West Wing moment”, confident that God knows what I mean. We don’t have Jeremiah with us today: that’s not to say that we can’t learn from him: after all he has given us the injunction: “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” but we have other Prophets today – those who speak the word of God to our generation if we would but listen. Who are they? (And they may be different for each of us – sacred or secular.) I hear the voice of God today in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Giles Fraser, but that’s me. They may not speak to your hearts. So who does? When do you have your West Wing moments and who has the Lord sent to you?

My wife’s answer was quite simple: “anyone who challenges me and makes me feel guilty.” She went on to mention the columnist Polly Toynbee which put me in mind of the environmentalist George Monbiot. Other friends presented me with a wider variety of modern Jeremiahs:  Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King. One American friend suggested the conservationist Rachel Carson. I was also offered Middle East expert Chris Hedges and I spent a happy half hour on the INTERNET looking these people up and concluding that, yes, I could indeed see why they are perceived as modern prophets: in a secular age where people are less and less likely to listen to religious leaders, the word of God is alive and well – and strident! As John tells us, The Spirit breathes where she will, and you hear her voice …” (John 3.8)

So, perhaps the message of Jeremiah for us today lies in our awareness that prophets aren’t limited to the pages of the Hebrew Scripture and that the word of God is being spoken to our generation too. If we are being challenged to “Stand at the crossroads, and look (for) where the good way lies; and walk in it …” In what senses have we as individuals, as a church, as a nation, departed from the right path and who is telling us that today?  Are we, with Jeremiah’s generation going to say “We will not…” or will we heed the voices of God’s modern Prophets?