"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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Teaching Religious Studies in English schools

You may have been aware of a flurry of activity in the worlds of education and the media recently as a long awaited curriculum review of Religious Studies has reached its consultation stage. It is careful and detailed and makes a number of recommendations: some teachers like it, others are less sure, but it comes from a genuine attempt to raise the standards of RS in our schools.

There is only one problem: the curriculum review fails to address the institutional problems faced by RS in the school curriculum. I have been teaching Religious Studies for over 30 years and throughout that time it has been a marginalised subject: one not taken sufficiently seriously by successive Head Teachers, governing bodies, politicians, OFSTED and, therefore, generations of pupils. "Sir, why should we take this seriously when the school doesn't?"

At the heart of the problem is the peculiar and unique status of RS on the curriculum. It is not actually part of the National Curriculum and exists in all subject lists as an add-on. This means that it is treated as an add-on in many schools. The previous Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, made an active decision to exclude R.S. from the Humanities section of the English Baccalaureate, significantly marginalising it: not only has his successor, Nicky Morgan, shown no enthusiasm for putting this error of judgement right, she is on record as having advised young people that they should avoid Humanities subjects because they do not lead to the best career choices. Presumably this wisdom comes from her previous job as a Careers Advisor. Excuse me? Oh, she wasn't a Careers Advisor? My mistake.

I am assuming that the Curriculum Working Party believes that R.S. students are being given an appropriate time allocation for studying the subject. If so, they have been labouring under a serious misapprehension. Most of us who teach R.S. have to contend with one lesson a week, while being expected to achieve good GCSE grades. Other Humanities subjects, however, have two or three times more teaching time allocated. It seems that this is the accepted order of things in curriculum timetabling regardless of the fact that all the exam boards expect all three humanities subjects to be taught at between 120 and 140 hours for a Full-Course GCSE. On the one lesson a week model Religious Studies is allocated well below that minimum figure. Until R.S. is granted a level playing-field in the allocation of curriculum time, curriculum development is just so much hot air.

R.S. is further disadvantaged because it is increasingly being taught by non-specialist teachers: when I and one of my Specialist R.S. colleagues recently moved on from a large high school the subject was left to be taught by the one remaining specialist R.S. teacher and 12 non-specialists, often teaching to GCSE level and often sharing groups between them. This is not uncommon. How can it be acceptable practice? Again, if we are serious about R.S. being taught effectively, schools need properly trained and qualified practitioners.

It is the fear of many of us that we are watching a deliberate, managed decline and further marginalisation of Religious Studies. Many schools now pay it only lip-service on the curriculum, burying it in some Integrated Humanities scheme of work or worse, allocating a couple of dedicated days in the school year to R.S. projects, while excluding it from the taught timetable completely.

Those of us who are concerned go round in circles, batted from pillar to post between Head Teachers, timetablers, politicians and exam boards. They damn us with faint praise, all assuring us that they value Religious Studies and that it is a very important subject but no one is willing to be the one who takes actual responsibility to say, “Enough is enough.” And make moves to do something about it. If the Secretary of State for Education is seen, not only not to be supportive but to be actively antagonistic, what hope for the future?

The irony is that R.S. is one of the most popular subjects for GCSE uptake.

 So, at risk of labouring the point:

1) R.S. has been institutionally marginalised throughout the length of my 30 year teaching career.

2) There aren't enough specialist R.S. teachers.

3) Students are not given enough time to adequately study the subject and gain a depth and breadth of understanding.


Until these inequalities have been addressed, curriculum reform is merely window dressing and I have no confidence that things will improve in any way for our students and teachers as a result of these proposed curriculum reforms: the primary problems of R.S. are not being addressed.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sunday Sermon for Christ the King: Matthew 25. 31-46


“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

May I be granted the grace to speak God’s word.

I was away last weekend at Vicar school and at one stage - to do with nothing we were learning at all - somebody mentioned the ultimate meaning of life  - as in what’s the answer? Quick as a flash someone came back with “42!” The person who asked the question is in her twenties and looked blank – much, I see, as most of you are: it must be a generational thing. In 1979 Douglas Adams wrote a book called “The Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy” which was subsequently televised and has recently been made into a film. Being of that generation I devoured it. It is wonderful, funny, anarchic and bonkers in equal measures. In it there is a computer called Deep Thought who, having been asked to answer the question, “What is the meaning of life?” after seven and a half million years of calculation and pondering, delivers the answer: 42. This, of course, completely confuses those who were waiting for the answer and then Deep Thought suggests that perhaps those who had framed their ultimate question might not have thought it through.

Well, here we are at the Feast of Christ the King which finishes the liturgical year: next week we start Advent and this seems as good a time as ever to consider the point that when we're seeking ultimate answers, how we understand the question matters.

So, what’s the question for today’s Gospel passage?

The passage seems to be about judgement, believing in God and what each of us needs to do or display in our lives in order to get to heaven. Is that what this passage is about? The problem is that the Gospels in general and Matthew in particular don’t seem all that interested in Heaven and Hell. Neither did the early church Fathers. Come the Reformation in Calvin’s writings there are two paragraphs about Heaven and One about Hell: in the totality of his writings. When the Bible talks about the Kingdom of God, the trend for quite some time now has been to understand it as The Kingdom of God … on Earth: God’s sovereign rule breaking through into the here and now.

If you think the question is “Am I going to Heaven? Will I be saved?” Matthew seems to be suggesting that you have missed the point. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus laments that many people will call him Lord, but only those who act upon his ethical teachings can be his true followers. That’s quite a different answer to the question. What you're seeking is probably not pie in the sky, but, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, pie in the here and now. So maybe the question rightly asked is not “what happens at the end of things?” but more like “what am I supposed to be doing right now? What does Jesus want me to do? To be? How will my life be different if Christ is King?” Certainly we should be asking whether we are sheep or goats.

Of course, at the Time Matthew’s biography of Jesus is set this was a really pertinent question because of the ongoing theological and political debate about who really was THE LORD. Was it the God of the Hebrews, Jehovah, YHWH, or was it the Emperor in Rome? Well, those days are long gone but the question remains, certainly theological and yes, political too: who is the Lord? Jesus or something else offered and affirmed by modern culture? The usual things people elevate as gods - power and influence, wealth, celebrity and fame - are subsumed in the Kingdom of God by the supreme values of service, love, self-sacrifice, and faithful community. Life in God's Kingdom is not about self-aggrandizement, it's about renunciation. It's not about big words, it's about little actions, often little anonymous actions. Life in God's Kingdom is not about what we have or who we are, it's about what we do. It's not about what the world values, but what God values.

This isn’t a revolutionary idea: in the Old Testament book of Micah, “This is what the Lord requires of you: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” The message is this: if we love God, if our values are God-values instead of the world's values, if Christ actually is King, then we will love as God loves, give as God gives, forgive as God forgives. If our values are God-values, we can't help but live as Christ taught and in doing so we bring the kingdom of God closer. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told how he would like to be remembered, and in doing so, he zeroed in on that ultimate question: If Christ is King, what does that mean? “If Christ is ruler over our lives”, Dr. King told his audience, “then my Nobel Peace Prize is less important than my trying to feed the hungry. If Christ is King, then my invitations to the White House are less important than that I visited those in prison. If Christ is Lord, then my being TIME magazine's "Man of the Year" is less important than that I tried to love extravagantly, dangerously, with all my being.

Perhaps the feast of Christ the King is just the right time for a personal spiritual audit: if we were to take a snapshot of our lives now how are we doing? Ezekiel put it rather well, “This is the sin of Sodom: she had pride, plenty of food, and comfortable security, but didn't support the poor and needy.” Now that’s not what many Christians will tell us the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is all about but they’ve clearly got it wrong if we accept what Ezekiel is telling us. So in our personal audit perhaps we should be asking ourselves where we are on the true Sodom scale of personal ethics. In Today’s Epistle St. Paul commends the Christians at Ephesus for their “faith in the Lord Jesus and love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” These people are working out what their responsibilities are as Christians to each other and more widely. And Paul commends them for it because they were called to be a sign of the age to come just as we are, the Kingdom of God.

We cannot avoid the recognition that what we are talking about here is not just personal ethics. It has a huge political dimension. When the Church of England published its critical report Faith in the City in the 1980s, members of Margaret Thatcher’s government dismissed it as Marxist ideology and concluded that the church was run by a load of communist clerics. The message was quite clear: the church shouldn’t meddle in politics. Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the other hand noted, “When people say that the Bible and politics don't mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading”.

Equally, St Teresa of Avila wrote in the 1500s, Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet. Yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

That should give us all pause for thought. Let’s look at Matthew’s list again: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. It’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to see who those people are in modern British society: they are mainly the marginalised, the “other” upon whom we look down: the poor, the homeless, the  asylum seeker or refugee, the immigrant – black, Asian or Eastern European, the offender … but we are quite good with the sick! What’s that? One out of six. My aren’t we doing well? And it’s not meant to be an exhaustive list. We could add in attitudes to do with gender and sexuality, with class, with size and weight, with education and so on. These are political issues and the Religious Right, particularly in the United States gets this so wrong. Did you know that you can be imprisoned in Florida for feeding the homeless? Just listen, “Church leaders in Florida were preparing for a second confrontation with Fort Lauderdale police on Wednesday over a controversial new ordinance that bans them from feeding the city’s homeless.

Pastors from two local churches and the 90-year-old leader of a long-established food kitchen were arrested at a park on Sunday, two days after the law took effect, for attempting to serve meals to homeless residents. Each received a citation threatening 60 days in prison and a $500 fine. Dwayne Black, pastor of the Sanctuary Church, said he and church members would set up their regular feeding station at Fort Lauderdale beach on Wednesday in defiance of the ordinance. He said he expected to be arrested again and to spend the night in jail.

“We have been feeding the homeless for a long time. It is our calling and our duty to not let another human being go hungry. But now it’s a crime to feed a hungry person,” Black told the Guardian.” The Mayor who introduced this law, Jack Seiler, isn’t an Atheist but a regular member of a local church.

An extreme example possibly but, without wishing to turn this into a party-political broadcast, it serves, I hope to illustrate the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As we listened to that report we will have pictured the events. We will have had a range of emotions. I think we should keep hold of those thoughts and feelings as we go back and re-examine our own attitudes to the marginalised in society: the poor, the homeless, the foreigner, the gay, the prisoner, the poorly educated, the African Ebola sufferer and so on and ask ourselves again where we are on the new Sodom continuum. “This is the sin of Sodom: she had pride, plenty of food, and comfortable security, but didn't support the poor and needy.” We could ask ourselves whether, like Martin-Luther King jnr, we are loving extravagantly, dangerously, and with all our being.”

How are things going to end? What happens after we die? I don't know, and neither do you. But we do know the shape of the story a loving God is writing. If Christ is King, we know Jesus waits at the end of that story, that he will see us, and know us, and that if we have done what he taught us, he will claim us as his own.

Our prayers for ourselves today should include the petition that as we continue to grow to spiritual maturity we become the sort of Christians who care for the poor and the needy, the outcast and the marginalised, not because of fear of judgement and our place in the afterlife but because it is the Christlike way to behave. It is the way of Christ the King.

And, I have to say, that is question and answer enough for me.

May God grant that I have spoken his word.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sunday Sermon Matthew 22:34-46: Jesus, the Pharisees and the existing order

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

There is no debate like a religious debate. Religious disputes are extremely difficult to handle because everyone engaged in a religious dispute claims to have the Word of God and the will of God on his or her side. Everyone involved in a religious debate claims to speak for God, and when a person is convinced that he or she speaks for God, there is really not much, if anything, that anyone else can say. When a person believes that he or she knows the Word, has the Word, reads the Word, and speaks the Word, there's not really much room left for open dialogue and critical reflection on what we believe and why we believe it. No wonder that throughout history, every religious reformer, every person who attempted to challenge, reinterpret, or broaden the traditional long-standing religious views of the faithful met with virulent and sometimes even violent opposition-opposition that was mounted and advanced by religious people who sincerely believed that they were defending the Word and the will of God from being altered, contaminated, or changed by something or someone considered to be new, different, or strange, not just as history, but into the present: only this week we’ve seen the problems a reforming Pope has had dealing with entrenched theological conservatism.

In our Gospel today there is tension. There is pressure. The religious authorities repeatedly try to trap Jesus with their trick questions. But every time, he evades the trap. He refuses to be caught by their either-or options, their rigid theological categories. At every turn, Jesus’ answers unsettle the ordered and controlled world of the authorities. Jesus disrupts their interpretations of Scripture, and he rearranges their theological certainties. Our text begins and ends in silence. Here we have the final episode of an extended exchange between Jesus and the religious authorities. Jesus has already silenced the Herodians and the Sadducees. So the Pharisees gather to question him. But by the end of the exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, again there is silence. No one can answer Jesus’ query. Nor from that day on does anyone dare to ask him any more questions. Silence is the consequence of Jesus’ speech.

Silence. And this silence is not golden. It’s an eerie silence. It’s the silence of the “powers that be” as they regroup and retrench. It’s the silence of wagons being circled and theologies hardening. It’s that silence that arrives when the time for words is over and something else must be done. And this silence is deadly because the next time we see the religious leaders, they will be plotting to kill Jesus.

Back and forth, back and forth, they verbally duel over critical matters of theology and biblical interpretation. And the exchanges take place in the temple, with a large crowd watching the entire time. And there is an irony here: the Pharisees generally get a bad press but we need to understand that they were the good guys of their day. They cared about the spiritual health and status of God’s people but they were hidebound by a theological orthodoxy that could not entertain an alternative perspective.

We met such people in the church today. Times don’t change much do they? We have the same backwards and forwards; the same toing and froing today theologically as the church debates poverty, the role of women in the episcopate, human sexuality, peace and conflict and any number of issues which at the same time preach the Gospel of Good News and cloud it in increasingly bad tempered exchanges which largely confirm and entrench clearly held doctrinal positions: we sometimes feel as if we are battling for the soul of the church.

It’s not that Jesus’ initial reply was in any way controversial, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

This is perfectly consistent with the teachings of the Old Testament prophet Micah when he says, “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) It is perfectly consistent with the teaching in Leviticus which notes in Chapter 19, following a summary of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.”

And finally, at the culmination of the exchange, Jesus offers a little riddle of his own:

“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” Jesus asks.

And the Pharisees answer, “The son of David.”

I suspect the Pharisees probably mumbled their answer, almost whispered it. For the crowds had been calling Jesus the Son of David. Remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

“Hosanna to the Son of David!” the crowds had shouted. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9).

The Pharisees are on dangerous ground here. But no other answer is possible. The suspense builds.

And Jesus doesn’t leave well enough alone. Instead, he continues, quoting the Pharisees’ own Scripture -- Psalm 110.

“How is it then that David by the Spirit calls [the Messiah] Lord, saying,

‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

If David thus calls [the Messiah] Lord, how can he be [David’s] son?”

With his little riddle, Jesus interrupts the Pharisees’ nice, neat theology. The old categories simply don’t work here. A person cannot be both son and Lord to David. Something new is here, something that can’t be contained in the old frameworks. The riddle cannot be solved -- except by recognizing and following Jesus.

And that response is impossible for the religious authorities. It would rearrange their entire world. It would mean a loss of control and authority. So they don’t answer. And they don’t dare to ask any more questions. Instead, they are silent. And they circle their wagons and harden their theology. They plot to kill Jesus.

I’m beginning to think the gospel itself has this unsettling character. The gospel itself is a kind of jester. All the way through the gospel we find paradoxes and riddles and parables that melt the solidity of the old age that is dying and call us into an unsettling new creation that is being born. There’s no solving the riddle with the old categories and the familiar ways of thinking. Rather, we have to enter a new world where those old categories are melting away and a new, unsettling life beckons. Think of these juxtapositions:

Crucified Messiah.

Good Samaritan.

Blessed poor.

Love your enemies.

Footwashing Lord.

Weak power.

Foolish wisdom.

Last first.

First last.

Paradoxical riddles all of them. They can’t be solved as if they were a nice, neat mathematical problem. Rather, they create a new reality, which we live into by following Jesus.

In Jesus Christ the new covenant has interrupted the old age. As several New Testament scholars have noted, Jesus’ interruption of the old age creates a kind of threshold space, like the threshold space between two rooms. This space is unsettled; it’s an in-between space. A threshold is neither fully one room nor the other, but it contains a merging of each. On the threshold we are moving, always moving in between. The threshold is neither stable nor secure. It is the opposite of circled wagons and hardened theologies.

That’s the kind of space Jesus creates when he interrupts the old age with his teaching. He creates a threshold space in between the old that is dying and the new that is being born. And he calls us not to solve the riddle by trying to plug it into the old categories. Rather, he simply calls us to live into that unsettling threshold space. It’s odd, really. Jesus doesn’t call us to stability or security or certainty. Rather, Jesus calls us to follow him, always on the move, always on the way from the old to the new.

And maybe today we are in a position to appreciate this unsettling, in-between gospel. For we belong to a church that is in transition, that is in between - between the old ways that are dying and the new that is being born, even though we cannot fully discern its form yet.

And we live in a nation that is in transition. We sense that something is happening: something old is dying, and the future will be different from the past.

And the world itself seems to be in transition - political, cultural, environmental - moving toward something new and at times frightening. In such a context, the great temptation is to circle the wagons, to secure ourselves.

In the book of Philippians, St. Paul advised us to work out our own salvations with fear and trembling: that’s how the prophetic voice of the church is heard. My challenge to myself as much as to you in this threshold time when we do indeed seem to be fighting for the soul of the church is not to sit quietly being satisfied with the old certainties and ways of looking at things, while occasionally muttering our dissent in corners. No, rather it is to take up the fight; to engage and join in with those debates in the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognising that the old ways of thinking sometimes really won’t do; that circling the wagons and hardening our theologies as a reaction to the threat of change merely leads to entropy and irrelevance.

And how do we do that? Well, I think the Pharisees gave us the first part of the answer, Jesus the second and St. Paul the third,

From the Pharisees we need to ask ourselves the question, are we hidebound by a theological viewpoint that isn’t open to an alternative perspective?

From Jesus we need to heed the challenge in the way we speak for God and to other people, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and you are to love your neighbour as yourself.”

And from St. Paul we need to hear the challenge to find our own prophetic voices, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 14.22-33 : Peter walks on water

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

I am always intrigued to know peoples’ thought processes as they hear or read the Gospels. How do we process these stories? How do we seek to apply them, particularly on this, a Baptismal Sunday? I’d love to know what everyone is thinking right now in relation to today’s passage.

As a general principle I try to imagine my way into Gospel stories. I try to see myself as an anonymous member of the crowd as I try to walk through the story. Who do I most identify with? Who do I sympathise with? Who irritates me? What if I sat here or over by him? What if I couldn’t hear properly because of the crowd? What if I didn’t actually trust this man Jesus? What if I was a Pharisee?

I have to do this because I am almost always disappointed by the brevity of the gospel stories and their lack of background detail: they seem so clinical and succinct. I want to know that there was someone there who kept coughing at inopportune moments, or that there were children playing nearby, or that there were cooking smells or that it had just rained.

But not this time: today’s Gospel taps into a phobia of mine. I am not at all comfortable on a boat – however big. Some years ago, I travelled from Tallinn in Estonia to Helsinki in Finland by ferry and back again – in the depths of winter with a leaden sky and horizontal snow. It was a memorable journey. I wanted to kiss the ground when I disembarked.

As we arrived at the ferry terminal I was immediately horrified by our ferry: it looked like a tug. It fought with the ice for most of the journey so violently and my travel companions and I couldn’t escape to the outer decks to nurse our misery because of the intense cold – colder than I have ever been before or since. We finally found a place in the bar but we didn’t think drinking would be too clever, but we did note upon arrival back in Tallinn that there were many who had decided on that refuge to the extent that they were so drunk the crew couldn’t tell whether they were Estonians or Finns. So we sat there in the most surreal of settings imaginable, pale green with sea-sickness while half a dozen couples - seasoned veterans clearly - spent the evening dancing exhibition Latin American and ballroom to a live five piece band - including (I kid you not) the theme to “Titanic”. So strong is that image at a time when I firmly believed I was going to die that I fully expected my journey into resurrection to be accompanied by a woman wearing red sequins and dancing a rumba!

Fear is the word that comes to mind: fear of circumstances being beyond our control, fear of the ice, of the cold and fear that death could be just a moment away. Such is the fear, I’m sure that the disciples in the boat felt when they were “battered by the waves” on Lake Galilee one evening as they waited for Jesus to finish his private prayers.

I can hardly imagine someone walking on a sea when it is calm, much less when the waves are rolling and the wind is whipping the surface of the sea. Yet Jesus comes along, not reassuring the disciples by his arrival but initially adding to their fear. Their first reaction is that he must be a “Ghost”. Jesus’ unrecognized presence on the sea was a threat to the disciples. So, in order to calm their fears, Jesus identifies himself, but the real test for that early morning, was whether they could trust his four-fold word to them, “Take heart; have no fear; it is I;”  and then to Peter, “come”. 

These words might just seem like a quick reassurance but they are full of resonance and meaning and we must imagine them being delivered with great authority. 

“Take heart,” recalls Moses’ words to the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea with the pursuing Egyptians right behind them. “Take heart; do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” says Moses. And “do not be afraid” runs through the Gospel narratives spoken by God’s messengers to Joseph and Mary, by Jesus to Peter, John, and James on the mount of the Transfiguration, by God’s messenger to the women at the tomb and by Jesus as he sends the disciples into the mission field. Finally, “it is I,” that takes us back to the burning bush and God’s thundering, “I am who I am,” and all the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel.

Walking on water has come to be synonymous, even outside the church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk. It has become another phrase along the lines of “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

And here we are as Emma and Paul bring Luke, and Wayne and Kelly bring Kyara to baptism this passage takes on another resonance: Emma and Paul and Wayne and Kelly have decided that they, their friends and family want what Peter experienced for Luke and for Kyara: they want the children to be equipped to respond to Jesus’ call to “Come”. They want Kyara and Luke to be able to cope with the storms and the uncertainties which life will throw at them with the confidence that keeping their eyes on Jesus will bring them through; confident that they can, in Jesus own words, “Take heart” and be reassured; that they can overcome their fear because their lives have been built on the foundation of he who said, “I am who I am”, and “I am the bread of life”, “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

When Jesus says, “Come,” Peter has to respond. In this respect we have to see Peter here as a template for Christians down the ages and therefore for Kyara and Luke - and that for me is the key point: we are faced with how we interpret Jesus’ words in any given Gospel passage whether we read it or hear it. We need to be clear who Jesus is talking to. Well, we see Jesus here talking to Peter and if we, all this time later, consider ourselves also to be disciples then this passage is most certainly for us to hear - and to act upon. The Gospel passages have to have the power to challenge us and to change or they will remain marginally interesting pieces of religious literature, nothing more.

So, in whatever situation we find ourselves, when Jesus says “Come!” we’re faced with the same choice as Peter was and today as Wayne and Kelly and Emma and Paul are for their children.

When Peter steps out of the boat, the reader and Peter are given the startling truth that this indeed is the one who commands the waves. This is the “I AM” who revealed himself to Moses and who has intervened with saving power so many times in the history of Israel that we should pay attention now.

This changes everything in terms of how we now see ourselves in this story. In Jesus, the great “I AM” has come to dwell with us and for us, whether we are tossed about on the seas or hungry on the hillside, whether we are in the boat or out of the boat. The point of this presence is not to show us that God has supernatural powers so much as to give us calm in the midst of our stormy world to imagine that we too might wade out into the storm with God’s help. In fact, like Peter, when we recognize God present in our world, we are commanded to go out into the water, knowing that in the storms of this life Jesus is with us.

In a book I was recently reading, several Characters are about to embark on a dangerous journey. One of them, fearfully asks, “Is it safe?” The leader replies, simply, “No. Let’s Go!” This is, I suppose, the very situation that we face, really when we wake each day. We rise in the morning and look at the news to discover that our world continues to be rocked by bombs and terror, by kidnapping and murder, by disease and famine. We might not even know that we do it, but each of us prays wordlessly to God, “Is it safe?” And the reply comes back, simply, “No. Lets Go!”

It is hard, isn’t it, to imagine ourselves in such a set of circumstances as Peter however we might seek to put a personal gloss on what “the storm” might be interpreted to mean in our own lives when we are in the midst of our own discomfort and we call on Jesus for help: work; study; relationships; personal crises of faith; frustration with the culture and politics of our time; our own sense of our Christian calling – whatever destabilises us and distresses us. And as we consider ourselves, let’s not forget those whose personal storm is to be driven from their homes with the threat of death hanging over them for being identified as disciples – in Iraq and Syria, in Southern Sudan and Northern Nigeria. What can this passage mean to them? Is there any way that we can respond to Jesus on their behalf when he calls “Come!” rather than concentrating on our own woes, given the contrast in their traumas to those of our own?

We also know that when Peter’s attention returned to the wind and the water, he began to sink and then, as if it had not already been so, his only hope was Jesus. The final good news in this passage comes as Peter falters and starts to sink. We too will surely falter. We too will feel that we are drowning in the depths of our world’s darkness. We too will surely feel that the chaotic waters of life are too treacherous for our tentative footsteps. We too will sink. That is real. That’s life. Only fools pretend otherwise.

This isn’t, as some Christians might imply, a story of Jesus as the magic talisman, protecting us from all dangers. No. This is Jesus who enables us to cope in those dangers.

And see as Peter does - and as Luke and Kyara hopefully will - that Jesus’ hand reaches out to us. We also discover that our doubts and fears, while the cause for a rebuke from our Lord, do not, in fact, take us outside of his care and concern.

It is my prayer that we will look not to our own feelings for a way out of the problems that we face as individuals and as a church, but rather look to the one who walks calmly in the midst of our storms, our anxieties and our personal and institutional controversies. When, surrounded by the moving waves, we falter, will we too grasp Jesus steady hand? Or will he huddle in the safe and comfortable boxes and routines we have established for ourselves as our inadequate coping strategies to fend off the outside world? The choice is ever before us! The great “I AM” continues to walk out in the chaotic waters of the world. How will we answer when he bids us, “Come!”?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 13.31-33 and 45-52. The thing about parables ....

Matthew 13.31-33 and 45-52


He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

‘And he said to them “Have you understood all this?” and they answered “Yes.”’ Well that’s a first – or at least it seems like it. The poor disciples have got a bit of a bad press, although less so in Matthew’s Gospel, for being a bit dense. More often than not we read that they had to have a special tutorial with Jesus because they hadn’t understood the nature of the parables: just before this section Jesus had told them the Parable of the Sower and had had to explain it to them in detail. In fact every time Jesus tells a parable it seems to me to be The Parable of the Sower all over again with the disciples taking the various roles outlined there:

Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

The disciples came to him and said, “We don’t get it.”

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

I know I will have said this here before but when we hear or read Bible passages we always need to ask ourselves whether or not we are the primary or intended audience for the teaching in any particular passage. There are times when Jesus appears to be speaking to the Disciples, for instance, but is, in fact, talking to the Pharisees. So who is today’s Gospel passage directed at? We are told at the start of this chapter that “great crowds” had turned out to see Jesus: these were a real mixture of people and whatever motive they had for being there we would have to characterise them as “enquirers” and that would include the Disciples. Well, we’ve turned out to hear Jesus this morning: that must make us enquirers and many of us would self-identify as Disciples, so this teaching is directly for us and yes, like some of the them we can also be a bit dense from time to time, so a quick recap on the Sower wouldn’t go amiss for us too.

Some of you know I’ve recently retired from the full-time teaching of Religious Studies and this parable constantly puts me in mind of a group of less able teenagers:

·       The seed in the parable is the word of God. Well in my classroom it’s the word of Sir, although that could encompass the word of God.

·       Some seed falls on the path and the birds steal it. We are told the evil one snatches it away. Now far be it from me to describe any of my former students as evil but, “Sir, I can’t concentrate. Ryan’s stabbing me with a pen.”

·       The seed on rocky ground is the seed that can’t take root because it has no depth of soil and so may sprout quickly and showily but shrivel up quickly. “Sir, I couldn’t do the homework.”

But you were getting it right in the lesson.

“Yeah, but when I got home I didn’t get it.”

·       The seed in the weed patch represents those who are easily distracted by what’s going on around them. Where’s Tom? He was supposed to be presenting his topic this morning.

“Sir, he’s got football practice.”

·       Which leaves the seed which fell on the good soil and grew and flourished: This year Gemma has worked conscientiously; has taken a pride in her work and has shown evidence of real progress. She takes an active role in class discussions and is always prepared to ask when she doesn’t understand.

To me, the point about parables is that they are supposed to make us think. Too many of my students want to be spoon-fed. “I don’t get it.” Is the perpetual whine of most teenagers in the classroom and it’s shorthand for “I can’t be bothered to think about it.”

Well, we may not be teenagers but don’t we sometimes find ourselves in a similar mindset? “This is too hard. Just tell me!” It doesn’t say much for our discipleship does it?

“Whoever has ears, let them hear!” We’re supposed to struggle with it because often Jesus does leave the parable with its hidden moral unexplained and we are expected to be the seed that lands on fertile ground. “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
.” The Theologian N.T. Wright once wrote, "For too long we've read Scripture with 19th century eyes and 16th century questions. It's time we get back to reading with 1st century eyes and 21st century questions.” I identify very strongly with this observation: what are we today to make of the parables?
We look at the parables today - and this may just be me, of course, - but they lose something by their familiarity: “Oh yeah, I know that one.” And we pay less attention. They are also stories of their time and reveal the culture and concerns of the people of Jesus’ day. That impact may be to some extent lost on us today but we mustn’t underestimate the impact those stories would have had then: Jesus wrapped up his teaching in examples from everyday life that people could identify with. He talks about family life because everyone was, or had been, in a family; at a time when people built their own homes, he used building as an example; when most people were subsistence farmers, Jesus talked about agriculture; in today’s passage Jesus uses cooking as an example and on other occasions he talked about housekeeping; today he addresses the fishermen in his audience; today he talks about buying and selling. “The Kingdom of God is like this ….” By using simple examples from everyday life Jesus makes his message more understandable.

I think we all have a tendency to do that don’t we? I realised after I’d written it that I had done the same: to help make my point I talked about life in the classroom. We’ve all been teenagers. Many of us are parents. We understand about school. I simply put Jesus’ parable into a more modern context and I understand it better as a consequence.

Take the parable of the Good Samaritan: it’s one that I’ve used in the classroom regularly with 11 and 12 year olds. I read it to them. They look at me as if to say “So what?” Then I explain to them that I’ve been to Israel and I’ve done the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho – albeit by air-conditioned coach – and that it would be a difficult trek to make on foot because of the inhospitable semi-desert landscape and I show them pictures.

 At the time of Jesus it was a notorious place for the mugging of the lone or unwary traveller. When Jesus told this story, “There was a man who set off from Jerusalem to Jericho ….” His audience would have identified with the context: many would have done that journey themselves or they’d have known someone else who had. They knew about the trauma of that journey in the heat of the day through an arid landscape and of the importance of travelling in a group for safety. When Jesus talked of a lone traveller he’d got their attention because they were already forming an opinion of someone who was foolish enough to go on his own. Now my kids are listening because it’s become real.

Then their task is to update the story because finding a modern context for the moral makes that moral more compelling. It becomes about them, not some people from ancient history. And they are very creative: they talk about Leeds United fans being beaten up by Manchester United fans and, bleeding in the gutter with no mobile phones, are ignored by passing nuns – you’d be amazed by how many nuns are walking the streets where my pupils live – before being taken care of by a decent upright Manchester United fan. We’ve had soldiers in a war zone, astronauts and aliens. You name it and my kids can use it to retell the Parable of The Good Samaritan.

The point is, if I’d left it at a reading of the original, which seed would they have been in the context of the Parable of the Sower? They don’t forget their own versions, though. Which seed are they now?

We can all do that. We don’t have to be semi-detached when hearing a parable because it is overfamiliar in its original setting, so I think my challenge today – to myself as much as to you – is to go away and think about the stories Jesus told; to struggle to find the meaning or the hidden moral and, while remaining faithful to that moral, to reset it in the present.

Look back at the example that starts today’s Gospel passage. This is a parable about spiritual maturity and the growth of faith that benefits others. I don’t identify with mustard seeds. What could I use from my own culture and historical context that would be as compelling to me as football is to my pupils in the retelling of the Good Samaritan - and which would stick in my mind?

Then we have, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast”. This is a parable about us as the yeast being spread equally in our society and making a radical change and difference to the original. Most of us no longer bake our own bread. How could we rework this parable to make it as fresh today as would have been when Jesus first told it?

As for fine pearls, well perhaps the story would have more resonance if it was about the unexpected discovery of early shares in Facebook.

How do we describe the Kingdom of God to others? At the heart of all that I’ve pondered on here, it seems to me that we are talking about mission. I take this short series of parables as a challenge to me to come to a better understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven breaking in around me and then to be able to explain it to others in simple terms they can identify with.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sunday Sermon: The Great Commission

Matthew 28:16-20

(Picture from Simon Smith's wonderful contemporary Easter Story "Raised in Leeds". Click on to enlarge.)
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It would have been easy for the disciples to assume that everything was over. The call, the commitment, the commission could have all ended on that fateful Friday, when the one to whom they had committed their lives was executed. Even in the face of the resurrection, there did not have to be an understanding that what began three years earlier would continue. The trauma of the crucifixion had sent them scattering into hiding in fear and grief. And as much as Jesus had tried to prepare them, they really weren't ready for life and work without him. It could have been over.

But something happened after they received the testimony of the women. "He's not dead. He's alive!" they said. "Go and meet him in Galilee." And when the disciples gathered, the resurrected Christ, the living Lord, Jesus, met them there. But as Jesus greets them and they're worshipping him there are still some questions, there is still some uncertainty. We don’t, of course, hear Jesus’ full response – that’s what is often so frustrating about the Gospels, they are not a verbatim record of the conversation, merely, as we might put it, edited highlights, but Matthew tells us that as part of his response Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

That is the gist of today’s Gospel passage and, short as it is, it takes some unpacking.

I think the first thing I’d like to say may well be something that I’ve said before here and it is about the nature of how we interpret Jesus’ words in any given passage. We need to be clear who Jesus is talking to. Well, we see Jesus here talking to his disciples and if we, all this time later, consider ourselves also to be followers or disciples then this passage is most certainly for us to hear - and to act upon.

This passage is often called The Great Commission: it sets out very clearly an instruction, an imperative - and therefore not an option - in terms of making disciples of others. It’s The Great Commission, not the Great Suggestion. However, there are many today who would say that we have failed in our obligation and that we should call it instead The Great Omission.

The church really does seem to have lost sight of its mission to make disciples. This is one of the reasons why the traditional churches in the main with one or two notable exceptions are struggling to grow; Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed and so on. The statistics don't look good. The church is not replenishing itself with a new generation of disciples and we aren’t reaching the younger generation.

What has happened? Why can't the church today be like the early church? The answer comes through something that a number of Christian commentators have noted: "If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the Church today, 95% of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament Church, 95% of what they did would have stopped, and everybody would have known the difference." To put it another way, we do too much in our own strength and from our own agendas.

Last week in the Town Hall we heard a stirring sermon for Pentecost Sunday. We were told about the transforming nature of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the first disciples and how that power is available to all disciples down the ages since. The following day I came upon a cartoon which showed the inside of seemingly empty church but there were two speech bubbles coming from under the pews. One was asking, “Is he still here?” and the other was replying, “Yes, stay put. He’s looking at the notice board.” It made me smile. Is this how Christians today really approach Pentecost Sunday and the receipt of the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit? Yet here we are and the expectation is, that as the story unfolds, we are in receipt of that awesome power and we’re certainly going to need it for The Great Commission!

Is the Holy Spirit the driving force of the church today? If we are to reclaim the fire of the Spirit the early church had, if we are to share our witness effectively we must be willing to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit! That's what the early followers of Christ did! They were not sophisticated people. They hadn't been to college; they hadn't read books on church growth and marketing the church. They simply made themselves available to the Holy Spirit. And look what happened in Acts chapter 2, "Each one heard them speaking in his own language." It was clear! The Holy Spirit did it through them because they were simply willing to be used! The Holy Spirit broke through communication barriers and the gospel translated.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves again what the text says. What we have is, “All authority is given to me and I am sending you.” The unavoidable truth is that as Christians we are called to bear witness, to tell people about Jesus--to make disciples. Now, this may scare some of you to death: it certainly does me!

Well, let’s also note that the passage talks of making disciples, not converts! If all authority belongs to Jesus, the mission of the church is not to convert people -- only the Holy Spirit who expresses that authority in the world can do that -- but to invite or urge others to join us on the road of following Jesus. Jesus does not command us to maximize conversions but to enable people of all backgrounds to become true and lasting disciples.

Integral to that process of discipleship is learning to walk the road alongside people of different backgrounds.

In words usually attributed to Archbishop William Temple, “The church is the only institution that exists to serve the needs of those who are not its members, so Christian mission is about assisting what God is doing in the world.”

So Christian mission is about assisting what God is doing in the world.

When I was at Vicar School, one of our first modules was that of Mission. It was one of the ones I most enjoyed. We were taught about the Missio Dei - The Mission of God. Mission is not the church going out and saving people. Rather, it is God creating and saving the world. The mission of God came first and the church was created as a response to that. That makes the church a product of mission rather than the other way round.  I sat up and began to take serious notice here: The mission of God came first and the church was created as a response to that. That makes the church a product of mission rather than the other way round.  Wow! And I think of the hours I have spent in church meetings trying to plan the next parish mission!

Now, all approaches to evangelism are valid but there should be a balance rather than a heavy reliance on one method. I have very strong memories as a teenager of feeling “guilt tripped” over the model of evangelism that was being promoted then. “You have to tell people about Jesus. You must speak up or they will be damned.” I have never felt comfortable with the altar-call approach to mission and it came as a surprise and relief to discover an approach to the Missio Dei which advises being reactive rather than proactive, reactive rather than proactive: discern where God is already at work and join him there, after all, it is God’s mission. I no longer had to be apologetic about mission:  I simply had to be as good a role model of discipleship as the Holy Spirit gave me the grace to be and see what happened.

As someone who comes into contact with people from a variety of faith backgrounds, and is trained to teach about them, I have always been interested in the interface between Christianity and other religions and the wisdom I find there. The Magi, the Centurion, the Syrophoenecian Woman and others were not Jews, but their witness was valid and affirmed in the New Testament, so I can talk to my Muslim, Sikh and Hindu colleagues about my faith and I don’t have to smack them around the head with my Bible. I do, however need to listen in return because that is the nature of dialogue and yet we can get so much more over about the nature of our beliefs if what we are doing is chatting, so much more than if we were lecturing or berating. We don’t convert, the Holy Spirit does and we don’t know what seeds we may plant for the Holy Spirit to work on.

People take notice when the church becomes involved in social action: the negativity which often characterises the public’s attitude to the church, and therefore by extension to Christianity, is replaced by a general positivity when the church speaks out with authority on behalf of the poor and marginalised. It is as if the majority of people I meet are somehow subliminally programmed to expect the church to speak out against injustice, a positivity which is not apparent towards the street preacher outside Marks and Spencer. We bring the Kingdom closer when Christians stand alongside others for an end to poverty and oppression even if it risks the wrath of politicians?

 I am also struck by the opportunities for discussions about faith which arise naturally. That I am a Christian is widely known by those I regularly meet: as a Religious Studies teacher discussions about matters of faith are everyday – often with colleagues too. It’s best not to second guess the Holy Spirit: all conversations that take place in the street, in the supermarket and at the bus stop are mission conversations because they bring the Kingdom of God closer; every one of those people is potentially a penitent thief on the cross so all conversations are potentially a means of grace - but rarely if that other person feels that there is an agenda for conversion - but rarely if that other person feels that there is an agenda for conversion. I cannot earn God’s favour by speaking about him but His grace won’t be limited when I do.  However we approach mission we must show genuineness, empathy and respect and question our motivation. Is what I am doing the Missio Dei - God’s mission - or is there another agenda?