Welcome to part time priest. Bits of life come together - priesthood, part time worker, mum, wife, person. Not really part time ontologically, obviously, but I do have other things to do, quite apart from being...and one of them is enjoying sharing ministry experiences and reflections with you.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Is IS anything to do with religion?

The terror attacks in Paris have painfully thrown up this week the difficult question of so called 'religious motivation'.

Are Islamist suicide bombers motivated by obedience to the God of the Qu'ran, or simply violent people using Islam as a cover story? Most sensible people want God to be at least moderately likeable, but what about a God who is apparently a militant, avenging purist? Is begs the question, what is God really like, and whose God is the real God?

The Religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) find their ideas about God from the written word. For followers of these three monotheistic religions, the concept of revelation is key. God takes the initiative and reveals something of him*self, through dreams, visions, voices, supernatural events, people. So we don't invent our religion (adopting a kind of do-it-yourself spiritual toolbox) we receive God's own revelation of himself through the scriptures, which we are enjoined upon to read.

The philosophical idea behind the concept of a Holy Book is that if God exists, and is at all knowable to humans, he must be like something we can understand. So people who claim to know God, say he is characterised by love, or mercy, or peace, or purity, or ...fill in the blanks. How do we know? We know because he 'contacted' us before we contacted him. In the case of Christianity, we go one step further and say that he became one of us to make it as clear as possible. To the question, What is God like? the Christian answers, look at Jesus.

Practically, it matters what God is like because followers of a religion are bound to become like the God they worship. So sacred writings are important. The book moulds the person, so to speak. It is a misunderstanding to assume that only religious people are moulded, while everyone else is 'neutral' and cooly choosing their own identity in some philosophical vacuum. In point of fact, we're all being moulded by something or somebody; it's just that some of us are more aware of it than others.

People of the Book do have issues with their books though. It's not as straightforward as reading your Book and then knowing what to do, how to be, in every situation. So the problematic terrain around militant Islamist motivation can be boiled down to one question: how do religions interpret their texts? 

It would appear that the Qu'ran contains so-called 'sword verses' alongside 'peace verses'. Clearly if you read a 'sword verse', like 'and slay them wherever you find them and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out' (Qu'ran 2:191) it's going to look like Islam is promoting violence. But then you might also read 'fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress the limits, for Allah loveth not transgressors', which you could read as sanctioning self defence, but no more (Qu'ran 2:190). 

The Bible is also a mixture of texts which may be taken different ways, according to their interpretation. This was the whole issue around whether women could minister equally in the Church of England. Some texts of St Paul do illustrate restrictions on women's roles, as they were being worked out then, while others suggest that equality in the early Christian communities began to develop very fast. The arguments about whether gay unions may be sanctioned by the Church are another example of different readings of texts, with new readings challenging traditional readings, and each group claiming to know what God says on the subject.

When Christians have disagreed about the interpretation of their texts, depending on the century they were in they have either burned each other at the stake (16th century, regrettable) or argued endlessly on Twitter about it (21st Century, preferable). Sitting down and talking about disagreements is now thought of as a mark of a civilised society, and rightly. It brings to mind a lovely invitation in the Old Testament where God says, 'come now let us reason together' (Isaiah 1:18, KJV). It seems that God is at least as interested in how we argue, as in what we're arguing about (and perhaps more so).

So what to make of IS? Whether we think of this frightening phenomenon as in any way connected to Islam is important, because it feeds into how we view Islam in general and the Muslims we live amongst in particular. 

It may be we don't need to look further than Jesus' injunction, 'by their fruits shall you know them' (Matthew 7:20). For the People of the Book, it can never be just about a blind 'which words shall we follow today?' but a living out of faith in the spirit of humility, goodness, love and all the other 'fruits' that the average person will tell you are the pre-requisites of being a decent human being, let alone a religious one. By that simple test, IS does not qualify.

*the impossible pronoun question means God has to be referred to as either he or she or both. For ease and simplicity, I'm still in the habit of referring to God as 'he', whilst realising the limitation of the English Language and the implied theology of using 'he'.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Leaning Virgin

Notre Dame de Brebieres, Albert, France.
Sermon for Remembrance

Revelation 21:4 
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

Matt 5: 3-5
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Next year, 2016, sees the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

As part of our summer holiday we visited Albert, a pretty town in heart of the Somme region of Northern France, which found itself right in the centre of action during the First World War.

World War I Tourism is a big source of income in Albert to this day and part of the draw is the enormous and ornate Basilica, in the centre of the town, at the top of whose dome is a golden statue of the Virgin and Child, designed by sculptor Albert Rose and dubbed The Golden Virgin.

The statue was hit by a shell on January 15, 1915, and slumped to a near horizontal position, as Rupert Edward Inglis, a Forces Chaplain, describes in a letter home to his family:

2 October 1915.
We went through the place today where the Virgin Statue at the top of the Church was hit by a shell in January. The statue was knocked over, but has never fallen; I sent you a picture of it. It really is a wonderful sight. It is incomprehensible how it can have stayed there, and I think it is now lower than when the photograph was taken, and no doubt will come down with the next gale. The Church and village are wrecked, there’s a huge hole made by a Jack Johnson just outside the west door of the Church.

 Far from falling in the next gale, the Golden Virgin (soon to be renamed The Leaning Virgin) somehow miraculously remained where it was for a further three years, sticking out at a precarious angle, after French engineers did all they could to secure it. It was said by the French that whoever toppled the Virgin would lose the War.

Albert’s Basilica was finally destroyed by heavy shelling in 1918, and the Leaning Virgin fell and disappeared, assumed to have been taken back to Germany for scrap metal. However the whole church has since been lovingly rebuilt, down to the last tiny detail, including a meticulous reproduction of the Golden Virgin by Edouard Dutoit.

Today it rises high above the town, a symbol of victory on many levels, and a strange victory at that.

Victory is of primary importance in War. Everything, in fact, is geared up to victory.

Turning to World War II, here is Churchill on Victory:

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be…

However, through the Christian lens victory is subtly redefined, centered as it is on the victory Christ won over sin and death. In addition the Beatitudes, which we had for our gospel this morning, seem to suggest that in the economy of the Kingdom, things which we think make us losers, are very much turned upon their head.

'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.'

Christ’s own victory on the Cross is a victory won by sacrifice, not by superior physical or military strength. It is God’s victory of self-emptying, fuelled by love.

Perhaps the French engineers who secured the Leaning Virgin at the top of the Church in Albert, understood something of the symbolic significance of Christ’s victory over evil. Perhaps their Virgin and child was worth saving because it reminded them that victory in war is more than just being on the winning side.

In the conflicts of today, against extremism, against terror, against ideologies and perceived threats, military victory is much less easy to define. The goodies and the baddies are horribly mingled together on the global stage and we may just as well fear the threat within as well as the threat without.

Perhaps today, victory might be seen as to do with retaining our humanity and learning how to live with the physical and psychological consequences of war, something Prince Harry has done much to promote with his Invictus Games and concern for the disabled survivors of modern day conflicts.

As the Great War dragged on, some of the more perceptive of the poets of that day began to spread the rumour that victory would be at too high a cost. One such was Seigfried Sassoon. As well as describing the horrors of the trenches, his poetry satirized those who, in Sassoon's view, were responsible for jingoistic pretentions. Sassoon became a focal point for dissent within the armed forces as he protested against the continuation of the war in his "Soldier's Declaration" of 1917, a piece of writing which led to his admission to a military psychiatric hospital.

In the same year that the Golden Virgin was nearly toppled from Albert’s church, the lyricist Alfred Brian wrote an anti war song about a mother’s viewpoint on victory, which was an instant hit, selling 650,000 copies and intensely annoying the American President Theodore Roosevelt:

What victory can cheer a mother's heart,
When she looks at her blighted home?
What victory can bring her back
All she cared to call her own?
Let each mother answer
In the years to be,
“Remember that my boy belongs to me!”

I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy.
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder,
To shoot some other mother's darling boy?
Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,
It's time to lay the sword and gun away.
There'd be no war today,
If mothers all would say,
"I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier."

(Bryan, Alfred, Al Piantadosi, and Will J. Ward. 
I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier. 
New York: Leo Feist, 2005).

In a similar vein, Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Falklands Conflict, famously annoyed Mrs Thatcher by objecting to her cry ‘Rejoice', as she urged Britains to celebrate their victory over Argentinian aggression. Instead he asked worshippers to pray for the dead, both British and Argentinian. 

Victory doesn’t look the same to all parties.

Above the church in Albert, the Virgin holding her child aloft is visually striking. A child – not powerful, not armed, seemingly defenceless; yet victorious. It’s as if the child asks us ‘what really is victory’?

After the long years of destruction and loss during World War I, loss which permeated even the smallest of villages, as hundreds of war memorials attest to, the child Jesus is held aloft, high over all other landmarks and high over history.

In our Epistle we were reminded of a similar exalted vision, that of St John on the island of Patmos, where his striking and puzzling ‘Revelation’ was received from the very same Jesus.

As the book of Revelation unfolds, we see, with John, the nations and peoples of the earth, and we understand, with him, that though wars come and go, though nation rise against nation, ultimately it is God’s kingdom that endures. Ultimate victory is to our God and to the Lamb.

The symbol of this victory is the throne, on which is seated the Lord of Lords, and from here he declares the advent of the new heavens and the new earth that all who have really suffered find themselves longing for:

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

If we mourn today, if we are touched and troubled by war and conflict, we can at least know that everything in the kingdom of God is turned on its head. In Christ, hardships and suffering are finally redeemed – those who shed tears are comforted; those who hunger and thirst to do the right thing are vindicated, and everyone who turns to God in humility is given life giving water.

Our response to those who have given their lives in war, in our defence, is one of humility and gratitude. Our response to our neighbours, whether local or global, is one of generous open heartedness, remembering that Jesus has had the final victory and calls us to follow him today.

And we pray for our political leaders, that they may be people of wisdom, equity and peace.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Evangelism Lucan style

Sermon for St Luke (whose special day is celebrated by the Church on 18th October)

2 Timothy 4:9-12
Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas...

Luke 10:10
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few..."

Have you ever wondered why there are Four Gospels, when perhaps one account of Jesus would’ve been simpler?

A helpful book that suggests reasons for there being four is The Four Faces of God, by John Bickersteth and Timothy Pain (1992).

In the 1980s John and Timothy ministered at Ashburnham Place in East Sussex, a Christian retreat house where I had some formative experiences in my teenage years, so it’s been a book that’s journeyed with me a long time, and one of my top favourites.

Their portrayal shows that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John point to different aspects of Jesus, which taken together, make up a very rich picture of the God who walked among us.

Briefly, Matthew is a regal portrayal of Jesus. He is shown as the King of Israel, majestic and powerful. Matthew emphasises the kingdom of heaven, leadership, authority, judgment and the church. The symbol for kingly authority is the lion.

In Mark we find a very different portrayal of Jesus. The symbol is a wounded ox; Mark’s themes are servanthood, suffering, submission and secrecy. The ox is servant to all and is eventually sacrificed for all.

Luke portrays a Saviour who is for everyone. Jesus is the perfect example of humanity. There’s a universal feeling to the message of salvation. Luke’s particular themes are joy, meals, prayer, money and women. The symbol for this universal healer/saviour is the perfect man of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous pen and ink drawing.

Finally, John’s gospel is the most exalted vision of Jesus, the Eternal One, Son of God, present from before the creation of the world. The themes are love, light, truth and glory, belief and new birth.

The four faces of God idea serves as background to today, as we celebrate St Luke.

The story of Jesus sending out the 70 (or 72) occurs only in Luke. In the other gospels it is the 12 who are sent out. Already we can see Luke’s emphasis – the gospel is not just for the Jews, it’s not for the in-group, it’s for everyone.

So as we look at this mission of the 70, what do we see for our own mission here in the place where we live?

    1)   The Harvest is plentiful

This is Jesus’ starting point. We tend to think there aren’t that many people out there who would be interested in our message, but Jesus says the harvest is plentiful; it’s the workers who are few: Someone said of their church:

 “You know my church is like going to a football match. There are 22 people running around, exhausted and desperately in need of a rest being cheered on by a big crowd of people who actually need some exercise!”
(from Sermon given at St Mary’s Linton, http://www.stmaryslinton.org/node/46)

We sometimes hear similar things – today’s passage and the Epistle both speak of ministry being widely shared amongst the people of God, though we hear that note of sadness in Paul’s voice as he writes, ‘Demas has deserted me…’

Ministry is meaningful and even fun when it’s shared, and onerous when it’s not.

‘Ask the Lord of the Harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’.
So that’s all about the size and manageability of the harvest (of souls, that is).

Next up, Jesus sends the disciples out on a mission to share the Good News.

Us too. But are we to go off with no shoes and refuse to say hello to people as we walk up the High Street?

2)   We need to find culturally appropriate ways to share the Good News.

Jesus didn’t say to his disciples, go out and invite everyone to the Synagogue…
No, he expected his followers to be out in the community sharing the Good News with those who would listen.
Similarly our mission strategy can’t afford to be simply to ‘invite someone to church’, though sometimes that’s entirely appropriate.
We need to look also at how our midweek and evening activities can also be opportunities for others to engage with the Christian message.

Or, simply, when did you last pray for your neighbours, or think about what the Good News would mean for them?

Jesus’ mission strategy was nothing if not gritty. The disciples were sent out in twos, ‘like lambs amongst wolves’, and told not to take any money or footwear, and not to greet anyone on the road.

It’s not an evangelistic strategy that I would particularly recommend today.

But we can ponder some of the principles behind Jesus’ instruction:
          The disciples were to trust him completely for provision
          They were to be single minded
          They were to prepare the way for Jesus himself
          They were to accept hospitality where the welcome was warm
          They were to heal and proclaim (actions and words).

So if that’s what they did as they went out into the streets, what was the content of their message? In other words:

3)   What is the heart of the Good News?

That’s a hard question actually, and one to which, if you took a straw poll of the people in this church, you might get a dozen or so different answers.
I’m indebted to another church member for this anecdote, which neatly sums up the confusion we sometimes have around what actually is the message of the Good News (the answer is in verse 9).

A group of Curates was quizzed by a bishop: ‘what is the heart of the Good News as you understand it?’
Eager to impress the great personage, a keen young Curate popped up his hand: ‘it’s all about peace’.
‘Not so’, said the Bishop.
‘It all about love’, said another.
‘Not so’, said the Bishop, to increasing puzzlement.
The group was getting uneasy; had all their training been for nothing? Had they fundamentally misunderstood the Christian message?
Finally a bright young thing raised a cautious hand: ‘The Kingdom of God is near, he said.
‘Spot on’, replied the Bishop.

‘The kingdom of God near’ just about sums up the message of the Good News that Jesus commissioned his followers to proclaim, and here in here in the second decade of the 21st Century, we’re still doing the same.
Whenever we welcome people with hospitality, pray for them, offer acts of service in the power of the Holy Spirit, ‘the kingdom of God is near’. 
  • The Harvest is plentiful
  • We need to find culturally appropriate ways of sharing it
  • The Good News is: ‘the kingdom of God is near’

As St Luke gave us a Jesus whose message was for all, may we have eyes to see the harvest, imagination to share the message, and always remember the heart of the message: ‘the kingdom of God is near’.