Sunday, 15 October 2017

Harvest Thanksgiving 2017

Today is our Harvest Thanksgiving. Today, we come bringing food for the foodbank, recognising that the good gifts God gives us are for the relief of those in need as well as our own well-being; and recognising the injustice that results when, as a society, we choose not to look beyond ourselves. As we come, I want to draw out some principles from our readings that might help us to go deeper.

Turn with me to our reading from Deuteronomy. Moses has led the people through the wilderness, but will not be the one to lead them into the land that God had promised to their ancestors. So, Moses gives them his final words of wisdom. The first thing I want to draw out is the idea that the land God is giving them has within it everything they need, either directly or through resources to trade. Of course, it will require effort—God will no longer drop manna and quail into their laps; they will need to sow and reap, mill and bake; they will need to mine and smelt and forge—but the land itself contains everything they need. And I wonder whether we believe that the same is true of the ‘land’ God has settled us in, Sunderland, in the north east of England? Are the resources we need, if we are to flourish in this place, to be found in this city, this region, this nation? What do you think? Is what being true then and there also true here and now? Is this a good land too, or a scorched earth?

The second thing I want to draw out relates to the experience of plenty and the experience of need. Moses goes on to tell the people that the resources of the land will multiply. If you have a male goat and a few female goats, you will get a flock of goats. In an agricultural society and a trade-based society, resources tend to multiply, at least in the long-term. And Moses understood that there was an inherent danger in that: the danger that when we have plenty, we attribute it to ourselves. We believe that we deserve it, that we have earned it through our effort. And because we attribute plenty to ourselves, we must equally attribute lack or need as earned or deserved. Moreover, we must believe that the earth is not fruitful as abundant gift, and so we must compete for resources: which in turn casts those in need as a threat to our plenty. Moses confronts such a tendency head-on: all we have is a gift from God. At times we might need to lose everything to rediscover that in our inability to meet our own needs, God provides: and, in his mercy, the times that humble and test us may turn out, in the end, to do us good. We may be invited by God to experience such times, and may discover them to do us good. We do not, however, get to discover that for anyone else: we do not get to decide that having to rely on a foodbank will do other people good.

Where, then, do we experience multiplication? And where do we experience the humbling of vulnerability and need? Perhaps we experience both in our Iranian brothers and sisters, a community that has grown from one person to many. Their faith has greatly encouraged many of us in our faith. But their lack of resources has also become our lack of resources, our shared need: and our shared opportunity to experience God’s provision.

Turn with me to our reading from 2 Corinthians. The context of this passage is this: the church in Jerusalem is experiencing the hardship of a local famine, and Paul is mobilising the churches he has planted in Greece to send financial support. They have been blessed—spiritually—by the church in Jerusalem; now they can bless them—materially, in this instance—in return. The church in Corinth had committed to give a certain amount, but were now struggling to raise it. Paul encourages them to give as they have made up their mind to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, but cheerfully and as a way of entering-into God’s abundant provision.

Each year, the Bishop of Durham writes to the parish churches of the Diocese asking them to prayerfully consider what they will contribute to the shared cost of providing ministry across our communities. The Parochial Church Council has agreed that we will give £30,000 this year, and the same amount next year. In fact, we would like to give more, but in considering our circumstances as a congregation, this is the amount that we believe is enough beyond our financial resources to require faith while not being beyond the faith we have at present.

This is, indeed, where we find ourselves. Financially, we are behind on our target; but we have faith that it is what God would have us give, and that God will provide. Indeed, I know that this is a congregation that knows God’s generosity and has been set free to be generous ourselves, because again and again I am blown away by the generosity of the Minster congregation. But we need to talk about our financial commitments and needs, because we have a turnover of committed givers who move on, or have died, and new people joining our community.

Even as we bring generous gifts to help those in need of food, this passage from 2 Corinthians gives us the opportunity to think about our committed financial giving. There are two things you can do. The first is, if you do not at present give a regular, committed donation—that is, giving that enables us to plan a budget—then please consider doing so, and talk to Sandra. If you already give, thank you. Please review your giving regularly. You may be able to increase it, cheerfully; you may need to reduce it, if you are to remain cheerful, in order that it doesn’t become burdensome: what matters is that it is an active decision you can act on.

The second thing is this. On Sunday 3rd December—Advent Sunday—we will be holding a Gift Day, on which we will celebrate the generosity of this place and this people, expressed in the giving of our time, our skills, our money. We will take up a collection towards our Parish Share, and I invite you to prayerfully consider what God might be asking you to contribute, over-and-above your regular, committed giving, and to bring your gift that day. More on that to come.

Finally, turn with me to our Gospel passage, from Luke. The famous parable of the rich fool, who hoarded his wealth for himself instead of blessing others; contrasted with God’s abundance on display in the goodness of the land. I am struck by God’s words to the man whose land produced abundantly: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

I think we assume that God says this because the man will die that night—and indeed, that is implied. But I wonder whether his demise is incidental, or, rather, simply becomes the point at which it is too late to change? I wonder whether the point of the story is this: that our life is demanded of us by God continually—not as slaves, but as covenant partners in creating a society marked by loving-kindness and steadfast fidelity and mercy and justice. And that, therefore, all the resources we have been given are always to be shared: so, we are to continually ask, who else will benefit, who will share in what we have? In this way—all that we are and all that we have freely given to God—we discover ourselves to be truly rich. And discovering this may we increasingly be known for ‘blessing our communities in the name of Jesus for the transformation of us all.’*

*this, from the Durham Diocese mission statement.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity 2017

I’ve been sitting with our reading from Isaiah this week. In it, the prophet sings a song of the love of God for his vineyard. The song tells of how God chose his site, on a very fertile hill, taking into account aspect and drainage; of how he turned over the soil, and got earth under his fingernails clearing out the stones; of how he selected the best vines, and planted them; built a watch-tower to protect them; and then, while the grapes grew, how he hewed-out a wine-vat from a large rock, a basin in which to tread the grapes, with a channel cut for the juice to flow out from, to be collected in wineskins to ferment. It is a horticulturally-slow labour of love, that conjures up the image of a hard patch of skin on the ball of the thumb from the rub of a tool handle, and the deep satisfaction of tired limbs at the end of the day, when God looks at what he has done and declares it good. Very good. But when the grapes have grown, they are small and bitter.

The prophet turns from singing of God to giving voice to God, asking his listeners, ‘What did I do wrong? Was there anything more I should have done and failed to do?’ And the audience surely responds, ‘No, you’re good.’

God continues: ‘This, then, is what I plan to do: I shall take my cultivated vineyard and return it to the wild. I will no longer prune or hoe or irrigate, no longer tend the garden. If my vines choose to bear wild grapes, then wild let them be.’ And the audience, listening to the song, must surely agree that this is an entirely reasonable course of action. And then comes the sting in the tail: you are the vineyard, o listeners, o divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. God expected fruitful lives, a celebration of his goodness; but instead all he found was the bitterness of injustice.

Alongside listening to Isaiah’s song—and wondering whether we celebrate all that God has done for us, or blame God for the bitterness of life—I have been thinking about our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, where he lists the ways in which God had prepared his life with good things in hope of fruitfulness, and in response longs to be fruitful, to offer something precious back to God just as grapes, when crushed—their skins now a waste product—offer up wine to the owner of the vineyard.

And I have been thinking about the ways in which God has invested in me, within the context of a ‘vineyard’ or community of his people, or, church.

The first church I can remember being part of was a city-centre Church of Scotland. There, I drew-in a love for scripture, in a place where being allowed to go out to the evening service as well as the morning one, at around the same age as starting secondary school, was held as a real rite-of-passage into adulthood by the youth.

In time, we moved from there to a more local church. That community had come out of a Brethren Assembly. The Brethren don’t have clergy, but allow any adult man to share whatever God had spoken to him that week in his personal devotions; and this group came out because they felt that women should be empowered to share on an equal footing. This was a church that both valued and questioned their tradition. Others joined, from other backgrounds; and this community studied the Bible and Church History together to determine what they believed on a wide range of issues. So, for example, Brethren and Baptists dedicated their children and practiced adult baptism, while families who had joined from Presbyterian or Episcopalian backgrounds baptised their children. In this and other matters, the members of West Glasgow New Church considered their own practice, consolidating or changing their view, but seeking to create room for those whose conscience led them to uphold a different practice.

When I went to university, in England, I discovered both the Church of England and the charismatic movement. In Sheffield, we experienced services where, in response to hearing God’s word, scores of people would come forward for prayer, week after week, deeply aware of God’s holiness and of their need for God’s healing touch or simply life-giving presence in their lives. It was like those accounts in the Gospels of whole towns turning out for Jesus to heal their sick. Or the crowds who followed him from place to place; for this was a community that engaged not only with getting healed-up but with the lifelong process of becoming more like Jesus.

For my curacy, we moved to a church in north Liverpool. In a similar way to how a significant part of our congregation here in Sunderland is made up of asylum-seekers and refugees, a significant part of the congregation there was made up of people in Recovery [Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous]. Their lives were messy. Their relationships were messy. Their lives were being transformed by Jesus, but that is a lifelong process—with lots of set-backs along the way. In fact, the kind of process we are talking about in such broken lives takes several generations, because our brokenness has a big impact on our children: the good news is that God works to save not only us, but our children and our children’s children. In many ways, the church was dysfunctional; but it was a community being transformed by the difficult, costly love of Jesus—and it held out hope to the wider community through its foodbank and debt advice and playgroup and community breakfasts.

From inner-city Liverpool we moved to the suburban village of Birkdale, where I continued my curacy in two churches that were wrestling with the concerns of growing old. Both congregations wanted to grow younger, and this too was a third-age issue: many of them were grandparents who lived far [in some cases, across the globe] from their grandchildren, and needed more children in their lives. They were also worried that, as more of their peers died, their story would be lost, because our stories are held collectively on trust for one another, and our stories matter. I guess at times they felt like grapes crushed underfoot, and certainly as with pressed grapes there was a certain amount of rubbish to be strained out, but by-and-large the fruitfulness of their lives was sweet, when it could so easily have been bitter.

All of which brings me to this place, this vineyard, with all that has gone before in the past. The past is a hillside, or several hillsides, I am thankful to have been planted in; but I don’t want to live in the past. The questions that concern me are, how has God shown his faithful loving-kindness to us, here? Will we sing a love-song for the Lord, our beloved, concerning our lives, our community—or will we withhold our song and so be bitter to the taste? And if we sing, what story would our love-song tell?

I think it might tell stories of sharing in the sufferings and death and resurrection life of Christ. Of Mackem men and women who have known bereavement, from the death of a parent or partner to the empty-nest of children leaving home. Of Iranians who have lost everything. All discovering that they are loved into new life by God, slowly, patiently, at great cost. Learning to embrace our fragile life and offer it back in fruitful thanks and praise, in taking a stand against injustice and rejoicing when the cry of the orphan and widow and alien is heard. Failing and falling, and finding in the end of the world as we have known it the anticipation of the one to come.

At times, our song might be led by the choir and the organ, but also resound in the clanging of tins for the foodbank, and the slap of feet at our ceilidhs, and the dancing of children at the summer specials. Or in the silent prayers raised heavenward every day in this place, and the splash of colour of the flowers, and the stained-glass projected onto the white wall of the chancel. In the register that records every child and adult baptised here, and in the eulogies spoken at funerals. And in the bringing forward of bread and wine, broken, poured-out, and shared together.

So, let us sing a new song to the Lord, songs of sufferings and death and resurrection. And in the words of the Choristers’ Prayer: ‘Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity 2017

When the great prophet Moses asked God to show him what he was really like, ‘The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The LORD, the LORD [that is, Yahweh—a name, not a title; repeated, for emphasis], a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”’ (Exodus 34:6, 7)

This is the fundamental revelation of who God is and what God is like, and these verses are quoted over and over, about God, and back to God, more than any other in the Bible. Jonah throws them back in God’s face in our first reading, disgusted that God should be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, ready to forgive. Of course, he wants this for himself, and for his own people: but not for the enemies of his people. That is unacceptable. If this is what God is really like, Jonah would rather be dead.

The Book of Jonah is like one of those sets of Russian nesting dolls. In fact, it is like one of those sets of nesting dolls, inside another, larger, set of nesting dolls.

The backdrop is this: God chose one people from among the nations, through whom to bless all nations; but the people he chose were serially unfaithful. Eventually, God appoints David as king; and David’s son Solomon is king after him; but under Solomon’s son, the kingdom divides, north and south—Israel and Judah—sometimes in uneasy alliance, sometimes in open conflict. In the north, there is an unbroken line of kings who lead the people away from God, until eventually Israel is swallowed-up by the Assyrians (whose capital is Nineveh).

Assyria, in turn, is swallowed-up by the Babylonians.

In the south, the line of kings who lead the people away from God is occasionally interrupted by a king who calls them back to covenant faithfulness. It is never lasting, but it does delay the fall of Jerusalem by 135 years. Assyria fails to swallow them up; but Babylon succeeds, and carries the people of God off into exile.

Babylon, in turn, is swallowed-up by the Persians. And at this point, the king over the Persian empire sends the people of God back to Jerusalem, in three waves. They are, so to speak, vomited up out of the belly of a great fish.

Persia, in turn, is swallowed-up by the Greeks. Greece, in turn, is swallowed-up by the Romans. And Rome, in turn, is swallowed-up by the triumph of Jesus, by the conversion of the Roman empire, which brings this biblical sequence—although not history, and not the ultimate purposes of God in Christ Jesus—to an end.

The prophets understood the rise and fall of nations to be appointed by God, in exercising his slow-but-sure judgement on injustice. The Book of Jonah sits within that worldview. Jonah was a prophet who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel at a time when it felt relatively secure, under its longest-reigning king (by quite some distance), Jeroboam II. Nonetheless, Israel was rotten: God sent prophets, but would they listen? Meanwhile, Assyria was on the rise, a definite threat, notoriously violent: would God intervene?

We don’t know when the story of the prophet who was sent to take the message of impending judgement to Nineveh first began to circulate by word-of-mouth, or when it was first written down. But we do know that, unlike the people of Nineveh in the story, God’s people didn’t repent. We do know that they were swallowed-up, and eventually vomited up again; and we also know that they kept telling the story, in trying to make sense of their experience: even Jesus, living eight centuries later and in the Roman empire, refers to it.

All of which brings us to our second set of Russian dolls. God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh. When Jonah runs away, in the opposite direction and to the ends of the earth, God appoints a storm to surround him, and then a great fish to swallow him, and then a plant to shelter him, and then a worm to attack the plant, and then a hot east wind to beat down on Jonah’s head. God, we are told, appoints these things—a storm and a fish and a plant and a worm and a wind—to fulfil his purposes, just as he appoints kings and empires.

In other words, the story of Jonah is the story of the people of God, over and over: the iniquity of the parents being visited on the children, until it is dealt with, until they might truly be set free.

The iniquity is in wanting to keep God’s goodness for ourselves, while demanding his judgement on others. Jesus addresses a variation on the theme in our Gospel reading, where the hired labourers grumble against the landowner, failing to share his compassion—his insistence that those without security of employment do not go hungry—envious because he is generous.

If we are honest, I think this is still a work in progress.

The Book of Jonah ends with God restating what Jonah has thrown back in his face: that who God is, is who God is, in relation to all people, everywhere. God is concerned about Nineveh. God’s fundamental attitude towards her hundred and twenty thousand citizens is mercy [the word comes from the root, to carry in the womb] and grace. God longs to show steadfast love and faithfulness. This love is expressed in great patience; but at the same time, this love will not turn a blind eye to injustice—for how can genuine love do that? The cry against wickedness will not be ignored; but God is also quick to respond when the wicked repent. This is the scope of God’s concern for Nineveh, that great city.

Might God say to us today, should I not be concerned with Sunderland, that great city, in which there are almost two hundred and ninety thousand persons who do not know my concern for them?

The motto of our city is Nil desperandum auspice Deo: ‘Do not despair, but put your trust in God.’ This is, of course, the advice of the king of Nineveh to his people, when confronted with their own wickedness. It is more often shortened to Nil desperandum, which is, at best, a whistling in the dark.

What might happen, were we to share God’s concern for the people of our city?

What might happen, were we to proclaim that concern—a concern in which even the bad news is good news, and the good news is very good indeed—to all we meet?

The day is far gone, but it is not yet too late. The landowner comes looking again and again, calling labourers into his vineyard.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity 2017

This morning I want to speak about the wrath of God. The wrath of God has fallen out of fashion. It is something we are uncomfortable with, and so we focus on the love of God, the compassion and faithfulness of God, the wide sweeping inclusivity of God. We might even seek to differentiate between a wrathful God of the Old Testament—and the apostle Paul—and a loving Jesus. That would be a tragic mistake. God’s love demands the wrath of God, as an expression of that love. The Bible speaks of the wrath of God over 600 times; so, it is important that we understand what we mean by the wrath of God—and why it is a good thing.

Listen to how God reveals his glory—that is, his character, or nature—to Moses:

‘Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’

This passage, from Exodus, is perhaps the passage from the Bible most quoted across the rest of the Bible. In addition to direct quotes, it is alluded to countless times. It is the foundational passage for how we are to understand what God is like—and, by extension, how we are called to be as God’s people.

I don’t have time to unpack this passage today, but to summarise: God’s fundamental stance towards us is an active, intervening, engaged, enduring, unchanging, love; a love that, whenever we are estranged, will always move to be reconciled. This love is slow to anger, and utterly opposed to all that separates us from each other. Why? Because the opposite of love is not hate—as we are so often told—but indifference. He will root-out that which separates us, even if doing so takes several generations, because mercy is unimaginably greater than judgement.

God, then, is slow to anger. This means two things: one, that God gets angry; and two, that God is slow to act on his anger. Me, I am quick to anger. And my anger is most often an unhealthy reaction to my ego being bruised. I get angry when, emptying the dishwasher, I want to put bowls away in a cupboard and my wife has the effrontery to sit on the chair right in front of the cupboard door when there are four other identical chairs around the kitchen table. I get angry when we must wait while four cars go past before we can turn out of a junction because they are all too selfish to let us in (and I’m not even driving the car). I get angry when I lose mobile phone signal passing through the underground sections of the Metro.

I have a long way to go in being conformed to the likeness of Jesus. He got angry about dehumanising lust and bloodlust. When a mob came to him seeking to stone an adulterous woman, he took time to process his response. When he eventually spoke, it was with such compassion and grace that it turned the men from their bloodlust, and the woman from her lust.

Jesus got angry about people being afflicted by demons, driving the demons out, forcefully. He got angry at the temple authorities giving over the space that was intended to be set apart as a house of prayer for all nations for other purposes; and—having gone to the temple countless other times and not done this—overturned the tables.

I believe that God gets angry about child abuse, sexual assault, human trafficking, the rich maximising their profit margin by cladding the homes of the poor in a death-trap, zero-hours contracts, the arms trade, racism, the West’s overconsumption of the resources of the natural world, global poverty, and our sheer indifference towards most of these things, to name but a few.

A god who, like me, is quick to anger would be hellish, literally. A god who did not get angry, even more so. How God’s slow anger works out is what we mean by the wrath of God. Both our quick anger and our resigned indifference need to be conformed to it.

The book of Jeremiah, from which our first reading this morning is taken, is all about God’s wrath. It is a testimony that shows us that God allows a people to reap the consequences of turning away, handing them over to their choices, withdrawing his protection: but that he does so incredibly reluctantly, in the hope that they will turn back to him as a result, before disaster strikes. Indeed, Jeremiah is not alone among God’s friends in being frustrated by how much opportunity God gives the people to pull back from the brink of disaster, how patient his love is. Jeremiah calls on God to bring down retribution for him on his persecutors—even accusing God of being unfaithful for having not yet done so: truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.

But God responds by declaring that the way in which he will bring retribution on Jeremiah’s persecutors for him is this: that if Jeremiah will turn back to God, God will strengthen him to continue to speak for the God who longs for reconciliation, until his persecutors turn back to God, and are reconciled to Jeremiah. This is how God will deliver Jeremiah from the wicked and redeem him from the grasp of the ruthless: by the wicked repenting and being transformed into the righteous.

It is this principle of hopeful forbearance, of allowing rebellion against God to play itself out until it over-extends itself, and of—even then—embracing those who turn back in a new beginning that plays out in the agreement of the persons of the Trinity that the Son should be handed over to his persecutors, suffer death and be buried, rise again, and ascend to the right hand of the Father, where he intercedes for us and from where he will come again to judge the living and the dead, taking his place over a kingdom that shall have no end. It is breath-takingly good.

How, then, are we to live in faithful relationship with such a God? Well, Paul also wrote at length about the wrath of God to the church in Rome: about how God had handed us all over to the consequences of our rebellion, in the hope that all might be saved. You can read about that in the first eleven chapters of his letter. But in chapter twelve he shifts from how we are saved and what we are saved from, to what we are saved for. And in our second reading this morning he exhorts his hearers to:

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

When you are wronged—genuinely wronged, not simply nursing a bruised ego—know that God has not abandoned you, but is playing the long game. When we are wronged, we need to remind one another of that hope, keep it before us, encourage one another to join in the long game, by praying, blessing, serving. In this way, we ‘leave room for’ the wrath of God.

Where we see others wronged, allow our anger to be conformed to God’s slow anger, by praying, blessing, serving.

Where we see others wronged so very many times that we grow numb, allow our indifference to be conformed to God’s slow anger, by praying, blessing, serving.

This is an outrageous way to be asked to respond. Some would call it naïvely idealistic; others, condoning injustice. And if we are quite mistaken in believing in this God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and fleshed-out in Jesus of Nazareth, then it is quite possibly both these things. Almost certainly so, in fact.

But if the story we confess is true, it just might change everything.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2017

A sermon first preached at St Gabriel’s Church, Bishopwearmouth.

Last week a small article caught my eye in the Church Times. It read:

Pagans demand restitution
A group of pagans have written to the Archbishops and several bishops asking for a public apology for what they claim is “centuries of persecution”, and that two Church of England churches be given to them to turn back into temples. The Odinist Fellowship, a charity that promotes English paganism, has accused the C of E of attempting a “spiritual genocide” during the conversion of England in the seventh century, and of turning pagan temples into today’s parish churches. “The Church has never come to terms with its past crimes,” the Fellowship’s director, Ralph Harrison, said.

Church Times 18 August 2017

Now, that might sound bizarre or even quite funny, and—at least, as reported—somewhat confused about history, but, given our reading from Acts this evening, I took a closer look at the Odinist Fellowship.

They are registered as a charity and as an official religion in England and Wales, with the legal protection from discrimination that being an officially-recognised religion provides.

They worship the northern European gods we might recognise as belonging to Norse mythology, gods and goddesses such as Tyr, Odin, Thor, and Frigg, after whom we name days of the week. These they consider to be our indigenous deities, brought by the Anglo-Saxons, and as opposed to Christianity and Islam, which they see as hostile immigrant religions.

They believe these gods and goddesses to be “true gods, divine, living, spiritual entities, endowed with power and intelligence, able and willing to intervene in the course of Nature and of human lives” [see] and in the mythologies not as literal figures and events but as human attempts to understand and speak of the real gods that stand behind the stories.

They hold to Nine Noble Virtues of courage, truth, honour, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, industriousness, self-reliance and perseverance.

They practice sacrifice, of food and drink, understood not as physically feeding spiritual beings but as a sacrament: “that is to say, it is a symbol which effects what it symbolises, and symbolises what it effects. The sacrifice plays an important role in the cosmic conflict between the forces of order and chaos, because the symbolism of ritually offering … life-giving sustenance to the gods actually brings what is symbolically portrayed into effect on the spiritual plane, thereby strengthening the gods’ hand in their eternal struggle against the powers of chaos.” [see].

We might contrast this with the sacrament we will take part in this evening, which we understand to bring into effect in the physical plane what is already determined in the spiritual plane in and through Christ Jesus.

What is at first glance faintly ridiculous is, at second glance, a true and living relationship with the local pantheon of gods. Which is, in and of itself, very interesting, in our post-Christian but also post-secular society.

But at a third glance, we may see something very ugly: the way in which this Teutonic religion sets itself against Christianity as a weak and despised Semitic religion that has failed Britain and left us exposed to the rise of Islam. They repeatedly affirm Odinism as being life-affirming, spiritual, nature-loving, cosmic, ethical, as opposed to Christianity which they present as being none of these things, but, rather, of stealing many of their stories, rites and festivals and debasing them. In Odinism, instead, they proclaim, is the indigenous and true answer to disaffected young people’s spiritual longing.

These are the gods that stand behind the rise of northern European and English nationalism, the resurgence of White Supremacy and its attendant blame-shifting. To be clear, I am not saying that all adherents of Odinism are neo-Nazis; but there is a very strong overlap with far-right fascism, as well as clear parallels with the ‘folk and hearth’ mythos that underpinned the rise of the Nazi movement.

But, you might say to me, these are not gods at all. They are nothing but stories. Not so.

The Bible does not paint for us what might be called philosophical monotheism—the belief that there is only one god; with the correlation that all other gods are either figments of the imagination or alternative approximations of the one god.

Rather, the Bible paints a picture of what we might term creational monotheism—that there is one eternal and creator God, whose creation includes many spiritual beings, or lower-case-g gods, endowed with power, intelligence, and free-will. Some of these choose to love and serve the creator God—Yahweh—while others are in rebellion against him.

Both Old and New Testaments assume a world populated by gods. Many are named, such as Tiamat and Rahab and Chemosh and Baal and the Princes of Persia and Greece; along with others who serve Yahweh, such as Michael, for whom the Minster where I am based is named, or Gabriel, after whom this place is named (we tend to call these gods ‘angels’ but that term comes with a great deal of unhelpful cultural baggage).

Other descriptions of gods include the Angel of the Lord, the Angel of Death, the Council of Heaven, the Sons of God, the satan (which might be a role, rather than an individual), the powers and principalities of the heavenly realms, and the unclean spirits Jesus drives out before him again and again.

In the plagues of Egypt, Yahweh takes on and overthrows one member of the Egyptian pantheon after another, culminating with Ra the sun god and the divine image-bearers Pharaoh and his first-born son.

The Ten Commandments assume the existence of many gods. The first is an injunction to have no gods besides Yahweh—and the sin of Israel is always to turn to other gods along with Yahweh, never instead of Yahweh. The second prohibits idols, images behind which gods stand.

Again and again, the Psalms refer to Yahweh judging the gods for the injustice with which they hold humanity in slavery. The gods are real. Many do not hold us in goodwill: we are to avoid them, as a matter of priority. Others, loyal to Yahweh, support us: but we are not to consider them his equal, for they are created beings like ourselves.

When Paul sees that Athens was full of idols, he was deeply distressed: not because they were wasting their time on things that were not real, but because they were exposing themselves to gods that were very real—albeit, as the Odinists understand, bearing no actual correlation to the idols they stand behind—and those spiritual beings were holding them captive.

Indeed, Paul was so distressed that he abandoned his usual practice of going to the local Jewish community before going to the Gentiles, choosing instead to go to both communities from the start.

His message was that there is one creator God, above all the created gods; a God who does not need us to empower him, but who longs for us to know him as our parent. This God stepped decisively into the world he had created, in the person of Jesus, to set us free and call us into relationship with him.

This Jesus has broken the power of the rebellious gods: they exerted their influence over people to crucify him, but God vindicated this Jesus by raising him from the dead; and in so doing has given assurance that there will be a day when this Jesus judges the world in righteousness, dealing once-and-for-all with the injustice of humans and of the gods.

It is a powerful message; and one that is rather strange. Indeed, on hearing about Jesus and the resurrection—in Greek, anastasis—for the first time, Paul’s audience think he is talking of two new deities, Jesus and his goddess-consort Anastasis. As Paul explains his hope to them, some reject his message, others ask to hear more, and still others became believers.

Regardless of how many Odinists there may be in the UK, we live in a society not dissimilar to that of the Athens Paul visited. The good news of Jesus Christ, widely misunderstood and rejected, is no longer familiar to many. Yet there is an impulse to worship, an awareness of—and engagement with—the predominantly unseen spiritual aspect of creation. There is an interest in magic, in healing powers, in divination, in seeing the future or in contacting the dead.

This is not good news. Promising benevolence, the gods provoke people against people, with the goal of devouring one another. By this, I am not diminishing human free-will and responsibility—Jesus will judge humanity—but I am saying that there is more at work than meets the eye—he will judge the powers and principalities too.

The good news is that God—the one eternal creator God—has not left us alone, but comes to seek and to save: to save us from ourselves, and from the gods.

In a world where we see so much going on that we, so shaped by a secular worldview, find hard to make any sense of;

in a world where many, having been persuaded to disbelieve in the gods, are left blaming the one eternal creator God for so much suffering;

this is a hope that, yes, still divides opinion, but one that sets the captives free. As Simon Peter recognised, in Jesus is eternal life—life in its fullness—for he is the believable, knowable, Holy One of God. In Jesus, the one eternal creator God is made known—relationally known—to us. This is not “spiritual genocide” but spiritual liberation.

The population of Sunderland needs to hear this good news. Are we deeply distressed enough by what we see around us to proclaim it?

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Tenth Sunday after Trinity 2017

I don’t usually publish my sermons until after I have preached them, but am making an exception on this occasion, to participate in communal sermon preparation.

Why does Jesus ignore the Canaanite woman?

Isn’t that just unkind? Certainly, rude? Not at all Christian?

Here’s my best guess, and then I’ll tell you why. Jesus was looking at his disciples, to see what they would do.

And what they do is urge him to send her away, to put an end to her disturbing them. It was a little annoying at first, then pushed its way through being frankly embarrassing, until at last they’ve had enough. Have mercy on us, Lord!

That’s what they did, but not what I think Jesus had hoped that they would do.

Let’s consider the context. Not long ago, they had fed a multitude with a small boy’s packed lunch. Jesus had taken what he had been given, and, having given thanks for it, told the disciples to give it away. And the more they gave it away, the further it went, until there was more than enough.

And then there followed that whole strange story about Jesus walking on the water, a disclosure-story where the gravity-defying penny that has been hanging over the disciples’ heads finally drops and they realise than in the person of Jesus, the God of their fathers is walking among them.

And that is followed by a confrontation with some Pharisees over what it means to keep the Law, where Jesus says, how is it that you have so fundamentally missed the point of your calling?

What calling? The call to live within the covenant that the Lord had made with Abram, saying, ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Genesis 12:2, 3).

In other words, to be a people who take the blessing God has given them and to give it away in order that everyone else gets to share—to enter-into—the blessing.

But the Pharisees don’t even want to share that blessing with their own parents, let alone with people they saw as undeserving.

By the way, Yahweh is faithful to his character even when his people are not. He keeps blessing his people, in order that through them all the families of the earth shall be blessed, even when they keep the blessing to themselves. Even when they keep the blessing to themselves so long that they come to believe that they are more blessed because they are more deserving. Even when they come to believe that they are so more deserving than all the other families that they come to see those people as dogs. But that faithfulness includes humbling his people, and calling them back to him. Again and again.

So to recap: Jesus has had his disciples take part in a practical exercise of giving blessing away; has shown himself to be the embodiment—we use the term ‘incarnation’—of Yahweh; and has told a group of people who are trying to be in right relationship with God by keeping blessing to themselves that they have missed the point…

…and now the disciples are confronted with the perfect opportunity to join the dots together and jump at the chance to be used by God to bring blessing to this family.

I mean you couldn’t make it up. It is an open goal right in front of them, and all one of them needs to do is tap the ball home.

Send her away, Lord!

It is painfully clear that the disciples haven’t got it (yet). So Jesus presses his point: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Note that he still isn’t answering the woman. This is his response to the disciples’ request that he send her away. ‘I wasn’t sent to send anyone away; I was sent to find the lost sheep of Israel.’ To restore a people who would be a blessing to others. I was sent to call you, disciples. And you are as wayward as any sheep.

They still don’t get it. And at this point, the woman speaks up again, saying simply, ‘Lord, help me.’ And the question is not one of whether Jesus is willing to help her, but one of how he wants to see her helped.

He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Now, bear in mind that this is a time long before Pedigree Chum, long before anyone thought to market food as dog food. This is a time when dogs would eat whatever was set aside for them from what the family members were eating. So why is it not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs?

Because if you do the children won’t have enough to eat? No.

It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs because if the adult does that, the children will never learn that the dog needs to have a share in the food.

And, of course, the dog itself will be fine, for as long as the adult is around. But if the adult dies and the children have not learnt to share their food with the dog, the dog—or its pups—will die too.

It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs because if the adult does that, the children will grow up so self-centred they think only of themselves. That isn’t fair on the children—and it isn’t fair on anyone else. It would be a parenting fail.

If Jesus shows mercy on this woman and the disciples have not learnt to show mercy on women like her, then that is great for as long as Jesus is around, but it doesn’t fulfil the call on the people of Israel that he was sent to restore.

‘Yes, Lord,’ the woman said. ‘But your disciples are painfully slow. And I need a miracle now. And even if the family forgets to feed their dog, it at least gets to lick up the crumbs that fall from the table. So I’m just going to lie down here at your feet and hope.’

And for that, Jesus changes his mind. (Why? Because Jesus is God, and we read in the Bible that God often changes his mind about what he intends to do, in conversation with people, in response to their response. It’s almost as if God were looking for partners to work with…) Jesus is prepared to risk the disciples not getting it, on this occasion, because to the woman’s need—to which they have failed to respond—is now added her insight—which they have failed to grasp for themselves.

Come on, boys!

And here’s the good news: they do get it, eventually. Later, after Jesus has died and been raised to life and ascended into heaven, Peter has a vision all about dietary laws, followed by an invitation to go to the house of a Roman centurion. And if he experienced déjà vu, that would be because of the debate over food and defilement that preceded meeting a Canaanite woman. Peter goes, and the Gentiles enter-into the blessing of being included within the people of God (Acts 10). And the rest, as they say, is history.

We don’t know what happens to the woman, how her story continues to unfold. We don’t know how fully she took up the invitation to join God’s people. But we can say that she is blessed and that her understanding of being blessed extends blessing to others—to the slow disciples; in time, to the Gentiles.

So, what about us? There are people living on my street, living on your street, who are hoping for a miracle. Lives waiting to be touched by blessing that undoes whatever curse they may find themselves under. The chances are, they are the neighbours you and I find most annoying, the ones we keep asking Jesus to remove. I think of my immediate next-door-neighbour, who pretty much keeps himself to himself, except for the time he swung a punch at me on my doorstep. I have no idea how to reach out to him with blessing, but I’m pretty sure it won’t happen until I want him to be blessed more than I want him to go away.

And so I find myself in exactly the same place as Jesus’ first disciples. Needing to be humbled, needing to repent. But also in the presence of God-with-us, the one whose character is compassion and mercy—towards me and those who I find difficult—who is faithful forever, who is slow to express anger at my hard-heartedness and quick to respond to my desire to be more like him, but to whom I will one day need to give account. And that is not always a comfortable place to be. But there is no better place, no better person to follow.

Allow me to end where I began. Why does Jesus ignore the Canaanite woman?

Next time you hear someone ask, Why does God ignore this affliction, that loss, in my life? why not ask Jesus, How might we bring blessing to this person, Lord?

You never know what might happen.