Sunday, 24 February 2013

Lent 2: "But..."

There’s a fascinating little word in the Old Testament reading today. It’s not an eye-catching word, though, and amidst all the mystery and drama of that reading you probably didn’t notice it at all. It came three times. It was the word “but”. “But Abraham said...But the word of the Lord came to him....  and then again, “But he – Abraham- said…” Surely, you are saying to yourself, she isn't going to preach a sermon about “but”...? Well, yes, I am. Because that little word says something very important about how a true and deep faith is shaped.

To understand why “but” matters so much in this story, we need to set it in context. It is part of the story of Abraham and Sarah. He is still called Abram here – God changes his name later. Abram means “exalted ancestor” but Abraham means “ancestor of a multitude. Frankly, though, at the beginning of this story, both these names look like a bit of a bad joke, because Abraham isn't going to be anybody's ancestor. He and Sarah have no children, and they are already well past the age at which they could reasonably expect to have any. In their society childlessness was regarded as a disaster, a sign you’d displeased God, a cause of shame.

Abraham and Sarah's story had started in the town of Haran in Mesopotamia, the cradle of Middle Eastern civilisation, and it looked as if it would end there. They seem to have been prosperous, but what was the point of that if they had no one to pass their wealth on to? But then God called them to leave their settled existence and go to the unknown land of Canaan. If they did that, he promised them that he would make them “a great nation”. It was just what they wanted to hear, because surely it meant God was going to give them a child. How else could they become a nation?

But the years passed, and no child arrived. What was God up to? Had it all been a delusion? Had they misunderstood God’s purpose? Understandably, they were starting to wonder.

One starry night, though, God spoke to Abraham again in the reading we heard today. “Your reward shall be very great...” said God. “This IS all going to be worth it.” And that is where that little word “but” comes in. “But Abraham said... “O Lord what will you give me?” Abraham argues with God. There’s only one reward he wants, a child; but there is no child and a servant is set to inherit all his possessions.  If this is the best God can do, then he doesn’t think much of it.

Abraham argues with God, the Almighty, the Creator of all that is, the Lord of the Universe. I am sure that to many people in the ancient world, and to many people now, that would seem like a pretty dangerous thing to do. Think of all those ancient Greek and Roman Gods. You only had to look at them a bit funny and they’d turn you into an animal or a tree or a stone or something.  You argued with divine beings at your peril…

Here, though, God just argues right back. “But the word of the Lord came to him, “this man shall not be your heir. No one but your very own issue shall be your heir...” We might heave a sigh of relief at this point. Ok Abraham, quit while you are ahead. Quit while you are still alive to quit at all. But Abraham doesn't... “But Abraham said, “O God how am I to know that I shall possess it?” Surely this is a question too far. But no, God answers this one too, and goes on to demonstrate his commitment to Abraham in that rather mysterious ritual with the sacrifices and the firepot, which scholars believe to be an ancient ritual for making a covenant. God’s relationship with Abraham is not that of a tyrannical ruler who demands unquestioning obedience, or else. It is that of a loving parent, who can cope with questions and challenges, who knows, in fact, that it is only when we question and challenge that we really grow.

I am prepared to bet that anyone here who is a parent will sometimes have wished their children would just do as they are told. But we also know deep down that it is a bit worrying if children always obey without question. It can be a sign that they are so frightened of being abandoned or punished that they don’t dare to challenge their parents or voice their own opinions. Children who question, however irritating it can be, do so because they know their parents’ love for them is big enough to take it.

Abraham’s story reminds us that it is not only ok, but necessary to say “but” to God, and to say it as often and as loudly as we need to. We are meant to argue with him, to complain to him, to be angry with him; it’s the way our trust deepens and our faith grows, faith that is real and true, faith that is our own, faith that will sustain us when we need it.

It isn’t just Abraham who argues with God in the Bible. It’s full of argumentative figures. Abraham’s grandson Jacob famously wrestles ,literally, all night long with a divine figure who represents God himself, knowing he has met his match, but he refusing to give in unless God blesses him even in defeat. He gets a new name as a result. He is called Israel, which means one who wrestles with God, and he gives his name to the nation that descends from him.

Moses tells God that he has chosen the wrong man when he speaks to him from a burning bush. Him? Confront Pharaoh? No way! It is the rule rather than the exception that the great prophets and leaders vigorously and repeatedly challenge God.

Jesus encourages people to voice their own ideas too. Throughout the Gospels he seems to relish conversations with those who come to him with honest questions, even if they aren’t the kind of people whose theological opinions would normally have cut any ice at the time; the voices of women, children, gentiles, the poor and disabled play a big part in shaping the faith he preaches. He doesn’t offer a package, take it or leave it, “because I say so”. No one is browbeaten, manipulated emotionally, or threatened into the kingdom. Everyone is an individual, and treated individually. It is important that it is so, because following him will be costly, and his disciples will need to be sure that they have owned their decision to do so.

Jesus’ attitude isn’t one that wins him friends among those who see themselves as official guardians of the truth. In today’s Gospel he is heading for Jerusalem, the heart of the nation’s life and faith. He’s not going to stay safely in Galilee, keeping his opinions to himself, going along with the civil and religious leaders of his time. He challenges their image of God , their beliefs about humanity, their priorities and values in a way so disturbing to them that they eventually crucify him for it. This is what healthy faith looks like, he tells us. It’s not something monolithic, settled, unchanging, but something that grows constantly, shaped by the things that happen to us, the people we meet, the doubts and questions and challenges that life throws at us. In all of these things we can encounter God if we are prepared to listen for his voice.

A theologian called John Westerhoff once  described four different styles of believing that we tend to move through as we grow. He talked first about experienced faith, the accepting faith of early childhood which responds to the sights and sounds of worship but doesn’t really worry about what any of it means. Then there was what he called “affiliative” faith, the faith that is to do with belonging to a particular community. You identify yourself as a Christian or Muslim or Hindu because your parents or those around you are, rather than because you have made a conscious choice to do so.

But he said that these two fairly straightforward styles of believing weren’t really enough to sustain us through life. We also needed, at appropriate moments to have a searching faith, a faith typical of the teenage years, but not at all limited to them, which questions and criticises and even rejects. We need it because without it we never get to the fourth style of faith, the mature faith, faith that has been tested and is now consciously owned, faith which can be freely and fully lived out, with all the commitments that involves.

Doubts and questions aren’t a sign that something is wrong, but an indication that our faith is growing. The problem is, though, that it doesn’t tend to feel that way, either for those doing the doubting or for those who are looking on.  Many church leaders discourage questions and doubts, and many church members are quite happy to leave it that way. The “package deal” faith, which simply asks  you to sign on the dotted line seems temptingly straightforward.  Believe this “because I say so,” or “because the Bible says so” or “because Church tradition says so,” spares us the trouble of thinking for ourselves. And a faith like that can seem fine when all is well in our lives, even if we know deep down it doesn’t really make sense to us or match up with our experience of life. But when trouble comes that sort of second-hand faith isn’t strong enough to sustain us, and people often end up feeling bitter, let down, as if they have been conned somehow, or that they have conned themselves.  

God calls each of us out on a journey, one just as real as Abraham’s, and that means we will all  sooner or later find ourselves in a new and strange land, in unfamiliar terrain, unsure of where to go, perhaps, like Abraham, facing a “deep and terrifying darkness”.  When that happens what matters is not that we have all the officially sanctioned “right” answers off pat, but that we have discovered that the love of God is big enough to contain our questions and our doubts. “But” says Abraham to God. And God listens, just as he will to us when we dare to challenge him. And he answers with the words we really need to hear. “Do not be afraid.”


Sunday, 10 February 2013

Sunday before Lent: the path to glory

The theme running through all our readings today couldn’t be more obvious if it tried. What do they have in common? It is glory, shining, dazzling, brilliant glory. Glory seen in the radiance of Moses’ face, which shone so brightly that he had to wear a veil, otherwise people were too terrified to come near him. Paul sees that same glory in the followers of Jesus, whose lives have been lit up as the Spirit of God has set them free. And of course the Gospel tells the story of the Transfiguration, when Jesus was seen in shining glory talking to Elijah and Moses, the story we have in our window at the back of church

So, it’s all about glory. Or is it?

I think if we were reading Matthew’s version of this story, or Mark’s, that might be the case, but Luke’s version is slightly, subtly different, and that makes me wonder if all that glory isn’t actually a bit of a distraction. Matthew, Mark and Luke are often called the Synoptic Gospels – synoptic meaning literally “with the same eye”. They tell many of the same stories, often in very similar ways. But that means that where there are differences between them, those differences probably matter.

So what about this story? All three Gospels tell us that Jesus went up the mountain with Peter, James and John. All three describe this scene in which Jesus talks with Elijah and Moses, two figures from ancient Israelite history who people thought would appear again when the Messiah came. But Luke tells us something extra. He tells us what it was that they were talking about. And that casts this story in a rather different light.

They are talking, Luke tells us, about Jesus’ “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  What that actually means is that they were talking about his death. The word Luke uses to refer to that death – his “departure” – sounds like a euphemism. Why doesn’t he say death if he means death? But actually it is carefully chosen, because in Greek the word is “exodos”, the same word used to describe that great escape from slavery in Egypt, when Moses defied Pharaoh and led the Hebrew slaves out across the desert to a new life in the Promised Land of Israel.

This passage, in all three Gospels, marks a turning point, the moment when it starts to become clear that Jesus’ ministry is going to end on a cross, not on a throne. He has started talking to his disciples about the fact that following him isn’t going to lead to power but to death, but they don’t want to hear it and can’t take it in. I am sure he struggles with it himself – who wouldn’t? But those who challenged the forces of oppression in Jesus’ world knew they were likely to end up paying with their lives, as is often still the case today, so it isn’t exactly rocket science to see how things will turn out for him.  What matters is what that will mean and how it will be interpreted. If he dies does that mean he has failed? If he dies does that mean that God was never with him, that he was deluded? If he dies does that make all that he has said pointless and foolish, all that talk of love and of justice for the poor and the marginalised? Is might right? Does brute force always have the last word? It isn’t just the pain and fear of death which troubles him and his followers, but the sense that if he’s wrong that pain and fear will have been for nothing.

This conversation with Elijah and with Moses, that leader of the first exodus, sets Jesus’ death in a different context, though, and gives us a long view, if we are able to see it, a view which stretches beyond the dark clouds of the trouble that is coming.  Far from being a disaster, it’s going to be the beginning of a new life, in a new kingdom, a new sort of Promised Land, the kingdom of God, here and now, for everyone who wants to be part of it.
Like that first exodus, it will come at a price, wreathed in death and pain. It won’t be an easy journey for those who take it; it will involve profound change and challenge. But the suffering and the death won’t be in vain, and that matters.

Peter, James and John still don’t get it, of course. Luke tells us they are “weighed down with sleep”  when all this takes place, and I don’t think it is just physical tiredness that he means. These were men who had their eyes half-closed, who weren’t really paying attention, who were just drifting off, or just coming to. They don’t want to think about pain and death, so they don’t. When they are startled back to attention all they decide to notice is the glory, that shining, beautiful light. Peter’s knee-jerk reaction to jump up and get building is absolutely irrelevant to the topic Jesus is discussing. In fact it is a wilful distraction from it. Build some shelters and hold onto this moment – never mind the darkness that lurks around the corner!

It is easy to judge poor Peter – always the fall guy when anyone has to get it wrong in the Gospels – but we have the gift of hindsight and he doesn’t. We know the cross will be followed by the resurrection. Peter, James, and John don’t have that advantage. They have to live this story as it unfolds. Talk of death is, for them, talk of failure. What kind of Messiah dies a humiliating death on a cross between two criminals? No wonder they all desert Jesus when the moment comes. No wonder they don’t even want to think about the possibility at this point. We probably wouldn’t have done any better. So instead of taking the theological high ground and criticising the disciples, perhaps we should be wondering what this story says to us about ourselves, and the times we prefer to focus on the shiny bits of life and ignore the darkness in the hopes it will just go away.

We all prefer success, happiness, health, strength. We all want things to go well in our lives. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. The problem comes when we put success on a pedestal and worship it, letting it become the source of our security and worth. For those who manage to find success, it can be very tempting to sacrifice anything and anyone in order to keep it. It is a hungry and demanding idol. Perhaps the downfall of Chris Huhne this week is a timely warning of the danger of being so hooked on maintaining a successful appearance that we are prepared to pay any price to do so.

The worship of success, though, hits hardest at those for whom it seems like a distant dream, those who feel they are constantly failing at the game of life. Despite all the rhetoric about strivers and skivers, the truth is that life is far more of a struggle for some than for others – it’s not a level playing field. You can’t overcome all obstacles by hard work and determination. If you are hampered by disability, poverty, or lack of family support, you will always have to work twice as hard to keep your head above water as those who have the advantage of starting with health, wealth and stability. And however hard you work you might still find that success eludes you. We often overestimate our ability to control our lives – it is comforting to think we have that power. Usually, though, more depends on being in the right place at the right time than we’d like to think. Life deals out random blows which can fell the strongest looking person, and when that happens, often the hardest thing to cope with isn’t whatever it is that has gone wrong, but the sense of shame that overshadows us, brought on by the judging voices without and within, which label us as failures.

What do we do at that point, when it’s all gone wrong? Do we give up? Do we opt, like Peter, to ignore the darkness and try to cling to whatever thin veneer of glitter we can come up with to distract us from it? It is an understandable reaction, but it isn’t one which will help much in the end. What is there, is there. The cross lies ahead for Jesus – the only way forward leads through it if he is to stand by those he has come to serve and to save.

For us too, acknowledging the sorrows and the darkness is the only way to real healing. This week we will be marking Ash Wednesday with a quiet and reflective service here as we enter the season of Lent. I’ll be offering, as usual, the symbol of the imposition of ashes, drawing a cross of ash on our foreheads as  a reminder of our own frailty, fallibility and mortality. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return” I’ll say, quoting the words of God to Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. It sounds like a rather gloomy service, but actually it is one of the most profoundly joyful in the year, it seems to me, because it tells us that we don’t have to pretend, we don’t have to deny the truth. Whatever glory there is in life – and it is real and lovely – the darkness and the failure are real too, and God is just as much with us in them as he is in the success.  God doesn’t just love us when things are going well, but all the time. When we are in the dark, he doesn’t just stand afar off in some distant blaze of light telling us to try to make our own way to him. He comes to us where we are, in the pain and the failure that seems to crush us, and goes through it with us in his son. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, he leads us in a new exodus, to a new land in which it doesn’t matter where we are in the league tables of life; all that counts is that we know that we are loved, and, being loved, are set free to love others in our turn.


Sunday, 3 February 2013

Candlemas: Gifts and giving

Hebrews 2.14-18, Luke 2.22-40

Today Christmas officially comes to an end in the Church’s year as we celebrate the feast of Candlemas. Christmas Day might seem a long time ago, the cards long since recycled, and the decorations packed away, but we need this time to ponder the story of Christ’s birth. It’s not something you can do in a day, or even twelve days.

It’s not just inside the church that it can take a while to come to terms with the impact of Christmas. Over this last month perhaps you have been burning off the extra calories from all those mince pies or paying off the credit card. Or perhaps you have needed to think about the delicate business of deciding what to do with those gifts you received that, shall we say, didn’t quite hit the spot. There are bound to be some.  Gift giving and receiving can be a complicated business.  Should you pass on that ghastly vase, give it to charity, or must you keep it on display in case the giver calls around? There’s the problem of gift inequality too. You were sure that a cheap box of chocolates from the petrol station would do for the aunt you hardly ever see, but then she gives you something expensive and carefully chosen and you look really mean. Gift giving is a guessing game which it is almost impossible to get right. Philip told me a family story of two of his mother’s uncles, who apparently hit on the perfect solution for them. They would each wrap up a shilling (it was a while ago!) and solemnly give it to the other on Christmas Day, every Christmas Day.  It worked for them, but I have a feeling it might not work for everyone!

Giving gifts ought to be straightforward, an uncomplicated act of generosity. But somehow it often isn’t.

Our Gospel reading today is all tied up with gift giving too, and the complexities that go with it. That might not be obvious at first sight, but bear with me and I’ll explain. As you’ll see from your pew leaflets, todays official title is the Presentation of Christ – Candlemas is the folk name for it. A presentation is literally the giving of a present, a gift, but just as with our Christmas gift giving, this presentation is not as simple as it seems. What is going on here? Who is giving what to whom, and why, and what does it all mean?

The only thing that actually changes hands in this story is a pair of pigeons, the ritual sacrifice Mary and Joseph bring to the Temple, as the law demands, forty days after Jesus’ birth. But those two pigeons are actually substitute sacrifices, standing in for the child himself. It is Jesus who is really being presented to God as every first born baby boy was. This ritual had its roots in the story of the Exodus, when all the first born of Egypt, animal and human, were killed in one last terrible plague. Only the children of the Hebrews were spared. To remember that, forever afterwards all first born males – animal and human – were to be “designated as holy” to God. That sounds fine – who wouldn’t want to be designated as holy? Except that what it actually means is “sacrificed.” Fortunately, since Judaism forbade human sacrifice a substitute was prescribed  – two pigeons or a lamb if you could afford it. The principle was still important, though. Life was a gift, this ritual reminded them. Your children were not your children, any more than the sun was your sun, or the rain your rain. These things – all things – came from God, and ultimately they are not ours to own or control. We can only ever give back to God what he has first given to us.

Sacrifice – animal or human – probably seems like a strange idea to us, utterly alien. But for most people in most of the world for most of human history, it has been at the heart of worship, crucial to their daily lives, and perhaps it’s not so far from our thinking as we might suppose either.  That curious habit people have of throwing coins into wells and fountains is a hangover from our  ancestors’ beliefs in sacrifice. From the Trevi fountain in Rome, to a water feature in a modern shopping mall, any body of water is likely to have an assortment of small change at the bottom, once intended as offerings to the water spirits. Who knows what people mean when they do this now, but they still seem to feel the need to do it anyway.  

The Old Testament was absolutely clear about the importance and meaning of sacrifice in its world, though, and was very precise in its instructions  There were offerings of grain, wine, incense, oil and animals. There were offerings which symbolised simple gratitude and thanksgivings, and offerings which were designed in some way to set right things that had gone wrong, repair relationships, restore purity, draw people back into community with one another and with God.

At their best , like any other ritual, sacrifices helped people to go out and live differently afterwards, more thankfully, generously, forgiving others as they had been forgiven.  Sacrifice reminded them that they were part of something bigger, bound up in the life of God , bound together with the world he gave them and with one another. At their worst, though, sacrifices could easily become no more than superstitions, magical procedures which turned their relationships with God into a sort of bargaining game, a contract which said “if you give God this lamb or pigeon or grain offering, he is then obligated to sort out the problem, remove the guilt, or send the blessing you feel entitled to.” That puts the power in entirely the wrong place, treating God like some sort of hired workman whose services are ours to command so long as we are prepared to pay for them.

Although Christianity is not a sacrificial religion like first century Judaism, we can just as easily fall into that way of thinking. The Medieval indulgences people earned through pilgrimage or prayer, or even bought with cold hard cash, were meant to lessen the time they thought they would spend in purgatory. They were sacrifices by another name. And after the Reformation the desire to manipulate the forces of heaven didn’t go away. Instead people simply looked for other ways of reassuring themselves that they had it sorted. Believing the right doctrines, living according to a particular moral pattern, or even just inviting Jesus into your heart as personal saviour are really no better than bargaining chips if we think that by doing these things we are earning the favour we feel we need. They still rely on the “quid pro quo” attitude – I do this, and God will then do that. He must; it is in the contract.

 As well as making God look like some kind of monster who would condemn those who got it wrong to eternal damnation, this way of thinking turns Christian faith into an entirely individual pursuit, a matter of gaining a ticket to heaven for yourself, rather than helping to create heaven on earth for all.  It leads to an anxious, obsessive faith in which, depending on the sort of church, people will either repeatedly need to come forward for the altar call, or light yet another candle, or find ever more rules to keep and to make others keep too. If you think it is all about having that heavenly admission ticket, then you’d better make sure you keep it somewhere safe.

This Gospel story we heard today challenges that sort of thinking though, just as much as it challenged the sacrificial thinking of Jesus’ time. You see, Mary and Joseph, in some ways have cause for complaint under the Sacrificial Sale of Goods act, if there were such a thing. They give their two pigeons to redeem their child, so that he won’t have to be sacrificed but, as Simeon points out, when he grows up they will lose him anyway – “a sword shall pierce your own soul too” he says to Mary.  He is going to die, sacrificing himself on the cross anyway. The sacrificial system, which had become for so many an end in itself, based on token gifts which  really changed nothing much is going to be swept away by the real gift of a real life, given in the real cause of bringing real peace and justice.

Jesus’ death is not a trump card in a cosmic game played with a wrathful God, whose honour can only be satisfied by the death of an innocent victim;  it is the inevitable result of Jesus choosing freely to confront the powers of oppression in a world where human greed and fear have taken hold. It is the costly, flesh and blood gift of someone who is determined not to turn away from the path he knows he needs to take for the sake of those around him. Christ does not die to satisfy the honour of a God who is offended by sin, he dies to live out the generous love of a God who will never give up on his creation, who comes alongside us as we suffer and struggle in a world twisted with hatred, and suffers and struggles too so that, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “he is able to help those who are being tested”, giving us courage and hope to carry on with his work in our own age.

I started by talking about gifts, and their unexpected complexity. We often give them for reasons that are far more tangled than we suppose; to create a sense of obligation, to curry favour, to show off our power and wealth, to cement alliances, to distract from the real issues rather than deal with them. My suspicion is that our attitude to the gift of Christ’s life is sometimes just as tangled, tainted by the very fear he came to deliver us from. We hoard it and guard it, rationing it to those we feel deserve it, worry about losing it and try to control what happens to it and by doing so we rob it of its power.

The gift of Christ is a gift given out of pure love, a gift given freely to the whole world, not something that only the lucky few who happen to be holding the parcel when the music stops can unwrap. The only appropriate response to it is to rejoice in it and to share it with the same generosity with which it came to us.