Sunday, 23 February 2014

Second Sunday before Lent: Made in God's image

“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” says the author of the Book of Genesis. He says it twice in case we missed the point. It’s fundamental to the message of the Bible, right there at the first appearance of humanity; people are made in God’s image. It’s an astounding claim, and it is all the more astounding, because it applies to everyone according to the Bible; male and female, the whole of humanity, every race and nation – made in God’s image.

People sometimes get very worked up over the creation story, or more properly stories, since there is a slightly different version following this in Genesis 2. Fundamentalist Christians insist that these accounts are factually true, and go through all sorts of mental contortions to try to prove it. It isn’t a common or mainstream position in the UK, but there are people who believe it, and because of that Creationism has become a convenient “straw man” for those opposed to Christian faith; they assume that every Christian takes the Bible literally and they set up a conflict between science and religion that isn’t there for most of us. Both viewpoints, it seems to me, miss the point.

Whoever wrote this story, probably developing it from oral tales told during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, knew nothing of geology or the fossil records. He wasn’t writing science. He wasn’t writing history in our modern sense of the word either. He was writing something which was far more important. He was writing hope for people who felt hopeless. He was writing justice for those who had been treated unjustly. He wrote about creation because he knew how badly people needed re-creation, a new start, a new vision of themselves and of those around them. And what was most important in that new vision was that they should know that each and every one of them mattered, that each and every one of them was made in God’s image.

The people of Israel, like many other people at the time, and many since, had often suffered at the hands of powers beyond their control. Their little nation was overrun again and again, enslaved, exiled, ordered around and oppressed by every great empire that came along. They were far too small to mount any realistic defence, like gnats to an elephant, so time and time again they were conquered and treated like rubbish by their conquerors.  Of course for many in those conquering nations life wasn’t much better. Many of them would have been regarded as disposable as well– too poor, too insignificant, too weak to count.

Many ancient cultures would never have questioned the rightness of that assumption that might was right, of “winner takes all”. Their creation stories would never have challenged it either. The people of ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome didn’t think their gods were interested in people for themselves, but just as tools for them to use. The stories they told of the gods reflected their own belief that your value depended on your usefulness, and your usefulness depended on your power, wealth, or physical prowess. The result was, for example, that disabled children were often abandoned at birth; it was simply irresponsible to let them live, a waste of resources. The poor or weak were often left to fend for themselves; to starve or to sell themselves and their families into slavery to survive.

Of course people can be mean-minded and heartless now, but at least we think we ought to treat people as if everyone matters and should be cared for. Our human rights legislation, our universal education system , our National Health Service are all based on that assumption.

It’s an assumption that is rooted in this creation story from the book of Genesis, the one originally told and treasured by the Jewish people. Its message is radically different from other ancient myths.  Your worth, it says, comes from the simple fact that you are here, God’s own making, God’s own idea, created in his own image, like him in some way, reflecting his glory and his love. Every human being, it proclaims, is intrinsically worthwhile, not because of what they have done or could do, but simply because they are. Everyone is made, blessed and loved by God and he looks at his creation and declares it to be “very good”.

Imagine how that message might have felt to someone who was living as a slave in Babylon, or someone who was disabled, orphaned or widowed anywhere in the ancient world. To others you might seem just a nameless face in a needy crowd, but to God, it proclaimed, you were precious, one of a kind, part of his family, made in his image. That’s why I said that whoever wrote this was writing hope for the hopeless, justice for those who had none.

I have taken some time to spell all this out because I think we sometimes take this message for granted. The idea that all people are created equal is something that is deeply woven into our modern, Western world views. We might not live up to the ideal, but we assume it is self-evidently true. That’s a dangerous assumption, because even a cursory view of recent history and current events should warn us that just beneath the surface of our supposed civilisation lurk far older, darker attitudes. Fascism, Communism, Apartheid, the kind of crude Capitalism which proclaims that greed is good and those who can’t keep up in the rat race deserve to fail; these are all ways of thinking which run counter to the message of Genesis 1.  They often emerge in tough times when our own security feels threatened, and they reveal how easily we can all fall back into the idea that some people are intrinsically worth more than others, have more right to be heard, more right to be cared for and consulted than others.

This week an assortment of Bishops and other Christian leaders signed a letter expressing concern about the rapid growth in real hunger and hardship in our society. They were aware of this because they were seeing it on the ground in the shape of increasing numbers of people being referred to food banks – often run by churches - like the Loaves and Fishes food bank we have here in Sevenoaks. Many of the people seeking help were working, but in low paid jobs. Others were disabled or unable to find work. Often the crisis that had brought them to the food bank was triggered by delays in paying benefits, or sudden changes to the system, or sanctions which had left them with no money and no food for weeks at a time.

The newspapers reported this letter widely and, as usual, invited comments on their websites. I made what was probably the mistake of reading some of those comments , and I have to say that it wasn’t very a very edifying experience, to say the least. It was amazing how many people seemed to think that anyone in receipt of benefits must be a scrounger, hell-bent on defrauding the system. It was amazing how many people seriously seemed to think that it really didn’t matter whether those in need and their families went hungry, who suggested in fact that it would do them good. And it was equally amazing that it never seemed to occur to them that this was something that could happen to anyone, to them, or to someone they knew. “Are there no workhouses?” said Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol. Well, no, there aren’t now, thank God, but there seem to be quite a lot of people who think there ought to be, so long as they don’t end up in them themselves, of course.

Of course there is a real and serious debate to be had about how we support people in times of crisis, and how we administer our benefits system fairly, but if we start from the position that some people are worth less than others, that their suffering matters less than our own would , it is a sure sign that the message of Genesis 1 has been forgotten. And when that happens we are in deep trouble as a society. We can forget all the obscure theological doctrines, the fancy prayers and rituals, but if we forget that God makes us all in his image, we will soon come to regret it.

Today’s Gospel reading might sounds as if it has nothing much to do with all of this. In fact we might wonder what on earth Jesus is thinking of. “Don’t worry” he says to his followers, “about what you are to eat or to wear…” Huh? Of course they are going to worry about these things. Is he suggesting that we should just blithely assume that God will magically fill our larders when they are empty?  But it’s important to realise that Jesus doesn’t just say “Don’t worry”. He also says that we are to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, and that changes his meaning completely.

The kingdom of God is a place, or perhaps more accurately a way of being, where we are acting in line with God’s will, where we are living as the people he means us to be. And what does that involve? It involves loving the God who made us, and loving our neighbours whom he also made, loving them as our equals, loving them just as much as we love ourselves. It means living in a way that values God’s creation – humanity included - as much as he valued it when he proclaimed it to be “very good”. Strive for that kind of kingdom, that kind of attitude, says Jesus, and you won’t need to worry about food and clothing, because if you do fall on hard times – and he doesn’t promise we won’t – you’ll find you have built a world where there are people ready to catch you and support you, people who believe you matter, that you are worth helping when you can’t help yourself.

Our collect today puts it all in a nutshell. “Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth, and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children.”
May it be so.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Third Sunday before Lent - Breathing Space. Growing and changing

Today’s readings are both, in their own ways, about growth. It’s easy to see how that is so in the Epistle from 1 Corinthians. Paul writes to the church in Corinth who are plainly squabbling over whose lead to follow – Paul’s or Apollos’. We don’t know how their teaching differed, but it clearly did in some way. That’s not surprising. Those first Christians were very much feeling their way in this new faith. They didn’t have any guidance from what we now call the New Testament, of course. The books that made it up hadn’t been written yet. Letters like that of Paul were the first Christian writings, and the ink was hardly dry on them yet.
So it’s no wonder they had different views on all sorts of subjects. But the point Paul makes here is that  the church doesn’t belong to him, or to Apollos; it belongs to God. That means that neither he nor Apollos has the last word or the whole truth. One plants, another waters – we all have a part to play – but it is God who gives the growth.  And growth is something we all need, otherwise we shall perpetually be “infants in Christ”, and when we really need the sustenance of faith, our roots won’t go deep enough to sustain us. If we don’t grow in faith, we will also never have the confidence to share that faith with others, and unless we do, the Church will simply wither and die. A faith that is truly ours, though, that is deep and rich will be full of life, spreading out naturally to those around us. So we need to grow, says Paul, and God wants us to grow too.

As I said, it is easy to see how that first reading is about growth. It might seem harder to spot the growth in the Gospel reading, though. But it is there. In fact it is integral to what Jesus is saying. It’s not so much the individual growth that he is pointing up here, but the fact that the whole community of believers needs to be open to growth. “You have heard it said….but I say.” Faith is not something which is static, fixed in one form forever. Every generation is called to come to it afresh, learning from what has gone before, but learning also to hear God’s voice in their own times and circumstances. That was true of the people in Biblical times. We see a variety of beliefs and attitudes in the Old Testament and the New, developing understandings of God and humanity, different perspectives in different times and situations. It’s not one document, dropped from the sky in one fell swoop. That’s partly what I love about it – the mix of voices and experiences in it.

For the early Christians that was a vital insight because they constantly faced the accusations, as Jesus did, that they were tampering with time-honoured traditions and rules. Jews and Gentiles mixing on equal terms, men and women both learning and teaching the message…there was a chorus of disapproval at the way these first believers acted from those who proclaimed themselves to be the guardian of the old ways, the ways that things had always been done.

But Jesus had consistently put love above law, people before rule-keeping. That is what he is doing here. “You have heard it said… but I say..”  It’s not enough not to murder people, he says – the real problem is the hatred and jealousy that prompts such action. And by the way, just loving those who love you won’t do it either; you’ve got to love your enemies too. The prohibition against divorce which sounds so problematic to our ears isn’t quite what it sounds either. In Jesus’ time a divorced woman would often be left without any support, ostracised and stigmatised and as his society was polygamous, it wasn’t even necessary to cast off one wife in order to take another – it was just gratuitous cruelty to do so.

Jesus calls his followers to a life of integrity and love, not simply one in which they keep the rules without understanding why. And that means that the faith they follow is bound to change in response to changing situations. The principles will be the same, but the way they are expressed will have to be flexible.

That’s just as true for us. We need to be people who are growing, both individually and together, honouring the old and learning from it, but hearing God’s voice for today. True faithfulness to God demands no less than that.

In the silence tonight, think back over your life. Think back over the times when you have learned and grown, when you have changed your mind, and ask for God’s grace to discern the ways in which he is calling you to grow now too.


Sunday, 9 February 2014

Salt & Light

Matthew 5.13-20, 1 Corinthians 2.1-16, Isaiah 58.1-12
I’m probably asking for trouble by opening a preaching slot by encouraging you to think about who you bother to listen to.
It’s often easier to define who we don’t want to listen to. Take the two figure heads in the tube strike this week, Bob Crowe and Boris Johnson, and if you’re as fed up with all the delays and wasted time as many are I bet there’s one of them you really don’t want to hear from.
I was reading of a London food critic who dared to write about a restaurant in Liverpool and received a torrent of abuse on twitter, the little that can be repeated stated’ if we had to wait for instructions from the London front line before we tucked in we’d be as dead as artisan burgers are this year’.
It’s an example of how we illogically dismiss advice or opinions because it doesn’t come from people like us, from the same area, class, race, sex or for any other reason.

But more than this who do we really think will be the source of something worth knowing, parents, teachers, politicians, priests maybe?
Hopefully they all have stuff worth exploring but there will also be times when our own prejudices or misunderstandings turn us against them, making us unwilling to even consider the message.

It’s this sort of opposition that Paul is encountering from the church in Corinth and he is trying to point them back to the true source of wisdom, encouraging them to seek spiritual, godly wisdom and not to become too hung up about who the leaders or prominent people are, some of which want to be seen to have wisdom for their own ends.
We really need to think more about why we do stuff and what it means to God. Isaiah tells the people observing strict religious practices including fasting, sackcloth and ashes that they need to widen their horizons until they start to see the world through God’s eyes rather than setting up systems that make God seem small and capable of containment.
The point is that we need to guard against letting religious practice just become part of our weekly chores or a box ticking exercise. Been to the gym – check, completed the weekly shopping – check, done the God slot –check, now I can forget about all that and get on with the new week.
The God Isaiah speaks about is worthy of so much more than an hour a week. It’s far more helpful to think about him as we would a family member. It’s a loving relationship that deserves our time every day where there is give and take, ups and downs, but it’s continuous not contained and ultimately goes to the very core of who we are.
 As the Corinthians split along the lines of the teachings of Paul and Apollos, Paul speaks of the gift that is the Holy Spirit and how in his weakness it enables him to keep his faith in God. Understanding the Spirit will mean understanding that it’s not there to give us comfort or status, it will mean that some of the decisions we take look ridiculous to those who can’t see how much God loves us. But where we can accept the Spirit it will be a valuable companion on our journey.
I read in yesterday’s newspaper about a lady that was diagnosed with breast cancer who’s written a book called the ‘Pink Ribbon Path’ about her spiritual journey through the illness. The article also provoked us to consider the non-physical ‘cancers’ stating that ‘There are ways of thinking, bereft of generosity and compassion, that rot the mind and way of living, narcissistic and self-absorbed, that squeeze the spirit dry. That seemed to be a pretty good description of the opposite of what Paul tells us is freely available to us. When put like this the choice seems obvious but we are easily distracted at times and when this is the case I’d say it fits Jesus description of someone who has lost their saltiness.
What we heard today from Matthew’s gospel forms part of the Sermon on the Mount.
We heard Jesus say ‘you are the salt of the earth’ and ‘you are the light of the world’ to the disciples.

Last week we thought about the scarcity of light in winter and remembered the message of Candlemas, how it encourages us to be on the lookout, as Simeon and Anna were, for small signs of hope, to be aware of the light, even if it is faint, and to help it to grow. We lit candles as symbols of the light of Christ.
This week, therefore, has more of a salty theme. Our relationship with salt today is very different to how it would have been in the first century. Now we are told that much of our food contains too much salt even before we add more at the table and that this leads to high blood pressure and health problems. Yet when Jesus spoke salt was scarce, without refrigeration it was necessary to preserve food and could even mean the difference between life and death.
When my father was living in Spain we often drove through the Santa Pola salt flats, great tidal lakes where the salt was extracted through evaporation and piled high to resemble snowy mountains, much of it exported to colder countries to melt the ice on the roads. You will recall that we simply couldn’t get enough of the stuff last winter.
For the Israelites salt would have been something close to their heart, much of it drawn from the Dead Sea though it’s purity couldn’t always be relied upon and perhaps this symbolism was in Jesus mind when he talked of salt losing its taste or saltiness, maybe it was sometimes contaminated with other chemical deposits to the extent that it was no longer useful, much like the self-obsessed life?
Nearer to home in Essex, where the chef’s favourite Maldon salt has been collected since Roman times they can’t rely on the heat of the sun to help too much so Seawater is filtered, boiled  and then heated until the salt crystallises forming beautiful crisp white flakes.
Besides flavouring our food and de-icing our roads salt softens our water, has healing qualities and is used for many industrial processes.
Most of have heard someone referred to as ‘salt of the earth’, such individuals are generally useful, kind, reliable people.
And so it matters that Jesus says to those who were listening then and to us who listen today "You are the salt of the earth."   

In other words, you are of great value.  As sprinkled salt often improves our enjoyment of food Christians in the world have the potential to be useful and improve life for others. 

What metaphor would Jesus use if he were speaking to us today to tell us that we are valuable useful people? In the East End I’ve heard great people described as ‘diamond geezers.’

If we are to be useful people out in the world Jesus then gives us the framework for this when he says ‘do not think I have come to abolish the law…I have not come to abolish but to fulfil.’ 

It takes some thinking about, a fair response could be ‘well we were hoping that you might at least be planning on simplifying things.’ After all the Old Testament contains over 600 commandments which the Israelites were expected to keep! If you want to check you’ll find them in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. 

Surely all this can’t still apply to us? For starters where do I find a local temple altar willing to receive my burnt animal sacrifice? 

Thankfully Jesus didn’t say we are still bound by the same law what he said is that it cannot be changed and that he brings us fulfilment of it. The same loyalty to God is expected but it’s based on relationship not blind obedience. 

Aspects of the old law are restated by Jesus and some even taken further. One example is the commandment found in Leviticus to ’love your neighbour as yourself’ later in this same chapter of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says’ Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…for if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  

It’s a gross over simplification but it might help to think that most working people have their contracts updated from time to time to reflect changes in society but the core obligation to turn up and work to the best of their ability doesn’t change and neither has God’s love for us changed since the beginning of time. 

Let’s take these thoughts into the week that lies ahead and try not to lose our saltiness before we come together again. 


Kevin Bright 

9 February 2014

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Candlemas: "Dear Lord - we've had enough"

My guess is that most of us are fairly fed up with winter by now. The front page of the Sun newspaper on Friday carried a huge picture of St Medard, the patron saint of good weather, and invitation to join a campaign of prayer to him for deliverance from the rain. Apparently Sue Evans, the Lincolnshire vicar of a church dedicated to him had written a prayer which included the phrase  “Dear Lord – we’ve had enough…”  The accompanying headline read “Bring me Sun Shrine”. 

I think we would all say “amen” to that prayer. Even if we have escaped the flooding that has caused such havoc to so many, by this stage in the winter most people are very keen for spring to come. The feast of Candlemas traditionally marks the moment when we start to see it on the horizon. It falls on one of the old Celtic “cross-quarter day” festivals. It is halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, and the Celts called it Imbolc, which means “in the belly” because it heralded the beginning of the lambing season. The customs and folklore associated with Candlemas try to forecast how long the winter has still to run.  It’s Groundhog Day in North America, a development of a Northern European custom taken there by immigrants. If the groundhog – it is a bear or a badger in Europe – emerges from its hibernation at Candlemas and has no shadow because the skies are overcast, winter will soon be over. If there is a shadow, though, because the sun is shining, that’s a sign that winter will continue longer. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive but I suppose clear days in winter are often very cold, while rainy weather might herald a thaw.

There is an English rhyme that proclaims:
If Candlemas day be fair and bright
winter will have another fight
If Candlemas day brings cloud and rain
winter will not come again.

The folklore is a clue to how our ancestors felt about this time of year, and how most of us feel about it too. We’ve had enough – enough of the wet, enough of the cold, enough of the gloom.

For past generations that winter gloom would have been far more pervasive than it is for us, of course.  
It is only in the last hundred years that electric light has been widespread in homes. Domestic gas lighting came in during the Victorian era, but for many, especially those who were poor or lived in rural areas, an oil lamp or even just a candle was as good as it got until the very recent past. Artificial light was a luxury to be used sparingly. You didn’t light candles unless you really needed to, especially in the daytime.

I wonder what it would have been like in church. It is easy to find out. All we need to do is switch off the lights, so let’s do that.
[We then switched the lights off !]

Even when the sun is shining it is quite dark in here. Our ancestors would have had candles on the altar, but that’s not much use to the rest of you. The chandelier dates from 1725 and there used to be oil lamps hanging from the beams too – you can still see the rings they were fastened to, but I shouldn’t think they were lit for daytime services, and they wouldn’t have shed much light.  The Victorian stained glass windows, though pretty, cut out light as well, and I wonder whether there was a battle over whether to put them in.  

It’s not impossible to see, but it is far darker than we are used to, and it gives us an idea of what our ancestors experienced as normal at this time of year. Coupled with short days and bad weather, it is no wonder that the festivals they celebrated in these winter months tended to involve light and fire. It had always been so. The pre-Christian inhabitants of these lands marked the seasons with Samhain bonfires in early November, then with the Yule log at the Winter Solstice, and finally with the feast of Imbolc now to greet the lengthening days with relief.

When Christianity arrived in Northern Europe it was natural to graft on new stories and meanings to these ancient celebrations. Whatever your faith, you need rituals and stories to get you through the dark times, to remind you that the sun will return.
So Samhain became All Saints and All Souls, when Christians remind themselves of those who have gone before them, whose lives have been shining lights and who now dwell in the eternal light of heaven. They are a reminder that we don’t go into the darkness alone, whether that is  the darkness of winter or of sorrow, or of death. We are surrounded by the light of God, shining in this great crowd of witnesses.
Yule became Christmas, a celebration of the birth of Jesus, the light of the world, an act of God’s grace. It comes at the moment of deepest darkness and it reminds us that when we can do nothing, God is still at work. 
And Imbolc became Candlemas, a feast which tells us that the darkness doesn’t last forever, that spring is “in the belly” of winter, hope “in the belly” of despair.

That message is there in the story we heard in the Gospel this morning, the story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, when the infant Jesus is acclaimed by Simeon and Anna forty days after his birth. He is “the light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel,” says Simeon. The work which God is doing in this child will be worth the suffering and the challenge his life will involve, because through him God’s light will shine for all. There may not be much to see yet, but this baby, apparently entirely indistinguishable from every other baby that had come through the Temple gates that day, is acclaimed by Simeon and Anna as the one who will change everything

And they were right.  Whatever people believe about Jesus theologically, his life changed the course of history. Mary and Joseph couldn’t have imagined the scale of the impact he would turn out to have. Even Luke, as he writes this story around 80AD couldn’t have known it – the Church he knew was a loose network of small Christian communities dotted around the Mediterranean, an obscure little movement emerging from Judaism, which logically stood very little chance of surviving. Yet here it is, and here we are. Simeon  and Anna saw that the tiny child who had been “in the belly” of Mary and who was now lying in her arms was a new beginning for us all.

Jesus may have seemed like a small candle in the darkness, a tiny sign, easily overlooked, just as we might cast our eyes over the world outside and just see the dull browns and greys of winter, and miss the emerging snowdrops, whose other common name is the Candlemas bell. But to those who were on the lookout, as Simeon and Anna were, it was clear. There was hope. There was light, no matter how dark the world seemed.

The physical darkness of winter may not be obvious to us as it was to our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need the messages of these winter festivals just as much as they did.  Darkness can come in many forms, and all of us go through times when life seems like one long winter, when the darkness descends and we can’t see the way ahead. When that happens, the spiritual messages which we learn from observing the cycle of the year can be vital.

In our 24/7 society when light and heat are usually available at the flick of a switch, we are often isolated from the passing seasons. But there’s no switch to flick to banish the spiritual and emotional darkness that is bound to come into our lives at some point bringing anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness.  When that sort of gloom falls on us, it is better by far to acknowledge it, and the feelings it evokes –– than to try to chase it away with a blaze of artificial cheerfulness.  The Christian festivals we observe through the winter give us resources to do that through their stories and imagery. As we celebrate them again and again, their messages sink in slowly, to be drawn on when we really need them. They reassure us that darkness is nothing new – it is part of the cycle of life, just as winter is part of the cycle of the year -  and that God has not abandoned us, but is in the darkness with us.

The message of Candlemas encourages us to be on the lookout, as Simeon and Anna were, for small signs of hope, to be aware of the light, even if it is faint, and to help it to grow. It tells us to nurture new life, however fragile, rather than writing it off as insignificant. We may wish we were basking in the full light of summer, but the first glimmers of spring can be even more important; noticing them helps us not to give up. Life begins with small things, like a baby in his mother’s arms. Light creeps back into the world minute by minute as the days lengthen. Our lives, and the life of the world often turns on a sixpence, that tiny moment when we decide to trust in some small sign of goodness and stick with it, to treasure and protect a tiny flame of hope in the gloom of despair.

That’s why at the end of the service we shall be lighting our small candles, symbols of the light of Christ. Rather bizarrely though, we light them only so that we can blow them out again. This might seem a bit pointless, but it’s not a gesture of despair. It is a declaration of trust, a statement of the faith that we have already been given what we need, by the grace of God. His presence and his love are at work in us, growing in our lives. We blow the candle out to affirm that the light we need is already ours, his gift, secure within us. It may be just a flickering flame at the moment but it is enough to make a difference, enough, alongside others, to light up the world.