July 23, 2017 § Leave a comment
Today’s Gospel reading was the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13. 24 – 30, 36 – 43). A couple of pronouncements about the Church of England, here, and here, were in my mind when I got a sermon together. Enough people talked to me about it afterwards for me to pop it here as a blog. Just as I quoted the disparaging remark about bishops I spotted a retired diocesan in the congregation, but we’re still friends.
It has been a week full of intrigue, backbiting, briefing and counter briefing, contradictory positions being taken, opposing camps making their points and playing the short and long game. So, perhaps, it’s a relief to be in church, where we can get a respite from politics in the US and Europe, and, just for a while, not have to be overwhelmed by the clamouring voices all over the TV, radio and digital media.
Except that I was also talking about the church. We’re right in the middle of briefing, counter-briefing, opposing camps and contradictory views. Take this from the Catholic Herald this week, following General Synod’s votes on matters of sexuality and identity:
“The Church [of England] selects bishops largely on their ability to avoid controversy … they are very carefully chosen so as not to have strong opinions on matters of faith. Consequently the ranks of the episcopacy are packed full of weak men.
When governments try again … to push through some [radical legislation], they will find willing accomplices governing over the husk of the Church of England, useful chaplains to the culture of death.”
That was written not by a Roman Catholic (thankfully), but by an Anglican, Andrew Sabisky, who turns out to be the Deanery Secretary for our neighbouring Deanery of South Camden. He’s clearly unimpressed with the direction he sees the Church of England taking, and wants to do something about it. That same feeling presumably drives the 21 signatories to an open letter to ‘British Anglicans’, inviting us to plan with them a ‘faithful ecclesial future’. They say:
“Many will share our dismay at the recent decisions of the General Synod of the Church of England and the pursuing principles, values and practices contrary to Holy Scripture and church Tradition. Given the persistent failure of the majority of the House of Bishops to fulfil the God-given duties which they have sworn to discharge these tragic developments were, sadly, not wholly unexpected.”
I will not be the only preacher finding food for reflection on this in our Gospel reading today. What do we do when life is full of conflicting opinions and practices? The parable of the wheat and the weeds counsels patience and trust. Bearded wheat (good), and bearded darnel (poisonous) look similar. When they are young, it is hard to tell the difference. As they grow if you pull one out its root system will disturb the other. It’s best to let things develop, rather than take too hasty action. Jesus tells a wise story here. If you wait until the wheat has done its job, you can separate them out, use the weeds for fuel, and harvest the grain successfully.
Jesus invites us to be patient, take the long view, and, crucially, to let God be the judge. The two articles I quoted are keen to take a stand and make instant judgements on what’s happening. Jesus is speaking in a world where the Pharisees and teachers of the law could make easy pronouncements about people based on words and actions. If there is a blueprint for pure action and faithful lifestyle it is possible then to see whether people measure up; whether someone is conforming or not. And once you’ve done that you can take action. You could expel them from the community.
Jesus challenges this relentlessly. Only God can tell what is righteous and pure, because God looks at the heart. We could be making judgments on the wrong criteria. Our job then is to let people grow, and to care for them. All will be revealed one day. It works for the church too. It’s all too easy in church settings to start making judgments about who is in and who is out, and the people I quoted earlier are doing just that. Based on this parable I have to say that, unless people disqualify themselves, we should welcome all. It is not our job to judge.
But, neither is it our job to be woolly about what we believe. We neither judge nor compromise. To welcome all, and to worship together, is not to lose our distinctiveness or saltiness. We should be distinctive and welcoming, and let God be the judge. Many conservative Christians use the word ‘liberal’ to denote someone who believes in anything, everything, and therefore nothing. It is surely possible to proclaim Good News in Jesus Christ and to reserve judgement on things which others would want us to make a line in the sand. A commentator on this passage says:
“The Kingdom of God is not the exclusive coterie of self-elected saints: God, in his time…will separate the pure community … it is God’s business alone to decide who belongs to the Kingdom” (David Hill)
This is not an allegory about specific aspects of church discipline (Matthew does that later, in Chapter 18), but it can speak powerfully into debates about what is central to our doctrine, teaching, and practice. Don’t be rapid in rushing to judgment. Or, as Paul says to the Corinthians: “Do not pronounce judgment before the time” (1 Cor 4. 5)
It is not that there will be no final reckoning, no final judgment, according to Jesus. All of these parables are based on God sorting things out at the end of all things. One day we will answer for what we have done. We have to ensure that we act in faith, with love, righting wrongs, confessing sins, looking for the Kingdom of God.
And the good news is that the allegory breaks down here. You can change from weed to wheat. The thing about people is that they can be changed by the love of God. The thing about the church is that, in all its variety and complexity and differences of opinion, it is living a life which includes repentance, renewal, turning round, and fresh starts. Weedy people, in Christ, can become wheaty people.
I will continue to read the blogs and articles written by people who make radical judgments about the state of God’s church, and this Church of England. I would prefer though to write about God’s radical call to welcome, inclusion, community, and working out our salvation together with fear and trembling. I will instinctively oppose those who make a judgment only God can make. And until the great harvest we will be a church where we look to find the Kingdom, in the most unlikely places.
October 9, 2016 § Leave a comment
If enough people talk to me about a sermon I preach, I think about putting it on here. Sermons are best heard in context of course, but it may be this strikes a chord beyond the Minster. Here’s this mornings: preaching from Luke 17. 11 – 17 – the healing of the 10 lepers.
Beverley Minster has become something of a home to the Beverley Literary Festival this year. The first two events have happened already: Lord Robert Winston on the limits of genetics and ethics – asking what it is to be human; and Will Self, last night, preaching a secular sermon on the failure of romantic love. If I were playing it safe I wouldn’t have agreed to giving a stage to a man of faith but not the Christian faith, and then a man of some occasional extreme views and behaviour, who is an avowed agnostic. Can there be a ‘secular’ sermon? Well, there was, and I agreed with Will Self’s basic premise: if you don’t believe that love has a divine origin, romantic love on its own won’t save you.
I said last night that this great building, among many other purposes, exists to enable our thoughts and our aspirations to soar. That should mean thinking challenging thoughts. We are a safe place. These walls are strong and our windows let light in. This is a complex world and we live in changing times. Many Christians would wish to retreat into the safety of certainties and cherished traditions. It can be tempting to ask if the world might stop so that we can get off. The debate about sexuality is the one generating most heat at present, and it may be that the Anglican Communion will be split over it. But the safest place for the Christian is right on the edge. That’s where Christ was.
He is on the edge, the place between, in today’s Gospel reading. South of Galilee, north of Samaria. Contested lands, a place of uneasy truce, where even the Romans chose to let the natives fight out their religious quarrels without interfering. He is on the edge of a village, and he meets the edge dwellers. When you go to a medieval city, look to see if there is a church dedicated to St Giles, or a road called Gilesgate or Gillygate, as in York. It’s likely to be outside the old walls, on the edge of the city. That’s where the lepers lived, and was as far as they could get into civilisation. St Giles is a patron of the outcast, so the churches for the lepers, on the edge of things, were dedicated to him.
Lepers lived on the edge because their disease – in those days a collection of different skin conditions – was devastating and you could catch it. It’s the same today, though it’s curable, and the Minster supports the work of the Leprosy Mission with our mission giving. The lepers knew their place on the edge, and they ‘kept their distance’. But their edge dwelling led them to being an example to a divided, broken world. Shunned by others, they found a community of honesty and need and care which broke down the old divisions. Here Jews and Samaritans lived together, not apart. They had something to teach those who thought they were well. On the edge, disfigured by an unclean illness, they became more human. We might ask who today’s lepers are, and what they might teach us. Who does a post Brexit Britain push to the edge?
An edgy thing happens. They ask for ‘mercy’. That could have simply been affirmation, food, water. Jesus Offers them healing, wholeness. But he doesn’t heal them. He tells them to go to the priests as if they were healed. You should only go to the priest if you wanted to be pronounced clean, to have your healing verified. Jesus preserves their dignity by making no effort to close the gap between him and them – he affirms their edgy community. But he recognises their need, and just says – `off you go’ – as if they were clean… And they, on the edge, have to learn to take an edgy, a faithful decision. We might not know that Jesus is at work in us, has given us what we ask for. Faith invites us to live ‘as if’ we are healed, loved, forgiven.
So this story is about faith, not just healing. Ten lepers are healed. One discovers faith. This is a story about going beyond the physical, the needs of the here and now, to the eternal, the vital, the relationship between ourselves and our God. The tenth leper recognises that his healing was God’s gift, not his right, and he gives praise in humility where it is due. Jesus recognises that his faith his deep, and proclaims salvation (wholeness is the same word in Greek). And the remarkable thing is that this man is a Samaritan. The one who was most on the edge is the one who finds himself thoroughly enveloped in the saving love of God.
Many of us will have been touched by God, but God’s grace leaves us with a choice: do we respond by giving God the whole of our lives, or do we take the money and run? The leper was given all he wanted. He gave it back in gratitude to God, and was given more than he could imagine. I learn two things from this. I should not be surprised at people who gain much from God, but don’t make it to full Christian faith (Jesus had a ten percent success rate!). And I should not be surprised to find that someone can make it from devastation to wholeness. If a Samaritan leper could, then anyone can.
It is amazing how many people feel on the edge – within their workplaces, families, friendship groups, churches. Be assured. The edge, the borderland, is where Jesus operates. It is where the love of God is discovered. It is where great wrongs are confessed and forgiven. It is where leaps of faith are made. And it is where our lives are saved. I was led to the edge of thinking about science, genetics, human progress and the nature of life on Wednesday. I was led to the edge of the nature of believing (and the limits of intellect – Will Self is clever!) on Saturday. The Church of England finds itself on the edge of contemporary thinking about same sex relationships at the moment, and it is uncomfortable.
To be on the edge is not then to put our fingers in our ears and sing la la la. It is to find people working out what it is to be human, what it is to believe, what it is to love. That is where we should be. We are in between earth and heaven, between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. It may feel edgy. Perhaps we are the ones then who need stretch out a hand to Christ and say ‘have mercy upon us’. Perhaps we need to stretch out that hand to others, for this should be a place where edgy people find a home. In Christ, we can go on our way. Our faith in him will save us.
June 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
As Chaplain (and member) of an ancient livery company I get to preach a sermon each year. Our Master chooses the reading, and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats offers a telling commentary on the referendum tomorrow. So here’s what I’ll preach this afternoon for the Charter Day Service of the Company of Merchant Taylors of the City of York.
INSTITUTIONS which make laws can sometimes find themselves in complex and detailed territory. A debate continues to rage, for example, about Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and whether, by it, the European Commission has ever attempted to regulate the straightness of bananas.
It will not surprise you to know that the General Synod of the Church of England is also capable of this. We once spent a whole hour on the quality of the envelopes in which our papers were sent. And we had a major debate on the use of a single word: the one used when we were called upon to vote. Synod can create English Law, and uses parliamentary processes. So, when a vote was to be taken, the call to us was “Divide”.
It was felt that, though the Church of England has differing views and outright disagreements about almost everything, we should still be able to express this while remaining united. Might we not ‘disagree well’? Did a vote have to be expressed in the language of opposition and division? After various options were considered, we finally agreed to change the word to “Decide”, on the basis that we were taking decisions which we would have to live with together, rather than enshrining divisions which may never heal.
Last night I sat in between six politicians. ‘Remain’ were to my left, ‘Leave’ to my right. Three MPs, one Peer, one former MP and one national campaigner spent a couple of hours in Beverley Minster debating the Referendum. Privately beforehand more than one of them expressed the hope that never again would there be such a process. It is, after all, divisive. Seeing some of the exchanges from last night’s TV debate I’m not sure how some politicians will ever be able to look each other in the eye or sit on the same side of the House.
As Chairman last night my final question was to ask how each of our panel wanted us to be feeling at noon on Friday 24th, after the result is announced. I was pleased that they picked up on the nuances. We will, after all, still have to live together, take part in the processes of government and society together, look for the improvement of our nation and our world together, get along together.
One MP in our debate was clear that this process has been damaging, and will take a long time to heal. He was also clear that, for all our sakes, we must be generous to each other. There are greater things to concern us, as we have been so cruelly reminded in these last days. And this nation remains an amazingly privileged place to be, with every opportunity to make a difference to a needy and complex world.
Our new Master’s chosen reading today inhabits these tensions. If you are looking for a division, look no further than the sheep and the goats. But look carefully: they don’t divide themselves; that will be not for them, but for the Son of Man on the day of glory. And note the basis of the division: the lives which have been led, and the actions which they have all had an equal opportunity to perform. It’s not that they are preordained to be one or the other: everyone has the same chance. The division, as if they were like sheep and goats (shepherded together in the Holy Land and only separated when necessary for milking or shearing), comes at the end of everything. Until then all of us have the same opportunity.
The opportunity to do what? To serve. To make a difference. The quieter voices in the referendum debate have been asking us to decide tomorrow on the basis of how best we might take our place in the world, how best we might serve our planet and hand it on to our grandchildren, how best we can ensure the common good and peace among nations. Louder voices have concentrated on matters which look more like self interest. Jesus commends the people who, sacrificially and carefully, actively look out for and meet the needs of others.
In the Bible you never know when you might be bumping into God, or welcoming an angel. The people Jesus applauds are the ones who have actually looked after him, he says. They are baffled, but he says that whenever they have fed or clothed or visited or welcomed anybody, he was to be found in them. Jesus offers a vision of a united humanity, where all have needs, and all have the opportunity to meet them. And this is not a reactive sort of kindness. You have to make an effort to visit someone in prison, make an effort to find clothes or food for the hungry and naked. This is a decision, not a guilty response.
As the Company of Merchant Taylors, deriving from the earlier Confraternity of John the Baptist, we gather around St John’s Day to reaffirm our purposes and recommit to our aims. John the Baptist was unafraid of calling people to decide, and to change their behaviour to ensure there was justice and right action. His cousin Jesus offers the radical challenge to everyone to offer their lives in sacrificial service.
The division will come when our earthly life is lived to its end. Until then it is a decision we are called to. Whom shall we serve? How will we obtain the good of our neighbour? How will we take our place in the world? Our Company may be but a small part of this City and region, and our individual lives may not make a massive impact on the world stage. But just as every vote counts on Thursday, so every action, however small, makes a difference. And in this I would rather be a sheep than a goat.
December 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
A friend gave me a book* to read this year. One of my resolutions for 2014 had been to read the books I intended to read, and like all resolutions it didn’t quite work out. But this book I did. It’s about technology, and the way we use it, and it uses us – the way we change as we use new tools. The sections about email, and smartphones and social media were powerful. I know that some of my friends have made resolutions this year not to be so dominated by their technology. I’m sympathetic to that too.
What struck me most forcibly was that this was a book which could only have been written in the last couple of years. Twenty years ago it would have been baffling. Then, though it existed, I knew nothing of the world wide web, the Internet, or email. In 1994 I was just getting into text messaging I remember, and I sent my first email in 1995, I think. Social media then was still a letter, or a fax. To think that in 2014 I would witness my 84 year old mother in law on Facetime speaking to her relatives 300 miles away, just like those communicators on Star Trek…well, I would not have imagined I would really see the day. Who can predict what such a book will be covering in 2034, when I’m 74?
I guess that’s the point of marking a date in the calendar as a good time to look back and to look forward. We don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, but we can use what we have learnt so far, and we can equip ourselves to face what will come so that we can judge what will nourish us and what will harm us, what we should embrace and what we should avoid. And that’s why I’m talking about the book my friend gave me. In one small section it talks about the kind of looking back you do when someone dies, and how you talk to them.
The author suggests four things to say to those who have died, and I think you can say them to the year which is past too.
“I’m sorry. Thank you. I forgive you. I love you”
I’m sorry. There will be things in this past year which you have not done well, or which you’ve been a part of which are beyond your control and which are a source of regret. A resolution might be to try and repair any damage, and certainly not to take part in the same stuff again this year – and to create the conditions where society, or the world, won’t cause that stuff to happen again.
Thank you. One of my resolutions this year is to relish what has been good, and, where possible, to let others know if they have done it. There is now a Masters Degree in handling complaints. I’d like a Masters Degree in offering thanks, and that will start with thinking of enough good things to be able to start offering thanks for, and calling to mind the people who have done them. That includes the Almighty.
I forgive you. There will be stuff from this year which has been caused by others. I spend too much time in the middle of families who have been torn apart, or situations where disagreements have become divisions. That’s a privilege of the priestly ministry, and all priests know that these things are only resolved when someone offers forgiveness to another. But it’s a costly beginning, and it may as well start with you.
I love you. To reflect on what has been is to work out what, and who, is worth our time, our attention, our effort. Where those people are still with us, then making an active choice to love them, rather than just hoping that they already know, will make all the difference to our, and their, future. Where those people have died, then loving them in memory will enable us to live with what they gave us.
The Biblical writers were skilled at looking back in order to look forward. Isaiah took such courage and hope from God’s dealings with his people that he could be confident that there was a future and a hope, a way to walk. The Gospel writers, sure that Jesus had conquered even death, were thrilled to offer us the words they heard from Jesus about trusting in God for everything, and not giving our energies to things which would ultimately not satisfy.
I pray that this New Year you’ll be able to look back and ask questions of the past in such a way that you’ll be able to embrace the future with faith and hope. I pray that there will be thanksgiving, apologies, forgiveness and love. And I pray that all of your living, with whatever the future will hold and whatever tools we use in it, will be held in the palm of God’s hand, and lived to God’s glory, for God, in Christ, is our yesterday, today, and forever. Amen.
*The book is Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, Basic Books 2011. On p. 304 She quotes a Rabbi’s sermon at Yom Kippur, and he offers these four things to say to the dead.
September 21, 2014 § 1 Comment
I post sermons on here when enough people comment about them after I preach them. So here’s today’s, on Matthew, and whether I am converted.
The thing is, I wonder if any of us really know what it is to be thoroughly converted. What it is to be going completely one way, and then stop and go in the exact opposite direction. What it is to set aside everything for which we’ve dreamed and worked and saved and planned, and to go and do something completely different. I wonder if, really, we’re a mixture of old and new, good and bad, trying to shape it and sort it so that land just on the right side of the line. I wonder if most of us are really going at this Christian life bit by bit, two steps forward and a step back, hoping that, when we take stock we can demonstrate that we’ve made some progress.
If I’m honest I’m quite envious of someone like Matthew. Everyone knew what he had been like, and therefore what a difference Jesus had made in his life. We all know about tax collectors in the Bible. They did a necessary job: taxes help society when used well, and in themselves they are not evil. But the biblical tax collectors added their personal touch, using the force of law and the authority of the state to line their own pockets as well. Matthew, or Levi in the other gospels, did this like any other, and was loathed as a result. Tax collectors personified what today’s collect called “the selfish pursuit of gain and the possessive love of riches”. They were a byword for everything that was corrupt and bad and loathsome, and they knew it. Perhaps they even revelled in it. ‘No one likes us. We don’t care’.
The way Matthew tells it, he’s in his booth being loathsome and corrupt. Jesus walks past. Jesus has already gained a reputation for being powerful and charismatic and challenging and divinely inspired. He’d healed loads of people, cleansed people of leprosy, helped a paralysed man to walk, rid people of evil things which had taken them over. He’d even changed the weather. These were close knit communities. People talked, quicker than we tweet now. No one, least of all Matthew would have been in any doubt as to who this was and what he stood for. Two words to Matthew. ‘Follow me’. And that’s it. He does.
That’s why I’m envious. Because, the way it’s told, Matthew is one thing and then immediately he’s another. Old life: gone. I guess it would have to be: he was so obviously doing the wrong thing that any hint of doing it again and he would have been out on his ear, even self condemned. If he was going to follow Jesus it would be all or nothing. And it was all. Not only does he get to be one of the twelve, he gets to write it all down, so that he’s both an Apostle, one of those who could recount the words of Jesus and he’s an evangelist: a writer of the Good News, so that we can still hear his words today.
And, perhaps because he’s conscious of all the harm he has done his own people, the Jews he has a special concern for them in his Gospel. Remember how Zaccheus makes recompense by repaying what he’s taken many times over? I wonder if Matthew, aware of all that he has taken from his own people, ensures that he gives them the most precious thing that he can: an account of the faith in Christ which turned his life round and gave him hope. Read through Matthew’s Gospel – I dare you – and count the number of times he quotes the Hebrew Scriptures and shows how Jesus fulfils them. From wherever you are, he says, Jesus can and will be your Messiah, your Saviour, your hope and your light.
I’m envious because this shines a very clear light on the murkiness and complexity of my discipleship. I can point to a moment when I knew I made a decision for Christ. That came after a lifetime – 15 years – of church attendance. I was never very bad, and then and now have had no public reputation for going the wrong way or doing the wrong thing. My day to day life didn’t have to change very much, and, though pleased, no one was very much surprised when I followed a call to be ordained. I didn’t have to turn round from very much, and that means I have to look very carefully to check what a difference following Christ is making today.
Reflecting on the call of Matthew, crystal clear as it is, is like holding up a mirror – one of those dressing room mirrors with lights on it. Matthew’s is what a 100% conversion looks like. What does yours? What, for example, has following Jesus done to your attitude to money? Do you still, really, put more store by it than your heavenly treasure? What about your attitude to other people? Are they all there to be served, to be loved, or are some of them to be swept out of the way, dominated and defeated? What about your reputation, the things which mark you out as successful, your ambitions? Where are they when faced with the two simple words Matthew heard: follow me?
And if you want my honest answer: none of my responses to those questions will be as clear as Matthew’s. I know I could have been something else rather than a Vicar, but I have to say that my last three roles have meant living in three very nice places. I know as a Vicar I am the target for all sorts of stuff other people avoid – last night I was walking the dog up Toll Gavel, when a hooded young person in Subway saw my clerical shirt, looked me straight in the eye, leered and stick his middle finger up. I don’t think it was a cheery greeting. And sometimes you get worse abuse in the church, not out of it. But no one can tell me that my life is harder than anyone else’s in a complex employment situation. And this is no sacrifice compared to the lot of some Christians across the world.
I want to secure my finances as much as the next person. I’m as defined by my possessions as much as anyone else. Ask me how pleased I was when I bought a guitar I’ve wanted for 30 years. I care about my position and what people think about me, and if I had to weigh that up against what I want people to think about the Jesus I serve, there might be a slimmer majority than for the Scottish referendum.
Matthew shows me that my conversion is still happening. And I bet yours is too. Yes, I follow Christ. I sometimes wear clothes which make that so clear that people can tell me what they think of it. And yes, I’m still working out what that means. My emotions, and my finances, and my intellect and my relationships are all still listening to Jesus’s words, and trying to make sense of them. Thanks be to God that when we’re with Jesus we are truly with him, right from the start. After Matthew’s call there’s a big dinner, and all sorts of dodgy types are there. Far from them dragging Jesus down, he raises them up. That’s us: with him we are made new.
And then we have to work out what that means. I will follow, if you’ll help me. And I’ll help you too. Amen.
August 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
In the Hebrew Scriptures the history books – Samuel, Kings and Chronicles – have a difficult time with the idea of Kingship. It is not because of the bad ones: the kings who manifestly disobey the commands of God from start to finish. It‘s also the ones you would think we should admire, and hold up as examples. Of course even they do some stupid things. People do. But the histories of Israel are more worried than that. Taken as a whole they advise us to regard the whole institution of monarchy with great caution.
This stretches right back to the people’s demand for a king in the first place. Samuel has combined the roles of prophet and judge, but the people have no faith in those who will follow him. They look around at other nations, just as our politicians do today when looking for a model of some social policy: ‘they do it better in Sweden’; ‘this is what works in Germany’. The people look at the strong nations around, for Israel has ever been under threat from its neighbours. And they see that kingship seems to work. ‘Give us one of them’, they demand of Samuel.
Samuel does, but gives them a health warning. The King will make you subservient. The King will demand everything of you, he says. ‘In that day you will cry out because of your King’ is his prophecy, in 1 Samuel 8. 18. Their reply? ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we might be like other nations…’ (1 Sam 8. 19, 20). And they get their wish. Saul, who is something of a disaster, then David, who builds up the country and enlarges its borders, and Solomon, who establishes it, fortifying Jerusalem even more, holding court there so that world leaders come knocking, and founding the temple, to show the impregnable power of the relationship between God, King, nation and people.
A wise reading of history is often able to show that the seeds of destruction are to be found at the moment of what looks like complete success. A reliance on what has got you to the point of achievement, simply looking for more of the same, will lead to the whole edifice crumbling. That’s as true of the Roman Empire as of the financial markets in 2007 as it is of the England cricketers who won the Ashes in 2005 and fell away soon after. The Books of Kings, especially, describe just such a fall, and attribute it not just to bad leadership, but to the very model of kingship itself.
Solomon, the wise, the all powerful, the sought after one, is not immune from finding security in transient alliances rather than the complete dependence on God which is the hallmark of Israel. Kingship makes you do that. Power concentrated in the hands of one person, to whom others fawn, eventually corrupts. And with few checks and balances that power turns in on itself. It was already happening at the end of Solomon’s reign, and not even the strong words of the prophet Ahijah about the breaking up of the twelve tribes of Israel can stop the process.
Our first reading tonight carries on the story. Solomon has died. Rehoboam, his son and anointed successor, trusts in the wrong sort of exercise of authority. Absolute kingship, he feels, can best be demonstrated by showing people who is boss. Is that not what a King is? Wise heads invite him to exercise his authority with humility and restraint, but kingship lends itself more easily to a display of power than of humility. He would rather be ruler than servant. He would look weak otherwise. Ten of the tribes tell him what he can do with it, and so begins the split of the nation, into two Kingdoms. A couple of hundred years and it’s all gone, the nation overrun, the leaders in exile. And we can safely say that the split, the destruction, has been there all along.
My former boss used to say that ‘any system can be made not to work’. The Judges and the early prophets had their troubles too. But reliance on an overt exercise of power – ‘someone who will go out before us and fight our battles’, as the people say to Samuel when they ask for a King – this reliance has perhaps more chance of failure than any other. The people put a figurehead and a system in between them and their joint responsibility for the land and nation and people. Their abdication of power leads to it being exercised badly, however hard the King in question tries.
In that same land today different models of leadership and power currently clash, and people die. In our own land the people with power seen increasingly remote for the people they govern, or should that be ‘serve’? We do well to be suspicious of the exercise of power. We do well also to pray for those who have it, and hold up before them the model of the one who, with all authority on heaven and earth, sought out the weak, sat with the needy, shared the life of the poor, and gave up every shred of what he had, that we might live. Amen.
May 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
This morning’s sermon. I blog these if enough people come and talk to me about them afterwards (which, because we’re from Yorkshire, we don’t normally do). So here goes…It was based on John 14. 1 – 14
I had a fascinating conversation this week with someone who researches people’s experiences of the death of those closest to them, and their bereavement and grieving. Her key reflection was that what clergy could bring into that situation, beyond planning and delivering the funeral service, was a framework where people could explore their beliefs and understandings of death and dying, and especially of what people thought had happened to their loved ones, and where they were. This was most crucial between the death and the funeral.
That conversation remains with me now because of this morning’s Gospel reading, from John 14. We clergy, who do lots of funerals, tend to forget that people don’t go to that many in their life time. This reading, the first six verses anyway, is the one I most often use at funerals. It speaks of God’s care for us beyond death, of God’s promise that those in Christ will have a room reserved, and that perhaps even those who have not been followers of God in their lifetime will also be looked after. There are, after all, ‘many rooms’. Jesus, speaking, as John has it, on the night before he dies, with impending doom all around, gives his followers a framework to understand what is about to happen – one which they clearly remembered because they wrote it all down.
At the centre is a statement, a question and an answer. Jesus tells the disciples that they have all the framework they need to face his death, the ultimate challenge. ‘You know the way to the place where I am going’ he says. ‘No‘, says Thomas. ‘If we don’t know where you are going, how on earth can we know the way.’ Jesus, as ever, changes the nature of the conversation. It’s not about what the way is and where it’s going, but who the way is and how we get there. ‘I am the way…’ Faced with the ultimate question, Jesus gives an answer which will only make sense because of their faith, not their certainty. ‘You still won’t be exactly clear about where I’m going. But you can be sure that the way there is me. Trust me.’
In funerals I do all I can to make this framework plain. I try to say that the Christian faith is about us being gathered, swept up in Christ into the life of God. As he, one man, incorporated all of humanity, so that his death was our death, so the risen Christ incorporates us too, so that his life is our life. If the face of death many people look for certainties, for something as tangible as possible about the fate, the continued life of their loved one who has died. People can take great comfort in words from beyond the grave, for example, and the use of clairvoyants and mediums. There is, to broaden it out, a great interest in ghosts – you only have to see the huge crowds on the York ghost walks which used to go past our house. I try to say that our thinking about death and new life is much deeper than that.
This is about faith. Faith that, because Jesus died and rose, and is fully and completely with God, we will be too. Indeed, part of our life is already with God now. In baptism we have already died and been raised with Christ. But where, and how, and what it’s like on the other side of death…well, I don’t know. I can only trust that the means of being with God, the way we travel, and the life we will life, is Christ. That’s it. Total and complete trust. The Bible speaks of us ‘resting’, ‘sleeping’ in death. That’s a state which is fully enclosed by God, like the best kind of sleep in the best kind of bed. And the Bible says that, in Christ, we will be raised, so that we see God face to face. I don’t know when and how that will be. But I can trust that it will happen, and I can trust that it is Jesus who will be the means and the road and the companion and the guide and the friend on the way, and the everlasting arms behind.
When Philip asked Jesus to reveal the Father to them, Jesus said he already had. In every moment with them, every word, every action, God was being made plain to them. They just had to open their eyes to see. It’s that openness which Jesus asks of us as we face the biggest question of all: what will happen to us when we die? Jesus says: the answer is here already. I am such a part of the Father and you are such a part of me that, in life and death, you will be with me, and I will never let you go.
Facing his death, and acknowledging their grief, Jesus says to his disciples ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled…’ As we face our death, and the death of those we love, there will of course be grief and loss and sadness and anger and guilt. I cry at many of the funerals I take, and I miss the people you miss. That’s OK. Jesus wept at death too. But under it all there is the hope and hope and trust, that eternally we can never be separated from God’s love. May we offer that hope to all who wonder about life and death. And that’s everyone, isn’t it?