Friday, 2 March 2018


Sermon at St Matthew’s, 25 February 2018

Genesis 1: 26 – 2: 7 and 2: 18 – 25; Psalm 139: 13-18,

This is the third in a series of sermons on the body and today I am going to talk about gender and how our gender affects our identity.   I want to bring you some good news about gender rather than see it as a problem. 

As I am talking about gender it is inevitable that I will saying a little about sex.  Be warned and feel free to leave at this point or at any point in this sermon if I start knocking into your internal furniture, as it were, or even if I offend you: I will try not to take offence.  And I will try not to offend but I realise gender is a sensitive subject for many of us.

My main text for today is Genesis 1 verse 27 ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’   A second text I will look at is Genesis 2 verse 22 ‘And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’   I find this second text hugely problematic.  It seems to contradict the previous text and quite frankly I wish it weren’t in the Bible but it is so we need to take it seriously.

Why pick these two texts?  Well they are representative of the way that the authors of the Bible, like we ourselves, struggled with gender issues but also because Jesus uses them when challenged by the Pharisees for his views on marriage and divorce and asked by his disciples for his views on sex[1].  Jesus directly refers to the first verse, Genesis 1: 27.   Admittedly he only indirectly refers to Genesis 2:22 and quotes Genesis 2: 24 – two verse later - instead.   I might have been better off following his example.

But before coming on to these texts first I’d like to recap on what we have learnt so far in this sermon series about a right perspective on the body, at least in connection with gender and secondly to say something generally about Genesis and what the stories in Genesis can teach us about things like gender.

And by gender I do mean gender.  I think we need to note there is a difference between our sex and our gender.   Our sex, whether male, female or in rare cases intersex is essentially determined by our chromosomes.   If we have an X and a Y chromosome we are male and if we have two X chromosomes we are female.   Well sex determination is not quite as simple as that but can we leave it at that for the moment.   Gender is what people say they are.   If a person has two X chromosomes and says they are male[2] then their gender is male despite their two X chromosomes.  

And also I need to say that today my primary focus is gender and not sexuality.  Sexuality and gender, although related, are quite distinct.   Your sexuality, it surely doesn’t need saying, refers to who you are attracted to not what sex or gender you are.  For example a person of the male sex can identify themselves as being of the female gender and be homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual and similarly with a person of the female sex who considers themselves to be male.

Why focus on gender and not sexuality in a sermon series on the body?   Of course gender and sexuality are issues which are connected but actually by not by as much as we might assume.   And also the Bible does not – in my view - have a lot to say about sexuality and what it says is difficult to interpret.   However it does have much more to say about gender and in particular relations between men and women, including sexual relations.  But of course relations between men and women are not just sexual.

But, as I said, first I’d like to recap on what we have learnt about the body so far in this sermon series. Rhiannon, in her introductory sermon, reminded us that many of us – perhaps most of us – are dissatisfied with our bodies for lots of reasons.  Perhaps we think we are too fat or too thin, not beautiful enough or too beautiful, too old or too young.   We might be worried about or body for lots of different reasons: we might be worried about its appearance: to both ourselves (how it appears to us when we look in the mirror) and to others.  But we might also be worried about how it works: whether we can do what we want with it: whether that’s climb mountains or just go to the shops.  We might also be worried about how healthy it is: how long it is likely to last.

Steve, in his sermon pointed out that most of the biblical texts tell us that the body is inseparable from the soul – from who we are.  He reminded us that it was the philosophers like Plato that have made us think that the body is somehow inferior to the mind, and that if there is life-after-death then it is of a disembodied mind. 

However we know that central to Christian belief is the idea that when God became human in the shape of Jesus he adopted a human body. ‘And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory.’ as it says in John’s gospel.   Here then is God’s endorsement that a human body is very much worth having.    

And furthermore central to Christian belief is that this God who became embodied, rose from the grave after his death, and that his resurrection body, if not entirely like his body, prior to death was certainly a body.  It looked the same, if not identical.  Jesus could eat and drink, his disciples could touch him, etc.  

All this points to the fact that we should love our bodies.  It means that we should not be disappointed in them: they are what God has given us, just as he has given us our minds.  This is, of course, easier said than done for many of us.  And of course I am not saying we should not worry about our bodies.  They do get old, bits fall off and other bits stop working: this is inevitable but it in turn means that we should look them as much as we are able.

How does what we have heard so far about bodies effect our attitude to our gender.  Well of course our gender, in as much as it affected by our sex, is an aspect of our body.  Our gender is not just determined by our body.   What gender we see ourselves as being – is also a function of our mind.  Of course having a Y chromosome vastly increases our chances of identifying ourselves as male but does not make it a certainty.  In saying this I am trying not to fall into mind-body dualism - which Steve warned us against last week.   He told us that the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, views the soul as an enspirited body not an embodied spirit, that our soul or identity is as much our body as our mind.

So we need to love our gender just as we need to love our bodies.  Our gender is an important part of our identity, our soul.

Secondly a bit about Genesis.   Genesis is a set of stories about origins.  Not just the creation of the universe and of life and of human beings – as is famously described in Genesis Chapters 1 and 2- but also about the origins of lots of other things besides.  It explains why things are the way they are and particularly the nature of relationships: not only between human beings and God but also between human beings and other animals, between men and women, between parents and children and between siblings.   It is about both how God created things but because from the outset he gave human beings freedom – including the freedom to mess things up – these stories should not always be read as descriptive of the way things should be but of the way things are, they should be read as normative not prescriptive in other words.

Of course I am not, today, going to go into whether the stories in Genesis are literally true or not, or whether they are compatible with current scientific views of origins or not. That is for another day.   But, of course, I do think that the stories have important things to tell us about things like gender regardless of whether they are literally true or not – and furthermore the debate about literality should not permit us to neglect the truths to be found in Genesis.

Another thing to say about Genesis is that the stories are mainly about men.  For example, most of the stories about sibling relations in Genesis are about brothers: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, etc.  There are some stories about sisters: Rachel and Leah, for instance, but not so many as about brothers.   It is true that women figure prominently in many of the stories often playing a vital role but generally men are the protagonists.  In general these men mess things up and much of Genesis is aimed at teaching men about the error of their ways, at educating them in the task of transmitting to their descendants not just life but a worthy way of life devoted to justice and holiness and reverence for God.

Why this emphasis on the deeds of men rather than women in Genesis?   Does it represent a sexist and/or patriarchal mentality on the part of ancient Israel or does it reflect something closer to the reverse, a belief that men are by nature, much more than women, in need of education if they to live responsibly, righteously and well.

But back to our texts for today.  First Genesis 1 verse 27 ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’   This is a reassuring text to those of us who might be inclined to worry that the Bible considers men better than women in some way or other.   Here: at the very beginning or the Bible is a clear statement that both men and women are created equal in status – both, in some way or another bear an equal likeness to, God.  Much ink has been spilled over what ‘image’ precisely means here.   But for today just let us note that this verse means that if both men and women bear God’s image then gender is not part of that image.   God’s image, and by implication God, does not have a gender.

Of course men and women are different, and those differences are important, but surely of less importance to that fact that we are all, men or women or indeed transgender are made in the image of God.

A word about those differences.   It is self-evident that there are bodily differences between men and women: differences related to their different roles in reproduction.   In the next verse – immediately after declaring that both men and women are made in God’s image the writer of Genesis says that God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ .  So human beings’ first task, before subduing the earth, was to have sex and to produce children.   The idea that sex is related to sin – promulgated by St Augustine – is a later invention.

But is the fact that men and women behave differently in all societies, including this, anything to do with their sex?   I know that people in this congregation will have strong views on this question and I am not going to answer it.   I actually don’t think it is an important question.    And it might not be answerable.

I do think it is worth pointing out at this point that it is easy to get confused by apparent differences in behaviour between the genders to your own detriment.  I’ll give you just one example from my own life.   I was brought up to believe that women hug people and men don’t.    And this was partly because my mother hugged me but my father didn’t.  I think we all like being hugged and hugging but I got confused and thought for a long time that hugging was something I shouldn’t do because I thought of myself as a man and men don’t hug.  Perhaps you don’t have this problem with hugging but you may think, wrongly, that a behaviour associated with the opposite gender is something you shouldn’t do, might even be ashamed of. 

Now turning to my second text: Genesis 2 verse 22 ‘And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’  This is a problem verse because it suggests firstly that God created men first and secondly that women was made for the benefit of men rather than for their own good. 

First the order problem.  This is really only an apparent problem when we remember back to Genesis 1 where God first creates the inanimate – the heavens and the earth, then the living - the plants and the animals – and finally the god-like - human beings.   Arguably to be created last is better than to be created first. 

Note too that in the Genesis 2 account Adam, the prototype human being – prior to the creation of women - was, in fact, gender-less, the potential to be female was within the body of this creature, but only after the separation is there really male and female.

Secondly the problem of women being created for the benefit of men and not for their own good.   Though in the absence of women the first human being may have experienced nothing of his maleness, the first human being does seems to have been male, according to this creation story in Genesis 2 if not in Genesis 1. 

And it is certainly with a sense of his own male priority and prerogative that the man reacts to the woman’s appearance, in a similar fashion to billions of men down to the present day: Genesis 2 verse 2:
And the man said
This one at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh;
This one shall be called Woman (in Hebrew Isha), because from Man (in Hebrew Ish) this one was taken
Note that, as I said earlier, many of the stories in Genesis describe things as they are not as they should be.   Here is a good case in point.   Note that it is Adam not God who is saying this about Woman.   It is not necessarily how God views the matter.   Not everything in the Garden of Eden was lovely, even before Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.   There was remember a snake.  

What Adam says – in, incidentally this first recorded human sentence – expresses his pent up desire:  ‘This one at last is…’  To him the woman is, or will be, his possession: ‘This one is bone of my bone’   And this is also apparent in his explanation of her name.  But his desire is for her body rather that her mind, she is bony and fleshy not brainy: an object of sexual attraction not a conversation partner.  What the woman thought of this speech we are not told.   Presumably not a lot.

But as well as carnal desire there is in the speech the germ of love.   Whatever Adam thinks about his new companion, God’s purpose in creating her was to solve the first human’s problem of aloneness.  Chapter 2 verse 1: Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’  The story of the origins of women in this account are as much about companionship, and the possibility of love, as about sex. 

So perhaps only superficially does Genesis 2: 22 seem to denigrate women – but lets us also acknowledge the damage this text, and others like it, have done down the years.   Wikipedia tell us, and I quote, that ‘the name Spare Rib [for the famous feminist magazine of the 1960s] started as a joke, with its play on words about the Biblical Eve fashioned out of Adam’s rib, implying that a woman had no independence from the beginning of time.’   Now you can say that the founders of ‘Spare Rib’ misunderstood the Biblical text, and the name was a joke, but isn’t their reading of the text also understandable and was the name entirely a joke?

My friend Adrian was, last week, helping members of the LGBTQ community in Kenya write a grant proposal for some research into HIV amongst women there.  He tells me that some members of grant writing panel were uncomfortable about using the term Woman because of its derivation from the word Man – as in the Genesis account.  There is still a lot of angst around about gender and some of that turns into anger at religious, including Christian, perspectives on gender, whether actual or perceived.   

Now I said I wanted to bring you some good news about gender and not just present it as a problem.   I think the good news comes in the words of the writer of Psalm 132:
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

The good news is that we all, of whatever gender, have been made by God in God’s image.  We are both mind and body, inextricably connected, and part of who we are is our gender, determined both by our genes at our conception – our inwards parts – but also what has happened to us subsequently – in our mother’s womb, in childhood and beyond.   I don’t personally think our gender is ever fixed but we can all understand that our gender is important to our identity.   Despite some readings of the biblical texts no gender is more important than any other.  We are all fearfully and wonderfully made and equally important to God

With acknowledgements to Leon R Kass (The beginning of wisdom, reading Genesis, Free Press, 2003)

[1] Mathew 1: 1-19
[2] I wonder if this should be masculine.  Should male and female be reserved for sex and masculine and feminine be reserved for gender?  If we describe a person ias a man are we describing his sex or his gender?

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Noah and the Ark, Genesis 6-9, talk at St Matthew’s on 23rd July 2017

Here is a picture of a Rabbs' fringe-limbed treefrog, called Toughie.  The last wild Rabbs’ tree frog to be seen, or rather heard, in the forests of Panama where they lived, was in 2007. Toughie was the last known Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog in captivity and sadly he died in September last year in Atlanta Botanical Garden, Georgia in the US.   What has Toughie got to do with today’s story of Noah and the Ark?

I think it is this: that the story of Noah and the Ark shows that God cares for animals as well as humans so we should care about them too.   And note that God’s care extends to all the animals not just the ones useful to humans, and to species not just individual animals.

Of course the story of Noah and the Ark isn’t just about God’s care for the animals of the Earth and how we, in consequence, should look after them too.   But many interpretations of the story seem a bit far-fetched to me.   For example the idea that the Ark is a foreshadowing of the Church: an idea that that you get in a lot of medieval stained glass where the Ark looks much more like a cathedral than a boat – such as here – in a window from Ely Cathedral.  You can see that this ark even seems to have stone columns with Corinthian capitals and a tiled roof.

Some interpretations seem to suggest that the animals are incidental to the story of Noah and the Ark but they are not.  Here is a picture of the story by Jan Breughel the Elder.   The Ark itself is in the background and the pairs of animals are very much the subject of the picture.  The horse in this picture is more important than Noah off to the right.   The horse is the one who is looking out of the frame at us, the viewers.  Perhaps he is looking for his partner who we can imagine behind us. 
I like this picture because the animals are, as well as making their way to the ark, doing what they would normally do.  The leopards are playing, the lions are fighting, the porcupines have stopped for a snack, the rabbits are looking rather nervous, presumably because of the proximity of the foxes.  And is that Mrs Noah, dressed in 17th century Flemish costume, who is taking a rest, with her little dog?

Now Christians have not traditionally paid much attention to animal life.   Genesis Chapter 1 verse 26, ‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”’ has been taken by many Christians to indicate that we humans have God’s permission to treat animals as we wish and even to exploit them.

There is a well-known article written by Lynn White for the journal Science, published in 1967, entitled ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ that blames Christianity for the environmental crisis that we now find ourselves in.  And there is a lot of truth in Lynn White’s thesis.   But Genesis 1: 26 needs to be balanced by Genesis 2: 15 ‘The Lord God took Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.’  Keep it, note, and not destroy it.

And when God decides to recreate the Earth in the story we are thinking about today he decides to keep one family of humans and one pair of every living animal that cannot swim.   The story of Noah is really another creation story – like the two that can be found in Genesis Chapter 1 to Chapter 2:4 and Chapter 2: 5 to the end.  In this third creation story– or rather, I suppose, recreation story - Noah and his family replaces Adam and his family and it is Noah and his family that are to look after the animals during the recreation process.  God tells Noah, Chapter 6: 20 – echoing Chapter 2: 15 - ‘Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive.’ God even instructs Noah on how to feed the animals on the Ark.

God’s instruction to Adam about the Garden of Eden is to keep it.  God’s instruction to Noah about the animals is to keep them.  

And what does Noah do as soon as soon as the Flood is over, the waters have retreated, and he has let the animals out: Noah starts killing them and cooking them (sorry, children, cover your ears at this point).  Although God chose Noah because he was ‘a righteous man, blameless in his generation, and walked with God’, Noah turns out not to be quite as ‘righteous’ as all that.  But what happens when God discovers Noah killing and cooking the animals he is supposed to be keeping we must leave until another day.

The story of God’s dealings with Noah, like the story of God’s dealing with Adam are of course primarily about our relationship with God but they also deal with our relationship with creation.  It is clear from the Bible that God delights in all of his creation, not just us humans, and that the rest of creation, is not just for our benefit, but for his as well.   He sees it as good.  We should therefore be looking after it, keeping it for him if you like. 

Christians, quite frankly, don’t have a very good track record when it comes to keeping animals and looking after the creation.  There are of course some exceptions.  St Francis is perhaps the most notable.  Here he is preaching to the birds.  In this picture by Giotto there is an echo of the story of Noah and the Ark in that most of the birds are in pairs and of different species.

A legend about St Francis, says that living near the town of Gubbio, where St Francis was living at that time, there was a wolf, terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and not to hurt him or anyone else. Miraculously the wolf came to him and lay down at his feet.

"Brother Wolf, you have done much evil in this land destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission”, said St Francis. "But brother wolf, I will make peace between you and the people." Then St Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had done evil out of hunger, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks.   Here is St Francis making that pact with the wolf in the town square.

The wolf lived two years at Gubbio; he went familiarly from door to door without harming anyone, and all the people received him courteously, feeding him with great pleasure, and no dog barked at him as he went about. At last he died of old age, and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly; for when they saw him going about so gently amongst them all, he reminded them of the virtue and sanctity of St Francis.

Which brings me back to Toughie.   His story is of course more than just a story about a frog – just as the story of Noah and the Ark is so much more than just a story about a man who builds a boat to save himself from a flood– and the story of St Francis and the wolf is more than a story about the miraculous powers of a saint.   All of these stories tell us something about our relationship with animals: what it is and what it should be. 

The story of Toughie moves us perhaps because he had a name and we can therefore identify with him more easily than with an unnamed frog, but also, and more-importantly - because there was just one of him – so there was no possibility of a latter day Noah saving his species.   And of but of course Toughie’s story is symbolic of the way we are treating God’s creation: about 200 species of plants and animal go extinct in any one year due to us humans.  Why should we care?   For no better reason than God tell us to through the story of Noah and the Ark.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

A heart for the helpless

Readings: Jeremiah 24: 1- 10, Luke 24: 13-35.

This is the third in our series of sermons where we are reflecting on what it means to see ourselves as a community in exile.   As Steve said, in his sermon introducing the series, two weeks ago, the idea for the series came from a reflection that Andy – Andy Jefferson – wrote a few months ago now – om which he suggested that we the church might fruitfully compare ourselves with the people of Israel when they were in exile in Babylon.  Today I would like us to revisit that idea before moving on to reflect on how, thinking of ourselves as exiles, might affect our thinking about helping the helpless in today’s society.

So first a short recap on the biblical background.  You’ll remember that around 600 BC Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was sacked by the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar.  Their temple was destroyed and a large proportion of the population was deported to Babylon.  There are several books of the Bible which are concerned with this exile: what led to it, how the exiles fared in Babylon and how some of them returned to Judah in around 540 BC.  These include the Second Book of Kings, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezra, etc.  

Now the Old Testament gives us, amongst other things, a history of the people of Israel.  It describes the various phases of their history.  Perhaps their most glorious phase was when they were ruled by the kings David and his son Solomon.  The Israelites looked back to this time as a golden era.  The period of the Exile in Babylon was, on the face of it, their most inglorious phase.

Andy, drawing on the work of various other theologians, pointed out to us that we, as Christians living in England in the early 21st century, might share more in common with the Israelites living in exile than with the Israelites living under David and Solomon.   

For much of the past 2000 years Christians have often had a fair amount of power in countries where Christianity is practiced.  For example in England, since the time of Henry VIII, the head of state – the king or, as now, the queen - has also been head of the Church.  And over the last say 1500 years the church, in England, has accumulated much property and land.  It has become so wealthy that it has been able to pay its staff, if not well, at least enough to live on.  These times can be thought of as being similar to the time of David and Solomon.

But now things are different: the power and influence of the church is in decline.  It is running out of money, closing it church buildings, laying off staff, etc.  Not everywhere of course and also gradually.  When the church had more influence it seemed that the values of society as a whole were more closely aligned with Christian values.  Last Sunday Philp talked, amongst other things, about Sunday trading laws. 

When shops had to be closed on Sundays, it felt as if the State was enacting the fourth of the Ten Commandments which is to keep the Sabbath holy.  When those Sunday trading laws were relaxed it felt, perhaps, as if something had been lost.  We who are members of the Church may feel we are increasingly alienated from the rest of society, as Philip also explored with us last week.  We may feel ourselves in exile – like the Israelites living in exile in Babylon

There are various possible responses here: to deny what is happening, to moan about it, to resist it and to adjust to it.  What did the Israelites do when they were in exile?

In the Israelites’ case it wasn’t possible to deny what was happening to them.  In our case the exile hasn’t been so dramatic.  We, unlike the Israelites, haven’t physically been repatriated.  Though at this point it is worth remembering that about 20 million people in this world do physically live in exile as refugees. 
Our exile has been slower and more gradual.  Denial is possible.  But the statistics are difficult to ignore entirely.   Here’s just one example.  This shows some data from the Government-funded and well-respected British Social Attitudes Survey.  It shows that the number of those that claim allegiance to the Church of England is falling whereas the number of those that claim no allegiance to any religion is rising.  Whether this is a symptom or effect of other changes in society I am not sure.  I don’t think we should just regard it as a failure of the church: as if we had all only tried a bit harder this wouldn’t have happened.  God is working his purpose out – even here though these trends – as our reading from Jeremiah this morning reminds us.

Nevertheless many of us, I count myself, here, don’t feel ourselves to be in exile.  I do not live in a refugee camp.  Last week Philip challenged us to see ourselves as living in exile.  I can just about accept that challenge but to tell the truth I do not want to feel like a refugee.

Do we moan about being in exile?  Of course the Israelites grieved over the loss of Jerusalem, in particular their temple there, and their deportation.  Several of the psalms express this grief.  The most famous being Psalm 137 which begins: 
By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?

Are we to weep about our situation as Christians today?  This seems a bit of an over-reaction.  I guess people will grieve when their local church closes down, when laws are changed, but surely we must, at some point, get over it, move on.

The next possible response is resistance.  Of course the Israelites initially resisted invasion by Nebuchadnezzar.  This is recorded at the end of the Second Book of Kings and of the Second Book of Chronicles.  But having been deported, what resistance was possible?  And the final possible response is adjustment.  Did the Israelites adjust to their new situation?

The Old Testament Book of Daniel contains stories of some of the exiles in Babylon mainly through the eyes of its main character: a wise man, a prophet called Daniel and an exile himself.

The book starts by telling us how Daniel and some his friends end up working for King Nebuchadnezzar.  The king, seeing that the some of the Judeans were ‘without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight’ (as it says in Chapter 1 verse 4) co-opts these Judeans to work for him.  Daniel and his friends are assimilated as it were, and not just assimilated, they – albeit with a few trials along the way such as being thrown into a fiery furnace - do well in the Babylonian civil service and are promoted.

But Daniel and his friends never lose sight of their fundamental identity as citizens of another country.   They keep t to their customs and forms of worship.  Surprisingly this rubs off on the Babylonians.  Finally Nebuchadnezzar declares:
‘Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven,
for all his works are truth,
    and his ways are justice;
and he is able to bring low
    those who walk in pride.’
So despite being forced to live far from home, Daniel and his friends do not give in to despair but continue to believe that they are still the people of God and are still to mark themselves out as distinct.  As a result of the wisdom that God gives them, they are recognised as useful by the Babylonian king and rise to become his wisest and most trusted servants. Still in exile but with influence.

So what are we to learn from this?  I think it is that both resistance and adjustment to exile are necessary.  If we see ourselves as entirely alienated from modern day culture we will be tempted to stand apart, to keep ourselves uncontaminated by what is going on around us, to have absolutely no influence.  We have to adjust: to developments in new technology, for example.

On the other hand if we entirely adopt the ways of the world then we are not able to embody Christ, to represent him and to bring anything distinctive by way of good news, to the people we live amongst.  We have to resist some of the secular trends: widening gaps between rich and poor for example.

What does this all mean for our mission to the people of South Oxford and beyond?  Andy wrote his reflection in the context of our thinking, here at St Matthew’s, about growth as a church.  Here is one of the things he says in his reflection:
‘My suggestion is that running a Start course or launching other new programmes, whilst not necessarily a bad thing, doesn’t address or recognise this shift: we, as a church in this nation, are in Exile. Our community no longer looks to us for a framework of meaning for their lives. We are simply one voice among many. And we have the disadvantage of being a voice that people think they have already heard, so they are less inclined to seek us out for a second hearing.’
And I have heard many times over the past few months that, if we are to grow as church, we need to be smarter in our thinking about how we are to do this and in particular work out, more clearly, what growth means, in particular for St Matthew’s as opposed to church growth in general.  And in this we need to work out what we, as a church, have that is distinctive to offer to those around us, as opposed to clamouring for their attention and expecting to be heard.  Listening to what those around us want and need might be a start.

One aspect of our mission is to have a heart for the helpless.  Seeing ourselves as exiles has, I think, a big effect on our thinking here.  Exiles themselves need help. They are a marginalised section of society.  But God has a heart for exiles.

In today’s passage we heard Jeremiah’s prophecy for the exiles in Babylon.  I’ll read the relevant bit again:
‘Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so I will regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I have sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians.  I will set my eyes upon them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up.  I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.'

Seeing ourselves in need of help ourselves changes our relationship with those around us who, perhaps more obviously, need help.  We should no longer regard ourselves as the dispensers of largesse, as perhaps we have been tempted to in the past.  In this country, the church used to be the main provider of hospitals, schools, relief for the poor and other aspects of welfare provision.

Of course the church now has hardly any role in health care provision in this country – although in other parts of the world – particularly Africa – it still does.  I spent a bit of time last week talking to a student from Cameroon on the course I was helping to run.   He told me that around 60% of health care provision in his country is funded by the church.  And we ourselves still have a small role in health care provision in Africa though our involvement with initiatives such as those of the Semiliki Trust in the Congo.

The church also has a diminishing role in education in this country.   Although about one third - 7,000 of the 20,000 - state funded schools in England are still, to varying degrees, faith based, and of these 68% are Church of England schools, 30% are Roman Catholic schools and 2% are of other faiths, the extent to which education directly reflects our perspectives on say Sunday trading is clearly in decline.  We, St Matthew; of course, have quite close links with St Ebbe’s School situated in this parish. 

And finally it’s a long time since the church in this country had a major role in poverty relief but we still have a bit of a part to play though organisations such as Christians Against Poverty. 

We can hardly deny our declining role in our capacity to help the helpless with respect to health, education and poverty.  Moaning about it seems quite frankly pointless given that the decline started decades, if not centuries, ago.  

So is this all too depressing for words?  Resisting the trends also doesn’t seem likely to be effective but this isn’t to say we should lose hope and/or give up.   No, we need to rethink what our role should be in the light of changing circumstances and to adjust our actions accordingly following the example of Daniel and his friends.

Perhaps we should stop trying to go it alone, to develop and run, specifically Christian organisations to the problems faced by the people around but, instead, to work in partnership with others who share a similar perspective.  Perhaps we could even work in partnership with others of different faiths.  Perhaps we could be more humble about our likely contribution.  Perhaps we could move from provision of direct help to advocating for justice in the provision of help.

Finally two pictures by Caravaggio – an Italian painter working at the turn of the 16th century - that symbolise the change in thinking about the helpless required when we see ourselves as exiles.  Caravaggio was hardly a saint, in the conventional meaning of that word, but he was a painter who tried to make his faith real.

Both are pictures of the Supper at Emmaus – the culmination of the story we heard in our gospel reading today and comparing them suggests a flip in the way Caravaggio saw this event similar to the flip in our thinking we might get if we start to see ourselves as exiles rather than as in charge.

The first picture was painted in 1601 when Caravaggio was feeling confident in his abilities and included by the church.  It portrays the moment when the two male disciples, seated at the table, recognise who their companion, on the journey to Emmaus, is.  On the table is a delicious meal of bread, chicken, fruit and wine. 

The second painting is also a of the Supper at Emmaus – painted by Caravaggio five years later in 1606, at a particular turbulent time in his life when he was clearly feeling less confident about his place in society.   In this painting the gestures and expressions are less dramatic.  On this table is just bread, a bowl, a tin plate and a jug.  There is still an innkeeper looking on.   But in this picture there is a new, fifth, character, an elderly female serving maid, her worried face downcast, seemingly engrossed in her own thoughts. 

The 1601 version is perfectly balanced but the presence of the maid seems to unbalance the version of 1606.   The inclusion of the female maid servant would have offended the wealthy male church leaders for whom Caravaggio worked and who saw themselves as the successors of the disciples.  Michael Frost, in his book Exiles, suggests the maid represents the poor and marginalised: and all those who yearn for a place at Christ’s table, thought they might not yet recognise their desire to share Christ’s food.  If we see ourselves as exiles we might begin to identify with the servant at the table rather than the disciples who are already seated, and if so we will see the world differently.

By recognising that we are citizens of a different kingdom, a kingdom in exile, one in which the king himself has voluntarily exiled himself, we might begin to have a true heart for the helpless. 

Saturday, 21 May 2016

A sermon at the start of Oxfordshire ArtWeeks

St Matthew's, 8th May 2016

This sermon was initially intended as a contribution to ‘Oxfordshire ArtWeeks’ which began yesterday and lasts until the 30th May. St Matthew’s normally holds an exhibition during ArtWeeks but isn’t doing so this year.   St Luke’s however is putting on an exhibition and so is St Elbe’s School.  And the holding of ArtWeeks events throughout the city over the next three weeks provides a good opportunity to reflect upon art and its meaning for us as Christians.   I should say that I am not really qualified to talk about art at all.   I am not an artist: I am a scientist with a bit of an interest in art, so this sermon is just my personal take on some pictures that I like but more importantly find spiritually nourishing.   I should also say that in this sermon I have drawn heavily on two books: How to Believe by John Cottingham and Painting the Word by John Drury.

I find the four main pictures that I am going to show you spiritually nourishing much in the same way as I find some passages in scripture, some liturgy, some sermons, some books, spiritually nourishing.   We take it for granted that the written and spoken word is helpful in our spiritual life.  Indeed in most services there are a lot of words of different types, readings from the Bible, sermons about those readings, prayers, etc.   And we are also used to music as being an important part of our worship in the form of hymns and songs and sometimes musical items without words.   But art, too, has always played some part in the Christian life if only in the form of stained glass windows, pictures and sculpture that we find when entering our churches

The underlying assumption behind this sermons is that art can both challenge and console us with the good news of God’s involvement in the world in the same way as words.   And in this sermon I want to suggest that some art which is not obviously ‘Christian’ can challenge and console us with the gospel just as much as that art which obviously has a Christian intention behind it.  

Now we feel most comfortable about bringing art into church when it is distinctively Christian.   The most distinctively Christian art is art which in some way or other represents the words to be found in the Bible.   So in this church we have a picture of our patron saint - St Matthew - in our one stained-glass window over there.   And here, behind me, a copy of a picture painted by Rembrandt of an event in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son [*].   And you’ll probably all know by now that we are planning on hanging a new stained glass cross, from the central beam of the church – a cross made by X who worships here.   It’s a cross rather than a star or a circle, because Jesus was crucified on a cross.  

Today I am only going to be taking about painting rather than some of the other visual arts such as sculpture and architecture, and there is a lot that might be said about this picture, but instead I’d like to talk about this picture: [*] Antonello da Messina’s Christ Crucified as a clear example of Christian art.

I think the impact of this little panel – 17 inches by 10 – comes from the emptiness which surrounds
the pale and exhausted body of Jesus.   It is not a completely realistic paining of course.   Even less realistic than Rembrandt’s picture of the Prodigal Son.   Virtually all artists – when representing scenes from the Bible – present those scenes against a background that they and their audience are familiar with – in this case Southern Italy in around 1500.   And they tend to clothe the people they are representing in contemporary clothes.   Of course this is no mistake.   Antonello would have been aware that people in different countries and at different times in history wear different clothes.

But Antonello’s most obvious distortion of reality is to make the cross much taller than it probably was and of necessity dictated.   This was a way of depicting what Jesus says of his impending death in John’s Gospel: ‘And, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’ echoing Isiah’s prophecy: ‘See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high’.

By raising him into the heavens painters gave Jesus’ suffering a certain transcendental monumentality but Antonello refuses the further step, taken by so many more famous painters, of rending Christ’s body as beautiful.  Here Jesus’ arms are emaciated, his head hangs low, and his legs taper down to the nailed feet without any interesting curves. [*]

Antonello also resists the temptation of having Mary and John standing on either side of the cross in attitudes of devout and wondering pathos.  Here are two people for whom it has all been too much and too long, so they sit, slumped on the bare ground.  John has the aspect and posture of someone who has gazed for a long time at his dying master for some sign of grace and meaning.  His raised head and hand pose the question: why?  Mary no longer asks why: she has given up on questions.  She is just consumed by grief without hope.

From beyond the hill three women approach [*].  They are probably the three Marys: Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Mary the wife of Cleopas who according to Mark were looking on.   But even further away there is a fortified harbour to a town, part of which can be seen on the left [*].   The people at this port are worth looking at for a moment.  Some are out in little boats, some congregate round the gateway to the harbour as is usual for gateways.   A mounted party is returning to town.   They are quite unconcerned with the tragedy in the foreground.  As WH Auden says in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts:
               About suffering they were never wrong           
               The Old Masters: how well they understood
               Its human position, how it takes place
               While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

[*] If we look into this painting, rather than just at it, how well we find it illustrates the events of Good Friday with their apparent annihilation of meaning, hopes and coherences

As I said at the beginning of this sermon it is not just art that just depicts the events recorded in the Bible that is spiritually nourishing.   Christian artists, over the years, have explored the connection between Biblical stories and their lives as they experience them in much the same way as preachers of sermons often end by talking about what the passage means for the way we lead our lives today.

This is as if Antonello were to bring his background – of people going about their everyday lives - into the foreground and to move the biblical story into the background.   And here is a painting – by the Spanish artist Velazquez that does just that [*].  Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary painted in 1618.  That long-winded title is needed to cover the two related scenes depicted.   The cooking in the foreground is apparently going on at the same time as what can be seen through the serving hatch: a scene from the story in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus goes to stay with his friends Mary and Martha.
This is entitled

You’ll remember that in that story Martha complains to Jesus that her sister Mary has been sitting at Jesus feet listening to him leaving her, Martha, to do all the household chores by herself.   [*] In Velasquez’ paining we see Jesus rebuking Martha (standing on the right) emphasised by the gesture of his raised left hand.   It fends off Martha and protects Mary.   In Luke’s gospel Jesus is recorded as saying ‘Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things, there is a need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her.’   Velazquez does not need to paint these words.   If we are familiar with the story we can hear Jesus saying them.   Many people down the years have been challenged by what Jesus says here and its emphasis on the importance of the contemplative life as opposed to the active life.

Velazquez treatment of the story is rather sketchy   He hasn’t taken much care over the figures of Jesus, Mary and Martha and you can’t really see what they are thinking.   He is much more concerned about the scene in the foreground, but what is going here is clearly related to the biblical scene in the background [*].
Jesus’s raised hand is echoed by the raised hand of the old woman on the left and the crooked index finger of that hand points to what is being said in the room beyond.   Speech is implied here but what is being said?   Well we can see that the young servant girl – making a meal in just the same way as Martha had been doing earlier – is clearly upset by what has just been said to her.   It seems clear that the old woman has said something similar to what Jesus has just been saying to Martha: that cooking and so forth is the lesser part – the part of life which is least important.

In Velazquez’ time the life of a serving girl was harsh.   The choices for her in 17th Century Spain were few.   She is facing a lifetime of Martha’s hard work in the knowledge that it is not the ‘better part’.   Velazquez is clearly sympathetic to her plight and by taking her side in this picture seems to be on uneasy terms with his text: ‘Mary has chosen the better part.’   Though perhaps this is not the end of the matter.   Velazquez also appears not unsympathetic to the older woman seemingly passing on Jesus’ words to the younger women – as if, in the end she, in her more mature years, has come to terms with them.   Here is, if you like, a visual, rather than spoken sermon, on that text that many still find challenging. 

One further comment on this painting: the compassion in Velazquez’ treatment of the two women in the foreground of this painting is clear.   His sympathy for the younger women in particular is obvious and it’s as if he is saying that what primarily matters is what this women is feeling here and now and that the scriptures, like the Sabbath, were ‘made for man’ and not man for the scriptures.  That the human and material world to which the Bible addresses itself so continuously and urgently is as important as the words of the text.  

And in this connection we might note the sea-bass in the bottom right of the picture [*].   Never before had sea-bass been painted like these.   They are the fishiest of fish.   To take them in with the eye is to know exactly what they would feel and smell like.  To use a theological expression they are almost made incarnate. 

And in doing so they seem, to me, to comment on the great mystery of The Incarnation: how could it be that the man sketchily portrayed in the background of this painting was also God who made these fish.  Art – even when it ‘merely’ depicts the material world can speak of God as we can feel when we look at a sunset or at the stars.   Gerard Manley Hopkins says in his poem As kingfishers catch fire:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Now art that is explicitly Christian might seem to be a thing of the past, but there have been painters of Biblical scenes throughout all ages up to the present day and we might look at one of those.   But instead I want to turn to two pictures of what on the face of it might seem to have little to do with Biblical texts.   The first is a picture of a gardener called Vallier sitting in his garden and painted by Cezanne - which might be viewed as merely a picture of an old man unless we look at it more carefully [*].

Gardens, of course, figure quite extensively in the Bible even if somewhat ‘under the radar’.  In the book of Genesis human beings – in the shape of Adam and Eve - are created to live in a garden – the Garden of Eden – and are driven out of that garden when they disobey God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.   And in the Gospel of John it is specifically mentioned that the tomb where Jesus is buried is located in a garden and that Mary, when the risen Jesus first appears to her, mistakes him for the gardener.   This is surely not just a co-incidence.

Gardens have always, it seems, had a deeper significance than is perhaps generally recognised.   One reason for this is that they are neither entirely natural nor entirely under human control.   They are neither the untamed wilderness nor the carefully controlled environments of our homes where, by virtue of walls, a roof, doors, windows and modern day devices such as central-heating and refrigerators, we protect ourselves from the wind, rain, cold and heat.   

The garden is not just there to supply our basic needs for food and clothes: those parts of our world are called farms.   Gardens - with their paths, their pools, their trees, flowers and fruit– are also for our delight not just our good.  They are perhaps even for our spiritual nourishment – in a similar fashion to art.   To quote the Victorian poet Dorothy Frances Gurney. ‘One is nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’

The reason for this special feature of gardens is that they are so self-evidently (at least to Christians) a gift which evokes not just feelings of enjoyment but also of gratitude.   We know, that however much we work we have put into our gardens: planting, weeding and in my case strimming, the final result is not, at its heart, down to us.

The British philosopher David Cooper – in his book A Philosophy of Gardens – points out that the whole concept of a garden implies a kind of unity or intimate co-dependence between human beings and the natural world.    For this reason I think many painters have been drawn to the garden as a subject for their art because art, at its best, is also one of co-dependence - in this case co-dependence between the artist and his or her materials and subject matter.  Perhaps the most famous garden paintings are those by Monet of his garden at Giverny.   Here is one example.  [*]

But this paining – fantastically well executed and beautiful as it is – does not particularly illustrate the inter-dependence between the gardener and nature.  There is little suggestion of the relationship between the garden and of the natural world here: you cannot even see the sky.   Cezanne in his paintings of gardens frequently contrasts the garden with the world beyond.   Here is one such example: [*] his painting of the garden of his family home Jas de Bouffan at Aix.  This is the garden in winter with the trees leafless.  Beyond you can see the country side.   In this picture Cézanne seeks to evoke the atmosphere of the garden: it’s not merely (or even particularly) the beauty of the garden that he is seeking to portray.   

In one of Cezanne’s last pictures, that of his garden at Les Lauves [*] – the garden in which his gardener Valiier worked - the garden has been reduced to a strip of green in the foreground, a wall, some countryside in the background and the sky as if to investigate the concept of a garden and not merely to portray a particular one.

But Cezanne’s picture of Vallier best illustrates the deeper significance of gardens and gardening.  Here the gardener sits in the garden by a wall in summer in the shade of a tree.  He is clearly at one with his garden as he seems to merge with it.  Here is the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s poem about this painting:
     The thoughtfully serene, the urgent
     stillness of the form of the old gardener,
     Vallier, who tends the inconspicuous on the Chemin des Lauves,

     In the late work of the painter the twofoldness
     of what is present and is presence has become
     one, ‘realised’ and overcome at the same time,
     transformed into a mystery filled identity

Heidegger’s point is the rather simple one but important nevertheless that there is a fundamental rightness and therefore serenity in the gardener caring for living things in response to their needs and demands.   Putting it this ways already implies a spiritual dimension to gardening if only because virtues such as discipline, humility and hope are needed to bring that co-dependence between the gardener and his or her garden to fruition in flower and harvest.   That makes it appropriate to call gardening a kind of spiritual activity and by extension many another activity which we call work.  
Neither Cooper nor Heidegger and possibly not even Cezanne would see this co-dependence between human life and the natural world – epitomised by the garden - as also necessitating a co-dependence between humans and God but we Christians might.

The final picture I want to look as a painting entitled View of Osterbro from Dosseringen by the nineteenth century Danish artist Christen Kobke.   Its subject matter has seemingly even less relation to Christian symbolism than pictures of gardeners and gardens.  And although lakes and boats do feature quite a lot in the Biblical stories I think it would be stretching it to argue that Kobke has those lakes and boats consciously in mind.

A calm sense of the benignity of the world is captured in this painting.   It depicts a weekend outing of an ordinary family as they relax on their small sailing dingy moored near Copenhagen.  The mood of the painting is finely evoked by the Alain de Boton and John Armstrong in their book Art as Therapy:

The light in the picture is tremendously meaningful, even though it is difficult to say what the meaning is.  One wants to point at the picture and say ‘When the light is like this, I feel like that.’ Kobke has created an image that is in love with nothing happening. The child hangs over the rails, the man in a top hat looks on while his friend makes some adjustment to the bottom of the furled sail.  The women say something to one another. Life is going on, but there is no drama, no expectation of an outcome, no sense of getting anywhere.  Rather than being a condition of boredom or frustration, though, it feels exactly right.   It is tranquil but not tired.  It is immensely peaceful but not inert.   In a strange way, the picture is filled with a sense of delight in existence expressed quietly.

Art is clearly capable of expressing such simple delight in existence – as perhaps we have already seen in the case of Velazquez’ fish.   But, as John Cottingham points out, there is surely something more at issue here, which De Botton and Armstrong’s discussion skirts around but does not quite bring out.   Is what is conveyed by the painting merely a sense of calm repose, or is there (as the phrases ‘tremendously meaningful’ and ‘exactly right’ perhaps hint at) a deeper tranquillity, a sense of being at one with the rest of creation?  If it is the latter, then the feeling evoked is something akin to what has been called ‘ontological rootedness’ a conviction that we are somehow secure ‘at home’ in the world or in other words that God is with us

Of course this feeling that we are ‘at home’ in the world, that God is with us, does not mean that we have some sort of immunity from trouble as any sort of reading the Bible teaches us and as illustrated in the many pictures of suffering, including that by Antonello, we looked at, at the beginning of this sermon.

Nevertheless this painting perhaps provides some sort of antidote to the loss of meaning depicted in Antonello’s picture.  Here I think is a picture of resurrection and of hope without being obviously so.

Monday, 14 March 2016

"Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others"

Readings: Jonah 1 – 2: 10,  Luke 7: 36-50

This is the fourth in a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and in preparing for it I have been asking people which verse in the Lord’s Prayer they think is the most important.   And perhaps – at this point we should all pause and reflect for ourselves which we think is the most important verse. 


Well what did you decide?    Perhaps the first verse – ‘Our Father in Heaven’ - because it is the first.   If you haven’t eaten recently perhaps you went for ‘Give us today our daily bread’.   But I hope – some of you at least - came to the conclusion that it is a stupid question because, of course, no verse in the Lord’s Prayer is any more important than any other and that includes the verse we have come to today: ‘Forgive us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us’.   But having coming to this verse in our sermon series, we do, of course, need to concentrate it upon it.

In this sermon I want to discuss three questions in relation to this verse:
Firstly: what do we mean by sin?
Secondly: what do we mean by forgiveness?
Thirdly: what is the connection between the first half of the verse ‘forgive us our sins’ and the second ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’?

So, firstly, what is sin?  Now those of you who heard Steve’s – our vicar’s - excellent sermon on sin at this year’s carol service will need no reminding.  At the end of the carol service someone said to him, ‘Steve, I am so glad that you disobeyed the Church Times’.   Apparently: earlier that week the Church Times had run an article exhorting preachers at carol services to avoid the subject of sin because irregular church goers might be put off by such a subject.  

Of course you won’t have forgotten what Steve said but I’ll remind you anyway.   Basically Steve said that when Christians talk about sin they are expressing three basic convictions, that:
1.      Something is wrong and needs restoring, fixing, sorting, personally, relationally, and globally.  
2.      And that that something is not just in other people but is an issue in all of us.      
3.      Our moral wrongdoing is not only about harming ourselves, or other people, or the planet, but is an offence against the God who made us.  

But I guess that the Church Times article reflects the fact that sin is not as fashionable a subject for sermons as it used to be.  Sin is of course a religious term that you now hardly ever hear out of church.   But is the fact that sin as a subject for sermons is on the wane a good thing?  Actually I do think it is - but not because the use of the word sin might discourage people from coming to church.   Rather because I think forgiveness of sins – whilst being an important part of the good news that is the gospel - is not the whole of that good news.    It’s only one verse in the Lord’s Prayer.  Now this might sound controversial to some but bear with me and, of course, feel free to disagree with me.

In the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service – a service which we hold most Sundays at 8 o’clock at St Matthew’s - the topic of sin comes up in virtually every part of the services: the Collect for Purity, the Prayer of Humble Access, the Prayer of Consecration, the Prayer of Oblation, the Gloria and of course the Confession.   This isn't to discourage you from coming to this 8 o’clock service by the way.

Not all churches have made sin the central focus of their liturgy and their sermons.   And perhaps it’s just me who seems to have been subjected disproportionally, over the course of my life to, what are known in my family, as ‘I in sin’ sermons.   

The basic and take-home message of such a sermon was/is that: We all have sinned.   Sin cuts us off from God.   Jesus cane to save us from this situation.   Through his death on the cross we can, if we have faith, be restored in our relationship with God.   If we truly accept this we will go to Heaven instead of to Hell.   They are called ‘I in sin’ sermons in my family because in such sermons it was common to point out the ‘coincidence’ that the letter I – which is, of course, also the first person personal pronoun - is in the middle of the word S I N – sin.  This was to reinforce the sermon’s message that we are all enmeshed, downing in sin or some such appropriate metaphor.

I should, at this point, say that is of course a caricature of a certain type of sermon which is very rare indeed at St Matthew’s so what I am about to say should not be taken as criticism of sermons here.

These I in sin sermons used to leave me feeling more doubtful and guilty than anything else.   They made the gospel all sound so simple but I could never be sure whether I believed it sufficiently or not: whether I had enough faith.   My problem was that I had come to a growing awareness of the existence of God but I wasn’t utterly certain of what God’s existence meant for me.  I doubted – and I still am not sure - that salvation is just or even mainly about salvation from sin.

I also wasn’t at all sure I was as sinful as all that.  These sermons seemed to be suggesting that I was – in the eyes of God – a wicked, unworthy, miserable offender even if I had been saved (and I wasn’t entirely sure that I was).   I didn’t feel particularly wicked.   OK I knew I wasn’t perfect.   But when I checked out, say, the 10 commandments or the seven deadly sins I seemed to doing OKish even with Jesus’ qualifications about sinning in your thoughts as well as by deed.   I also didn’t really want to feel unworthy.   Depending on my stage in life I thought I was doing reasonably well at school, at my job, at being a parent   OK, again, I hadn’t done as well as perhaps I could have.   And I didn’t feel particularly miserable about my sins either.  I always left the church- after such a sermon - feeling guilty about not feeling more guilty. 

I think if you go back and look at the basic message of such ‘I in sin’ sermons’ you can see there are several things missing.   To remind you: their take-away message was:  ‘We all have sinned.   Sin cuts us off from God.   Jesus cane to save us from this situation.   Through his death on the cross we can, if we have faith, be restored in our relationship with God.   If we truly accept this we will go to Heaven instead of to Hell.’  

Firstly this account misses out both the life and the resurrection of Jesus as if they are of lesser importance than his death.   Of course the cross is central to the good news that is the Gospel but Jesus’ crucifixion needs to be seen in the light of his resurrection otherwise where is the assurance that the cross had or has any meaning at all.  Furthermore the crucifixion and the resurrection make no real sense unless we can see who Jesus was though the accounts of his life.

Secondly there is no mention of love here and in particular God’s love for us.   If we are all wicked, unworthy, miserable offenders why would God – in the shape of Jesus - want to die for us?   The answer is that God loves us and he loves us because we are loveable.  And we are loveable because God made us in his image.  An image that may be marred but not entirely covered up. 
Thirdly this message seems to all about the future: what happens when we die – and tells us nothing about Jesus’ saving work in the here and now.

Fourthly and perhaps most importantly in relation to today’s sermon - this basic story doesn’t really mention forgiveness.   OK forgiveness might be implicit in the message.  The idea that Jesus’ death on the cross restores our relationship with God implies, somehow, that henceforth our sins provide no barrier to that relationship.  But does this mean those sins are forgiven or what?   

Which brings me to my second question: what is forgiveness?  But before seeking to answer this question and perhaps it doesn’t need saying but I’ll say it anyway: ‘God can and does forgive us’.  This ability on God’s part is assumed when we ask him to forgive us when we say ‘Forgive us our sins’ as part of the Lord’s Prayer and indeed similar words in our ‘Confessions’ - which are integral part of all our services.   We are going to say a Confession later.  

But then I think we can distinguish two sorts of forgiveness: one that might be called forensic or technical and one that is felt.   There is a type of forgiveness which seems to be a technicality but not felt on the part of the person who is the forgiven and perhaps even the forgiver.   

Going back to those ‘I in sin’ sermons just for a moment.  And I really do want to leave them behind.  Does the restoration of our relationship with God through the cross mean that our sins have been covered up or washed away or what?  

I prefer the idea that our sins are washed away – as in Psalm 51 verse 2 where the psalmist asks God to ‘Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin’.  But the idea of covering up our sins rather than washing them away is also common.  Psalm 31: 1 says ‘Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven whose sin is covered.’   [And this is verse quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans [4:7]] 

Now asking God to cover up our sins and him doing so without removing our sins – is a type of technical forgiveness.  But I also think we can experience God’s forgiveness – and indeed need desperately to do so.    If nothing else I would like you to leave this service today with the more certain knowledge and hopefully feeling that you are forgiven.

But how are we to feel/experience God’s forgiveness.   I have been scouring the Bible for stories of forgiveness to see if we can learn more from them.   There are, if you begin to think about it, hundreds of stories about forgiveness – or rather hundreds of stories where forgiveness is an aspect of people’s encounter with God and in particular Jesus.   Jesus also tells stories of forgiveness in his parables.   The picture behind me – of the return of the Prodigal Son – depicts an act of forgiveness. We have, in our readings today two stories of forgiveness.  

First the Old Testament story of Jonah.  Actually the whole of the book of Jonah is about forgiveness but Michael read to us just the first half.   The bit where Jonah deliberately disobeys God’s instructions to go to Nineveh and ‘cry out against the wickedness’ of the people there.   In consequence Jonah gets swallowed by a whale.   Jonah begs God for his forgiveness, God gives him that forgiveness and rescues him from the belly of the whale and Jonah proceeds to obey God’s previous instructions.  Nowhere in Jonah does it say that God forgave Jonah for his disobedience but we can see that God did through his action in rescuing Jonah. 

The second story – from the New Testament – tells the story of a so-called ‘sinful’ women who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume.   In this story we don’t know what the woman had done to be labelled sinful.  What these sins were isn’t important to the story.   What is important is that Jesus gracefully accepts the woman’s gift and tells the woman that her sins are forgiven and to go in peace.

The two stories about forgiveness are, in some ways, quite different.  In the first we know what the fault was, in the second we don’t.   In the first there is no pronouncement of forgiveness but in the second there is.   In the first the forgiveness comes in the form of an action on God’s part: his rescue of Jonah from the belly of the whale.  In the second we know nothing about what happens to the women after Jesus has forgiven here only that she was to ‘go in peace’. 

But the two stories do also have some fundamental similarities: both are basically about relationships between God and human beings that come to be restored – not primarily though the action of the human participants in the stories but through the action of God.   Even so the actions of the human participants are important.   Jonah has to ask to be rescued.  The woman has to buy the perfume and interrupt a party.  They also show us that God cares for us who we are – warts and all.   He wants us to be and do certain things in a different, better ways but he also rescues from the consequences of sin:  guilt and shame.  

Now these two things: guilt and shame are quite different.   Crudely speaking we can see guilt as a good thing – it’s an emotion that tells the person that he or she has done something wrong, that they need, if possible, to repair the wrong and to do things differently in the future.   Shame on the other hand is generally a bad thing.   It’s not necessarily related to anything immoral that we have done.   For example many people these days feel ashamed of their bodies when they have done nothing wrong to justify feelings of guilt.  Similarly many are ashamed of their gender or sexuality when this is inappropriate.   Shame is related to sin – but this is likely to be the sin of others rather than the person themself.

In our first Bible story we know that Jonah disobeyed God in a specific action – setting off in different direction to Nineveh.  Jonah’s guilt was relieved when he repented and turned to God.  In our second Bible study we do not know what the woman had done.   It is perhaps clear that she was ashamed in that she wept, yet Jesus accepted her for what she was and relieved her of her shame.  I think shame is much more common than might be thought.    Most people don’t talk about what they are ashamed of.  What I think is clear to everyone is that we all need more relief from guilt and shame.   And this relief is a promise of God.  

So finally the relationship between the first half of the verse ‘forgive us our sins’ and the second ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’? Again – as with choosing the most important verse in the Lord’s Prayer -one might be tempted to think that the first half of this verse is more important than the second.  Surely, you might say, it’s more important for God to forgive us than for us to forgive other people.   Actually I don’t think it is.  These are two halves of one verse and one half of the verse is no more or less important than the other.

But the problem I have always had with the second half of this verse is understanding quite what it means.  Does it mean that God forgives us in the same way as we forgive other people, or that if we are to be forgiven by God we must forgive others?   The first reading seems problematic because clearly we are good at forgiveness ourselves and God is surely so much better at it than we are.   The second reading is a problem because it seems to suggest that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon something we do – albeit related to forgiveness.

Matthew clearly recognises that there might be a problem with this verse and after giving us the Lord’s Prayer he adds a couple of verses seemingly to explain it.   He records Jesus as saying: ‘For if you forgive others their sins your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins’.  [Matthew 6: verses 14 and 15.]

This makes the second of the two ways of reading this verse: that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiveness of others more likely and if so it makes any simple model of forgiveness – such as all we need to obtain God’s forgiveness is to have faith in it - somewhat doubtful.  

But it also means that God’s forgiveness isn’t just a personal thing but something which binds communities together.   We forgive because we have been forgiven and we dare to ask for forgiveness because we forgive.   St Augustine called this verse in the Lord’s Prayer that we are thinking about today a terrible petition because of the burden he thought it put on those who pray it.   He thought it meant that if we asked God for forgiveness with an unforgiving heart we are, in effect, asking him not forgive us.   But if you see the verse as a request to God for help with our forgiveness of others then it becomes less terrible.

So to summarise. In this sermon I have talked about what I think sin and forgiveness are.  Or rather Steve told us what sin is at the carol service and I have tried to say that the concept of sin is not as important to the Gospel as it can be made out to be. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is something we need to experience more of.  I hope that doesn’t sound paradoxical.  I think we even need more forgiveness for imagined sins for which we are ashamed.  We need more forgiveness: both from God and for each other.  Forgiveness from God is a gift – a costly gift – we should accept it with gratitude and it's wroth praying for.