Monday, 19 December 2011

Does God grant fine weather for church fĂȘtes?

Sermon on Philippians 4: 4-7, St Matthew’s, 18th December 2011

The verse I’d like to pick out for comment today is a verse from our Epistle reading – Chapter 4 Verse 6 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians: ‘Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God’.

I’d like to focus on this verse because I have been thinking about petitionary prayer recently in the light of an ongoing discussion I’ve been having with various people about God’s omnipotence and omniscience.

Although a debate about what we mean by God’s omnipotence and omniscience might seem a bit esoteric, I do think it’s an important debate because what we decide affects what we think we are doing when we pray for things to happen and what we can legitimately pray for. In this sermon I would like to say something about each of these in turn.

I would like to argue firstly that in petitionary prayer we can persuade God to do change his mind and secondly miracles do happen and it’s OK to pray for a miracle.

But back to omnipotence and omniscience for a moment. The basic dilemma for me is this: if God is omnipotent - in the usual meaning of that word (ITUMOTW) - then he is in control of everything including all that has happened and is going to happen in the future. Indeed he might be said to have already caused everything that has happened including some horrendous evils such as the Holocaust and the crucifixion of his son. This I find difficult to accept.

Furthermore if God is omnipotent – in the usual meaning of that word – he has already – in a sense – foreordained everything that is going to happen and therefore knows what is going to happen. He is omniscient. So what is the point of petitionary prayer? Why, in Paul’s word’s should we let our requests be known to God if he knows what we want already and he knows whether he is going to answer that prayer or not?

One common answer to this conundrum is that what we are doing in prayer is somehow bringing our desires in line with those of God’s. In other words prayer is not so much telling God what he already knows but our learning from him what he thinks. This makes prayer an odd sort of conversation. Here is such a conversation with an omnipotent (ITUMOTW) and omniscient God

Me: Please God could we have fine weather for the Church fete next Saturday.

God: Mike: you know from the weather forecast that it will probably rain.

Me: I know that, and you know that I know that, but that’s why I am praying for fine weather.

God: But Farmer Jones in the next village has just prayed for rain. And I know that his need is greater than yours.

Me: Ah I see. So I don’t suppose there anything I could say to persuade you that our need is greater than Farmer Jones’s: the immanent closure of the local Adventure Play ground we are raising money for, for example.

God: Nope.

Me: Ah well.

This seems to me a rather unsatisfactory conversation. A more satisfactory conversation with God would surely run like this.

Me: Please God could we have fine weather for the Church fete next Saturday.

God: Mike: you know from the weather forecast that it will probably rain.

Me: I know that, and you know that I know that, but that’s why I am praying for fine weather.

God: But Farmer Jones in the next village has just prayed for rain. And I think that his need is greater than yours.

Me: Is there anything I could say to persuade you that our need is greater than Farmer Jones’s: the immanent closure of the local Adventure Play ground we are raising money for, for example.

God: I’ll look into it.

Of course if this sort of conversation is more like real prayer than the first then it follows that a) we stand some chance of persuading God to do things that he wouldn’t have otherwise done and b) he can intervene in our lives and indeed his creation – including the weather - in ways which are miraculous.

I have argued before that one of the reasons why I think God is persuadable is, paradoxically perhaps, that he isn’t entirely in control of everything and doesn’t therefore know about everything and that is because he has given us free will. This means that God’s decisions are contingent upon our decisions to some extent. And it also means that he does not necessarily know everything that is going to happen – is not omniscient.

In the imaginary conversation above, God may will not yet know what the local Council are going to do in relation to funding for the Adventure Playground – because the relevant meeting has not yet taken place and the relevant free choices have not been made. In which case God’s decision about the rain is still be open at the time of my prayer.

In sum I think petitionary prayer – even for fine weather at church fetes –sometimes works because God has yet to make up his mind what is going to happen. And by works I do mean efficacious. I realise that it is somewhat piously said that God answers all our prayers but in the way he wants not the way we want. But this to me is a sort of cop out. It seems to me to suggest that our desires do not matter to God.

And here is a bit of a diversion about prayers for fine weather at church fetes. It is surprising how often this turns up as an example of the sort of prayer a mature Christian would not and should not make. It’s an interesting sort of prayer because we know that if it is fine for our fete that won’t be good for someone else – a local farmer is usually wheeled in here – so in making the prayer we are asking for the impossible – a miracle if you like. And perhaps this is why it is selected as an example of a faintly ridiculous sort of prayer. For of course it is always much easier to pray for what is possible - the non-miraculous. But I’ll come back to asking for miracles in prayer later.

We mature Christians also know, of course, that God is more interested in prayers for other people rather than ourselves. Church fetes score a few points on the worthiness scale here because it’s not just us who will enjoy the event more if the weather is fine t but all those others who will attend. But in praying for others we tend to feel our prayers should be for serious problems like big life decisions or serious diseases. We presume God’s not interested in minor colds or how people are going to find time to do all the things they need to do before Christmas or whether or not people are going to get wet at the church fete?

Note that in our reading Paul says that ‘in everything’ not just ‘in serious things’ we should, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let our requests be known to God’. Furthermore he doesn’t say ‘requests for other people’ or even ‘requests we think God will answer’ but – at least by implication – all our requests – whether we think God is interested in them or not.

So one reason why I think we should let God know our requests is that we cannot predict how God might answer them. And indeed God cannot entirely do so either even though his knowledge is infinitely greater than ours. I also think it is somewhat presumptuous of us, even arrogant, to suggest which aspects of our lives God is interested in and to predict how God might answer prayers about our concerns.

And this is where miracle comes in. An omnipotent God (ITUMOTW – is to my mind dangerously close to an absent God. If God fore-ordained everything from the start what need is there for miracles? If for example God - from the very beginning - planned for the Israelites to escape from Egypt via the Red Sea, he would have known when would be the best time for them to cross over without any need for a miraculous parting of that sea. We now know that there are certain freak weather conditions which make the Red Sea passable on occasion.

The Bible is full of miracles and at the heart of the Christian story is a miracle: a baby born in a stable who was somehow God. Furthermore when that baby grew up the miraculous seemed to happen all around him. When people asked him for healing from serious illness it happened, the winds and waves appeared to obey him and when he died he miraculously rose from the grave.

It is extremely difficult I think to explain away all miracle and still be left with a meaningful Bible. And in any case I am not sure that the miraculous is –even nowadays – is as exceptional as we might think. If we look we can see miracles all around us. We sometimes see or even experience healings from diseases where there would seem to be no hope of a cure. Sometimes even the weather changes seemingly as a result of prayer.

Note that the parting of the Red Sea was a weather-related miracle in response to a prayer from Moses and so too were some of the miracles of Jesus such as his calming of the storm. John Taylor – in The Christlike God – tells this story of a weather-related miracle.

‘Forty years ago my wife, Peggy and I were climbing a mountain in East Africa with four friends. After a night in a mountain hut the others set out to make for the summit while we prepared food and water for the evening meal; then we went after them. We go up without encountering them but this did not surprise us as they had been gone some time. When we started back I made a reckless blunder. Forgetting that the summit had been a constant landmark and the return would be without one, I suggested a short cut across the wide arc we had come by. We lost our bearings, got into very rough terrain and had to cringe under an overhanging cliff while a black thunderstorm drenched us. When it passed I looked in all directions with no idea where the hut lay, and appalled realisation of what I had done. In a very small voice Peggy said, ‘We’re lost, aren’t we?’

‘I said, ‘Yes. I’m dreadfully sorry, it’s my fault.’

‘She said, her voice quite steady, ‘I’m frightened, John.’

‘‘So am I’ was all I could answer.

‘And then she said, ‘Well. It is Whitsunday,‘ and at that instant a beam of sunlight struck though the cloud and shone for a few seconds on the hut about two miles away, reflected dazzlingly from its aluminium roof, giving us our bearings. It was the most direct act of Good I have personally experienced.’

But Taylor does not stop there he goes on immediately to say, ‘but the miracle did not happen up there in the grey sky. The break in the cloud was going to happen anyway.’ I am not so certain. Is it so difficult to believe that God could cause a break in the cloud? We now know from Chaos Theory that it only takes a butterfly to flap its wing in Indonesia for the weather to change in East Africa.

Taylor says ‘What I know for certain is that, had I characteristically been protesting that we could still find our way, and had Peggy retorted, with justice, ‘How could you be such a fool?’, we would have been glaring at each other and would never have seen that pointing shaft of light. The miracle was in us, they almost always are’.

Why is John Taylor so certain that the miracle was in the changing of the usual dispositions of the two people here rather than break in the cloud? Which miracle is harder to believe? Is it so much harder for God to change the nerve impulse of a butterfly in Indonesia so that it flaps its wing than the nerve impulse(s) of two people in East Africa so that they would look at the relevant spot rather than be glaring at one another.

Perhaps miracles in answer to prayer happen all the time. Perhaps our problem is that we don’t see the miraculous answers.

So to summarise. And perhaps it has taken me a long time to state the obvious . But firstly God listens to our prayers and sometimes answers our requests and secondly it may take a miracle to answer some of our requests but that’s no excuse for not making our requests known to God. Miracles sometimes happen. So with Paul I say,‘Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God’.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Omniscience or does God know everthing?

Sermon on Romans 15: 4-13 and Luke 21: 25-33, St Matthew’s, 4th December 2011

Yet again I am not going to say much about the two readings for today. This is partly because I preached on the Gospel reading last Sunday and you can read that sermon on my blog. I don’t think I have anything much to say about the second coming than I said there. And though I have had a few conversations about my sermon I haven’t really changed my views.

Today I would like instead to say a little about God’s omniscience: the idea that God knows everything including the future. There is sort of a connection with today’s readings in that both contain prophecies. In the Epistle reading Paul quotes a prophecy of Isaiah which seems to have already come to pass to some extent. Isaiah predicts that ‘a root of Jesse’ (Paul clearly has Jesus in mind) ‘shall rise to rule over the Gentiles’. The Gospel reading gives us a I sermon of Jesus where he is talking about the end times and spells out that ‘they shall see the Son of Man coming in a power with power and great glory’.

Prophecy implies – at least to some extent – knowledge of the future. The prophets of the Old Testament – according to the Old Testament writers get this knowledge from God. Jesus –according to the Gospel writers – clearly has foreknowledge: he predicts his death and what will happen after his death – and the Gospel writers clearly assume that this knowledge comes from God too.

In coming to understand that Jesus was God I think we are right to assume that this power of prophecy is an aspect of his nature as God and yet Jesus never seems entirely certain what is going to happen. When in the Garden of Gethsemane, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus prays ‘Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.’ he seems to know clearly what is likely to happen him but yet hopes for a different future which is surely still open at that point.

A well known text from Isaiah states: ‘I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come’ (Isaiah 46: 9-10). The Bible contains numerous examples of prophecies many of which have already been fulfilled but not all of prophecies are. For example Jonah predicts God’s destruction of Nineveh (Jonah 3: 4) but in the event the people of Nineveh repent and God does not destroy Nineveh. God changes his mind. And there are many other examples of these so-called conditional prophecies. A prophecy then may express God’s general intention for and knowledge of the future but what actually happens can depend on what humans do. I am coming to think that whatever the prophecy the outcome may depend on what God (and to a lesser extent humans) in the event do. That the outcome is never certain –even for God.

God – clearly has extraordinary knowledge – but the question for me is whether he can know everything that is going to happen including what we humans are going to do before we do it. The omniscience of God relates to the omnipotence of God – on which I preached about two Sundays ago. I said then that I thought I don’t think God is omnipotent in the sense that many Christians have traditionally regarded him. And this leads me also to question whether God is omniscient in the traditional sense of that word.

I have been reading a bit about God’s omniscience over the last few weeks and in particular a book Steve has leant me – called the Openness of God by Clark Pennock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker and David Basinger. This book makes it clear that our traditional understanding of God’s omnipotence, omniscience, unchangeablity, etc, is not necessarily Biblical but is largely derived from the ideas of the Greek philosophers – particularly Plato and Aristotle. The early Church Fathers such as Augustine took these ideas and mixed them together with Biblical ideas and came up with what we have come to regard as the orthodox view of the nature of God. This view has remained largely unchallenged by theologians until recently.

Now some of these theologians have realised that an omniscient God is needs to be reconciled with human freedom. If God knows everything we are going to do in advance of what we are going to do then we are in a sense predestined to do what we are going to do and we do not have freedom to do other than what God knows we will do. However for me human freedom is compatible with an omniscient God. This is because I do not think God’s knowledge is the cause of future events. God could simply see what is going to happen and human beings use their freedom in the way God predicts. Whether human beings choose to have faith in God or whether God gives human beings faith in him is of course a separate but related question. I am inclined to the view that faith is a gift from God. But that is a different sermon.

My main problem with the idea of an omniscient God is that it seems to me to be in conflict with the idea of an all loving God. This is because I think love is a two way process – a relationship. Yes God’s love for us is infinitely greater than our love for him but there is a sense in which a lover needs a loved one for there to be love. God created his creation not because he needed to but out of love. Furthermore God has given us - the pinnacle of his creation -freedom to love him. He now needs us to love him if he is to love us in the way that he desires i.e. that we freely choose to love him. He cannot compel us to love him –as love by definition cannot involve compulsion - and this means he cannot know in advance whether or not we are going to do so. If he did know in advance that we would love him then he would not experience love as love.

Of course this presupposes that love needs to be felt and God has feelings of love. This might seem that I am anthropomorphising God – making God out to have emotions like we humans do. That I think God has feelings is not unreasonable from any cursory reading of the Bible. The God of the Old Testament clearly experiences feelings of love (amongst other emotions) for his people the Israelites. And Jesus – the incarnation of God clearly does feels love for his disciples. It is only the God of the philosophers who because he is omnipotent and omniscient and in consequence unchangeable who does not feel love.

What’s all this to do with the good news you might say? Well it’s part of the explanation – a small part perhaps – of the mystery behind why God could come to earth as a human baby – whose first bed was in a stinky stable. God chose this way of being to demonstrate his powerlessness not his power. A baby knows nothing too. Power and knowledge are something but not everything. Love is everything and power and knowledge need to be laid aside for love to operate. Power and knowledge were clearly laid aside in the shape of the baby Jesus. Perhaps power and knowledge were also laid aside when God created human free will. And perhaps even before that.

Omnipotence (2)

I will post here a sermon that I gave at St Matthew's two weeks ago because it relates to the sermon I gave today. But the sermon leaves lots to be desired and needs amending before I post it.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Second Coming

Sermon on Luke 21: 20-36 (Daniel 7: 9-14), St Mathew’s, Oxford, 27 November 2011

This is a sermon about the second coming of Christ: what we should expect and how we should wait for it. As it is just the first Sunday in Advent I thought I could get away with not talking about Christmas.

Two verses stand out for me from the Gospel reading we heard just now. The first of these two verse (27) reads: ‘And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory’. ‘With power and glory’ is the theme for this service’ according to our service sheet and for once I will try and stick to this theme – or at least come back to it as much as possible. The other verse which stands out for me from our passage is the last verse (36),‘But watch at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man’.

Now sermons on the second coming – in my view - have a tendency to sound unbelievable. This is for a variety of reasons which I will go into later but a aim of my sermon is to make the second coming sound more believable – to convince you – if you need convincing that it’s true – and that Jesus will come again in power and glory.

Sermons on the second coming also have a tendency to be a bit depressing and guilt inducing, but my aim is to try and avoid leaving you depressed and anxious but hopeful. But I don’t think you can get away with some doom and gloom when talking about the second coming. The Bible is fairly clear – from Daniel to Revelation – with Jesus’ predictions in between – that the end times will be accompanied by considerable distress. Jesus says here (25), ‘And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.‘

But this doom and gloom is only half the story, the other half is that Jesus is coming again with power and glory to rescue us from the doom and gloom. Today’s gospel reading is essentially good news.

So two aims for this sermon: to leave you believing and hopeful.

Firstly let’s look at the believability of the second coming. As I said I think the second coming seems to be unbelievable for a variety of reasons. Two things are to blame here: modern science and our big egos. But another factor is that Jesus seems to taking a long time to return, so I’ll take each of these issues in turn.

So firstly I would suggest that the seeming un-believability of the second coming is a function of our modern scientific view of the world. Miracles don’t happen these days or do they? Christians may agree that they happened during Jesus’ lifetime – culminating in the miracle of the resurrection. But nowadays it seems a ‘big ask’, as they say, to imagine Jesus returning – particularly in the way the Bible suggests he will return even for Christians. Jesus says in today’s reading that he will return in a cloud with power and glory echoing what Daniel says in Chapter 7 verse 13. ‘I saw in the night visions and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man’.

I don’t quite know what to say about this. I am a scientist. I basically share the modern scientific view. On the other hand I have witnessed one or two miracles in my life. I think God healed me at one point from a rather nasty life-threatening disease. If I can believe in this miracle of healing – why does it seem unbelievable to me that Jesus should – at some point - return in a cloud with power and glory?

One thing here. Science has taught us much about the beginning of the universe and of the origin of our species. It seems fairly easy – at least to me – to reconcile what science says here with the Biblical account. But science also makes predictions about the future for our species and of our universe. It suggests that the our species will end in extinction – like all other species that have ever existed on this planet; that our planet will be burned to destruction as the sun comes to an end – as other stars, similar to our sun, have been observed to end - and there are various theories as to the end of the universe: one being that it will end in a big crunch to parallel the big bang. A more likely theory is that the universe will end in a sigh rather than a bang as everything just spreads out more and more thinly. But whatever - none of these scientific theories of the ultimate end of times seems to leave much space for Jesus retuning on a cloud with power and glory.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly I think the second coming is unbelievable to those of us who have been accustomed to believe that we human beings are in control of things. For at least 2000 years and increasingly so during the last 100, and particularly those of us who live in developed countries – we human beings have considered ourselves to be the masters of the planet. OK there has been the odd natural disaster, the odd disease, the odd economic crisis to cope with but generally we have felt ourselves to be in charge. Or at least we have felt that if we only just put our mind and ingenuity to it, that there is no problem too big for us to solve.

Modern science does seem to have solved some big problems. The big problem that is usually mentioned here is infectious disease – TB, small pox, cholera and the like – and the scientific solutions to these problems – in the form of preventive immunisation and drug therapies – have generally been almost universally thought to be good. I say ‘almost universally’ because of course modern medicine is partly responsible for there being too many people on this planet.

There are two other big problems that modern science has solved which in solving them have created problems of their own. These two problems were connected with energy and food. In the very old days there wasn’t much energy around: some renewables: sunlight, wind, water power; a bit of wood and of course human energy: so we couldn’t do much. However once we discovered that thing called oil we could do want we wanted. In Roman times it was only the Emperor who could travel to foreign countries for a holiday on a sunny beach, have a hot bath every day whatever the weather, eat ice-cream and imported fruit whenever he wanted. Now we all live like Roman Emperors and the reason for this is oil and other fossil fuels. We only began seriously to start exploiting oil around and coal around the mid 1800s.

The other problem that modern science solved in the early 1900s was how to make the land more productive. In particular two Germans Harber and Bosch discovered how to convert nitrogen in the air into nitrate and nitrites in the soil – artificial fertiliser in other words - and modern industrial agriculture was born. It is estimated that one third of the Earth’s population are alive – purely because of the Harber-Bosch process for making artificial fertilisers. Note that the making of these fertilisers would not be possible without oil – or a similar form of energy.

You can perhaps see where I am going. Modern science – for all the good things it has brought human beings – or some human beings at least – like longer lives and ice-cream has also created problems and now we are beginning to see the outworking of these problems in the shape of global warming – the result of using up the oil two quickly. But it’s not just global warming that is the problem but it’s also other related problems – such as running out of oil. It is not that science – in theory at least – couldn’t perhaps solve these problems but I think we can see that human ingenuity and science has a double edge to it. It solves problems but creates others and this is because – and we fool ourselves otherwise – we are not in control of creation or even just the planet on which we live.

And it’s not just the physical world that we cannot control as much as we think we can or like to. It’s even the economic world – the market. Witness the efforts of today’s politicians in much of the world to control the beast that we humans have created – the so called free-market. It’s very freedom means that human beings cannot stop things happening like collapsing banks and now collapsing economies.

The hubris of man and our belief that we are in control and not God is a theme which is threaded through the bible from Genesis to Revelation. The Tower of Babel is one of the first stories of human beings’ attempt to live without God but many of Jesus’ parables also speak to this idea. The parable of the rich fool who has a good harvest, pulls down his barns and builds larger ones, but that night dies – could be explicitly aimed at modern industrial farming. But today’s parable of the fig tree is at least partly about this idea too.

Since this parable of the fig tree is about the end times, one might have thought that Jesus would have set it at harvest time when leaves fall rather than burst. Harvest is a metaphor Jesus commonly uses for his parables about the end times so presumably his setting it in spring is deliberate. One thing he seems to be saying here is that we humans can do nothing about whether a tree comes into leaf or not but we know what it means – summer is coming. So too when we can see things happening around us – we can see what they mean if only we want to – but we often cannot actually do anything about them – just as we cannot control whether the fig tree comes into leaf.

So to summarise where I have got to: I am suggesting that big science with its distrust – if not outright antipathy to miracles - and big human egos have left no room for a second coming and yet Jesus says he will come again in power and glory.

But before I come to the hope that promise brings I want to touch on a third and final reason why I think the second coming might seem to be unbelievable and that is that Jesus clearly hasn’t returned during the last 2,000 years. That seems a long time, particularly when Jesus himself seemed to think, and the early Christians seemed to believe, that his return was imminent.

In our passage from Luke (32) Jesus says ‘Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all has taken place’. Now the words ‘this generation’ are ambiguous here: Does Jesus mean ‘this generation to whom I (Jesus) are speaking’ or ‘this generation who are beginning to see the signs of the end times’? The first disciples clearly thought that he meant he meant their generation. We now have to interpret this saying as meaning the generation who begins to see signs of the end times or we have to think that Jesus was mistaken.

Now in the parallel passages to the Luke passage we heard this morning, in Matthew and Mark, Jesus says that we – his followers - would not know the precise hour of his return until it happened. But this not to say – as the Luke version stresses – that there won’t be signs of his imminent return as the parable of the fig tree suggests and in consequence we must – because Jesus commands us to - ‘Watch at all times’.

Now Christians, and indeed others, have – throughout the ages – tended to think that things going on around them are signalling the end times. Of course they were wrong in the past but one day they will be right. And of course they might be right in this day and age.

One reason why that I personally think they may be right in this day and age is global warming. It doesn’t seem to me credible that we as a species will survive what we are doing to the planet unless God steps in to help us. Of course I might be wrong: we human beings – using our ingenuity and science may be able to find a solution to this problem – but global warming is a problem – it seems to me of such a magnitude that will be incredibly difficult to solve by ourselves. We will need God’s help.

But so much for the believability of the second coming. I said that the second of aim of my sermon was to leave you hopeful. So two things to say here. Firstly that hope is not just a command it’s a gift and secondly something about why we are to have hope.

Firstly hope as a gift. I think we can be clear that hope is something we are commanded to have (like faith and love) but hope is also a gift from God (like faith and love). Hope is also something that has a future direction to it. We cannot hope for things that have happened or even only happening now. We hope for what is to come. And in the end we cannot know what is to come we can only hope for the best as they say.

But there is really no choice in the matter. God gives us hope for the future – and we are to have it. Hope like hubris is a theme of the bible from Genesis to Revelation. One of the first disasters in Genesis is the flood – after which God promises Noah, ‘Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth’ (Genesis 9: 11). This is the first of a series of promises from God that whatever happens not everything will be destroyed. It may look – at the moment that we are trashing the planet – but God is in control – he will not let it be completely destroyed.

So we are to have hope. But what does this mean? Are we to be passive or active in our hope? Those who think we should be active in our hope are concerned to do something about the signs of the end times that we can see. So for example those of us who see global warming as a threat to the existence of our species – or even the lives or our children – may seek to make every effort to cut down on the fossil fuels – the oil, coal and so forth, that we are using either directly or indirectly. This active hope underlies initiatives such as Low Carbon South Oxford. I do think as Christians we are called to be active in our hope but sometimes we unable to respond to this call or command. And this is where hope as a gift from God comes in.

So secondly why we are to have hope. In looking at the predictions of the end times we are often tempted to concentrate on the misery that is to come. But this is only half the story as I said at the beginning, Jesus says he is coming in power and glory. Yes the end times might be bad but we have his promise that he will come to sort things out. Our God is a god who rescues. And again this is theme threaded through the whole of the Bible.

God rescued the Israelites from Egypt. He rescues Daniel’s friends from the burning fiery furnace; there are countless stories in the Bible where God rescues. And of course he rescues us individually and corporately through the saving action of his son Jesus. So we can be confident that when it comes to the end times and he returns in power and glory he will save his world and all his people from destruction. We can be also confident because Jesus says so himself (28)) ‘Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’.

So finally when I said that the aim of this sermon was to leave you believing and hopeful, I wasn’t meaning to imply that I myself could give you belief and hope. It is only God who can and this is why I think Jesus finishes his predictions about the future with the command to watch and pray. Watching with waiting is a principal theme of Advent but it sounds like a rather passive activity and perhaps ultimately it is. Perhaps in the end it is, along with prayer, all we can do.

As I said have stressed throughout this sermon we are not in control of this world and what will happen to it. It is God with his power and glory who is. Ultimately we cannot give ourselves belief and hope. Only through prayer can God give us these things,

So on that note let us pray:

Jesus we are fearful of what may happen but you tell us that you will return with power and glory. Help us to believe in that and give us, we pray, hope for the future we cannot know but only wait for.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Sermon on 1 Corinthians 10: 14-17, 11: 17-33; Deuteronomy 16: 1-8; Luke 22: 7-13; St Matthew's 14th November 2011.

Today is Remembrance Sunday and so, although it says on the service sheet that our theme today is ‘Being Fed’, the theme of my sermon is going to be ‘Remembering’. However I hope you will come to see that remembering and being fed are related. In the best of remembering we are fed spiritually and –on the other hand - meals and feasts are a good way of remembering things. I will suggest that remembering – when it’s done properly - is something we need to do a lot more of.

So what do we mean by remembering – and why might there be good and bad remembering. Well for one thing good remembering is not nostalgia for the past. I heard a man on the television news this week talking about a project to restore a Victorian pumping station in Hove. You might have heard it too. The man said something like. ‘It’s better to think about the past than the present or the future these days isn’t it?’ Now I would humbly suggest that he is completely wrong about this: that it’s not good to dwell in the past.

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t remember the past, in fact, I will go on to say in this sermon, that it’s the past that partly defines who we are today. But we are only partly defined by our pasts. Jesus comes – in part to transform our pasts – and so liberate us from them with his new covenant. Jesus says that when we drink of the cup at the Communion we should remember that it’s a new covenant we are drinking – a new way of seeing things that was not known before.

There is I think a terrible and dangerous temptation that we are all subject to – but particularly those of us who are getting old - to dwell in the past, to wallow in the past and so to get stuck in it, to glorify the past as if it is more important than the present or the future. This is what I mean by a bad sort of remembering.

Remembrance Day – if nothing else should remind us that the past was not a universally great and glorious thing. Remembering past wars and the people who died fighting in them reminds us that the past involved sacrifice through suffering and even death – of people we loved. But we should also remember that suffering and death were not the end, that they do not have the last word, as the suffering and death of Jesus should remind us. After suffering and death comes resurrection, with sacrifice comes freedom.

The good sort of remembering is where we remind ourselves of who we are now, not principally what we were then. This might sound as if I am suggesting that in remembering we focus on ourselves rather than others. Far from it, we find our identity in our relationship with others – other people and with God – so remembering who we are involves remembering relationships. At the last supper Jesus commands his disciple to remember him. ‘This is my body, do this in remembrance of me’ he says, not, ‘Do this remembrance of this occasion’ or even, ‘Do this in remembrance of the events of my life’. So when Jesus says ’remember me’ he does not just, or mainly, mean remember me as a historical figure but remember me as a living person now – one whom you can have a relationship with now, in this present time.

Good remembering is primarily about bringing to mind relationships rather than just recalling events that have happened.

The communion meal is where, we Christians, remember our relationship with Jesus and through that act of remembrance who we are, but before I go on to talk more about that and why it involves a meal and food, I want to say more about the way the past defines us here and now and why history is important.

I chose the gospel reading to remind us that the last supper was – according to Luke - a Passover meal, and I chose the reading from Deuteronomy to remind us of what the people of Israel were commanded by God to remember at this meal.

Just as Jesus commands his disciples to celebrate a meal as a way of remembering him, in Deuteronomy (and indeed in the book of Exodus) we learn that God commanded the Israelites to celebrate a meal as a way of remembering the Exodus. To remember how he – God – rescued the Israelites from their dire predicament – captivity in Egypt – by freeing them from that slavery and bringing them to a land flowing with milk and honey – the promised land.

Now the Exodus is – I think it can be argued –is one of three major historic events in which the Israelites found their identity: the other two being the reign of King David and the exile to Babylon. God for the Jewish people – as he is for us Christians – is Lord of History –as we will sing in a hymn later in today’s service. Not that God always seemed to act in history - in a way which was unambiguously good for the people of Israel. In their exile to Babylon the Jews felt that they had been deserted by God. And remember too, the Holocaust – that further defining, if non-Biblical historical event for the Jewish people.

But the Exodus – which the people of Israel – were commanded by God to remember at the Passover meal – was one of God’s great acts of rescue. For Christians – of course – the fourth big historical event in the Bible which defines us as a community – is the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. This is the supreme act of God as rescuer. In Jesus’ commanding of us to remember him though a meal – indeed a Passover meal - we also remember his supreme act of rescue.

Our God is then – a god who comes to the rescue of his people. If we could go back in time and actually see the Exodus at it happened we might be shocked how few people were involved and how scruffy they looked. Exodus Chapter 12 verse 37 suggests that about 600,000 men, besides women and children took part – say a total of 2 million people - but this – in the light of archaeological evidence seems completely unbelievable.

It was more like a few hundred ill-clothed and starving slaves who escaped from Egyptian labour camps. But nevertheless this escape captured the imagination of, and became the remembered experience that defined their identity as the emergent Israelite nation and gave the Israelites the idea of a God that rescues. This event – and God’s role in it – became the basis of their ethical framework, was sung about generations later in the Psalms and became a promise in times of tribulation. Even though when they had all been carted off to Babylon the Israelites could look back on the Exodus to reassure themselves that despite appearances the contrary God had not in fact deserted them.

Historical events are what we make of them not how significant they seem at the time

This saving event of the Exodus became central to the religious worship of the Israelites, particularly in the celebration of the Passover meal. And just as the Passover meal was and is a meal in which the Jews remember or rather call to mind who they are and in particular how they stand in relation to God, so too at the Communion meal we Christians are to remember Jesus, and in doing so to remember who we are.

And so to my favourite subject food and meals. By now many of you regulars at St Matthew’s will not be surprised to find that it’s me preaching on these important verses in our series on 1 Corinthians. For visitors – in my paid job – I do research at the University on food.

I’ll just say at this point that, as I am sure I have said before, I personally think food is one of the most important things in life but we often forget this. We frequently food for granted and partake of meals without any real thought as to what we are eating. We even forget that the Eucharist is a meal with real food – as if the meal aspect and the food – the bread and the wine are somehow accidental to the proceedings.

But of course it is not accidental that food is involved in remembrance. What we eat is basic to life and what we particularly choose to eat (or not eat) is central to our cultural identity. If we think about other cultures – say Jewish culture or Chinese culture - what first springs to mind is what they eat.

Producing food in a way that doesn’t damage the earth and its other inhabitants and sharing food in a way that is fair and just is also basic to the proper functioning of society. We forget this at our peril.

Paul writes the section of his letter to the Corinthians that we heard earlier because it seems that when the Corinthian church came together to celebrate the Communion the rich Christians were not sharing the food that they have brought with them with the poor Christians. Think of a St Matthew’s bring and share lunch where the really nice food – oh I don’t know Jackie Wilderspin’s bread – is reserved for PCC members. Paul says in I Corinthians 11:18: ‘I hear that there are divisions among you…In eating each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk ‘

One of the reasons why the Corinthians are behaving in this inappropriate way at their communion meals is that they have forgotten the meaning of this shared meal. Paul admonishes them with the words ‘For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgement upon himself’. Instead of ‘discerning the body’he might have said ‘remembering the body’.

Now either way these words are capable of many interpretations and it seems likely that Paul has many things in mind. But one thing for sure that he is doing here is inviting the Corinthians to remember his words earlier in I Corinthians which we also heard today. ‘The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread.’

In other words if we fail to remember that when we share in a communion meal we are one body then that’s all wrong. We heard from Steve last week what it means for the Church to be one body – so I won’t go into all that again. Except to remind you that that being one body is about unity in diversity.

This discerning of the body means that it is worth, I think, remembering that when the person giving out the bread at communion says ‘The body of Christ’ - or as we generally say here ‘The body of Christ keep you in eternal life’ and hands it to the person to accept, he or she is saying two things ‘This in my hand the body of Christ’ but also ‘This the person in front of me is the body of Christ’.

So to sum up in our Remembrance Day services we remember the past – and in particular the deaths of people in the terrible wars of the past 100 years. If this act of remembrance is to have any meaning it is to remind us of who we are now: still capable of waging war and having war waged upon us. In their Passover meal the Israelites remembered their escape from Captivity- not through waging war on the Egyptians though there was violence involved but as the act of their Saviour God. In the Communion meal we too remember the action of a Saviour God in the person of Jesus Christ our great rescuer and through that act of remembrance we remember who we are and should be – the body of Christ.

Sunday, 13 November 2011


Sermon on Ephesians 6: 10-20

I have decided to make no real attempt to preach on the passages today. This is partly because I am preaching at the 10.30 service later about remembrance – because of course it is Remembrance Sunday today. Instead I just wanted to comment on the very first line of the epistle reading: ‘My brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might’.

Now as some of you know I have very great problems with the notion of an omnipotent god: a god that is all powerful – in the traditional sense of that word – A god who could do anything if he wanted to do so. I have talked about this before I think. Or at least I know I have preached on passages in the Bible such as the discussion between Abraham and God over the fate of Sodom where God appears to change his mind, or where Jesus changes his mind in the conversation with the Syro-Phoenician woman. These passages it seems to me contradict the notion that God is unchanging. I think that verse from Hebrew’s which says Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever needs to be unpacked in its context and not taken for a proof text for the unchanging nature or the unchangeablity of God.

At a fundamental level it seems to me that that there is not much point in petitionary prayer if it doesn’t - at least sometimes - leads to God changing his mind. OK – of course – one point of petitionary prayer to align our desires with that of God – but if every year it rained on the church fete when, every year, we prayed for it not to do so – we might begin to think we were wasting our time praying for fine weather on the day of the Church fete. But I digress: of course it’s just about logically possible to believe in a God who is both all powerful – omnipotent – and yet capable of changing his mind. But logic – as I have begun to learn recently – isn’t the be all and end all of everything.

And from a gut-feeling point of view it just doesn’t feel right that God should be all powerful – in the general meaning of that word - and yet permit the wars – and all that goes with them – that we are particularly remembering this Remembrance Sunday. How many parents prayed fervently for their child to be kept safe in the wars of the last century – the First and the Second World Wars, the wars in Korea and Vietnam - and the wars of this century – in the Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan – to name just a few. And yet our supposedly all powerful God did not seem to answer these prayers.

Rabbi Harold Kushner - faced with the contradictions involved in reconciling the notion of an all-powerful with a perfectly good God – after the death of his son from a disease that he had suffered with from birth – refused, like Job, to resort to platitudes. He says ‘I would rather affirm God’s goodness while compromising his power. I would rather believe in a God who sees things happening that he does not want to happen but cannot stop them. I think goodness is of more religious value than power’.

So one possibility is that God is not omnipotent – all powerful – at least in the usual meaning of that word. That he cannot wave a wand and stop wars in their tracks, he cannot stop even the death of his own son, much as he may wish to do so (and as surely we would all wish).

We need at least to pause and think about phrases such as the ‘power of God’s might’ as in today’s epistle reading and think again what we mean when we say in the first few in the words of the creed – as we have just said - ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty’ and when we address God in our prayers as ‘Almighty God’ ‘or when we sing ‘I am weak but thou art mighty, Hold me with Thy powerful hand’ or ‘What a mighty God we serve’ or the countless other lines in songs which imply God is powerful or mighty.

I guess it all depends on what we mean by power when it comes to God. We have been used to think of power and might as something welded by powerful, mighty men – and I mean men here rather than people. The power of king’s, prime ministers, chief executives, heads of departments, bosses, etc. etc. And therefore If God is King of Kings, boss of bosses, he (and again I mean he rather than she or it) must have the same sort of power as they have in order to be more powerful than them. Actually this doesn’t necessarily follow if God’s power is distinctly different to what we tend to think of as power. And if God’s power is a different sort of power to than that of say a king then this might enable me to say that God is omnipotent

There are at least two ways of thinking of power illustrated by the two prepositions that can be linked to the noun power i.e. ‘to’ and ‘over’. I think God’s power is more like ‘power to’ than ‘power over’. ‘Power to‘ and ‘power over’ are two very different things. But we are accustomed to think that power over – power over people, power over inert matter is necessary in order to have power to. For example we think God has creative power and that he used this power to created the universe but does this automatically mean than he has power over matter. Similarly we think God has the power to forgive us but this doesn’t mean that he has power over anything in order to forgive. Perhaps God’s creative power, his power to forgive, his power to give meaning, etc. etc. are very different from say David Cameron’s power to increase the rate of income tax or to lower it.

Whereas power would seem necessary in relation to creation or forgiveness, power in relation to love is clearly not. It sounds and is meaningless to suggest that God – or anyone else for that matter – needs power to love another. And this has some led to suggest that God’s power is much more like love than authority. So this would mean when we pray as we will pray later ‘Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men, We mean something like, ‘All loving God, Father our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of men’. You’ll note that changing Almighty to All loving in that sentence changes the meaning a lot!

There is I think much more that might be said about God’s power as more akin to love than to authority but here to finish with is a quote from Austin Farer about love as power and power as love.

‘We have so mishandled the sceptre of God which we have usurped, we have played providence so tyrannically to one another, that we are made incapable of loving the government of God himself or feeling the caress of an almighty kindness. Are not his making hands always upon us, do we draw a single breath but by his mercy, has not he given us one another and the world to delight us, and kindled our eyes with a divine intelligence? Yet all his dear and infinite kindness is lost behind the mask of power. Overwhelmed by omnipotence, we miss the heart of love.’

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A dangerous meal

Sermon on Luke 14: 1-11.

Our gospel reading contains seemingly two stories of unrelated events But according to Luke they happened on the same day, in the same place and one after another. In the opening verse Luke tells us the day of the week: a Sabbath but also where they took place: the house of a leader of the Pharisees and finally the occasion: a meal. Presumably the time, the place and the occasion have meaning in relation to the stories, otherwise Luke wouldn’t have bothered with such details and presumably the events are connected in some way – otherwise why put them together.

The first story is about Jesus healing a man of an oedema on the Sabbath and then questioning some of the guests – Pharisees and lawyers - at the meal about the law and what it says about what you should and should not do on the Sabbath. The second story is of a speech Jesus gives at that meal about where you should place yourself when you are invited to a meal: next to the host or down at the foot of the table. What he tells them is a parable.

So in this sermon I want to say some things about the importance of the context for the two stories and then finally something about the connection between them.

First some things about the occasion: the meal. I think this is really important. Well perhaps you would guess that I would say that – given that I am constantly talking about food in sermons. But I still think it is worth pointing out that the context for these stories was a meal and that we are here today to celebrate a meal. The meal that we are here to celebrate is the communion meal and Jesus himself told us how we were to celebrate it. Jesus, in the gospel accounts, has the habit of transforming all sorts of meals into special occasions. To make them more than they might at first seem: just some eating and drinking amongst people with varying degrees of relation to one another.

Of course at the communion meal we mainly remember Jesus’ last meal with his friends in the upper room but we are also invited, I think, to remember all the other meals that are recorded in the gospels: the meal at the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000, the meal that is recorded here and so forth. You can see in the way that Jesus behaved in these meals, including this meal, a foreshadowing of the Eucharistic meal.

In today’s reading Jesus yet again transforms a meal into an extraordinary event. Actually the reading breaks off halfway through the meal and there are other things that happen and are said at this meal which also important to our understanding of what’s going on. In our reading Jesus talks to the guests about being a guest. After this he goes onto talk to the host of the meal about hosting a meal – in particular who to invite to such meal as this one - and finally he talks to one of the guests and tells him the parable of the great banquet – which is of course a direct reference both to the Eucharistic meal and the great Messianic banquet at the end of time. He tells him who God invites and how people are likely to respond to the invitation.

Why Jesus had been invited to today’s meal we are not told. But there are some people there that Jesus has already crossed swords with – Pharisees and lawyers. The Pharisees were – to remind you – generally considered the good guys at that time. And ‘lawyer’ is probably better translated as ‘biblical scholar’. It is not clear that any of Jesus’ friends – the disciples - were there. Moreover the meal Jesus has been invited to is not just an ordinary meal it’s a meal to celebrate the Sabbath – a meal that would have had special foods to celebrate the occasion.

Healing a man at such a meal would have seemed a very odd thing to do. What was this man with an oedema – a sort of painful and unsightly swelling - doing there? Was he a guest? Was he someone Jesus had met on the way and brought with him? Luke doesn’t tell us. He just says the man was there.

At first glance Jesus healing the man with the oedema seems irrelevant to the setting. The man is healed, of course, as a visual representation of Jesus’ message that it’s OK to break the law at times. And he goes on to use the healing to illustrate that teaching and to challenge the Pharisees interpretation of the law. Jesus is not saying that the law is useless. He is not saying for example that the fourth of the Ten Commandments: ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy’ – no longer applies. He is saying I have come to make you think about the Sabbath in a different way.

But I also think he is saying that I have come to make you think of meals in a different way. What were the guests – and indeed the host - to think when a man with an ugly swelling appeared in their midst? Perhaps their first thought would have been: you are putting me off my food, please go away. Jesus however, far from sending him away, heals the man at the meal. Meals he implies are appropriate places to heal people. And this ties in with what he goes on to say to his host about inviting people to meals immediately after today’s reading. He says to him, ‘When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsman or rich neighbours…but when you give a feast invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind’.

This perhaps should remind us that the Communion meal we are about to celebrate is for everyone and we should not just be making welcome our friends and family but the poor, the disfigured, the disabled.

This context of the meal has a much more obvious bearing on the second story. It’s a useful backdrop to Jesus parable about where to sit when you are invited to a meal. I guess most people there thought about what they’d just done when they’d sat down to eat. I am guessing some would have felt guilty because they did jostle for a position near the host. Some might have also found angry that Jesus was criticising their behaviour. Some might have felt smug that they – on that occasion - had done the right thing and not tried to seat themselves near the most important person.

How many of them would have thought that Jesus was not just talking about behaviour in relation to meals but behaviour in relation to all sorts of other things besides? The ‘plot’ for this parable is what has just happened rather than a fictional tale. Jesus could have begun by saying. The kingdom of God is like this: where people are invited to a marriage feast and do not sit down in the place of honour…’ In this parable Jesus is both challenging the guests to behave differently but also announcing a new way of doing things: the new ways of the Kingdom of God that is both here now and yet to come: the Kingdom of God that is also foreshadowed by the Eucharist.

So the context of these stories is a meal. It’s also a Sabbath meal. This reminds us that it’s a meal to celebrate both the day when creation was over and the day of resurrection. The work of healing is best done on this auspicious day as Jesus demonstrates by his healing of the man with the oedema. But also it makes the meal a special meal. The importance of behaving well at such meal is thereby given extra significance. In the parable Jesus makes the meal even more special by referring to a marriage feast.

Finally the third important thing about the context for these stories is the place. The place for the meal is the house of a leader of the Pharisees. The meals Jesus takes part in in the gospels take place in many different settings: a wedding for the miracle at Cana, the upper room for the last supper, the beach of the Sea of Galilee for the meal of bread and fish after the Resurrection. Most of these meals were with friends but not all. The gospels record other meals with Pharisees. Here the host is a leader of the Pharisees but also Luke tells us that some of the guests were Pharisees and lawyers and that they were watching him to see what he would say or do. So not a cosy meal but a risky sort of meal to be present at. Meals are sometimes uncomfortable, unsettling, challenging occasions.

And note that Jesus does nothing to alleviate the palpable tension in the air. In fact he exacerbates it. He makes them all uncomfortable by healing a sick and unsightly man. He criticises the guests for their behaviour and then turns on the host for his choice of guests!

The presence of enemies – rather than friends - at the meal means that what Jesus does in healing the man with the oedema and telling his parable of where to sit when invited to a meal becomes a challenge – a challenge to the status quo. In healing the man with oedema Jesus is clearly challenging the guests – both friends and foes alike to see the law in a completely different way to that of the Pharisees and lawyers. The parable similarly is not just told to commend humility as a virtue (as the Pharisees might well have done) but something much more radical than that. In particular it is to challenge conventional ideas of status. The last shall be first - the man with oedema shall be healed – but not only that the first shall be last.

So through examining context he connection between the two stories in today’s reading becomes clearer. Jesus news of the kingdom is good news because it turns everything upside down but not just for the sake of it. Ultimately the meal at which Jesus is host – and not just important guest - the communion meal, the Messianic banquet – is and is to be a different sort of meal - a challenge to the conventional. But it is also a foretaste of heaven where everything is put right.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Free will and the Foresight Obesity Map

Dear Ron (my atheist friend)

All I think I can do is reiterate my opinion that I cannot prove that choices are freely willed rather than illusory but I do want to argue that free will is a useful concept because it leads to the idea of responsibility and without a notion of responsibility (and indeed blame) you can’t solve problems that relate to human behaviour. Some of these problems are the ‘big’ problems of our age like global warming, the Afghan War, etc. but here is an example taken from my world – the world of obesity prevention.

To elaborate on what I mean, here is that Foresight Obesity ‘map’ again (right). If I’d chosen the Afghan War as my ‘problem’ but then the relevant map would have been this.

In the Foresight Obesity map there is no box labelled ‘free will’ because it is not in itself a thing which causes things: things which cause things are shown as boxes in the map. But there are lots of ‘points of entry’ for free will even though the authors of the map have seemingly tried to write free will out of the map as much as possible. This is because they were afraid of making obesity a moral problem and think, rather vaguely, that it can be tackled solely as a scientific [deterministic] problem.

Incidentally if I had my way I would have included a box labelled ‘God‘ in the map but that’s because I am a theistic scientist. This would have been just as rational as some of the boxes they have included such as ‘ambient temperature’! How on earth does ambient temperature cause obesity!? They might as well have put ‘God’ there instead.

Whilst there is no box labelled ‘free will’ there is there is a box called ‘psychological ambivalence’ which might be summarised as something like: the type of thinking which leads to people saying ‘For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.’ {KJV of Romans 7: 15}. This box is in the map because of one particular psychologist and it was in my view given too much weight because he had much too much say over the way the map was drawn!

Causal relationships are shown in the map by the lines connecting boxes. But the authors of the map seem to have no clear idea of what they mean by a causal relationship. For example: do they think that it is just when an event is consistently followed in time by another event (cf Hume)? Clearly not – at least in some cases - see below! Do they really think that ‘ambient temperature’ causes ‘level of thermogenesis’ in any way that is comparable to the way that the ‘social acceptability of fatness’ causes (according to the map) ’peer-pressure’? But more relevant to our discussion: do they think cause can be agency (cf Kant) at least for some of the links? E.g. do they not think anyone is responsible (has freely willed) anything that happens in the map?

I think that different types of causal relationship need a different type of line in the map. And incidentally we CAN put equations to some of the lines. My research group is doing research which quantifies the link between ‘fibre content of food and drink’ and ‘nutritional quality of food and drink’ (an interesting causal relationship because one thing instantly causes the other without any time delay – so not a Humean type of causal relationship at all.)

Naturally most of the lines between boxes are completely independent of free will e.g. the line between ‘fibre content of food and drink’ and ‘nutritional quality of food and drink’ or between ‘level of infections’ and ‘extent of digestion and absorption’. But some of the lines do involve free choices on the part of human agents and should be shown differently.

In the map are boxes with the implied names of agents within them e.g. ‘parental control’ [read parents]’, ‘media availability’ [read journalists, advertising executives, etc.], ‘education’ [read teachers], ‘effort to acquire energy’ [read consumers]. There are not a lot of agents mentioned in this map. Only the vaguest hint of Government ministers or CEOs of food manufacturing firms for example! Oh what a surprise. And agents – where they are mentioned - have been depersonalised as much as possible.

But the mappers can’t get away without referring to agents at all. How could they? Where we have agents we have choices. And where we have choices we have responsibility: a moral responsibility to behave in ways which reduces the problem that is under scrutiny: in this case obesity.

Just a bit of thought would indicate, surely, that you cannot make a map of causality in such a case - a complex problem involving human beings - without any reference to the (moral) choices of those human beings that are supposed to be acting as causal agents in relation to the problem.

So in the Foresight Obesity map when ‘Education [read teachers’] is supposedly a cause of ‘media availability’ [read the output of journalists and advertising executives] what do they mean here? Don’t they mean something like ‘teachers have chosen to educate advertising executives to advertise junk foods to consumers’? (A bit speculative but I can’t see what else they mean).

And when the map suggests that there is a causal relationship between ‘pressure for growth and profitability’ and obesity through e.g. ‘effort to increase consumption’ who do they imagine is responsible for this pressure. Is it like ‘ambient temperature’ and 'education' just a causeless cause of obesity? (Of course I would have the ‘God’ box linked to ambient temperature!)

The whole problem (of obesity) can surely never be explained let alone solved by reference to a model of causality which fails to take account of different types of causal relationship and in particular the difference between relationships which involve inanimate objects and those that involve animate human beings (either as cause or effect).

Relationships between human beings and other human beings (or indeed their relationship with inanimate objects such as food) necessarily involves choice and therefore moral choices. So parents have a choice about how they control their kids, journalists about what type of articles they write, advertising executives about what type of foods they advertise, teachers how they teach their pupils, consumers what they choose to eat, etc.

This is where free will comes in. I do think it is important to measure and compare this responsibility (perhaps not in the same way as you can quantify the relationship between say ‘fibre content of food and drink’ and ‘nutritional quality of food and drink’) but otherwise where do you start in tackling the problem. Rather too much of the Foresight Obesity map is – to my mind - focused on the consumer (who for example appears in the centre of the map if not by name) and therefore it implicitly makes the consumer the problem to focus on in relation to obesity. You cannot get away from apportioning responsibility whether you like it or not.

The Foresight Obesity map, lauded by some as persuading the British Government to acknowledge that obesity is not just a function of the moral choice of consumers, goes too far in trying (in vain) to remove the moral dimension to the obesity crisis. Fundamentally obesity IS a a result of greed, not just on our part (those of us who are obese) but of all those who contribute to the crisis and that’s virtually everyone.

This started as a reply in a conversation at

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Contemplative bread making

Here is the script (liturgy) for a contemplative bread making session. Upload it here. This is a slight modification of the one that I used for some contemplative bread making that took place at Holland House, Cropthorne, Worcestershire on the 21st September 2011. To the left you can see a picture of this session – this was near the end when we were shaping our loaves.

Please feel free to use the liturgy yourselves – although you will need to adapt it – and I would really appreciate anyone’s views on how to improve it. It is probably too wordy. I’ve also included instructions for the equipment you’ll need and some (but not many) ‘stage directions’. Finally, at the end, there is a list of biblical verses about bread to read at some point and a recipe ‘card’.

I think that for contemplative bread making sessions you should use flour that has come from locally grown and locally milled wheat as it was at Cropthorne. In Oxford I use Dove’s Farm organic flour to the same recipe. Ideally the flour should be organic or at least produced to some other agreed standard for environmental sustainability such as LEAF. I think you should know – as far as possible – where the salt and yeast have come from. Fresh yeast is best to my mind because it is smellier than dried yeast. I think that is perhaps important that the yeast smells of putrefaction (see Mark 8: 11-21)

I’ve run one of these contemplative bread making sessions twice now and my main reason for doing so is to help people connect with food, where it comes from, and its symbolic meaning.

Bread of course is central to Christian worship but we normally eat it at the Communion Service, Eucharist, Mass, etc without any regard to where it comes from. The exception is where we say this prayer at the preparing of the table:
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received
the bread we offer you:
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life.
Making the bread as part of Communion is really just to lengthen this prayer. Hence the liturgy is designed to make us think more about ‘fruit of the earth and work of human hands’ and this is why there is some rather technical material about tractors, petrol, stainless steel salt pans, etc. I am loath to leave this out. But this material is also combined with making use of the ingredients of bread and the processes involved in its production as symbol that these might ‘become for us the bread of life’.

Of course you probably couldn’t make bread as part of a Communion Service on a routine basis! For the two contemplative bread making sessions I have run one had eight participants and one had 15 so not a whole church(?) And if you worry about crumbs at a Communion Service then you’ll worry even more about the mess of making bread. (There’s a bit of a theological question here: ‘At what point does the dough become bread?’)

Moreover bread making takes quite long with lots of waiting around. It takes longer than a regular service. One of the contemplative bread making sessions I have run took a morning and then there wasn’t time to bless, break, share and eat the bread slowly – as one would at normal Communion Service although we did eat one of the loaves with local butter and honey. The other took a day and there was. On that occasion we piled up all the loaves we had made before the table and the priest used one for a ‘traditional’ Eucharistic ceremony. (The liturgy for this I haven’t included).

Please do let me know what you think, particularly if you ever try this yourself.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Meditation on eating a satsuma

This meditation is designed to be read to a group where each individual has been given a satsuma. The reader should pause after each paragraph. It should take about 20 minutes to read. It can be done in a church service of say 80 people, or in a small group of about say 10.

I want you to take the satsuma in your hand. Close your eyes for a moment. Feel its shape, feel the texture of its skin: is it warm, cold, hard, soft, rough, smooth?

You will note that the satsuma is a thing but it’s also, a living being just as you are. Savor that for a moment.

Open your eyes. Now try to look at the satsuma as if you had never seen a satsuma before. And indeed you have never seen this particular satsuma before.

For a start therefore, notice that the satsuma has a top and a bottom. The bottom is where it was attached to the tree via a stalk. The top is where there the flower used to be. This being has a history. It has a past, a present now, and a future.

Notice the particular shape of your satsuma: it’s not really a sphere it is flattened at its top and at its bottom.

Now look more closely at the satsuma. See if you can see the remains of leaves round the stalk, the particular wrinkles in this particular satsuma’s skin, any blemishes your satsuma has.

Look at the colour of the satsuma.

[Here is something you might think about: the uniqueness of this situation. You are in a particular place at a particular moment with a particular satsuma. This uniqueness in time and space is primarily because you are holding this particular satsuma. The place or time could be different but the particularity of the satsuma would still make the situation unique. Place and time are, in effect, irrelevant. Heaven is like this: place and time do not matter. What really matters is not where Heaven is or when we will be there, but who - what real beings - are with us. In that sense Heaven - when and where we see God face to face - may well be the placiest of places, the eternal now, the most gloriously material of all meetings – a bit like this meeting with the satsuma]

Now smell the satsuma. Notice the smell of the satsuma itself and notice the smells that it has picked up on the way: from the bag it was carried here in, from your hand.

Now carefully and slowly peel the satsuma listening to the sound it makes as you do so. What noise does it make when you break into it?

Only tear the skin as much as is necessary. Try to keep the skin intact and the segments together. Notice how the white of the inside of the skin and the segments are slowly revealed.

Notice the smell as you peel the satsuma. Notice how the smell of the satsuma that was just a hint before is now released.

Hold the flesh in one hand and the peel in the other. Look at the shape of the satsuma and look at the shape of the peel. Look at their different colours. How different they are.

[Here is something you might think about: What was once one is now two, and for the moment at least, both are just as important as one another. What you can now see – the outside of the flesh and the inside of the peel - no one but you has ever seen. They present themselves to you as the animals to Adam, as nameless until seen by Man, to be met and to be known. And they come to you – as to their God – for your astonishment at their great glory.]

Put down the peel. Hold the flesh in both hands.

Now carefully separate out just one segment. Gently detach it from the others. Listen carefully as you do so: you might be able to hear the faint squeak as it comes away from the other segments.

Look at the segment, its shape and its colour.

Put one segment in your mouth without biting it. Feel it with your tongue. Is it cold, warm, rough, smooth?

Bite it just once. Can you feel the coldness of the juice? What can you taste?

Slowly, very slowly chew the satsuma segment as long as you can and then swallow it.

[Here is something you might think aboutl: What you have seen to be sure is only the smallest part of the uniqueness of your satsuma, the merest hint of the stunning act of being that it is. For somehow, beneath this gorgeous paradigm of unnecessary being, lies the act by which it exists. You have just now reduced the satsuma to its parts but you might have caught the hint that a thing is more than the sum of the insubstantialities that comprise it. Hopefully you will never again say that the solidities of this world are mere matters of accident. Perhaps now you have seen at least dimly that the uniquenesses of creation are the result of continuous creative support, of effective regard by no mean lover. He likes satsumas therefore they are. The shapes, the textures, the colours, the smells, the tastes are a response, not to some forgotten decree that there may as well be satusmas as lemons, but to His present delight. His intimate and immediate joy in all that you have felt, seen, smelt, tasted. With Peter the satsuma says, Lord it is good for us to be here. Yes says God. Very good.]

After: Robert Farrar Capon (1969) The supper of the lamb: a culinary reflection. Doubleday: New York

Monday, 29 August 2011

‘Taking the Cross’ can be fun.

Sermon on Matthew 16: 21 - 28 and Acts 3: 1-16, St Matthew's, 28th August 2011

I wonder what your reaction to today’s theme is and in particular to today’s gospel reading was. Did you think when you heard Carolyn read the gospel reading: ‘That’s amazing’ or, ‘Mmm….very true… I have no problem with any of that’. Or did you think, ‘Yikes …that’s going to be difficult’ or even, ‘That’s appalling’. Friedrich Nietzsche says of such a passage: ‘Such things as this cannot be sufficiently despised’ and, ‘One does well to put gloves on when reading the New Testament’ . He, like many, have found this passage not just difficult but appalling.

Nietzsche particularly objects to Jesus saying to his disciples ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’. Now I do not wish to deny the importance of this verse, or even to soften its impact, but this is not the only thing Jesus says about discipleship. So this morning before coming back to it, I want to set this verse in context, by talking about discipleship in general, and Peter’s discipleship in particular.

Discipleship is – I think something we should be talking and thinking about at this time of the Church Year. The Church Year is organised around the life of Jesus. It begins, you’ll remember, with Advent, starting in late November, when we prepare for Jesus’ birth celebrated at Christmas. Christmas and Epiphany are followed by Lent when we prepare for Easter. We remember Jesus’ death on Good Friday, his resurrection on Easter Sunday and his Ascension 40 days later. The last thing we really celebrate in the Church Year is Pentecost, when we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps over the summer we should be thinking about what happened to the disciples after Pentecost.

Now this sermon comes at the end of a series of five sermons all based on scenes in Matthew’s gospel. And this final scene needs I think to be viewed in the context of those five scenes as well as in the context of what the bible says about discipleship in general To remind you of those five scenes.

First we had the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (14: 13-21).
Secondly we had the miracle of Jesus’ walking on water (14: 21-36).
Thirdly we heard about Jesus’ confrontation with the Canaanite woman and the miraculous healing of her daughter (15: 21-28).
Fourthly – last week - we had Jesus asking his disciples who they thought he was (16: 13-20).
Fifthly – today’s reading - we have another conversation between Jesus and his disciples (16: 21-28.

Jesus was the main character in all five scenes but Peter and the disciples were also always there - in a supporting role. Peter – as the disciple par excellence if you like - is explicitly mentioned in three of the five scenes and implicitly in the other two. I’ll come back to those scenes in a moment

But first a word about Peter. You may remember we recently had a zone service which focussed on Peter. You may also remember that I facilitated the art zone. Two of the pictures were of the scenes from Matthew’s gospel that we have been thinking of. These two: Jesus walking on the water and Peter sinking – by an unknown child as part of the Children Illustrate the Bible Competition (Scene 2) and this one of Jesus presenting the keys of the kingdom to Peter – by Perugino (Scene 4).

It was very easy to find pictures of Peter by many different artists, all down the ages. This is because Peter appears in the Gospels so many times. Think for the moment about Matthew. He only appears three times in his own gospel and what he says on those occasions isn’t recorded. On the other had Peter is mentioned by name 25 times – in Matthew’s gospel alone - and on about half of those occasions we get to hear what he actually said. Peter of course represents all the disciples at times.

What struck me about looking for and collecting pictures of Peter was three things:

Firstly we get to see exactly what Peter is like as a person – particularly though the gospels. He is not just a faceless foil for Jesus. He is such an interesting character. A born leader, brave and decisive but loyal, caring –often demonstrably concerned about Jesus’ welfare - but also impetuous to the point of foolishness and of course, in many other ways, not perfect. At Jesus’ crucifixion his courage fails and he denies knowing Jesus. He’s very wise at times: he gets it. I think we generally think of the disciples as stupid but of course they weren’t, or not all of them. Peter argues with, even challenges Jesus, and of course he gets it wrong sometimes, as in today’s reading.

Secondly – from the point at which Peter meets Jesus - he does such a lot of different and exciting things. Being with Jesus for the three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry must have been an amazing experience. But of course it wasn’t to end there. He gets to meet the risen Jesus and see him ascend into heaven. Then of course he is present in the upper room when – at Pentecost - the Holy Spirit descends like tongues of fire on the disciples. And in Acts we hear more about his life after Pentecost – such as the story of the healing of the lame man we also heard this morning.

In Acts Luke tells us that Peter does various miracles, including raising a young woman – Tabitha – from the dead, gets arrested for preaching the gospel (twice), miraculously escapes from prison (once) and has an important vision about who the gospel is actually for. We last lose sight of Peter – as far as the Biblical record is concerned - at the Council of Jerusalem in around AD50 where we hear what he has to say in discussions with Paul, Barnabas and others about the extent to which Christians need to abide by the old Jewish laws. Oh then we also have two of his letters.

This summary of Peter’s life reminds us that life for Peter went on after his encounter with the earthly Jesus. It was not just the conversation with Jesus we heard about in today’s reading from Matthew – important as that was – it was more than that. I chose today’s second reading from Acts to illustrate this point.

Thirdly, in searching for pictures, I found that most of those pictures also have Jesus in them as well. The pictures are – perhaps not surprisingly - mostly of the Gospel stories rather than the stories from Acts. There are of course no stories about Peter in the Gospels that don’t also feature Jesus. Perhaps Peter’s denial of Jesus is an exception but even then Luke records that Jesus turned and looked at Peter after Peter’s third denial.

Of course we only really remember Peter because of his relationship with Jesus. Ultimately it isn’t really important what he was like or what he did, at least compared with Jesus. The gospel writers and the artists seem instinctively to grasp this and when talking about or painting Peter – it’s Peter’s relationship with Jesus that matters most.

So back to our five scenes from Matthew’s Gospel.

The first two scenes are miracles. The first the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000. Peter is not mentioned by name but presumably he is one of the disciples who anxiously point out to Jesus that evening is approaching and the crowd are getting hungry and then helps distribute the bread and fish to the people.

The second scene is the miracle of the Jesus’ walking on the water. Here Peter is explicitly mentioned as trying to emulate Jesus. Why on earth Peter gets out of the boat has never been clear to me and I missed the sermon when I presume Steve explained it. Perhaps sheer sense of adventure?

The third scene is both a miracle and a conversation. Jesus heals the Canaanite woman’s daughter but only after she has persuaded him to do so. Peter again is not mentioned but again presumably he was one of the disciples who came to Jesus to ask him to send her way.

The fourth and fifth scenes are ’just’ conversations between Jesus and his disciples (i.e. no miracles on these occasions) and in both conversations Peter plays a major role.

In the fourth scene which Steve talked to us about last week: Peter seemingly gets it right: very right indeed. He understands – perhaps indeed he is the first to fully understand who Jesus really is: ‘the Christ, the son of the living God’. In the fifth scene – today’s reading - Peter doesn’t get it all. When Jesus starts to tell the disciples what he is going to do: go to Jerusalem, be killed and on the third day be raised Peter tells Jesus that he, Jesus, is getting it all wrong.

Peter misunderstands the word ‘must’ when Jesus says ‘he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things’. Peter thinks that Jesus means merely that ‘he must’ in the sense that he intends to go. Peter argues with this intention. He assumes that Jesus has a choice. Jesus on the contrary knows that he really has no choice. On the contrary he knows he must go if his life is to have any meaning. Peter’s objection to Jesus saying this is, in a sense, the same as Nietzsche’s. It is appalling that anyone should choose suffering and death rather than life.

On the human level Jesus clearly still does have a choice. Perhaps this is one reason why he reacts so emotionally to Peter challenging him. ‘Get behind me Satan’ is not a rational response to Peter’s – quite reasonable objection to what Jesus has just been telling them. But Jesus calms down and tries to explain. What he says is this:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.’ It’s virtually impossible to explain this explanation without reducing its challenge.

But here is one thought: By cross – and taking the cross - Jesus doesn’t primarily mean suffering but sacrifice. When Jesus calls us to take up our cross he doesn’t means he is calling us to suffering but to sacrifice.

The cross for Jesus did involve suffering but not suffering just for the sake of it: suffering as a sacrifice. Jesus’ sacrifice through laying down his life changes everything: it means for one thing that there is no longer any necessity for suffering. We certainly do not need to die on a cross. Jesus has done that for us. Death has been overcome so in a sense physical death is no longer necessary - difficult as that is to understand. (If you don’t like the word necessary’ try ‘final’)

But on the other hand discipleship does mean sacrifice. For to find life we need to lose it first –as Jesus says. Now this may sound all very dramatic. Sacrifice sounds a big word but need it be so big a deal. Translate it as ‘letting go’ and it doesn’t sound so scary. Let’s calm down and think of what it means in relation to the first four of the five scenes in Matthew we have been thinking of. They all involve a sacrifice – a letting go on the disciples’ part.

With the feeding of the five thousand the disciples have to let go of their anxiety about the crowd getting hungry. They had to accept that Jesus had things under control, more than just under control that he would provide, and provide he did, so that there was even food left over.

In the walking on water scene – Peter has to let go of his pride and reach his hand out to Jesus to rescue him. Although he thought he was a powerful leader he had on that day to lose some of his self-confidence.

In the encounter with the Canaanite woman Jesus himself has to let go of some of his assumptions about his ministry and the disciples likewise. He and they had to let ago of the idea that the Church was an exclusive club for people like us. Jesus challenges all our conventional beliefs about the way things are and should be. We need to let go of these of these beliefs. Peter recognises this when he acknowledges Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God.

For Jesus himself sacrifice does mean suffering. But dare it be said – for us, sacrifice can be fun. If we give things up, we will get so much more back.

What did sacrificial discipleship mean in Peter’s case? If we follow his life - from the conversation with Jesus about taking up your cross into the future - we find that it wasn’t all gloom. OK there were some bad bits. His denial of Jesus and Jesus’ death were certainly low points! But there were good times too. His meeting with Jesus after Jesus’ resurrection joyfully restored his spirits and his purpose in life.

Obviously life didn’t stop, either, with Jesus’ ascension. Peter’s life goes on for at least another 20 or 30 years. His is an exciting life as I summarised earlier. His healing of the lame man, in Jesus’ name must have been fun. So too must have been his escaping from prison with the help of an angel. Did he sacrifice much to follow Jesus: yes of course. He left behind a lucrative fishing business in Galilee to preach the gospel. Did he die on a cross or did he die of a ripe old age. We don’t really know and it doesn’t matter.¬

So when Jesus calls us to ‘take up our cross’ is he calling us to a life of suffering as Nietzsche and indeed many Christians seem to think? No I don’t think so. He is calling us to ‘life in all its fullness’. This means that taking up your cross can be fun.