Sunday, 16 January 2011

‘Look Up!’

Sermon at St Matthew’s, 16th January 2011; readings: John 1: 29-42, Romans 8: 12 - 17

The theme of my sermon today is ‘Look up’. Steve [our vicar] chose this theme when he was devising the term card because of two verses in today’s set reading from John’s gospel. This describes two occasions where John the Baptist is talking to his disciples; Jesus approaches and John says, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’

I am going to talk about both words in the theme of ‘Look up!’: firstly ‘look’ and secondly ‘up’. So first: ‘Look!’

Well hopefully that woke you up and secondly it might have actually made you look. If you were looking at me you would have looked at where I pointed and where I myself looked. Look is what is known as a performative word. In other words it’s one of those words which makes things happen rather than just describes something.

There are in fact lots of performative words. We tend to think of words as merely describing states of affairs and some words do indeed have this purpose. So when I say, ‘this pew is brown’, I am merely describing something – something rather self-evidently true in this case. Those of you at the back, who can’t see this particular pew I am pointing to, might want to come out and check for yourself that I am telling the truth, but I guess you won’t bother to get out of your seat.

There are lots of words that don’t describe things so much as do things. A very good example is, ‘I promise’. The two words means nothing until you actually utter them and then they change everything (particularly during a marriage service). Commands are a particular class of performative word.

When John describes Jesus as the Word of God – in that famous verse at the beginning of his Gospel - ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ - he doesn’t just mean that Jesus is the truth: here to tell us how things are. He means that Jesus - the Word of God – has come into the world to change everything. The Living Word is a peformative word.

And when John the Baptist says ‘Look!’ he doesn’t mean, ‘I think, Andrew and Philip, you might find that this man Jesus is the Lamb of God’. He says, pointing to Jesus, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’ He is commanding them to see for themselves that Jesus is the Lamb of God.

‘Look!’ as well as being a command is a word which re-orientates the person who obeys the command. Those of you who were awake when I shouted ‘Look!’ just now hopefully looked up from whatever you had been looking at previously: perhaps at your fingernails thinking that they might need cutting, or at the notices at the back of the service sheet (which are sometimes more interesting than the sermon I find), or wherever. If you did look you presumably looked at me to see where I was looking. Then you would have turned your eyes away from me to see what I was looking at or pointing at, which was, incidentally, the lit candle on the altar, which you then might have noticed, even thought about for a while, before turning back to look and listen to me (or to reading the notices in the service sheet).

So the word ‘Look!’ reorientates us to a new state of affairs. It’s a bit like the word ‘Repent!’ in that regard. ‘Repent!’ is a word that John the Baptist was particularly fond of. But unlike the word ‘Repent!’, ‘Look!’ doesn’t involve thinking about ourselves before we change our orientation. It just involves focusing on something other than what we have previously been looking at.

So to the second word in our theme of ‘Look up!’ What do we mean by ‘up’ here? Well traditionally we think of God as up. Heaven is up and God resides in heaven doesn’t he? And I guess that’s what Steve had in mind when he came up with this theme. And of course when John the Baptist says ‘Look!’ he is telling his disciples to look at Jesus: Jesus the Lamb of God. I don’t personally think heaven is up above but I think it is useful to think of God as being somewhere other than where we personally are. Nowadays people seem more inclined to find God within themselves or within other people, and of course there is good biblical support for this idea but it has its drawbacks as I hope will become clearer.

Now a definition of spirituality that I find helpful is that it’s about connecting firstly with God, secondly with other people and thirdly with ourselves. I mean connecting and not just loving. For a start connecting is as much about being loved as much as loving. Moreover connecting with persons has to involve communication and this can involve other things besides love such as criticism, rebuke, complaint, thankfulness, promises, etc. But of course love is the most important thing involved in connecting with God, with other people and with ourselves and without love those other things are like a clanging cymbal.

This Jesus makes this clear in his answer to the lawyer who asks him ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus says (quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus), ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and your neighbour as yourself.’

So we are commanded to love, to connect with God, but we also need to love, to connect with other people and with ourselves. I don’t really want to talk about connecting with other people today and its relationship with connecting with God, but I do want to talk about the similarities and differences between connecting with God and connecting with ourselves.

On the one hand – as Jesus reminds the lawyer – we do need to love ourselves otherwise it’s going to be difficult to love others and perhaps even God. We are made in the image of God, God loves us so there is something good about us which is worthy of love. We are not just ‘miserable offenders’ despite what the Book of Common Prayer might be taken to suggest. And so there is a sense in which we need to connect with ourselves if we are to become whole, fully functional human beings in the way God wants us to be.

On the other hand this proper regard for ourselves can become unbalanced. It is easy to become obsessed with ourselves. Sometimes we become obsessed with our qualities, but much more commonly we become obsessed with our faults and inadequacies. This is illustrated by the titles of self-help manuals which in the old days might have given you tips on relationships with other people – ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’, etc. - but are now increasing concerned with our relationships with ourselves. And in particular our self esteem and self confidence.

In preparing for this sermon I did a quick search on Amazon for ‘self help books’ and here are four titles from the first 20 of 104,578 results:
• At number 6 The Little Book Of Confidence;
• At number 10 Healing Your Emotional Self: A Powerful Program to Help You Raise Your Self-esteem, Quiet Your Inner Critic, and Overcome Your Shame;
• At number 16 The Girl's Guide to Loving Yourself: A Book about Falling in Love with the One Person Who Matters Most...You ;
• And at number 17 Instant Confidence

Now I haven’t read any of these books and you might say I therefore have no right to criticise them.

Here is a book I have read: Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert. Or rather I am two thirds of the way through it. Some of you might have read the book or seen the film. According to the Sunday Times, ‘Eat, Pray, Love has been passed from woman to woman like the secret of life’. Err well yes perhaps.

It’s not a self-help book though I guess it does aim to provide advice. It’s an account of one year in the life of its author who has until recently been settled in a large house with a husband who wanted to start a family. But she finds she doesn’t want any of it. A bitter divorce and a rebound fling later, she emerges battered yet determined to find whatever she has been missing. She begins her quest in Rome where she indulges herself in Italian restaurants and gains nearly two stone. Next she travels to India, where she lives in an Ashram scrubbing the floor of the Temple and meditating. Finally she ends up in Bali, where - according to the blurb on the back - a toothless medicine man reveals a new path to peace, leaving her ready to love again (but I haven’t got to that bit yet).

Liz Gilbert is clearly on a quest but it’s very unclear whether this is to find herself or God. She talks about God throughout the book but it seems to me she also confuses God with herself. Here is an extract from the beginning of the book where Liz Gilbert is reflecting on the time when she first prayed.

“Of course I’ve had a lot of time to formulate my opinions about divinity since that night on the bathroom floor when I spoke to God directly for the first time. In the middle of that dark November crisis, though, I was not interested in formulating my views on theology. I was interested only in saving my life. I had finally noticed that I seemed to have reached a state of hopeless and life-threatening despair, and it occurred to me that sometimes people in this state will approach God for help. I think I’d read that in a book somewhere.

“What I said to God through my gasping sobs was something like this ‘Hello God. How are you? I’m Liz, It’s nice to meet you.’

“That’s right – I was speaking to the creator of the universe as though we’d just been introduced at a cocktail party. But we work with what we know in this life, and these are the words I always use at the beginning of a relationship. In fact, it was all I could do to stop myself saying: ‘I’ve always been a big fan of your work…’.

“‘I’m sorry to bother you so late at night’ I continued ‘But I’m in serious trouble .’[I’ve missed out a bit here]

“‘Then I heard a voice. Please don’t be alarmed - it was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston Voice, nor was it a voice telling me I must build a baseball field in my backyard. It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm and compassionate. This was what my voice would sound like if I’d only ever experienced love and certainty in my life. How can I describe the warmth of affection in that voice, as it gave me the answer that would forever seal my faith in the divine?

“‘The voice said ‘Go back to bed, Liz’”

Now it’s not clear to me whether Liz Gilbert thinks that the voice that she heard was God or her true, her better self or indeed whether she thinks the two might be the same thing.
And I guess that there is a sense in which we too can never be entirely certain that when we speak to God we aren’t speaking to ourselves. Furthermore when, as sometimes happens, I hear God speaking to me, I am never utterly certain that I’m not hearing from myself. This is where faith comes in.

But what I think we – as Christians - can be sure about is that we are not God. That God is a person – or rather three persons in one - that is entirely different from ourselves. This means that to look up, look towards God is to look away from ourselves. And if we are to believe and follow Jesus it means that it is, at least at times, essential to look towards God, rather than towards ourselves.

Obsessive concern for ourselves is called egocentricity and of course none of us are immune from the problem. It even, I think, creeps into our worship.

It was recently pointed out to me that the chorus of the song beginning ‘Light of the world you stepped down into darkness’ is just a tad egocentric. It goes, you’ll remember:

Here I am to worship,
Here I am to bow down,
Here I am to say that
you're my God
You're altogether lovely
All together worthy,
All together wonderful to me

This sounds suspiciously like the prayer of the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. You’ll remember Jesus tells this parable of two men who went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee prays one type of prayer and the tax-collector another and Jesus says that it’s the tax-collector’s prayer – which is simply ’God be merciful to me a sinner’- which is the one God wants.

Both the Pharisee’s prayer and the song start well. Both are addresses to God. ‘Light of the world you stepped down into darkness’ is fine. Similarly the Pharisee starts with the words, ‘God I thank thee.’

The problem with the Pharisee’s prayer is not particularly what he thanks God for: which is ‘not being like other men‘ - he may well have been that - but his obsession with himself. He goes on to tell God (as if God didn’t know) ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get’. Is this very different from, ‘Here I am to worship; here I am to bow down’?

I am sorry if I have just spoiled this song for you. I actually rather like it. I like the tune and most of its words are OK. I think we just need to be a bit careful in how we address God when we sing to him.

And the remedy for egocentricity in our songs, in our prayers, in our lives? Well it’s the Lord ’s Prayer. I said earlier that in looking up we orientate ourselves towards God and this is precisely what the Lord ’s Prayer does.

Firstly it’s worth recalling there is not a single mention of the word I in this prayer. There are we’s and there are you’s but no I’s

Secondly In the original Greek the payer begins ‘Abba’ which is best translated as ‘Dad’. Now ‘Dad’ or ‘Abba’ - rather like ‘Look!’ - is a performative word that reorientates us by making us focus on the relationship we have with God. ‘Abba’, of course is usually translated with two words ‘Our Father’ which taken together sort of does the job of ‘Dad’ but not as well I think. ‘Dad’ makes you pause after you have said it and we often start and run into this prayer so fast that we don’t have the have to the chance to remember who we are saying it to.

Thirdly whilst there are five us’s in the prayer in this prayer there is only one we. Give us today our daily bread, forgive us our sins… who sin against us, lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil. The one we comes in the words ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’. This prayer is not about what we can do for God (except in this one instance – forgiving the sins of others) it’s about what God can do for us.

Fourthly before we get to the first us there are three you’s. After the initial ‘Dad’, the prayer makes us focus even more on who we are talking to though the words ‘hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done’. There are then three you’s before we get onto the petitions: the things we are asking for ourselves. And after we have asked for daily bread, forgiveness of sins and protection from evil, the prayer brings us back to you again, with the words: ’For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and for ever’.

The Lord ’s Prayer is not just a model prayer, it’s a model for the way we should lead our life. The essence of the Christian life is that it’s oriented towards God. We too should obey John the Baptist’s command ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’ as often as we can. But we don’t have to do this solely in our own strength. As Paul says in the reading from Romans we heard earlier, ‘When we cry Abba, Father, it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our Spirit that we are children of God’. When we look up, God will look down on us and draw us to himself.

Thanks to Joanna Collicutt for some of the ideas in this sermon.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The Visit of the Shepherds and Revolutionary Christianity

Sermon on Luke 2: 15-21 (and Romans 4: 8-14) St Matthew’s, 2 January 2011

Luke’s story of the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus in his manger is all of a piece with one of the big theme in his gospel: that Jesus is on the side of the poor and powerless.

Here at Jesus’ birth the first people to come and see him are shepherds – who for the most part were viewed as lower class in first century Palestinian society and certainly weren’t very well off. At his resurrection the first people to see him alive will be a group of women who then - as for much of the intervening centuries – were seen as second class to men. Luke is always putting poor and powerless people at the heart of his story about Jesus.

Where Luke has shepherds visiting the baby Matthew has Magi – important religious figures who, when they turn up in, what is for them, a foreign country, appear to have instant access to the ruling authorities (in this case King Herod). The visit of the Magi is full of symbolism about the true nature of kingship and power but sounds a bit implausible to me – who would actually bring a baby gold, frankincense and myrrh: surely a rattle would be much more appropriate. The visit of the shepherds always seems somewhat more realistic - a real spontaneous response by a group of ordinary people to an event which somehow they grasp is going to change the world for them.

Luke throughout his gospel is much more concerned with Jesus’ impact on ordinary people than the powers that be. This isn’t to say that he is unconcerned about power-relations in society and in particular the relationship between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless.

On the contrary Luke is, for example, much more interested, than say Matthew, in Jesus’ political teaching about poverty and oppression. Matthew does record Jesus speaking about these things but he tends to see Jesus speaking of them in spiritual rather than physical terms. When Luke speaks of poor people – he means people who don’t have a lot of money. When Matthew speaks of poor people – he means people who are spiritually impoverished. Of course this exaggerates the difference in perspective because Luke knows that people who are financially poor are less likely to have time for spiritual things and Matthew knows that those who are financially wealthy are going to have greater problems with Jesus’ spiritual demand to give up everything in order to follow him. But in general Luke sees Jesus as ‘biased towards the physically poor’ whereas Matthew seems to see this less clearly.

This difference in perspective of the two gospel writers is reflected in the debate about Jesus’ teaching that has echoed down the ages. Is the good news for everyone or is it only for those who God has special regard for.

The gospel reading – as well as recording the visit of the shepherds – also records the circumcision of Jesus and the epistle reading picks up on this. Paul in his letter to the Romans is arguing that the coming of Jesus makes it clear that it’s not circumcision which makes you a member of God’s chosen people but faith (and even suggests that ‘twas ever thus – that people just hadn’t really seen it that way before). In other words Paul is saying that the good news of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is for everyone – not just a select few who have gone though a particular initiation right.

We are now fairly used to the idea espoused by Paul in his letter to the Galatians that ‘There is no Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ – even if it has taken around 2000 years for us to take this on board. But does this mean that God has no special favourites anymore? Isn’t he biased towards the poor and powerless? Does he not have special regard for these people?

I would suggest that the good news of the gospel is good news precisely because Jesus has come primarily (as he himself claimed at the very start of his ministry) ‘to preach good news to the poor..proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed’ This isn’t good news for the rich and powerful. It’s not even saying ‘I have come to warn the wealthy oppressors that they better change their ways. It’s arguing that what he says and does will have a direct impact on marginalised, poor and powerless people – like the shepherds that night in the fields outside of Bethlehem – regardless of what establishment, rich and powerful people do.

This is why I want to have a gentle dig at Archbishop Rowan William’s Christmas sermon this year. I quote

"Faced with the hardship that quite clearly lies ahead for so many in the wake of financial crisis and public spending cuts, how far are we able to sustain a living sense of loyalty to each other, a real willingness to bear the load together? How eager are we to find some spot where we feel safe from the pressures that are crippling and terrifying others? As has more than once been said, we can and will as a society bear hardship if we are confident that it is being fairly shared; and we shall have that confidence only if there are signs that everyone is committed to their neighbour, that no-one is just forgotten, that no interest group or pressure group is able to opt out."

This is all well and good as far as it goes: but it is essentially a warning to the rich and powerful not good news for the poor and powerless. (And I must say at this point that I count myself as one of the former rather than the latter) Even so as warnings to the rich and powerful go it isn’t really of the same tenor as Jesus. Rowan respectfully asks about how far we are able to do things like ‘bear the load together’ and gently chides us about our tendency ‘to find some spot where we feel safe’. In Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says ‘Woe to you that are rich for you have received your consolation, woe to you that are full now for you shall hunger’. Not exactly gentle chiding.

Rowan Williams is also urging a greater sharing of what we have and a greater commitment to our neighbour. Jesus says much the same thing later in his ministry (the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 and the parable of the Good Samaritan spring to mind). And we rich do need to be reminded of these things. But where is ‘the good news for the poor’? Isn’t Rowan William’s just saying that if we rich and powerful don’t help build the Big Society (or whatever you want to call it) then the poor and powerless will suffer.

I am reminded of a book I got for Christmas by a Marxist called Terry Eagleton – entitled Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, This is a devastating attack on the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al. Eagleton is no Christian but he is brilliant at exposing the New Atheists’ lack of understanding of what Christianity actually is but - as the blurb on the back says – ‘he also launches a stinging assault on what he sees as Christianity’s betrayal of its revolutionary mission’.

We, the church, surely do have something to offer the poor and powerless. Not only practical help – like hostels for the homeless at one level or just neighbourly help at another – but also surely, and perhaps more importantly, a robust critique of modern-day, consumerist, individualistic society. Eagleton reminds us that Karl Bath – one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century described the capitalist system as ‘almost unequivocally demonic’: strong words perhaps – but surely more akin to ‘Woe to you that are rich for you have received your consolation’ than ‘How eager are we to find some spot where we feel safe from the pressures that are crippling and terrifying others?’

Perhaps it is time that the preachers in our churches tackled some of the causes of poverty and powerlessness today – and surely our unjust economic system is one of them.

Jesus came as a baby to turn the world upside down. ‘Blessed are you that hunger now for you shall be satisfied,’ he said. Poor people like the shepherds believed him and came to worship him.

I know it is easy to criticise Rowan Williams for his diplomatic language which, of course, hides much that is revolutionary. But perhaps we Christians, in 2011, should resolve to be more overtly revolutionary – that we as a church should be clearer that we bring good news to the poor. Luke says that the shepherds left the ‘stable’ ‘glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen’. It would be good if a few more cleaners, check out staff, and other modern day equivalents of shepherds, left our churches today ‘glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen’!

Image from: (Hope that is OK)