Friday, 27 December 2013

Why Christmas is no joke

A sermon for Midnight Communion.   Christmas Eve, 2013 

In my sermon tonight I want to make a plea for taking Christmas much more seriously than we do.   I have been thinking about the seriousness of Christmas recently because some members of my research group were successful in getting the British Medical Journal to publish a paper in their Christmas edition – which ‘traditionally’ has a lighter, somewhat jokey, almost April Fool’s Day feel to it.   My research group know what I feel about that!

Perhaps a serious sermon isn't what you want to hear this time of night on Christmas Eve.   Perhaps you were looking for a sermon at least beginning with a joke if not ending on one.   I have a friend who makes a point of putting a joke into every sermon they preach.   Perhaps you were hoping for something a bit deep but not so deep that you’d have to think too much.   Something about Christmas trees, presents, feasting on good food, or some such subject.   There will be time for presents, turkey, even cracker jokes but for a moment let us be serious.  

My thesis is that Christmas for many of us is becoming less and less serious, so that it comes more and more to resemble a carnival – which Christians have traditionally celebrated, either at the beginning of Lent – on Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day – or at the end of summer – at Halloween.    Carnivals are all about having fun– sometimes as a prelude to a fast – Pancake Day – or sometimes as a way of mocking death – Halloween.   Now there is nothing wrong with carnival – it’s just that Christmas is not a carnival.  Although, of course, there is a place for fun at Christmas, because of after all it is a celebration and fun is an essential part of a celebration.   But what we celebrate is serious and not a joke.

It is clear to almost everyone that we have over-commercialised Christmas, so that it’s now more about shopping than almost anything else, at least in the preparations for the day itself.   But shopping can be serious and indeed it is for lots of us: not just those of us who are poor and so need to use our money wisely but also those of us who find our identity in our possessions.   But the commercialisation of Christmas is not my concern tonight and indeed, whilst I think it is a problem, I also think moaning about the commercialisation of Christmas can be overdone    It is right to spend more money at Christmas than on other days.   You need to spend money to celebrate and Christmas as I have already said is a celebration.

John Bell, on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day yesterday, was bemoaning the fact that Christmas also seems to have been infantilised and sentimentalised.   

‘Infantilised’ because you might now be forgiven for thinking that Christmas is for children rather than adults.   In fact you hear quite a lot people saying that.   And children do seem to be the major beneficiaries of much of that shopping I have just been talking about.  

John Bell also argues that the representation of the Christmas story by children – wearing fairy wings and nighties or dressing gowns and tea-towels – is becoming the predominant way it is heard.   Admittedly there is a baby involved in the story – but all the other leading characters, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, even the angels were adults rather than children.   And the adult baddies in the story – the Roman Caesar and Herod the Jewish King– seems to get left out of many of these modern nativity plays for fear of upsetting the children.  

The story of the nativity seems to be assuming the status of that other Christmas story – that of Santa Klaus – which is clearly for children.   And this has got me thinking.   Perhaps the story of Santa Klaus is taking over from the real story of Christmas and will become more elaborate as the real story gets simplified.  

John Bell argues that the Christmas story has not only become infantilised it’s become sentimentalised into ‘a cameo of cosiness and candlelight’.   The Christmas story is about God’s love for us but this love is not sentimental fondness but a love that is risky and sacrificial.   A love that is shown by the birth of a baby called Jesus, not in a safe maternity ward, but in a stable: a birth to an unmarried mother rather than a conventional married couple.   A birth which so threaten s the powers that be that the local potentate embarks on a programme of infanticide and the couple are forced to flee to another country.  

Commercialisation, infantilisation and sentimentalisation all threaten to trivialise Christmas.   To remind you Christmas is not primarily about shopping and giving – if anything it’s about receiving.   It’s not just for children it’s for adults as well.   It is about celebrating the birth of Jesus in difficult circumstances not in comfort, let alone luxury. 

So the Christmas story is more adult less sentimental than we might have been led to believe but why is it serious?   Well we might think that the most significant, and therefore serious, event in our lives is our birth, followed closely by our death.   But the Christmas story suggests that it’s not our own birth, death or even what we do in between that gives significance to our lives but the birth, life and death of that baby born in a stable over 2000 years.   An extraordinary claim and, if true, surely something to be taken seriously.  

The names that are given that baby give us some clue as to why we should take his birth seriously.   He was to be called Emmanuel: God with us and Jesus: that is Saviour. 

We can so easily forget the point of Christmas.  And that point can be so easily trivialised.  It is I think worth pausing to remember what it is really all about: the serious, significant and important.

Saturday, 29 June 2013


Deuteronomy 15: 1-18

‘Living generously’ is a theme that underlies both our passage from Deuteronomy today and our gospel reading (Matthew 81: 21-35). I will focus on the Deuteronomy reading. The passage in Deuteronomy that gives us instructions on three issues: poverty, debt and slavery – pretty big issues I think you will agree. It can be summarised as: ‘If you are rich: live generously’.

But, before turning to see what the passage has to say about that there are two things the passage might also be: a set of instructions for politicians about the way that society should be run and advice for people in poverty, debt or slavery about how to cope with their situation or get themselves out of it.

So does the passage give politicians any instructions about poverty, debt and slavery? Firstly the passage does suggest that poverty and slavery (if not debt) are bad things; that in an ideal world there would be no poverty and slavery. But it also accepts that debt, poverty and slavery are inevitable, at least in the here and now.

Poverty is clearly a bad thing and verse 4 promises that at some point ‘There will be no more among you for the Lord your God will bless you in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess.’ But only seven verses later (verse 11) it says ‘the poor will never cease out of the land’. Jesus says something similar to this when he says to Judas after Mary has poured a bottle of perfume over his feet, ‘You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’

Perhaps we should note that Jesus, in his first sermon as reported by Luke, says that he has come to preach good news to the poor; but he doesn’t say he has come to abolish poverty. In his sermon on the plain he proclaims ‘Blessed are the poor’ implying that, if poverty is a bad thing, it has some compensations.

Now you might think that debt, like poverty, is a bad thing and that therefore all debts should be cancelled. But of course if you did that there would be chaos. Today’s society depends on debt but that is not all bad. There is good lending and bad lending. Think mortgages here. Mortgages are debts and in today’s society mortgages provide people with housing which is under their control and not that of private landlords. There is surely some value in mortgages.

In this passage we hear (verse 6) that God will bless the Israelites by giving them the capacity to ‘lend money to many’ and at verse 8 the rich are commanded to ‘open your hand to your poor brother and lend him sufficient for his need’. The surprising thing here is that the instruction is to lend to the poor not give them stuff. Incidentally here is a lesson relevant to the rapid growth of Church-run food banks. The authors of Deuteronomy clearly don’t think debt per se is a bad thing. If some people are lending some people will be borrowing.

And you also might think that slavery, like poverty and debt, is a bad thing and we should abolish all forms of it. Well it’s easy to say that now but for much of the time that the books of the Bible refer to slavery was a given. This passage in Deuteronomy is about slavery that was a consequence of debt that could not be paid. This sort of slavery gave slaves some security that that their basic needs of food, water, clothes and shelter would be met.

The writers of the Bible clearly do not think slavery is particularly bad. Paul’s famous verse in his letter to the Galatians: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’, doesn’t mean that he condemns slavery per se. In fact when he writes to his friend Philemon about Philemon’s slave Onesimus he does not tell his friend to release Onesimus: quite the contrary Paul gives a strong hint or two that he would very much like to have Philemon as his slave. Our page in Deuteronomy also takes slavery for granted.

Now in saying all this I am not saying that the writers of Deuteronomy (and indeed Jesus and Paul) are entirely accepting of the status quo. Far from it!. I would suggest, for example, that this passage proposes that society should be organised in quite a different way from the way it is today. But still this passage is not primarily addressed to politicians.

The second thing this passage is not, and even more obviously, is that it’s not a set of instructions about what to do when you yourself are poor, in debt or a slave.
Nowhere in the passage does it say: ‘You must not get into poverty.’ That would have been as absurd then as it is now nowadays to talk about the undeserving poor. No-one deliberately makes themselves poor. In a passing reference the passage does say that when God blesses the Israelites they ‘shall not borrow’. But this isn’t saying you must not borrow – like you shall not kill, steal, lie, etc.

The passage doesn’t even say you must not make yourself a slave. Slavery – in this case selling oneself into the ownership of someone with more land and/or livestock - was a rational economic decision which many people took when facing, say, the failure of their crops.

It is also I think noteworthy that this passage does not tell the poor, debtors or slaves whether they are just to accept their lot or resist their condition. Other passages in the scriptures bear upon that issue.

So if this passage is not primarily a set of instructions to politicians about what to do about poverty, debt or slavery or what to do when you are poor, a debtor or a slave, who is it addressed to and what is it about? Well I think it’s mainly about what to do when you when you have people owing money to you, when you see poor people around about you and when you are a slave owner. You can see it a set of instructions for those who enough money to give away or lend or to buy slaves. These instructions can be summarised as ‘Be generous!’.

Now you might think you don’t have enough money to lend people any or give much of it away, and certainly you might think you don’t have slaves. Or you might think that the problems of poverty, debt and slavery cannot simply be solved by people just being generous but I think it is worth investigating how this principle of living generously might apply to us and where it could take us.

Take slave-owning to start with. Now it is easy I think to think that slavery has been abolished. That no one in today’s society is a slave – we are all free. So instructions about slave owning are surely irrelevant?

But is this really the case? Many of us do have economic power over other people’s lives. The most obvious case being that many of us are bosses where we work – with power to dictate (at least to some extent) what those people who work for us do. This power is generally given to us by the organisation we work for but sometimes through the wealth we have accrued. Be generous is something worth thinking about if you employ people. Be generous in how much you pay them and how much time off you give them.

Even if we are not direct employers – most of rely on lots of other people to do some basic things for us – cleaning (where we live and work and the places in between), removing our rubbish, growing and cooking (nowadays called processing) our food, repairing our cars, our bikes, our clothes, our houses, etc. Some of these things are often very skilled and the people who do these things for us may be paid for rather than coerced into doing so but these verses surely tell us how to treat those people we depend on for our basic needs. Be generous next time that shop assistant short changes you. Be generous when the cleaner accidentally breaks your favourite ornament.

Our passage in Deuteronomy (verse 14) says we should be generous to our slaves: ‘Supply them liberally from your threshing floor; i.e. grain for making bread. So you should give them the means to live. But more than that ‘Supply them liberally from your wine press’ i.e. you should give them more than just the basics but also the means of celebration. We should remember this verse in particular when we come to share bread and wine at our Communion today.

But it’s not just slaves or people who work for us, and are therefore most likely to be poorer than us, that we are to be generous to: we are also to be generous to everyone who is poor.

Next debt. We might think we don’t have the capacity to lend people money so, like the instructions about slavery, these instructions about being generous to debtors surely cannot be relevant to us? We know, for sure, that debt is a problem in modern society but surely we are not the problem; we are not lending people money?

Firstly some of us do lend money to others at times and the instruction here to lend ungrudgingly, as if you are not likely to get the money back, is surely worth considering. Secondly we are caught up in a society which, as I said earlier, depends on borrowing and lending for its existence. If we have a bank account that is in credit we are in effect lending money to our neighbour who has an overdraft. In as much as we benefit from that society we collude in all this borrowing and lending. Bankers have got a bad name recently because they seem to have mismanaged this borrowing and lending done on our behalf and incidentally we might think of being more generous in our attitude to them.

We might also be thinking that the system proposed in this passage– of releasing people from their debts every seven years – could not possibly work in modern society. In fact I am dubious that it could have worked in the society to which the writers Deuteronomy were writing.

I don’t really know where this principle of being more generous to those we lend money to would take us – certainly to the relief of the debts of developing countries as in the successful Jubilee 2000 campaign – but I am certain that it is an important principle. Jesus in the parable that we heard as our gospel reading today underlines this. Perhaps Jesus is saying here that since God forgives our big debts so we should be forgive the little debts of others.

And finally poverty. The writers of Deuteronomy are surely being ironic when they say (verse 7): ‘If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you then..’. Those who first heard these words would surely have said ‘‘If there is a poor man’, well of course there are poor people amongst us, but so what?’ The authors’ response is to say ‘You shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient to his need, whatever it might be’. And moreover to ‘Give to him freely and your heart should not be grudging’.

The emphasis here is on the responsibility and attitude of the giver (or rather the lender) not the plight of the person given to. The passage is not saying: first identify the really poor around you – the deserving poor – and give them enough to live on. It’s saying, be generous in your giving/lending to those in need whatever their needs. It is, of course, easier for us to give people things that we think that they need but here we are enjoined to give to people in relation to their need not what we think of as their need.

So to summarise: be generous to those who work for you, both directly and indirectly, to those who you lend money (both directly and indirectly) and to those who are poor and not just the deserving poor. But why? Our passage from Deuteronomy makes this clear: because the Lord our God has been and will be generous to us. We remember this in the Communion meal we are about to share. We will remember that God has generously given us his son and Jesus has generously given of himself – his body and his blood in which we all share. If God is generous then clearly we, who are made in his image, should be generous as well.

Sunday, 12 May 2013


12th May 2013, St Matthew’s, Reading: John 17: 20-26

Here is a conversation I heard recently – anonymised to protect the reputation of those concerned and ever so slightly embellished.

James: I was wondering, Jim, why you left St Justice down the road and joined St Compassion’s.

Jim: Well, James, St Justices’ has nice stained glass windows but I just couldn’t get on with the congregation there.

James: Oh, and why was that?

Jim: Well they are very nice people at St Justice’s but their services are very odd.

James: In what way?

Jim: Well the men all wear ties and the women all wear hats for a start. And for another thing they just can’t seem to see other people’s point of view.

James: Over important issues?

Jim: Oh yes : really important issues such as the synoptic question.

James: Oh, we’re not like that at St Compassion’s. We’re awfully tolerant of one-another’s views here and we don’t care what we wear.

Jim: Tolerance: hmph! That’s called being wishy-washy at St Justice’s.

James: Well here at St Compassion’s we call that being bigoted. We feel that churches like St Justice’; should be expelled from the Church of England.

So: was it right for Jim to leave St Justice’s for St Compassion’s? Well of course it is OK, at times, to change churches. But then was it right for Jim to criticise St Justice’s when he joined St Compassion’s. That seems more doubtful. Was James being over-hasty in describing the congregation at St Justice’s as bigoted? Wasn’t he being a tad intolerant himself? Of course we don’t know all the full facts of the situation but even so this conversation feels wrong somehow. It is surely not how Christians should behave.

The conversation illustrates the way Christians can be intolerant of one another but today’s sermon is not about tolerance, it’s about unity. Unity is much bigger, much more important than tolerance of one another’s views. When we all declare, as we do at our communion service: ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread, ‘we are – of course -saying something much more important that that we agree over the synoptic question or whether we tolerate one over’s different views over that question.

The synoptic question is by the way the question of which of the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, was written first, and much ink has been spilled over it. Of course I am using the synoptic question as a ludicrous example of a question over which Christians disagree. For the synoptic question: you can substitute currently controversial questions around women bishops, gay marriage, etc. or old questions like transubstantiation, substitionory atonement, evolution v special creation etc. etc. etc.

And so to the main subject of this sermon: unity. In this sermon I want to pose three questions: the answer to the first is fairl long but to the second and third is quite short.

First: What is unity but also what is it not?

Secondly: Is diversity disunity?

And thirdly: What is the relationship between unity and community?

I’ll try and answer these questions before coming back to the conversation that I began with and to explore whether thinking more about what we mean by unity might affect how we talk to, and about, other Christians.

So my first big question: What is unity and what is it not?

Unity is one of those things we as Christians aspire to and pray regularly for. We are right to do so. Jesus prays for unity in the reading from John’s gospel that we have just heard. In that reading John is recounting a prayer that Jesus prayed at the Last Supper. But we might not be clear about what unity is precisely.

Firstly and most importantly unity for Christians is unity with God and not just, or even mainly, unity between Christians. So for Christians unity has both a horizontal and a vertical dimension. The great promise of Jesus, in his sermon to the disciples at the Last Supper, is that we can have unity with God the Father though him and though the Holy Spirit – the vertical dimension – but also that because of this unity with God we can hope for unity with one another - the horizontal dimension. If you only remember one thing from this sermon today please remember that unity with God is more important for us than unity with one another, because it is impossible to have true and abiding unity with one another unless this is grounded in our relationship with God.

Secondly unity has two aspects: oneness and togetherness. We are unified when we are one body rather than two, three or more different bodies. To become one body we need to come together rather than move apart from one another. For example we are one body when we come together in one place, at one moment in time, to share in one bread. Jesus, in our reading, prays for both oneness and togetherness. In Chapter 17 verse 21 he prays for oneness – he prays that those who believe in him ‘may all be one’ But in verse 24 he prays for togetherness: that ‘they (the disciples)…may be with me (Jesus) where I am’. It is clearly possible for a group of people to be one but not together or together and not one. Both oneness and togetherness are important for unity.

Thirdly unity is primarily a gift to be prayed for rather than something we can make happen. At the Last Supper, Jesus prays to his Father for the gift of unity for his disciples – and not just the disciples – those ‘who believe in me though their word’. The world often sees unity as something that can be got by our own efforts. It’s often assumed that we can achieve unity if we work hard enough for it. And of course we are not powerless in this regard. We can, to a degree, do things to increase our chances, if you like, of unity with God and one another. We can pray for a start and we can endeavour to be united with our fellow Christians. But at the end of the day it is God who gives us unity.

All of this doesn’t really get to the heart of the question of what unity really is. One obvious thing it might be is love. So is it ‘just’ the love of God for us, us for God and us for one another? That there is a clear connection between love and unity is perhaps obvious. In verse 23 Jesus prays to his Father that he may be one with the disciples and that they may become perfectly one with one another, ‘so that the world may know that thou has sent me and hast loved them’. But this verse indicates that Jesus is praying for unity so that the Father’s love might be demonstrated, so clearly unity is a prerequisite for that demonstration of love and not the same thing.

It is perhaps easier to say what unity is not rather than what it is. And one thing it clearly isn’t is uniformity of belief or practice. Of course there is a relationship between unity and belief? At verse 20 Jesus makes it clear that he is praying for unity for those ‘who believe in me through the disciples’ word’. But what does he mean by ‘believe in me’ precisely?

Clearly ‘believing in Jesus’ is much more than just believing that he existed or that he died on a cross or even that he rose from the dead. It’s clearly doesn’t really matter what we believe in relation to the synoptic question but does it matter what we believe about transubstantiation, substitutionary atonement, etc? Well I don’t think so, but some might. (I am afraid I am not going to explain what transubstantiation and substitutionary atonement are today even if I could) I think when Jesus talks about people who believe in me he means just that. It’s deliberately vague. But in your heart of hearts I think you know whether you believe in Jesus or not.

I am sorry if that makes some people here feel uncomfortable. It would make me feel uncomfortable at certain points in my life when I doubt whether I really believe in Jesus or not. But I know there are times when I really do believe in him and I have come to believe that you can’t make yourself belief things that you don’t. Just as I cannot make myself belief that 1 + 1 = 3 I cannot make myself believe in Jesus. Belief, like unity, is, I believe, a gift. Sorry that was a bit of an aside.

Back to unity and to say that just as tolerance isn’t unity, unity is much more than uniformity of belief – correct or otherwise.

And so to my smaller and easier to answer second question: Is diversity disunity? Putting the question like that makes the answer obvious. When Jesus prays for his disciples to be one he isn’t praying for them to be all the same – in beliefs or practices or in anything else. Jesus’ relationship with each one of us is very different and so unity can embrace diversity.

The best model we have here is the Trinity. God is one but within that oneness there is diversity: the three persons of the Trinity. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are different persons with different relationships one with another. But within the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit together are one.

My third question is: What is the relationship between unity and community? You’ll notice unity forms part of the word community. Firstly it’s worth pointing out that Jesus’ prayer, at the Last Suppers, is for all the disciples –and not just for them – also those who believe in him through the disciples. Here Jesus is not talking to or praying for one particular disciple.

When he prays that ‘they may also be in us’ he means that he wants them collectively to be united with him and his Father not just individually. Unity – even in the vertical dimension – can never be a matter of just my relationship with God but our relationships with God. We live in such an individualistic age that we cannot very easily see how we collectively can have a relationship with God that is distinct from our individual relationships (and I am not denying that those are important too). Obviously in the horizontal dimension unity needs at least two people to make any sense at all. And Jesus here isn’t just talking about individual relationships he’s asking for unity for the whole fledgling community of the church

But secondly the fact that the unity that Jesus prays for has to be visible enough to challenge the world to believe in him shows us that what he asking for is not just a spiritual union but a unity that can be seen in both its horizontal and vertical dimensions. In verse 21, for example, Jesus prays for unity ‘so that the world may believe that thou has sent me’ So Jesus is praying for a unity that can be seen by others. And now that Jesus has ascended into heaven this surely primarily means the way that Christians behave towards one another. Unity is, then, made concrete in community. Without community we might say we are united but without actions our words will be just words.

So finally even if we haven’t exactly pinned down what unity is, perhaps we know it when we see it.

Moreover I hope I have said enough to show you that unity is not just tolerance of different beliefs and certainly not just uniformity of belief. But still unity, belief and tolerance are connected so how might reflecting on unity have helped James and Jim in their conversation about changing churches? It does seem to me important that Jesus’ desire for unity amongst his disciples should actually mean something practical particularly – but of course, not just - when as Christians we are talking about other Christians. I am not saying that I am at all perfect in this regard. In fact I am regretting saying something really bad about someone only this week but here is a way the conversation between James and Jim might have been better.

James: I was wondering, Jim, why you left St Justice down the road and joined St Compassion’s

Jim: Well, James, St Justices’ has nice stained glass windows but I was looking for something different.

James: Oh, and why was that?

Jim: Well they are very nice people at St Justices’ but they have ways of worshipping and views that are different to mine.

James: Oh well, welcome to St Compassion’s. We hope you will find your home amongst us. But I feel we at St Compassions should do more with the people at St Justice’s,

Saturday, 23 February 2013

The tempation of security

Sermon on Matthew 4: 1-11

This is a sermon adapted from a sermon preached in the 1960s by Alan Robson and reprinted in it’s entirely in the October 2010 edition of Minsters-at- Work. I have shortened it somewhat and edited it slightly.
In our reading today ‘Jesus is in the wilderness, face to face with the Devil. God is absent. On the cross the situation is the same. Jesus is face to face with the powers of evil – alone. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus calls out.
The twice repeated taunt of the Devil in the wilderness: “If thou be the son of God..,” is echoed by those who jeered at him on Calvary: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
In the third temptation the Devil, taking Jesus onto a high mountain, shows him all the kingdoms of the world and promises, “All these things will I give you if you fall down and worship me.” Jesus refuses.
Similarly, in the story of the crucifixion, Jesus never compromises with the forces of evil. They have their way and he dies. But the story ends with Jesus – again on a high mountain – saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me.”
If it is right to think that the temptation story is a commentary on the Easter story then it must throw light on the meaning of the death and exaltation of Jesus – and on its significance for us. It must reveal what it is about Jesus that makes him good news for us. The details of the temptation story are strikingly peculiar:
  • The dialogue between Jesus and the Devil.
  • The suggestion of turning stones into bread.
  • The picture of Jesus and the Devil standing together on the pinnacle of the Temple.
  • The absurd notion that from the mountain-top they could see all the kingdoms of the earth. 

The story is highly imaginative, extravagant in its imagery; it is the stuff that dreams are made of. Yet the essence of it is clear enough. There are three temptations and they correspond to the basic needs we all recognise in our lives:
  • I want bread – or economic security;
  • I want protection from life’s dangers – like falling from the pinnacle of the Temple;
  • I want to rule the world or, in more modest terms, I want to belong – to have power or status. 

Whether or not it is right in this way to find a particular significance in each of the three temptations matters little because in the end they all end up to one fundamental need – the need for security.
We are all looking for a life of security, but in our anxious pursuit of security, life itself is passing us by. It is the Devil who tempts us to look to ourselves and our security. God, in Jesus, calls us to forsake our security and get on with living. What the Devil promises in terms of bread, protection and status is only an illusion of security. The Devil’s promise is never fulfilled.
But we are called to live, as it were, in the wilderness, deprived of the usual comforts and securities which people crave. But when in that wilderness we turn to God we generally do so in the hope that he will provide just that kind of security that the Devil offers Jesus.
Note that, for the first two temptations at least, the Devil is not tempting Jesus to turn against God. He is tempting him to look to God for his personal security – to make use of God to fulfil his own needs. Jesus is in the wilderness; he is hungry and there is nothing to eat. “Go on” says the Devil, “You’re the Son of God; ask him, he will provide you with food”. Jesus is on the pinnacle of the Temple – a desperately dangerous place to be. “Go on” says the Devil, “You’re the Son of God; jump off and he will protect you from harm.”
But Jesus will not put God to the test. God sent Jesus into the wilderness not that Jesus might test him, but that he might test Jesus. In the wilderness Jesus is on his own, face to face with the Devil, face to face with temptation to seek his own security. God is nowhere about. God waits on the other side of the wilderness.
This is what the cross is all about. It is the ultimate wilderness experience. Jesus is on his own, face to face with the forces of evil. God is nowhere to be seen: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” God is found on the other side of the wilderness of suffering and death: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given me.”
We live at a time when there is widespread disillusionment, apathy, and sometimes open hostility towards Christianity. And when we’ve served up all the usual reasons for this – economic, sociological and so on - the fact remains that people have discovered that the gospel that the Church has regularly preached is not true.
The Church has often offered people ‘instant security’ of the kind it knows people desire and then they’ve discovered that it doesn’t work. Putting it bluntly the Church has been doing the work of the Devil: promising that if only people will turn to God all their problems will be resolved. The stones will become bread; they will be protected from all dangers; they will enjoy security and status. This isn’t true, and people know it isn’t true – but then it isn’t the Gospel either…
The Church’s real role is to lead people through the wilderness. This means that first we must accept the fact that life is often a wilderness – a wilderness of poverty, homelessness of alienation, estrangement, doubt, anxiety and despair in which not only the poor but the affluent find themselves.
Yet we also have a Gospel: we have a word of good news – for those who can take it. But it is a hard word: a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others. I talked about this word a few weeks back.
The word is that it is in losing our lives that we shall save them. It is in dying that we live. It is in forsaking all desire for security that we shall find our ultimate security. The Old Testament affirmation: ‘No man shall see God and live’ becomes in the New Testament, ‘No man shall see God except he die’. This, it seems, is the word we find in Jesus.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Revering the earth. A talk for Plough Sunday

This was originally given as a talk for children as well as adults so hence the greater interactions with the congregation than is perhaps usual. You will need a plant pot, a bag of compost and a crocus bulb for everyone present


From Wendell Berry (1969) The Long Legged House, Counterpoint.

"The most exemplary nature is that of topsoil. It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter in it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future”

Isaiah 28: 23-29

[23] Give ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech.

[24] Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? does he continually open and harrow his ground?

[25] When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cummin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and spelt as the border?

[26] For he is instructed aright; his God teaches him.

[27] Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cummin; but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cummin with a rod.

[28] Does one crush bread grain? No, he does not thresh it for ever; when he drives his cart wheel over it with his horses, he does not crush it.

[29] This also comes from the LORD of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom.

John 12: 24-25

[24] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

[25] He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

I’ve recently got interested in earth. It’s is amazing stuff and deserves to be thought about more, and treated with more reverence, than we generally do. People used to think that everything came from four elements: air, light, water but also earth and there is still truth in this idea. The Bible has a lot to say about where things come from which we need to take head of. Today we are celebrating Plough Sunday. It used to be celebrated by bringing in a plough to church for a blessing. Ploughs are used to till the earth. I couldn’t find a plough to bring to church today so instead I have brought some earth/compost for you to take away with you. Today I want to think more about earth and in particular what it symbolises.

So can you tell me what earth is made of?

Dead plants and animals; rock (ground up finely); living bacteria, earthworms

And why do we need earth or soil?

To grow things for food

So today I would like to give you a pot of earth.

First would you like to smell it? What does it smell like?

Second would you like to feel it? What does it feel like?

So why have I brought some earth along for you? Well today, as I said, we are celebrating Plough Sunday. It’s one of the Church’s services that are designed to celebrate the farming year which begins with ploughing, continues through sowing then growing and ends with harvesting. We, in the Church, still celebrate Harvest, but generally forget the other things that famers must do to produce food for us to eat.

Back in Victorian times Plough Sunday was observed on the First Sunday after Epiphany, on the 6th January. But its roots lie in a much older tradition associated with the first working day after the twelve days of Christmas, known as ‘Plough Monday’. In days when food was scarce in winter, the observance looked forward to the time of sowing with the promise of a harvest to come

Plough Sunday is celebrated in the middle of winter. But we’ve now past the longest night and we can look forward to spring. With spring comes new growth – in particular the new growth of crops: vegetable and fruit bearing plants, wheat and other plants producing grains for bread, etc. But also in spring there begins to be enough food around so that the farm animals can give birth to their young and we can have milk, eggs and of course meat to eat again.

After the Christmas break the farmers must get back to work again and their work begins with ploughing. Ploughs are one of the first tools than humans invented in the early days of agriculture – to get more food out of the earth than it would do otherwise. Ploughing is not unproblematic – like all human activity – it needs to be done carefully and sparingly otherwise the farmer risks damaging the earth as our reading from Isaiah reminds us. Isaiah, in the reading we just heard, warns us in parable like the ones Jesus told, that we need to respect the earth.

The Bible recognises the importance of earth and compost in many of its stories. Can you think of any stories in the Bible about earth?

The parable of the sower

What was the name of the first human being?


Adam is a Hebrew word. Do you know what for?

Yes ‘earth’ or better still ‘compost;. And I don’t think this is just a coincidence. Names in the bible are always meaningful and God’s choice of Compost as the name of the first human is full of significance.

Furthermore Compost’s first task, his first job, in the Garden of Eden was to till it and keep it, i.e. prepare the ground for the plants in the garden to grow and bring forth fruit. Compost/Adam was, in other words a gardener, and his job was to prepare the soil for the plants but also look after the soil and care for it.

Gardens turn up a lot in the Bible – starting with the Garden of Eden. Then there’s the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus is handed over to the Roman authorities, then there is the Garden where Jesus is laid in a tomb after his crucifixion and where Mary mistakes Jesus for the Gardener after his resurrection and finally the gardens within the new city promised in the Book of Revelation.

So earth and gardens feature in the garden quite a lot but earth, together with sunlight, air and water is required for the growth of seeds. Again there is lots in the Bible about seeds. Can you think of any stories in the Bible about seeds – particularly stories – parables - Jesus told?

The parable of the sower, the mustard seed [Mark 4: 30-32], the wheat and tares, the growing seed [Mark 4: 26-34]

Today I would like just to mention one but very important mini parable Jesus told. He said, according to John, ‘I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many’ [John 12: 24].

Now why does Jesus tell this story? Is a seed really dead? I have got some seeds here. Well they are crocus bulbs – a sort of seed. Do they look dead to you? They are all brown and have got a dry sort of skin. But if you were to break one of them open you would find a bit of green life. I won’t do this because it would kill the bulb.

And similarly with a grain of wheat. If you were to break that open you would find a bit of life inside – a tiny root and shoot – which will become bigger if and when the seed grows into a plant. So is it true that the seed must die if it is to grow into a plant? Well sort of. It is actually the adult plant – and not the seed that must die and become compost for the plant’s life to continue beyond the year.

A lot of people would like to point out that earth, despite appearances it is very much alive, with lots of good bacteria breaking down organic manner to be recycled for the benefit of plants, lots of earthworms, etc. to aerate the soil and contribute to this recycling. But what the bacteria are breaking down, and the worms helping to recycle, is dead stuff, dead plants and animals. This dead material is necessary so that other plants, and the animals that eat those plants, may live. Jesus is using this truth about seeds, the death of plants and earth to emphasise that he, and possibly we, must die so that others might live.

Jesus tells the story of the dying seed in conjunction with one of his sayings which are recorded in all four gospels “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal” according to John [John 12: 25]. Matthew’s version is, ’For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’ [Matthew 16: 25]. Here he is saying that we must die if we are to find life for ourselves. This is a difficult saying, with lots of different layers of meaning to it. I have explained what I think it means in a previous sermon. But it’s one of Jesus’ most important sayings and one that we need to understand and take on board if we are to understand the good news of the Gospel.

It’s obviously not just about physical death but about letting go of our selfish desires. One of those desires is to dominate creation and this is where we come back to Isaiah and respect for earth. God wants us to have a right relationship, not only with him and our neighbour (loving them as ourselves), but also with creation as a whole. Only if we love creation can we cherish it and look after it properly. And w need to start with that seemingly unlovely substance earth.

I have got some bulbs for you to plant in your pots of earth – but I don’t want you to plant them until you get home. I want you to think about the earth for a bit longer.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Losing yourself

St Matthew's Church,  Oxford, 18th November 2012

Today I want to talk briefly about one of Jesus’ sayings that can be found in all four Gospels. Indeed two of the Gospel writers – Matthew and Luke – repeat it, as if to underline it. Here are four different versions of the saying.

Matthew 16:25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

Mark 8:35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Luke 17:33 Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.

John 12:25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

I want to talk about this saying because in the 10.30 services at the moment we are thinking about change and loss. I said two weeks ago – in my sermon at the 10.30 service on the question: ‘Does God Change?’ - that life inevitably involves change and loss. I talked about the way God changes and loses things. One of the biggest things we can lose is our life. And God himself loses his life on the cross, to regain it at his resurrection. And at some point we must all lose our life – in the sense that we will all must die.

So at a basic level all four versions of this saying contain a comforting truth: that death is not the end – there is life after death. ‘Whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’ says Jesus according to Mark.

But, of course, the saying says more than that because it contrasts trying to hold onto your life, implying that that is not a good thing, with not trying to hold onto it, suggesting that that is a good thing. And this is surely paradoxical. Having life is surely a good thing so why should loosing it also be a good thing.

Note that Luke and John seem to be trying – not entirely successfully - to make the saying more rational, less paradoxical than its version in Matthew and Mark.

The saying is always given, as if a maxim, a matter of fact, rather than say an instruction, and in the context of Jesus explaining what it means to follow him. Note the ‘For’ at the beginning of the Matthew and Mark versions’ ‘FOR whoever wants to save his life will lose it, etc. and in the Luke version I quoted Jesus has just been talking about his coming again and ‘For’ is definitely implied.

In Matthew and Mark, and on another occasion in Luke, the saying is given, in the context of Jesus having just talked about the need for the disciple to ‘take up his cross’ when following him. But whilst the saying is given in that context it is separate from the instruction. In none of the gospels does Jesus doesn’t give any explanation for why it is necessary to lose your life in order to find it.

A way round the paradox is to presuppose that the ‘life’ that to be lost in the first half of the maxim means life here on earth and the life to be gained in the second means life after death, life in heaven. In other words you have to lose A to gain B. But listen again to the version from Matthew

‘For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.’

Here it is not so clear that the life that Jesus is talking about is two different things. He seems to be saying that you have to lose A to gain A. And the crucial words here are ‘for me’. If you lose your life for me you will gain it: whether that life is life here on earth or life in heaven.

Another question about this saying is what does Jesus mean by lose? Does he literally mean you have to die to live? Is the loss that he is speaking of here just physical loss, i.e. death, or is it more than just physical life? Now life is surely not just breathing and having a pulse. Jesus is not just talking about the physical functioning of our lungs and heart or even our brain but our life in all its dimensions, life in all its fullness (cf. John 10: 10).

Our life is our identity, what we think of as our self – what we are good at and what we are not so good at, what we like about our self but also what we are ashamed of. When Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the necessity of being born again as a condition of entry to the kingdom of God he is surely re-phrasing the saying we have been thinking of and emphasising, in another way, the necessity of loosing ourselves – to start a new life. So the saying we are thinking of could be reformulated as:

‘For whoever wants to save his self will lose it, but whoever loses his self for me will find it.’

But our life is not just our identity it is our relationships - with our family and friends. And when we think about life in that sense then the saying becomes even harder surely. So when Jesus says, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14: 26) it’s even harder to accept. But Jesus here is surely not saying that it’s good to hate people, and in particular those who love us, but is connecting with the idea that we must loose ourselves to find ourselves.

There is even a sense which it is necessary to lose God – our conception of God at the very least – in order to find him.

Here is Simone Weil on the subject.

‘He [God] emptied himself of his divinity. We should empty ourselves of the false divinity with which we were born. Once we have understood we are nothing, the object of all our efforts is to become nothing. It is for this we suffer with resignation, it for this that we act, it is for this that we pray. May God grant me to become nothing. In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself though me.’

This idea that giving up this life is a necessary precondition for following Jesus, for finding God is a pervasive theme in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament. Here is just one example of Paul on the subject – from his letter to the Philppians (3. 8) ‘For his [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.’

This is such a big issue that it is difficult to do it justice in a short sermon. It connects up with other big gospel themes such as sacrifice being part and parcel of love. It’s also hard to summarise. Perhaps all that can be done is let the words speak for themselves.