Saturday, 21 May 2016

A sermon at the start of Oxfordshire ArtWeeks

St Matthew's, 8th May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 March 2016

"Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others"

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Rejoice in hope

Readings: Psalm 105 and Romans 12: 12

This is the first of three sermons on Paul’s letter to the Romans Chapter 12 verse 12:  ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer’.  My sermon today is on the first command in this verse: rejoice in hope.  So I’ll be talking about hope and indirectly why we are to rejoice in it. 

I want firstly to distinguish between hope and optimism, secondly to suggest that hope is a gift and that it doesn’t make much sense to tell people that they must have hope, thirdly to talk about the grounds for hope: why we can have hope,  and fourthly to ask the question: what are we hoping for?

Firstly hope and optimism.

I think it is really important to distinguish between hope and optimism.  In our text for today Paul says , ‘Rejoice in hope’ not optimism. I am not at all optimistic about what is going to happen to me or the planet but I do have hope.
As some of you may know my work involves – to some extent – predicting the future – particularly when it comes to the food we eat.   I am involved with the University of Oxford’s so-called Future of Food programme.

One of my predictions for the future of food is that we are going to need radically to change what we eat if the planet is going to survive in anything like its current state.  We all need to eat less meat and switch to a more plant-based diet to reduce the amount of green-house gases associated with rearing animals for food - and quite frankly I do not see that happening.   Despite the sort of success of the Paris talks in December I think that human-produced climate change will bring increasing suffering not just to people in far-away countries but even to people in this country – the floods in the North of England are just the beginning.  I am pessimistic but I am still hopeful. 

Similarly in my own life.  I am sorry to witter on about this in sermons but I am acutely aware of how old I am getting.  I turned 60 last year and that makes me feel old.  People tell me that 60 is the new 30 times two but quite frankly I personally don’t believe it.   I know I am coming closer to death but that is not what I really worry about.  I worry about getting sick as I get older.   I know, for example, from looking at the statistics, that roughly one in three of us in this congregation will develop dementia sometime in the future.  These don’t sound to me very good odds.   And I am getting closer to that age when dementia if I am going to get it is more likely to begin.   I am pessimistic but I am still hopeful.

Of course I realise that some of you will be of a more optimistic inclination than I am.   Maybe you think the Paris talks will prove to be turning point in our getting a grips with climate change and that in the end we will find ways of changing what we eat.   Maybe you think that given that two in three don’t get dementia you’ll be fortunate and anyway by the time you get to 60 they’ll have found better ways of treating it.  And it does seem to me be the case that how you look at things makes you more or less optimistic.   It isn’t just a matter of the facts but how you view them. 

And we also know that the world we live in presents us with a particular selection of the facts.  Take the so called refugee crisis.   The news this week has been all about the attacks by young male refugees on women in Cologne.   Almost buried by that news were the stories of Syrian refugees helping out with flood victims in Manchester.   How we see refugees – whether we are optimistic or pessimistic about their arrival in this country - isn’t entirely of our choosing, 

Which brings me to my second point: hope as a gift.

I really don’t think you can command people to hope if they don’t feel hopeful.   Hope for me is not a matter of choice but something that is given to people at different points in their lives.  Telling someone to have hope is like telling them to pull themselves together – as I am sure I have said before.

In this context I think it is interesting that Paul says in our text for today, ‘Rejoice in hope’, not, ‘Hope!’ with an exclamation mark after it or even, ‘Have hope’.  In other words he is not telling the Romans to hope for Jesus to return, or whatever they are supposed to be hopeful for, but to rejoice in the hope that they have already been given.   I challenge you to find me a verse where Paul, John, or any of the other New Testament writers - or indeed Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, commands us to hope.    I know I have issued this challenge before, and someone found me a verse which said something like ‘Be hopeful’ – which I can’t now find – but anyway this isn’t quite the same as ‘Hope’ exclamation mark or ‘Have hope’.

Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians talks a lot about spiritual gifts – such as teaching, healing etc. and in the that section of the epistle called the Hymn to Love starts by telling the Corinthians to ‘Strive for the greater gifts’ and goes on to compare the gift of love with the gifts of prophecy, understanding and knowledge.  Chapter 13 verse 13 – summing up this Hymn - says of the three related gifts of faith, hope and love:  ‘And now faith, hope and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.’ 

So here, for example, Paul is talking about faith, hope and love as things we are given and which will last for ever not things we are commanded to have or do.

Now it is fairly undeniable that Jesus commands us to love.  In his summary of the law he tells us to 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself’.  He even tells us to love our enemies.  And Paul in the same chapter as our text for today commands the Romans – in Chapter 12 verse 10 – to ‘Love one another with mutual affection’.  So I’ll concede that love is – at least to some extent - a matter of choice – but still I think it is difficult to love those we are not naturally drawn to and that we need God’s help in loving someone when they don’t love us back.

When it comes to faith I am even less sure that we can choose for ourselves to have it or not.  My father said to me m- when we talked about what we believed that he wish he had the faith I have.   This used to annoy me, probably unreasonably, because now I think he just wasn’t given a belief in God for some reason that I cannot fathom. 

If someone were to command me to believe that 1 + 1 = 3 I just couldn’t do it however much I wanted to obey their command.   I am not sure Jesus ever commands his disciples to believe in him but if he does then it’s not without giving them reason to do so.  He doesn’t anywhere say, ‘Believe me when I say I am going to rise from the dead’ he just goes ahead and does it and they get to see that he has risen.  This is his gift of to them.

And hope I think is the same as faith.  Hope is a gift.  For Paul hope is one of the primary gifts of the Holy Spirit.  For example earlier in Romans – Chapter 5 verse 5 - he has said: ‘Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’.

I said I wasn’t optimistic when it came to the fate of the planet but that I was hopeful.  But I didn’t explain why I am hopeful.   I am hopeful because I believe in miracles and that God intervenes in history and for me this means that I think that the planet will survive although we are going to need a miracle for that to happen.   I said I wasn’t optimistic when about my old age but nevertheless I am hopeful.  I am hopeful because I believe that God will give me what I need to cope with whatever happens to me – even dementia if I get it.   I don’t think God gives us what we think we need but what we truly need.   And indeed we all really need hope as I think you’ll agree.

Which brings me to my third point: the grounds of our hope.

This is perhaps the easiest part of this sermon: to say if not to believe.  We can have hope because Christ has risen from the dead. 

We can, I think, all agree that our Christian faith stands or falls with the reality of the raising of Jesus from the dead by God.  Two things need to be said about the resurrection in relation to hope.  

Firstly the resurrection is an event which constitutes the definitive act of God’s promise of a future - for both the planet and ourselves: a future that is different but better than now.  Here this aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is made clearer by looking at the history of hope throughout the whole Bible.  The God who raised Jesus from the dead was the God of Israel whose action can only be fully understood against the background of his promises as recounted in the Old Testament.

This is why I chose Psalm 105 as the Old Testament Reading for today.  Psalm 105 is an incredibly up-beat psalm where the psalmist is full of hope for the future.  He/she remembers all that God has done for Israel from the promises made to Abraham about his descendants and the land they were to possess to the liberation of the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt under the leadership of Moses and their taking possession of the land of Canaan.  We heard just the first third of the psalm.   It ends with the words ‘Praise the Lord’.  The psalmist might have equally well have said: ‘Rejoice in hope’.
Now the God of Israel revealed himself to the people of Israel by making promises that opened up the future.  Jesus’ resurrection generated the possibility of a new future for everyone – and that includes us - in which even death is overcome.  In Jesus’ resurrection God guaranteed his promise of a better future, by enacting it in Jesus’ person.  

Secondly an essential feature of the resurrection, as revealed in the resurrection appearances, is Jesus’ identification of himself in those appearance as the same Jesus who died on the cross: even to the point of showing the disciples his wounds.   By raising Jesus from the dead, God promises that the future – including our individual futures and that of the planet - is both a radical discontinuation with the past and a continuation of what has been.
Now the cross represents all that is wrong with this world – its subjection to sin, suffering and death, its godlessness, god forsaken ness and transitory ness - and yet the cross is in the same place as the tomb where Jesus was raised to a new permanent life with God.   Literally so if you believe in the builders of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where the remains of the cross and the tomb are, or at least were, in the same building.
The resurrection was not the survival of some part of Jesus which was not subject to death.   Jesus was wholly dead and wholly raised by God.  Similarly God’s promise to us is - enacted in the Resurrection - is for a radically new future for these bodies of ours and for the world.   Yet this new future, this new life, has a continuity with the past.  Just as it the same Jesus who was crucified and raised so God’s promise is not for another world but for the new creation of this world, and it’s not for other-worldly bodies but for these bodies of ours.

The promise of the resurrection is given to the world in which the cross stands.   And it is given to that world and to ourselves in all our material and worldly reality.  It is not that some aspect of our wold, or our bodies, can survive but that the whole of creation, subject as it is to sin, suffering and death, will be transformed in God’s new creation.  It is this which gives Jesus’ resurrection its universal cosmic significance and its present significance for ourselves.

So fourthly and finally what are we to hope for?   What precisely is this hope that we have been given and, according to Paul, we are to rejoice in? 

You might have thought that, by this point in this sermon, we might be able to answer this question quite easily and yet I find it quite hard to be categorical.   I have talked about my personal hopes (and indeed fears) for my future and for the planet.   And I have talked about God’s promise – through raising Jesus from the dead – of a better future for the world and ourselves, indeed a complete transformation.   But how do our personal hopes and this promise through Jesus’ resurrection connect up?

In our text for today Paul just says: ‘Rejoice in hope’.   He doesn’t go on to elaborate on what this hope is for.   If you scour Paul’s epistles for what he means us to hope for it all seems a bit vague, quite frankly.  For example earlier in Romans - Chapter 8 verse 18 - Paul talks about ‘the glory about to be revealed to us’ but what is this glory.  Here and in other places in his epistles Paul is clearly thinking in terms of the return of the risen Jesus to this world and thereby, as I have been saying, the complete transformation of life on this planet.  

Paul clearly too hope for life after death if not – like me - an illness free future.   He says in Chapter 15 verse 12 of his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead’ and in verse 19 ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied’. 

And yet there is, of course, an intrinsic uncertainty to hope.  In Romans Chapter 8 verses 24 and 25 Paul talks about this aspects of hope:  ‘For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’  And I think it is this uncertainty that makes the question of what are we to hope for quite difficult to answer.

But this we surely can and need to say, in the words of the hymn we are about to sing: ‘In Christ alone our hope is found’.  And in the end I do not think we can be precisely certain what the future brings: whether for the world or for ourselves beyond the simple fact that through Christ all will be well and all manner of things will be well.