Friday, 25 December 2009

Reflection: Light has come into the world

Preacher: Lesley Misrahi

For many people, this has not been an easy year. The world has continued in economic crisis and we know that this has meant that some people have lost jobs and income. In some countries, for those whose livelihood was precarious at best, it has meant the difference between surviving and not surviving. There have been wars and rumours of war, droughts and floods, serious illness and signs of hope which came to nothing. This has affected some in our small community. For Phyllis and Ed, there has been bereavement. Could things be much darker?

Think about Israel at the time of the first Christmas. Things were as bad then as they are now. So what did God do? He did not choose to make people puppets by forcing them to believe in him. Augustus Caesar was the most powerful man in the most powerful country on earth. He easily had more personal power than any American president. After all, Roman emperors got away with things that they would soon impeach a president for. So did God do something to make Caesar his follower? Or did he make sure that the Romans were converted first so that they could impose order on the world? Did he send an exceptionally powerful prophet?

Well, we know, of course that God went himself, and not in power, but as a baby, an ordinary baby, who wasn’t particularly quiet or sweet or clean. And he was born to a young unmarried peasant woman in a turbulent province on the fringe of the Empire. As a man he lived a short, obscure life and was executed as a criminal at the age of 33.

It seems a weak and petty way to intervene in such a big mess as we’ve been imagining in the world. But this is the one whom John describes in the passage that we read as The Word, the expression of God’s thoughts. Jesus is the one who is the true light, who enlightens everyone. If he was there to bring the light to everyone, why didn’t he do it in a big way? Well let’s think. When we came in here this morning it was quite dark and quiet. And we quietly lit the candles and it gradually got brighter and brighter. It was lovely. What would have happened if someone had suddenly switched on the light and banged a drum? We would have been dazzled, we would have shut our eyes, maybe covered our ears. For a little while perhaps we couldn’t see properly.

When the light that was Jesus came into the world, it was not to dazzle anyone, but to help them see. And those who have seen who he is and have become his followers have become the children of God.

Unlike the other gospels, John doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus. He starts with the creation of the universe. He wrote, in the passage we have read: All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. Jesus is intimately involved in the process of creation. He keeps the universe going by his constant creative impulse. And it is the one who made the world, who became a baby in Bethlehem. He is the person who lived as a human being and died for the sins of all people. He is the one who went into the darkness of death and brought out of it resurrection and forgiveness for all who believe. This pattern of bringing light out of darkness, good out of evil, is not just there at Easter. It is woven into the fabric of the Universe, which the Redeemer sustains from moment to moment. So it is that though there is much darkness in the world, there are also amazing instances of hope. The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

When you look back at what God has done with what seemed like disasters in your life, sometimes you can see this. Even at the heart of darkness there is light if we are willing to see it.

Jesus is the hope for the world now because he can transform our existence on a day to day basis. We need to have eyes to see the things that did not happen that might have done. It can be very difficult to do this. It’s like thanking God for having enough food to eat. Unless we’ve known real hunger, we don’t really know how lucky we are. Just take a few moments to think about what might have happened in your life, given the circumstances, and which you have been spared or of the ways that God has managed to bring good out of evil for you.

And we are promised that one day he will come back in the fullness of his glory.. And this time he may well dazzle people. So it’s now that we need to get our eyes used to the brightness of his light. We need to look at him and learn to walk according to the light that he has given us. Like Mary his mother we need to be willing to say ‘I am God’s servant,’ so that his light can be born in us.

But the light is not just for us, nor even just for human beings. Jesus is involved in all creation. The one who was born in Bethlehem is able to bring us new life. He is the God of new birth. Paul writes that at present all of the created order groans as if in the pains of labour as it is waiting for God’s children to be revealed. There will be, we are promised, a new world – a new heaven and a new earth. It is here now, in part and sometimes we get glimpses of it in some of the stories of hope we have heard.

This Christmas let’s rejoice in the light that has come into the world. Let’s pass that light from one to another. Instead of cursing the darkness, let each of us use the light that has come into the world to kindle a candle of hope today and for the coming year.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Labour and birth

Preacher: Lesley Misrahi

Readings: Micah 5:2-5a, Psalm 80:1-7, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45, Luke 1 (46-55)

Christmas is nearly here – only 5 more days. If you haven’t sent your Christmas cards yet, then tomorrow is the last day to post them First Class to be sure of them getting there by Thursday. I’ve managed to send most of mine, except to the people who have moved and I can’t find their new addresses. Some people don’t send Christmas cards as a matter of principle, but if I don’t my relatives notice and, I think, feel a bit hurt. I know because there was one year that I didn’t send out any Christmas cards at all and they commented on it.

That wasn’t a matter of principle, though, nor even poverty. That was 1984, the year that I was expecting Adam. He was due to be born on January 18th, but I felt so huge and unwieldy and had had so many warning signs that I was absolutely convinced that he’d be born at least two weeks before then. You can tell that pregnancy can upset the ability to think straight as well as everything else. Anyway, I thought I’d send out New Year cards with an announcement of the birth.

True to form, of course, Adam arrived a week late on Jan 25th!

During advent and Christmas we see our faith through the lens of pregnancy and childbirth. In this sermon I want to explore what we can learn from this metaphor of pregnancy and birth and the coming of Jesus. With Mary we are waiting for the birth of a promised child; with the people of Israel we are waiting for the coming of a promised saviour. And like maybe every pregnancy throughout human history, the waiting seems interminable. When will the baby come; when will God send His saviour to us? In the normal course of events there is nothing we can do about when it happens. The whole process of medicalised childbirth which has developed over the past 100 years or so is an effort to bring under human control a fundamentally unpredictable process.

Although we can tell roughly when a baby is due to arrive, it is notoriously difficult to tell the exact time. I have just given away a comfortable reclining chair, with brown plush upholstery – except for the ragged footrest. During the time I was expecting Esther, I decided to recover the armchair. I was still doing it when I went into labour 2 weeks early and I spent most of a day trying to sew the remaining part to cover the footrest while waiting for contractions to become more frequent. But Esther arrived and I never did get the time or energy to finish the job. I’ve finally decided that I will never get around to it after 21 years.

So babies come early or late and, for the most part – and certainly not at the time of Jesus – we can’t control it at all. That’s one of the messages that this metaphor of pregnancy gives us. The Saviour is promised and he will come, but we can’t tell when and we can’t control it. So in the passage that was read from Micah, the Jewish people knew where the Saviour would appear. They knew it would be Bethlehem – and often we can decide where a baby will be born if we are able to respond in time to the early warning signs – but they didn’t know when. They knew it was at the end of labour, but when would that be? The people did not know and meanwhile they felt abandoned by God, as we heard in Psalm 80 that we read together. Like so many births, that of the Saviour of Israel was looked forward to with huge expectation and an increasing amount of stress and discomfort. In the case of the people of Israel it was a time of being humiliated as they were conquered repeatedly by different alien empires – Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman. “You have made us a source of contention to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us”, we read in Psalm 80. The people who believed they were chosen of God were despised and oppressed by others and wondering why God allowed this, and when their deliverance would take place.

Mary also faced disgrace and shame. The faithfulness of Joseph in response to the dream that was sent to him enabled her to escape the stigma of being an unmarried mother, although there was probably some whispering around the village. He saved Jesus from being born in abject poverty to a woman with little means of earning a living in Jewish society. Instead they were supported by a skilled artisan, so they were not quite at the bottom of the heap in Jewish society – but that would change.

Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist and there was instant recognition of the special nature of what was happening to the two women. Perhaps this was the only person who might have understood what was happening to her and who shared her amazement and apprehension. Pregnancy, in any case, tends to create a bond between women, as they are going through similar experiences. In fact, the kind of tension produced by waiting for something we both fear and long for can be reduced by sharing it with others in the same situation. I’m thinking about the kind of conversation you get between the people waiting outside the room before an exam or in hospital before an operation. As we wait for what God has in store for us, we may find that it helps if we share our expectations with others. For Mary this was also the occasion of one of the great songs of the Scriptures – the Magnificat - which we just sang as ‘My soul is filled with joy’. She shared her wonder and amazement at what God would do through her.

The possibility of reproduction is in any case a deep mystery. How is it that out of one human being can come another one, who has a separate consciousness and identity, who is so different genetically from the mother that her body must do complicated things to prevent the foetus from being destroyed by the mother’s immune system? Pregnancy is a strange state in which there is now a real human being who can respond independently – as John the Baptist leapt inside Elizabeth. But that new person is not here yet and cannot really be known. The baby has not yet been made manifest, except as an anonymous ‘bump’ yet increasingly the child can respond to sensations from the world. It is a picture of the Kingdom of God. Jesus coming inaugurated the Kingdom and it is here. Yet we know it is not complete. God’s rule is not fully manifest and so we wait the promised return of Jesus and the completion of his work. The phrase that is used is now and not yet. And so we wait, as someone does during a pregnancy, beginning to form a relationship with the unborn child, yet longing to know that person fully.

The other thing we know about pregnancy of course is that It almost always involves pain and suffering. Pregnancy can involve sickness, discomfort and pain Labour is called that because it is hard work. Throughout the Bible there is a recognition that childbirth costs a woman much anguish. Micah, in an earlier chapter than the one we heard, talks about Jerusalem, the daughter of Zion, as writhing in agony like a woman in labour, as it suffered defeat and the exile of the people. So the ‘one who is in labour in the prophecy refers to the people of Israel, as well as to the birth of the Saviour. In its’ relationship with God throughout the centuries the Jewish people are often portrayed by the prophets as an unfaithful wife. And all this time Micah says is the pregnancy and labour of a people who will eventually give birth to a Saviour. So the time of exile and occupation was equated with what can be some of the most excruciating pain that a person can suffer. However, the travail of a people gives birth to the Shepherd whose greatness will be known throughout the world.

In Mary’s case it was at the end of a long journey. We always assume she had a donkey because we can’t imagine her being able to travel all that way without one, but it’s not there in the Bible. Most people in those days could not afford such a thing; so it’s very possible that she walked all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem – a distance of at least 80 miles, some of it up steep hills. And then she had to give birth in a stable – likely to be in one of the limestone caves in the area. Very poor people still live in some of those caves. It identifies Jesus as being in a position of abject poverty at his birth in a most unsuitable setting for childbirth.

We know that childbirth is a risky business. The period immediately before and after birth is the most dangerous time in anyone’s life. One of the leading causes of infant mortality in the developing world is tetanus, when the bacteria attack the baby through the severed umbilical cord. A stable is a place rich in tetanus bacteria. And it’s not without risk for the mother as well. A few months ago we looked at maternal mortality statistics and you might remember that in some countries, even today, the chances are one in ten or even one in eight that a woman’s life will end as a result of childbirth. Mary was, no doubt, exhausted from the journey. When I spent 30 hours in labour with Adam, I realised how it was possible that women in labour could die of sheer exhaustion – and I was in a modern hospital with all sorts of intervention and pain relief! It’s possible that the story could have been very different.

If we equate the birth of Jesus with the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world, in a new way, then we discover, as Micah told the people, that the coming of God does involve pain and suffering. It is risky and exhausting and hard. It is also inexorable. Once a pregnancy starts and goes beyond a certain point, even miscarriage or abortion involve a birth process. There has to be a birth or the mother and baby will die. She can’t say ‘Hold it. I’ve changed my mind.’ The woman and those around her are swept along in events which are in control of her and which she cannot stop. Just so God’s plans for the world. Having set in motion the process of incarnation – a plan motivated by love (for God so loved the world) – there could be no stopping it. God will accomplish that which God has determined to do and human intervention will not prevent the coming of the Kingdom.

A birth is something for which preparation is needed. At the least the child will need warmth and food. But Mary was unable to make adequate preparation. She had the swaddling clothes ready, but didn’t even know where this child would be born. Despite what she may have believed about the prophecies, she could have gone into labour anywhere between Nazareth and Bethlehem. So she could make only the most minimal preparation for the new arrival. And we also need to prepare for what Jesus may require of us, even if we don’t know what is going to happen.

Birth, then, is a revelation - a time when the new child is fully revealed for what he or she may be. If they had not been told by God neither Mary nor Elizabeth would have known they were having boys. Would they make blue swaddling bands or pink ones? We wait to see whether a child will be male or female, healthy or sickly, whole or with a congenital defect, taking after the mother or the father, or even whether he or she will be born alive or dead.

Each new birth carries with it a huge potential. Even if a baby is born into the most adverse social circumstances, there is a feeling at the beginning that this child could do anything. He or she could be an athlete or a scientist, a great poet or a wonderful cook or he could be the saviour of the world. He or she has the greatest potential immediately after birth. After that the world shapes and restricts what that individual may do and become. But every newborn baby usually embodies the longings and ambitions of the people close to him or her and can born with a huge burden of hope and expectation. And none more so than Jesus.

The Messiah, the Jewish Saviour, was expected to do so much. It‘s in that psalm that we read together: “Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.” That was all bound up with saving the people of Israel from the nations that had conquered them. The Saviour was to be a political force to be reckoned with – a holy superman. Micah predicted; “And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” The one that God would send would bring his people peace, relieve them from the shame of being subject to people who did not know the rule of God, and bring prosperity.

They could not imagine him as a baby in a stable. They could not associate him with a child’s bodily functions and lack of control. I remember my late husband’s Jewish father saying how he’d explored Christianity and read the New Testament, but he rejected the idea of God as a baby ‘doing pipi and kaka’. But the lectionary reading from Hebrews 10, which we did not read, insists that the coming of God’s Saviour as a human being, incarnated in a human body was essential for God’s salvation. Forever, Jesus’ willingness to become human and to undergo bodily suffering, releases us from any shame or fear of our human nature, as well as our sins, in action and in thought. There is no salvation for us without God’s incarnation as an ordinary Jewish baby.

Mary’s expectations, which we sang earlier, were much more in terms of social justice – putting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly; feeding the hungry and letting the rich taste emptiness. She was already seeing this coming into being as God had chosen someone as ordinary as she to be the mother of the Saviour promised to Israel for generations. And yet her expectations were even more far reaching than those of Jews who expected the Messiah to overthrow the Romans. It’s one thing to achieve peace by getting rid of one set of rulers and replacing them with your own people, but Mary was looking for the overthrow of the whole social order. She did not fully understand it, but she recognized that the hallmarks of the work of her holy God are justice, peace and joy.

But remember that for Mary there was a choice; she also welcomed what happened to her and was obedient to God’s intervention in her life. As a result she also welcomed the blessing which both she and Elizabeth recognized that God had given her. Maybe God thought of many Jewish maidens who could have been chosen, but knew that Mary would say yes. And we are also free to say no as well as to invite God to draw nearer. Though the plans of God are inexorable and will come to pass, we as individuals may fail to cooperate with them and so miss out on what God had hoped to give us.

Every year, as we wait for Christmas, we are also waiting for Jesus to come to us. Even if we have known him for many years, the Kingdom of God is both here now and not yet. It is always coming into being. We are enjoying God’s presence with us yet still waiting, not just for the second coming to the whole world, but his coming to us as a people and as individuals in a new and greater way. Especially at Christmas. As we celebrate Christ’s coming this year, what are our expectations? If we are drawn into the closer relationship with Jesus that our souls long for, what do we expect? Are we like those Jews who expected the Messiah to sort out their political and social injustice and to be a secular ruler? Do we expect Jesus to solve our personal problems and give us a good life? Are we like Mary who welcomed a time of social justice, but could not imagine that her son’s life would be that of an obscure religious criminal? Do we love God because we see the Almighty as a route to prosperity or success? Are we like Herod who was afraid of what might be demanded of him?

In a way, as we wait in expectation we only know three things about what the coming of Jesus means. Firstly, we can predict that when Christ comes into our lives in a new way, what happens will transcend anything that we might have expected. Jesus will not fulfil our superficial desires, but the deepest longings of our hearts, which we can scarcely admit to ourselves. Secondly, it is as much likely to involve suffering as prosperity. The more that we admit Jesus and allow him to be born in us day by day, the more this will involve challenge and change.

So the third result is that once Jesus is born for us, either coming into our lives for the first time or in a new way, with a closeness that we never dared before, our lives will be changed. After a first baby, life is never the same again. Even parents who have grown up with small children in their family of origin will seldom have had the burden of responsibility for another completely dependent life 24 hours a day. And being part of Jesus’ life is a 24/7 commitment.

A birth changes priorities. Joseph would not have taken his small family to be refugees in Egypt if Jesus had not been born. Or he could have just given up his child to Herod’s soldiers to save his skin and preserve his livelihood, but his every instinct is to protect the new life. If parents cannot set aside their own needs to some extent, they become the substance of child abuse scandals. For those of us who invite Jesus to be born in our lives in a fresh way this Christmas, our priorities must change. We are called to live not just for ourselves, but to work for the coming Kingdom of God, which is always expected, here now but yet to come, always defying our expectations, always pregnant with the promise of justice, peace and joy for us and the world.

And may God grant us all a wonderful Christmas with Jesus being born for us again this week and growing in our lives over the year to come.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Turning Around

Preacher: Sue
Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Luke 3:7-18

Two weeks ago Veronica preached our first Advent sermon. Peter and I weren’t here - we were at his mother’s Anglican church for the dedication of an altar frontal which she had made in memory of Peter’s father. It’s a beautiful purple cloth and the Anglican tradition of “liturgical colours” meant that its first use was on the first Sunday in Advent. It’s instructive to note the other occasions when purple can be used in Anglican churches: Lent and funerals.

Because, as Veronica reminded us, Advent is a time of mourning and fasting as we prepare to celebrate the incarnation. That’s hard for us to remember, as even those who protest against the appearance of Christmas decorations, Christmas merchandise and canned Christmas carols in September have, by the end of November, usually begun the trail of Christmas parties and mince-pie eating themselves. So Advent often feels like a time of indulgence and too many invitations. Quite a few non-church goers give up something for Lent but whoever heard of giving up something for Advent? So it’s easy to neglect the mourning, fasting and waiting of Advent but at the very least we can give attention to those aspects of the season when we meet for worship.

And our two Old Testament readings today help us with that, particularly if we try to take them in context.

The book of Zephaniah is a sustained prophecy of doom, for Judah’s enemies who have scorned God and oppressed and mocked God’s people. Chapter one tells us (1:14a, 15-16)

The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast… That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.

And by the beginning of chapter three Zephaniah is still in full flow, but now it’s not just Judah’s neighbours and enemies who are in trouble, Judah herself is in the firing line:

Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God… Therefore wait for me, says the Lord, for the day when I arise as a witness. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all the heat of my anger; for in the fire of my passion all the earth shall be consumed.

This is a dark and sobering vision, fitting for a time of mourning and fasting. Right now you may be wondering where our reading from Zephaniah, full of comfort and hope, fits into this dark picture. And that’s where we come to one of my favourite Advent themes. Judah is in darkness, ripe for disaster as she turns her back on God, and living in fear of enemies on her borders who look poised to execute God’s judgement. But quite unexpectedly God is going to turn it all around, turn away Judah’s enemies and create a people who live in safety and serve God.

At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord… On that day you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me… I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord - the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.

This is a powerful promise in the midst of uncertainty and danger. God will put things right in spite of Judah’s faithlessness and corruption: “On that day,” God says, “you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me.”

Some commentators credit Zephaniah with prompting king Josiah's reforms which for a while did indeed encourage the people of Judah to turn back to God, although this faded away again under successive kings until the people were taken into exile. But as with many of the Old Testament prophecies I think we are invited to see a second fulfilment of this prophecy in the coming of Jesus which we long for as we wait expectantly through Advent to celebrate the incarnation at Christmas. And perhaps we can also look for a third fulfilment in the future as we long for God’s kingdom to come fully and for disasters and fear to be banished.

The Isaiah reading is similar. It follows a mixture of warnings of punishment for Judah’s wayward behaviour and beautiful promises: of light coming into the darkness, of a child who will establish justice and righteousness and of an age to come in which “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). The verse just before our reading reflects thankfulness that in bringing about this vision God is choosing not to act on anger but to restore and purify: (Isaiah 12:1) “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.”

So in both passages God appears on the point of leaving Judah to her fate but relents, deciding to transform her situation, to rescue her and lift her graciously into safety and light. These passages reassure us in the darkness and waiting of Advent that God will turn things around in spite of us. Veronica reminded us two weeks ago that although in Advent we prepare for the coming of Jesus as if for an honoured guest, “the guest turns out to be the host” and “Jesus invites us to take part in his new, overflowing life”. And our passages from Zephaniah and Isaiah make a similar point. Although Judah has turned away from God and made herself vulnerable to her enemies, God plans to rescue her. God will establish a peaceable way of life with service and worship at its heart and will graciously invite Judah into that. I think that gives us a hope to hang on to, for ourselves when we fail time and time again to follow Jesus faithfully and for our world when it seems such a mess.

But the passage from Luke shows us the other side of the coin. It majors on people turning themselves around. It’s pretty strong stuff. “You brood of vipers!” John the Baptist castigates his hearers. Yet they flock out to hear him preach. What is that all about? Did they just like being harangued for some kind of catharsis, rather like the congregation in a book some of you may know, Cold Comfort Farm? They turned out Sunday after Sunday to “quiver” as Amos Starkadder preached fire and brimstone. Of course we all know that butter is disastrous treatment for burns, but for his audience which still swore by it, Amos Starkadder had a warning for anyone who thinks they’ll survive hell-fire by slapping butter on their scorched bodies: “there’ll be no butter in hell”.

Well, maybe that was the attraction for some but I think we can guess at some other reasons. John came into a time of fevered anticipation among the Jews in Palestine. As some of the elite collaborated with Rome, many struggled under the yoke of Roman occupation. Some longed to get back to the golden age of Israel’s power under David and Solomon and were willing to resort to violence to do so. They were hoping for a Messiah who would come in power and restore the Davidic tradition of kingship. Maybe this was in the minds of those who, verse 15 tells us, “were filled with expectation, and… questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah”.

In this turbulent time, maybe others who knew their bibles had a sense of déja vu. Although they were in their own land, surely the misery of living under occupation was much like the misery of living in exile six or seven hundred years earlier? And what had brought about the exile? The people’s own failure to live the way God wanted.

So for this group, the best response to Roman occupation was for the Jewish people to turn back to God and live holy lives. John’s call to repentance may have been music to their ears: at last another prophet (who even dressed in iconic prophet clothing of “camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist” and ate authentic prophet food, “locusts and wild honey” (Matt 3)), had come to call the people back to God and thus to open up the hope of return from exile. So perhaps for both groups John gave hope that a new age was dawning.

And we too can have that hope as we wait through Advent for Christmas. In fact we have the benefit of knowing the next few chapters in the story and knowing that with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus a new age does indeed dawn. So Advent is a time of preparation, not just for a special guest as we thought about two weeks ago but also for a whole new age. It’s also a time to remember particularly that although the new age has begun to dawn with the coming of Jesus, it is not yet fully come. So in Advent we wait not only for Christmas but also for the second coming of Jesus to fully inaugurate that new age.

So perhaps this is a time of preparation for the future kingdom too. In thinking about that preparation, I am struck by John the Baptist’s practical challenge to his listeners to live honestly and generously. He told tax collectors "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you" and soldiers "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

And for those who are comfortably off he had those stern words about sharing excess: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

As I read these words on Monday I was struck by their resemblance to a passage from the writings of Dorothy Day, founder of Catholic Worker, which we heard read at the end of Urban Table where five of us helped out this time last Sunday.

Love of brother means voluntary poverty, stripping one’s self, putting off the old man, denying one’s self, etc. It also means non-participation in those comforts and luxuries which have been manufactured by the exploitation of others. While our brothers suffer, we must… suffer with them. While our brothers suffer from lack of necessities, we will refuse to enjoy comforts. These resolutions, no matter how hard they are to live up to, no matter how often we fall and have to begin over again, are part of the vision and the long-range view… And we must keep this vision in mind, recognize the truth of it, the necessity for it, even though we do not, can not, live up to it. Like perfection. We are ordered to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, and we aim at it, in our intention, though in our execution we may fall short of the mark over and over.

This sounds like a tall order. Maybe that’s why none of us has decided to embrace voluntary poverty. But I think there are at least some principles to draw from John the Baptist and Dorothy Day, about living and working honestly, not trying to exploit any privileged position or loophole to our advantage, not profiting at the expense of others, and about reflecting on where and how our comfortable life is really paid for and being generous with our plenty. This week we may be particularly aware of that as we reflect on who is responsible for climate change and who suffers most from it.

As I say, this is a tall order, but we have the comfort of knowing that God’s grace is there for us when we fail. Our reading from Luke sets us a high target, calling us in Advent to prepare ourselves with great seriousness, striving for perfection. But our readings from Isaiah and Zephaniah remind us that in Advent we also wait for God’s intervention against the odds and in spite of all our failings.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Be prepared

Preacher: Veronica
Readings: Jeremiah 33.14-16, Luke 21.25-36, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13

Today as you have heard is the first Sunday of Advent, and this is the first of a series of sermons following the common lectionary readings for the day. This means that all over the world, Christian churches are hearing and pondering the same Bible passages at some time today. Which is kind of exciting.

The three readings we have heard today are about someone special coming. Jeremiah calls him the Branch of David. Luke calls him the Son of Man. Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, knows his name, and gives him a title: our Lord Jesus, who has come to us already, and yet is still to come.

What do you do when someone special is coming to visit? In the mid-sixties, my parents were due to receive a visit from the novelist E M Forster. They were friends with a Coventry couple whom he used to come and stay with for a while every year, and they asked this couple to bring him to our house. My mother always made a lot of effort when she was expecting visitors, but this time she excelled herself, making what she regarded as a ‘real English tea: white bread, cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, as well as lots of other delicacies. She didn’t think he’d like her normal continental fare which was more likely to be rye bread with salami.

As it happened, he never got inside our house; our friends brought him to the door but he was well into his nineties by then and wasn’t feeling well enough to visit. So he shook all our hands through the car window, signed a couple of books and was driven away again. Still, I like to think a bit of literary greatness might have rubbed off on me.

Advent is all about being prepared. But for most of us, it’s preparing for Christmas, with all the food, the parties and the presents, that takes priority. Ironically , at this feast of Jesus’ coming to us, we might end up thinking less about what it means to welcome Jesus than we do in the rest of the year. We even think Christmas is really for children, and to get too excited about it is not a very grown up thing to do.

But traditionally, Advent was a season of fasting, like Lent: it was meant to prepare us spiritually for celebrating God breaking into our lives in Jesus. It was definitely a season for adults: people who soberly weigh up their own fitness to meet the King of creation. Yes, Christmas is an occasion of joy, just as having E M Forster visit was going to be an occasion of joy for my family; but getting ready to celebrate the Incarnation was and is a serious business.

So what do our readings tell us about being prepared? Let’s begin with the Gospel reading from Luke. This is one of a number of so-called apocalyptic passages in Jesus’ teaching, which appear in different forms in all the Gospels. ‘Apocalypse’ simply means ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’, and in these passages Jesus is revealing to his closest disciples what he can about the destiny of the world and the part he plays in it.

Now apocalypse teaching is very popular among some Christians today, especially in the United States. There are those, as there always have been, who make it their business to work out an exact timetable of what will happen in the end times when Jesus returns. They write endless sermons and even novels about the Tribulation and the Rapture, a doctrine which is based on a single verse of Scripture and which didn’t even feature in Christian theology till the 19th century. You can at times detect a note of glee or Schadenfreude in contemplating the awful sufferings the rest of the world will go through while we Christians are supposedly snatched away into heaven. Some even seem to know when all this will happen - which even Jesus said he didn’t know.

Jesus’ teaching about ‘the Day of the Lord’, which we also call the Day of Judgment, certainly contains predictions of frightening, world shattering events: floods and earthquakes, even disturbances in the sun, moon and stars which we regard as constants in our lives. In this he is speaking in the tradition of the earlier prophets who warned that the Day of the Lord would not be solely a day of blessing, but also a day of judgement and destruction of evil.

How can we be prepared for such a day? Maybe by stockpiling tinned food and guns in mountain hideaways, as some have done? I don’t think this is quite what Jesus means by ‘Be on your guard’. Our enemies, as Paul says elsewhere, are not flesh and blood, but spiritual powers of wickedness. Jesus tells us that to stand firm in the time of trial, we need to be travelling light. We need to make sure that the focus of our life is not on our anxieties, our responsibilities, but also not on making things as comfortable as possible for ourselves and having fun. The focus of our life should be on following him, and because it’s a challenging journey, we need to minimise the baggage we are carrying. We need to be alert, watching out for signs of God’s kingdom in the world and lending our support to them. The late Jim Punton once described this as what Jesus did: he had his antennae out, looking for what God was doing in the world and joining in.

Most of all, we need to be praying for Jesus to come into our world, which is actually his Father’s world, and to set its many wrong things right. And that means not only praying for ourselves to follow Jesus more closely, but praying for others to recognise him and follow him. Paul sets an example in this to the Thessalonians, praying for them that God will ‘strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints’,

But there’s the rub. I find this a distinctly frightening prayer. I can’t even manage to prepare the perfect Christmas, so how am I supposed to prepare myself for Jesus’ coming and be blameless as I stand before him? Well I can’t. And that’s where the reading from Jeremiah comes in.

Jeremiah prophesies that a descendant of David will ‘execute justice and righteousness in the land’ -’the land’ meaning the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, even though at this point the northern kingdom of Israel barely existed any more. We know from other prophecies that in the Jewish religion this promise of a righteous kingdom is not meant to apply just to the historic land we now call Israel/Palestine, but to the whole world. But note one thing: creating this peacable kingdom is not our work, though we are invited to join with God in the work of creating it. It is the coming king, not the people of God, who is to bring about a world free of oppression. In fact Jeremiah goes further, saying ‘The Lord is our righteousness’.

There is no way that we can present ourselves blameless at the coming of Christ. It’s God’s job to transform us into kingdom people, and God has sent Jesus to lead the way and by his Spirit to strengthen and equip us for kingdom life. How we are changed into people who can receive our special guest, is through the mystery of the cross. Paul puts it this way to the Corinthians in his second letter to them: ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’. I don’t pretend to understand fully how this divine exchange works, but I once wrote a poem which stated it in terms of God exchanging clothes with us, so God wears our tatty, stained, worn out rags, and we get to wear Jesus’ beautiful robe. Maybe that image will work for some of you.

So, to change the metaphor, we are not to worry about how we get the house of our spirit ready for the visit of God. God sends us a housekeeper - the spirit of Christ - to clear out all the rubbish and lay out a fabulous feast.

Just one more thing I want to say: we are talking in terms of Jesus being in some sense our guest in the world. But actually it’s in some sense the other way round: the guest turns out to be the host. I recently expressed this on my Facebook status like this: ‘I have never invited Jesus into my life. He invited me into his.’ Not for a moment should we think how good we are for graciously inviting Jesus to be in our life. It’s really the opposite: Jesus invites us to take part in his new, overflowing life. So let’s pray during Advent that we may be able to follow his call into a new world. That’s worth waiting for.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever

Preacher: Sue
Readings: Luke 1.39-55, Matt 4:1-11, Phil 2:5-11

So here we are at the last in our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. Our phrase for today is “The kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” which actually doesn’t come from the gospel texts themselves. It’s a doxology, which means a prayer that acknowledges the glory (or doxa) of God. Jews were used to using a doxology at various points in their liturgies. In fact this phrase “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” is very reminiscent both of parts of the Jewish Kaddish and of David’s words in 1 Chron 29:10-11: “Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.”

An early Christian document, the Didache, includes this phrase in its version of the Lord’s Prayer, probably because the early Christians would naturally expect to end a prayer with a doxology and were probably doing so spontaneously before this document captured it in writing and shaped the practice of many denominations since then.

Now at first sight I think this phrase looks like a very Anabaptist kind of prayer. To say that the kingdom, the power and the glory are God’s is a big claim, and it’s a claim with political force. It may look to us as though power is in the hands of the G20 or the companies which span every continent. (According to a recent book on Latin American economies, Wal-Mart is bigger than the GDP of Argentina and Nestles sales are bigger than the GDP of Peru) . But to pray “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” is to assert, against appearances to the contrary, that the ultimate power is God’s.

That’s why Mary in the Magnificat can anticipate a reversal of fortunes in which the poor are lifted up and the rich and powerful catapulted to obscurity and emptiness. She knows that in the end God will make things right. So this last line of the Lord’s prayer is an expression of hope and confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s justice.

But, when I think about this line some more, I find it puzzling as well, on two counts. Firstly that our world doesn’t look as though God is in power right now and secondly that in some ways “power” doesn’t necessarily sound very Christ-like.

Let’s start with the first of my puzzles, that the world doesn’t always look as though God has the power. I guess this is another way of stating the problem of evil and suffering which warrants a complete sermon in its own right (and indeed I preached one around 18 months ago and Lesley preached wisely and movingly on Job in May this year). In previous sermons in our current series I have already touched on one aspect of this. We live, in a way, between times. God has already brought in the kingdom and delivered us from evil - but the kingdom is not yet fully come and we do not yet experience always being rescued from evil.

For now I will add only two points. The first looks back to our reading of last week - Romans 8:18-39 - which told us that, whatever happens God has the power to ensure that nothing can separate us from the love of God. God will always be with us in love even when it feels as though everything is out of God’s control. And the second is that I think God often exercises power differently from how we expect. God’s initiative to deal with the mess and pain of humanity and indeed all of creation was to come into the world as Jesus, to get in harm’s way (to quote the motto of Christian Peacemaker Teams - So God’s solution to the suffering of the world was God’s own risk and suffering not a “shock and awe” display of might.

And in saying that I’ve kind of answered my second puzzle. It’s easy for me, when I use the word power, to think of economic or political or military power, or just the power that comes from being in the majority or part of an “in crowd”. And that doesn’t look very like Jesus. But one of the lessons we can learn from Jesus is that power doesn’t have to be that way. Our reading from Philippians reminds us that Jesus, despite being God, was willing to come humbly not insisting on a red carpet and a bodyguard (or even on stopping the traffic, for those of you who have been following the election of the EU president) but, rather, being willing to suffer and die.

In our reading from Matthew we were reminded of the ways Jesus was tempted - at the very beginning of his ministry - to misuse power in order to gain control of many kingdoms. And if Jesus had gone ahead with commanding the stones to become bread, that too could have been a route to easy political power. But Jesus pursues his mission in very different ways, ultimately through a willingness to suffer and die at the hands of the establishment powers. So actually Jesus has a lot to teach us about power and about what we mean when we pray “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever”. As Anabaptists we read the bible through the lens of Jesus. So too I think we need to pray this prayer through the lens of Jesus.

Hauerwas and Willimon suggest that these words challenge us to let God have the power and the glory in our own lives. Christian martyrs, they say, trust to God for the significance of their lives. As I reflect on this, I think I can see what they are saying. Some martyrs die young, before they have “achieved” very much and in consenting to die for their faith they give up the chance of future landmarks and publicly recognised significance. So they agree to let the power and the glory be God’s and not to worry about their own power and glory and their own significance.

Now I have to admit, rather sheepishly, that I like lots of affirmation even for something as trivial as folding the laundry, I hate the feeling of failure and find it hard to look back contentedly on a day if I don’t feel I’ve “achieved” something. So the idea of just trying to do what is right and leaving everything else in God’s hands and not seeking some sense of whether I’ve “done well” comes hard to me. And yet I think it would bring real freedom if I could do that.

My first paid job was secure and well paid and for a while I felt it would be too risky to leave, so that I might be trapped there forever even once it ceased to feel meaningful or fun. To use a phrase that Peter coined when we were talking about this, I was trapped by my own security. I remember a real feeling of freedom when I finally did leave (and for a one-year contract on less pay at that). And in a radio programme I heard last week about the former Yugoslavia under communism, the journalist talked about the drabness and oppressiveness of that time and commented that the only people who seemed to be having any fun were those who had already “come out” as dissidents and were no longer looking over their shoulders all the time. By deciding to relinquish control of their own security, to embrace risk and truth as they tried to unmask and resist the lies of the state, they had gained an unexpected freedom.

And that’s how I think it is supposed to be for us too, that we can learn to relinquish control and a need for acknowledgment and achievement and success and to trust instead to God. That’s a very tough one for me. I’m sure my inability to do that makes me excessively cautious, as well as devastated out of all proportion each time I make a mistake. But I think it would be healing for me to learn to really pray this prayer. Because I think that praying “the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever” is supposed to be the gateway to a joyful freedom of trust in God, of leaving things to God, of Gelassenheit indeed.

That thought forms a link for me with many of the other phrases of the Lord’s prayer and our sermons in this series. As we’ve seen before, praying this prayer helps us to know what to ask God for, but it’s not just about asking God for things, whether those be exalted things like the hallowing of God’s name and the coming of the kingdom or down to earth stuff like daily bread. It is also, if we pray it earnestly, about being changed by its words.

Stanley Hauerwas talks about this in an essay called “The Politics of the Church: How We Lay Bricks and Make Disciples” where he says that learning to be a disciple is a bit like being apprenticed in a craft. You are initiated into a practice by a master craftsman. You learn the practices of the community of that craft - the community of bricklayers in Hauerwas’ analogy - and it’s not till you yourself are a master that you have freedom to go beyond the tradition and start being creative and spontaneous. (As an aside, I wonder whether that helps explain Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish law and prophets. As a master craftsman he had the understanding and the authority to rework them creatively while still remaining so firmly in the tradition that he could say he had come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them.)

Hauerwas goes on to say that the way we learn about God, the way we learn to be people who can pray is by praying. He defines Christians as those who “have been taught to pray, 'Our father, who art in heaven…’"

A good place to begin to understand what Christians are about, he says, is to join in that prayer.

For to learn to pray is no easy matter but requires much training, not unlike learning to lay brick. It does no one any good to believe in God, at least the God we find in Jesus of Nazareth, if they have not learned to pray. To learn to pray means we must acquire humility not as something we try to do, but as commensurate with the practice of prayer. In short, we do not believe in God, become humble and then learn to pray, but in learning to pray we humbly discover we cannot do other than believe in God.

For me this sermon series has helped me think more about what we mean when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. I have come to think of praying the Lord’s Prayer as an important Christian discipline, which I think can increase our sensitivity to God and to others, challenge us to follow Jesus more closely and train us in good habits of thought.

As Arthur Paul Boers puts it, “[p]raying the Lord’s prayer is to spirituality what playing the scales is to music”.

So I hope the sermon series has inspired you and me to keep praying that prayer attentively, not mechanically, so that we can learn and be changed by it as we pray it together.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Deliver us from evil

Preacher: Sue
Readings: Romans 8:18-39, Matthew 6:5-17

This is the second last in our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer but for various reasons it will be just a five minute mini-sermon.

Our phrase for today is “deliver us from evil” which we find in Matthew and in a few manuscripts of Luke’s gospel. Apparently the Greek is such that we can’t tell whether Matthew means “deliver us from evil” or “deliver us from the evil one”. Both senses seem to occur elsewhere in the bible. The German theologian Lochman suggests that our reading of this may be shaped by our theological beliefs. The Eastern church with its emphasis on Jesus’ death and resurrection as a victory which rescues us from the devil’s clutches is more inclined to hear “deliver us from the evil one”. The Western church - Catholic and Protestant - with its focus on how Jesus redeems us from our own sin is more likely to hear “deliver us from evil”.

Perhaps we can be ready to hear both and let the two readings come alive to us at different times in our lives.

Either way, the prayer cries out to God for rescue. Either way, the prayer trusts that ultimately, however much evil may sometimes appear to have the upper hand, it will in the end be overthrown. Not that we will always experience this immediately or at an individual level. We live in the “already and not yet” and we pray for an “us” which includes those who are distant in time or space. So we trust that God has already overcome evil for us all. But evil has not yet been expelled entirely and forever and at times we will each experience that “not yet” very close to home.

But we need this prayer even when we are not besieged by evil. One writer points out that Jesus’ encounter with the tempter should make us very cautious - the devil’s arguments are based on scripture and sound plausible and indeed full of concern for Jesus’ wellbeing. So this prayer can be preventative maintenance, asking God to deliver us from slipping gradually away from God and the values of the kingdom of God in ways that are superficially reasonable and easy to justify.

And another reason to pray this prayer even in times of quiet is in solidarity with those for whom life is full of threat. Just as we ask for our daily bread in solidarity with those who hunger, so too we ask for rescue from evil in the name of all who suffer. Perhaps we should say in the name of all that suffers, with the reminder from Romans 8 that not only do we suffer till God brings the ultimate rescue from evil but so too does all creation, which of course links to our other theme for today, of care for creation and combating climate change.

So the Lord’s prayer started with a focus on heaven and moved through the coming of the kingdom of heaven on earth to prayer for ourselves and the world including all of creation. We started by reverently contemplating God and over the course of the prayer we came down to earth and back to the memory of evil and pain and injustice. But praying “deliver us from evil” reminds us that God is with us at this end of the prayer too. So although the Lord’s prayer encourages us to pray (and work) for God’s kingdom to come, it also invites us to patience and trust as we look to God for rescue. So though we may feel overwhelmed by the scale of evil and the enormity of the task of bringing in God’s kingdom, we can also trust, wait and hope for the dawn, the deliverance from evil, that will surely come.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Save Us From the Time of Trial

Preacher: Lesley

This is another in our series of sermons on the Lord's Prayer: Save us from the time of trial.

Of course many of us grew up saying 'and lead us not into temptation'. So are we talking about temptation or trial? The Latin version of the Bible – the Vulgate translated it as temptation, so that's what was put in the King James version, and therefore that was the version in the Book of Common Prayer, which has influenced English-speaking Protestants ever since.

I find it difficult to understand why 'Lead us not into temptation' became the standard translation because the passage from James which we just had read, that says God doesn't tempt anyone. So, modern translations of the Lord's Prayer talk about the time of trial.

Is it temptation or trial? Well, the answer is both, or either. The same Greek word is translated trial or temptation or test. In the passage from James that we heard, it's the same word for trials when it says 'Consider it joy when you face trials of any kind' and for temptation in verse 12, where it is translated, 'Blessed is anyone who endures temptation.' And it's the same word when the Gospels talk about the Pharisees testing Jesus. In Matthew or Luke, the Lord's prayer has the same phrase which we have translated as 'Save us from the time of trial'.

What is the time of trial? The New Testament does talk about a time of trial for the whole world. Revelation 3 says: Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. In Matthew 24 Jesus talks about a coming time of suffering: “And if those days had not been cut short no-one would be saved, but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” However, there is no reason to think that in the Lord's prayer Jesus was talking about this apocalyptic event, especially when the other possible translations are about trials and temptations that happen to us a s individuals. The theologian Tom Wright simply puts it: 'Don't put us to the test'.

Having got that out of the way, it's worth looking at why the New Testament used the same word for temptation, test and trial. It's because in the thought of early Christians, these were all pretty much the same thing. It was all about how people cope with the circumstances of life. Do we do the right thing or fall into sin? Do we take a course of action that is helpful or gives ourselves and others problems and cuts us of from God? What we might call temptation – that is the longing for things or actions that we know to be wrong - is just one aspect of the trials that we might face in the Christian life. The common factor is that in dealing with the things that life throws at us, or our own longings or distortions of personality, there are opportunities to move towards the light or away from it, to grow in knowledge of ourselves and God or to pursue a path which is about stagnation and decay.

This is summed up in the idea, running all the way through the Bible, that human beings are subject to tests and trials that may be sent or allowed by God. Is God, then like some cruel sergeant-major who puts us through drills and disciplines to make us strong and fit for duty?

As I was writing this I was listening to the tennis star, Serena Williams. on the radio, talking about her autobiography. The interviewer asked why in her early years her father moved his family from Saginaw, Michigan to Compton, Los Angeles, a much tougher area, which he described as a ghetto. It is said that Richard, a former sharecropper from Louisiana, planned his daughters' careers before they were born. He has said that he chose to bring up the family in Compton so they could "see first hand how their lives might turn out if they did not work hard and get an education". Serena said that he wanted to toughen them up as he encouraged them to practice their tennis from the age of 3 on public courts that might be littered with broken glass or hypodermic needles.

How different this is from what so many parents do – struggling to move to more up-market areas where their children will get into schools that have better results and where they may be less likely to get into trouble as they're growing up. And what a gamble – Serena and her sister Venus have turned into tennis champions but their older sister Tunde, who stayed in Compton was shot dead, as A victim of gang violence aimed at her boyfriend.

Is that what God does with the people who seek to follow the Christian way? In some ways the answer is Yes. God doesn't take us out of the world and we suffer all the things that will impact on everyone else. In 1 Cor 10, Paul writes 'No testing has overtaken you that is common to everyone'. For some of us that will be worse than others, depending on the circumstances of our birth, the accidents of life and what we do with it. However, in a society in which most people are not seeking to follow Jesus, we may have more troubles than the majority of people in similar circumstances, because we may have a set of ethics which may not allow us to choose an easy life. But Paul goes on to say 'God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out, so that you may be able to endure it'.

I must say that when I've been really up against it in the past, I've remembered that promise and I've thought 'oh Yeah' Where is my way of escape? I think about those who have been described as having lost their faith because of the circumstances they have faced. I'm talking about the kind of situation which we feel to be intolerable, often emotionally intolerable, in which the only way out seems to be to do something that we know to be wrong.

I do believe that God makes ways of escape that we refuse to see or imagine, sometimes because they all outside our pre-conceived ideas and habits of thought and practice. So there are some things we just do not do – such as my mother never leaving the house without doing the washing up, even if she was going to be late. I'm proud to say that is a rule that I have managed to un-learn – and I'm still always late! But you get the idea – there are things to which we would say 'I can't do that' when what we really mean is that 'I won't do that'. And often we won't do it because it violates our sense of who we are. It is frequently a matter of pride: I'm not the sort of person who goes out leaving the washing up; I'm not the sort of person who feeds convenience food to my children; I'm not the sort of person who goes bankrupt; I'm not the sort of person who does that kind of job or lives in an area like that etc, etc. So part of the test may be to address our preconceptions about who we are – that somehow we are different or better than other people. Some of these things are to do with our gender identity – what our society says we should be or do as men or women and i think because, social roles tend to be more flexible for women these days, this can be more difficult for men. Sometimes we confuse these rules that we have for ourselves, and which often we learnt from our parents' values, with God's values and God's rules. It is not a sin to go out without combing your hair, even though your Mum would have told you off about it. It's not a sin to do something stupid or embarrassing, even if you feel awful about it!

And related to this kind of refusal to take the way out that God offers, may be anger against God – a fury that we should find ourselves in these circumstances and that God could leave us in the situation or only offer solutions which are not acceptable to us. We are then in danger of adding deliberate rejection of God to taking the sinful way out.

Then there's the question of what being tested 'beyond our strength' means. What does the Bible says ‘that we would be able to endure’? It seems to me that God's idea of what we can bear may be different from ours. It's like the child who says 'I can't go to school in that old pair of trainers any more.' We know that what they are really saying is not that the shoes are letting in water but that the young person is unwilling to put up with the real or imagined contempt of fellow-students for the unfashionable footwear. Of course, our dilemmas are more serious than this aren't they?

To resist temptation we need to be aware of what we are saying to ourselves. One of the most damaging things we can do to ourselves is to keep saying 'I can't bear it.' because probably then we won't. It's almost as bad as saying to ourselves, or others, 'I don't see why I should' because that is to reject the love of God who has given us a reason in the saving life of Christ for following in his footprints.

It may be that for some people, taking the right decision will involve grief or serious depression, pain or even death. These are the routes which we say we cannot endure. And what we are told is not that we will escape these but that with God even these can be borne, despite what we may feel now. I must say that Veronica springs to mind here. She has been more or less depressed for many years, as most of us know. Being subject to depression myself, I'm sure that she has been tempted to drastically change her life in desperate ways which might have offered a hope of escaping the misery. She may often have thought she would be unable to bear the depression, because the nature of it is that when someone is really down there is the light at the end of the tunnel is too dim to see. I have seen Veronica faithfully bearing the depression year on year, even when God feels too distant to care. She may not see it that way and will be aware of her various lapses day to day, but the quality of her Christian journey is one of patient endurance, and I believe that this is possible only because God is there for her, partly through others round about her. I know that will embarrass her, but I want to continue by saying that her husband, Ed, has equal if not more patient endurance.

Sometimes the only way out in keeping with our ethics lies through pain and death, though few of us will be offered this choice. It may be more common in war. We have recalled that today is Remembrance Day. I was moved recently by a radio archive programme in which the former bishop of Edinburgh explored what happens to people's faith under the extreme situations that so many encounter as participants or victims of warfare. For some their faith was strengthened; for others it was destroyed. I suspect that there are many who refuse to engage with the spiritual aspects of what they endure. We can in no way condone or welcome or justify war but it is true that the challenge of war can bring out the extremes of heroism and selflessness or degradation and self-seeking that lurk within the human character. Some people have discovered themselves in the experience; others can only try to forget what they found out about their own depravity. The programme certainly made me think – what would I do in such a situation? I don't know and most of us don't know how we would stand up if our life were in the balance. Maybe, we can enjoy the benefits of peace because God is answering our prayer - “Save us from the time of trial.”

What we do know is that Jesus faced this trial – to choose to go to Jerusalem and to face suffering and death or to betray his mission and escape the torture. We know that he set his face like a flint and faced his destiny, that he wept tears like blood as he struggled with what was required of him. He passed the test. He was tortured to death rather than give in to the temptation to run away. And we see the result. In his death and resurrection we find a promise of eternal life. So some of us, who may be called by God to risk death rather than doing wrong, can know that for us, death itself can be a way out.

Trials and tests can come from many sources. It may be that the behaviour of others is what we find really trying. We have to cope both with what they do and our own reactions to it. The answer is not to become a permanent hermit. Although from the 3rd century or so this became a lifestyle which was honoured as being a highly spiritual way of devoting the self to communing with God, in some ways it is a cop-out. Yes the desert fathers had to endure loneliness and privation, but they didn't have to cope with screaming kids, a demanding boss, a dissatisfied wife, a baby that woke them at 4 in the morning, a church that was in conflict or friends who rang at inconvenient hours to talk about their boyfriends. Jesus showed us that there was value in being alone with God and that it could be a time of real spiritual growth, but even he only stayed in the wilderness for 40 days. Community, family, society are key elements in shaping us into the sort of people who God wants us to be.

One of the ways in which God makes us fit for the Kingdom of God is to be part of the people of God. In other words believers are supposed to be in churches, which may well be something of a trial to us. There are people who say that they believe in God but they can’t stand the church. Yet that is part of God’s refinement of us. How are we going to stand these people in heaven if we can’t stand them on earth?

Circumstances can be another great source of trial to us – illness, poverty, bereavement, disaster and loss can all test our faith. The question is how we respond to these. Do we blame God, wonder what we've done to deserve it?

Our reading points out that one of the chief sources of pain, grief and trial is ourselves. In fact, in every trial, it is ourselves that is the problem – and our responses to the things that happen to us. How much easier to talk about being tempted by the Devil – to put it outside ourselves and blame someone else. So right at the beginning of the Bible, Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. But Satan wasn’t always the evil one. He started as the simple literary device we find in the book of Job of explaining circumstances as being brought about by the adversary, who is a servant of God who is like the Council for the prosecution in court to test people and to enable humans to become what they ought to be. As things progressed in the story of God’s people it wasn’t far from there to Satan developing into an evil one and then the quintessence of evil who is engaged in tempting people on his own account and for the defeat of God. So sin becomes more the Devil’s fault for tempting us, than our own – just as Adam said that Eve tempted him and Eve blamed the serpent.

There is another source of trial which is recognised by many who have tried to come near to God. That is the perception of the absence of God. It is the feeling that our prayers just bounce off the ceiling and God does not care. This dark night of the soul has been the experience of great mystics and ordinary believers. It’s worth mentioning that it is only a trial to those who love God and seek to walk in God's way and hope to enjoy the loving divine presence. Anyone else would not care and those who persevere through this painful time will find that their devotion is rewarded.

Like sin, the word 'temptation' has gone out of fashion and so has 'sanctification' but that is what we are talking about here. Yoder insists that there are not 2 things in Christian salvation – first of all being saved by Jesus death and then being made holy. Unlike evangelicals and Catholics, Mennonites have never made any great distinction between these two but see it all part of the believer's closer and closer walk with God. And I think that for many of us, that corresponds with our experience. Yet it is still worth thinking about the process by which we become fit for eternal life. We may be forgiven, but how do we stand up in the presence of God with our selfishness and greed? Sanctification is the process of making us more like Jesus, more a member of the household of God and less at home in this world. It is not an easy process, yet it is essential or else a loving God would not allow us to go through it. John Donne remarked that no-one has enough affliction who is not changed and refined by it.

That’s a miserable way to finish this sermon and so I want to read you a bit from the writing of E Stanley Jones. He was a missionary to India in the 30s and originated the phrase ‘the Nazareth Manifesto’ to describe Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4. Some of his books are in the Mennonite Centre library. One of these is ‘Victorious Living’. He wrote:

“Victorious living does not mean freedom from temptation. Nor does it mean freedom from mistakes. We are personalities in the making, limited and grappling with things too high for us. Obviously we, at our very best, will make many mistakes. But these mistakes need not be sins. Our actions are the results of our intentions and our intelligence. Our intention may be very good but because our intelligence is limited the action may turn out to be a mistake – a mistake, but not necessarily a sin. For sin comes out of a wrong intention. Therefore the action carries a sense of incompleteness and of frustration , but not of guilt…

Nor does it mean that we may not occasionally lapse into a wrong act, which may be called a sin. At that point we may have lost a skirmish, but it doesn’t mean we may not still win the battle. We may even lose a battle and still win the war. One of the differences between a sheep and a swine is that when a sheep falls into a mudhole it bleats to get out, while the swine loves it and wallows in it.”

So though we may be subject to trial and temptation we can choose to be swine or to be sheep. It all depends on what our attitude is and which direction we are going.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Forgiving others

Preacher: Veronica
Readings: Matthew 6.12-15 and Matthew 18.23-35

When I saw that I had been put down to preach today on forgiving others , I thought I’d got the most difficult of all our series on the Lord’s Prayer. Actually I was originally meant to preach some weeks ago on ‘Your kingdom come’, but in the event I wasn’t well enough to preach it, and Sue kindly took over. So now I’m stuck with the subject most likely to get a preacher labelled as a hypocrite, if she doesn’t practise what she preaches. And for me at least, this is one of the hardest things in Jesus’ teaching to practise. In preparation for this sermon I have spent time over the last few weeks trying to forgive everyone I have ever failed to forgive, and I’m not sure I’ve got very far. Your mileage may vary, as they say online.

On the face of it Jesus’ message is very clear and unequivocal. Our forgiveness by God is dependant on our forgiving others. If we don’t forgive, we will not be able to experience God’s forgiveness of our many failings.

But wait a minute. Does that mean God’s forgiveness of our sins is conditional? Is Jesus essentially saying, To earn God’s forgiveness you have to do something - you have to forgive others? It certainly looks like that. I can now hear Protestants all over the world, whose motto is ‘Sola fide’ or ‘faith alone’, squirming uncomfortably in their seats. Or at least they would be if they were all listening to me. Surely the only condition for forgiveness is that in Christ, God took our sins on God’s own shoulders and atoned for them? Does God’s forgiveness of us only apply if we have forgiven every one who’s wronged us?

This is one reason this subject is so scary. Which of us can say we have forgiven everyone who’s offended us, as Matthew 18 says, ‘from the heart’? I think there is a way round this, and I hope I’m not making excuses here. I’d like to suggest God’s forgiveness of us is truly unconditional. God is after all portrayed by Jesus as a loving father. As someone wrote recently on Ship of Fools website: ‘ I cannot conceive of disowning my child, whatever she might do, in any circumstances, for one second, ever. God's love for us is not less than our love for our children.’

Where the link with our forgiveness of others comes in, I think , is that while we are harbouring grudges and unforgiveness in our hearts, we are not in a state where we can truly experience God’s forgiveness of us. If our mental state is one of grudge-bearing, we will project that onto God, as it were making God in our own image as a hard man who reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he does not scatter. So in order to be able to see God’s forgiveness clearly, we have to be in a state of forgiveness ourselves. So in the parable of the unforgiving servant which we heard earlier, the master is fully prepared to forgive, but when the servant is unforgiving, he loses the benefit of the master’s forgiveness. And I think this parable also tells us that God’s forgiveness of us is meant to have results in our own behaviour to others. If knowing we are forgiven does not inspire us to forgive others, then perhaps we don’t understand God’s forgiveness very well at all.

That’s the only way I can make sense of the link Jesus makes between our forgiveness and God’s. But of course the story doesn’t end there. There’s the small matter of how we manage to forgive, and what counts as true forgiveness anyway? And are there any preconditions to our forgiveness of others?

Well there’s one definite precondition, and that is that to practise forgiveness, we have to have enemies. You can’t practise enemy love without having an enemy. Having enemies is an uncomfortable position to be in, and I’m in that position at the moment in relation to my son’s headmaster, who is depriving children with special needs of the support which is their legal right. So forgiveness is a very live issue for me.

Of course some of the people we need to forgive - perhaps most of them - will be our friends, and especially our family. The closer we are to someone, the more they can hurt us. And the closest of all to us is ourselves, and it’s not always easy to forgive ourselves for things we regret doing or saying.

The second possible precondition is repentance. We experience God’s forgiveness best when we turn away from whatever we are doing that is against God’s will. Is it the same between us and fellow human beings - do people have to repent before we can forgive them?

I don’t know if any of you listened to The Moral Maze on Radio 4 on Wednesday before last? It was all about forgiveness, sparked by the fact that the bomber of the Grand Hotel Brighton in 1974, Pat Magee, was appearing in the House of Commons alongside the daughter of one of his victims. If you remember, that was the bombing of the Tory conference, where five people were killed, and where Norman Tebbit’s wife was paralysed.

The ‘witnesses’ on the show were Paul Bowman, whose daughter Sally Ann was raped and murdered by a serial sex offender; Timothy Latchbourne, the grandson of Earl Mountbatten, who lost his grandfather and his twin in another IRA bombing, and has written a book about learning to forgive the bombers; Ruth Dudley Edwards, who has written a book about the Omagh bombing, and Peter Price, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who has been involved in a lot of reconciliation work.

A lot of the discussion centred around the fact that while Pat Magee is no longer a terrorist, he has refused to repent of what he did and says in the same circumstances he might do it again. Most of the panel were very sure that forgiveness can only happen where there is repentance. One said that there were some crimes too heinous ever to be forgiven; and Paul Bowman said that even if his daughter’s killer expressed remorse, he would never forgive him, and that to do so would be disrespect to his daughter’s memory.

The one clear Christian voice on the programme was the Bishop, who said that even if there is no repentance, forgiving can be beneficial to the victim in coming to terms with what has happened. His experience also told him that forgiveness ahead of repentance, can also sometimes lead to a change of heart in the offender. What struck me most in what he said is this: ‘The ability to forgive is part of a life well lived.’ The unforgiveness of Paul Bowman stood out starkly against this, and it seemed to me that his inability to forgive was inflicting far more pain on him than it was on his daughter’s murderer.

Bishop Peter also made the link between our forgiveness and God’s, by saying ‘I forgive because I am forgiven’. As the panel points out however, this could be problematic, because for most of us, what we need to be forgiven of is nothing so dramatic as rape, murder or terrorism. As the parable of the Pharisee and the publican shows, it is sometimes harder for the ‘good’ religious person to understand forgiveness than it is for the out and out criminal. In the face of the glory of God, however, we all feel besmirched and in need of cleansing, as in the reading from Isaiah we had last week: ‘Woe is me I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’ (Is 6.5).

But what is forgiveness anyway? Is it just an internal attitude? Or is it an objective change in the relationship between people? And if it’s the latter, does it mean releasing the perpetrator from all consequences or penalties of their actions? There was a lot of talk on the Moral Maze panel about the relationship between forgiveness and justice. Most of the panel agreed that forgiveness did not mean leaving crimes unpunished; and some said there could be no forgiveness until justice was done.

Which brings us to that other passage we heard from Matthew 18, which describes a process of confrontation and reconciliation between Christians. It’s interesting that Matthew’s order has Jesus advising this process before the parable of the unforgiving servant. Do we actually need to do something active, when we can, to put things right, before we can forgive? Certainly there is such a thing as forgiving, or apparently forgiving, too soon, when we haven’t really dealt with our anger. This can leave us still seething inwardly., with only a veneer of forgiveness. I’d like to suggest that if we read these two passages together, we can say that forgiveness is not an end in itself, it is a part of reconciliation. And perhaps sometimes it is not the precondition for reconciliation, but the result of it.

So where does that leave me, trying to forgive the Demon Headmaster for his offences against my child and others’ children, while at the same time chairing a campaign to stop him doing it? And as a result constantly hearing more of the appalling and probably illegal things he’s saying and doing, and being reminded how angry I am with him?

Well at the moment it leaves me struggling. I know I have to bless those who curse me and pray for those who persecute me, but what keeps coming into my head instead is ‘Woe to him who harms any of these little ones’ and part of me would love to tie a millstone round his neck and throw him into the sea.

The last person who gave me so much material for forgiveness, is now dead, and in some ways that makes it easier to forgive him, because I know for sure he’s not going to carry on doing the things that upset me. And if he was still alive, I’m afraid I suspect he would have gone on doing them.

As Hamlet said, ‘Ay, there’s the rub’. Unfortunately when Peter asked how often he should forgive his brother, Jesus didn’t say ‘Seventy times seven but only if he repents’. Nor did he say ‘490 and then you can beat him up as much as you like.’ Ultimately, if we are modelling our forgiveness on God’s forgiveness, we have to look to Romans 5.8: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. If God didn’t wait till we repented, can we do that to others?

Perhaps there’s some significance in the fact that Peter asks Jesus about his ‘brother’ meaning ‘brother in the Lord’. I think we could make a case that in Matthew 18 Jesus is recommending that with fellow Christians, we need a process of actively seeking repentance and change, not simply forgiving and forgetting. We should expect our Christian sister or brother, not to earn our forgiveness, but to respond to it with change. Perhaps with those who aren’t followers of Jesus, we cannot so readily expect repentance, so all we can do is forgive and pray for a change of heart. I can certainly try praying for my enemy the head master; and perhaps as a step towards forgiving him I should stop calling him the Demon Headmaster. I shall still however go on fighting his policies because they are harmful to vulnerable children.

So to sum up the main points, our forgiveness by God is not dependant on our forgiving others, but it is expected to lead to it; and we might need to forgiven others before we can really receive God’s forgiveness. Equally, our forgiveness of others is not dependant on their repentance, but it is meant to inspire their repentance; and when we are dealing with fellow Christians, we may need to confront their sin at the same time as forgiving it. Perhaps the most useful things said on The Moral Maze was that forgiveness is a process. Reconciliation is a process too, and the two need to go hand in hand.

In the bombed cathedral in Coventry, where I grew up, there is an altar with a cross on it made of blackened medieval nails salvaged from the ruins. On the altar there is a text in gold letters: Father, forgive. I’m sure it’s meant to remind us of the rest of that saying of Jesus from the cross: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. Surrounded by the Gothic ruins, this clearly implies a reference to the Germans who bombed Coventry so heavily 55 years ago next month. Our country, of course, retaliated by dropping even more devastating bombs on Dresden and other cities. However since the new cathedral was built in the 60s, the cathedral has had an active ministry of international reconciliation, especially with Germany, and established a kind of scattered community of reconcilation called the Fellowship of the Cross of Nails.

If Jesus asked God to forgive the worst thing we have ever done to God, what right have we to withhold forgiveness from others? But please pray for me that I may be able not only to preach about it, but to do it. I’ve got a long way to go.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Forgive Us Our Sins

Preacher: Lesley

Forgive us our sins is the subject of this sermon in our series on the Lord’s Prayer. Sin has gone out of fashion. We don’t often preach about it in this church and it’s certainly not a word you find used much in society in general.

First of all, let’s be sure about this word ‘sins’. We may have grown up saying ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ and other versions of the Lord’s prayer say ‘Forgive us our debts’ So which is right? Well, having done extensive research using Sue’s Greek/English New Testament, which I failed to give back to her after I borrowed it some while ago, I can definitely say that in Luke the word is trespasses, whereas in Matthew, which is the version we tend to follow, the word is debts. So how do we get from debts to sins? The Greek word means ‘obligations’ or ‘things owing’. In the Lord’s prayer we start by addressing ourselves to God and, remember, we take with us, in saying ‘OUR Father’, all those who might claim to be children of God. To pray ‘Forgive us our debts’ in this prayer means that to do so we must be in harmony with the earlier parts of the prayer. We are approaching with this request the loving Father who longs to give us bread. To do so hallows God’s name, fulfils God’s will and hastens the coming of the Kingdom.

So what does the Bible tell us we owe to God and to the rest of God’s family? We are told that we must love the Lord our God, with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength. And we must love our neighbours with the same care and attention we show to ourselves. Now which of us can stand up and say that we have not, just occasionally, failed in this obligation? And that failure is what the Bible calls sin.

We understand debts because the vast majority of the population probably have debts of one kind of another, even if it is only an outstanding credit card bill which they usually pay off every month. So the state of being a debtor is pretty well universal, but the debts are owed by each as an individual and it is for what we owe as individuals that each will be held accountable.

We know that Jesus linked debts and sins because he told parables which equated the two. The people of his day knew a lot about debts. Most peasant farmers – that is most of the population – were more or less permanently indebted to the large landowners who had flourished under Roman rule. These debts could be passed on from parent to child, so that someone could be born in debt, even though it was in contravention to the Law of God. One such parable, in Matthew 18, is in response to Peter’s question ‘How many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me?’ Jesus replies with the parable about a king who cancelled the huge debt owed to him by one of his servants. I won’t go into the parable now because I expect that Veronica may want to talk about it next week, but I just want to point out that the word used for debts in the parable is the same as that used earlier in Matthew in the Lord’s prayer. So when Jesus teaches us to say ‘Forgive us our debts, he clearly means our sins – in other words, our failures to love God or our neighbours. And the word for forgive is the same as that for release from debts in other parts of the Gospels. It means to set free, not from prison, but from the chains of obligation.

.It has always seemed to me that there is a rather abrupt shift in the Lord’s prayer. We have moved from honouring God to making requests. And our first request is for the basic necessities of life, summed up by the term ‘daily bread’. I would expect that the next request would be for the next most pressing requirement that people have. The psychologist, Maslow, even proposed a hierarchy of needs, starting with food and water at the bottom, through needs for social interaction, to what he called self-actualisation, including spiritual needs, at the top – something to which we may pay attention when all other requirements are satisfied. The Lord’s prayer is more realistic. In fact we find people all over the world attending to spiritual needs when other things are far from satisfactory. Among the billion people who are hungry in the world they still pray. As Jesus told Satan ‘Humankind does not live by bread alone’. So what comes right after our daily bread is a spiritual need. What Jesus implies is that getting our sins sorted out is the most urgent spiritual need we have.

As I said sin has gone out of fashion – if it ever was in fashion. I mean the word sin. Being sinful has always been popular. In these days we’ve stopped talking about it. The word ‘sin’ conjures up images of outdated and absolute moral codes and formal authority and other people telling us that we’re bad. And quite frankly, these days, we just don’t want to know. In fact our society has a great antipathy to anyone presuming to tell others what they should do. Even someone whose personal behaviour shows up the low standards of the rest of us is intolerable to a good section of the population. So we have books and TV programmes revealing all the shortcomings of Martin Luther King or Ghandhi or Mother Theresa. But this attitude seeks to ignore the fact that these individuals show that it is possible for humans to do a great deal more neighbour-loving than most of us manage. It’s as if we can feel better about ourselves if we can show that they weren’t perfect – as, of course, they weren’t.

In Western culture’s denial of sin; the only real crime is hypocrisy. And look at the glee with which the media have pointed the finger at MPs about their expenses – even, now, about being so profligate as to pay their cleaners more than £40 a week! (Even though this was allowed within the previous rules.) You’d think that MPs didn’t have anything else to do with spending large amounts of public money! I think this obsession with MP’s personal dishonesty is because. in the course of governing the country, these people, by the nature of their work, have to say something about the way that the rest of us live and what is right for society as a whole. But let’s remember what Jesus said about casting the first stone and that no matter how much I cut someone else down to size, it doesn’t increase my stature by one centimetre

At the same time, we see in our culture a strong tendency towards externalisation of evil. By that I mean that we tend to feel that it’s not us that’s bad; it’s something outside ourselves. The evil people are serial killers or child abusers; they’re Osama Bin Laden or, earlier, Sadam Hussein. We have a tendency to make whole groups of people into scapegoats – Muslims, homosexuals, young drinkers. The other tendency is to fantasise evil. There’s a huge proliferation of TV shows with paranormal themes and lots of vampires, witches (both of which seem to be being rehabilitated) ghosts and ghost hunters. For Halloween we’re told there will be a dangerous paranormal experiment, revealing the real face of evil or some such stuff.

What is clear is that, in our society evil is them not us. But on Friday I came across a Sunday Times magazine article showing pictures of various notorious people and pointing out that Himmler had ‘nice eyes’, that Rosemary West and the killer of Baby P look like people you’d see on the street any day. And I must say that one of the things I find difficult in the work that I do on the Mental Health Review Tribunal is that I can meet people who have committed heinous crimes and yet seem quite pleasant. I’m sure Judith could say the same about people she meets as a probation officer.

What the Lord’s Prayer asks us to do is to admit our sins – to recognise that we are as capable of sin as the next person and that we have done things of which we cannot be proud. It recognises that this is the last thing we want to do. Last week I heard a radio interview with Gillian Slovo, whose parents Joe Slovo and Ruth First were anti-apartheid activists (and Ruth First was assassinated for this.) She described attending various sessions of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This post-apartheid body gave people amnesty for crimes, including murder, committed as a result of their administration of the apartheid system, so long as they told the truth about what they had done. Gillian Slovo said she had only heard one person tell the truth. The others said what they had done but they hedged it around with justifications and mitigating factors. As she said, how do you live with the knowledge that you have done terrible things?

I don’t think it’s just about big crimes. We all of us spend our lives conducting an internal narrative about ourselves – who we are, what we’ve done, why we did those things. It is essential to our sense of identity and we will still try to do it even if we can no longer remember what has happened in the past – so people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease can come up with some bizarre explanations for things, for instance as they try to make sense of their lives. And in our internal narrative, we want to be the hero of the tale, so we explain things to ourselves in a way that shows ourselves in the best light. We do not believe we are sinful. We make excuses and justifications for our actions.

Thinking again of murderers; they also have an internal narrative and will tend to minimise or explain away their crimes. None of us like to think of ourselves as evil. In Britain, someone convicted of murder has a mandatory life sentence, and at the time of sentencing a tariff is set by the judge – a period that has to be served before parole can be considered, depending on the nature of the crime. Parole is not automatic. It is only possible if it is likely that that person will no longer be a danger to the public. One of the things the Parole Board is looking at is whether the person admits the crime, is remorseful and empathises with the victims. I deal on occasions with murderers who have mental health problems. They still have to serve the tariff and the tribunal then is looking at their psychological state and, again, whether they continue to minimise the severity of the crime, to blame the victim or others, to give excuses for their actions. The system requires the offender to face their sin in all its naked horror and to accept responsibility for it.

And God requires the same thing of us. We are not different from the rest of humankind. In the Lord’s Prayer, it is our debts which we bring to God. So we number ourselves amongst the great crowd of sinners. Just as the publican who stood in the Temple said ‘Lord be merciful to me, a sinner’. We do not claim to be different from the great herd of mankind. So the Pharisee who said ‘Thankyou God that I am not like other men’ was not forgiven, while the tax-collector was. As I John says, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and are strangers to the truth. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’

In the case of murderers, we demand this so they can participate in society again. God requires us to confess our sins and to ask for forgiveness so that we can be part of the society of Heaven – or whatever phrase we may use for freely partaking in the company of our God.

This is where we look at that peculiar series of readings that we had. I went through the Bible and I picked out the descriptions of encounters between God or God’s heavenly agents and human beings. What is the common factor? Being Afraid. What’s the first thing people do? Mostly they fall down – usually flat on their faces. Noel Moules used to say this when I did the Workshop course, so I thought I’d have a look at it for myself. I thought he was exaggerating. But I was staggered by the consistency with which people fall down in their terror, in such a way as to hide their faces. The question is why? Well, pure fear of the unknown may be one reason, but I would think that usually people’s response to a frightening apparition would be more varied. They might scream, run away, freeze in shock, pretend it’s not happening etc.

Falling down indicates both fear and submission. It is cowering in recognition of almighty power. In these events, the people recognise that they are dealing with God. Isaiah gives a clue to the other factor. "My destruction is sealed, for I am a sinful man and a member of a sinful race. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!" In other words, it didn’t matter what story they had been telling themselves about themselves or how they had rationalized away the things they had done, at the point of encounter with the power of God, each of those people were terrified as they recognized the purity of God and their own inadequacy to face up to this. So they literally covered their faces from God.

God has not changed. We are still unfit to stand in God’s presence. We require forgiveness. But forgiveness cannot be based on a lie. Just as we require murderers to admit the truth of our crime so we need to look at the truth about what we are really like. Remember that we are thinking about all the ways we have failed in love to God or neighbour. I can only be forgiven myself if I am first of all conscious of my sin. Forgiveness cannot come first.

One of the other reasons that people don’t like to talk about sin any more is that psychologists tell us that we need self-esteem and there is quite a tension between knowledge of our sinfulness and self-esteem. As I’ve been involved in counselling and psychotherapy in various roles for many years, that has been an issue for me. However, I have come to the conclusion that we cannot base self-esteem on a lie. How does it help anyone for a person to think well of themselves when in fact they hurt others around them? The sin still works away under the surface, even if it is buried, and causes pain and distress. Better to know what I really am and to come for forgiveness. It is noticeable that seeking the forgiveness of the people that I have hurt is an essential step in the Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-step Addiction programmes.

Yes, low self-esteem, often thought to be due to lack of feeling loved during infancy is a real cause of hurt and distress, as people cannot make relationships properly without having them distorted through a lens of how they view themselves and others.. How can someone find that love in later life? Do we expect a partner to be able to make up for what we never had? The burden is often too great for the relationship to sustain. Do we seek to love ourselves and look after ourselves first? We risk even more failures towards our neighbours – and it’s often difficult to love even ourselves when we have suffered damage as infants.

But there is One whose love is big enough to sustain even the most damaged. ‘Don’t be afraid’, the angel said. ‘I bring news of great joy’. and ‘He is risen!’ In Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is a way for us also to be forgiven and loved. The cost is coming to God as we really are, with all our sins exposed, and that may feel like death. But the reward is that we may rise like Jesus, as the song says: ‘Forgiven, loved and free.’ 1 John, which tells us that we are all sinners is also the book in the Bible which most talks about love – love for our neighbours, the love of Jesus in his incarnation, death and resurrection and the overwhelming love of God, so that it says ‘God is love’. And that love is for us. As Gene Robinson said on a tape that our small group listened to on Thursday – in my words. Just as God can be throughout the Universe and beyond and yet can hear our small prayer, so God can love all of us equally – and yet I am his favourite – and so are you.