Sunday, 28 February 2010

The way of the hen

Preacher: Sue

Readings: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Luke 13:31-35/Fair Trade fortnight

Early one Sunday morning in the mid 1970s I decided to give up on God. I was reminded of this as I prepared to talk about my spiritual journey at our homegroup earlier this week.

So why was I giving up on God and how did I imagine it panning out? In my early teens I’d had a period of searching for something. I’d bought a bible, read most or maybe even all of it, prayed pretty much every night, got confirmed and gone to church most Sundays. And it had made no difference to anything. I was tired and disillusioned. I thought I’d tried hard enough and it was time God put in a bit of effort. So, somewhere between the ages of 13 & 15 – I don’t remember clearly – I signed off with the words: “ I can’t hold on to you, God, you’ll have to hold on to me”. It wasn’t so much a prayer, more a letter of resignation. I certainly didn’t expect God to take any notice, and apart from becoming steadily less diligent & heartfelt in my religious practices I didn’t even take much notice myself. But the memory of that morning came back to me some years later when as a student I thought again about the Christian faith and found that it sounded true. And, given that I’m here today in a Christian community and in relationship with God, I guess you could say that God did hold on to me – and didn’t accept my resignation.

But maybe that explains why our reading from Genesis 15 was for some years one of my favourite bible passages. People who have looked at the customs of the ancient near east, that is Abraham’s time and culture, say that in his day two partners in an agreement (a binding covenant) would cut up animals, lay out the pieces and both ritually walk between them promising to keep the agreement or else let themselves be cut in pieces like the slaughtered animals.

In our passage God asks Abraham to get hold of a number of animals. This Abraham obediently does, and apparently he knows what’s coming next as he doesn’t stop there. He kills all the animals and lines them up ready for the covenant ritual. The scene is set for a solemn pact between Abram and God – but then as night falls and darkness closes in, Abraham falls into a deep sleep.

Now if I were about to make a binding covenant and stake my life on it, I think I’d want my covenant partner to be as fully engaged and committed as I was. If you compare it with a wedding, I think we would all want any prospective spouse to be not only physically present but also awake (and sober). So you might think that Abraham nodding off at this critical moment would be a bit of a showstopper. But it looks as though this is what God has had in mind all along. Because, in a dark rather spooky sequence, bordering on the nightmarish, as Abraham sleeps a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passes between the animal pieces. And verse 18 tells us that the covenant was concluded, even with Abraham asleep.

So for years this passage stood for me as an example right at the very beginning of the story of God with humanity of the way God does the bulk of the work, God holds on Abraham even when Abraham is fast asleep and not holding on to anything. Of course, it’s not all one-sided in the relationship between God and Abraham. In Genesis 18:19, for instance, we read that God expects Abraham to “charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice”. But it’s God who initiates the covenant and God signs up for the awful consequences of breaking the covenant without expecting Abram to do the same.

So Abraham depends on God and God holds on to Abraham. And Abraham embraces God’s promise and allows himself to depend on God.

We’ll come back to this passage in a moment but for now let’s think about our passage from Luke.

Here the Pharisees bring Jesus a warning that Herod is threatening his life. Jesus is not intimidated. On the contrary, he’s openly scornful of “that fox” Herod. Then he appears to run through his diary for the next few days, apparently checking how he is fixed for the proposed quick getaway. He makes his ministry sound just like anyone’s normal routine: “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work”. It sounds almost comical – hmm, let me see now, I’ll just check my diary, oh, no looks like I can’t leave right now, I’ll be busy with demons and healings for the next couple of days.

But Jesus gives another reason for not running away: “today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”. So it’s as if he is saying, oh, is Herod going to kill me? Well, in that case I’d better make sure I’m in the right place for him.

This seems to me to be a powerful way of responding to Herod’s threat. Jesus embraces the very thing that is supposed to scare him into backing off. So he’s taken away the only weapon against him; the threat is no longer a threat. He’s made the whole conversation low key and almost normal.

Sometimes in a day-dreaming kind of a way I try to come up with creative ways of responding in imaginary violent or potentially violent situations, in the hope that if and when I find myself in one I may find I have an approach up my sleeve that will help defuse things. And I feel there is a pattern in Jesus’ response that could help us respond when violence is threatened. But try as I might I can’t come up with a concrete example. The best I can do is recount a friend’s experience (as far as I recall it). Seeing two men squaring up to each other in the street, ready for a fight, she approached them and asked “Shall I call an ambulance now or afterwards?” I think she achieved the same effect as Jesus did. She reacted without anxiety, and calmly – and with humour – spoke as if a fight would be something quite normal which she would be prepared to deal with if it happened, which seemed to take the wind out of the men’s sails. At any rate, they never got round to fighting.

The next part of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is just as striking. Here is Jesus as mother hen who longs to gather Jerusalem under his wings. It’s a wonderfully parental, even maternal, view of God. And surely Jesus is making a point by referring to himself as a protective hen just after describing Herod as a fox. The fox-hen relationship is a notoriously troubled one. It’s all about predator and prey, about eating and being eaten. So perhaps talking about fox and hen raises some questions. Of course, if I want a comforting parent, I’d rather have a protective broody hen than a wily fox who is out to kill. But in troubled times, maybe a fox would be a better ally? If I could be sure it would be on my side and not snapping and biting, maybe a fox would be a better deal.

I wonder whether Jesus is pushing people to think about what their priorities are and where their loyalties lie. Do they want to want to play it safe, covering their backs by allying themselves with the ruler who collaborates with Rome, who operates by force and the threat of force? Or do they want to flee to the hen who loves them and cares for them as a parent, who offers no violence and has no military power behind her?

And again I think there are some possible applications here for us. If we think about our focus for this service on fair trade, I think we may be able to paint some pictures that seem to match the fox/hen contrast. There are the large companies with vast global presence intent on profit and, in some cases, not afraid to play dirty to get it. You may have heard the news story this week about Reckitt Benckiser who have bent or even broken the rules in order to maintain profits from their product Gaviscon and thus driven up NHS bills. They are not largely in the same market as fair trade companies but give an example of ruthless business practice. And we could talk about fair trade companies as deliberately refusing this kind of ruthlessness, of taking the way of the hen. But I wonder if for Jesus’ hearers there is a bit more at stake in this question than there is for us when we decide to buy fair trade. It could have been risky for Jesus’ hearers to choose to align themselves with the hen Jesus rather than the powerful fox Herod. For them choosing to hold on to God would have required a willingness also to let go of the safety and security of being on the side that is armed, might even ultimately have required a willingness to let go of life, as Jesus himself was to do.

So let’s now look at these two passages together.

One gives us the God of the night vision, the smoking pot and flaming torch, the God who can promise whole swathes of land even though they are still inhabited. God takes an immense risk in making a covenant of love with imperfect humans who will fall short and disappoint in countless ways. And we could say that God is willing to accept the threatened penalty of death for breaking the covenant – but actually God has no intention of breaking the covenant, so God’s life is safe.

As for Abraham, to believe and trust God in spite of the evidence is to make a brave choice to hold on to God he hardly knows as yet. At the time he embarks on this journey with God, it probably looks highly unlikely that God will be true to his word. But if God does keep his promises, the rewards will be amazing – countless descendants settled in desirable lands with their rivals driven out. This is a powerful God who can be relied on to keep God’s people safe, will always intervene to make everything OK. Veronica looked last week at the way the tempter drew on an idea common in the bible, particularly in the Old Testament, that those who serve God will always be rescued, and that the worst things only happen to the wicked. And I think we can see this view here and in Psalm 27 which we read together.

But Veronica reminded us also of “the danger of quoting the Old Testament without reference to the new” and the Luke passage gives us another view of God and of how rescue and suffering play out. In this passage, Jesus casts himself not as the fox with strength and cunning to get his own way for himself and his allies but as the hen willing sit tight under threat, to gather her chicks under her wings and protect them with her own life. Here the threat to God’s life is real. God’s life will depend not on God’s own faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham but on how vigorously and violently Herod the fox and his allies decide to pursue the hen and her chicks. This shows us Jesus as a hen under threat from a fox but willing to face the threat rather than run away. I think this image is a good one to carry through Lent as we approach Easter and think about a God who hasn’t scooped us all up out of danger but has chosen, in Jesus, to join us in the midst of danger and suffering.

Perhaps this can help us think about the suffering we see round about us and in our midst. Jesus as mother hen protects us, cuddling us in under his wings, loves us and is willing to absorb the violence threatening the chicks to the point even of death. But by not countering violence with violence, by choosing instead the path of tender care, Jesus takes his followers too into a world where things won’t always go as we wish they would.

The people of Jerusalem wouldn’t let Jesus gather them under his wings – and maybe it was shrewd to choose instead protectors with armies to call on. So I think there is also a question for us here. Will we follow Abraham in depending on God, holding on to God and trusting God to hold on to us? And will we do that even if the promise Jesus holds out to us includes the call to renounce cunning and threats and alliances with the powerful but violent? And what might it look like today, what might we have to let go of, to follow the way of the hen not the way of the fox?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Love your enemies

Preacher: Chris
Bible Readings: Matthew 5.38-45, Ephesians 2.14-18, (19-22)

Readings from Candide (Voltaire):

(From Chapter 3) [Candide] next addressed himself to a person who had just come from haranguing a numerous assembly for a whole hour on the subject of charity. The orator, squinting at him under his broadbrimmed hat, asked him sternly: “do you hold the Pope to be Antichrist?”

"Truly, I never heard anything about it," said Candide, "but whether he is or not, I am in want of something to eat."

"Thou deservest not to eat or to drink," replied the orator, "wretch, monster, that thou art! hence! avoid my sight, nor ever come near me again while thou livest."

A man who had never been christened, an honest Anabaptist named James, was witness to the cruel and ignominious treatment showed to one of his brethren, to a rational, two-footed, unfledged being. Moved with pity he carried him to his own house, caused him to be cleaned, gave him meat and drink, and made him a present of two florins, at the same time proposing to instruct him in his own trade of weaving Persian silks, which are fabricated in Holland.

(From Chapter 5) One half of the passengers, weakened and half-dead with the inconceivable anxiety and sickness which the rolling of a vessel at sea occasions through the whole human frame, were lost to all sense of the danger that surrounded them. The others made loud outcries, or betook themselves to their prayers; the sails were blown into shreds, and the masts were brought by the board. The vessel was a total wreck. Everyone was busily employed, but nobody could be either heard or obeyed. The Anabaptist, being upon deck, lent a helping hand as well as the rest, when a brutish sailor gave him a blow and laid him speechless; but, not withstanding, with the violence of the blow the [sailor] himself tumbled headforemost overboard, and fell upon a piece of the broken mast, which he immediately grasped.

Honest James, forgetting the injury he had so lately received from him, flew to his assistance, and, with great difficulty, hauled him in again, but, not withstanding, in the attempt, was, by a sudden jerk of the ship, thrown overboard himself, in sight of the very fellow whom he had risked his life to save and who took not the least notice of him in this distress. Candide, who beheld all that passed and saw his benefactor one moment rising above water, and the next swallowed up by the merciless waves, was preparing to jump after him, but was prevented by the philosopher Pangloss, who demonstrated to him that the roadstead of Lisbon had been made on purpose for the Anabaptist to be drowned there. While he was proving his argument a priori, the ship foundered, and the whole crew perished, except Pangloss, Candide, and the sailor who had been the means of drowning the good Anabaptist.

I think it’s quite clear, given the readings we’ve just heard, that point number one of my sermon is that should you consider yourself Anabaptist, as many of you do here today, it might be best for your physical safety to stay away from bodies of water, particularly during storms. In absence of that, try to stay away from ungrateful sailors.

So, In doing a bit of research for this sermon, I came across a question posed at, pardon the reference,—“the fastest way to learn”—that is, the fastest way to learn with you have a paper due in three hours and you haven’t started reading the book. The questioner writes:

“I'm reading Candide, by Voltaire, and one of the dudes is an Anabaptist. What's that?” kindly includes a paragraph about the roots of Anabaptism, referring to the Anabaptists as a “radical...sect” that believed in fully immersing adults during baptism. Being here today, most, if not all of us, contemplating the tea and biscuits we are about to consume once I finish rambling up here, we seem an innocuous group to bear the title “radical”, but there we have it— has declared the Anabaptists a “radical...sect” and we know, of course, that everything we read on the internet is true. During today’s sermon I want to dwell on the question of “radical” and how it applies to the call of Jesus in our lives—particularly in His call to love one another, exemplified through both love of neighbor and love of enemy, nicely outlined for us by the passage in Matthew and, somewhat surprisingly given his contentious relationship with the church, by Voltaire in these passages from Candide.

Now, I will admit that, being twenty-four and only having lived, on the whole, a rather sheltered life, my comments may come across as idealistic and may seem to gloss over or simply be unaware of the harsher realities of life. Nor do I pretend to offer any sort of conclusive or exhaustive pronouncement on the topic—it is too large, too wide, too deep to cover in a single sermon, or even a series of sermons; I simply add my voice to the millions who have spoken about it throughout the last two thousand years, some with great eloquence especially within the Anabaptist tradition. What I really want to puzzle out is, given that the Mennonite community places an emphasis on certain issues—justice, peace, community—how do we love those people or groups of people and organizations that come into conflict with our deeply held beliefs and values? In other words, what do we do/how do we treat/how do we love those with whom we find ourselves in opposition, either because we feel it our duty to defend some aspect of those around us—taking a stand on environmental issues, working for the protection of homeless individuals for instance—or because we ourselves personally feel threatened by the attitudes and actions of others. To put it one more way—how do we love those whom we morally oppose?

To give all of this questioning a concrete form, I’d like to employ an example culled from, yet again, the internet. Last week, one of my friends posted a link on Facebook to an article about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the US military. Basically, for those of you who are British, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy states that no openly homosexual person can serve in the US military, and servicemembers can be prosecuted and kicked out of the military if they are outed as homosexual. Aside from whatever you think about the US military, the policy sets up an unfair double standard and places homosexual servicemembers in often awkward and sometimes dangerous positions. Anyway, after reading this article, I looked at the comments posted below it, and was at times sympathetic and at times disgusted. One such comment read: “Homosexuality is as natural as any disease is natural. It should be treated as a disease.” So here is a concrete example of the questions posed earlier: how do I—how do we—treat this comment? My initial reaction is to be upset—very upset. I have seen in others, and in myself, the deeply sad and twisted psychological effects that comments like this one have on self-perception, emotional well-being, and social functioning. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, “When an individual or a group of individuals is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact is that he or they are inferior.” Beauvoir goes on to explain that “are inferior” means “have become”—the psychology of inferiority is such that people genuinely come to believe themselves to be inferior, a lesser form of human—a disease. As I said, my initial reaction is to be upset, angry, and defensive: the commentor needs to be set right—told what’s what—shown how he or she is flat-out wrong, and if the commentor doesn’t change his or her mind, then I should either wash my hands of the situation or pray the person will have a change of heart...while secretly hoping that the commentor wakes up one day to realize that she or he is gay and then has to deal with the implications of those kinds of comments—you know, that kind of response—something loving.

Clearly, such a response is not a good one; indeed, it explicitly runs counter to Jesus’ words that we heard from Matthew: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Note that Jesus does not say to pray for those who persecute you so that you can pray that one day they will suffer the bitter irony of having to eat their words; instead, His command is simply to love and to pray so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”—the offspring of, a reflection of a holy and loving God. But how are we supposed to love what we find distasteful? One answer is found in the injunction to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Having been on the receiving end of that statement, I can say that I find it problematic, at best. We are, all of us, sinful creatures, all of us full of sin of different shapes and varieties, and attempting to, or telling others to, “love the sinner, hate the sin” involves carving out a piece of a person and putting it aside and saying “this section of you I cannot love” but “this part I can”, in which you end up trying to love someone that you have now effectively cut a hole into: you may now find that person more loveable, but they will most likely be feeling the unpleasant effects of the gaping wound you have created. And even moreso, in this day and age where we seem so obsessed with what we do—our activities, our achievements, our causes—making us into who we are, attempting to bifurcate someone into the sum of their actions (which we deem sinful) versus the sum of their being (which we deem worthy of love) can be often harshly and poorly received, not to mention that it perpetuates the division between actions and being. So, no, I am going to say that the call to love our enemies is more than a command to love the parts we find loveable, but rather a call to love wholly—a love entire, complete.

The fear, of course, is that by letting go—by not seeking immediate “correction” of wrong—we will be unable to see immediate retribution for the perceived wrong that has been committed—that justice will somehow slip by, unnoticed and uncaring. But what does Jesus say at the end of his comment on loving our enemies? “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Whether there is justice that we see or whether there is justice that we do not see or whether there occurs nothing that we would define as justice is not the issue. The sun, we are told, rises on the evil and on the good; the rain is sent to the righteous and the unrighteous. In response to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755—we may wonder the same questions as regards the Haiti earthquake—Voltaire writes a poem:

What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.

Despite, as we have discussed, Pat Robertson’s comments, we cannot pronounce judgment on the destruction of Lisbon 255 years ago any more than we can pronounce judgment on the Haiti of today: the sun rises, and the rain falls, and we are challenged to accept this fact. Or, to return to Candide, James, the good Anabaptist, after saving the sailor, drowns, while the sailor is one of only three persons to survive the shipwreck. What is at stake then, is not the justice dished out upon evildoers—or those we perceive as doing evil—but our response. And here we reach one of the fundamental and most interesting points of Christianity—that God seems to be—again, this theme returns—not only concerned with our actions but also with our state of being, the condition of our hearts: we are to be forever conforming to the likeness and character of Christ, a likeness that said “Father forgive them” without being condescending, and a character that said “Turn the other cheek” and “pray for your enemies” and “bless those who curse you”.

There is another fear as well, one involving the nature of evil as being pernicious—an active sort of evil that must be continually struggled against (to use some Chinese terminology from the Cultural Revolution). If the unquestioning association of homosexuality with “disease” is allowed to continue, will not more people continue to suffer, more people continue to think of themselves as lesser members of society, more people continue to live in fear of being discovered and so on and so on? Where this answer lies in the call to love our enemies and the desire—even need—to struggle against encroaching evil, I do not know for sure—most of you are probably far better aware of the literature on non-violent resistance than I. But as Lesley said in her sermon on October 4—gmail’s archive feature is a wonderful tool, by the way—“I’m not so sure evil can be so powerful.” Or, as Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” In this passage, goodness is itself an active force, one that can counteract the destructive influence of evil, and so if we are actively seeking and actively doing good then there is a call to commit loving actions of the kind found in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient”—so be patient; “love is kind”—so be kind; “Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs”—so keep no record of wrongs; “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

Returning to my earlier comments that our concern should not be that God punish evildoers but that our hearts be right before God, in thinking about the commentor, I wonder if I should be praying “God, change my heart.” I tried this, and found it very difficult to do, which, as I have discovered, my own reluctance to do a certain thing can often be an indication of the necessity of doing it. So I pray God teach me how to love in this situation and in similar situations in the future that I may be a reflection of your character on earth. A small prayer, but one that seeks to follow after Jesus in His quite radical command to love those we find unloveable.

Beware of ships at sea. Amen.