Monday, 5 August 2019

Sermon on Matthew 7:12 - The Golden Rule

“So everything you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."
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Approaching this sermon, I felt very challenged in two completely different ways. Firstly, it's such a short reading, only 20 words long. How to find enough to speak about from so few words of Scripture? But then straightaway I had the opposite problem. This verse is famously known as the Golden Rule, because it beautifully sums up the attitude that should define our morality and our spirituality. But it can be applied in so many different situations, how do you explain it in any way in only ten minutes.So right at the start my hands are both too empty and too full. I'm struck with a degree of humility, and fear and trembling as I approach this task.

I take comfort though from the fact this reflects life itself. The sheer bewildering vastness of life and its choices is, I imagine, enough to make us all feel a touch of fear and trembling sometimes. Especially in this modern world there seem to be so many opportunities and choices, and maybe it's just me, but I sometimes feel with so many choices, I'm just that more terrified I'm going to make the wrong one.

I work for a major, well-known corporation that shall remain anonymous. It's a great company, there's lots of opportunities, and they have this real focus on personal development. This is good, we all want to develop, but at times it is exhausting. If you're not careful you can feel like you're never good enough, you're up on the side of a mountain and you have to step up, and up, and just as soon as you become vaguely comfortable with where you are, you've got to climb a bit higher again, and so you've always got this slight sense of vertigo, like you might just fall off if you put a foot in the wrong place.

And it's not just work, it's social occasions, it's dealing with family, and friends; it's politics, it's the constant never-ending messy confusion of being alive. And the choices are endless, and some of them don't matter at all, but a lot of them do, even if just in a small way, and you can feel like at any moment you could make the wrong choice and screw up, maybe embarrass yourself, maybe miss some opportunity, maybe hurt someone you don't mean to hurt. 

So, what do you do?

I think, fundamentally, there are two types of approach. You can have a list of rules. You can have a list of rules about what you do in each type of situation. So, maybe the rule is "Always say yes to an opportunity", or it's "Don't steal" or it's "Always be polite". But in the complexity of life there will be times when these rules should not apply because they don't take account of the context of the situation we're in. And this will be true however many rules you have, because there will always be some situation that doesn't fit into the rules we already know.

The Law of the Old Testament was a system of rules, designed to cover almost every situation. The Rabbis added up all the 'do's and 'do not's in the Law of Moses and found there were 613 in total. 613! And the Rabbis added many more rules to the list, to create what they called 'a fence around the Law' to prevent anyone breaking the core commandments. They didn't do this to be a pain in the backside, they did it to try to create a comprehensive guide to life, that would allow people to walk in the right path without tripping and falling down. Orthodox Jews today still guide their lives by this code, and Islamic 'Sharia' Law is meant to be a similar theological guide for Muslims and Islamic society.

Our modern secular world seems to be trying to go down the same path too. Anyone who runs a business or a charity, or a school, or who just deals with the Government or the Local council, will know that the rules and bureaucracy seem to be multiplying year after year, sometimes it feels like, before your very eyes. Online as well, in any social media, people are creating an increasing and bewildering number of rules about what you’re allowed to say, and what opinions you’re allowed to hold, to avoid being sternly condemned by well-meaning busybodies. Once again the idea seems to be that if we shape the rules precisely enough, just right, it will be possible to exactly and clearly define what righteousness is.  

But what Jesus taught us is what we inevitably see in life, that this approach never fully works. There are too many choices in life, and people are too unique, and different, for any list of rules to always tell us what is the answer. And that's before you get the issue of people deliberately trying to subvert and get around the rules. However well designed any system of governance is, if people are out to make mischief, they will find a way to get around it and subvert it. You just have to look at the actions going on in parliament at the moment to see people on both sides trying to game the rules to get their way. People really struggle to believe this though. They always seem to think that if they phrase the rules just right, then they will be fool-proof, and then everything is simple. Well, I can only say the history of mankind is the history of the fools winning that one.

What is the alternative though?

The alternative is Jesus's teaching here in the Gospels, the alternative to the Letter of the Laws, is the Spirit and Grace of God; the alternative to and never-ending list of rules is just one - The Golden Rule. “So everything you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets."

But why is this so different? Isn't that just another rule?

No, because it does not dictate the answer to a specific situation, it gives us the key so we can understand and decide any situation for ourselves. It helps guide our thinking, but it requires us to think. That was what Jesus did again and again. That's why he taught in parables: because he wanted us to consider and learn. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan - Jesus tells this parable after a rich, young man comes and asks him first, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life", and then "Who is my neighbour?". Clearly this man just wants Jesus to give him the answer, maybe in some form of list.

Instead Jesus gives him a parable that he has to take and consider and apply anew in every situation. Jesus knows that no set of rules can be a replacement for a kind and loving heart. Yes, it matters to have the right rules in a society, or a workplace, or in ethics. Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. And that can only be done by those who judge and think for themselves, but not people who judge and think in any random way, but people whose hearts are guided by loving the Lord God with all their mind and strength, and guided by loving their neighbour as themselves. Only when we take decisions guided by the Spirit of God, who is love, mercy, generosity and peace, rather than by the letter of the law, only then will we judge rightly. 

For this sermon I kind of wish it wasn't popularly known as the Golden Rule, because it's not a rule in the manner I've talked about. It's so different, it's not a law to follow, but a principle that can guide our thinking and our hearts. “So everything you wish that others would do for you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." 

What kind of principle is it?

The first thing to say, is to make sense of it we can't apply the Golden Rule in a manner that is too immediate and literal. Just because you like bananas doesn't mean the Golden Rule is telling you to give everyone a banana. And it's easy to think of ever sillier examples. We have to take a step back from that kind of narrowness, and think about it more at an emotional level, what is the way we would like other to approach us, and then let that guide us back into specific actions.  

And if we do that this Golden Principle opens up for us. It becomes one that leads us to think about ourselves and the weaknesses we feel and the challenges we face.  To think about ourselves and all the times and ways we wish we had a helping hand, wish we had someone to turn to. And then it guides us, not to dwell in that forever, but to take all our vulnerability and look to the person sitting next to us, or the person walking by us in the street, or the person opposite us on the bus, and to think about how they might be vulnerable and in need in the same way, and to devote ourselves to them.

Because it assumes that other people are like us. It tells me that I can know something about others, that I can know that they have complex, multiple needs, and motivations, and cares like me. And it tells me even more than this, it tells me I must act to do something about it. When Jesus was asked "Lord, who is my neighbour?" he told the story of the Good Samaritan, with the message that our neighbour is anyone in need, and we act like a neighbour when we step in and help them. And we know that we are in need, so we better believe our neighbour is also in need. And we better do something about it. This is the statement of our common humanity, not as a legal or theoretical assumption, but in the messy, practical reality of all the things and cares that make up our lives.

There is a related saying to the Golden Rule, it is sometimes called the Silver Rule - "Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". Did you catch the difference? - "Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". Now that is an important principle as well. I'd suggest we all keep it. But it is not as important as the Golden Rule. It is also more common. Many religious traditions have the Silver Rule, but Jesus takes the rare step of turning it into Gold. Silver means second place, and there’s nothing shameful about that, but Gold means first. Why? Gold has always been considered more precious, more beautiful. Gold is always valuable, Silver tarnishes, but Gold keeps its shine. 

"Do not do anything to others, that you wouldn't want them to do to you". The difference is this - You can keep that principle by doing nothing. And that is why it would never be enough. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that the work has begun and is ongoing of creating a New Heaven and a New Earth, the Kingdom of Heaven, and that means standing up and acting. Maybe in small ways, maybe in large ways, and with the Grace and Spirit of God.

Just before this verse in Matthew 7:7 we have another famous reading, Jesus says “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you". Ask! Seek! Knock! And today, Do!

If we think about it, we all know how we'd like to be treated. We all want to people to be considerate, to pay attention to us, and not leave us abandoned, to approach us as unique individuals, to extend a helping hand, to appreciate us for who we are, to stick by us despite our flaws and errors, we want people to never condemn us on the basis of some stereotype or assumption. In other words, we want to be approached as an individual person who needs understanding, rather than as an object to be fit into some rigid structure of laws or assumptions. By no coincidence these are all the ways God's Love see us, and the ways his forgiveness approaches us. And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes it clear that, however many rules and laws we have, we will never have the good world we want to see until we approach everyone around us with that same Grace, that we would want for ourselves.     

Amen.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

A Tribute: My Great Uncle George. 1920-2005.

This is a brief tribute to my Great-Uncle, George Knight, who died when I was 16. He was one of the male role-models of my childhood, and this is based on the address at his funeral, written up from memory shortly afterwards. I discovered it again recently and with help from my Dad tidied it up.  This is a testament to an extra-ordinary life, from the aftermath of the First World War to the dawn of smartphones, one of the remarkable generation who lived right through the heart of the 20th Century, and saw their world change more than we can imagine.

My Fathers Uncle, my Grandma Florence's brother, a good and cheerful man to everyone he met. George Knight was born on the 9th January 1920 in South London.  His father died when he was young, he had been scarred by injuries from the Great War and couldn’t work, couldn’t operate, and then, in the late 1920s, sadly died.  George was part of a large family who would struggle to look after him at home, and so through a scholarship he was sent away to a boarding school. The experience was hard like the discipline. He used to say, 'when a cane wore out I was sent to buy another one'. But it taught him respect for elders, hard work, obedience and discipline. It also gave him a deep trust in God, that would last him his whole life.

As a child, a small lost boy from a poor family, he developed three dreams. To get into Oxford University, to become an officer in the Royal Navy and to become a Vicar in the Church of England. At the age of 17 he gained entry into London University and then, at 19 with the help of a scholarship, he was granted entry into Oxford University. His first impossible dream fulfilled. He was there from 1939-1942 and while there he became chairman of the Oxford Conservative association and Captain of his college's Boat team. This taught him the skills of operating as part of a team and swiftly giving orders to react to situations that faced him. He did not ignore his studies either, gaining the best theology degree of his entire year.

After graduating from Oxford he joined the Royal Navy in 1942 as an Ordinary Seaman, the lowest rung on the ladder, and on his first day was put in charge of a work party of 40 men.  He was soon promoted to Able Seaman and then after completing training at the Britannia Royal Naval College commissioned as a sub-Lieutenant.  His second ambition achieved.  He was later promoted to full Lieutenant, and commanded one of the second wave of ships that landed troops on Sword Beach on D-Day. One of his favourite stories from the War was when he was sailing in the Adriatic in 1945 towards the end of the War, he was in charge of the bridge on his ship and suddenly these vessels came speeding towards his ship. They were German boats and they had white sheets hung on their towers. They were trying to surrender and George suddenly had this vision of all these enemy ships personally surrendering to little old him and him escorting them back into harbour. Think of the glory! So, he called his Captain to the bridge as soon as possible and asked him whether he should escort these ships to harbour. The captain said no, let them go on their way, so they did and George continued on to Yugoslavia.

After the war George resigned his commission and entered the seminary, from which he was ordained as an Anglican priest. His last great ambition, fulfilled. He returned to the Navy as the Chaplain to the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, at that time the 2nd most senior religious post in the Royal Navy. There one day in 1951 he met a pretty blonde Swedish tourist on holiday. 18 months later they were married, and it was the start of 54 years of happy marriage that only ended with his sad death on the 7th December 2005. He was happy in his job and was very lucky one day after a service at the College, which as chaplain he was leading, to end up dancing with a certain Princess Elizabeth, now the Queen. He said, 'Who was I, to be cavorting with princesses?'

He later also met the late Queen Mother at a reception where as chaplain he was required to say Grace before the meal and, as was Naval custom, afterwards thank God for the good things he had provided. Later he was honoured to have a long private conversation with the Queen Mother, then still Queen Elizabeth. He was also honoured to be appointed chaplain on the Vanguard, Britain’s last ever battleship, when it carried King George VI and Princess Elizabeth on a state visit to South Africa in 1947.

George served in the Royal Navy for 30 years, and he was thoroughly involved with all sorts of Naval developments. On one occasion he was asked to join a Naval commission to improve the prestige of the Fleet Air Arm. After many hours of discussion and various proposals, George suggested that Fleet Air Arm officers be granted the right to wear Bicorne, Nelsonian hats when coming aboard ships, as that would do the job as well as anything else mentioned for considerably less money.

He retired from the Navy in 1975 and became a parish priest, at which time he was also awarded an OBE for his services in the College. His life was unfortunately mired by a tragedy as well during this time as his only son, Christopher, died of Cancer at a young age. In 1990 after over 40 years as a Church of England priest he resigned in protest over the decision that year to ordain Women as priests, and after that in his old age joined the Philadelphia Church of God, a small Protestant church to which his wife already belonged. He continued his life happily though, always cheery, always active and luckily healthy right up until he was struck down by a stroke three weeks before his death.  Indeed on the very morning of the day on which his stroke occurred he was out in the garden planting tubers. He was a good man.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

A Palm Sunday Sermon - What makes for True Joy?

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Good Morning everyone.

Today is Palm Sunday, and we remember what happened when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, many years ago. But Palm Sunday did not just happen once. Now, how many Palm Sundays have their been? The obvious answer is it's the year 2019, so there have been slightly less than 2000 Palm Sundays. But actually I'd say there have been many more Palm Sundays than that. I doubt we could possibly count them, millions, even billions for certain.

Because Palm Sunday, like the whole of our Holy Week story, leading up to Easter, is not just something that happened, once, or even a day in the year; it is a situation and a challenge that we all face many times a year, a month, a week.

The people who came out to cheer Jesus' arrival into Jerusalem had good motives, they were doing the right thing; up to a point. It's good to cheer Jesus, to give him the recognition he deserves, "Hosanna", "Hallelujah", "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord".  Blessed indeed. But what we must know; what the crowd and even the disciples still didn't understand, was what it truly meant to welcome and follow Jesus, what it would demand of them. And because they hadn't understood, when troubles came, they fell away; and we know on Good Friday, the crowd were chanting something very different.

Remember the parable of the Sower, and the seed that fell on rocky ground. Jesus says this is "someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the Word, they quickly fall away."This is our crowd on Palm Sunday, and this is many people today, this is us whenever we get  carried away, get swept up in something we haven't truly considered and committed to. The joy of Palm Sunday the joy of the crowd, is a real joy, but it is only a shallow joy, a reflection of true joy, unless we understand what the Good News of God really involves and means for us.

I want us to contrast this day with some other days we remember in our Christian year. Some days of more glory, holiness, and worth. Think back to Christmas, or ahead to Easter, and to Pentecost. In these we have moments of true joy, because they are hard, limited and earnt.

Think about how difficult it was for Mary, young, blessed, Mary, to accept the Angel's command, trusting in God, despite the uncertainty of being a young, unmarried mother, facing a future she did not understand. Think of Joseph accepting he must take Mary as his wife, safeguard and protect her, and a child that was not his blood, in the face of what must have been confusion, misunderstanding and gossip in his community. Think of their journey with a heavily pregnant Mary on a donkey. And think of the wise men travelling a thousand miles on camel, hoping to find the Messiah. By the time Mary had survived childbirth in a stable, with the animals gathered round, and the baby lay sleeping in cattle manger, and the shepherds came telling them how Angels had broken the skies with joy and praise, Mary and Joseph had earned their joy, real joy, true joy, deep joy, that knows the cost and knows it has all been worth it.

And nowhere would this be more true than with the joy of the resurrection. We know how Jesus paid the price, not only in pain upon the cross, but in abandonment by his friends, in fear and anticipation before as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. And we know the devastation the disciples must have felt as Jesus was taken, and they were scattered. We know how many of them doubted, how Easter Saturday must have felt like an eternity, as time can slow to a crawl when we are faced with great tragedy.

But then Sunday came, and the Resurrection dawned on them, slowly and piecemeal at first; to a few women, and then a few men, and then more and more of the disciples, and the joy spread with the news, and grew for spreading; but still then it was a thin web of people who had this new and marvellous discovery, and the joy that truly goes with it, in a society that largely did not understand. Compared to this the joy of Palm Sunday was a shallow kind of joy, the joy of the crowd. And if you only feel that joy, or speak out, when a crowd is with you, then you risk crying Hosanna on a Sunday, and then Crucify, on the next Friday.

And there's always a lot of that around in any society. Modern social media and entertainment has created new forms of it, but it's always been there. Someone can find themselves basking in the praise of the online crowds one day, but faced by an angry online mobs the next day in response to a single misjudged, or misunderstood comment. Stripped of all context, online statements are even more ripe for misinterpretation, and instant news sites have an interest in feeding the cycle of giddy glee followed by bitter condemnation, it all makes for good clickbait.

But how do we avoid falling into this shallow joy?

Now when I say that the joy of Christmas, and Easter, and Pentecost is real, because it was earnt, I'm not trying to say that we have to earn our joy through what we do. I'm not preaching that our salvation comes through works, through what we do. No, because that was then. Mary and Joseph, and then Jesus, needed to do something then. But Christ then, hacked open the door, in the barrier between us and God, he smashed open the doorway, and now its there. All we have to do, is walk through to God. But we do need to have the awareness that those people on Palm Sunday, including the disciples, didn't have. Those people rejoiced when Christ seemed to be riding into Jerusalem to fulfill the prophecies they knew. But then when they saw him arrested, imprisoned, surrounded on Good Friday, they thought it was all over and so turned on him.

But why did they turn on him? How little endurance their faith had in the end. You know, I think its likely from our reading today that on Palm Sunday some of these people at least had not just emerged from Jerusalem, they were part of the crowds that had been following Christ through his ministry. Otherwise how would they have known who he was? In that case when the crowd gathered again on Good Friday they still had all the evidence of Christ: they had seen the Miracles, they had heard the wisdom and authority with which he taught; all that was still there.

And they didn't know their own prophecies that well either. Six hundred years earlier in the Book of Isaiah, the prophet had seen Christ, and said, "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished"

The people on Palm Sunday, and Good Friday, should've known that. I should know that. Do I have a faith that rejoices when all seems well, but falls away when things turn hard? Like the crowds of Holy Week, I still have the evidence of Christ, the miracles, the teaching, the wisdom and authority. I have more still, I have the cross, and the empty tomb. They are still there, when we feel our lives feel overshadowed by grief.

Of course we all have Palm Sundays, moments of ecstatic, cheering joy; and there's nothing wrong with a bit of joy, or just plain old happiness, or enjoyment. God knows, we all need and deserve joy. But we must be aware that God's promises, and Jesus' salvation is there in good times and challenging ones. Over the next week, which is often called Holy Week; from Palm Sunday we walk towards Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, when everything seemed bleak. But Easter Sunday is coming.  And we will all have our own individual Palm Sundays throughout the year; and Good Fridays when it feels like we're being crucified, and the sky turns black; and Holy Saturdays when it feels like God is sleeping and silent, even Dead in the Grave; but even when we don't know it, Easter Sunday is Coming! Resurrenction is coming, and the pouring out of the Spirit again, and strength and joy that lasts, and is truly real.

We know this because it did happen. And it has happened over and over again, in the history of the Church, in countries and nations all across the world, and the lives of people here. Time and time again it looks bleak, but God is not done, and we can be lifted to new heights of joy, and strength, and peace. And this hope is open to us all if we turn and place our faith in God, knowing the Spirit, and its power, and its joy, is secured for us through Christ's own deeds and sacrifice.  So in Palm Sunday we see joy, and vision; let us all sing, along with those people long ago, "Hosanna", "Hallelujah", and "Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord". They were right in that. But let us add to those people our understanding of the greater joy of Christmas and Easter, and a faith that rejoices on Palm Sunday, but also endures the same through the mourning of a Good Friday, or an Easter Saturday - in the world, or in our own lives - secure in the knowledge that Easter Sunday did come, and it still comes, and it will always come.

This is part of the power and beauty of the Christian message, and why it is essential to our world. Our message to a world that still worships power and wealth and success; that blessed are the meek, and the merciful, and those persecuted for righteousness sake, for they will inherit the earth, and the kingdom of heaven too. And Good Friday, when Jesus was cursed and reviled, and arrested and imprisoned, and beaten and killed, was a Good day too.

Let us take the rejoicing of Palm Sunday, and combine it with our understanding of Good Friday, and the deeper joy of Easter Sunday, and then we have a clear sight of the rejoicing there must have been in Heaven when Jesus came home. And you can imagine the Angels were waving palms, and singing and shouting like you can't believe. That's true joy, based on a hope that can endure, because it is based in God's infinite reality that lies far beyond all the rolling storms and ebbing tides and crashing waves of this world. We should be cautious of crowds at times, whether of the cheering variety, or the jeering variety; because we know that truer, deeper joy that lasts comes through, and despite, and in continuing awareness, of the struggles and griefs that form it.

And we glimpse that joy again whenever, with God's grace, we build a bit of the Kingdom of God on earth; and we shall see that joy made eternal and fulfilled to all the heights and depths of the Universe, when at last God's kingdom is fully built, and the earth is filled with the Glory of God, as the waters cover the sea, and grief and sorrow shall be no more.


Thank you. Amen.   
 


Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Coming of the Wise Men - An Epiphany Sermon

"A Cold Coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of Winter"

That’s how T.S.Eliot imagined the Wise Men beginning to look back and describing their journey. I feel those words describe a few journeys I've all been on as well. Perhaps some Christmas journeys, or winter  commutes, when the car is iced over and then the engine won’t start.

The Wise Men, or Magi, who we sometimes call Kings, came from the East. There's not much to the east of Jerusalem once you leave the Holy Land itself. Not until you cross the Arabian desert and come to what we now call Iraq. That's almost certainly where the Magi came from. In those days Babylon, and its other cities, were still great centres of civilisation, with many astronomers who paid close attention to the stars. They were probably Zoroastrian scholars, that was the religion of Iraq, Iran and Armenia in those days, a religion worshipping one God whose rituals were centred around fire burning, and studying the stars.

It's 700 miles from the rivers of Iraq to Jerusalem, on foot and on camel. In this modern day I know that because I looked it up on Google Maps. Google gives an option for journeys on foot, but sadly not yet camel. But I assume it was the same length. That's a long journey though, on foot or camel, and mostly through desert, in a land with no good roads, no police force, across a hostile border. But still they came. We don't know how many magi, wise men, there were, though they are recorded bringing three gifts - Gold, Frankincence, and Myrrh. Pretty strange gifts, I imagine they didn't know exactly what they would find when they came. But rich gifts to be sure. Gifts worthy of a King: Gold and rare perfumes and incenses. Generous gifts, to haul 700 miles, for someone they'd never met. But still they came.

And the first thing the Wise Men did was make their way to Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, to the Palace of the King, and ask to see the New King of the Jews. We can only presume they thought it would be Herod's son, in some nursery in the Palace, whose star they had seen rising. They asked for "the King of the Jews" but they were clearly expecting more than a King, for they said they had come to worship him. In other words, they knew they were looking for the Messiah, God's anointed, who is both King and God. They must have made quite an entrance when they reached the Gates of Herod's Palace - exotic foreigners, who many Jews would have considered Pagan wizards, fresh with dust from the road, arrive in a caravan demanding to see God's messiah. And nobody at Herod's court or in the Priests of the Temple could tell them anything! 

When I think about this I almost laugh. You have to imagine the chaos and confusion this would have caused Herod and his court. The advisers running around like headless chickens and Herod screaming for answers. You have to the shock passing over their faces.These wise men from the East turned up at the centre of political power in the Holy Land to say not only that there is another King, which would make him a threat to Herod's authority, but that he is God's Messiah, meaning he would totally outranks Herod's authority, and if is widely recognised Jews will flock to him. Well that's one thing, and it's not a reassuring message in the middle of winter if you're Herod. But worse than that, some foreigners had come 700 miles and they knew all about it, but not one person in Jerusalem, the Capital, knew anything. Not in the Temple, not in the Palace. This is a failure of government intelligence on a massive scale. Herod's government would've had contacts with soldiers, bureaucrats, local leaders, with other governments, and with their own spies and informers, and not one of them knew a thing.

The old King James Version of the Bible says Herod was "troubled", and the NIV says he was "disturbed". I bet he was! In fact, I imagine both of those are quite polite ways of putting it. No wonder they scrambled around dragging in Chief Priests and scribes, trying to work out if anyone knew anything about this. Well no, they didn't specifically know anything, but they did know that Centuries before one of God's prophets had said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So they sent the Magi to Bethlehem with instructions to find this new-born King, and come back to report.

Now this was Herod trying to be subtle. Once he’d got over the shock, he must've realised that if nobody knew about this new King, this Messiah, then either not many supported him yet, or the Magi had got it wrong and he wasn’t there. I mean, people don't usually travel several hundred miles on foot, unless they're pretty certain, but still, it was possible. Bethlehem was a small place, a village, and Herod was obviously prepared to send soldiers to kill everyone who looked suspicious, because we know that's what he did in the end. But it would be a lot neater and quieter for Herod, if he could find exactly where this King was, if the Magi found anything, and kill him quietly.

The Wise Men knew none of this though. I'm sure Herod kept his scheming from them completely. They must have just been baffled by the whole thing. The Wise men had travelled all that way to see the King of the Jews, predicted by the prophets Centuries before, and these people had failed to notice the birth of their own Messiah. Pretty careless. But still, having been redirected on they went, and they came those last few miles, onward to Bethlehem. It can't have been what they were expecting, they had clearly imagined something like Herod's Palace. They were expecting a King. And what they got was a small, ordinary child, living with his Mother, and his apparent Father, in an ordinary house in a small village. But still when they saw the place "they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy", and when they saw Jesus with Mary "they fell down and worshipped him", and gave their gifts of "gold, frankincence and myrhh".

But why did they come all that way? Seven hundred miles from Babylon to Bethlehem. A long, hard journey, in "the very dead of winter". They weren't Jews. It wasn't the King of their people, it wasn't the Messiah promised to their people, they weren't suffering under Roman occupation. It wasn't even the God of their people, the God their fathers worshipped. But still they came, and they were filled with joy, and worship, and gave generous, royal gifts. Why? Because God had touched their hearts. They lived in a distant land, among a different people, but still when the time came for Jesus Christ to be born their hearts were moved. Moved enough to travel a long way in the middle of winter to find another people's King. It's not certain how they even knew about the coming of the Messiah.

The Jews had spent 80 years in exile in Babylon after Jerusalem was destroyed in around 600BC. And there were still many Jews who lived in what is now Iraq. Maybe these Magi had got to know some of the Jewish community there, maybe they had read their Prophets there and had heard about the Messiah that way. Second or Third hand, so to speak. Well for these few people that was enough. It was enough to move them to make a great journey, in the faith that it would lead to God's Messiah, to Saving grace.

And not just Saving grace, but grace that included them. God's saving grace that extends to anyone who is willing to turn to God. Nobody was expecting the Magi when they turned up. Not Herod, not Mary, nobody, only God. They came from God only knows for certain where, because something had happened, that meant when God reached out with a sign, the Star, they were able to see it for what it truly was, what it truly meant, and to respond. With hearts that still rejoiced even when God took them to an unexpected place and a simple, common home.

May our hearts be the same. The Wise Men remind us of the eternal lesson that it doesn’t matter who you are, what matters is how you respond. God sends joy and wonders in the most unexpected people and the most unexpected places, if only we are open to go and to appreciate them. But the Magi would never have come, if they hadn’t already had some contact with God's people before they saw the Star. They can't have been the only ones who saw it, but they were the only ones who knew it was a sign of God's grace. They must have already been waiting for this King of the Jews, for them to risk the journey. And have known with more than just book knowledge, something must have moved their hearts.

Maybe it was somebody they had known, perhaps a wise Jew living in Babylon, who had opened the scriptures for them. It is often a specific relationship with someone, sometimes for long time, sometimes just a chance encounter, that can put people on the road to God and a better life. Or maybe someone had just given them a copy of the scriptures to read and discover for themselves, and they had found God written plain on the pages of the Prophets and the heroes of Old. Sometimes left alone with God's words, people can find inspiration all by themselves, but still someone must've taken the step to have given them a copy of the Scriptures, and that was a lot more difficult in those days when they had to be copied out by hand. We never know how our kinds deeds and words may affect other people. We never know how taking an opportunity to speak to people about God, and the faith we have, might nudge them on the right path, to one day reach his loving arms. We also never know who God might call, or who might have their heart open to his presence.

That can be a challenge to us, because we must have no preconceptions about what God's people might look like. They can be familiar, or they can be strange. We can have no prejudices about who is worth speaking to about God, because it could be anyone whose heart is already open, just needing kind, truthful words to fall on their fertile ground.

The Wise Men were the first gentiles, Non-Jews to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, but they were not the last. One of the remarkable things about the New Testament is just how open it is to anyone. Jesus in his ministry made a point of including all the peoples in the immediate vicinity around Israel, as well as Jews of every sex, and rank and wealth. We are speaking today about the Magi, who probably came from Babylon. The Gospels also talk about Jesus being recognised by and blessing a Samaritan man, a Phoenician woman, a Samaritan woman, a Gedarene man (the one whose demons went into a herd of pigs), and a Roman Centurion. Do let me know if you can think of any I have missed.

In each of these cases Jesus preached to these Gentiles, healed these gentiles, praised the faith and commitment of these gentiles. And the early Apostles followed and built on this multi-national nature of Jesus' own ministry. From the first day of Pentecost when God made the disciples speak in many tongues, God began to gather many peoples into his Kingdom. The Ethiopian Philip met on the road, the Roman Centurion who, with his family, was the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit! At that point God was going ahead, even of the Apostles, shocking them with the reality that the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, had come on Gentiles. The Apostles could only try to keep up! Within 20 years there were Christian communities all the way from Rome to Jerusalem. In 300 years there were Christians from India in the East to Britain in the West, and in 600 years there were Christians in every country from China to Ireland.

In all these countries there were people whose hearts were open in Faith, Hope and Love, to the Good News of Jesus, and received the Holy Spirit, despite all the incredible differences in language, culture, and nationality. Today there are Christians in every country in the world, even ones like North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where Christian faith is completely illegal and so Christians are in terrible danger. And what an amazing thing that is. Still these days despite the many advances we have made in science and technology, our world seems as divided and fearful as ever. But our God has no tribe or nation, and the Good News of Jesus Christ, has no culture or race or language or colour. It touches the hearts of people in every time and place, because all people are God's children, who he seeks to gather into his Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is a community open to all who wish to belong. And for all of us who are not Jews, but are part of God's Kingdom, we should look back on those Wise Men with great respect and admiration. For they were the first.

Amen.

Monday, 24 December 2018

An Advent and Christmas Reflection

I have a strong dislike of planning for Christmas and hearing Christmas songs before December. I have even been compared to Ebenezer Scrooge. But this isn’t because I hate Christmas, in fact I love Christmas and I also love Advent. The four weeks leading up to Christmas is my favourite period of the Christian Year: the New Year of the church, four Sundays before Christmas, begins a period of reflection, of watching, of waiting, of re-reading the prophecies of God’s promises, of quietly searching for the light in the darkness that can seem to be all around us.

But the preparation for Christmas I see in the society around me troubles me more each year. I see people place a lot of hope in things that don’t get them what they want. Christmas seems to start at the beginning of November and finish before Christmas Day is over. I’ve seen people open piles of presents on Christmas day only to discard them to rush to the Boxing Day sales. As many as eight million people in this country will start January in debt because of Christmas. People eat and drink far more than is good for them, and put up more and more decorations each year, searching for the perfect picture for Instagram. Others place their hope in their jobs and careers, working for longer than they need to. There seems to be little space for Advent and even for the following eleven days of Christmas. Long before the joy of Epiphany much of the world has moved on. Parliament spent Advent in uproar over Brexit, and there has been weekend after weekend of rioting in Paris, it seems many people have put their hope in power and politicians and been disappointed.

As Christians, we are hopefully less vulnerable to the worst excesses of ‘secular Christmas’ and putting our hope in the wrong places. But we still rush around, cooking, cleaning, decorating, wrapping, baking, and staying up half the night trying to create a perfect day. I’ve seen people rush around organising so many church services and singing so many Carols that they feel a disappointment when it is over, saying they did not really experience Christmas at all. The comfort that we need in the midst of pain and grief and suffering does not lie in the things around us in this world. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” prophesied Isaiah (9:2) seven hundred years before Jesus was born.

Christmas comes not only to the rich and well organised; it is not just for young children, or for people who already know Jesus. It comes, to the lowly and the poor. To the young Mary and Joseph, and the outcast shepherds, as well as the learned wise men, and the elderly Simeon and Anna in the temple. It comes to those like Zechariah and Elizabeth who thought their time may be past, and to a young couple in an occupied country forced to flee the persecution of Herod. It comes to John the Baptist in the wilderness and to an Innkeeper in the crowded town of Bethlehem. The Joy, Awe, Wonder, Peace and Hope of Christmas comes to all those willing to follow the star and listen to the angels - to all those who make space for the Baby who was named Jesus, who is Immanuel, God-With-Us.

The coming of the Messiah is the fulfilment of God’s promises, the proof that he has not forgotten his people and the embodiment of our Salvation. It is not a glittery, shiny, empty promise. Our mighty God with overwhelming power comes to save us as a tiny helpless baby – rejecting the worship of power, riches, control, strength and dominance - born into danger and poverty in a Manger. It is something we all need to experience every year afresh, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Christmas gives us an ultimate hope for the future too - as we wait this Advent; we work for the growth of God's Kingdom of hope, faith and love, and we wait for Jesus to come again in Glory.

So that brings me to the challenge of this devotion: what are you going to NOT do this Christmas? How will you remind yourself of God’s promises, and make room for Jesus, God with us?

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Why is Max Scheler's 'Value Ethics' better than all the others?


When you say you've done a PhD there are only two responses. Some people change the subject, and the rest ask what your PhD was about. Once you're past that, they usually ask why? Sometimes what you're doing is obviously sexy, like curing Cancer, or inventing solar panels, but usually it's a trickier question. Well, my PhD was in Philosophy, more specifically in Ethics, and most specifically the remarkable Ethical theory of Max Scheler (1874-1928). That answers the first question, but what about the second. Why did I do it? And was it worth doing?

Ethics is all around us all the time. Questions of what is valuable and important are a constant issue in our personal lives, our professional lives, and our politics. It never stops and it's part of all the arguments that plague our society. Despite this few people consider what basic ethical principles and theories should guide these constant decisions. We would consider it crazy if people constructed buildings without reference to physics, or grew food without thinking about biology, or manufactured materials without chemistry. But there is no comparable reliance on ethical theory: it isn't taught rigorously in schools, and is barely discussed even by those professionally engaged in areas like Politics.

Now one of the reasons for this is the confused, disjointed state of theoretical ethics itself. Every physicist agrees on Newton's laws but in Ethics there are multiple fundamental theories about what defines the 'Good' and 'Evil', each of which contradicts the other. Deontology, Utilitarianism, and Virtue Ethics, are roughly the main schools of thought: focused on fixed moral principles, outcomes of actions, and personal virtues, respectively; Or in other words: means, ends, and virtues. Each of these has many subdivisions and adjusted theories, and the details and issues with them fill libraries, but the basic problem with each is that they are infuriatingly partial.

None are just rubbish, but each grabs hold of an important ethical principle and clings to it like it's the only valuable thing in the world. They then judge our complex experience of things as meaningful and valuable by that singular principle, not the other way round, discarding bits of experience that don't fit like someone chopping off their toes to fit into their shoes. This inevitably results in absurd consequences eventually. Classic Kantian deontology famously opposes telling a lie to save someone's life from a murderer, classic Utilitarianism suggests torturing a totally innocent person forever would be morally correct if enough people enjoyed it enough. These are just simple examples, but the problems with these theories in many areas run deep.

That's why there are multiple such theories, because each leaves a big part of the ethical territory un-colonised, leaving a space then inevitably filled by another theory that intuitively focuses on that vacant ground. What is needed is a theory that tries to accurately describes the whole range of our experience of meaning and value and builds itself around that, rather than insisting experience should fit the straitjacket of a simplistic theory.

This is what Scheler's Ethics does so well. Its depth lies in its attention to the broadest possible range of our ethical experience: of events, of intentions, of objects, of actions, of people; and distinguishing, describing, and analysing as many of the different Values involved as possible. Phenomenology, the method Scheler's uses, prioritises analysis, in the sense of breaking experience down to identify the nuances of values that defines our ethical life, and trying to describe them as accurately as possible, before then asking how they fit together. Where other theories are rationalistic: taking one principle of what can be morally good and then trying to force experience to fit that; Scheler's approach is empirical: It approaches ethical experiences and asks, what do we experience, and how do we experience it? We can then apply this understanding in practical cases where these values arise and must be weighed against each other.  

The idea of 'Values' is the primary building block of Scheler's ethics, described in his greatest work--Formalism in Ethics and Material Ethics of Values. This covers all our concepts that primarily describe a type of positive or negative worth. Scheler's analysis includes an incredible, complex, multi-dimensional range of Values we experience: contingent values of the useful, values of comfort and agreeable sensory experiences; values of life, health and vitality; values of the mind, of truth, personal moral goodness and artistic beauty; of intellectual discovery, justice; and religion, holiness and the meaning and purpose of life. By sticking as closely to experience as possible we minimise the risk of ethical theory wandering off into the absurd. Ethics can never be a science, its material is not physical after all, but this approach is far closer to the scientific (and a science like Botany at that) than the overly rationalistic alternatives that risk being carried away with their own ideas. Scheler's theory is defined both by the breadth of values it considers and its detail. An ethical situation may involve many values, and the more we distinguish and understand, the more rigorously we understand that situation.  

Scheler approaches the question of how we experience and discover ethical values with a commendable neutrality as well. His theory is true to the reality that we are all capable of ethical awareness, understanding and discovery outside any rational argumentation. New ethical insights are not discovered by abstract reason, or philosophical research, but by flashes of insight profoundly felt by people as they discover some new value of persons, objects or acts. 

He argues that philosophy has displayed a rationalistic bias and so misses the fact that the experience of value, which is the basis of ethics, occurs through both reason and feeling. It is through value feeling that we discover ethical worth of all different types: whether the beauty of objects, or the importance of health and joy, or the wonder of a scientific discovery, or the life-changing impact of a child's birth. We do not discover values just through emotion, but different diverse forms of feeling structured by reason, in the same way that our knowledge of objects is based on experiences of the senses shaped and categorised by reason. Scheler correctly recognises that acts of feeling and will are the eyes of the heart, and this opens up new answers to questions about how we can have ethical knowledge, and how ethical insight can also motivate and affect us.

One of the most attractive features of Scheleran ethics is how it does justice to both the objectivity and pluralism of ethics. Within the full, ordered universe of values and nuances of values, different individuals and societies have discovered different portions of the whole, and hence have different, consistent moral rules that reflect the values they have experienced and prioritised. These moral laws can vary considerably but all reflect the underlying insight into values achieved by those people. And then historical moments of ethical advance happen when a minority of individuals, or just one prophet, achieve a new glimpse into values that go beyond those already understood by their society. But this is not a proof of relativism but a testimony to the sheer scale of the universe of values, which always offers more to discover.

This pluralism is not just a matter of moral shortcoming either. It is an essential, positive feature of the diversity of gifts in individuals and whole cultures, which give them unique, profound access to different forms of beauty, or art, music, courage, compassion, and other values. We each peer into the wider universe of values from a different vantage point, with subtly different eyes, and we need each other to reveal the fullness of values. No individual can entirely replace the insight of another, no culture is fully replaceable with another, as shown by the unique pieces of beauty they create. It is only together, with the contribution of all peoples and cultures, that we can build a true symphony of values and gain the greatest and most complete view into the Good we have the potential to achieve. The objective demand of ethics is fundamental to our striving for a better world. The diversity of value and cultures is an equally fundamental fact of experience. Scheler shows there is no need to abandon either of these for relativism or a mono-cultural absolutism that condemns without understanding any ethical vision different to our own.

Scheler's theory explains how there can be such divergence between the goodness of a person and their seeming knowledge of ethics. Of course it is possible to teach people to be better, and to encourage goodness, but fundamentally it is people's native inclination towards love, kindness and other positive values, the clarity of moral vision that their capacity for feeling gives them, that predominately defines their goodness. All the study of Ethics in the world cannot give goodness if they don't experience and feel values for themselves. Indeed it is more likely to lead one astray, like a scientist theorising without all the evidence before them. The relation between goodness and ethics is like that between seeing and optics, or running and the science of sport.

This investigation into the breadth of ethical experience also gives insight into the relation between morality, and ethics, and other, wider, important elements of value experience. By morality we commonly means something like how we act towards other persons. But this is intensely related to other experiences of value of a qualitatively different type: questions of aesthetics, art and beauty; of religion, holiness and the meaning and purpose of life; and the more mundane issues of human comfort, enjoyment, and prosperity. By putting these into the context of each other Scheler gives a clearer view of their defining features, their differences and similarities, both in the values themselves and how we access them; and so offers a framework to coherently consider how all these areas relate to each other. 

Values are multi-dimensional, rationally ordered and complex, and so people are as well, hence, they can be good in many ways and bad in many ways, something that so often confuses us in politics and personal life. Individuals, cultures, states, political movements, and religions can all be analysed and contrasted in terms of the values they acknowledge and prioritise. This perspective is increasingly relevant in recent years as we become more and more aware of how many of the deep political divides we face reflect not just technical disputes about effective means, but fundamental differences in values. 

I could go on and on. In philosophical terms, Scheler's phenomenological theory covers meta-ethics and epistemology, as well as frameworks for normative and applied ethics. In layperson's terms it offers fresh perspectives on everything from integrating the values of natural and artistic beauty and religion into an ethical whole, to doing justice to how animals, babies, things, and adults all have and experience different types of values. For example, the sense you get that your dog inspires you, and your dog appreciates you is correct, because your dog can emotionally and rationally experience agreeable sensory values of comfort, etc, and vital values of health, energy, loyalty to pack and joy at running in the air. Your dog experiences The Good, and at that level your dog is good.

But to return to my starting point, the richness and neutrality of description Scheler uses gives the potential to construct an over-arching theory of values covering the territory of multiple current ethical theories, while understanding and including the insight of each of them in a greater whole. This offers new answers to previously insoluble paradoxes, both issues that neither deontology, utilitarianism, nor virtue theory can answer, and questions which they answer in equally plausible but opposite ways. There is no need to mutilate our ethical experience to fit it into some prearranged theory. Rather it is by paying analytical, descriptive attention to the breadth and range of human experience that we can answer these questions. Then we may have an ethical theory that includes all our experienced values on consistent principles, and so can weigh them, and usefully apply them to the practical problems we face: in business, in politics, our personal lives, and so many other areas.

This is only a brief introduction to the remarkable fruit of Scheler's theory. If you're interested in reading more take a look at my academia.edu page, which includes a more detailed chapter length introduction to Scheler's Metaethics and Epistemology, or my PhD Thesis which relates Scheler's Ethics do developments in philosophy since, including its relation to Emmanuel Levinas' phenomenological ethics. It also has Guides to some of Scheler's major works.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Christian Today - Opposite-sex civil partnerships are a Bad idea

The news site Christian Today has kindly published an article by me on why Theresa May's plan to introduce opposite-sex civil partnerships is a bad, unnecessary idea.

Read the whole argument here:
Opposite-sex civil partnerships: Divisive, pointless and an all-round bad idea

Basically, the commitment in marriage is a good thing. And we can't encourage more stable relationships by watering down the idea of commitment involved in marriage and by dividing a common institution in half. Also there is no other example of parallel, identical legal institutions that do the same thing. The government should be promoting marriage, and helping people be prepared for stable, long-lasting marriages not undermining it. 


Sermon on Acts 4:1-22 - Peter and John arrested by the High Council

"Then they called them in and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You judge! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”" Acts 4:18-20.

These words are the core of our reading today. In the choice of the Sanhedrin, and the response of Peter and John, we see totally opposite approaches to the same facts, the same events. Two options we have today, two options our whole country, our whole world has today and in the years to come.

Peter and John healed a crippled man in the name of Jesus Christ, and preached the news of his resurrection to the crowds. For this they were thrown into prison by the Sanhedrin, the High Council or High Court, of the Jewish people at that time, the same council that had convicted Jesus, and now faced his disciples confidently preaching the news that he had risen to new life. When this High Council, sent Jesus to die they must have thought their problem was solved. Killing a man tends to stop him causing you any more trouble. And movements built around one charismatic man or woman tend to disappear when that person is dead. But months later, they are faced with Peter and John leading a growing movement, preaching and healing through that same Jesus Christ. And the response of the Council shows they are confused, "What are we going to do with these men?", they ask.

Like many politicians today that have to deal with problems all the time, but still, they have surprisingly few ways to do it.  They can't bribe Peter and John, that clearly won't work, and they don't have an excuse to kill them, so they're fresh out of ideas.  If you're a ruler in an ancient, undemocratic society, paying people off or killing them is usually the solution. So the Council tries their backup plan, they try to order them around, threaten them, intimidate them, and hope they're scared into keeping quiet. But if they hoped Peter and John would be scared into silence, they have no idea what kind of men they are dealing with.

For these are not the same men they were before. In the Gospels Peter was brash, he was enthusiastic, he always ran in first without thinking. But at the most important moment he was brittle too. When they came to arrest Jesus, Peter ran away, and when Jesus was held prisoner facing death, in fear Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. Peter talked a good talk, and when the going seemed good he was enthusiastic, but when things turned sour he flunked the real test of commitment and loyalty pretty bad.

Jesus never gave up on Peter though, not after the Resurrection, not on the Cross. "Forgive them Lord, they do not know what they do" - I wonder if that was meant for Peter too, who did not kill Jesus, but had gone back on the commitment he had promised to his friend. Indeed, often our friends abandoning us hurts more than our enemies actively trying to harm us. And after the Resurrection Jesus welcomed Peter back: Jesus practiced exactly what he preached, he forgave Peter and restored him to a position of trust, by challenging him to raise himself up through taking responsibility for Jesus' followers the way he had - Peter "take care of my sheep", he said.

Jesus knew Peter's potential despite the weakness and fraility in his personality, but in total difference to the High Council, Jesus does not seek to lead by ordering or threatening people but as a true leader, one who shows his example of integrity, compassion, and sacrifice, and so inspires and invites people to choose to follow after him. And of course, this doesn't just apply to Peter, the same Love Jesus had for Peter is the love he has for every one of us, every day. He has no wish to hold our sins against us, or our shame, our guilt, or our fear, but holds out a hand every day saying 'follow me', rise to the challenge, be a little more the person your best moments show you can be. Follow me, not on your own, never on your own, but with God's help and grace, filled with power by his trust and love.

And so Peter stood up, a bit taller, and allowed himself to be inspired to rise to the challenge and take responsibility for that community he had around him. But even all that, Good Friday and those Resurrection meetings, that's not all that transformed the old Peter, enthusiastic but uncertain, into the new Peter we see in Acts. Even in the book of Acts we see the disciples still uncertain about what is going on. Just before Jesus ascends into heaven they're asking him, "‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’" and for the last time on this earth he has to lovingly correct them.

But then, on Pentecost, Fire comes. Fire comes down, the Holy Spirit of God comes to live in the disciples and everyone who puts their trust in Jesus. And these people, they are not the same.

So now they are standing before the Council that condemned Jesus, being threatened and commanded, with genuine reason to fear for their lives, What are they like? Certain! Clear! In fact, totally unfazed! I'm sure they felt fear inside, they're still human after all, but their conviction was so great that it overwhelmed their fear. And so they stood utterly solid, their heards held high and their backs straight, and spoke the simple and utter truth. I-mean, what a revolutionary thing to do, no embellishment, no beating around the bush, just the plain truth - "As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard". And the Council couldn't believe it. "When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were uneducated, ordinary men, they were astonished." Astonished! But why were they astonished?

It might need fancy degrees, and training in rhetoric and debating, to come up with complex justifications for things that probably shouldn't be justified. But it does not require any training at all to speak the plain truth about what you have seen and heard, and nothing more. Jesus talked about the "wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the water rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; but it did not fall down", because its foundations were deep in that solid rock. Peter and John were those wise men that day, because they had seen and heard the truth, that Jesus is risen, and they set their foundations, their words, in the deep and solid rock.

I'm sure they still felt fear, that's a totally understandable physical response to knowing you're under threat, but they were not afraid. After all, why should they be afraid, knowing what they knew. All the High Council could do was threaten their bodies with physical violence, to beat them or even kill them. But what do those threats mean to men who have seen their Lord pass from death to life again, and know he has gone "to prepare a place" for them? And this is true in their speech - clear, direct, honest. No need to lie, or embellish, or circle round the point. What more needs adding to Jesus' words, or taking away from the truth of what God did in those 50 days from Good Friday to Pentecost, was doing through Peter and John then, and is still doing now?

And there is freedom in that. Many times in our wider Church, our Society, our Politics, we get bogged down in too many words, tieing ourselves up in complex arguments about things that actually are distracting us from what really matters. For the apostle John, who stood beside Peter, what really mattered was summed up like this- "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life", and elsewhere he said it even more briefly, "God is Love". Not because that's the only thing that matters, but because everything that does matter connects to that. Now, at times we need more words, this sermon is not 3 words long. But the more words we pile up, inevitably the further away we get from words that really matter, and we run the risk that each additional word means less and less. Our words and thoughts are freed this when we know what really matters and we keep it at the front of our mind.

Of course this freedom doesn't just free us from needing too many words. More importantly it defines how our words can be spoken. I-mean, what emotional place our words come from. Peter and John were now living in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, and with that we can be powerfully changed. They knew that if they fell in this world then God would catch them. Even if they died in the flesh they would rise in the Spirit to their Lord who waited for them. So they were  not afraid, and more, they had no trace of all the terrible feelings that come out of fear, and damage us as individuals, and our wider society.

There was no bitterness in Peter and John, and the other disciples, no hatred, no deceit, no cunning, no worry, not even really any anger. Because like fear, what need do they have for those things? A few chapters later in Acts, St Stephen, my namesake, was stoned to death by an angry crowd, the first Christian to die for speaking about Jesus. But even as the stones fell his last words were "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." He had no need for bitterness too, he had seen Jesus sat at God's right hand only moments before. I'm not saying it's easy, or we can all do it instantly, most sadly not, but we can all have that knowledge before us, and over time let it slowly soften our soul.

In the end all our negative emotions are attempts to defend ourselves by forcing the world into the shape we want through sheer force of will. When people watch a football match, they often feel all sorts of fears and doubts, they get angry about a decision or an event while the match is going on, because they want to make the result go how they want it by their own sheer emotional effort. That's why we yell at the TV. But if we already know the final score, because it's a recording or whatever, if we already know the final score then none of that anger, rage and doubt are there.

Peter and John, and all of us, we know the final score of this world, proved through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the coming of the Holy Spirit. We know, we should know, that God will catch us if we fall, and with that knowledge we can let go of the fear and tension and doubt in ourselves we hold inside. We still have to act, of course we do. But in everything we do we can let go, and let God. No need to cling to our schemes and strategies, that consciously or unconsciously we use to try to fully control the world around us. Beause it won't work anyway, and we don't need it.

This can lift a heavy weight off our shoulders. Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are tired and burdened, and I will give you rest",  come to me, "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” How could he say that? Jesus was murdered, his disciples were almost all murdered, he calls us to be willing to give everything, to devote our hearts to God and to our neighbour before ourselves. How is this a light burden?

Well, we see the answer clearly in Peter and John, because they have lost the weight of bitterness, of hate, of needing to fight to defend ourselves, of being afraid; because beyond the veil of this physical world around us they know their Lord, Our Lord, waits for them with all the power of Heaven. The Council can threaten their bodies, but that is all they can do, and with God's power filling their souls, that is not very much indeed; and with that all stripped away there is no reason left to be afraid, they are left with what is truly real - the presence of God and his Love. And that is an easy burden indeed.

So that is Peter and John, but what about the Sanhedrin, the High Council they're facing?  We see in them a mirror-image, the opposite of what we see in Peter and John, and sadly one that is all too common in our world. They threatened Peter and John, and what a waste of time that was. But what was the reason that they had dragged the Disciples before them to be imprisoned, threatened and intimidated? Peter had healed a man who had been sadly unable to walk for many years and when people demanded to know how he did this, Peter replied that it was not through their own power or holiness, but God who had done it through the name of Jesus Christ. And for this they were arrested.

The High Council knew as well that this was at least partially true. They could see the healed man standing there, an act of great kindness to that man, physically changing his life. That was a fact. They knew something incredible had happened, even if they didn't believe it was Jesus who was the true cause of it. And when we're faced with any new fact, we always have the choice, the option of learning something from it. Even if they didn't accept Jesus right then and there, they knew something very special, of goodness and power, had happened in front of them. So what did they learn from it? Nothing!

Jesus came preaching love, and 'turning the other cheek', and doing miracles of healing, and they had him killed for it, and assumed that was the end of it. Then Peter and John came healing a man crippled for many years, speaking love and truth, and the hope of salvation in Jesus' name, and they threatened them too. Jesus said "by their fruit you shall know them", but these politicians refused to learn anything from the good fruit Peter and John were producing. The High Council knew it was a miracle, but they learnt nothing from it. But why did they learn nothing from it? Because they were already sure they knew everything they needed to know. They thought they knew how God would act and who he would choose to act through, so sure that when some piece of miraculous goodness happened in front of them they could not see it.  They were so sure, they thought anyone who argued or acted differently was obviously a troublemaker up to no good. And that certainty meant they did not care if they had to use low, evil methods to get rid of them, for they believed it was ultimately in a good cause.

Does that sound to you like any problem we have in society today? My friends this is what partisanship, and tribalism, and ideological bubbles do to people throughout history. All of us can fall victim to it if we close our minds to the possibility that we could learn from someone different to ourselves. And that doesn't matter if they're different politically, or religiously, or ethnically, or different in age, or whatever.

Now in our society we don't generally go around threatening people with violence, though it does happen, but too often people go immediately into a defensive position when their side, their group, their team is challenged. We are too willing to assume bad faith in our opponents, to attack the man rather than the issue that has been raised, to automatically defend things if it means defending our side, and to attack any statement, idea or person that we see as on the wrong side, the other side. If we close our eyes and block up our ears, like the High Council did before Peter and John, then inevitably we miss part of the good that appears in front of us, and find ourselves defending or ignoring part of the evil, or responding with low and devious methods, because we believe the ends justify the means.

The answer is simple my friends - Like Peter and John we know the truth that God's infinite, eternal, over-powering Love for each and every one of us cannot be harmed or damaged by anything this world can throw at us. We know the truth that they killed Christ but he rose again and brings Resurrection to every one of us, and that turns all the threats of violence and deceit of this world into a pathetic nothing.

We know God's eye sees all good and all evil, that his word is the last and ultimate word, and that God never seeks to condemn a person because that person has a flaw within them. So we are free from any need to lash out defensively, to cling on and protect what we see as good with evasion, with bitterness, with slander, with abuse. We have no need for any of that, but can admit every fault with ourselves, or with our group, or with the world, without any trace of fear it will be used against us, and be open to see every piece of goodness wherever it may be found, in the knowledge Peter and John had, that God will catch us if we fall.

I believe that's our best hope, and the best hope for our world as well.

Amen.           


Image borrowed with thanks from http://millersportcc.com/sermons/bold-and-courageous/

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Mandalay (by Rudyard Kipling)

By Rudyard Kipling



















Read by Charles Dance at the 70th Anniversary 'Victory Over Japan' Day Commemorations


I've long been a Kipling fan, without any one of his poems leaping out at me. Kipling was a complex and brilliant writer, possibly the greatest phrase-turner since Shakespeare. Nobody could doubt his grip of rhyme, rhythm, and meter either, but at the same time the so-called 'vulgar' 'vitality' of his poems meant critics have struggled to classify him as a poet.

T.S.Elliot talked about Kipling writing more 'verse' than poetry, and Orwell called him a Good bad poet. Reading his poems you know what they meant, Kipling wrote with immediate, crude force - both serious and vivid, designed to hit home rather than ascend to fine art. His poems are a fiercely individual voice, whether his own, or representing a private British soldier, giving an experience or view intensely felt, and so stick in the mind longer than many more refined, delicate works.

On Kipling's politics one can't beat around the bush. He was a Tory supporter of late 19th Century British Imperialism, specifically as a civilising mission. He was also, in Orwell's words, neither a "yes-man or a time-server", and from the perspective of someone born 'out there' in the Empire, a bitter critic of Britain's government, its home population, and their failure to understand what Empire actually involved, particularly for the soldiers who had to defend it.

The British Empire was not what Kipling imagined it to be. But his own work was often too honest and concrete, even brutal and pessimistic, and in its own way sympathetic, to back up his personal enthusiasm. Even his most jingoist poems like The White Man's Burden sounds more like a warning of what a Vietnam or Iraq would turn into than a starry-eyed rhapsody about the joys of colonialism. He was an Imperialist but no bigot, without hatred or contempt for non-white peoples, and, for example, spoke far more harshly about the evil of German militarism than anyone the British fought in the Empire, and at the same time with real sympathy for the world he knew 'East of Suez'. Reading Kipling one has to disagree with his conclusions, but almost never feel like he is just lying about how the world is.

Most of his work is not pushing politics though, but describing an experience. It can exist on its own, regardless of the views of the man who wrote it. He does this with great artistic force, which can feel like it expresses us better than we can express ourselves, even if it literally describes a situation we've not known, in a place we've never been.

The video above is from the 70th Victory over Japan Day commemorations, with Charles Dance reading Mandalay, one of Kipling's most famous and beautiful poems, about a Victorian soldier remembering a love he left in Burma. Some of the lines are near perfectly, balanced, memorable and vivid. Unlike some poetry Kipling often comes across better heard aloud than on the written page. Charles Dance brings it alive, he doesn't just read it, he acts it out, and the result is like the difference between Shakespeare on the page and seeing it performed live. The music and setting just gently adds to this. It describes a world that no longer exists, but still speaks familiarly of loneliness, loss, love, joy remembered, new places and wonders experienced, and choices or changes we desperately wish we could make not so, but know we can't.

In the text I give below I have changed the semi-phonetic cockney slang Kipling wrote it in to standard English. For me at least, I agree with Orwell, that this makes it yet more beautiful, and easier to absorb and appreciate. Dance's accent in the video gives the sense of how Kipling intended it without needing the phonetic spelling, and the original version with "the aitches carefully dropped and final 'g's omitted" can be found here. (There is also a charming folk song version put to concertina by Peter Bellamy in the 1970s on youtube here.)



By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-sitting, and I know she thinks of me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! "
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you hear their paddles chunking from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

Her petticoat was yellow and her little cap was green,
And her name was Supi-yaw-lat - just the same as Theebaw's Queen,
And I seen her first a-smoking of a whacking white cheroot,
And a-wasting Christian kisses on an heathen idol's foot:
Blooming idol made o' mud
What they called the Great God Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed her where she stood!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

When the mist was on the rice-fields and the sun was dropping slow,
She'd get her little banjo and she'd sing "Kulla-lo-lo!
With her arm upon my shoulder and her cheek against my cheek
We used to watch the steamers and the hathis piling teak.
Elephants a-pulling teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence hung that heavy you was half afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

But that's all shoved behind me - long ago and far away
And there ain't no busses running from the Bank to Mandalay;
And I'm learning here in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
"If you've heard the East a-calling, you won't never heed naught else."
No! you won't heed nothing else
But them spicy garlic smells,
And the sunshine and the palm-trees and the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

I am sick of wasting leather on these gritty paving-stones,
And the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Though I walks with fifty housemaids out of Chelsea to the Strand,
And they talks a lot of loving, but what do they understand?
Beefy face and grubby and -
Lord! what do they understand?
I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments and a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are calling, and it's there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the Bay!