Monday, 13 November 2017

Coral spawning and the hope of resurrection

"It's like the coral is being blessed!" said my 8-year old, as we watched the latest episode of Blue Planet 2. Coral spawning. It happens once a year, when the moon is full in spring and when the coral is ready. It is synchronised across the reef, with all the coral spawning at once; and many of the other creatures that live on the reef spawn along with the coral.

That night, that holy night. Because I agree with my son - this is an act of blessing. It's a natural act, that happens annually. But it is an act of blessing and mystery, a gift from God. It has been laid into the coral's DNA to ensure new life and growth.

But there is more: it also ensures rebirth. The episode also talked movingly about the widespread bleaching of coral due to global rises in sea temperature (due to human-made climate change), leading to the coral being unable to grow. Many coral reefs around the world are suffering hugely - 2/3 of the Great Barrier Reef has become bleached - and it's possible there may not be any coral reefs by the end of the century.

But there is hope - slim but real. The spawning of the coral gives these complex ecosystems the chance to be renewed each year, creating a new community in a different place as the spawn sails through the ocean. And maybe, just maybe, coral reefs can be renewed and reborn in different places and in ways that can withstand the worst that humans are throwing at them. Because hope springs eternal, and resurrection happens everywhere. One day a year in spring can be Easter for the coral reefs - and hope is always and everywhere for the rest of the world also.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

What would Jesus do? Practising what we preach

Sermon preached at Duston URC on 5th November 2017. Main text: Matthew 23:1-12.

So this week I had a choir practice. We’re less than three weeks away from performing a brand-new piece, commissioned by the choir, and the conductor is getting a bit nervous. More than once during the rehearsal, he lost his temper – 0-60 in three seconds, from quiet and calm to BOOM. Justified enough since we don’t know the piece as well as we might, but all a bit scary. I do it myself with my children from time to time – that 0-60 in three seconds thing, and they find it alarming too.

And we know perfectly well that Jesus had a temper on him. The money-changers in the temple is the incident everyone remembers, but from time to time he got angry or grumpy or even sarcastic. Gentle Jesus meek and mild is not something you’ll find in the gospels. The sheer level of anger in this passage is something to behold, and the rest of the chapter gets even angrier – he uses the phrase “woe to you” no less than seven times. It’s the same sort of anger as Micah used against the ‘prophets who lead my people astray’.

So that’s the first important point to make about what Jesus says. This is one of a series of passages which on the face of it seem very hostile to the scribes and Pharisees, the interpreters and keepers of the Jewish law. And indeed this kind of passage fed the appalling history of Jewish persecution by the Christian world. But it’s not justified by the passage. This is not an anti-Jewish piece at all. These are words spoken from within the Jewish prophetic tradition of calling out bad practice by leaders and authorities. Jesus is speaking here with a strong prophetic voice. Notice also the respect to which he gives the teaching, although not the lifestyle, of the scribes and the Pharisees. And of course elsewhere he says more than once that he’s not come to abolish the laws or the prophets.

So this has to be understood in its Jewish context, but also in the context of when the gospel of Matthew was written. Most scholars believe this to have happened in the city of Antioch in Syria, in the years following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The Christian community in Antioch was largely Jewish, but straining to find its own identity and getting more separated from the Jewish people; and after the destruction of the temple, the Jewish people were looking for a new direction, and Christians and Pharisees were very much doing battle for who would take prominence. So the writer of the gospel wasn’t well-disposed towards Pharisees, and that needs to be borne in mind.

With that said, let’s look at the two models of discipleship that are presented here by Jesus. The first is based on law, on practice and on status. As I’ve said, as an observant Jew, Jesus had great respect for the law. The law was given to the Jewish people, starting with the ten commandments, not as a way to control them but as a way to lead them to a good life. They had come out of a place of chaos and control, with no ability to worship God in their own way and no power over their own lives. So the question during the Exodus from Egypt was: what does it mean to live under the power of God? And the answer was the Torah, the law. So respect for the Law was, and still is, at the very heart of what it means to be Jewish, the people set free from slavery in Egypt, the people of the Exodus and the people of the Torah. Listen, for example to a single verse of Psalm 119: “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word”. That psalm runs to 176 verses, all in praise of the Law, and there’s plenty more like it in the Old Testament. And that’s the significance for me of Jesus talking of the scribes and Pharisees sitting on Moses’ seat, as Moses was one to whom the Law was given as well as the one who freed the Jewish people from slavery. So to sit on Moses’ seat is to carry on that tradition of Law.
Image: Wikipedia
But important as is their teaching, the scribes and Pharisees fall short in three important ways: in their showiness, in their expectations of others, and in their love of status. Here Jesus uses this mysterious phrase about making their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. This is a way of calling them spiritual show-offs. These are phylacteries, a Greek word – all Jewish people call them tefillin. They’re prayer cubes, which contain four small passages written on parchment. Observant Jews, only the men, wear them for morning prayer, a practice required by a few verses in the Torah; and it’s still something done today. They’re worn on the forehead and the arm, with leather straps wound around the arm. Along with the phylacteries is worn a prayer shawl with dangling fringes or tassles. Making these things especially prominent would be a way of saying: look at me! I’m really holy! Now plenty of that goes on among today’s religious leaders, among the higher echelons of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox traditions, but also in more subtle ways among Protestants, wearing black gowns or big crosses or headscarves or whatever. But Jesus is very clear that it’s not the right way – be faithful, he’s perhaps saying, but do it modestly and sensibly. That doesn’t mean that religious leaders, or Christians more generally, shouldn’t wear smart clothes to worship, even beautiful clothes, as they can be a celebration of God’s glory and the importance of the occasion, but it should be intended not to indicate the holiness of the wearer but rather the holiness of God.

The next is about overloading others with your burdens. This is a familiar refrain from the gospels. As Jesus says elsewhere, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. As well as the many commandments of the Torah itself, by the time of Jesus there were centuries of interpretation and extra rules. Life for the Jewish people had become bound up in myriad different rules, and it was quite difficult to follow all the expectations. So what was designed as the final part of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery had become its own sort of bondage. In addition to this was what we’d today call corruption – the scribes and the Pharisees were part of a religious and political elite which enriched itself through taking money from the people and by colluding with the occupying Roman authorities. They might themselves be holy men, but their effect on others was pretty negative.

And that takes me to Jesus’ last complaint, that all the actions of the scribes and Pharisees sought to increase their own status in the community. They wanted to receive titles, and places of honour, and to be greeted with respect. That’s a human response, and in some ways understandable, but it strips away from their dignity as religious figures. It’s inappropriate. The theologian Tom Wright observes that the people Jesus was taking about were social and political leaders as much as religious figures. He asks the question:
What are today’s equivalents? Some might be the leaders, whether elected or unelected, in our wider societies, who give themselves airs on the media, who rejoice in their ‘celebrity’ status, who make grand pronouncements about public values while running lucrative but shady businesses on the side, who use their position to gain influence for their families and friends, and who allow their private interests secretly to determine the public policy of their country.
This is highly applicable to today’s society. We see it in political figures such as Donald Trump, puffed up with their own self-importance; but also with the sexual abuse scandals around Harvey Weinstein and a growing band of politicians who think that their positions enable them to breach human decency. It’s horrible. Of course we’ve seen sexual abuse scandals in the church, all too frequently. These people think that their positions protect them, give them status. It must not do so.

In summary, as the Lutheran scholar Karoline Lewis puts it, “Jesus’ admonition here is a rephrasing, a re-languaging, if you will, of the Beatitudes. The behavior of the scribes and the Pharisees is what anti-Beatitude living looks like.”

Now, we need to be a little bit careful not to point the finger too readily at others, without looking at ourselves. These are messages for each of us as much as they are for others. Jesus is laying out a way of living which falls into the traps of the scribes and Pharisees, and an alternative view of discipleship, another way of living in the way of the gospel, one based on humility, equality, integrity and service to others.

Listen again to the way he lays out this way of living.
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
There are echoes for me here of Jesus’ message throughout the gospels. We can see in these words his idea that ‘the last will be first’; where he says that ‘my yoke is easy & my burden is light’; where he washes the feet of the disciples; and even his urge to ‘pray to your Father in secret’.

Constantly through the New Testament we can see Jesus as a champion of humility – of taking risks, but for others’ gain not his own; of not just supporting the poor and downtrodden, but living and eating with them; never seeking status or power, and often explicitly rejecting those things. And he calls us to the same path of humility. He explicitly says that the greatest among his disciples shall be the servant of them all.

You’ve perhaps come across the phrase What Would Jesus Do? It was fashionable a few years back when lots of people in some Christian circles wore wristbands with WWJD on them. It’s sometimes had a rather questionable interpretation. But as an idea it goes back at least as far as a widely-read book called The Imitation of Christ, written about 600 years ago by Thomas à Kempis. How should we live our lives as Christians? It is by asking ourselves how Jesus lived, and seeking to follow his example as much as possible. And perhaps this applies more than anything else to humility. To be full of pride in our own achievements, to be focused on material possessions – we know perfectly well that this is not what Jesus did, and nor is it what he calls us to do.

Next we see Jesus championing equality. He says that nobody should be called Rabbi, that is to say teacher, or father, or instructors, because we have also those things through God and through Jesus. I don’t think we should read this as saying that teachers or spiritual guides or church leaders are worthless – Jesus doesn’t say that. Rather he’s saying that they’re important but they’re roles which exist equally to any other roles in the church community. To be the preacher is no less important than to be the cleaner – but it’s also no more important. But this also puts a responsibility on all of us, to take seriously the idea of the priesthood of all believers. We are all called to be priests, to be channels of God’s message and God’s grace, to ourselves and to the world.

Again we see Jesus as a champion of integrity. One of his great criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees is that they don’t practice what they teach. That phrase, sometimes rendered as practising what you preach is a clear call to integrity. It’s all very well to say fine words, even inspiring words, but do we actually follow the words that we say? This is a particular challenge to those of us who preach or teach, who claim to have some message that we think others should follow. But do we follow the message ourselves? Put another way, do we walk the talk? I find this a real challenge myself. For example: I talk a lot about social justice, about God’s preference for the poor and the oppressed. I preach on it often, I write blog posts about it, it’s an important part of my theology. But how much do I live out that social justice in my own life? I live comfortably, I don’t spend much time hanging out with very poor or homeless people. On the other hand, I do a day job which has an element of social justice, in the university where I work, and I try to make more of that aspect and encourage my colleagues, but not all my work helps the oppressed. But is that enough? Do I walk the talk? That’s my particular concern, which I’ve wrestled with for years, and I don’t have a good answer to it. You may well have your own questions around integrity, your own wrestling to ask whether you practice what you preach.
Image: Maximino Cerezo Barredo
So Jesus presents these two models in this final picture – the way of life of the scribes and Pharisees, who weigh others down with their piety, status and unachievable rules; or the way of Jesus himself, the way of humility, integrity and equality within a community of believers. The one brings frustration, the other life, and as Jesus said, he has come that we might have life, and have it to the full.

I want to close with the words of the preacher and author Brian Maclaren, writing about this passage, who draws together the implications for us all much better than I can do. He writes:
The Spirit of God leads downwards. Downwards in humility. Downwards in service. Downwards in solidarity. Downwards in risk and grace. You used to strive to be cool, but the Spirit makes you warm. You used to strive to climb over others, but the Spirit leads you to wash their feet. You used to strive to fit in among the inner circle, but the Spirit dares you to be different on behalf of the outcasts and outsiders. You don’t find God at the top of the ladder. No, you find God through descent. There is a trapdoor at the bottom, and when you fall through it, you fall into God. It happened to Jesus. It will happen to you too, if you follow the Spirit’s lead.


Monday, 9 October 2017

Love is made the cornerstone

Sermon preached at Kilsby URC on 8th October 2017. Main text: Matthew 21:33-46.
Photo by Rebecca Calcraft
What do we found our lives upon? What is at the heart of our lives? How do we live out our relationship with God? In terms of practical day-to-day living that’s the subject of the Ten Commandments, and more figuratively it’s the subject of this extraordinary parable. Like all parables it has many layers and many meanings, and many possible interpretations – and this parable is especially complicated. But as American theologian Ched Myers said, “a parable is a way in which prophets speak to kings – reframing issues so the hearer is roped in, thinking it’s not about them, and then wham, it gets you”. And I think that’s how Jesus was talking, and I hope that’s how it’ll work for us.

I have one word of caution. One reading of this parable that has been popular in the past is that it’s about the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people, or perhaps the Jewish leaders, and their supplanting by Christians. I find this reading really objectionable. As well as being grossly anti-semitic, and having been a contributor to persecution of Jews by Christians over centuries, it’s a complete misreading of the text. Because Jesus was a pious Jew, deeply knowledgeable of the Hebrew Bible and of rabbinic thought – and this parable is absolutely full of deeply Jewish ideas. You can certainly say that he was arguing against a particular way of thinking, but he was speaking from and within the Jewish tradition.

When he was speaking is an interesting bit of context. In the gospel of Matthew, this parable occurs among a set of teachings that Jesus gave in Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. He had showed the form of king that he was, riding on a donkey to challenge the Roman authorities; had confronted the corruption of the Temple authorities in turning over the money-changers’ tables; and was challenging the ideas of the Pharisees and rabbis through his teaching. Jesus was not in a safe place, and the cross loomed as a very real possibility. And this is not a safe parable.

We hear it at harvest-time, with many churches observing harvest services. The full moon of the past few days has been the harvest moon, all wide and bright as the cold air comes. So the parable begins by talking about the harvest time for the vineyard. That’s the phrase in my translation but the literal phrase in Greek is ‘the time of the fruits’, and that word time is the unique Greek word Kairos. You might know that the Greeks had words for two kinds of time, the cyclical time which recurs again and again, like the seasons – that was Chronos. And the unique time when great events happen, when change occurs, the time above all times when only one thing could happen – and that’s Kairos. So the parable is set in a time of great significance, just as Jesus was talking in a time of great significance.

Now let’s look at those tenant farmers. At first glance the story is written hugely against them. They’re tenants, hired to do the work of looking after the vineyard and making it ready for production. And their treatment of the owners’ slaves and son are horrendous. But I think we have to read it as the reaction of an oppressed people against their circumstances. Jesus was talking in a place where the people were deeply oppressed – their land had been stolen by the Romans, who demanded huge taxes from them and had a whole series of unjust laws; but the local kings and religious authorities were also money-grabbing and unjust. And the result, as has happened throughout history, when people have been oppressed, was a series of rebellions and violent acts. That doesn’t make them right, it doesn’t make them justified by God as sometimes people try to make out, but it does explain them somewhat. And I think it’s part of the idea behind the parable.

I read this week an amazing poem by the African-American poet Langston Hughes, which he wrote in the 1950s at a time when the black people of the United States were treated horrendously by their governments. It captures that feeling of hopelessness and what can come out. It’s called Harlem and reads like this:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Of course black people in the US achieved something like equality – though they have a long way to go for that – without mass violence, not least because of the power of Christian witness from preachers such as Martin Luther King, but only after great despair and hopelessness. The tenants’ scheme to kill the heir and take his inheritance sounds daft – wouldn’t the owner notice, or return violence with violence? – but it’s the kind of hard bargain that oppressed people try to make. In the days when this country had an empire, we oppressed people in so many countries – took their money and labour, mistreated them and gave them unjust laws and hierarchies – but just as bad was the legacy of colonialism, in setting one group against another, so that when the British left, the idea of conflict and scratching out a little advantage was left really entrenched. In biblical times, we can see an echo of this in the story of Jacob and Esau – the younger twin, less loved by his father, who found a way to weasel his way into the inheritance and created a huge rift with his brother as a result.

Not all violence that involves oppression comes from below. Just as bad can be the violence of the powerful upon the powerless. This week, look at the photos of the police in Catalonia beating people on the streets for coming out to vote – whatever the rights and wrong of the referendum, it’s a terrible sight of violent power exercised upon the powerless. Or the scenes from Las Vegas, of gun violence which is enabled by the Americans’ love of weaponry and inability to control their violence; and which as many commentators have said was also about race and thus about power – because if the murderer had been non-white, the response would have been hugely different.

And both kinds of violence were deeply present in the history of the people of Israel. There had been plenty of revolts and rebellions – the founding story of Israel was the escape from oppression in Egypt through God’s help; just 150 years before Jesus’ time there had been the rebellion of the Maccabees which is commemorated in Hannukah, and there were regular rebellions against the Romans. But likewise the people of Israel had perpetrated some horrendous crimes, of mass killings of their enemies, of keeping of slaves, and of oppression of their own peoples. It was the latter kind of violence which the prophets spoke against so often, and so powerfully, in their message that God seeks justice for all and mercy to everyone, rather than retribution and violence. And it was in that prophetic tradition – that in more modern times we call speaking truth to power – that Jesus was speaking so often, and I think including in this parable.

Because one of the key images for the prophets was the idea of Israel as a vineyard. Almost certainly Jesus’ listeners would think of an early part of the book of Isaiah, which parallels the start of this parable very clearly. It begins:
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
After a few verses, the prophet talks of the injustice of God’s people in the vineyard:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!
Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
This is pretty clear stuff. The people of Israel are likened to a vineyard, but their oppression of others, their injustice and mistreatments, are condemned utterly. And I repeat – this is not an anti-Jewish message. This is a message from within the Jewish tradition to the whole world. God is on the side of justice. God is on the side of mercy. God is NOT on the side of violence. God is NOT on the side of those who take others’ land and livelihoods, whether with weapons or with law-courts or with money-lending schemes or with slavery or with concentration of wealth in the hands of elites. That’s a message for the time of Isaiah, and for the time of Jesus, and it’s a message for today. Our God is a God of justice and of love.

Now as I said, all parables have layers and multiple meanings, but most people read the vineyard owner as God in this parable, and the son as Jesus. And there’s an important note here. Jesus asks his listeners how the owner might react, and they reckon he’ll do further violence. But there’s no evidence of that in the story – instead we see a vineyard owner, we see a God, who loves and loves and loves some more. He sends slave after slave, he sends his son. His goal is an extravagant wish to bring more love, and to give more and more chances. This story is sometimes called the parable of the wicked tenants, or in more old-fashioned terms the parable of the wicked husbandmen, but as some have said, we could call it the parable of the long-suffering God.

So instead of supporting more violence, Jesus quotes from Psalm 118, the culmination of the Hallel Psalms which give especial praise to God and which were and are recited on all great Jewish occasions. He alludes to the rejected stone and how it becomes the greatest of all stones. There was a story that would be known to all Jesus’ listeners, of the building of the temple in the time of King Solomon, which was linked to Psalm 118. It said that the temple was carefully planned, stone by stone, and each stone carved out in its right shape for the temple, some distance from the temple site. The first stone to be delivered but the last to be used was the capstone. So when it arrived, the builders didn’t know what to do with it, putting it to one side and forgetting about, as if they rejected it. And eventually the temple was all but finished so they sent to the quarry for the capstone and received back the word ‘we already did’ and only then did they remember that funny-shaped stone way over in one corner of the site.

And so in humility Jesus pointed out that God’s way of responding to violence is by love, and by picking out the most unlikely person from the most unlikely place. And his great intervention in the world came in the shape of a peasant born in a stable to an unmarried mother who had to flee as a refugee, who lived with people on the margins and died an enemy of the state on the town rubbish dump. But on that basis, on that wonderful marginal basis, God changed the world.

Because this is the message of the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. God is against oppression, and God is against the violence which comes against oppression. But God uses the most unlikely tools to change the world. And so he can use us, in the words of the first letter of Peter to become living stones, to let ourselves be built into a spiritual house and to be a holy priesthood. We won’t do this by perpetuating the cycle of violence, by retribution and punishment and war. We do this in the way that Jesus did – by coming from nowhere, but by being everything and by sacrificing everything. And in that way we overthrown the rule of domination, the rule of violence, and bring in the kingdom of God and the kingdom of peace. And in that way love is made the cornerstone of the temple of God, now and for ever.