Sunday, 5 February 2017

Light matters: politics as Christian witness

Sermon preached at Long Buckby URC on 5th February 2017. Texts: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matthew 5:13-20.

Light matters. We live in a world filled with electricity, where we can get light at the flick of a switch. This was not always the case, and was definitely not so in Jesus’ time. A few years ago, I had an experience which brought this home for me strongly. We spent a weekend as a family, along with some friends, at a cottage in Suffolk with no electricity. When darkness fell – about 5.30 at that time of year – the only light in the house came from low-powered gas lamps, the wood fire, or torches. Getting up in the night and hearing the noises of the night takes on a different dimension in that environment. And of course that was the lived experience of everyone in the ancient world. The rich had candles and torches; the poor maybe not even those. So darkness mattered – it was a thing of threat and danger and fear. And of course the scriptures are full of images of light and dark.

Well, we live in dark times. The United States, already riven with division between rich and poor, black and white, liberal and conservative, has elected a president who seems determined to divide things further. We all know the things he has started and is promising, perhaps especially his policy towards immigrants. In this country, we have divisions around nationality and identity caused by the European referendum and the way the government is handling Brexit. In France, Germany and even the Netherlands, extremist politicians have at least a good chance of success in elections this year.

It’s frightening. I’d quite like to hide my head under the duvet for the next few years, in the hope it all goes away. I understand entirely those who want to say it won’t be as bad as it seems, that the good sense and well-designed constitutions of these solid democracies will kick in and rescue us all. Or who want to find a way to accommodate the bullies, to tame the dragons. Or to retreat to safe churches and sing about the glory of God and the sacrifice of Jesus, all the while ignoring the world God created and for which Jesus sacrificed himself.
Source: Teepublic
But Jesus doesn’t give us a choice. We are to be salty, we are to be bringers of light. We are not permitted to hide our light. The passage we’ve heard from Matthew falls immediately after the Beatitudes, the list of people who Jesus calls blessed – the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those hungering for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Those are the people that Jesus is speaking to, that he is calling to himself.

It is by acting in these ways, in hungering for righteousness, in seeking peace, in being merciful, that we are part of the kingdom of heaven. At the end of Matthew’s text, Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. We might not think well of those kinds of people, because Jesus had some pretty earthy things to say against them, but they were holy people, clearly keeping the commands of God, and Jesus was setting a high bar in saying his followers needed to exceed their righteousness. But he showed the way in talking of being salt and light, of the blessedness of those who acting in the way of the Beatitudes. Righteousness comes not through the keeping of multiple laws, or the following of ritual actions, but in the way you turn your heart towards God, and in the ways you treat God’s people.

Isaiah knew this. He was inspired clearly by God to show the people of Israel that their rituals and fasting were not enough. Elsewhere in the book of Isaiah, the prophet has God say that “my soul hates your new moons and your appointed festivals, they have become a burden to me”. Here God’s people are called to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their own houses.

Jesus said he had come to fulfil rather than abolish the law and the prophets. We easily hear the bit about law, but it’s the two together that matter to me. The Torah, the five books of the law which form the first five books of our Old Testament, are full of commandments about ritual worship; but they’re just as full of statements about how to treat others. There are many occasions when the people of Israel are reminded that they were slaves and exiles in Egypt, and were badly mistreated, and that they must not treat foreigners in their own land in the same way. Just one can be found in the book of Leviticus: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Likewise, there are multiple occasions when they are told to care for widows, for orphans, for the poor.

The people of Israel departed from these laws plenty of times and so God sent them the prophets such as Isaiah, who spoke in the way we’ve seen, or Ezekiel and Jeremiah, who mourned the faithlessness of God’s people, or Micah, who said that what God required was to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. All these prophets sought to restore the basic truth of the law: God’s justice demands that God’s people treat everyone with care and compassion. God is a champion of the poor, the oppressed, the exiles everywhere.

And that is the message that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfil. He came to instruct his disciples in how to do this, how to find their way to the kingdom of heaven – not by chanting empty slogans about his greatness and sacrifice, but by acting for God’s people, and by standing up as God’s people.

Because there are two important words in the salt & light verses, and they’re the same each time – the first two. YOU ARE the salt of the earth, YOU ARE the light of the world. I’ve been reflecting on those words ‘YOU ARE’, hymeis este in the Greek. In English we have mostly lost a distinction between the singular and plural ‘you’, except in a few dialects which have plural versions such as ‘youse’ that’s found in parts of Ireland, Scotland and north-east England, or ‘y’all’ in the southern part of the US. But ancient Greek mostly definitely did distinguish between singular and plural, and hymeis is clearly plural. Jesus is not speaking to us as individuals here, but to all of his followers – we are all salt and light to the earth.

Plurals matter. We live in a very individualistic society, and very often the words of the Bible are taken to refer to us as individuals. But most of the Old Testament and much of the New are addressed in the plural, to the people of God as a whole. We need each other for support and guidance, to lift each other up when we fall. There’s a great church in New York called Riverside, whose founding pastor was the preacher and hymn writer Harry Emerson Fosdick. Their current lead pastor is called Amy Butler, and she wrote recently about being part of the women’s march on Washington:
Almost immediately after I emerged from the Metro station onto the sidewalk in downtown D.C., in that mass of people stretching as far as I could see, I began to feel something I haven’t felt in some time: hope. I didn’t feel so alone or despairing anymore. I didn’t feel that our community was in the minority in our calls for the church to speak up. And I started to believe again that change might actually be a possibility, and that pushing back the darkness becomes a reality when all of us hold up our lights and raise our voices. Together.
The other important word in that YOU ARE is the second one, ARE. Jesus does not say: ‘you will be the light of the earth’, or ‘you will be the light of the earth’, or ‘under certain conditions, you have the capacity to become the light of the earth’. He says that, right here and now, his followers exist to bring light to the world, to bring flavour and taste to the earth. I find this is a great act of trust, a great promise, on Jesus’ part, given the motley band he had around him, and it’s no less an act of trust today. Each of us in this room, working together, are light and salt to the world. 

But to me this is a challenge as much as it is a promise. His imagery of hiding lamps under baskets and of salt losing its flavour is vivid and it challenges us not to hide our light away. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as the light of the world, and our hymnbooks are full of songs about Jesus as light. But he puts it on to his followers here. He calls us to be the light for him. The Biblical scholar Matthew Skinner puts it like this: “the church isn't holding space for Jesus until he comes back - the church is making Christ present”. Isaiah put it that if God’s people feed the hungry, welcome in the homeless, clothe the naked and the rest, then “your light shall break forth like the dawn”.

And how do we do it? How do we act as salt and light for the world? In the same way that Isaiah says, in the way that Jesus said in the Beatitudes – we look for injustice in our society and we challenge it. Sometimes this means specific work to help those in immediate distress, like the work Christians and others do at food banks or to care for the homeless. But sometimes it means challenging the ways that injustice arises. There is an idea that the church should stay out of politics, that politics has no place in the pulpit. This is mostly said by those who are comfortable or in power.

Those who are suffering need the church to act on their behalf. They need Christians to confront laws which would bar refugees because they come from the wrong countries and to say: this is not found in the word of God. They need Christians to confront policies which shut down health care, or put people on benefit sanctions for trivial administrative errors, or close day centres for people with dementia and say: this is not found in the word of God. They need Christians to confront warmongers and environmental destroyers and robber-baron banks and say: this is not found in the word of God. None of this involves telling people how to vote, but it most certainly does involve politics.

And to return to American politics once more, this passage is really important. The first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, talked of Boston as a shining city on a hill; and many American politicians have followed his example. Public life, the work of politics, can be give glory to God, in the way it is conducted and in its positive effects on the world. It is not something to be afraid of, but to be embraced as an act of Christian witness.

We have a huge privilege as Christians, of following the one who can transform lives, but he needs us to act as agents of that transformation. And we are given strength towards that transformation. A 19th century Quaker author by the name of Caroline Fox puts it beautifully. Suffering from great self-doubt and questioning one morning in a service of worship, she was given the words “live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee”. If we are willing to act in the world, to take up the challenge of being the light of Christ, working together as a people of God, then he will give us the strength we need. And with that strength, we can let our light shine and all will see our works and give glory to our father in heaven.

Amen.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Myth, class & morality: narratives and power

This week, three things have made me think hard about the ways in which groups and societies develop narratives to guide their collective thinking. That's a subject much on my mind anyway, as we prepare for DTMD 2017, our conference on information & narrative in Gothenberg this year (and also my colleague David Chapman and I have been finishing revisions on a paper about information). However, two podcasts (both based on books) and a blog post have concentrated my mind on the relationship between power and narrative.

First, the blog post. In an online Harvard Business Review piece, Joan Williams argues for a more nuanced understanding of the American class system, and especially the relationship between the (white) working class and what she calls the poor. The former are the ones who have been left behind by globalization and the shift of manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere; however it is the latter towards whom leftish politicians have focused their policies, often for excellent reasons. This causes resentment among those white working class people, and it's precisely those people who have so disastrously voted for Trump. She also makes the interesting point that those white working class people frequently resent the professional classes, labelled by populists as 'elites', as they perceive professionals as bossing them around; but don't have the same resentment towards the super-rich.

I find this really helpful in making sense of the Trump victory. A very similar story could be told in the UK of the Brexit vote - of working-class voters, left behind by globalisation and a shift away from manufacturing, who became convinced by populist demagogues and the rightwing press that the problem was immigration and the EU.

But the reaction of the left has been unhelpful in both the US and UK. Faced with emotive campaigns full of falsehoods, their reaction too often has been fact-driven and lacking in an equivalent sense of emotion. I've written in a previous post about the selective information involved in the interpretation of the Brexit and US election campaign falsehoods.

A stronger alternative was presented in a talk at the Royal Society of Arts by Alex Evans who talked about a myth gap, based on his recent book. His argument was that progressives have a chronic problem in establishing good myths - large-scale stories based as much on feeling as fact - and that over a number of issues, they have instead tried to present facts without these myths. By contrast, he argues, the right is good at myth-making - creating and reinforcing a persuasive story which explains a deep concern, even if it is in the face of the facts. He says that "it is only by finding new myths, those that speak to us of renewal and restoration, that we will navigate our way to a better future".

These myths sound a lot like narratives. And like narratives, a key question is: how are they created? Who has the power to create them? Whose power do they reinforce?

And that takes me to one more idea from a podcast: a BBC In Our Time discussion of Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche distinguished two forms of morality: one based on power and control, which he called 'master morality', and one based on subversion and service, which he called the 'slave morality'. The latter forms (if I understand it right) when certain groups in a society become powerless, and instead of seeking to overthrow the powerful, instead set up a worldview that says that power itself is a corrupting and wicked force, and service to others is preferable and morally right. This was the journey of the Jewish people in their exiles in Egypt and Babylon, and of the formation of Christian morality under Roman oppression. Nietzsche didn't think much of 'slave morality', being a bit keen on power himself, but to me it's admirable (whatever its name) and at the root of all positive value systems.

These two forms of morality are their own sort of myth, but it brings me to a thought: that it's really not possible for good people to change a bad system by taking it over and trying to make it better. That has been the attempt of the left for 20+ years, and it's not working well. I think instead that progressives have to subvert the value system, to build a wider grouping that encompasses working class people again, and to look towards service rather than power. Only then can will we have a narrative, a myth, that's big enough the counter the negative myths that have led us to the disasters of Brexit and the Trump presidency.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

To Live Together in Unity

Sermon preached at Castle Hill URC, 22 January 2017. Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23.

We are in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when churches around the world work and pray together to heal divisions between them. We live in a divided world, which shows no signs of getting better despite victorious politicians calling for unity. So today seems a good occasion to look at the letter to the Corinthians and the calling of the disciples to think about division and unity.

It’s almost too easy to list church divisions. We can start with the big ones. I come from a city and a region, the west of Scotland, where church division has long been a problem. When I grew up in the 70s, divisions between Catholics and Protestants were very real indeed – the schools were segregated, the Orangemen marched in large numbers through the streets of Glasgow, and woe betide you if you showed any signs of supporting the wrong football team in the wrong part of the city. We didn’t have bombings and shootings as in Northern Ireland, but it was nasty and edgy. Some of that was tribal, but much of it was based on real church divisions. The Church of Scotland, the national denomination, has split and reunited many times over the centuries. In my town, there were three Churches of Scotland, and many people could remember which bit of the divided history each had come; down the road we had a United Free Church which was the residue of people who didn’t join in the past reunifications and in other parts of Scotland there are still more disunited Free Presbyterian groups. The Iona Community, a staunchly ecumenical body which was founded in Glasgow, had a working group to bring about intercommunion between Protestants and Catholics by the year 2000, something that was only partially achieved.

Going bigger still, this is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a wonderful event of religious freedom in so many ways, which liberated people from corrupt church leaders and enabled them to think in new ways – and yet one which caused massive disruption and wars across Europe for decades. And for almost a thousand years, the churches of the West and the East of Europe have been divided following the events of the Great Schism – and it’s worth saying that the word schism is precisely the Greek word St Paul used in the passage we heard, which is translated as division.

Local churches and whole denominations are split over a range of issues, from theological divides between liberals and evangelicals, to preferred styles of worship such as hymns on organs versus praise songs with worship bands, to social issues such as the welcoming of gay people and the celebration of their relationships in marriage. Paul wrote that some in Corinth said ‘I follow Paul’; others, ‘I follow Apollos’; others, ‘I follow Cephas’, which is to say Peter; others, ‘I follow Christ.’ In the same way, some today say ‘I follow Luther’, some ‘I follow the Pope’, others ‘I follow Calvin’, others even ‘I follow Philip Doddridge’. Same divisions, different times.

Or they split based on nationality and ethnicity. Martin Luther King said more than 50 years ago that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning”. It’s not much better in the US today, and in this country we see a fair amount of ethnic division in worship – in this town there are plenty of traditional white churches with scarcely a black or Asian face, while in other places there are burgeoning churches which are mostly black, or mostly from a particular national background.

Big divisions, big consequences. Nor are they only divisions that occur between big groups – they play out on a day-to-day basis between individuals. The American pastor and writer John Ortberg tells a story, which exists in various other versions I’m sure, but as he writes it goes as follows:
A man was walking along San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge when he saw a woman standing by herself, obviously feeling lonely. He ran up to tell her God loved her. A tear came to her eye. Then he asked her, "Are you a Christian, Jew, Hindu, what?"
"I'm a Christian," she said.
He said, "Me too! Small world. Protestant or Catholic?"
"Protestant."
"Me too! What denomination?"
"Baptist."
"Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
"Northern Baptist."
He said, "Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
"Northern Conservative Baptist."
"That's amazing! Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?"
"Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist."
"Remarkable! Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?"
She said, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region."
"A miracle," he said, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
She said, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
He shouted, "Die, heretic" and pushed her over the rail.
I hope nobody here would push someone off the rail of a bridge for their beliefs, but we all act in ways that are quite like it. Because as you might be now be saying, if you know the Corinthians passage well or were listening carefully, Paul isn’t just talking about big divisions. He’s also talking about the small disagreements within churches which fester over time. Ten years ago, Jackie didn’t consult Brian over the repainting of the social room; or twenty years ago, Bill had a spat with Jane about the new hymn books – and they’re still in the same church, and they’re still grumbling behind each other’s backs, and it’s still not healed. There are divisions like this in every church, even here at Castle Hill. Sometimes it leads to big splits and new congregations being set up which never come together, as happened when a group split from here in 1772 in a disagreement over money and leadership, set up a church across the road at King St that eventually moved to Abington Avenue and still exists today. Sometimes it sits within the same congregation and just leads to ongoing hurt and disagreement. But in either case – it’s corrosive. It breaks down church unity.

Let me say plainly: there are divisions in this church, as in all others. I’m not addressing those directly, nor am I implying that particular groups are right or wrong. Please don’t take anything I say this morning as directed at any one person or group in particular. And I’m not in the slightest suggesting that this congregation is worse than others in that regard. It’s something that happens everywhere. But in all places, we are called by St Paul to be ‘united in the same mind and the same purpose’.

So what is the nature of that unity? The first thing to say is that it’s not uniformity. It’s not everyone being the same. That idea of unity not being uniformity has long been a key part of the world ecumenical movement. Nor is about everyone pulling together behind a single cause or a single leader. We see that call in political life, from Theresa May over the Brexit vote, from Donald Trump following his inauguration, or to move across the political spectrum from Jeremy Corbyn after his re-election as Labour leader. Each would like to silence dissent, to encourage conformity. They are wrong – there is always a place for dissent and nonconformity within unity. Without dissent, without diversity, it is a false unity, and can’t last. The same is true in churches, whether it was the silencing of liberation theologians by the Vatican in the 1980s, or the expulsion by the Evangelical Alliance of churches such as Oasis Trust who support same-sex marriage, or the struggles of women to be accepted for ordination in so many denominations in the past.

What we can see instead is unity of purpose, of churches coming together to accept one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, to accept that they were baptised into one baptism, have one Lord and Saviour in Jesus, and one God as father and creator. In the midst of the religious wars of the early 17th century, a Lutheran theologian in Germany, Rupertus Meldenius wrote a phrase which later became widely used: “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity”. We proclaim the faith of Christ crucified, and we follow his teaching, but there are many ways in which there is room for disagreement and for diversity. In the same Germany of today, the churches are beginning to accept one another, not as rivals and not as one being subordinate to another, but as sisters and brothers in Christ. To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany will be having celebrations and services this year, which they are calling a Christusfest – a celebration of Christ. As Pope Francis wrote a few years ago, “if hearts are shattered in thousands of pieces, it is not easy to create authentic peace in society”. He also says that “unity brought by the Spirit can harmonize every diversity. It overcomes every conflict by creating a new and promising synthesis”.

Which brings me to our gospel reading, on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the calling of the disciples. The words “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” are the first words of public teaching we hear from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. They’re the same as John the Baptist’s message, but we see Jesus putting them into action. He goes throughout Galilee preaching, but also healing people of every kind of disease – which given the 1st century understanding of illness I guess today we would include counselling and pastoral care in the work he did, just as much as physical healing. Jesus came to give hope to the afflicted.

Notice that phrase, “the kingdom of heaven has come near”. One of the great themes of the New Testament is that the divide between God and his people has become less and that the kingdom of heaven is not a separate place but something we can experience here and now. God has come to earth in human flesh, to witness their oppression and to give hope and help to those who are suffering in myriad ways.

The gospel writer spends a while dwelling on the significance of Galilee, both in its geography and the words that Isaiah wrote about it. To summarise: Galilee was on the edge. It was the edge of the Roman world, the edge of the Jewish world. A bit of a backwater. And that was where Jesus chose to launch his ministry – not in Jerusalem, not in Rome, not even in Corinth, but in Galilee. It’s as if he came to the UK and decided to start with Slough, or Bolton. And he launched it with the most ordinary of people – fishermen, plain working folk, not anyone very special.

But he came to a place in need of care. People in Galilee were made poor by the weight of Roman taxes, were kept down by the weight of Roman rule, were left feeling bereft as if God has deserted them. This is why healing mattered – poor people get sick very easily, and it wasn’t a time of affordable healthcare. Jesus came to take that burden, and to show a different way. The Scottish Biblical scholar Leith Fisher wrote that Jesus came to show the reality of the Kingdom of heaven, that “God is real, active, present, though hidden in the day-to-day life of the world. God is not remote, indifferent, uncaring, inactive, God is here and God is now.” 

James Tissot, The Calling of
Saint Peter and Saint Andrew,
via Wikimedia Commons
Jesus came not to offer us heaven after we die, but to offer us heaven here on earth, and to offer us a chance to build heaven here.

And Jesus calls these fishermen, two sets of brothers, to be part of that care, to help him to show the nearness of God, to help bring about this new kingdom. He said they were going to stick with what they knew, the process of fishing, but with a new kind of catch – for people instead of fish. Simon and Andrew and James and John were being drawn into Jesus’ care and interest for people, into his mission to the people of Galilee. But he asked them to follow him, to learn from his teaching and example. A couple of verses after the end of this reading, we see them called disciples for the first time – that is to say, learners, students, apprentices to this new master. They would draw on their past experience, to make use of their existing skills as fishermen – but in a new way and with a new care for God’s people. We care for people in whatever ways we can, and wherever we are able to do so, but we are called by Jesus to care for people. This church shows care to people in so many ways here in Spring Boroughs – through contact centre, the brigades, mums & tots, work with the homeless and many other ways. Today is Homelessness Sunday, and we’ll pray for that in the intercessions later.

As we know it was Peter and the others who went on to found a church to carry on Jesus’ work after his death. To quote Leith Fisher again, “The church only exists to be an instrument, a source of mediation, a conduit, between the great realities of God, and the rule and presence of God, and his world. So often we make the church an end in itself, and we end up thinking in ways which are fundamentally and small-mindedly selfish.”

And that’s why the divisions in the church are so unhelpful. We exist as a body of Christ, to carry on his witness, of teaching and action. If we are divided, we are weak, squabbling with each other instead of looking outwards. If we are united, we can respect each other’s diversity and look outwards in different ways and in different places. We can prophetically proclaim to those who would seek to create false unity and even to wrap it in the name of God that we will only find unity when we care for others and celebrate diversity. And in that way we can serve the kingdom, we can serve others in the world, we can proclaim the gospel, we can show people everywhere that the kingdom of heaven has come near.

May God give us the strength that this be so. Amen.