Sunday, 14 August 2016

Hearing the cry of the oppressed - the son of man and the four beasts

Sermon preached on 14 August 2016 at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church - recording available. Main text: Daniel 7.

The Ancient of Days (William Blake), image: Wikipedia

We live in turbulent and unsettled times. Terrorist attacks across Europe – Nice, Brussels, Paris, Munich. Police violence and guns out of control in the US. The shootings at the gay nightclub in Orlando. Brexit. Violence in Pakistan and in Thailand. The rise of Donald Trump. The attempted coup and severe government response in Turkey. These disasters have been coming thick and fast this year. We scarcely mourn one when the next comes. And these are just the recent things. There’s climate change. War in Syria and Iraq. Economic hardships in so many places coupled with obscene levels of wealth in others. The refugee crisis. Food poverty in our rich country. And on and on. I’m sure most of us can think of others. This is a time where wild visions of the future, like Daniel’s dream, seem appropriate.

But it could be worse. We’re not living in an oppressed society. We’re not in a society which has been occupied for centuries by a series of increasingly nasty empires, with the current ruler trying to suppress our religion, to cut out the things which make us who we are as a people, to deny us our identity.

That was the situation of the Jewish people roughly 160 years before the birth of Christ. The pass-the-parcel of conquests of their fertile and strategically-location region had landed up with a Greek empire known as the Seleucid Empire, one of the successors to Alexander the Great. The king was increasingly repressive, denying them their religion, abolishing the Sabbath and even sacrificing a pig in the Temple, a thing of horror to Jews.

What could they do as a people to keep their identity? How could they think about God in this terrible situation? Some of them turned to prophetic voices and they constructed the book of Daniel, probably shaped from older legends of the time of the exiles in Babylon, but brought together in the tumultuous time of the Seleucid persecutions. Daniel was the last book to be written in what we call the Old Testament. And it contained all kinds of coded political messages. Oppressed peoples do that, especially in the heat of religious persecutions. When our nonconformist forebears were being persecuted by the English state in the 17th century, they produced all sorts of bizarre visions. And when in turn English Catholics were persecuted, they produced many hidden messages in books and songs – some say that the Twelve Days of Christmas is one such song.

This chapter of Daniel that we’ve heard today, as with the later chapters of the book, took the form that would later be called apocalyptic, the best-known example in the Bible being the book of Revelation. It was fiery. It was violent. It had bizarre imagery. It was deeply symbolic. And it was about the present day.

Because apocalyptic literature is always about the present day. It appears to be talking about the future, but for the most part it’s a symbolic commentary on the time when the book was written. The language of the vision & the four beasts is mysterious and has been interpreted in many ways, but probably refers to the four empires which controlled Israel for centuries – the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek empires – with the present king, Antiochus IV, as the little horn who spoke arrogantly. (Apocalyptic interpretation is not an exact science - other commentators, from the historian Josephus to some modern millenarians, read the list differently and take Rome as the fourth beast.)

But it’s clear that Daniel’s vision of the four beasts is not to be taken literally – it’s a deeply symbolic vision. Apocalyptic literature never is. To me it’s a bit like science fiction, which is more often about the present than the future, and a bit like surrealist art, like Salvador Dali with his strange melting figures. It’s about the world, but in a strange coded way. If you stare at it too hard, for too long, you begin to go cross-eyed, but if you look from the side there’s wisdom in it.

The fact that Daniel 7 is well-loved as a passage by Christians isn’t so much to do with the beasts as the verses which follows them – the coming of the Ancient of Days, or the Ancient One, in splendour upon a flaming throne, followed by the one who is like a son of man. These verses are quoted in several places in the New Testament, and they form one of the standard readings on the day of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year, before Advent. From a Christian standpoint, and especially given the New Testament references, we read this in a very particular way – it’s about God and Jesus in their might and power.

And that’s not a bad interpretation. But like the rest of this chapter, it needs to be read with care. Now, the figure called the Ancient of Days is a pretty standard portrait of God the Father, with his long beard, flaming throne and surrounded by angels. Prophets such as Isaiah and Ezekiel had similar visions of God, and it’s close to the kind of image of God the Father that many of us carry at the back of our heads. We’ll end the service by singing to God who is immortal and invisible, calling him the Ancient of Days. But it’s an image, a metaphor – it’s not a reliable picture of God, who is beyond pictures. Indeed, in some branches of the church, especially among the Eastern Orthodox, the point is made that in the Old Testament, God is seen as too holy and too powerful to be observed by human beings, and that we only see him at a distance or through Jesus as God made human.

Our other character in the story, one who is like a Son of Man, comes with the clouds of heaven, is presented to the Ancient One, and is given eternal kingship. This figure is usually equated with Jesus, and Jesus quotes these verses more than once in the gospels, probably to refer to himself. Indeed, the phrase ‘son of man’ appears more than 80 times in the gospels – I counted them, or at least Bible Gateway did.

However, the phrase in Daniel, while it literally means son of man, is an Aramaic colloquialism which probably just means a human being. Much of the book of Daniel, including this chapter, was written in Aramaic, and this was also the language Jesus spoke with his disciples. Some commentators [notably Geza Vermes] have argued that Jesus calling himself the son of man is often just a somewhat elaborate way of saying “me”, a human being, a person.

That said, the term had huge resonance because of its appearance in Daniel 7, and the importance of the passage as a story of the deliverance of God’s people. But it wouldn’t have been read by Jews of the time the book was written, or of the time of Jesus, as referring to a single figure [as argued by NT Wright]. Rather, it refers to the vindication of the whole people of Israel. Because once the son of man appears and is granted his power, we don’t hear him mentioned again. But what we hear about are the “holy people of the most high”, generally reckoned to refer to the people of Israel, and in the vision it’s those holy ones who actually fight with the fourth beast. The passage ends with the Ancient of Days coming back to judge the beast in a kind of heavenly courtroom, find him at fault and put him down, and then he grants power to those holy ones.

No more mention of the son of man, but many mentions of these holy ones, and they end up being enthroned and given an everlasting kingdom. God’s righteous people, redeemed out of their oppression and brought to a position of victory.

Looked at it this way, Daniel 7 stops being a weird bit of mystery and becomes a deeply political statement. God will look at his people’s oppression, and he will act to prevent that oppression, to put down their oppressors, and to bring them justice. This is the call of the psalmist, who again and again calls to God from the place of oppression and asks for freedom. It is the call of Mary, who praised God when she heard she would give birth to the Messiah, proclaiming that God humbled the rich and lifted up the powerless. And it has been the cry of oppressed peoples throughout history – of the black slaves in the United States, looking to God as liberator; of the South Africans under apartheid who sang that freedom is coming; of the South Americans faced with repressive dictatorships who looked to God’s preferential option for the poor. In many cases these people looked more to the book of Exodus, with its cry of “let my people go” than to Daniel, but they would have found a similar message here.

Preachers are often taught to ask the question about a piece of scripture, even a complex one like this – what is the good news in this passage? Well, I can tell you plainly – for those in oppressed places, suffering under the yoke of hardship, suffering from discrimination for their gender or their sexuality or their racial origin, suffering from violence in its many forms, suffering from all the many ways that societies fail to see the love in God in those around them – for those people there is good news in this passage in abundance. God sees the beast, with its horn that speaks with such arrogance, and God says – no! I will not tolerate this! I will not tolerate injustice, or violence, or discrimination. I am the Lord your God, and I have spoken. I will pull down those evil-doers from their thrones, and instead raise up the holy ones of God to be rulers of the kingdom for ever.

But I’ve said already that apocalyptic literature is written by and for the oppressed. Yes we live in unsettled times, but what if we’re not ourselves oppressed? What if we are part of the problem? What of the times when we have colluded with violence, with discrimination, with injustice? What if we’re part of a system which enables these things to happen? Well it’s not such good news for us. Because God’s favour is with those who are oppressed, not with those who enable oppression to happen. And many of us, if we search our hearts, do enable oppression to happen.

I was fortunate enough to spend the day listening to the American preacher Rob Bell yesterday, and he was very clear on this matter. Churches, he said, need to ask themselves: who is oppressed in our area? Whose cry do we need to hear? Who in this area needs to hear the good news that God is on the side of the oppressed?

I don’t think this is a matter for equivocation. If God is on the side of the oppressed, so too must be the church, the body of Christ. St Teresa of Avila said that Christ has no hands but ours, no feet but ours. The church has no business in colluding with economic injustice, or racial violence, or gender discrimination, or homophobia. These are the things of the fourth beast. They are not the things of the holy ones of the most high. It is to the shame of the church when it has allowed these things to happen, or actively encouraged them. It is to the shame of the church when it still encourages them or allows them today.

Because we are not called upon as Christians to follow the authorities of this world. We are called to confess that Jesus is Lord. We are not called upon to have a king who has an earthly body and wears a crown and lives in a palace. We are called upon to give our allegiance to the king who was born in a stable and died on a rubbish heap, who gave his all so that we could experience the kingdom of God on this earth. So that we too could become among the holy ones of the most high, and could bring about the kingdom of God, where justice is experienced by all, and violence ceases, here on this earth of ours.

We worship a God who is beyond words and images, but we follow a king who came to earth as one like a son of man, and who will enable us to put aside our oppressors and to stop being oppressors ourselves, and to build the kingdom here and now. Praise be to God! Amen.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Compassion in your guts, mercy on the road

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 10th July 2016. Text: Luke 10:25-37.

Have you ever heard of a bad Samaritan? We’re often told that we’re in a post-Christian culture, but we live in a society saturated with biblical imagery. The idea of the Good Samaritan is all around us. There are charities and hospitals named after him, the phrase is universally understood and admired even among people with little interest in faith.  Indeed so good is the Samaritan that even he doesn’t need an adjective – those wonderful folks, The Samaritans, who help people in their direst emotional needs, don’t need any qualifier.

And of course it’s not down to the reputation of the people of Samaria. Because among Jewish people of Jesus’ time, that was shocking. They were heretics, who worshipped God not on Mount Zion but on a different mountain to the north. They were impure, the product of mixing between pure Jews and Assyrian immigrants, a real issue given the racialized culture of 1st century Israel. They were the subject of many historical feuds and grievances, battles between the two cultures. And they were inhospitable – Jews travelling to Jerusalem through Samaria were not welcome to stay in the villages along the way. So the idea of a bad Samaritan wouldn’t be a surprise to Jewish ears. The surprise is that we see them now as something positive, because of this one story.

Now it’s such a well-known story that you’ve probably heard it preached, or read interpretations, or seen re-enactments of it, a hundred times. It’s a story for children to listen and get a good solid moral message – be kind to others, even if nobody else will. And it’s a story that a preacher tackles with care if they want to get any point across except that one. There are many lessons to be taken from the Good Samaritan. But, spoiler alert, to me it gives a message that is at the very heart of the gospel. It gives us a clear message about what we need to do as Christians, and what eternal life feels like. It feels like mercy. It feels like receiving mercy when we least expect it, and from the places we least expect it. And it feels like giving mercy in ways that are costly to ourselves, that put ourselves at risk. That is everlasting life, and that is the heart of the kingdom of God.

We start with that lawyer, and he starts with a question that many asked Jesus and few have had answered to their satisfaction – how do I get eternal life? It’s basically a selfish question, a transactional question. OK JC, I’m important and I’m busy. How do I get this eternal life thing? What rituals do I need to do? How much do I need to pay? Give me the bill so I can get back to work, I’ve got a client coming at 12 o’clock. People in churches are still asking this question in the same self-centred and crass way, and it’s done the church a lot of harm. Because the answer isn’t paying an easy bill. It’s about relationships and it’s about giving yourself.

Of course the lawyer, clearly a good student, knows the proper answer. Love God and love your neighbour – the two-fold commandment. It’s a brilliant answer, which really does sum up the Torah, and it also sums up the Christian life. But the lawyer needs to set boundaries on his love, so he asks the question ‘who is my neighbour?’. As the biblical commentator Amy-Jill Levine puts it:
To ask “Who is my neighbor” is a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” or “Who does not deserve my love?” or “Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?” or “Whom I can hate?” The answer Jesus gives is, “No one.” Everyone deserves that love— local or alien, Jews or gentile, terrorist or rapist, everyone.
Photo: Berend de Boer
And so Jesus tells that story about the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, down that road which his listeners knew so well, and which was so dangerous. Really it’s the kind of place you’d expect to be set upon and robbed. I’m not going to spend much time on the priest or the Levite today. Their reasons for passing by on the other side have been widely discussed. There’s an argument about them breaching their ritual purity, which doesn’t quite work if you look at it long enough. Perhaps the best explanation is something Martin Luther King said – maybe they were just afraid and didn’t want to be robbed and beaten themselves. Maybe they felt it was some kind of scam. Or maybe they objected to helping individuals. I have myself walked past homeless people with their hands out, and not given them money. I’ve had the chance to complain to my MP about the conditions that lead to food poverty and not done it. I’ve seen pictures of terrible disasters in faraway places and done nothing. I don’t think I’m especially unworthy, I imagine we’ve all walked by at times. Don’t judge the priest or the Levite.

But let’s look at the Samaritan. I’ve said already just how hated were the Samaritans. They were the enemy, the other. The people like us and yet not like us. I watched a funny video from TV series That Mitchell & Webb Look which had Jesus telling the story to a group of liberal Jews who starting telling him off for his prejudice, that they all knew some great Samaritans, took their holiday in Samaria and the people were so nice. I’d have shown it today except it had some swear words that I didn’t want to inflict on you. But if there were such Jews in Jesus’ time, they were few and far between. Samaritans were despised. I’ve been trying all week to think of an analogy, of a group that’s close enough to us that know all their moves but to find them utterly alien. No single group fits the bill for all those in this room, I imagine, to say nothing of those outside. But I bet you have group that count as the enemy for you. Perhaps it’s those of another political persuasion, those who voted for Brexit or those who voted for Remain, or the Tories or UKIP or Labour. Perhaps it’s a different religious group – when I was growing in Glasgow, the divisions were really strong between Protestants and Catholics, and woe betide you if you strayed to the wrong tribe. In many places it’s about race, as we still see so tragically in the United States. For others, it’s around sexuality. Identifying a whole group of people as the enemy, as someone less than human, certainly not capable of good moral acts, is a terrible thing. It’s to deny that they’re made in the image of God, simply because they belong to a particular group. But, bluntly, it’s also a really common human activity, and at some level it’s something we all do.

Image: Jesus Mafa

So when the story took that three-part form that’s common in stories, the listeners would not have expected to hear the word Samaritan as the one who helped the man in danger. It would have come as a real shock, almost as something offensive. Those people, they’re the ones who help someone in danger? They’re the ones who act as a neighbour to the man? Yes, says Jesus, and moreover you need to be like them. Jesus says that the Samaritan felt compassion for the victim (the NIV which we heard says pity but compassion is a more common translation), using a really strong word which relates to your guts or even your bowels. The Samaritan felt so sorry for that man that it made his insides churn up, the way you do when you feel something is so wrong that you feel physically ill before you act. This was not a man with no moral sense. And Jesus says that the Samaritan showed mercy to the victim. Throughout the scriptures, that word mercy is the attribute of God. It’s God who shows mercy. The Muslims say “in the name of Allah, the most compassionate, the most merciful” and they have this biblical sense just right. Mercy is an attribute of God. And that is what the Samaritan showed to the beaten man.

So here’s the first message to take from the Good Samaritan. Mercy comes from unexpected places. God’s love comes through all sorts of people and in all sorts of ways. We live in a world that’s so deeply divided. It really feels this year as though things are falling apart. Our country has chosen to divide itself from the European Union. We have racist politicians in this country, throughout Europe, we have Donald Trump in America, all strengthening and exploiting divisions between people. We have horrendous acts of violence across the world carried out because of division. Elsewhere in the scriptures, prophetic voices loudly argue against this kind of division. The parable of the Good Samaritan says the same, more quietly and subtly, but no less clearly. Hear the message of the Samaritan with mercy and compassion: this man was doing God’s work. Division between human beings has no place in the kingdom of God. All human beings are brothers and sisters, and all are capable of goodness.

Let us move on to look at the story from a different perspective. The question is often asked who you identify with in this story, who you think is the key character. In passing, my wife Becky has told this story to children at our church a couple of times using the method called Godly Play, which includes asking which character in the story you most identify with. The answer is often the donkey! For adults the answer varies, but all too seldom is it the injured man. Yet I think there is real insight to be had in seeing yourself in the position of the person who was attacked, of taking what one commentator calls ‘the view from the ditch’. We don’t know anything about him. He’s described in some translations as ‘some man’, which is to say everyman – or everywoman. The injured man could be any one of us.

Because here’s the thing. Many of us are wounded people. Some of us have literally been physically beaten. Others have been emotionally beaten, or spiritually, or in our working lives, or in any of a number of ways. Sometimes that beating happens from strangers. Sometimes it happens from people we’re afraid of. Sometimes it happens from those we thought we could trust. Any of these is a terrible thing. My heart goes out to anyone here who has experienced these things.

But help often comes to us, and sometimes it comes in unexpected forms. The stranger who stops when someone is calling another person by racist names, and they simply say ‘enough’. The older woman who sees a young woman in a vulnerable position and walks her home. The street pastors who at weekend nights roam our town centre, and those of many other towns, helping people in danger. And the people who help those of different races, different religions, different political stances.

When that happens, can we acknowledge the help? Are we prepared for mercy to be shown to us? Later in the service, we will sing the hymn ‘Brother, Sister, let me serve you’ which contains the lines ‘pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too’. Are we prepared to do that? In moments of vulnerability, of hurt, are we able to respond to mercy when it comes from unexpected sources? So that to me is the second message of mercy from the story of the Good Samaritan.

And last comes those closing words of Jesus to the lawyer: ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ to which the lawyer responds, ‘The one who had mercy on him’ and Jesus says ‘Go and do likewise’. We may receive mercy freely, from the unlikeliest of places, but we are also called to show mercy and compassion to others. We are called to follow the example of this man who felt the pain of his fellow-traveller in his guts, and actually did something about it.

Some of this is the individual response of the kind I have already mentioned – of showing compassion to somebody we encounter in trouble or in need. This response may be easy for us to take, but it may equally well be costly. As I said earlier, the priest and the Levite may well have been putting themselves in danger had they stopped for the injured man. The Samaritan may well have done so also. But he chose to accept that danger.

I know of plenty of Christians who have given up well-paid jobs to work and live among people in great deprivation, in this country or elsewhere, serving their needs in many ways. There is no condescension or patronising behaviour in such acts, they see the people they live among as equals and friends. These are hard paths, but those who follow them report that they are living life to the full. Or consider the Christians who travel to Palestine as ecumenical accompaniers to live alongside people in great hardship and oppression, both Christian and Muslim, in the land of Jesus.

But this kind of individual action can only go so far. Because there are many different people in many different kinds of trouble travelling from Jericho to Jerusalem, and other places beside. And helping them takes more than individual action. Consider food banks, like you have here – it’s great that they exist to help those in immediate need. But it’s a terrible thing that they need to exist, that living in the 5th largest economy in the world as we were constantly told last month, that we have anyone in food poverty who needs food banks. It’s a scandal, a disgrace. Our calling to go and do likewise goes beyond helping those in immediate need, it surely includes helping stopping that sort of need from arising. To quote Martin Luther King again:
We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.
The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us so much about God’s mercy and compassion, shown through others and which we are called to show to others. It speaks to a divided and hurting world, looking up from the ditch by the side of the Jericho road, and it speaks to us now in the commission of Jesus: go and do likewise.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The stars are not out of reach

Tonight I read a bedtime story to my son that made me cry. Tender stories for parents to read to children do that to me sometimes but this touched a nerve. It was called "It's not my fault ... that the stars are out of reach", from a collection It's not my fault by Bel Mooney.

In the story, Kitty (a girl of perhaps eight) has recently lost her Gran to old age and illness. She wished upon a star one night and yet her Gran still died. She tells her mum this, who says:
"Listen, love, I decided a long time ago that the stars are out of reach. It's not their fault and it's not my fault - no more than it's your fault that your wish didn't come true. All it means is you can't help things happening - do you understand?"
But Kitty doesn't accept this as the final word. She spends all her pocket money on glow-in-the-dark stars, puts them into her parents' bedroom and waits for nightfall. They are left speechless with wonder. Kitty explains:
"I wanted to prove something to Mum. She said the stars are out of reach, but I've proved they aren't. You can touch these stars, Mum - and they're all for our gran."
It was then that my tears flowed. Both my parents, and my wife's, are still alive, but they're ageing and showing some signs of poor health, and I know that at some point in the future I'll have conversations with my children like Kitty with her mum.

But there's more, and that leads me to feel as much hopeful as sorrowful. 2016 has been a really rubbish year for the world. We have had a horrible bombing in Brussels, the massacre in the gay nightclub in Orlando, a British MP murdered while serving her constituents. The UK population has been lied to and manipulated for months, served up xenophobic and small-minded propaganda and has taken the irrevocable decision to withdraw from the European Union. We are smaller and poorer for it, morally and economically. The United States refuses to pass gun legislation to curb their many massacres, and has at least a chance of electing a racist demagogue as president. Refugees continue to stream out of Syria and Iraq in a desperate hope of finding safety somewhere in the world, and doors are closed in their face. Programmes of austerity, devised by western governments to appease the bankers who created an economic mess with their greed and incontinent gambling, increasingly cripple our public services and damage so many lives. And climate change gets worse and worse.

It seems that hope is a long way off, that the stars are far out of reach.

But I refuse to believe it. I refuse to believe that the stars are out of reach.

I refuse to believe that terrorists, whether motivated by extremist religion, prejudice, politics or hate, can succeed.

I refuse to believe that murder and violence can triumph over love and justice.

I refuse to believe that those who hate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people for who they are will stop those people living out who they are.

I refuse to believe that xenophobia and insularity are the right routes for the British people.

I refuse to believe that demagogues and extremist politicians will win out over the voices of reason and tolerance.

I refuse to believe that refugees don't have a place where they can be welcomed.

I refuse to believe that austerity is the answer to economic troubles.

I refuse to believe that the human spirit will be cast down, or trodden underfoot.

I refuse to believe that the oppressed of the world are lost.

Instead I believe in hope. I believe in love. I believe in tolerance, and justice, and human decency. I believe in a God who has promised to cast down the mighty from their thrones, and send the rich away empty-handed; and who calls us to love the strangers, widows and orphans in our midst.

In the words of the Iona Community, I affirm God's goodness at the heart of humanity, planted more deeply than all that is wrong.

I believe that good will triumph over evil. I believe in a dawn after the darkness.

I believe that the stars are not out of reach.