Lincoln and the Kingdom of God

Sometimes it is good to sit down and learn something. The DVD of Lincoln has sat on our shelf for over a year and I decided to watch it on a cloudy uninviting morning.  It really is a good film, though at times it feels like the great film you hoped they would show you in history class but never did.

What struck me most were the scenes of Lincoln debating with his cabinet or close allies. They were debates which were elegant, articulate and full of passion. The reason for this was the scope of the subject matter. How could this great experiment in democracy called the United States be kept from being derailed by slavery and the conclusion of a civil war.  Keeping it alive and dynamic was the important aim. Once the nation settled into the purpose of just carrying on was the day the nation began to die.

Unfortunately, regardless of which side of the Atlantic you live on today, you can see the signs of what happens when you settle for just existing and holding on to what you’ve got.  In the West, we have stopped being an experiment in human freedom and progress and instead become an experiment in serving prosperity.

In this new experiment of prosperity for its own sake, the idea that prosperity only benefits everyone when everyone has a stake, both as contributor and recipient, has died. When that crucial element is ignored leaders are transformed into managers of a system that cannot be changed or challenged. All you have to do is apply rules and dig in your heels and hope for the best. Leading an experiment meant to be for the general human good requires wit, imagination, resolve, negotiation and partnership. It requires a bigger vision than hoping that enriching the rich will enrich us all.

In this country the general election has truly started even though we don’t vote until May. We will be offered a ballot paper, for the most part, full of managers who seek only to serve prosperity as a good unto itself.  And when one of those parties have the votes to form a government they will be looking for the scapegoats for our current financial situation.

It won’t be bankers or theorists who told us credit could buy us happiness. It will be the poor, the working poor, disabled people, immigrants, public sector workers and anyone else who can be construed as takers of prosperity. In short, there will be people branded as losers who are taking prosperity from the winners. And they will bear the brunt of the coming cuts of public spending.

We already see this in profitable companies when their profit isn’t high enough for their shareholders. Walk into any major supermarket and ask why there are more self service checkouts than human staffed tills. It’s not to make shopping more convenient. It is because a group of machines can be looked after by one paid human being. Machines don’t need time off or pensions or wages or national insurance paid.

The state is trying to learn the same lesson in the name of prosperity.

After the election in May the national discussion led by our manager-politicians will not be about how we live together but rather about how we all live with money. It won’t be about living within our national means for the good of all but rather how we live within our national means for the “winners”.

The bible has many grand visions of the future. You might even argue they are proposed experiments in what the Kingdom of God might look like. They are never for the winners nor exclusively for the poor. They are exclusively for all those who want to be a part of God’s great experiment of dwelling with his creation, on his terms. Terms we see so unclearly through the cracked and dirty glass of humanity in the process of being restored.

There is one picture I love from the Old Testament. It speaks of peace, security, employment and a place one can call one’s own. It speaks of a share in God’s Kingdom which does not favour the winners but rather those who desire a great future and existence for humankind.

He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord
our God for ever and ever.

Micah 4:3-5

There is no place for managers in the Kingdom of God. The only place is for those who are not afraid to walk into the unknown future of a creation that nourishes and benefits all rather than the few.

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Remembrance Sunday

Anzac_poppies

One hundred years ago, there was no Remembrance Day. Wars were far away things which tended not to empty whole villages, remove generations of young men from the gene pool and were not fought on an industrial scale with industrial weapons.  In their remoteness, they were perceived as the stuff of adventure and honour. So no one really was all that bothered about cenotaphs and poppies and veterans doing their bit for our freedom.

It only took four years to change that. Men were told they were marching off to a war they would return from by Christmas. It would be a jolly jape with your mates and a bit of a sabbatical from the drudgery of the factory or being in service or a farm hand on an estate. They would return by Christmas but not Christmas 1914.

The reason we have cenotaphs and poppies is because those young men marched off to a nightmare; a contagious nightmare which made people confront a very real human tragedy that all could take credit for. It seems that we all had a taste for war and glory. We discovered that we could send someone to go and die for their country with relative ease.

There is an argument that we don’t need Remembrance Day anymore, but I’m not so sure that is true. We can argue about tone and style, but if we use today properly, as a pebble in our shoes, then we will always require today because we always send people to war. This month British troops are coming home from a war in Afghanistan which has gone on 3 times as long as the first world war and has cost over £30bn. True, the casualties are much lower and the war was much “cleaner” but after all that expenditure in time, lives and treasure if you asked 100 people what was achieved you’d get probably 85 versions of “I’m not really sure”.

We still need a day where we are forced to say, “What was that all about?”

For Christians, today should be a day of tension. That tension is caused by believing that Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated the Kingdom of God, that we can firmly plant our lives in that Kingdom as we await its coming in all its fullness. We can interpret reality not with the question “What would Jesus do” which is more about earning reward points, but rather “does this look like the kingdom” which is about the compatibility of my life with the reality that God is revealing.

In the beatitudes in Matthew, Jesus lays out a sort of manifesto that describes that kingdom life. It looks cryptic and alien because our lives are so far out of whack with them. But when we commit to living them, and letting today be a day of practicing them, we find ourselves transformed in the process.

Today we remember blessed are the peacemakers. Peacemakers believe that war is not inevitable, that often there are deeper “non-kingdom” agendas at work in the demands for war and question the value of the sacrifices demanded for those agendas. We, like Jesus, ask the hard questions and wait for legitimate answers. As we learned from the First World War, national leaders saying, “Trust us” is not a good enough answer to go to war on. There are times when we will not get a perfect situation where we can say no, there will be times when war is “unavoidable” but there is never a time when war is a default position. Peacemakers know that.

However, this is real flesh and blood we are talking about. These are sons and daughters and friends and workmates. I was at a school event this week and one teacher spoke about a classroom discussion about the First World War. She said the best part of it was when a child said, “There must have been upset Germans too”.

Exactly.

The beatitudes also tell us that those who mourn are blessed. Those who lament with God that we haven’t found a better way of sharing the planet and brushing up against each other. That we haven’t learned to see flesh and blood as too high a price to pay for ideas and economics and unattainable security.  To lament that for every name on a cenotaph or war memorial there is another ten whose lives will feel empty and shattered.

To mourn means setting aside our anger and activism and simply shedding tears at the futility of human endeavour to make peace. To mourn the loss of a human being, someone who is made in the image of God and beloved of God in the same way I am,  is another way of asking that scrutinising question:“Is this a good enough reason to go to war?”

Today does need to exist, but as a godly irritant day where we remember that, to quote Paul, we have fallen short of the glory of God and to shed tears to lament the cost of that state of affairs.

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Go Team!

 IMAG0326

I went to Wembley Stadium this week to see the Atlanta Falcons play the Detroit Lions in an NFL game. It was exciting and ended on a nail biting field goal. The atmosphere was friendly and jovial with lots of laughter and people experiencing their first ever game of a sport they have admired from afar. It was a first for my son who was almost vibrating with excitement as he devoured every detail and colour and sound.

Apart from those who were actual fans of either of the teams, no one in the stadium really cared who won. What was important was being there celebrating something we all loved and sharing it with thousands of other people who loved it too. Of course, we hoped the two teams would put on a worthy display.

There was a lot of drinking but no fighting. I’ve never seen such a low key police presence at a stadium filled with  80,000 people. There was no fan segregation. There was good natured ribbing between people wearing rival shirts but there was no malice. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in the other fans around them and their experiences of football.

The old lags happily explained to new converts about why a particular play was stopped or why  the punt returner was waving his hand in the air. There was no telling people to shut up, no one was treated like a distraction.

In short, it was less of a sporting event and more of a festival of people celebrating something they really loved with loads of others who loved the same thing.

I’ve thought about this over the week  and I’ve been struck by how much I wish the Church was like this. We, the Wembley crowd, were a diverse group of men and women united by our love of football. We all came with different views on football, different favourites, different doctrines about how the game should be played and who should play it. Yet none of that got in the way of celebrating what we loved and sharing a sort of fellowship. No one was told they couldn’t come in because they were Cincinnati Bengals fans or because their all time favourite player was John Elway. No one refused to talk to their neighbour because they preferred teams with a running game.

In short, our starting point was the thing we loved and celebrating that love a with loads of others who loved the same thing. And that really should be the church’s starting point too. When we are part of a church because we love Jesus and his way and revel in being with others who love him and his way too, all the other stuff falls into place.

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Caesar Calling

The gospel reading on Sunday was from Matthew.

Again there is a confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities called Pharisees, this time over the question of  paying tax to the Roman occupiers of first century Palestine. As usual in these conversations, tax is just the excuse to start an argument. They want Jesus to  give the “wrong” answer so that he can be dismissed as a credible teacher of an oppressed people or look like a rabble-rouser to the occupying powers.

Discrediting  Jesus relies on the impurity of the coin issued by the pagan Empire. For Jews the issues were pretty clear

  • A coin with a face on it violates the third commandment; to handle it makes you unclean and liable to contaminate others.
  • Possession of a pagan coin is a sign of collaboration.  Only a person in league with the Romans would have such a thing. Or a tax collector. Or a prostitute.
  • To willingly pay the tax to Rome was seen as siding with the enemy. The Pharisees want a command out of Jesus which removes the unwillingness and makes him look bad to the occupiers.

Jesus is used to the agenda of this kind of conversation, so he overturns their trick question with a simple “gotcha”. Show me the coin. Show me the coin none of you should be carrying if you want to make me look bad. And, without really thinking, they produce a coin, showing the crowd that they probably now have some questions to answer too.

If the conversation was about tax it would be over. But tax is a minor issue in the scheme of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is more interested in the deeper conflict that the coin symbolises. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render to God what is God’s. It’s more than a pithy catch phrase: it is a description of reality.

First, there is a difference between God’s Kingdom and Caesar’s Kingdom. Caesar’s kingdom is always the temporary one. Psalm 24:1 says, “The Earth is the Lord’s and all who live in it.” There are no exceptions, including the emperor.

Second,  whose face is on the coin? God’s image in all of us. This is an eternal image rather than the temporary one of a passing king. Genesis 1:26 has God creating humanity with this intention: “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness…”.  Rendering to Caesar means if it has Caesar’s image on it, he owns it. So make sure in all you do, you have as little of Caesar in you as possible. On the other hand,  you have the indelible image of God  in you and if you live to that, you will find life in abundance.

Third, all emperors and would be kings of the world are but dust in the wind. At the start of the 10 commandments, God reminds Israel that he led them out of slavery in Egypt. God gave you your freedom, can Caesar do that? Caesar can provide water, sanitation, defence, trade – but can he transform a corrupt and broken creation? Can he swim with the sea monsters of the deep or unlock the storehouse where lightning is kept or can he know you as you are being formed in the womb?

In the end Jesus proclaims that all Caesar can do is put a face on a coin and hope you will believe that he is the emperor. Otherwise, repent for the Kingdom of God is near.

That is why my heart breaks when I see images like this:

jesussoldiers

Whoever thought this was good theology would make Caesar proud. The Roman empire was surprisingly tolerant of all religions and the more gods, the merrier. It would be okay to worship Jesus as the saviour of your soul as long as you also kept the faith in Caesar’s legions.

Attaching a nation’s policies, aspirations and power as adjuncts to God’s Kingdom,  splits our loyalties and tips us towards Caesar.  When the way of  empire is deep rooted in us, it is hard to not render our whole selves to the emperor. The empire likes my “soul” to be embedded in its foreign policy and shock and awe and the notion that freedom is only sustained at the end of an assault rifle. Jesus on the other hand says that your whole self finds freedom when it is immersed in the Kingdom of God which tends not to resemble empire in any way or form.

God’s kingdom doesn’t share the aspirations the empire. It is interested in life. Life for me.  Life for my enemies.  All that is in the world belongs to the Lord. If only all would realise that.

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A Remembering Service Talk

When the programme finished, I was about to hoist myself from the chair and bid this happy trio a warm adieu when the door opened and Mrs Smith came in with a tray of tea things and a plate of biscuits of the sort that I believe are called teatime variety, and everyone stirred friskily to life, rubbing their hands keenly and saying, `Ooh, lovely.’ To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.

That was the American author Bill Bryson talking about his first encounter with the TV lounge of a 1970’s B&B in his book Notes From a Small Island.

It is funny how a nation can honestly believe that a cup of tea and a nice biscuit can overcome all that life throws at us from the broken heart to the ebola virus.

I’m pretty sure that everyone in this room has had their fair share of cups of tea in the recent past. Those cups have been offered for loads of reasons. Perhaps it’s because it is a welcome distraction. Perhaps, because tea is usually offered to us by someone who can’t think of a better way of comforting us in our grief. Perhaps it is another opportunity to put us in contact with another person.

I think there is something deeper. I think a cup of tea and a biscuit reminds us that we are still alive, that life goes on, that we have needs and despite the pain we feel, we know we have to carry on even when it is hard to do so.

In John 6, Jesus talks about himself in the same way as a nice cup of tea and a biscuit when he says “I am the bread of life”. He is the one who sustains us in the best of times and the worst. He nourishes us and gives us the strength to endure the ups and downs of life. He feeds a life worth living and worth remembering. He declares that death is not and will not be the last word.

He talks in this way to give hope. Hope that the pain and despair are temporary in the big scheme of things. It is hope that comes in the midst of our immediate pain and discomfort. We may not believe right now that we will feel better, that colour will ever return and that’s why we need hope. Jesus promises that he is the bread of life, not just the bread of comfort.

And life is what we are here to remember; lives that meant something to us. Lives that, I hope, we are truly grateful for having in our own lives. The funerals that make an impact on me are the ones where when I do the visit there is lots of laughter and storytelling. Yes those people are sad, but they don’t want the sadness to obscure the life they are thankful for. They want to celebrate that the life they are mourning is still a part of their lives and always will be. Thankfulness comes from living and it is often the first victim of our grief. But Jesus reminds us that life is about life.

I once visited a widow who was beside herself with grief. Her husband had died abruptly and she was angry. Why him? There are so many bad people in the world, why him?  I sat and listened, unsure what to say. When she was finished being angry I realised that I was expected to give some kind of answer.  I went for thankfulness. I said to her, “I know you are angry, but that anger will consume whatever good things you want to remember your husband for. So instead of dwelling on what seems unfair, dwell on what you are thankful for and see where that takes you.”

I felt quite blessed when she came up to me in the street a few weeks later and said, “I’m still trying to be thankful!”

The bread of life is our foundation for life and remembering.  Jesus, that bread of life, that welcome refreshment in the midst of hard things, helps us to remember and to smile and to look forward with hope. And in that hope , we are encouraged to live lives whose stories are worth telling and whose loss is worth weeping over. In the darkness of grief we have the light of hope, we only need to recognise and grasp it.

(given at St Michael’s Macclesfield on October 5 2014)

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Some animals are more equal than others…

The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.   -Pope Francis

Inequality is nothing new. There has always been a big gap between the rich and the poor and that gap has always widened and narrowed. The one thing it  has never done is go away. The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, tells us to be on our guard against wealth being a divisive force in what should be a thriving community. Humans were not created to prosper but rather community based prosperity was created so humans could thrive.

Jesus told this story:

“The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”  The Gospel of Matthew

The modern western reader might take this text and wonder what the big deal is about.  Why would God have an issue with a guy for making his pile and doing what he wants with it?  In contrast, a first century listener to the text would be shocked at the man’s behaviour. After all, there is only so much wealth in the world and to hold on to so much of it (and keep it out of circulation) was immoral. The “villain” of the piece has more than his fair share in doing so, makes others poor.

Our inability to see what the first century person sees comes from living in a world of credit and “made up” wealth.  Our recent financial crisis wasn’t caused by a plague or a failed harvest. It was caused by people loaning money they didn’t have to people who couldn’t afford to borrow it.  It is beyond our capabilities to picture finite wealth and hence we are doomed to boom and bust forever.

Because we can’t picture finite wealth, we don’t recognise inequality till it stares us in the face.  And when our economics begin to almost deliberately hurt us if we are poor we begin to see what Pope Francis is on about: our economic system does not have to benefit us to be good. It can go on and on without being disturbed by the effect it has on flesh and blood.

The Bible is fairly consistent in presenting the world and all that is in it as gift.  In Chronicles 29 David prays:

Praise be to you, Lord the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendour, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all.  Wealth and honour come from you;

When Israel enter the promised land, one of the stipulations was that the people did not own the land or each other. God introduced the Jubilee which taught that everyone should be prepared to let go of their wealth and to see that what they held in common was the stewardship of the land and the care of their neighbour.

When wealth is allowed to reign as a power in its own right (which Israel eventaully allowed), as if it were God, then it is condemned in the fiercest terms (see Amos for a great example).  Inequality is not seen in scripture as a natural result of wealth. Instead it is a sinful outcome of mismanagement of the good gifts God has given to and from his creation.

What is condemned is not that some people have wealth, but that some have more than their share of the common wealth at the expense of others taking a living from it too. The outflow of that are the  corrupt relationships of  “I own you” or “you owe me” or “you don’t deserve this”. We will speak of “my” wealth rather than ours and make up fantasies of independently generated wealth rather than wealth generated communally.  With inequality, others simply become a means to an end or a problem to be solved.

Over the next year in Britain we will be hurtling towards an election. Over those months, we will be subjected to a myriad of visions of this nation’s future. Rest assured all of those visions, left or right, will tolerate inequality and will pitch life primarily through an economic lens rather than a human one.

The question each of us will have to answer is a simple,  life or death  one. Does the economy and wealth exist to serve us and our common thriving or do we exist to serve economics which has no obligations to our common wellbeing?

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A Sermon for Trinity Sunday (St Barnabas, Macclesfield)

“In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.”

“God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God”

“The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that God’s whole and undivided essence belongs equally, eternally, simultaneously, and fully to each of the three distinct Persons of the Godhead.”

The Trinity is one God who eternally exists as three distinct persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—who are each fully and equally God.

Does all of that leave you scratching your heads?

So much has been written about the trinity and yet so little is still understood.    One of my favourite quotes from the making of the first Star Wars movie is from Harrison Ford who plays Han Solo.  He really didn’t like the dialogue, which made almost no sense to him as he didn’t know the bigger story that was in the writer’s head.  Ford said to the writer/director George Lucas:

 “You can type this stuff George, but you can’t say it”

If Ford was a theologian, he might be tempted to say the same thing about the Trinity.  Saying more stuff about a mystery doesn’t make that mystery any clearer and it often makes it more of a mystery. Sometimes we have to accept that mysteries can only be understood in part.

Where do we get the Trinity from? You won’t find it in the bible, at least not explicitly.  What you will find is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and language (from Jesus) about being one. The clues are there, but the bible doesn’t come out and say: “here it is”.

Our usual approach is to  try to solve what we think is a puzzle about how God can be three distinct persons and yet one at the same time. We come up with all kinds of pictures (water ice and steam; Twix bar; clover) and yet they don’t really explain it all.

The easier way is to accept that God is three and yet one and explore what that might mean in real time. Our starting point is often the byproducts that come from the Trinity “being”.  We may say that wisdom is a byproduct.  That salvation is a byproduct.  That justice and mercy and peace are byproducts.

But that’s what they are: byproducts. The real heart of the trinity is Love. Richard Baukham writes,

“God the Trinity is the love we find in Jesus Christ and experience in the Holy Spirit. God the Trinity is the mystery of love we can experience but never understand.”

It is love that produces those fruits of the spirit we value so much.

In John chapter 3, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus raises the issue of the Holy Spirit being the one who transforms us as if we were born again. He says that we can’t see the Spirit but we can see the results of his movement like the wind. You see trees move, you feel it on your face, you see the leaves whipped up: but you can’t see the wind.

In the same way, we talk about the Trinity. We talk about the effect of their being one; we talk about when we meet Jesus it is like God in our midst.  When Jesus talks about “I and the Father are one” he makes a statement that goes beyond “we are a close family” and leaves us to ponder how God can be in “heaven” and Jesus can be here now.

But in the end, we live with what we can’t adequately explain, knowing it to be true because we catch glimpses of it being true in our lives.  Maybe we discover a little more each day and through each experience.  Through delving deeper into scripture, through prayer, through being together. That mystery at worst becomes a little clearer at best it becomes a part of our everyday life with God.

I am becoming more comfortable  standing up on Trinity Sunday and saying, “I don’t really know” and to encourage you all to discover how you experience the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit because that is the start of how the church began to make this doctrine at the centre of its creeds.

The earliest church theologians began to realise that when you had Jesus, Yahweh and the Holy Spirit and when you had Jesus speaking about the other two in close personal relationship and when you add a reluctance to have three Gods  (as  the OT is very firm in its monotheism) there must be something in it. Those three must be inextricably linked.

So the creeds describe how that relationship works and how we experience it while anchoring it in the idea of “one being, with the father” so that we don’t get an idea of a separation of the three. The most important question is not how do I prove this, but rather how does this affect me today in my walk with Jesus.

Jesus is not going to ask you to explain the Trinity to him at the judgement seat. But if you are going have a relationship with him, then you need to know what his relationships are, what is important to him, how he loves and why he loves.  You need to know where he comes from, why being a human was  important, why he prayed, how he saw himself.  And you can’t do that without the Trinity.

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