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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The Wrong Sort of Immigrant

Ah, European elections. They present the chance for us to realise we are part of a bigger world and yet too many approach it as an opportunity to shrink their world down, like a pair of Levis in a hot bath.

This small minded trend shows itself when small minded parties claim they aren’t racist just because they want to raise the issue of immigration.  I don’t believe them.  They go on about how their old neighbourhood has changed and they aren’t comfortable with the newcomers because they have different ways and their food smells funny etc. But they never point their finger at me.

My kids and I were laughing the other day as I reminded them that they are the children of an immigrant. And we worked out that I must be the wrong kind of immigrant.

The wrong kind of immigrant because so far no one has pointed at me (while claiming to not be racist) and moaned about me taking people’s jobs, women or a state handouts.

Nobody complains that I came here unasked (well, technically my wife invited me). No one tells my children they should go back to where they came from (Epsom and Croydon) .

I am the wrong kind of immigrant because I don’t speak a foreign language comfortably and so I don’t make them uncomfortable. Okay, I don’t say “Tomato” like the locals, but that is hardly a deal breaker.  In fact, I am so invisible when you think “immigrant”, I once mentioned my status in a sermon and a little old lady came up afterwards and told me that I wasn’t one.

I guess I’m the wrong kind of immigrant because I’m not mentioned in the same breath as the “problem” ones.  And that can only be down to fear about their race and origin.

Immigration is just one of hundreds of issues where we need to talk like grown ups. It’s jostling with how bad our roads are; how education is poorly funded and has been made too results orientated and legislated too ideologically; how basic services we rely on shouldn’t be put out to tender or expected to be profitable; how energy companies shouldn’t be able to see their customers as cash machines. We need to talk about climate change. We need to talk about what I have the right to demand from society and what society has the right to ask of me.

There is lots to talk about and no one debate or discussion will solve all our problems. Just as no one group are to blame for the mess we are in.

The immigration discussion is always destined to  be a poor one (“send ‘em back”) when it is grounded in fear. And I read a bible that tells me regularly to “fear not”. It tells me regularly that if I am afraid of my neighbour then I will find it hard to love my neighbour. It tells me that if I make my nation an idol, then the kingdom of God and its values will always have to wait.

The followers of Jesus are drawn from all the nations and yet belong to none.  That gives us the freedom to put down roots wherever we are and be good for those around us wherever we are.  We are not called to be fearful patriots or net curtain twitching neighbours.

We are called to be people who are at home nowhere and everywhere.

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Downton Abbey It Ain’t

(a sermon for Easter 5; John 14:1-14)

If you have encountered this passage before it will most likely have been in one of two settings: a funeral or evangelism. At funerals we use the passage to give hope and express hope that our death is not the final stop in the journey of life. In Evangelism, it is used to convince others that Jesus prepares a place in heaven for those who believe in him.

Here, Jesus is telling his disciples he is leaving them soon for a new place they can’t go to yet. It is farewell rather than goodbye because he will wait for them and prepare for their arrival. Thomas makes another underwhelming appearance by asking, “But how will we find the way?” as if Jesus is going to give him a postcode to put into Google maps.

The disciples misunderstand what he is telling them. They want directions. They want to be where he is (assuming it is a lovely place, like God’s house must be). However, Jesus has been constantly pointing out that to make the journey he is making, you have to do more than punch a postcode into a sat nav. This is the journey that begins with picking up a cross.

Like many of the bible passages we take up and make comforting, that comfort comes with a risk of missing the big picture. He is telling them about a cosmic movement of the kingdom of God . John is notable for presenting the disciples as unknowing. They expect the wrong type of messiah; they don’t understand what Jesus is doing. It is part of his theme of light in darkness. They remain in darkness until the resurrection shines light on them and revels God’s glory.

Here Jesus is speaking to them about a future which begins now. A kingdom in which we all dwell together in peace and security and without fear. A kingdom that ought to be filling us now so that we aren’t strangers in a strange land later.

So, what we often present as a “sound bite” for our comfort and encouragement, is actually packed with massive Kingdom themes which inform our journeys to and in that kingdom.

Where will you find me?

If you have children or grandchildren, you may be familiar with the Where’s Wally books. Here the disciples are playing “where’s Jesus”. The only other time Jesus uses the expression “in my father’s house” is about the temple when he was found there teaching at age 12. The temple was meant to be where heaven and earth met. Wherever those two place meet that’s where you find Jesus because that is where you find God. The temple was a stone reminder of the reality of heaven meeting earth, not the definition of it.

It can be the big eschatological meeting of heaven and earth in Revelation or the small ones we have every day when we love the poor and love our neighbour and immerse ourselves in God.

I don’t know about you but the first thought that always comes into my mind in this section is Jesus making beds and plumping pillows, a bit like a maid in Downton Abbey. Instead, he will go ahead on the cross and in the tomb and whatever happens on the Saturday of Easter to prepare that meeting of heaven and earth in the future and in our lives now.

How will you find me?

I once went shopping with my mother in Walmart and we got separated in the gigantic store. I looked all over and couldn’t find her. One of the staff saw me and took my hand asked what was wrong? I said I couldn’t find my mother. She asked if I wanted her paged on the PA system. I said no, seeing as I was 45 years old it might be a little embarrassing!

I am the way the truth and the life. You will not find my father’s house without me as your guide. Without practicing my way. Without my sacrifice. Without the Godly truth I have been telling you all this time.

Now we tend to do two things with this. If we are afraid of making people feel excluded because they aren’t followers of Jesus, we water this down and add the very small word “a”: a way, a truth, a life. Jesus is just another holy wise man. Others are available. On the other hand we can condense it down so that if by an accident of history, or geography or poor evangelism I will go to Hell because I didn’t have the name of Jesus on my lips when I died. I may have looked remarkably like one of those sheep in the parable of the sheep and goats but that won’t matter.

The truth here is that you don’t come to the Father through systems and beliefs. You come through Jesus who looks at each person to see if it is like looking in a mirror. Can he see himself in you? He will not ask you to recite the creed or ask if you think he is God. He will look for the family resemblance.

How can I do this?

Do I look like Jesus is a scary thought. I’m a sort of overweight scruffy man on the cusp of proper middle age full of habits, good and bad, and a whole life of experiences. I don’t think I look very much like Jesus nor do I think under my own steam I can fake it very well.

Jesus promises the helper. We are out of shape, unfit for the task so Jesus sends a coach. The spirit comes from the father and the son. We have to remember that we are mistaken if we think the spirit comes to give us our desires and to fill us with power. Instead he comes to make us resemble Jesus, to be a presence in his name and a reminder of his life, words and acts. The world needs less demonstrations of power and more demonstrations of love. The spirit helps us to love like Jesus did and to deal with the outcomes of that love. The spirit expands the image of God in us.

Where do we find you? How do we find you? How will we be able to do this? We start with love because that is the soil and the climate in which that heavenly place is nurtured. Jesus’ way and truth and life is saturated by Love: the father’s love for us and our love for him and our neighbour. When we love, we know the way to where Jesus is.

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Saving Mr. Noah

 

In the movie Saving Mr Banks, Walt Disney tries to convince P L Travers  to let him make Mary Poppins into a movie. She is reluctant to hand over a story that has welled up from her own childhood for fear that Disney will trivialise it . She needs it to be told right because it is the story she is telling about her own father. If it is ruined, she will not have peace.

While she fears disorder, Disney asks her to trust him as a storyteller because

that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination.

Noah’s story wasn’t  written to be a “factual” account. The Jews are a reflective people who  tended to take the stories they encountered and reshaped them in an attempt to make sense of their place in the cosmos and their relationship with Yahweh. The flood is a pretty common near east story which makes it a useful context from which to tell a bigger story.

Is it simply the story of God being angry, of nearly destroying his creation and then placing all his bets on one righteous man while promising not to do it again (even though said righteous man blows it soon after hitting dry land)? Or is there something deeper here?

What if you were a people who saw their fair share of chaos and violence and brutality. What if you were reflecting on the terrible empires you had been exposed to and the evil that people could conjure up, including your own. What if you listened to stories from your region about a great flood that threatened to wipe everyone out.

What if God had ever thought about using a flood to get rid of a humanity who would not buckle down and accept his sovereignty over creation and his plan to order it?

The storyteller imagines a crisis for God. Humanity, which he lovingly and intimately made, chooses to rebel against him and ignore his will,  thus spoiling the creation they are an integral part of.  The storyteller imagines the internal dialogue of God. “Should I let these people keep on doing this evil or should I just cut my losses and get rid of them? Maybe not all of them. Maybe I’ll start over again with one family and see if it works out differently.”

This is the drama.  We do our evil. We confound God’s sovereignty and make our own way and our own mess. What would the story be like if God decided he could do without us? Those are fearsome questions for a storyteller to ponder.

So, the storyteller does what Disney describes: creating order where there is much chaos. The storyteller tells the story of what might be the outcome if God sent a flood which wipes out all the  humans except for one supposedly righteous family. The writer comes to two conclusions:

God decides that he wouldn’t do this again.

Where there is a person, there is the opportunity for chaos again and again. Noah and his family turn out to be as prone to blowing it as Adam and Eve.

Taking this story and reading it through the lens of Jesus,  the one righteous man who is capable of restoring a damaged and drifting creation, the flood is a way of seeing what God’s options are when dealing with a creation in rebellion. It invites us to reflect on the possible outcome: destroying it has no good ending but neither does letting it run wild. It invites us to look, with God, for a better way.

It’s not so much an history as a reflection on how God is not detached from from us and how we are not detached from Him.

Christians can look back at the story and see that Jesus is like a fulfilment of the rainbow promise; a  promise that God loves the world so much that he doesn’t enter it to condemn it but rather to save it.

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