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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A Good Friday Sermon

(this is the text of a sermon preached at St Michael’s and All Angels Macclesfield)

The only instructions preachers get for this morning is to speak about what Good Friday means to me.

Good Friday has meant different things to me over the years. As a child, Good Friday was a day of pain and guilt as I was encouraged to see Jesus hanging on that cross because of what a bad person I was. I felt hurt and guilty that he had to hang there for me and my messed up life. And that is kind of tough on a 10 year old because he keeps that up all his life if he isn’t careful.

Alongside that message was one which seemed to say that the more Jesus suffered on that cross, the more grateful I should be to him for paying the price of my sins. It was as if Jesus was going through a process and that his death was just one stage of that process. There seemed to be no consideration that the cross and Jesus’ death was a complicated mix of “events” and causes.

It seems to me now that the cross can’t be distilled down to just one simple slogan or motto or theology. God is more complicated than that; God’s relationship with his creation is more complex than that; God’s love for me and his creation is more complicated than that.

Can I also add the caveat here as a preacher that I am not asking you to feel less pain today. I am not asking you to downgrade the cosmic significance of today. I am asking you to open up a bit of room to see the bigger picture of what God is doing today

First, I want to say that today is about mystery. On the cross God deals with sin and death. He strips them of their power so that I can be free now. I am free to refuse to obey sin. Participating in sin always leads to death at some level: my own or that of my neighbour. I can walk away from it and participate in his way, truth and life which,  leads us away from the need to sin.

On the cross, he does not deal with my sin: he deals with the sin of the whole world and sin itself. Jesus calls us to be born again, to die to our old sin loving selves and to live his risky, inclusive and world changing life as our own. I don’t know how he does it but he nails sin and death to that cross and does not allow them to leave.

Second, when we focus on the gore and the violence of today and the “my death” aspect of today we ignore the fact that the powers and principalities of this world are in rebellion against God too. He got in the way of the System’s interests and agendas; he revealed them for what they really were and how they really worked. He called them “demonic”, “ungodly” and obstructive of God’s purposes and will.

They put him to death because he shined the bright light of God on them. In offering his way and truth and life as the antidote to the systems of greed, abuse and oppression they were threatened. He wasn’t crucified for standing up for a personal morality and being nice. He was crucified by a system stung by his prophetic unmasking of it.

This should be the point that really rattles us because it implies that those who take up his cross will come into the same conflict with the same powers…

Third, I am reminded that God loves us so much that he will go to the greatest and longest lengths to free us to love him, my neighbour and to live the life I was created to live. The sadness of Good Friday is rooted in the truth is reveals: corruption is rife, life is cheap, and love is treated as an ideal rather than the foundation of all society and relationships and power.

Yet in the midst of that sadness, there is hope. Jesus is not an innocent, nice man caught up in events bigger than himself. Instead, he is big event that the powers and principalities, and ourselves, get caught up in. Those powers think they are so strong and yet the gospel truth is that death only has the power to hold Jesus for three days.

The message of this weekend is that when we join our lives to his death, death can’t hold us either. His death reveals the powers and principalities to us and now we know we can’t trust them and should not trust them when they tell us to go to war, how to shape our financial system or tell us how to treat the poor.

We are now dead to them and that is what frightens them the most. Dead people have nothing to lose. When the system offers us a way, truth and life, Jesus frees us to ask: how do God and neighbour benefit? Today we are encouraged to ask why they killed him: too many healings on the Sabbath? Too many women forgiven for adultery? Too many door openings to the kingdom of God? Too many lepers healed and spirits cast out? Too many keen observations that what passed for religion seemed to be slavery rather than freedom? Too much hope?

We remember Jesus’ death today because it reminds us of the new life God calls us to and it spells out the cost of that new life. Today is not simply about what Jesus has done for us; it is about the old life he calls us to die to and the new life he calls us to embrace in him.

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A Good Year?

A pastor in California tried an experiment which cost him his job and made him rethink his vocation. You can read his blog here.

At the end of his year of trying to be “Godless” our “atheist” pastor friend names what he misses and doesn’t miss:

I don’t miss being a surrogate for people’s relationship to god. I don’t miss needing to believe difficult-to-believe things on behalf of my members. I don’t miss never having a weekend or the sheer exhaustion of Sunday mornings that was worse than any hangover I’ve ever had (remember, Adventists have church on Saturday). And I definitely don’t miss the experience of not having any real, mutual friendships—that every single relationship is made unavoidably complicated by my role as the person’s pastor.

I do, however, miss being involved with people as they navigate the momentous twists and turns of their lives: the joy and the pain, the celebration and mourning of significant life events. I miss the look of “Aha” in people’s faces as they let go of an old destructive idea and embrace something life-affirming. If I’m honest, I miss preaching, but not because it put me in front of a group of people. I always feel a little nauseous as I step up to speak in front of people. I miss it because I enjoyed weaving narratives together to shape a story that could give direction to the communal experience of a group of people in a particular social situation. I miss the prophetic role of speaking and acting for justice in my city. And I’m sad about the death of my dream of forming a community of resistance to the dominant narratives of our time…

I have a certain sympathy with him. As his year progresses he becomes more aware of and describes the tension created by being a faithful person working in an institution that is often less about faith and more about keeping the show on the road and meeting people’s unrealistic expectations. By no means is he the first to identify this tension.  Eugene Peterson wrote his fantastic book Under the Unpredictable Plant  because he wondered what had happened to that on fire person who existed before becoming a pastor who would settle for smouldering on the best of days.  From my experience, if you have been in ministry for more than a couple of years and haven’t felt this tension you are either outrageously blessed or you are lying.

A few years ago in our team ministry, my colleague and I were invited to offer our team council an insight into what really gave us life in our ministry and what took life away.  We submitted our thoughts  and the response was really a blessing:

 “We always thought vicars loved everything they did. We didn’t realise you sometimes wake up in the morning and feel the same about going to work as we do.”

The best thing about that exercise was the opportunity to talk about our real lives doing real work in the real world. I appreciated the recognition that we are people too and as such we’re susceptible to the same pressures and joys as everyone else. I am very fortunate to work in churches where people understand that vicars are human too.  But that isn’t everyone’s experience.

Brian McLaren outlines in his book The Church on the Other Side another tension that comes from pastoring in a situation that requires having a foot in a dying past and a rapidly encroaching future.  I was ordained just at the turn of the century and I feel that split acutely. There are many in the Church who want everything to return to the “good times” (sometime before the 1970’s) and want little to do with the actual world the church is called to serve and love and evangelise in. As the ground shifts and the signposts become unfamiliar we in the church are increasingly tempted to allow ourselves to become strangers in a strange land. The  more we refuse to recognise and act on that, the stranger the land and the gospel becomes to us.

So before we dismiss our Adventist friend’s experience too lightly, perhaps we need to see and appreciate that serving God has a cost to all who attempt it and that serving God within human institutions can have an even higher cost to the well being of those who stick with it.

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