Monthly Archives: April 2014

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.

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.

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.