Monthly Archives: October 2014

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.

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)