Monthly Archives: January 2017

Ranting while writing a ranting sermon


Lot of mixed feeling this morning.

Here I am writing a sermon from Isaiah 58 which if you take scripture seriously you will note gives little room for responding with “but”.  The prophet has no time for people who want to be pious but turn a deaf ear to their oppressed, hungry, homeless , naked neighbour. Fast all you want boys but if the fast finishes with a slap up brunch at the Ritz rather than justice and care of neighbour, stick with brunch and forget the fast.

You can tell Jesus read his Old Testament because he speaks in the same way.  Jesus tells his disciples, just like Isaiah tells Israel, that holiness doesn’t come from performing rites of goodness or by keeping rules  but by having a life directed towards being salt and light. Holiness is shown by living holiness and the prophet is happy to give you a checklist. If you love God, you love what God loves.  God just happens to love your neighbour to bits.

We have a funny relationship to this prophetic stuff.  The prophets are not shy in telling the people of God to get out there and be the image of God. I find it ironic that we teach our children songs in Sunday school like “Be Bold, Be Strong” which echoes God’s words to a worried Joshua before he led Israel across the Jordan into the promised land and yet talk about loving our neighbour as something which is scary and hard and should be done with great deliberation and with lots of conditions.

The Old Testament is strong about not being afraid. The Lord is with us. Treat the foreigner like one of your own because once you were foreigners and slaves in Egypt AND I SAVED YOU.  The widows, the orphans, the slaves, the refugees, the poor, the disabled, those from the wrong families…they are not subsets of the children of God.  The mighty and the powerful and the rich are those things so that they might be providers and the protectors of all who are not.  You make sure your workers can live on what you pay them, that they may have a Sabbath too and be full citizens. Or you will taste the wrath of the LORD.

The Lord is with us. The Lord is for us. Love what he loves.

Two of my sons braved the Manchester cold last night to protest the choices of the American President in how he rules and shapes the world around himself.  They aren’t naive idealists who believe the world is benign. But they believe that everyone has the right to escape oppression and to have their story heard honestly and compassionately and to be given relief if it is in our power to do so. They believe in loving your neighbour and creating a society which works together for the common good.  They know too that though the president is thousands of miles away, what he does has a possibility of  infecting our politics and common life. They believe people of other faiths and cultures and sexualities are not to be feared but to be engaged with and learned from.   They know that holding a placard in Albert Square isn’t going to change the president’s mind but it will help them to know their own.

Their protest is a declaration of what is in their hearts and an acknowledgement that what is in their hearts needs to come out into the world so the world might be a good place to live for all. They know they are privileged and recognise they need to share that privilege with others for it to have any worth. In Christian terms they know that their words and shouts have to be backed up by salt and light. I’m really proud of them (and their older brother who is doing the same where he is).  I’m really proud of them not being satisfied with fear and hate and demonization. I’m proud of them wanting to say “This is not good enough” and wanting to use their futures to be people who shape the world as a great place to live for all.

The Kingdom of God does not begin with secure borders and suspicion of the stranger. It begins with God inviting us to be refugees from the kingdom of darkness so that we might be citizens of his kingdom of marvellous light.

What’s the Alternative?


Alternative facts.

My children would have loved to have access to those when they were little.  “I didn’t break that glass, the manufacturer failed to make it to a high enough standard.”  “No way, you broke the glass. Don’t lie”.  “I’m not lying, I’m giving you an alternative fact.”


We often  accuse politicians of thinking we are stupid.But when we let someone in power tell us that there are such things as “alternative facts”, well, we’re just making it too easy for them.  Why do you need an alternative fact? Is it because the fact at hand isn’t working for you;  because the fact at hand doesn’t help you control the story?

Lots of people who grew up in America about the same time as me have had to unlearn lots of “alternative facts” about gay people, black people, women, and Catholics to name a few. It took a long time to unlearn that stuff. It was important we learned those facts because they told us where we were and without them, we were lost and America was in danger. Or so we thought.When I look back, those facts seemed to be about diminishing those we didn’t like, who we felt threatened by, who we wanted to keep down and keep in their place.

In the world of real facts, I like the pilot of the plane I am flying on to know how much fuel is in the tank. I like the doctor to know that dark spot on my ear was a benign nothing to worry about. I like my pay slip to match  the amount of money actually deposited in my bank account. I am willing to accept that facts can be spun, used to serve many arguments and contexts but I can’t accept that they have alternatives. An empty petrol tank can’t be full. A loaded gun can’t be empty.

It might seem amusing to have a religious person talking about alternative facts. People might accuse us of having a preference for them, but we really don’t.  I believe Jesus’ death on the cross repaired a fundamental wound in the fabric of the cosmos. I believe that God created the world. That Jesus rose from the dead and that following the living Jesus is a crucial part of putting the world back together. These aren’t alternative facts. They are my starting points for who I am and how I engage with the world around me.

I can’t “prove” anything I believe in. I can’t show you photos or statistics or metrics. I believe in powerful eyewitness accounts. I believe that those who have gone before me have offered a powerful world changing tradition and experience. I believe my fellow believers and I have had powerful experiences of our own. Just as I can’t “prove” these, they can’t be disproved either.

In life, my beliefs have to coexist with facts. Facts like gravity, church electric bills, members’ lists and officers.  Jesus lived in a real place, under a real Roman Empire, in a real century, died on a real cross with the story written in real Greek.

Truth is  important as a way of navigating between faith and facts and getting the best out of both. For instance, factual information about how human activity negatively impacts creation around us leads me to put my reaction in faith terms: how does God feel about what we are doing to a creation he brought into being with his own words and breath? Facts lead me to seek faithful action.

A desire for alternative facts is a desire to hide the truth and hide from  it. It is a desire to hide our inability to handle that truth.  It is sad for a president of the USA to  line up a bunch of Christian preachers to see him into office and to not have one of them point out the folly of his approach to the truth and facts. It is sad they chose not to school his staff in the ways of letting truth be truth.

If they had chosen to do some schooling, they might have told him about Psalm 15:

Who may worship in your sanctuary, Lord?
Who may enter your presence on your holy hill?
Those who lead blameless lives and do what is right,
speaking the truth from sincere hearts.
Those who refuse to gossip
or harm their neighbours
or speak evil of their friends.
Those who despise flagrant sinners,
and honour the faithful followers of the Lord,
and keep their promises even when it hurts.
Those who lend money without charging interest,
and who cannot be bribed to lie about the innocent.

That’s a hard road to follow and it is guaranteed to have stumbles and falls and restarts. But people who walk the road will be better people for it. Had those preachers done their duty, they would have pointed out that truth leads us to a better place both in the world and in our souls. It’s a shame they didn’t agree with the  Psalmist whose words are for everyone whether they are kings or peasants or presidents.

The short message of the Psalm is this: the one who walks this way walks towards the light. The only alternative to light, is darkness.