Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Advent agenda

1 Thessalonians 3:13
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. 
 Luke:  21:25-6
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 

Sermon for Advent Sunday

I attended the Memorial Service of my mother in law this week.
Her church is very rural, a tiny church in a hamlet of about four dwellings, around it chilly autumn fields and the rolling Sussex countryside.
People were already gathering there, half an hour before the service began.
The church was warm and inviting, there were candles burning and a choir was already assembled, with organist playing.
We were welcomed at the door by smiling stewards who gave us our orders of service, all people who knew and loved my mother in law as part of God’s family.
The vicar arrived and gave me a hug, although I’d never met her before.
The service began, with dignity and solemnity, but with a sense of celebration and tenderness as we shared our memories.
In our singing, sharing and praying, we affirmed our faith that though death parts us, in reality ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
The Church does this sort of thing well.
Candles and stained glass and paintings and hymns, sacred words and participation - the every day and the holy – all God’s people together, laughing and weeping, joined by more than blood.
Afterwards we adjourned to the new extension where wine and home made food was served in the meeting room, and people could use the modern facilities that include a kitchen and disabled toilet, also appreciated by the Sunday School that meet there once a month.
In a climate of apparent deterioration in church attendance, a Memorial Service in a well-loved and well cared for church is a sign of God’s continuing presence in the community and, for that matter, in the Church of England.

The C of E was in the news this week as cinema chains declined to air the Lords’ Prayer advert that the Church of England Communications Department had put together and were hoping to screen in the run up to Christmas, to coincide with the release of the new Star Wars Movie.
The short film shows a series of different people each saying a line from the Lord’s Prayer.
It’s well made, current and touching.
See link left for the 'banned' Lord's Prayer ad.
The ‘actors’ on the video include the Archbishop, a young man laying flowers on a grave, a Police Officer, a weight lifter, a farmer feeding his cows, a choir, two people in a coffee shop, a woman in a campsite, a mother and son at a joyous full                                             
immersion baptism, cute children in an assembly and a couple kneeling at their marriage service.
The cinema group, initially positive, later said they had a policy of not showing religious or political advertising.
Cue headlines of the ‘banning’ of the Lord’s Prayer in cinemas and much handwringing...
It has caused the C of E, and others, to think with many furrowed brows about the position of the Established Church in today’s society.
since cultural disestablishment is practically complete, perhaps actual disestablishment will follow shortly.
In his view, the Church of England needs once and for all to shed any assumption that it is a cultural force in British society and stop acting hurt when its message is apparently rejected by secular institutions.
In a world where ISIS want us to be divided along binary lines (Muslim and infidel) the writer actually celebrates the ‘grey area’ that he thinks the Church of England inhabits, although he thinks we should die off in our present incarnation in order to be reborn for the good of society (which sounds biblical to me).
About the ‘grey area’ that is the C of E, he writes ‘It is between Catholic and Protestant, between organ and drum kit, between robes and T-shirts, between conservatism and liberalism, between certainty and doubt, between silence and noise(…) In a culture that is increasingly polarized and awash with labels and identity politics, the C of E is a beacon of murkiness, and is all the more beautiful for it.’
I’m not sure how I feel about being part of a beacon of murkiness, but I see his point.

So, a little village church, still full of life, and the controversy of the Lord’s Prayer.
What have these got to do with Advent Sunday?
They can be united in the question we ask today at the beginning of the new church year…
And the question is, ‘Who sets the agenda?’

St Luke's Linch
That joyful Memorial service in a tiny rural church was a little knot of resistance to the secularisation agenda, that wants to leave a troublesome God and a troublesome prayer out of society if at all possible.
In that quiet church, Christian hope that God’s kingdom come and his will be done, is alive and well.

So who sets the agenda for our lives?
At this time of global terrorism, is it fear that sets the agenda? (as expressed by one listener who phoned the Jeremy Vine show to say that as a result of the Paris terror attacks he’d canceled his shopping trip to London this Christmas).
Or even if you don’t fear terrorism, maybe you fear that the Christian faith will disappear altogether from society, or at least the Church of England will disappear…
We all have fears, but they pale into insignificance in the face of the fear spoken of in our gospel today:
Luke records Jesus’ prophecy that at the end of the world, people certainly will be in fear, but it will be fear on an astronomical (literally) scale, as people ‘faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world’, and as nations are ‘confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves’.
To those who think that global warming is a myth, maybe we should point them to these verses in Luke.
Or maybe in the face of unknown fears, we seek to numb reality with distraction, with the huge number of our relatively small daily worries.
Luke suggests we should be alert to much more important things.
And so we pause this Advent Sunday and take note of the season.
Advent is the season of waiting, of watching, of reflecting.
And it’s a good question for Advent: What or who sets the agenda for your life and energy?

Advent is a good time to reset the agenda.
In both our readings, the agenda is Christ’s Second Advent, his return to earth in triumph.
It is this agenda that ultimately dictates the future of the earth and of history, not the agenda of terror, or secularisation, or shallow distraction.
Luke does not want his readers to be caught unawares by the return of Christ, and it’s the same for us.
He writes, ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation (i.e. the one seeing these things) will not pass away until all things have taken place’.

Meanwhile Paul prays that the hearts of his fellow believers may be ‘strengthened in holiness’ so they may be blameless at the coming of Christ.
‘Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’, says Luke.
‘Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’.
What better way to begin Advent, as we re-set our agendas today?

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Is IS anything to do with religion?

The terror attacks in Paris have painfully thrown up this week the difficult question of so called 'religious motivation'.

Are Islamist suicide bombers motivated by obedience to the God of the Qu'ran, or simply violent people using Islam as a cover story? Most sensible people want God to be at least moderately likeable, but what about a God who is apparently a militant, avenging purist? Is begs the question, what is God really like, and whose God is the real God?

The Religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) find their ideas about God from the written word. For followers of these three monotheistic religions, the concept of revelation is key. God takes the initiative and reveals something of him*self, through dreams, visions, voices, supernatural events, people. So we don't invent our religion (adopting a kind of do-it-yourself spiritual toolbox) we receive God's own revelation of himself through the scriptures, which we are enjoined upon to read.

The philosophical idea behind the concept of a Holy Book is that if God exists, and is at all knowable to humans, he must be like something we can understand. So people who claim to know God, say he is characterised by love, or mercy, or peace, or purity, or ...fill in the blanks. How do we know? We know because he 'contacted' us before we contacted him. In the case of Christianity, we go one step further and say that he became one of us to make it as clear as possible. To the question, What is God like? the Christian answers, look at Jesus.

Practically, it matters what God is like because followers of a religion are bound to become like the God they worship. So sacred writings are important. The book moulds the person, so to speak. It is a misunderstanding to assume that only religious people are moulded, while everyone else is 'neutral' and cooly choosing their own identity in some philosophical vacuum. In point of fact, we're all being moulded by something or somebody; it's just that some of us are more aware of it than others.

People of the Book do have issues with their books though. It's not as straightforward as reading your Book and then knowing what to do, how to be, in every situation. So the problematic terrain around militant Islamist motivation can be boiled down to one question: how do religions interpret their texts? 

It would appear that the Qu'ran contains so-called 'sword verses' alongside 'peace verses'. Clearly if you read a 'sword verse', like 'and slay them wherever you find them and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out' (Qu'ran 2:191) it's going to look like Islam is promoting violence. But then you might also read 'fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress the limits, for Allah loveth not transgressors', which you could read as sanctioning self defence, but no more (Qu'ran 2:190). 

The Bible is also a mixture of texts which may be taken different ways, according to their interpretation. This was the whole issue around whether women could minister equally in the Church of England. Some texts of St Paul do illustrate restrictions on women's roles, as they were being worked out then, while others suggest that equality in the early Christian communities began to develop very fast. The arguments about whether gay unions may be sanctioned by the Church are another example of different readings of texts, with new readings challenging traditional readings, and each group claiming to know what God says on the subject.

When Christians have disagreed about the interpretation of their texts, depending on the century they were in they have either burned each other at the stake (16th century, regrettable) or argued endlessly on Twitter about it (21st Century, preferable). Sitting down and talking about disagreements is now thought of as a mark of a civilised society, and rightly. It brings to mind a lovely invitation in the Old Testament where God says, 'come now let us reason together' (Isaiah 1:18, KJV). It seems that God is at least as interested in how we argue, as in what we're arguing about (and perhaps more so).

So what to make of IS? Whether we think of this frightening phenomenon as in any way connected to Islam is important, because it feeds into how we view Islam in general and the Muslims we live amongst in particular. 

It may be we don't need to look further than Jesus' injunction, 'by their fruits shall you know them' (Matthew 7:20). For the People of the Book, it can never be just about a blind 'which words shall we follow today?' but a living out of faith in the spirit of humility, goodness, love and all the other 'fruits' that the average person will tell you are the pre-requisites of being a decent human being, let alone a religious one. By that simple test, IS does not qualify.

*the impossible pronoun question means God has to be referred to as either he or she or both. For ease and simplicity, I'm still in the habit of referring to God as 'he', whilst realising the limitation of the English Language and the implied theology of using 'he'.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Leaning Virgin

Notre Dame de Brebieres, Albert, France.
Sermon for Remembrance

Revelation 21:4 
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

Matt 5: 3-5
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Next year, 2016, sees the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

As part of our summer holiday we visited Albert, a pretty town in heart of the Somme region of Northern France, which found itself right in the centre of action during the First World War.

World War I Tourism is a big source of income in Albert to this day and part of the draw is the enormous and ornate Basilica, in the centre of the town, at the top of whose dome is a golden statue of the Virgin and Child, designed by sculptor Albert Rose and dubbed The Golden Virgin.

The statue was hit by a shell on January 15, 1915, and slumped to a near horizontal position, as Rupert Edward Inglis, a Forces Chaplain, describes in a letter home to his family:

2 October 1915.
We went through the place today where the Virgin Statue at the top of the Church was hit by a shell in January. The statue was knocked over, but has never fallen; I sent you a picture of it. It really is a wonderful sight. It is incomprehensible how it can have stayed there, and I think it is now lower than when the photograph was taken, and no doubt will come down with the next gale. The Church and village are wrecked, there’s a huge hole made by a Jack Johnson just outside the west door of the Church.

 Far from falling in the next gale, the Golden Virgin (soon to be renamed The Leaning Virgin) somehow miraculously remained where it was for a further three years, sticking out at a precarious angle, after French engineers did all they could to secure it. It was said by the French that whoever toppled the Virgin would lose the War.

Albert’s Basilica was finally destroyed by heavy shelling in 1918, and the Leaning Virgin fell and disappeared, assumed to have been taken back to Germany for scrap metal. However the whole church has since been lovingly rebuilt, down to the last tiny detail, including a meticulous reproduction of the Golden Virgin by Edouard Dutoit.

Today it rises high above the town, a symbol of victory on many levels, and a strange victory at that.

Victory is of primary importance in War. Everything, in fact, is geared up to victory.

Turning to World War II, here is Churchill on Victory:

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be…

However, through the Christian lens victory is subtly redefined, centered as it is on the victory Christ won over sin and death. In addition the Beatitudes, which we had for our gospel this morning, seem to suggest that in the economy of the Kingdom, things which we think make us losers, are very much turned upon their head.

'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.'

Christ’s own victory on the Cross is a victory won by sacrifice, not by superior physical or military strength. It is God’s victory of self-emptying, fuelled by love.

Perhaps the French engineers who secured the Leaning Virgin at the top of the Church in Albert, understood something of the symbolic significance of Christ’s victory over evil. Perhaps their Virgin and child was worth saving because it reminded them that victory in war is more than just being on the winning side.

In the conflicts of today, against extremism, against terror, against ideologies and perceived threats, military victory is much less easy to define. The goodies and the baddies are horribly mingled together on the global stage and we may just as well fear the threat within as well as the threat without.

Perhaps today, victory might be seen as to do with retaining our humanity and learning how to live with the physical and psychological consequences of war, something Prince Harry has done much to promote with his Invictus Games and concern for the disabled survivors of modern day conflicts.

As the Great War dragged on, some of the more perceptive of the poets of that day began to spread the rumour that victory would be at too high a cost. One such was Seigfried Sassoon. As well as describing the horrors of the trenches, his poetry satirized those who, in Sassoon's view, were responsible for jingoistic pretentions. Sassoon became a focal point for dissent within the armed forces as he protested against the continuation of the war in his "Soldier's Declaration" of 1917, a piece of writing which led to his admission to a military psychiatric hospital.

In the same year that the Golden Virgin was nearly toppled from Albert’s church, the lyricist Alfred Brian wrote an anti war song about a mother’s viewpoint on victory, which was an instant hit, selling 650,000 copies and intensely annoying the American President Theodore Roosevelt:

What victory can cheer a mother's heart,
When she looks at her blighted home?
What victory can bring her back
All she cared to call her own?
Let each mother answer
In the years to be,
“Remember that my boy belongs to me!”

I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy.
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder,
To shoot some other mother's darling boy?
Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,
It's time to lay the sword and gun away.
There'd be no war today,
If mothers all would say,
"I didn't raise my boy to be a soldier."

(Bryan, Alfred, Al Piantadosi, and Will J. Ward. 
I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier. 
New York: Leo Feist, 2005).

In a similar vein, Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Falklands Conflict, famously annoyed Mrs Thatcher by objecting to her cry ‘Rejoice', as she urged Britains to celebrate their victory over Argentinian aggression. Instead he asked worshippers to pray for the dead, both British and Argentinian. 

Victory doesn’t look the same to all parties.

Above the church in Albert, the Virgin holding her child aloft is visually striking. A child – not powerful, not armed, seemingly defenceless; yet victorious. It’s as if the child asks us ‘what really is victory’?

After the long years of destruction and loss during World War I, loss which permeated even the smallest of villages, as hundreds of war memorials attest to, the child Jesus is held aloft, high over all other landmarks and high over history.

In our Epistle we were reminded of a similar exalted vision, that of St John on the island of Patmos, where his striking and puzzling ‘Revelation’ was received from the very same Jesus.

As the book of Revelation unfolds, we see, with John, the nations and peoples of the earth, and we understand, with him, that though wars come and go, though nation rise against nation, ultimately it is God’s kingdom that endures. Ultimate victory is to our God and to the Lamb.

The symbol of this victory is the throne, on which is seated the Lord of Lords, and from here he declares the advent of the new heavens and the new earth that all who have really suffered find themselves longing for:

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

If we mourn today, if we are touched and troubled by war and conflict, we can at least know that everything in the kingdom of God is turned on its head. In Christ, hardships and suffering are finally redeemed – those who shed tears are comforted; those who hunger and thirst to do the right thing are vindicated, and everyone who turns to God in humility is given life giving water.

Our response to those who have given their lives in war, in our defence, is one of humility and gratitude. Our response to our neighbours, whether local or global, is one of generous open heartedness, remembering that Jesus has had the final victory and calls us to follow him today.

And we pray for our political leaders, that they may be people of wisdom, equity and peace.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.