Sunday, 30 December 2012

Sermon for Christmas 1

Yes it has been a while, but I thought that as I have managed to breathe a little life into New Kid on the Blog (the Mothership of my blogging world) I should really add something here.  There's lots of stuff I said I would put online, some thoughts on silence, my notes on Social Media Spirituality etc and maybe I will get them here, or maybe put them straight onto New Kid - but for now here is my Sermon, preached this very morning and written just hours ago (a sermon about which I got quite excited, as I grabbed my Greek Lexicon and looked up various words) - some thoughts about today's set reading for Colossians...

Year C Christmas 1 2012

Striking Images

One of the things I love about the Bible is the rich and varied images that leap out of the pages whenever and wherever I read it.  From what we might call the ‘mythologies’ of the Creation stories in Genesis 1 & 2, Noah and the Ark, Jonah and the Big Fish to the vivid visions of Daniel, or Ezekiel and St John’s Revelation with creatures covered in eyes or wheels within wheels.  And in between all of that we have poetry, some of it pretty fruity if you read the Song of Songs anytime, we have sublime expressions of what it means to be human, and of both the joy and despair of the human condition in the Psalms, we have earthy wisdom with some very down to earth imagery in the Proverbs & Ecclesiastes – for instance “a fool returning to folly, is like a dog returning to its own vomit” (Proverbs 26.11)

And then there’s Jesus whose storytelling was rich and filled with ideas and images, many rooted in everyday life yet with a twist, gave new insight into a Grace filled world which is intruding into this one, a world called the Kingdom of God, filled with feasts and rulers and sparrows and trees and so much more.  Jesus’ images have stuck in our collective consciousness and our language, even in the meaning behind the images has been lost – sheep and goats, prodigal son, good Samaritan… the list goes on and could get very long indeed.

And then we have Paul and the other letter writers of the early Church, recycling ancient concepts and ideas from Jewish and Greek philosophies and traditions.  They use age old titles and ideas to talk of Jesus and of this new way, this following Jesus way, what came to be known as the Christian Way.  Rich ideas such as Jesus the High Priest, building on the image of the Lamb of God, talking of the Church as the body, or of following God’s way as being like an athlete. 

Paul, and those who wrote the letters ascribed to him, (and Colossians, from which today’s reading comes is one of those letter where authorship is disputed) but the New Testament epistle writers were masters (or mistresses) of wordcraft – they had to write concepts which had never been writer, explain ideas that made use of existing philosophical and religious concepts whilst at the same time broke out of any existing belief or faith system.

The use of words in our Bibles is very carefully done.  In the Epistles there is not a concept or idea in there that isn’t meant to be there – either by the hand of the author or by Divine intervention, or both…  And this long preamble is to say that the images in these five verses are, for me, some of the most wonderful images that we have from the Pauline or Pseudepigraphal letters.  I want us to spend some time looking at three, rich, warm, powerful and thought provoking images – though I will refer to others from this short passage… today’s reading, Colossians 3.12-17 – three images


Here’s the passage again, it bears repeating:

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord* has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ* dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.* 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Paul is keen on the image of Clothing – let Christ be as close as the clothes you wear it says in Romans 13.14 which was probably Paul’s last letter and in his first, passionate, letter to the Galatians, Chapter 3 verse 27 has Paul saying ‘as many have been baptised into Christ have been clothed with Christ.’  It’s a wonderful image of intimacy and closeness, and a sense of being surrounded by Christ in the same way that we are surrounded by the clothes we have on. 

If we are clothed with Christ there are some other things, it says in this letter, that we should clothe ourselves with alongside this too - compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience it says in verse 12 and even more in verse 14 ‘Above all, clothe yourselves with love’. 

It’s important, I think, to note that this is an active process, something you must choose to do.  It’s not offered as an option, though, this is something that goes with being a follower of Christ.  And it begs the question if we are not compassionate, kind, humble, meek and patient then in what way are we clothed with Christ too – these are his attributes, they should be ours.  And above all this we put on love – love which is tough, forgiving and giving, which mirrors the love of Christ.  Love which seeks the best for and in other people, that loves God, neighbour and self as the greatest commandment instructs us to.  Love which makes everything complete and whole.  God’s love.  We have to put it on, and just like the clothes we choose to wear every morning we have to choose to put on these clothes too.

The second image that strikes me is the ruling – or βραβευέτω (brab –yoo-o)  determining, or deciding, as the Greek says. (Yes these images were so striking I felt I had to look up the Greek they were originally written in, just to be sure I’d got something approaching the right idea.)  In this context we are to let the peace of Christ determine or decide or rule our hearts.  And that peace isn’t just a bit of quiet, or an absence of conflict, it is a deep and powerful peace – a peace of eternity. Again the Greek is εἰρήνη,  \{i-ray'-nay} a word with layers of meaning, external peace, in the world around, in oneself, between people, but also a peace of salvation and assurance, of fearing nothing from God and being content on earth.

If we truly held on to that peace then our Churches and our world would be significantly different.  We would be seeking always to be at peace with one another and to recognise the grace that has been given to us, holding on not to the things around us, but to the deepest truth of the life and love of God. 

And there’s something quite telling about the fact that we must allow this peace to rule in our hearts.  Perhaps the writer is reminding us how quick we are to actively resist this type of peace, and that we have to let go, perhaps to submit and allow this state of peacefulness, and the longing for this peace, to be that which determines and guides our hearts.

And last, but not least.  The third image which has grabbed me from this passage is the one that made me want to do such an indepth Bible study in this short time here today. It’s a beautiful and deeply powerful image found in verse 16.  This time it takes the theme of allowing something to happen – not active, like clothing ourselves, nor submissive like being directed – this is something else, something wow…
16Let the word of Christ* dwell in you richly, or in the Greek

 λόγος τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐνοικείτω {en-oy-keh'-o} ἐν ὑμῖν 

Again, I’m not trying to impress or befuddle you but I want to point out one word in that sentence – as well as dwell, which is enoykeho – there is this word we have heard again and again over Christmastime – logos, in fact it means (as you will all know) … word…. Jesus is the logos we read of in our Carol services, in our Christmas Night services and throughout this time and through the Christian year when we use the words from John chapter 1 – In the Beginning was the word. 

Now the important thing to remember, and some of you will have heard me say this before, is that a logos, a word, was considered in the philosophy of Jesus’ time not just to be something said and lost – but an integral part of the speaker.  A word remained part of you even when it was out, it contained something of the essence of you.  And so when the eternal Word is spoken by God in that well known passage, then it, or he, is something of the essence of God.

So letting the word dwell in you richly, as that wonderful phrase says, is allowing the essence of Christ to inhabit you.  And just as the Word being made flesh to dwell amongst us in John 1 changed the world so the Word of Christ dwelling in us will change us, and change the world around us.

And it’s both active and passive – allowing the word to dwell, to influence, to motivate and transform – to welcome the word into our hearts and minds, and to be changed by Christ in us.  And then everything we do – from the love we show to our family and friends, to the compassion we reach out with to the needy and stranger, to the lives of prayer, worship and service we lead – all of it will indeed be done in the name of, and with the power of Christ.  May the Word of Christ Dwell in you richly, indeed….

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Ten Commandments... parts Five & Six

Yes, it has been a while, and I have lots of stuff I could be posting - but as I had a specific request to put the text of a talk I did this evening on line here it is....

I should say that the version I did this evening had a fair amount of improvisation around this text, particularly towards the end when my prepared notes became a bit sporadic...

Ten of the Best –
the 10 Commandments for today


The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said ‘That about which you cannot speak, is that about which you must remain silent’… Time to sit down then, maybe….

Nahhhhh, when has not knowing something ever been a barrier to a good sermon…. so here we are Commandments 5 & 6 (at least in the Jewish and Protestant translations of Scripture) are  - 12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.  13 “You shall not murder.

or in the King James version, which has a certain sonorous note which I always appreciate

12Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.  13Thou shalt not kill.

OK, we are at the half way point of our jaunt through the 10 Commandments and (just like last year)  I have an advantage that none of our other speakers have – I’ve heard the others.  I’ve also heard the feedback, both good and bad, regarding David Gunn-Johnsons’ thoughts on the first two commandments and Martin Shaw’s reflections on three and four.  And I’ve heard the comments on style and delivery too, so I hope I shall be clear and audible, with conviction and some relatively meaty content!  When I said it was an advantage having heard the other two and the feedback, I might have been overly optimistic… Maybe the stakes, and expectations, are higher…

One thing I am surprised that neither of our previous speakers did is to take the cop out option that most speakers use when trying to break ourselves in gently to a subject matter.  To begin with the question ‘Why’?  Why are we looking at these ten commandments?  What are they for?  Why do we still refer to them with such reverence when they clearly were written in a very different context, in a very different time for a very different people?   

It’s not really a cop out, asking why we are doing something is often a good way to get to grips with its usefulness and purpose – which isn’t a bad description of what PCCs should be about… though often why isn’t a part of our discussions at all and we start off with the premise ‘but we’ve always done it like this, or that, or the other’.

Anyway, why the ten commandments.  As it was my choice it’s my responsibility, at least to some degree, to justify this theme for our Lent talks this year.  First of all though I would like you to talk to one another – we’ve not done a lot of that this time round in our Lent talks – I would like you to think about why the ten commandments may still be important for today in our walk with God in Christ.  Of if that seems a bit abstract to you – just speak for a minute or two to your neighbour about why your are here tonight, why you’ve come to this (and indeed the others if you came to them) Lent group on the 10 Commandments.  You won’t have to share your reasons with me or the whole group, so say whatever you like about why you are here, or what you wish you were doing instead!!!

Anyone want to share? 

Well I will share – I’m here because I want to deepen my faith and to learn more, and to grow in knowing God.  It’s been an interesting couple of weeks and I have learned from both of our speakers, and been challenged, and heard things which made me uncomfortable and things which have strengthened my own faith.  I believe that Christian faith is strong enough to stand scrutiny, and that God is greater than any challenge, intellectual or otherwise, that I can offer.  I long for my faith to grow – or as the father of the desperately ill boy said to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel Chapter 9v24  – Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!

I agree that holding fast to a simple faith is important for each one of us and commend a childlike faith, but not a simplistic or a childish faith.  I echo what Martin said to Brian last week when he said that what we might describe as simple faith is more complex than we probably give it credit for!  And I know that the approach to faith that all of you have in this room is to approach it with thought and care and to  seek to nurture your own faith in heart and mind.  It is my privilege as a minister to have a small part in that, and I hope that I help rather than hinder this process!

Well, I know that it caused some upset in one of the villages in our Mission Community that I chose this theme of the ten commandments because they are watching the DVDs from J John on the same subject and don’t see why we should do it again.  In response to that I say, terrible as it might be to hear it, J John does not have all the answers, nor the only way of looking at these words which have enlivened and enthralled scholars, priests, monarchs and peasants over thousands of years.  The two speakers we’ve had already have given us radical and very different ideas which have come from the springboard of our first four commandments.  Scripture is piled with layer upon layer of meaning and depth and looking at things twice with very eyes and a very different approach offers a chance for us to deepen, rather than narrow, our understanding.

So, back again ‘why’?  Well, in our first week we did hear some consideration to this question albeit implicit in what David  said rather than explicit perhaps…. 

These commandments, known as the Decalogue, the ten words, are foundational.  They are the basis of legal and ethical systems which have evolved in our own county and through western (and I use the word advisedly) ‘civilisation’ to form a framework for society. 

There’s something of a misunderstanding that the Jewish faith takes these ten words as importantly as the Christian tradition has – as far as any faithful Jew is concerned there are not ten commandments, there are 613, with no one or ten taking precedence.  The law is the law.  A whole tradition, or in fact one could say, THE whole tradition of Jewish faith exist around the interpretation and living under, within, inspired and guided by the commandments.  Alongside this are books and books of guidance and debate on what the law means and how it should be applied.

Why is this important, you may well ask, well it’s because this isn’t a set of rules you get marked on, “worshipping other Gods ‘tick’ name of the Lord ‘tick’, adultery ‘tick’ etc etc” but the whole of the law is concerned with the whole of life and with the way we turn to God and to one another in everything we do.  It goes back to the Shema, the foundation of Jewish Faith, and the first half of what we call ‘the summary of the law’ as Jesus used it! Deuteronomy 6 verse four says Shema Y’Israel = 4 Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.
and carries on in verse 
5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

All of the Law is about obedience to the God revealed as ONE, the God of Israel who has claim on every part of life and therefore should be loved with every part of oneself.  It’s all about relationship with him – not a set of rules to be obeyed but a way of living that will bring about closeness.

Look at this way – I am married to Jo, and very fortunate I am too, and because I want to be close to her I am not making romantic relationships with anyone else.  I try and do my bit around the house, take time to be with her and the children, cook and do washing up not because these are the rules of the house or a series of demands put upon me but because by doing so harmony, intimacy, closeness, trust and a wealth of other good things comes from that.

That’s how a faithful Jew looks at the law.  It’s holding up the ideal way to live in order to grow closer to God. 

There’s also a phenomenal misunderstanding that because of this law and because we as Christians know forgiveness through Jesus there is a lack of Grace and forgiveness in Judaism.  That is absolutely not the case – because the law is given for the benefit of humanity then there is a desire to be in relationship with God and a sense of grace and forgiveness comes from the foundational premise that God wants to be in relationship with humanity – which is why God made the covenant, and the law which is the outworking of that covenant.  But that’s another discussion. 

I just wanted to say that we look at these commandments because they are the foundation of our Christian Faith, because when the Church began it didn’t separate from our Jewish roots, it grew from them.  This stuff is the stuff that Jesus knew, and believed, and taught and learnt from and shared and expanded on.  

So there’s my reasoning, well the start of it… and of course there is one thing, as highlighted in the sermon I heard on Sunday and by David in our first week together

‘And God said…’

I don’t know how God said, and I don’t want to enter into a debate on the inspiration of scripture – in fact I found the reminder that inspiration isn’t a one off event, but that the Holy Spirit works to inspire through, with, within Scripture every time we open in prayerfully asking for God’s word to come out of these words… But anyway, God said these things,  as our reading from Exodus 20, which was last Sunday’s Old Testament Lesson reminded us, God chose to speak for our benefit, and these commandments we are considering are a part of that.

OK, so we have two commandments that might on the face of it seem pretty unrelated.  Or at least the common link seems only to be that they’re in the Decalogue…. Honour your father and your mother…. and You shall not kill…  Is this where I regret bunching them together in twos just to get through the ten in five weeks.  Probably!

It might help to look at where we are in the commandments – we have had the first four which seem to be about God… One God to worship, no idols, take care of the name of God which is entrusted to you and keep the Sabbath.  These four seem to be particularly focussed on keeping our attitude to God in the right place. 

It now seems we move into six commands which are much more about our relationships with each other.  Honour mother and father, don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet.  These are very human things… and yet it’s not another, different approach – it’s building on what has gone before, just as the rest of the law will build on this initial revelation…

For those of you who like the prayer book from 1662 or who have been listening closely in our Parish Communions during Lent we have our Lord’s summary of the law…taken from Jesus’ words in Matthew 22

Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord;
and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,
and with all thy strength.
This is the first commandment.

And the second is like, namely this:
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
There is none other commandment greater than these.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Lord, have mercy upon us,
and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

Did you notice that connecting sentence…
And the second is like, namely this

Somehow our relationship with others is bound up in our relationship with God – or even more tellingly, our relationship with God is bound up in our relationship with others! 

We have a direct connection with God in the way that we act towards others.  That’s why David Gunn Johnson could talk of the phrase ‘MY communion’  being so comical and inaccurate – there is no such thing as making ‘my communion’ – it can only be OUR communion – with God and with one another.  If it’s only about me and what I get and my spiritual fix then it isn’t communion at all, it’s a kind of religious self-help…

Some of you will remember in our talks last year the repeated phrase, and I know it was oft repeated because I was one of those that repeated it, that Israel’s faith, life, governance, temple, family life, the lot were and are all bound together.  There is no part of life that God is not the ruler of.  That’s why the prophets were constantly going on about justice and love and compassion being as important, no MORE IMPORTANT than paying the right temple tax or saying the right words.  Jesus carried on that prophetic tradition in his critique of the religious authorities that could tithe the herbs from the garden yet had no compassion on the poor and needy.

And all of that starts here.  There isn’t actually a difference between the God bit of the first four commandments and the person bit of the next six.  In fact even to describe them as such is to create a false dichotomy between them.  It’s all one.

If there’s only one thing, one message, that sticks with you from the many years I hope to be here, let it be this.

It’s all about relationship!

Our faith, the one passed down to us over centuries is about our relationship with God and with one another.  And that summary of the law, for me, crystalises the whole of the faith I hold so dear.

Which is why we have these commandments…

Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the Land which the Lord your God has given you


You shall not kill….

These are commandments about respecting, honouring, caring for, protecting the other… as an expression of our love for one another and for God. 

But why do mum and dad get singled out for a special mention?

In Jewish thought procreation was a sharing in God’s constant activity of creation.  That meant that it took three to make a child – mother, father and God.  As such parents expressed something of the nature of God in the very fact of being parents.  But it wasn’t just parents, as we read the teachers and interpreters of the law that came later we see that carers of all kinds are included in this – grandparents, step parents, adoptive parents, uncles, older sibling, the lot.  Because it’s not just the act of making a new life that is God-like it is the nurture and care of that new life which reflects the essence of God’s relationship with humanity – and as Christians we would add is a reflection of God’s relationship with himself in trinity.  But that’s a thought for the Sunday after Pentecost, I think…

And as for honouring – what do you think that means?  It’s not a phrase we use very much these days….the Hebrew word we translate as honour in this case is Kabed – a wide-ranging verb; no one specific behavior is commanded but it contains within it respect, esteem, concern for, affection, love, consideration, appreciation, nurture, forgiveness.  It’s also an active thing, doing things which honour another person… and by honour another person you give them dignity as well as gaining dignity in your active honouring of them. 

It’s an active verb, something that is done not felt – something that adds to life, something that causes a growth in relationship, that adds to the fabric of life, that builds up relationship for the one who is honoured and the one who offers such honour….

But in essence there is a command here that is meant to be about the very fabric of society…. when we are bound together in honour we create a strong world, a strong society.  The second part of the command reflects this ‘that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God is giving you’.  It’s not a threat  as in ‘you won’t be here long if you don’t do it’ but a recognition that this honour will make your culture, your nation strong – honour begins at home!  It’s meant to add not just to the relationship in a family but to the tribe, the culture around it. 

When people ask why western society feels so broken, and what is lacking in our ‘modern’ world I’m not sure that ‘honour’ is a bad response.  As we no longer ‘honour’ our parents and carers that culture of respect, love, trust and dignity is lost and the fabric of society becomes threadbare and hard to hold together.

As an extra factor too, it’s important to note the fact that there’s a command to honour Father and Mother, which is quite radical in a patriarchal world…  Having read this passage time and time again it struck me for the first time as I prepared this talk that in the midst of cultures that were overwhelmingly patriarchal or matriarchal the Biblical Jewish culture has a sense of balance and mutuality that is out of place, prophetic, radical in so many ways.  This, of course, stretches back to the principle of ‘In the image of God He created them, Male and Female created He them”

And the theme of respect, and of honour is carried on in the second of tonight’s commands.  You shall not kill, or you shall not murder…

Now this is a thorny one, and one which I could spend a long time on, in fact I’ve deliberately not left myself lots of time to do this  translating Hebrew לֹא תִּרְצָחlo tirṣaḥ), this command is a moral imperative  against unlawful killing resulting in bloodguilt. The Hebrew Bible contains numerous prohibitions against unlawful killing, but also allows for justified killing in the context of warfare, capital punishment, and self-defense.

The concern is again about respect – that others are not to have their life taken away from them.  We can argue about whether tirsah is killing per se or the specifics of murder, but the context of scripture seems to say it is about wrongful killing, and the rest is open to interpretation!  And always will be, as those who think they’ve got scripture all tied up, sorted out and ready to go, have probably missed the point!

Much more could be said, but in essence our relationship with one another is how our relationship to God is worked out.  1 Jn 3 etc…. How can we love God who we can’t see if we don’t love our neighbour who we can… WHO is my neighbour, another debate and so it goes on… probably why Jesus answered in parables…

I hope this gives you a glimpse of the importance of all these commandments, but the importance of their interconnectedness too!  We cannot compartmentalise faith, the commandments remind us that it is all mixed up together, holistic in the most positive and challenging way.

Looking at these commandments in this way is part of a process where we engage heart, soul, mind and strength in wrestling with the truths of our faith.  If we are seeking a faith that is simple not simplistic, childlike but not childish it will take some work, it may well be hard, it may be challenging, it may be disturbing – but it will also be life giving and life affirming.  Like Jacob who wrestled at the brook of Jabbok with a mysterious figure we are told was ‘an Angel’ we too need to wrestle with the deeper truths of our faith and as we ‘wrestle’ with God we too need to grasp hold of this faith and say boldly ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’ and God will indeed bless us as our search bears its own rewards.