Friday, 30 January 2015

Do we really understand about how to use power?

I would like to talk today about those two words power and authority and how they have been used, are used, and should be used.  Last Tuesday, it was National Holocaust Day, a day when we are invited to remember and consider the atrocities carried out on people in the name of a  particularly evil form of power and authority, a totally opposite form of the use of power or authority associated with the kingdom of God.  What we saw and what millions of Jews, Eastern Europeans, Travellers, Homosexuals and disabled people experienced under the rule of the Nazi’s was power and authority based on a rejection of God where the state  - in the example of the Third Reich a single human – sought to take the place of God.  Of course this is not the only example in history of this sort of madness.  Indeed history is sadly replete with dictatorships, expires and occupation forces delivering their own variations on torture and legalized murder on populations.  I don’t need to list them for you all today, we are all well aware of the brutality that they inflict and the current suffering experienced by Christians and non-Christians alike in Syria and parts of Iraq where the latest example of this evil – the organization known as Islamic State – holds onto power by creating fear and terror in those in occupied towns.

Jesus himself lived in a land subject to the tyranny of the time, the so-called Roman Empire, which sold the lie of a “pax Romana” as long as you toed the line and did what they said.  John reminds us in his Gospel that Jesus was God coming to live amongst us, and Jesus chose a path of peaceful resistance that he knew was inevitably going to find him rubbing up against the Temple Authorities and their governors – The Roman occupiers.  What we have here is a collision of two outlooks on power, one that was ultimately backed by the powers of darkness that sought power and authority and sought it by any means necessary, and sought to then hold onto that power by violence as and when necessary, ignoring the humanity of people that they were responsible for, coming up against a vision of power backed by God himself, the light of the world, offering a power based on servant leadership, and peace, on healing, one where the greatest weapon was to be the sword of truth, words, which would later be written down and become what we think of as the New Testament.  A testament to a new way of living.

Currently in the UK we are 13 weeks away from a General Election, in which we will no doubt be bombarded by various claims and counter claims from the range of political parties.  I don’t know about you, I wonder how many will finally be on the leadership debates.  The last count is 7 I think.  How long before we see representation by the Monster raving loony party?  Some would say of course that we already do – of course I cannot comment….  Back to my point though, they will all be promising us what they think we will want to hear, what we will vote for.  All of them vying for positions of power and authority over us.

At the start of our service we read Psalm 111, one of the so-called Hallelujah psalms because they have an upbeat tone.  The psalm tells us a lot about the character of God and in extension about how God would use power and authority.  God is righteous, gracious, compassionate, faithful, just, trustworthy, upright, holy and awe-inspiring.  How many elected or self-proclaimed state leaders can really be described in such terms?  The psalm also reflects or point to what God looks for from us in our covenant relationship with him.  VV 5-8 talk of a righteous people full of integrity.

Let us then look for a moment at our responsibilities as a people of righteousness acting with integrity.  Paul in his letter to the Church in Corinth speaks to them about the ultimate authority of God which some in Corinth had understood as giving them freedom to do whatever they wished.  The focus that Paul was speaking about rested on the common practice in ancient Rome for food to be sacrificed to gods of trade organisations prior to meetings.  The food would then of course be eaten, so there was a clear problem for Christians who were also in business and many in Corinth were wealthy, and thus likely to be members of these organisations.  How could these people maintain their social standing and remains true to Christ, and since they seem to have taken leadership roles in the Church, there was a real risk that their behavior would have a negative impact on younger, newer followers.  Paul speaks directly into this, challenging them to take a stance of responsility that is willing to put aside freedoms if it helps others.  Echoing his later stance in Phillipians when he  wrote, “ In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[
b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.”

He encourages those in positions of power and authority in the Church in Corinth to consider their actions on new Christians and if they feel that their actions would hinder the growth of new followers, then they should avoid that behaviour.  This is actually a hard teaching as it is saying to those in the church who were well off and perhaps thought themselves to be intellectually superior that “ OK , you and I know there is nothing to these sacrifices because these gods are false anyway, but if you act in such a way that hurts those who are new to the faith and put them off then you act against Christ”.  In other words, they should avoid the trade associations and all that posh nosh.  Paul here is repeating the teaching of Jesus when Matthew reports him as saying in his Gospel “No one can serve two masters.  You cannot serve both God and money”  In other words, they and we have a choice to make.  Are we to follow God and go where that path leads us?  Something that Bonhoeffer likened to being grasped by God.  All too aware that he would be up against the might of the Third Reich, or do we follow the path of wealth acquisition.  Scripture does not seem to support both paths which remains an uncomfortable state for us today.  How do we balance the tasks of being trustees for our churches which will inevitably involve some sort of financial proberty with being followers of God?  I am not sure I have answers for you.  Perhaps there is not an easy answer to this conundrum.  Perhaps God is saying that it is difficult, and it is really easy to ignore one at our peril.  All the more so  if we ignore God in this balance.

Mark gives us another stance on power and authority in his story of an exorcism during a service at the local synagogue in Capernaum.  If we look at Luke’s portrayal of this, which is almost word for word, Luke places it directly following Jesus’ first teaching which nearly ended with him getting killed, so this is his second preaching engagement, an suddenly someone in the congregation gets up and starts having a go.  Preaching was certainly different back then!

Jesus’ response is brief and to the point.  There is no lengthy debate, he simply slings the evil spirit out of the man.  The congregation is said to be “Amazed”.  I suspect also a touch terrified.  This setting of having Jesus facing problems and opposition at the outset of his ministry can be linked to John’s opening chapter where the darkness we are told cannot overcome the Light, a clear suggestion of battle.  The outcome reveals that true power and authority rest with Jesus.  He never hid from problems or opposition but maintained a stance of righteousness and integrity throughout.  All through his ministry he was questioned and sometimes threatened.  There are numerous examples of his being challenged by “demons”.  Whether we see that literally or metaphorically as a sign by the writer to show us that Jesus was principally fighting Satan, either way, it is clear that Jesus accepted the authority given to him and always used his power responsibly.  He didn’t run away in the Garden of Gesthemane, he didn’t avoid awkward questions, he dealt with Peter’s betrayal.

The scriptures give us plenty to consider in our own discipleship journey.  There will often be times when there are now easy answers, no quick fixes, and through it all how we hold our own power and authority given to us will be the continual backdrop.

How will you rise to this challenge?  My prayer is that we will all reflect the humility and honesty, righteousness and integrity shown by Jesus in his mission.

In his glorious name

Amen


Saturday, 17 January 2015

On Intimacy, making sense of God's idea

I have just finished a rather good book I got for Christmas called “Revelation Road”.  It is a book by one of my favourite authors who attempts to unravel the book of Revelations, and to make some sense of it.  The author, Nick Page, decided that he would visit the towns of the 7 churches mentioned in Revelations and also spend some time in the island of Patmos, listening to local people, talking to the monks who live the monastery built on the site where legend has it that Revelation was authored.  The main idea behind this seeming extreme way of looking at a book was to get to know the environment, some of which on Patmos has possibly remained virtually untouched.  As an aside, it seems that the author wasn’t John the Apostle, but another John, John the elder – something for another day.

The bottom line message appears to be that when stuck in bad times, we need to hold on to the truth that all bad times are temporary, even though when we are in them they never seem to be like that.  We need to remember that God is in charge, does reign and that in the fullness of time all will come good.

Needless to say, I have been thinking how this might dovetail with our readings this morning, especially since I am not explicitly preaching from Revelations!

Psalm 139 is relatively well known within Christian circles, and has often been interpreted in such a way that God is shown as having planned and micro-managed, well, just about everything.  However, it may be surprising for you to hear that there is quite a debate amongst academics that the psalm as we know it today may well have been a blending together of two separate psalms.  What is certain is that it tells us that there is no hiding place from God.  There is no point in us running away like Jonah did when he ran away to Tarshish instead of going to Nineveh.  Mostly due to the fact that God is everywhere.  He knows our deeds and our thoughts, not to mention our desires.  We might be tempted to be fearful of this – we all strive to protect our privacy don’t we – and who would really wish someone else to know all about them.  I think that this is why we tend to approach this notion of God with some concern and if we are honest possibly sometimes distrust.  However, the psalmist tells us that this is the way it is  In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether we like it or not, God knows everything.  God knows us with an intimacy that we cannot really comprehend.  God wants to share with us his very nature, simply because that is how it should have been since the beginning.  And this is the important bit, God is not doing this like our version of a boss who seeks to find out our weakest areas in order to score points over us.  This isn’t some Lord Sugar in the boardroom thing.  Instead, God comes as a saviour, throwing light into any dark and hidden corner of our lives – the dank dark places where mould or rot has taken root and seeks to heal them.  God reaches into our very centre and heal us.  To fill us with the light, the true light that comes from God.  The light we see in Jesus.

In Corinthians, Paul speaks about this level of intimacy when he writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit”.  And of course to highlight this point, Paul counterpoints this by talking about sexual immorality.  This is partly because of the relative normality of sexual excess in 1st Century aristocracy.  Paul is reminding the people in Corinth that they have been given a huge freedom, given at a great price by Jesus, but that with this freedom comes an appropriate level of responsibility.  This message is just as relevant to us now as it was to the people of Corinth in the 1st Century.  To put it bluntly, our actions have consequences. 

I think that one of the reasons that Paul choose to talk about sexuality is his concern for the power that strong emotions have over people, which he echoes in the next Chapter.  The sexual imperative is an example of a basic human need for intimacy, one that is extremely powerful.  There is, of course, a range of other strong and powerful emotions.  I wonder what other ones you can think of?  Well there is our sense of pride or a sense of our own importance, an enjoyment of food, our concern over other people’s attainment, our wish to rest and relax, our wish to get more, and our sense of injustice.  All emotions that can drive positive behaviour, however isn’t it interesting that these self same areas which so often drive our actions when taken to extremes became no less that the seven deadly sins of Lust, pride, gluttony, envy, anger, greed and sloth.  So you can see why Paul argues for caution against an excess of emotion.

At the heart of at least some of these needs is the need to convince ourselves that we are worthy of being loved.  The danger is that if we try and do this on our own, we nearly always tend to warp things and a need becomes an obsession whish throws things right out of balance.   If we can get round our fear that God, in some way, wants to hurt or embarrass us, then we could reach out and start to enjoy real intimacy.  A relationship with God that fills our basic and every need.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t need food, money or sex, but what intimacy with God does for us is to stop the need from becoming a want – and we humans are very good at making our wants become an “I want more”

God is calling out to you to embrace you as his children.  Cast aside any uncertainties you may have, or think you have, any worries for your future or your suitability.  Know that everything here is temporary.  Seek then the arms of God who will walk with you in the same way that he walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  A time when there were no secrets, no hiding places and God and humankind talked openly with each other.  Will you take him up on this offer?

God is asking.  Will you answer?

In Jesus Name


Amen

on being Sorry



Father, we are sorry.
Sorry for being selfish.  Sorry for not being proactive enough for your word.  Sorry for being afraid that others may laugh at us or do worse.  Sorry for hiding in churches when your commission is to spread the Good News to all.

Sorry for all the infighting that occurs in your Churches.  For the snide put downs, for theological bullying, for academic prejudice.
We come to you today knowing that we are all in need of your Grace.  Whatever our status, we are all equal in your eyes, equally needy and sinful.

In this moment of silence then we bring before you our private confession……………………..

Holy Father, we are so aware of Jesus’ example to us and we pledge again today to come back to you.  To be obedient to your commandment to love one another as you loved us.  For who else can we turn to Lord, except you.  Only you have the words of eternal life.

We therefore gladly accept your judgement, and remain overwhelmed that it is a judgement of Grace and not of terror.  We are continually in awe that you offer us forgiveness and that we are accepted as your children.

Filled by your Grace and truth Lord, we rise as new before your Throne

In Jesus Name


Amen

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Psalm 23

The Lord is my saviour, I shall not hide
he saves me from my nightmares,
my self doubt, my anxiety.
From demons in the night,
from destruction of anger, mistrust
and fear.
He is the restorer of my soul
He guides me through the darkness of my mind.

Even though I still get scared,
even though I sometimes find it hard to pray.
He provides me with all I need.
He sends Angels to walk by my side
and fills me with his Spirit.

I fear no evil when God is with me,
holding me in his arms, surrounding me with his love.
Surely I will rest in the wings of the Lord, my saviour all the days of my life.

Je Suis Charlie

This week saw the horror of terrorism on the streets of France.  Today, we saw a city united in strength of resolve to stand against terrorism, against fear, against violence and for the freedom of speech and thought.  

No doubt while many seek to work for an inclusive peaceful society, there will still be the scaremongerers, especially those with a axe to grind, those who fear equality, those who require that their version of reality is the version that is played out.

The trouble with forcing views on others, is that it simply doesn't work, and for me that is the essential appeal of Christianity.  I am not talking about some of the abuses everyone knows about in the history of Christianity, rather I am talking about the radical message that Jesus brought to the 1st Century.  To a Roman Empire that new nothing of the concept of mercy, he spoke of loving our enemy.  He promoted non violence, something that Martin of Tours in the 4th Century clearly understood. He is quoted as saying" I am Christ's soldier, I am not allowed to fight".  We are left then with words and thoughts, with which to argue against radical extremism that has become warped into a orgy of violence.  We cannot force islamic extremists to put down there weapons, if we do we run the risk of producing more like minded people who see murder as the only way of getting their way.

How then do we make for safe societies.  In the 1st Century, Christians risked their life for just reading letters by Paul that to the Roman authorities were dangerously inflammatory, because they talked about equality, undermining the societal framework on which the  rich and powerful had developed their society - the one where they were very comfortable thank you -. Despite that the first 2-3 Centuries were the period of sustained growth in the Church, when it held to the beliefs of its founder and was seen as salt in the world.

Creating dialogue between communities of faith and with communities of no faith will help people see others as people, not demons or terrorists or infidels.  If we see each other as people perhaps we can learn to love one another instead of fearing one another.

Can we do this?

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year

Well here we are in a new year.  I must say I never fully understand the interest around the new year as really it is just another day.  Perhaps more important from my perspective is the birthday celebration of one of my daughters. 

The news is the same, the US adding more sanctions against N Korea over that odd incident surrounding what I hear is just a poor film.  Another ship is rescued in the mediterranean, full of people seeking refuge in the EU. Air Asia continue to find bodies of people lost on flight QZ8501.

I have just finished reading Revelation Road by Nick Page, great book again and so refreshing to read Christian material by someone with the freedom of expression to allow for humour.  For perhaps the first time, I may just be able to understand Revelations a bit when I next read it, it is on my list of "to reads".  It is really very relevant just now with an election in the offing in the UK this year.  No doubt we will be bombarded by the political parties telling us to place our trust in them as they know what to do, and only they can fix things..  Today in fact the Tories put out their first election poster!  I think I would rather put my faith in God rather than some self serving politicians personally.   Just saying.

Not sure who I will vote for, all I know is that my sister in Yorkshire is one of the working poor, she has 3 jobs and still struggles to look after herself and her disabled partner.  Can't afford to fix the boiler, no central heating etc.
Meanwhile Westminster"s PR machine rolls on telling us the poor are lazy and we all need to work harder and longer.  I am not sure this is as simple as the DWP would have us believe really.

Any way folks this year is sure to be interesting, and I hope that it brings any reader good fortune and more importantly may you know God's presence fully.  God is reigning!