Sunday, 9 March 2014

Talking snakes and easy answers

A talking snake sounds like something out of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories or his earlier Jungle Book where the child Mowgli meets an hypnotic Kaa. And that is itself an important point about our first reading (Genesis 2:1-17; 3:1-7).  It is just that, a story to excite the imagination and then make us think a bit deeper about life, our purpose under God and what matters.  It always surprises me when I have to point this out, but the Book of Genesis was never intended to be taken literally.  It is filled with myths, which are stories with meaning.  That doesn’t make it untrue, it just means it is playing with a different level of meaning, some of it may have even happened, but I’m pretty confident that a snake didn’t talk.

The puzzle in this story is not the talking snake, or the tempting, or even the blame shifting when they are found out from Adam to Eve to the snake.  The puzzle is the forbidding to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Surely if human beings are anything they are sentient, moral deciding creatures.  We have the ability to decide and weigh up the consequences of actions, which is a very advanced cognitive function.  We can decide that some things make for fruitful coexistence and contribute to the common good and some things do not.  We have a sense of responsibilities for one another and out of these moral decision making flows: we feast daily on the fruit of the ‘good-and-bad- knowledge tree’.  So why does the Genesis story make a fuss about eating from this tree?

To know the difference between good and bad is wisdom and wisdom is a gift from God.  King Solomon when offered anything he desired asked God for wisdom and prosperity followed.  In ancient personifying, wisdom is female and she is desired.  Sophia, the Logos, the Word that became flesh in John’s gospel, touches God’s very thoughts and purpose.  So to be moral is to be imbued with the Spirit of God.  And it is not something that can be grasped.  It has to be accepted as a discipline, something that we dedicate our will towards and train in.  It is not something that can just be plucked from a tree.

So I think what is out of bounds with the warning not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil is the desire for easy wisdom.  It is a warning not to go for the easy answers that can just be plucked from the tree.  And it’s a warning for those of us who like using Twitter and Facebook, where thoughts are reduced to 140 characters.  We have to watch out that communicating in sound bites does not become thinking in sound bites.  That is the warning for politicians and those who have to watch their media presence and image.  Some things in life are much more complicated, most in fact.

This snake makes a reappearance in the wilderness as Jesus is thinking through the ministry he is about to embark on (Matthew4:1-11).  The three temptations we heard in the gospel are for easy food, easy power and easy life.  They are the avoidance of work, the avoidance of gaining respect and the avoidance of consequences.  Power is to be grasped, food to be picked off a shelf with no cost and life can be reckless.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see how those have run rife in personal morality, how we live in community and in national and international politics.  No one can assume that they have a right to govern and even inherited monarchies have to win people’s respect to govern effectively.  No one is owed a free living but we care when there is need. No one can avoid the consequence of fast living, abusing bodies or behaving recklessly.

So where do we find the snake’s tempting today?  In the church there are temptations to avoid the difficult questions by a shallow supernaturalism.  Prayer is treated as magic, the bible is reduced to a rulebook that we just have to look up the answers in.  The bible is much more like a conversation and we join in with it bringing who we are to the discussion.  We need to know something about the situation it was written in and there are conversations between different books within it which stem from different times.  The snake can be spotted with the words ‘the bible teaches’.  What that phrase really means is ‘my reading of the scriptures and reflection on them leads me to conclude’.  That’s different.  We really can’t just pluck answers off the tree.

In politics there is a temptation to jump to the easy answers.  Newspapers of the left and right both do this all the time.  They have their formulaic assumptions as soon as certain stories come their way and we are taken to the land of pre-judged conclusions.  So what is going on in the Ukraine?  Is it Russian expansionism wanting to annex neighbouring states?  Is it the protection of access to a seaport on the Black Sea and to prevent this becoming a NATO base so that the Russian navy access is assured?  Is there an element of intervention to prevent a neighbouring country from meltdown?  Is it American expansionism and empire building wanting to take strategic control of the same naval base?  Where does gas fit in and ensuring the lights stay on?  Can we have cost free sanctions and what would the ultimate aim be?  Who is right here, where is good and evil in a highly complex geopolitical power struggle?  I admit to being confused over this one at the moment.  It is interesting though to note all of this in the year we are remembering the outbreak of the First World War, which has geopolitical power struggles, empires and expansionism written through the heart of it, I hope we have better channels of communication than we had 100 years ago.  I hope we have learnt where the arrogance of that time got us.  I’m not so certain.  The historians don’t seem to be agreeing on what the lessons of World War I are so, to adapt a phrase, that means we may be doomed to repeat the mistakes – hopefully without the same disastrous consequences.

Struggling with good and evil, with moral choices, is part of what it means to be human.  The temptation is to jump for easy answers be they from shallow readings of a book out of context, or formulaic and pre-judged conclusions.  Watch out for the talking snakes; there are more of them about than we might have previously thought.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 9th March 2014

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Inspiring women

Mary by Anne Bellamy
Today is International Women's Day.  Reading posts on the internet about women who have inspired others set me thinking about those who have inspired me, challenged me and changed the way I think.  Here's a few - names removed to protect the heroines.

We'll start with the girls who sat near me in the chemistry labs at school, who did the same lessons, shared their thoughts and helped me grow to understand that our brains are equal.  This was the 1970s and sexism was in the water I drank.  I am grateful to them and my coed education for the beginnings of equality.  I still had to struggle against the latent background noise, some of which was more formational that I would now like to admit.

At college I encountered young women sharing in ministry, met a deaconess (women couldn't be deacons let alone priests or bishops then).  As I watched a fellow student leading morning prayer in the chapel the thought dawned on me if this young woman can take services in the college chapel, just like me, why can't women be fully ordained.  I woke up.

As a young Samaritan volunteer I met my first openly gay woman.  She was my mentor when I first started and we talked in between taking calls.  I began to understand that people do not choose their sexuality - I had known that for longer, but it became enfleshed for me in a real person's story.  She was in a committed relationship and she challenged the assumptions I had grown up with through who she was and her integrity.

Then there are those who have shown me that I can be loved, whose friendship has been and continues to be a source of joy.

Over the last 15 years I have encountered more women working in the church.  It has been a growing number.  Some have been colleagues, one an archdeacon.  The nonsense of discrimination has grown louder for me.

Along the way I have probably contributed to the damage of some for which I can only apologise.  I don't know how many I have passed by on the other side and not been able to help or just not seen.  I think I have done my bit to help the church move forward and encourage some in their ministry.  And I hope I have helped my own sons grow to treat women with respect as they should treat everyone, to just not know the place I started from.  When they and their friends look on in wide eyed amazement when they hear what things were like I realise how far we have come and smile.  There is still much to do and a long way to go for many throughout the world, but we have travelled an incredible journey in a short space of time.

Monday, 3 March 2014

The ash for Ash Wednesday

Here's another of those things they don't teach you at vicar training school - how to turn palm crosses into ash for use on Ash Wednesday.  Last year's palm crosses are burnt and the ash is used during the Ash Wednesday liturgy to make the sign of the cross on the forehead as a sign of our mortality and penitence for our sins.  There is a scene in the film Braveheart where the Scottish army are all shown with black crosses on their foreheads.  That's the look, just without the kilts - well south of the border any way.

Step one: a few weeks before hand, ask the congregation to return the palm crosses they were given last year on Palm Sunday so that they can be burnt for use on Ash Wednesday.  This has a double benefit: it gets you a supply of palm crosses to burn and involves everyone in what is happening through supplying the raw ingredient.

Step two: find a sheltered spot - I use the barbecue in the back garden.  (I have done this in the front garden but it took some explaining to the postman as to why a vicar was burning crosses outside the vicarage!)  Take a metal bowl (tip: don't use the best mixing bowl from the kitchen to avoid serious domestic strife).  Pile up the palm crosses and burn them.  If they are large, it might work better if they are cut up a little first, but if they are dry and it is not a windy day, they should burn pretty well as they are.

Step three: use a long gas/oil fire-lighter and set fire to them.  A blow torch will do the job even better.  The point is you may need to light them several times or keep the flame there for a while until they catch.  Palm crosses can be notoriously difficult to set fire to, but once the fire gets going they burn well.  You might need some barbecue tongues to move them around a bit so that all of them burn.

Step four: allow to cool!

Step five: spoon some of the ash into a small bowl and chop with a fairly sharp spoon.  The aim is to reduce the ash to a fine powder, or fairly close to that.  Rapid but gentle chopping movements work well and it will take several minutes to achieve the grade of ash you are after.

They are now ready for use.  Some people add a little anointing oil to make a paste.  I don't, I just rub the ash between my thumb and forefinger and make the sign of the cross of the people's foreheads with my thumb using the words:

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ."

This act is very powerful - for those receiving and those administering it.  It gives pastoral and sacramental ministry an edge.  It makes it real; all pretence is stripped away and we are all confronted with the raw reality that we are fragile human beings before God.   We get it right and we get it wrong.  We are caught up in all sorts of complications, some of which are beyond us to sort out.  We trust in God's redeeming grace to bring all of this through to resolution.  We will die one day and our hope is in the loving mercy of the God who gave us life and will through Jesus Christ bring us to share in the life of his eternity.