Sunday, 25 May 2014

More than spiritual clubbing

What draws you to come to church?  It’s not a trick question or one designed to trip you up, questioning motives, but each of us have lots of different reasons for coming.  And whenever this question is asked of a group there will be a number of answers which are likely to appear: to get a spiritual fix, to meet with friends, the music, the atmosphere, to find a bit of peace, it’s good for children, I’ve always done it and life would feel odd without doing so.  None of these are wrong in themselves and they hint at the kinds of things that help us get out of bed on a Sunday morning, particularly on those dark winter mornings, and make the journey.  From time to time I am deeply humbled and impressed by the incredible effort some have to put in to make the journey overcoming various difficulties: personal physical, emotional and public transport timetables.

Our readings this morning in their various ways touch on what is going on when we make the effort to worship.  We live in a time of human history when corporate worship is not part of the popular culture, well not in Western Europe.  It is in the rest of the world, USA, Eastern Europe, Africa and the East.  We are not the norm here, but John’s words in his gospel this morning ‘the world cannot receive him because it neither sees him nor knows him’ (John 14:17) take on a new dimension for us.  The idea of corporate worship is not obvious or assumed as something that is missing from life.  And if we reduce worship to some kind of spiritual fix then we reduce what is happening here to a form of ‘spiritual clubbing’ and that means that we are competing with all sorts of other events, interests and activities.  Getting the spiritual fix is important, but it is not the most important reason for coming to worship.

The reason we do this was spelt out more clearly in our first reading (Acts 17:22-31).  Paul is walking through the city centre in Athens.  He finds that they are a very religious people because there is a veritable supermarket of statues and faith traditions on offer.  It must confuse the life out of people.  The competing claims are deafening.  It’s like walking through Cathedral Square with people shouting that we are all sinners in one corner, offering free copies of the Qur’an from one of the Muslim traditions in another, with city centre chaplains offering free hugs and cake in another and quietly standing as the backdrop in one direction is this church and in the other, peeping over the archway is the Cathedral.  The spiritual marketplace is not very different from one bank offering 5% on a current account balance up to £2,500 and another offering a fixed rate bond for 3 years.  The city centre becomes a place where just shouting and being there does not mean that we are heard.  Something else has to go on that makes someone interested.

Paul looked at what was going on in Athens and decided there was a searching for answers.  He started to offer a way through the supermarket approach of this fix is better than that one or this claim trumps that assertion.  He takes it back to the core.  He starts with the purpose and point behind creation.  We are made, we have a source and we therefore have a goal.  God is God.  We serve the divine; the divine does not serve us.   And the fundamental shift that is required in mindset for Western people comes in verse 24, ‘he who is Lord of heaven and earth’.  To our more democratically shaped minds this might sound archaic and out of touch, but God is not someone we vote for.  God is God and beyond that.  We need a major shift of mentality when we come to worship because we have to bend our will to the will of God and reorientate our focus from self to God.  That doesn’t mean that our interests are not central, they are because Christ came to give life in abundance, but we are mortal, fragile and mess it up at times.  A humble and contrite heart is a pre-requisite for worship and being able to understand what it means to be a disciple.

The challenge is then to find a tradition that starts to make sense and it is clear that not everyone offering their wares in the squares outside is telling the same message.  What we offer here is the classic Anglican tradition of scripture, tradition and reason.  We take the bible seriously because it has truths to teach us and wisdom to impart.  It tells stories of a faith journey through time and how a people have understood the nature of God.  It tells us about Jesus and in him we see all that we can see of God in human life and the hope of resurrection to come.  The journey of faith continues to today and over the centuries there is a tradition of each generation making sense of God in their own age.  Tradition is not static; it is a journey of thought and insight.  And we have our own generation’s understandings, the incredible discoveries of science and travel.  This ‘reason’ means that faith matches life as it is experienced.  This is the lens though which we approach the great supermarket of faiths and competing claims.  They are assessed and weighed using these tools.

If our only reason for coming is to get a fix of some kind, then we are engaged in what I call ‘spiritual clubbing’.  This is one way we could spend Sunday morning among many others and the only way we will convince others is if we can make it sound more attractive than golf, swimming, football, a walk in the park or listening to Desert Island Discs on the radio.  It may fare well; it may struggle depending on mood.  However Paul did not stand up in the market place and proclaim a different leisure activity.  He stood up to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to affirm God as God and that our life is incomplete without the commitment and challenge of being a servant of God in Christ.  We come because our hearts have been converted from the Western obsession with ourselves and the next high or happy experience, to follow God.  We come because this is where we proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord.  We need to say that out loud because it is not assumed by those around us.  Saying it changes us and how we live, how we approach life.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 25th May 2014

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Story telling

There was a very interesting talk on Radio 4 last week as part of their ‘Four Thought’ series.  Philippa Perry, a psychotherapist and columnist, was talking about the importance of story telling.  The stories that we tell and hear shape our minds.   And what is more the more we hear certain sorts of story the more we come to interpret the world through that narrative.  The flip side of this is if we don’t hear certain types of story we become unable to hear them.  So, at an extreme level, someone who has only heard and experienced stories that don’t have positive endings or ways of behaving won’t be able to hear stories that do.  They won’t have the neural pathways to assimilate them.  This affects how we approach life, how we hear what others are saying and how we make sense of the world around us.  It also affects how others hear what we are saying.

There are lots of stories around.  We hear them through the news and sometimes at home we play ‘death and destruction bingo’ to see how many of the headlines are gloom and doom laden.  We read stories in newspapers and some newspapers are really bad for your mental health because of how they tell the stories with excessive negativity, paranoia that everyone is out to get us and attitudes that don’t lead to wholesome living.  We hear stories from our politicians as they create narratives of strivers and skivers, deserving and undeserving, false dichotomies between employers and employees – actually their interests are aligned and without that both suffer.  At the cinema the other week we were subjected to a tidal wave of apocalyptic film trailers before watching the film ‘Noah’, which was pretty apocalyptic itself, especially the way it was told.  The point of the story of Noah is that it doesn’t work; the rainbow is the key. God decides that a different tack is needed and so patriarchs and prophets come on the scene to remind them of their covenant relationship, the way they are to live.  These are presented through stories to help us see and understand the point.

What kind of stories do you hear and where do they come from?  What is the story that you tell yourself?  We all have such a story or narrative and at its most simplistic are we a glass half-empty or a glass half-full person?  Is life filled with purpose and hope or pointless and ultimately despairing?  How is your sense of awe and wonder focused and shaped?  How does the story of faith affect what you see and how you see it?  Philippa Perry outlined how stories are presented, the key elements: there is the content, the scene setting of names and places; and then there is the structure, how it goes, the roles that are taken, what usually happens.  It is understanding the structure, how it goes, that tells us what kind of story we are hearing, what kind of story is being told, how our outlook is being shaped, reinforced or challenged.

Worship, coming to church, is extremely important in shaping the story that we tell ourselves and therefore the one that we live.  Worship is rooted in praise and thanksgiving because God is to be praised and being thankful makes us generous in response to the generosity of God.  It is a faith that is open and realizes that common purpose is better than selfishness and standing alone.  In this season of Easter, we fill our worship with ‘alleluias’.  Last Saturday I went to St Paul’s Cathedral for the National service celebrating the 20th anniversary of women being ordained as priests alongside men.  The response, the acclamation ‘He is risen indeed, Alleluia’, the ‘alleluia’ at the end, resounded round the dome and hung in the air as if to reinforce its importance.  And so it should, because we are a people who tell the story of alleluia, we sing the praise of God and are thankful.

Our first reading (Acts 2:42-47) gave some subtle clues to the type of story that we tell, to ourselves and through the way we live tell to others too.  Those who were baptized devoted themselves to the apostles teaching.  They wanted to learn and grow in faith.  They took scripture seriously, they took who they were seriously and needed to be rooted and grounded in the story of salvation through Jesus Christ. They came together regularly for fellowship, to break bread (which is a reference to sharing Communion).  And they prayed.  They held things in common, looking not to their own interests only but the common good.  With an election looming, this ‘goods held in common’ asks what we think profit is for?  The old lines of left verses right, which have their origins in parties for workers and parties for bosses produce a false split.  When someone is paid this week $40m in shares as an incentive to join the global computer company Apple, you have to ask just how much money is needed to incentivize.  How can anyone spend that; it is on a scale that is beyond incentive.  It shows that these large pay packets are actually not really needed because with a fortune of that size she doesn’t need to work again, so that she does means money is clearly not the main driver.  A former investment bank CEO wrote in the Financial Times last week that the idea that top executives need this money otherwise they will go elsewhere is nonsense because they won’t.  And if they do, none of them are that special that they can’t be replaced.  What is the story we tell about the use of money?  And today is the beginning of Christian Aid week which brings other stories into focus.

The common approach was taken further in distributing aid and helping the needy.  Above all they ate their food with gladness and generous hearts.  I didn’t realize until this week that New Zealand lamb is slaughtered according to Halal practice because most of it is exported to Muslim customers.  We tend to eat British lamb, because we like to support British farmers and apply the principle of sourcing locally as far as we can.  But the Halal slaughter, with stunning, means that a lot of lamb eaten has been slaughtered with a prayer of thanksgiving, albeit to Allah, and a spirit of generosity.  While I would prefer my food to be blessed with thanksgiving to God through Christ, and there is a narrative behind Halal which is different, it does have a common ground of acknowledging God.  And there is only one God. Allah is the Arabic name for God and God is God.  That said its use comes with a story, a narrative which rejects Christ and so is not one I would choose to buy into which is where St Paul’s comments (1 Corinthians 8) become relevant about abstaining from food dedicated through another religious tradition so as not to cause confusion and to be clear.  The words used are “In the name of God, God is the Greatest”.  There is nothing inherently offensive there for people of faith.   And what is really more offensive, the prayer said at slaughter or the intensive and cruel conditions much livestock endure before?  Halal will not harm us but it carries a different narrative, one which I don’t wish to proclaim, in fact which denies Christ because it sees him as a superseded prophet, which is a stance we clearly don’t agree with.

So stories are all around us and we are constantly encountering them.  They shape us and challenge us.  As with the first disciples we are reminded this morning to refresh and school ourselves in the story of our faith: salvation through Jesus Christ, the importance of prayer and sacrament, the common good and being thankful.  The story we tell is a major part of our mission.  It is the good news we proclaim and through telling it is a major way we seek to be agents of God’s transforming presence in the world.  It may be that we have to keep telling, because it is a story that is difficult for others to hear, but tell it we must.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 11th May 2014