Sunday, 31 August 2014

Let love be genuine

The New Testament, and the Bible as a whole, contains quite a bit of advice on how to treat people.  Some of this is set down in moral codes which speak to particular situations and cultures, but are based on certain basic premises.  When we try to work out what these might have to say to today, living as we do in very different situations and cultures, there can be some tension and disagreement about what is foundational and what is situational, reflecting a particular time and place, so needs more work to apply it to today.  Some of it, though, really is foundational and guides us in the tone with which we are to approach other people.  One of the reasons we are given these passages is because we get worn down and strained by our encounters with others.  We don’t always find it easy to display the grace and love which makes for cohesive and harmonious living.  Like a shed, we need weatherproofing from time to time to stop the rot from taking hold; we need the protective layer of grace renewing.  Our forebears were no different.

Today’s Epistle reading (Romans 12:9-21is one of these foundational passages and it sets the bar very high.  It has a timeless appeal.  Love needs to be genuine, literally unhypocritical.  For Paul love is more about what we do than how we feel.  We’ve tended to turn love into a feeling word, but for Paul it is more of a doing word.  It is far more than a warm or even hot and passionate feeling towards someone.  It is characterized in practical help and support.  So when others annoy us, irritate us, we just don’t connect with them – and there are people whose personalities rub up against us so much that they take a lot of effort to get anywhere beyond icy feelings – how we behave can change how we feel or come to view them.  Loving is not dependent on the warmth or attraction.  This is one of the principles behind Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, where the aim is to change the mental state by finding activities which will jumpstart a more positive emotional state.  Love being genuine is therefore an encouragement to desire this, to want to find a better way of being through behaving and the spin off is this will affect the way we feel.

There are people with whom it is hard to get beyond the way they present.  I don’t mean their looks or image, I mean that they clearly carry open emotional wounds inside them and their own self identity and for whatever reason have become so used to protecting themselves from attack that they get their defence in early or normal social contact requires so much emotional energy for them that they crack under the strain.  Get me on a good day and I will see this.  Get me on a bad day and I might be less perceptive and behave accordingly. After all, I’ve got my own open wounds to deal with, as we all have.  ‘Let love be genuine’ is a reminder that finding a better way of approaching and responding builds love, builds a community which is more healthy and supportive, creates a space that is a safer place for everyone to be.

It also means that we need to be a genuine community, one where the people are real and we all understand that we all have our fragile areas.  No coat-hanger smiles!  To quote another passage from Paul’s writings, we carry the treasure of Christ and his image that we bear in clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:7), and clay pots are easily broken and damaged.  The fantasy of our society, which tends to isolate people from one another, is that we can create fantasy communities.  If we don’t like what someone does or says, we can unfriend them in electronic social arenas like Facebook and Twitter.  If we don’t like seeing certain people we can shut them out.  The scale and size of a modern city, like this one, is that it becomes very easy for different groups not to meet, they can become ghettoized, and it becomes impossible to interact with everyone.  Churches are one of the few places left where there is a social mix which we might not chose or find in other places.  That is actually why some people can’t cope with churches, they’ve lost that skill or have never had it developed.  It is also why some want a church to be a cosy club for those who are like them.  It doesn’t function well when that happens and people know within seconds when they walk in the door if that is really the case; they sense whether they will fit in or not.  Is the love here genuine, as in truly open, or are there hidden, unspoken entry requirements?  It’s a challenge for all churches – I’m not singling here out by any stretch.  It’s where our calling and identity cuts across the assumptions of our society and we have to make ‘love’ into a doing word rather than a feeling word, to change and sustain the spiritual tone.

This is built on a fundamental understanding and the central plot for the Christian script.  Christ came to redeem and to save.  He came that we might have life, not death.  He did not come to destroy and condemn.  The aim behind all of the noble advice and qualities in that reading is to draw us into the love that pours itself out in creation and will not let us go.  So it follows on.  We are to hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, rejoice in hope, live in harmony with one another, not to repay evil with evil.  We then have one of those comedy moments in the bible, we are encouraged to ‘leave room for the wrath of God’, in other words don’t get so caught up in retribution that there is nothing left for God to do!  There is a level of hatred that consumes us as well as the other.  It leaves no room for anything else and is a form of blindness; it loses all control.  The note of caution and wry restraint here is to leave some room for the wrath of God!

We live in frightening times and a culture of fear is all around us.  The terrorist threat level being raised is alarming and we need to know it, but there isn’t much we can do about it beyond being vigilant.  Not everyone is a threat though, in fact most people aren’t.  And the hatred towards us and anyone else is itself a sign that someone has lost touch with their humanity, they are consumed with hatred and we will not remove that with more of the same.  Paul encourages us to live the way we want others to be.  This is Archbishop Sentamu’s phrase “Be the change you want to see”.  When the times are frightening and tense the need to live this foundational grace is all the more pressing.  And the Archbishop of York has spent this past week in a vigil in York Minster praying on the hour for hope and peace in the world.

Learning to love through doing it and showing it in word and deed, not least in prayer, will change us and make us into the people who bear the image of Christ.  This is no mere coat-hanger smile love, sugary and saccharin.  This is love tempered in the fire of conflict and difficult encounter.  When let loose this kind of love is extremely powerful and changes the world for the better.  It is genuine. It is redemptive.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 31st August 2014

Sunday, 24 August 2014

We are N & the light of hope

Today we remember a saint about whom we know next to nothing.  Bartholomew is listed in the first three gospels as being one of the apostles.  John doesn’t mention him, but then John is not that interested in the 12 as such.  Some think that Nathanael who is mentioned in John is the same person, just with two names, but I’m not convinced.  He might be but the fact that Bartholomew is not mentioned is not in itself sufficient reason for assuming they are the same person.  As an apostle he was present at various stages of Jesus’ ministry and would have been sent out on missions.  He was therefore an eyewitness and we are left wondering if those who are named in the gospels are named because they were known to the earliest Christian church.  Their mention in the gospels would then be an appeal for the authenticity of the accounts.  These people were there, so what we are talking about is based on their reputation.  We have now lost all other references to Bartholomew and a number of the others similarly named, and are only left with the shadow of their presence in their names being mentioned in the text.  Bartholomew is one of these shadow people.

There is a tradition that Bartholomew went to India and founded a church there.  The 5th century Bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, mentions another tradition of Bartholomew having taught in Asia Minor.  Presumably there was something local that was associated with him.  Despite these traditions his is still a very patchy record and rather thin on detail to say the least.  He therefore stands for the countless millions of followers of Jesus whose deeds and activities have shaped the heritage of faith that we have, but we do not have a record of what they did.  Most of us will fall into that category.  We will be unknown to history but nonetheless the passing on of faith and influence that we give will be a brick on the road and a light that flickers in the darkness.

Bartholomew is said to have been martyred by either being flayed alive and/or being beheaded.  The latter gives him a topical feel with events this week in Syria and the brutal beheading of the American photographer and journalist James Foley.  Beheading sounds like something from a violent and gruesome past, and thankfully to us it is, but according to a report in the Independent yesterday 19 people have been executed by beheading in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of August.  It is by no means unusual in certain parts of the world.

We like to think that martyrdom is something from past centuries too, but it is all too current.  There is a movement at the moment to display the Arabic equivalent of the letter ‘N’ and we have the poster on our noticeboard outside with the statement ‘We Are N’.  As the note in our pew sheet says, ‘N’ stands for the equivalent Arabic letter, which has been daubed on the homes of Christians (often called 'Nasrani' in Arabic) in Mosul to identify them as targets for persecution or execution, rather like the Nazis identified Jews in the Second World War.  Nasrani stands for people who follow the Nazarene, that is Jesus of Nazareth. This symbol has been picked up around the world as a way in which we can identify with those from all religious and ethnic communities who are being targeted by the extremist group called ‘Islamic State’, IS.  But being named after ‘N’, the Nazarene, Jesus, is an honour and it is indeed the name we follow and are proud to be identified by.  This is the flickering light that we shine with them in the darkness.  We are turning a label for abuse and persecution into a badge of honour.  This is because the name of Jesus is the name we honour above all names, so all who follow Christ are ‘N’.  “We are N.”  We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering and also all our brothers and sisters in humanity who are suffering.  We do this because it is a fundamental to respect all people.

While presiding at the Eucharist during the week I was struck by a phrase in the post communion prayer for the past week.  It prayed that people of every race and language will be gathered to share in the eternal banquet of Christ (Trinity 9).  The aim we have is not to destroy others but draw all around the same celebration table.  It is a desire to be drawn and bound closer together not pushed apart or to annihilate anyone who is different.  The differences between us are profound at times, but where the desire is this greater union and cohesion, we have a common ground on which we can build.  We bring together our flickering lights in the darkness and light always fills darkness.  I am pleased when I hear Muslims saying they disown the actions of the extremists who claim their name, who shame their name.  These are voices we need to hear more from and our media need to give them greater airtime.

Dying for faith is not in itself the central point with martyrs.  It is how this happens and what someone is doing when they die.  What is it about their witness that makes them worth remembering and counting as an example rather than just noting their death?  What is the light they shine for us?  The ones who have the most influence are the ones who proclaim the gospel of peace over one of hatred.  What can we learn from them that inspires us today?

One inspirational figure is a Muslim professor of law at Mosul University.  Mahmoud Al ‘Asali said that the brutal attacks and duress Christians were being subjected to was against Islamic law.  For this he was killed by the group IS (formerly ISIS) last month.  A Muslim with courage to stand up for people of another faith.  We should honour him with thanks and acknowledge his courage and his flickering light; a light that still shines out to us with hope for he stood with our fellow people of ‘Nasrani’.

We face a dark moment.  That we have people in this country linked to the murders and who are known to support them means we need a concerted approach.  We need all of good will, who know and stand for justice to stand together.    We need all who can be flickering lights to shine in the darkness that peace, concord and a shared good will prevail.

We don’t know much about Bartholomew but he is remembered because he inspired others even though the stories of that inspiration are now largely lost in the shadows of time.  The light though continues to travel in that even though he died for his faith that gospel of peace, good will and hope continues to this day.  It continues because of the countless ‘shadow people’, not seen or named today but whose influence is felt.  The brutality of Mosul will not extinguish the light today and we mustn’t let the hatred win either.  There are many people of good will, of all faiths, and together we can find a way through.  Dr Who last night brought together a surprising cast of strange aliens united in common purpose, together making a stand for unity, good will and concord, even in their differences.  Bartholomew in his shadow portrait stands for those whose light is seen even though we don’t know them very well today.  No one’s light is lost in this cause.

Sermon preaching at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th August 2014