Sunday, 21 September 2014

Staying at the Tax Booth: Robert Burns & Matthew

It’s not just because of recent events, a certain vote in Scotland, that I’ve been reading up on Robert Burns.  A couple of weeks ago we took our son Michael to Edinburgh to start at university there.  A number of people quipped about him going to a foreign land and his fellow servers at St John’s gave him a passport cover as a leaving gift.  I’m so glad that won’t now be needed!  We stopped off at Dumfries on our way back to break the journey.  Robert Burns is buried in St Michael’s churchyard there and there is a museum dedicated to him.  Fortunately I found a copy of his poems with an English translation so that I can make out his dialect.  It made me a pedant when watching ‘The Last Night of the Proms’ and the Promenaders committed the usual sin of singing ‘for the sake of auld lang syne’.  Which liberally means ‘for the sake of old time’s sake’ – too many ‘sakes’.  No wonder Scots get annoyed with us at times when we mangle their national poet!

Robert Burns grew up as a farmer.  But when he moved to live around Dumfries, to supplement his income, he became a taxman, working at the Dumfries excise office, and moving to the town.  So Scotland’s national poet was enforcing taxes for the fairly recently United Kingdom, just 50 years earlier.  He wrote his poetry, much of which I am new to, while continuing to work as a taxman.  Today we celebrate another taxman, Matthew, but he gave it up when he heard the call to follow Jesus.  Thinking of these two taxmen, Robert Burns and Matthew, has made me think about what it means to follow Jesus and not leave your former career.

The danger when we celebrate Matthew is that we set up a model of following Jesus which leaves no space for the day job.  Now on one level when we decide or become aware of the call to follow Jesus we come under new management.  To proclaim Jesus is Lord means that he is the boss and we will allow him and how we understand his gospel to set the road map.  I came into the cathedral the other day for Evensong and there was a couple sitting in the chairs by the choir with a massive sheet map opened out in front of them which they were studying intently.  It was a good image of what it means to come to the cathedral.  The spirituality of this place, the spirituality of Matthew and the other gospels lays out a road map for us that plots the route for our lives.  But it does this in the thick of daily living.  Most of us are not called to give us the day job.  Most Christians are called to stick in it; like Robert Burns to stay at the tax booth.

There are ways of earning a living and behaving which are incompatible with following Christ, being under his new management.  Extortion and corruption, which first century tax gathering often involved are such examples.  Modern tax gathering does not involve those.  It involves upholding justice and requiring us all to pay what is due, which is determined by a democratically elected government who are therefore answerable to us the people.  It’s not quite as simple as that and there are times when tax law works well and times when it doesn’t.  But we do have a process through which that can be called in and made accountable, even changed.  Tax is our common subscription as citizens of this nation and the United Kingdom.  We pay according to our ability and administering it is not only compatible with following Jesus, it is a noble act of public service.

A lot of thinking about work and faith, God on Monday projects and other Christians in business programmes, tend to focus on the higher level jobs, which asks ethical questions for senior managers.  These are important but we don’t hear much about what it means to be a follower of Jesus at the tills of Tesco (other supermarkets are available).  It amused me a few months ago when I went round to a shop nearby and as I passed my bread and wine through the checkout I saw that the man serving me was called Jesus.  You couldn’t make it up and the irony didn’t pass me by.  He did his name proud.  Checkout staff have a lot to put up with, not least rudeness and contemptuous behaviour from customers who have ceased to see a person of equal worth and see instead a slave who can be abused.  That takes a lot of grace to endure.  The values which make for good customer relations are actually ones we would recognize as being Christian and it is reassuring to note that putting faith into practice is actually good business practice too.  Exploiting customers and employees is short-term and does not build long-term loyalty or satisfaction and therefore repeat business and it leads to high staff turnover.  How we treat people makes a difference.

That word ‘slave’, particularly being a ‘slave’ for Jesus’ sake, was mentioned in our first reading (2 Corinthians 4:5).  It is not acceptable to treat anyone with contempt, whatever status we may see them as having.  But Paul in our first reading talks about himself being one without status, as one who subsumes himself to the Lordship of Christ; he is under the new management of God.  Whatever job we do, or however we fill our days, there are opportunities to put into practice our discipleship of Christ.  We are called to stay at the tax booth, not leave it.

Not everything in Robert Burns' life was exemplary.  He fathered children through several women; two daughters were born within a month of each other by different mothers.  He was though concerned for justice and fair treatment.  He knew that faith had moral implications, even if he didn’t always manage to keep to the road map and got a little lost.  Well who doesn’t?  In his ‘Epistle to a young friend’, which he wrote in 1786 he included these lines, which I give in their translated form and will make no attempt at a Scottish accent:

“When frolicking in Pleasure’s ring
Religion may be blinded
Or if she gives a random sting
It may be little minded
But when on Life we are tempest driven
A conscience but a canker
A correspondence fixed with Heaven
Is sure a noble anchor!” 1

A poster on the wayside pulpit at St Michael’s churchyard, his burial place, put it more succinctly:
“If your conscience has good brakes
your character won’t skid”.

Robert Burns' poetry has entered into our everyday language, just like the other taxman’s words have – if Matthew indeed wrote the gospel that bears his name.  From ‘Timorous beasties’ and ‘love being like a red, red rose’ to the highly relevant for today’s international conflicts ‘man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn’.  And I was pleased to see the letter by 100 Muslims in the Independent on Thursday denouncing the extremist group ISIS as not being true to Islam.  For Matthew, his golden rule ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ has become a maxim many try to live by.

Jesus met Matthew at the tax booth and called him to follow him.  He left the booth.  But later that night many tax collectors and sinners came to dinner and heard the healing words of Christ.  Putting those into practice while remaining at the tax booth, while keeping the day job, is the calling for most people.  The moral codes which flow from it actually make good business sense and are a model for good customer relations.  Treating people properly matters.  Our consciences need, in Robert Burns’ words, the anchor of ‘a correspondence fixed with heaven’.  Following Jesus brings a spirituality that copes with life in the thick of life; it is not one that compartmentalises these into separate spheres that do not meet.  When we come to the cathedral we are not coming to a place that escapes from the world, but like the couple with their map, we come to find the route for when we leave.

1 Ann Matheson (2014) The Essential Robert Burns Alloway Publishing page 101

Sermon preached at Peterborough Cathedral, Feast of Matthew, Sunday 21st September 2014

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Cross - Holy Rood - logo of self giving love

A few years ago I was involved in a ‘branding’ exercise for a cathedral – not here, but in Ripon where I was then a member of the chapter.  We were commissioning a new logo and the work involved for those pitching their designs was incredible.  Everything from position on the page to how it should be used, the size and fonts for any accompanying text were specified.  Our diocese has a similar document for its reworked logo and it is common practice in commercial organisations.  The thinking behind this is that the logo conveys an instant message about the company and product, and understandably no one wants to mess up that message by careless iconography.  So the best logos are instantly recognizable and convey a positive message; they bring the product or organisation to mind.  Millions of pounds are invested each year into getting this right and it is a specialized industry.

Today is Holy Cross Day.  The cross has been the central logo for the Christian Church since the 4th century.  It tells the story of Christianity: Christ died and rose from the dead.  An instrument of grotesque torture and execution has become the symbol of faith and hope.  The cross meets some of the criteria for a good branding symbol.  It is instantly recognizable.  It brings to mind the product – Christianity.  It is in universal use and so is up there with the biggest names.  But what message does it convey?  It is far from being a cosy, comfortable image.

The cross is an outrage.  It should shock us.  We have it displayed on the rood screen dominating the view as you look towards the East end of this church.  It is prominently displayed at the front of St Luke’s too.  When you go into the cathedral a golden Christ on the cross greets you, hanging from the roof, dominating the vast space of the nave.  It is an image in stained glass windows and carved in wood.  The picture is of a man enduring unspeakable torture and dying.  Sadly it does not just belong to the past.  There are Christians being persecuted and executed by crucifixion by the Islamic State extremists today, along with many beheadings, not least the news today of the murder of aid worker David Haines.  Our archbishop has encouraged us to pray for him and his family.  Today is a reminder that Christianity has a high price at its heart.  Grace and salvation do not come cheaply.

And yet we have it made out of gold and silver so that it looks shiny and sanitized of its agony and suffering.  It is an item of jewelry.  The Holy Rood is the name of a palace in Scotland, famous for Mary Queen of Scots, whose burial is recorded in our parish registers.  Across the road is the Scottish Parliament building which will be the centre of our political debate this week.  When we are looking for statements or images of identity and our dependency or independence or better interdependence, the name of that palace, the Holy Rood, is what defines us as Christians.  This is the love that gives of itself, seeks to draw us together and set us free from the oppression of sin and death.

The cross is not just the means of a death so that life could win through in the resurrection, the cross brings the pains and suffering into the heart of God’s love.  The branding document for Christianity has this notion within it.  The Christian faith does not avoid pain and suffering, it does not push the darkness of sin and death away, but embraces all of these.  It is a sign and a statement that we do not believe God remains separate from the life we experience.  God is not just some absentee landlord who sets the world in motion and then exists detached from it.  The cross, the Holy Rood, is the profound statement of faith that God is in the thick of life, messy and painful as it is at some time for all of us.  Those who have been abused and no one seemed to care, the actress Samantha Morton being the latest to come out to tell her story, the unknown many suffering under the brutality of Islamic State extremists, they are not abandoned to their fate, even if like Jesus they may cry out in their despair “My God why have you forsaken me”. 

The cross as our symbol is a statement that Christ died.  He didn’t pretend.  He wasn’t rescued at the final moment.  He wasn’t assumed into heaven as a protected figure beyond pain.  He was made vulnerable to the point where the worst of human depravity could be let loose on him.  He could be and was made as nothing to be extinguished and destroyed.  The idea that God can subject his own presence in human form to that level of vulnerability is mind blowing.  The expectation of our world is that he would blast all would be assailants with death rays, instantly melting all opposition.  What we present in the cross is a God whose strength is seen in weakness, who lets go of all control and manipulation so that he may pass through it.  It is a remarkable tenet of faith and as a symbol is astounding in its raw power and vulnerable self-giving.

This is all because, in the Christian picture of God, it is in the nature of God to give, to pour out of his very self.  This is the origin of the universe, of creation.  It is a model for our own living.  When we try to grasp and control, when we become obsessed by power and domination, we lose the very thing we want to acquire because we can never hold these things for long.  Mortality and death are inevitable.  But when we let go and risk everything as if we have nothing to lose we find that we gain far more than we ever could.  Because while we deserve nothing, can claim nothing as of right, not even our life because it is a gift, we find that the gift that is life and new life becomes all the more present.  It is a strange phenomenon that the more we give the more we receive back, the more we let go of grasping the more we are able to hold.  It’s not an easy message to learn, but one that becomes liberating.  It is hospitable, it shares and it is generous.

Yesterday our Diocesan Synod meeting in Northampton passed a motion calling on the government to welcome to this country those who are suffering appalling abuse under Islamic State extremists and to support them in their hour of need.  As Bishop Donald said we don’t want to see the Middle East emptied of ancient Christian churches and peoples, but they are being murdered and do need help.  This is an expression of the hospitable, sharing and generous love of the cross.  The only reason to reject them is to want to horde and live in fear that someone else may share the rich bounty we have.  When we do share it we will find it tastes so much better.  That’s a theological rationale for it.  The other is just pure human compassion for people experiencing unthinkable brutality and hatred.  As Christians they share our name, they share the cross and so we share that cross with them in loving and longing for their welfare.

The cross is the logo of our faith.  It shows us that when we try to grasp and possess we ultimately lose everything.  When we let go, when we live with self-giving and sacrificial love we gain everything that matters.  Open, generous and hospitable.  That is the love of God on the cross, it is the message of the true Holy Rood.  May it shape us and our friends in Scotland this week and in the years to come.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Holy Cross Day, Sunday 14th September 2014