Guildford URC July 10th 2016
Readings: Genesis 12:1-9; Mark 11:15-19
The dust has not yet settled on the effects of the EU referendum vote and probably will not for some time yet. This issue has divided people in this country like no other in my lifetime. It would be inappropriate of me to use the privilege of a pulpit platform to sound forth my own view on the matter, but it has led me to share some thoughts on a couple of passages of Scripture, the implications of which I had not fully comprehended before
One of the things that upset me about the debate that went on nationally was that much of it went down the line of “What’s in it for me?”Almost the whole of the focus was on “Will we be better off in or out?” There were dire warnings from the Remain campaign on what might happen if we voted to leave. The chancellor threatened an emergency budget, a position away from which he has now moved. The “Leave” campaign had its battle bus emblazoned with the logo £350 million a week goes to Brussels and this could be spent on the NHS, and now Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove have distanced themselves from this claim. Apart from the propaganda element on both sides, the appeal is that we should be better off in or out.
Seldom was the argument put that either staying or leaving would be better for Europe or the world as a whole. The question was always “What has Europe done for us” not “what can we do for Europe?”
Now I am aware that this could be misconstrued as pious do goodery and there may be a little naivety in the statement, but I want to suggest that rather than naivety, it emerges from a reading of the Jewish and Christian scriptures that challenges how many of us, most of the time, live our lives.
I want to start right back with founder of the Jewish faith, Abram. He lived in a wealthy area, in the city of Ur. At a mature age he believed he had heard from God a message to leave, to move on, in faith, and that God would bless him and his family, even though he had no children. Moreover, with that promise came another one, that as God would bless him so he was to be a blessing to others. It is that last phrase that I had never noticed before. A lot of people have criticised the Jewish faith because of its exclusive claims to be “a chosen” race and even now the claims of the State of Israel, from a religious point view, are based on the view that the land was given to them by God. But it takes on an entirely different hue when you add that last phrase “You are blessed in order to be a blessing to others. Now for a moment let us translate that idea to the church. You have been blessed in order to be a blessing to others
It is all very well paying lip service to that fine sentiment but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A quick look at any church’s programme of activity reveals where its emphasis is.
Jesus, too, the one we, as Christians, claim to follow was also on the same track. He went to the centre of the Jewish faith, the great Temple in Jerusalem and wanted to find a place of welcome for all sorts of people and was disgusted with what the organised religion of his day was doing- making money, observing ritual, exploiting people and worst of all excluding people. He quotes Scripture;
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of robbers!”
It made him pretty angry. Some would say his anger spilled over into violence, at least violence against property.
We are living in a society where privilege and exclusivity are seen as the norm. How many of us have bought property or thought of buying property on “exclusive estates” thinking that word just means “nice”.It means keeping others out. It means privilege. Much of our society is built this way.
We see it in education, whether its the public v private debate or the repositioning issues that go on in university league tables. I served on the governing body of a northern university for 6 years and when the discussion of tuition fees came up we eventually, after the first year of slightly lower than the full £9000p.a. fee, decided to apply the full fee, as it was felt that students would think we weren’t offering as good an education as those more “exclusive” universities charging the full fee therefore we should put ours up to that level.
Most societies are pyramid shaped. A few powerful and wealthy elites at the top that today are getting wealthier, a significant number of would be, aspiring middle managers floating around the centre and the masses at the bottom and although we have nominally moved away from this, that very funny sketch that many of us will remember with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, about the British class system, still rings true in the mind and hearts of many. It’s in the church, too. A woman once said to me when I visited her that she likes going to church because you meet a “nicer class of person.”
A phrase that started with the Roman Catholic church, but has now been adopted by many churches and groups is “the common good! It’s a movement to help set the social agenda of today’s church.
Just as Abraham and Sarah’s identity was to be “Us for them”, or “us with them”, “us for the benefit of all” so this is the kind of identity that is best for every individual, every culture, every nation, every religion. It says “We’re special” but it also says “they’re special, too. It says God has a place and a plan for us but it also says that God has a place and plan for others, too
When we drift from that high calling and start thinking of only of me or of our clan, or our nation or our religion, our sense of identity begins to go stale, and sour, even toxic…
I think the story of Abram and Sarah’s identity tells us something important about God’s identity, too. God is not the tribal deity of of one group of chosen people. God is not “for us” and against all others. God is for us and for them too. God’s love, concern and compassion is for everyone, everywhere, no exceptions.
That must not be misconstrued that God is a soft touch. Time and again in Scripture we see God’s judgement on oppression, injustice, slavery, violence, and exploitation and any race, religion, community and individual is capable of those things. God’s call, throughout history, has been to repent, to turn back to those basic truths about the giftedness of life, the call to human flourishing and the challenge to love God and neighbour.
And this is what faith is about. It’s not about using God to get us a special advantage, or to give us a magic formula for success. It is not about giving us what one member of a church once told me is best summed up in the phrase “warm fuzzies” It isn’t a mark of superiority or exclusion. True faith is about joining God in God’s love for everyone. It’s about seeking goodness with others and not at their expense. True faith is about seeing a bigger circle in which we are all concerned, all connected, all included, all loved and all blessed.
I hope that like me, you were appalled at some of the language used in recent weeks about immigrants as Polish vermin, and about refugees fleeing Syria as “cockroaches”. Some of the Christian ethos that once influenced our nation has slowly been eroded
But if we, as people of the Christian faith have been blessed, if we recognise the challenge in those words written perhaps two and a half thousand years ago, in what ways can we see ourselves as blessed?
For me it is something to do with encountering truth and for the Christian community that means the truth about life, the truth about ourselves and the truth about God that we have seen in Jesus Christ.
Let me speak on a simply human level for a moment and say to you that Jesus is my hero.
I don’t know whether or not you have any heroes – people you look up to, people who inspire you people who somehow take life to another level, if only for a moment. Apart from sports starts, a few people in my lifetime have done that for me. Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Junior, and at a personal level some local Christian leaders who have influenced me deeply.
But more than all of them, and an inspiration to most of them was this man, Jesus of Nazareth.
This was a man who emphasised love, not a sentimental type of love but a tough love which extended to friends, strangers and enemies. A love which sought to embrace, to include, especially those whom many sought to exclude.
He put a remarkable emphasis on forgiveness, perhaps as much, or even more than on love. It’s as if he knew that people would mess up so he didn’t put all his emphasis on moral goodness but rather on the ability to forgive and receive forgiveness and start again
Leonard Cohen, the Canadian songwriter in his song “the Anthem” puts it like this:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Jesus knew that people, all people are “cracked” and that it is recognising our crackedness that real spiritual, moral and human growth can take place.
Then there was Jesus’s courage. Remember when he stood before and angry baying crowd of men armed with stones and self righteous indignation who had brought a woman caught in the act of adultery before him (no mention of the man being brought for justice) and Jesus looks them all in the eye and challenges them. “you who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Would any man here have that sort of courage?
Or what about when he went to a graveyard in the dead of night to meet a man who couldn’t be bound by chains and who was screaming out and cutting himself to pieces, and spent the whole night there working through his psychoses,, bringing him to his rightful mind.
And then his courage in facing up to his own suffering and death on a cross and refusing to run away with it.
You can perhaps see why he is a hero to me and I guess to many of you here.
And the Christian claim is that it is in him that we can see the face of God. This is what reality is like. This is the human face of God. This is the man who invites the whole human family to share in, to be a part of the family of God.
For me, for us, when that truth sinks in, when it takes root in our lives, we are truly blessed by God, because we’ve become alive, spiritually alive, with a purpose and vision for living And this Jesus becomes more than a hero but a living presence and reality in our lives..
And that’s why our purpose, our calling, if you like, is to live Christlike lives and seek to be a blessing to others.
To people we know, our local neighbours, colleagues, friends and family; to people whom we may never meet but who are part of the human family God has created and may need our blessing; and most difficult of all, to those who aren’t like us, who are not of our tribe, whether that be a tribe of ethnicity, faith group, nation or even those who would opposes and even seek to destroy us.
“My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations”
The story of Abram tells us something about true faith. It is not about list of beliefs Whilst I can say the traditional creeds and mean them do you realise that the life of Jesus is reduced to a comma – “born of the virgin Mary, (Comma) suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified dead and buried. No mention at all about his life which is why he was crucified! Christianity is not about ideas or statements that we have to memorise or assent to if we want to be blessed.. It s not al list of rules of dos and don’t s we have to perform in order to be blessed. Abram had no Bible, doctrines, temples, commandments or rituals For him true faith was trusting a promise of being blessed to be a blessing. It wasn’t a way of being religious but a way of being alive. It was about joining God in God’s love for everyone It’s about seeking goodness with others, not at the expense of others.
Of course, Abram and Sarah screwed up from time to time. They were as cracked as we are. But even when they lost sight of the vision, as we do sometimes, God remained faithful. Through their mistakes and failures, they kept learning, growing and discovering more of the God who called them to be a blessing to others.
Now I don’t know what all this might mean for your church. I do know that you have been going through a difficult time. I do not know what your “church programme” looks like. I suspect, that like many churches today you may just be trying to “hang on” and I understand that. But today, more than ever, we need people committed to “the common good”, who recognise how blessed they have been and want to reach out and share their good fortune, their material blessings and their faith with others. It doesn’t mean that we become “God bashers” but simply people who are motivated to show God’s love for the whole world by the way they treat others, neighbours and strangers.
So don’t give up! Come and have your faith nourished by indwelling presence of the God who is like Jesus. Let him be your hero and more than a hero – the face of God who will walk with you through life. Continue to know that you are blessed by knowing that God is like this, and let all of us realise how blessed we are that we might be a blessing to others and be truly committed to the COMMON good and not just the good of others like us. And we can continue to do that whether or not we are within the European Union.