Friday, 22 March 2019

Pollution, Plastic, Litter!

I was doing some litter picking not far from where I live the other day, and I came across this. I cleared what I could, but sadly this stream isn't accessible to the public, so I could only gather what I could reach over the fence . . .

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

The Problem of Pain

Today’s Gospel reading is quite a difficult read right from the start. What are the events being talked about? It’s hard to be sure, though they’re clearly quite tragic. I’ve read a number of different theories, and the one that makes most sense to me is that both events - the murdered Galileans and the people killed when a tower fell on them - both events are linked to a project initiated by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate that aimed to improve the water supply to Jerusalem. That seems a very worthy initiative, and it was much needed, so you’d think it would have been popular with everyone.

But Pilate had decided to fund his project with money from the Temple treasury. I’m sure that seemed to him a sensible and practical way to do it. Jerusalem needed a water supply, so Jerusalem should pay for it. And since most of the money that came into the holy city ended up in the temple treasury, it surely made sense to use that money for this project.

But the people of the city, along with the many pilgrims who came to the Temple, were appalled at the thought of temple money being taken by the Romans. The Jewish equivalent of les gilets jaunes were soon out on the streets. Pilate’s response was to get his soldiers to mingle with the crowds in the disguise, so they could then deal with the trouble makers by falling on them with cudgels at a given signal. And that’s what they did, but with a vengeful violence that probably exceeded what Pilate had decreed. Still, no matter, order had been restored. And there would certainly have been Galilean pilgrims there. Maybe a group of them joined the protest, or maybe they were just there to make sacrifice, bystanders who got caught up in it all, with fatal consequences.

As for those killed when a tower fell: maybe they were Jews who’d taken Pilate’s penny (in other words, money from the temple) to work on the project. So when the tower fell on them and killed them that could have been seen as a just punishment from God for having received money stolen from his temple.

As people brought this news to Jesus, or asked him about it, were they pondering the question people have always asked, “Why did this tragedy happen to these people?” Did they think they knew the answer? What about the question behind that question: Why is there so much suffering in the world? Is suffering inextricably linked to the way we behave, the way we live our lives? But in that case, why do bad things happen to good people? Is all suffering caused by God? Should we think of suffering as a form of Divine punishment?

In his little book “The Problem of Pain”, one of our set books at college as I recall, C.S. Lewis looks at these questions and is forced to conclude that “The existence of suffering in a world created by a good and almighty God . . . is a fundamental theological dilemma and perhaps the most serious objection to the Christian religion.”  And it is, he’s right.

The people who came to Jesus had already come to a conclusion, I think, about those who died in these two disasters. They’d been punished, so they must have sinned, they must have transgressed. There was an obvious reason for the deaths of the eighteen people killed by the falling tower; and the Galileans? they too must have done something bad.

Many Christian scholars through the ages have tried to find a reasonable and logical answer to the problem of pain. At college, along with C.S. Lewis, we read Irenaeus, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth and many besides. Lots of attempts to answer the problem of pain - but every one fell short, or so it seemed. And it’s not just a question for religious people. Everyone faces it, in all walks of life. We all know of good people to whom bad things have happened. Sometimes we can see a cause, sometimes we can identify someone to blame. But not always by any means. Suffering just happens; perhaps I can reduce the risk of suffering happening to me, but nothing I do will make completely immune from it.

We may come up with ideas like “Only the good die young,” even though that too is patently untrue. It’s certainly not a new question, as we see when we read the Old Testament Book of Job, Job’s so-called friends see the string of tragedies that befall Job himself, and all they can say is well-meaning but stupid things like, “You need to call on God, you should be praying harder” or “Things could be worse,” or even “God’s punishment is lighter than you deserve.”

The last seven or eight days have seen terrorist attacks, in New Zealand, in Holland . . . and we’re rightly distressed to read of the victims and their stories. “Why are these terrible thing happening to such innocent people?” we ask.

But when Jesus was asked to comment on the two tragedies in our Gospel this morning, he made it very clear to those who came to him that the people who died were neither better nor worse than other folk. Insofar as we’re all sinners, we all stand in some way under the same sentence of death.
And it isn’t that there’s a direct causal relationship between sin and suffering, that God chooses to zap us in response to our sin. It’s not that simple; and yet there is a link, for all that. Sin causes suffering.

Let Pilate’s actions stand for the injustices perpetrated by those in powerful places. The high-handedness of tyrants and dictators - though even those elected democratically can act in ways that prove unjust, uncaring or just plain foolish, and these things cause hurt. Destructive behaviour, misuse of power, feuding and vengeance seeking - these are things that happen at every level of human life. The greed that grabs and hoards without considering the other; the anger that lashes out before trying to understand: all of these do damage, all have consequences. And as Christian folk we need to be ready to speak out and act against all that causes suffering to others, and also to be aware of these things in ourselves.

And that thought takes me back to the story Jesus went on to tell. What’s the meaning of the parable of the fig tree? Why did Jesus tell that particular parable, and why is it placed here in Luke’s Gospel? Here’s what I think.

Most of us would prize fairness as a vital human value, and it’s the sense of things “not being fair” that underlies our questions and anxieties about the problem of pain. God should play fair, and it feels as though he isn’t. Fairness means we’re rewarded for doing good and punished when we do wrong. Fairness suggests that when we do really well, we might get a special pat on the back, or even a bonus. And those who get things badly wrong should be excluded, or get the sack.

In the story what the landowner says sums up what most of us think of as fairness: “Look! For three years I’ve been coming for fruit from my fig tree, and still there’s none. Get rid of it - why should it go on wasting my soil?”

But the gardener begs him to let it stay another year; he’ll dig round it and add manure. And then if it bears fruit, it can stay; if not, it can be cut down. We may well think of the owner of the vineyard as standing for God; but what if we read this parable with God instead as the gardener? If you do, it becomes the manifesto, if you like, of the God who doesn’t operate according to the standard concepts of fairness that we employ - and if he did any of us might be rooted out as not fruitful enough. Our God is the God of patient and faithful tending, and he looks on us with hopeful expectation.

All we have is the present moment, and tomorrow is never guaranteed; now is the time for us to work at being fruitful, now is the time to oppose what causes hurt and discord. But  there’s a word of good hope for us in the story of the fig tree: a promise that, though tragic things will happen, God is still tending his garden. He still works in and through his people to bring light and life, love and peace to a broken and sinful world. May he work that work in us. Amen.

Friday, 15 March 2019

The Imitation of Christ - a sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent

The two vacant posts in our Deanery have now been advertised. I hear there’s been some interest, so I’m waiting hopefully to see if that translates into actual applications. Candidates would be coming to look round the parishes around the end of this month, I believe. Hearing that reminded of the day when I came to look at the Minsterley Group (with four other candidates) before my appointment there in 1993. I had four interviews. The toughest of those was with the wardens, but the toughest question I think was one asked at my interview with the bishop and the archdeacon of Ludlow, who at that time were still separate people, Ian Griggs and John Saxbee. I think it was Bishop Ian who asked “How will you go about being a wholesome example to your people, as you promised at your ordination?” 

“Goodness, did I promise that?” was my first thought. But of course I had, as part of the liturgy. As I said the words in the service, was I really applying them to me and my family? But they did apply to me and my family, of course. Now my kids are great, but no more so than anyone else’s. Back then they were just as prone as any other kids to have tantrums at just the wrong time. And, for all my saintly persona, after a sleepless night worrying about my tax return or the loss of five people from the electoral roll, followed by twin daughters acting up as I tried to feed them breakfast, I found it hard to be sweetness and light in church on Sunday, or queuing at the bread shop for my Monday loaf.

Maybe if I’d had my fingers crossed behind my back as I made my ordination vows? Well, no: anyway, the fact is that being baptised and confirmed imposes the duty of setting a good example not only on me but on all of us. We should all be living a Christ like life. One of the main reasons given by those who feel they need an excuse not to come to church is that “People in church are no better than the rest of us,” or even, “Church is just full of hypocrites!” My response to that is usually to murmur that no, it’s not full, we can generally fit a few more in.

So - I know I don’t always set the great example of faith and service that I wish I did. If I re-read even my best intentioned sermons I can’t help but find something in them of “Do as I say, not as I do.” So whenever I read this morning’s first reading, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I’m a bit shocked by it. I find myself thinking “How dare Paul say that?” How can he say “Join in imitating me”? Was Paul’s ego getting out of hand? Wasn’t he setting himself up for a fall? Life’s full of people set on pedestals and looked up to, imitated, copied, who then turn out to have feet of clay or worse.

So why would Paul say that? Well, here’s a thought. One of my first jobs was sandblasting electronic components in a large factory. We needed to be quick to keep up with the production line, and every component needed to be thoroughly cleaned, so we had to be accurate. I’d been told how to do the job, but when I actually started to do it I was slow and not very accurate. But one of the older hands stepped in and showed me how he did it, and by copying him I became quite good, certainly able to keep up with the pace of the line.

Because the best sort of learning is learning by example; being not told but shown how to do it. And Paul knew this. It was vital that his friends at Philippi, one of the churches he was closest to and fondest of, should have an example to copy and to imitate. It’s never enough just to be told, far better to follow the habits and practices of someone who’s already doing it, someone further down the road of learning than you are. Paul wasn’t perfect, and he never claimed to be, but he’d got some experience of being a disciple. He was already doing his best to follow Jesus, to imitate Jesus. So when he says imitate me, he’s not saying “See how great and wonderful I am”, he’s saying, “Imitate me in imitating Jesus Christ.” Do as I do: be like Jesus.

None of us lead perfect lives: fact. To do better we need to choose our role models carefully. What, who, are the good examples to aim for? Paul was telling the Philippians that there was no better role model than the one he followed. Jesus Christ. Imitate him - for if the example we follow isn’t worth imitating, we’re losing the game right from the start. 

Understanding that reassures me greatly. Fulfilling my ordination promise isn’t about me being perfect, but it does need me to be serious about what I’m doing. Paul said to the Philippians: “Be like me in following Jesus.” So who can I look to, to help me to follow Jesus, and imitate him? Paul himself is I think a bit remote: there’s lots in his writing I find exciting, lots that challenges me, but his letters are set in a very different world from mine. But you see, that’s why Paul was offering himself as an example then - not because he was doing it so well, though he didn’t do so badly, but because he was there, they could see him, they knew him, and they could understand him. So it was easier for them to relate how Paul did it to their own lives.

So when I need an example of Christian living, I could look to some of the present-day heroes of the faith, people whose courage I’ve admired, albeit from afar. Archbishop Tutu, whom I did once meet. Maybe the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis towards the end of the Second World War. I’ve admired his courage, and been inspired by his writing. Or maybe people who write honestly today about their discipleship struggles, like Adrian Plass.

But I think Paul also wanted the Philippians (and us) to think about how we ourselves can be examples and teachers, beginning with each other here in church, but also within the witness of our daily lives. People know what we do on a Sunday, so they’re likely to judge us on that, and to expect something from us midweek that testifies to our Sunday faith. And what they get they get, be it for better or for worse.

That can’t help but be a crucial element in my life as a minister. Even without my Sunday robes, my collar identifies me. And without my collar a lot of people still know me. So I’m not just Bill, I’m Bill the Vicar, which makes me Bill who knows and shows what being a person of faith is about. And if in an off duty moment I say something intemperate or do something uncaring, that’s a black mark not only against me but against the Church. And a hindrance to the Church in mission.

Now to a degree that’s true for all of us. It’s not that people expect me, or you, or any church member, to be perfect, but they do expect, or should, these two important things: firstly, that we really are doing our best to be like Jesus. And secondly, that when we don’t get it right we’re aware of that - in other words, we’re penitent.

In fact sometimes the best witness we offer to Christ is what we do when we get it wrong. That even applied to St Paul. When he got things wrong, which he did, he did his best to put them right, and to learn from them. I don’t remember how I answered Bishop Ian’s question, but if it was asked again now I’d want to say something about honesty. People don’t expect perfection from Christians, though they’d be right to expect a certain standard of goodness and kindness. But they do expect honesty.

Isn’t it painful to watch politicians when they get things wrong? They twist and turn on the hook, making this or that excuse. It seems a rule in political life never to admit to a mistake. You never say sorry, unless you’re saying sorry for something you yourself had no part in. When we make mistakes, when we fall short of the example we know Jesus has set us, we should fess up, admit to it, and aim to put things right and put ourselves right too. That’s the kind of honesty that leads to trust and sharing, and that opens our doors to others. It’s the honesty that builds a caring community, and that makes others not only want to imitate us, but also - I think, I hope - to join us.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Temptation - a sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent

It’s not often I get to quote from  Mae West at the beginning of a sermon, but here’s something she’s supposed to have said: “I was as pure as the driven snow - until I drifted.” Oscar Wilde is also generally good for a quote, and he famously said that he could resist anything except temptation. And also this: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

Well, temptation is high on our agenda today, as Lent begins and we consider the specific temptations experienced by our Lord as out in the wilderness he prepared for his ministry. Would Jesus have agreed with Oscar Wilde? Would he have sympathized with Mae West? Now I’m going to say yes he would (even if a qualified yes) in both cases. But let’s first of all look at the temptations he himself faced and indeed resisted.

Luke goes into some detail as he tells the story; and we see that firstly, the devil encourages Jesus to turn the stones of the desert into loaves of bread. Since Jesus had spent forty days not eating, he was pretty hungry. That provided the opening, but this temptation wasn’t just about solving Jesus’ own immediate hunger. Think about how good it would be if you really could turn stones into bread! Think of the suffering you could relieve, the empty stomachs you could fill, wouldn’t that make for a happier and better world? And straight away we see something important about temptation; we’re not often tempted into doing things that are obviously bad. Yes, there are those little insidious temptations that say things like, “Everyone else is doing it,” and “No-one’s going to know,” but on the whole temptation isn’t so much about doing bad things as about doing things for the wrong reason, or allowing the wrong things to take charge of our lives.

Like the second temptation where the devil offers Jesus political power. All this I will give you, he says. Surely me having power is fine if I’m going to do good things with it? Many a dictator has started out that way. Jesus is offered the potential to do good on a huge scale. Who wouldn’t go for that? But Jesus didn’t.

And then lastly the devil prompts Jesus to put God himself to the test. And in the process, I suppose, to dazzle the people into believing in him. If Jesus leapt from the top of the Temple, so that the angels could save him just as promised in Scripture, wouldn’t every religious leader fall in line behind him? 

Not a single one of these temptations was in itself a bad thing. But what every one was really doing was enticing Jesus to take a short cut rather than the path of doing his Father’s will. To set his own agenda, and to go for quick gains rather than what he was truly called to do. The devil basically admits that’s what he’s about when he says, “Just bow down and worship me.” These temptations are about turning aside from the true path, knowing better than God, and letting the devil take charge. If you prefer you can say, instead of “the devil”, expediency, lust for power, worldly ambition - the same thing applies.

Mae West was as pure as the snow until she drifted. I think Jesus would have sympathised with her drifting. That’s what most of us do, drift into sin rather than openly choose to do bad stuff. We get tempted by plausible suggestions. It’s like when a telephone con man reels you gently in, playing with your hopes and fears,  before he tricks you into doing the stupid thing, parting with a shedload of money or handing over the details of your account. You’re knocked off course, and you may hardly realise it’s happened. And that’s what sin is, by the way. The Greek word is hamartia. It doesn’t mean doing bad, naughty things so much as missing the mark, being off course.

Would Jesus have agreed with Oscar Wilde? Not entirely, since he didn’t give in to temptation. But he’d have recognised the truth in Wilde’s point that a temptation resisted doesn’t then go away and leave you alone; it grows more persuasive till the itch to have or do what you’re not allowed is so strong you can think of nothing else. Best to give in, Oscar Wilde said. Better to have a firm and secure answer to it, Jesus would have said, I think.

The temptations of Jesus in the desert were not a one-off thing. Out there Jesus could face up to them, and find the words to answer them (which we’ll come back to in a minute). But not to conquer them completely: they weren’t going to go away. They’d be there all through his ministry. At the end of the story the devil didn’t give up and run off with his tail between his legs. No, he simply held back and kept his silence until an appropriate time.

The temptations would only disappear if he gave in to them. That was Oscar Wilde’s theory, anyway. But Wilde was wrong to think so. Temptation doesn’t disappear if you give in to it. It may seem that way, for a while, but what really happens is that it mutates and grows, it snares more of your life and becomes more deadly. There’s no way to appease temptation.

Finding the words to answer temptation; knowing what the words and the thoughts were that would guide his life; that’s what Jesus was doing in the desert. The devil tries his hardest, his damnedest I guess you’d have to say, but Jesus is always able to put him in his place and silence him. How? By always quoting scripture. It worries me that Christians often don’t know or use the Bible as well as we should. We may have to work at it, but all that we need is there.

And that’s why we always read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert on the first Sunday of Lent. He took forty days to prepare himself, to tune himself into his Father’s will, and to use the Scriptures to answer and to shut out the insidious but ultimately discordant voices of temptation. We’re given forty days to do the same; to be aware of those areas of our Christian living where we lack discipline and order and to get ourselves back into gear. And remember how temptation doesn’t go away, and how to exploits every weak point. We should be constantly on our guard, against the forces that seek to jostle or cajole or steer us away from the path of obedience to the Gospel and to our Lord, wanting to take first place in our hearts.

For me that makes Lent a holy and blessed time; in these forty days God gives us time to measure up to temptation, and to renew our awareness of his word, and to restore some discipline in our lives; to take stock, to be clear about where we’re headed, and to be better aware of his call, and ready to serve.

And we need it because we’ll always fail and fall short. But though no-one can earn their way to God, God offers us life as his gift to us. Jesus actually spent a lot of time with the sort of people holy folk turned away from, and he seemed to enjoy and value their company. So maybe Lent needs also to be a time to expand our circles of awareness. What God offers is for everyone, not just a few. There may be only a few here today, but remember that there’s no-one out there that God doesn’t love. And he wants them to know that, and he wants us to part of how they find that out.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, missing the mark, and the Greek word for repentance - in this Lenten season of repentance - is metanoia. Now metanoia means “to change one’s mind or heart,”  or, more precisely, “to go beyond the mind we have now.” Lent is a time for repentance, and so we should think seriously about temptation and sin, but we asked for more than just that. Metanoia is also about seeing things - the world, other people, ourselves - in a new way, seeing beyond what we think we know.

So, as well as countering temptation and adding discipline, Jesus was preparing himself for a ministry that was completely inclusive, that reached out to all. And we too should be using Lent to learn new things, and to grow as God’s people. Thy will be done, we pray, and those four words are a good theme for our keeping of Lent. Thy will be done in me, in us, here in this place, and in the day the Lord is giving us. So may our Lent be a time of change, growth, and of seeing in new ways, and of getting ready to go beyond where we are now.