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Mark 1.21-28: Male authority/Queer Jesus

 

Lets face it this is a passage which has essentially two themes; the over whelming authority of the man Jesus and his exorcism of an evil spirit.  Male authority?  The healing of mental illness through exorcism?  Maybe we should just give up now!

The first thing that strikes you is that Mark is desperate to show that everyone was amazed by Jesus’ authority but reading this in England in 2018 it is difficult to be impressed by a man showing authority and status.

 

It feels like we are going through a time of great change in our understanding of authority, of status, of hierarchy.  When I was little I knew that across the world they celebrated Australia day and I felt in a comforting kind of a way that this might be a nod towards the British Empire and my own country and monarchy.  But when I opened the paper on Saturday I discover that 60,000 marched through Melbourne calling it ‘Invasion Day’ and that the protests were joined by a huge group of ‘Queer Activists’ making parallels between LBGT oppression and the oppression of the indigenous population by the British. It turns out, unsurprisingly that not everyone celebrates the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales and the raising of the Flag of Great Britain at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip.

I do understand and affirm this rage – I am not one of the new Right trendies who think this is Political correctness gone mad, but I still feel a little bit in transition from one world to another.  As if narratives of what it means to be human are being newly created and I am a bit behind the curve.

I was delighted by the rage about how woman have been treated in Westminster over the years, delighted that the behaviour at the so called ‘Presidents Club Dinner’ last week was condemned.  But I also got that sense of being a new place where things that had been accepted where now being condemned.  I think its because I remember living and sharing in a culture which joked about or spoke disparagingly about women or individuals who were LBGT.  A kind of uneasy feeling that I had been part of the problem, that I was still in transition to this new place.

 

This new world which we are now inhabiting tells a new story about equality and inclusivity but it is a story which can make us cynical of people who seem to represent any kind of authority or status or hierarchy.  I really don’t think it is enough for us to say ‘Hey kids, look at Jesus he was really cool, always standing with the outsider and the marginalised, he supported women and if he’d known he would have loved LGBT folk too’.

 

No, the whole thing about amazement at Jesus’ authority leaves me cold.  But what does excite me, because it runs counter to this tired ‘Jesus as a sandal wearing good guy’ narrative is the spiritual nature of this story, the supernatural element.  Did you notice how Jesus doesn’t talk to the man who is ill he talks to the spirits?  And when the spirits say ‘I know who you are, you are the Holy one of God’, Jesus rebukes him saying ‘Be silent and come out of him’.

Jesus calls for silence, a silence which is partly about rebuking God’s enemies, but also the first strike in the spiritual battle which is ever present in Mark.  The whole notion of spiritual battle is can make us feel uneasy, but ‘spiritual battle’ can be a way of describing the engagement with hidden and negative powers both in ourselves and in the community which need to be overcome.  This is not me saying that we all start having to be obsessed by the spiritual as some hidden realm that we as Christians have special access to.  What I mean is that there is more to life than we see, that realty is bigger than we can perceive, that we need humility in the face of a world we don’t fully understand.

But the silence is also the beginning of another huge theme in Mark, that of Messianic secrecy.  That Jesus in Mark’s Gospel wants to keep secret who he is, that he is God’s son.

What is exciting about Jesus rebuking the spirit with the command to be Silent is that it is about Jesus maintaining the mystery surrounding his identity.  Throughout Mark’s Gospel there is a demand for silence alongside a total failure of everyone around Jesus to understand what is being said.

It seems to me that the great changes taking place in our society today.  The huge changes in relation to the status and respect for women – something that I as the father of three women am eternally grateful for.  The huge changes in relation to LBBT rights – again something that I am grateful for as so many of those who I dearly love are part of that community.  But also the moving on from the division between ‘Identity politics’ and so called ‘real economic’ politics – the fact that now we see the link between development economics and questions of gender, race and sexuality.

So looking again at this passage and seeing my initial disappointment that this was Mark’s story about people being amazed at his authority and status – something that didn’t seem so amazing or exciting to me – Now, I read it and see something different.  I see a Jesus who places himself as the heart of a narrative about the mystery of his identity and invites me to enter into a conversation about the mystery of my identity.  An invitation that begins with a questioning of old authorities, even a silencing of old authorities in the face of the new, the alien, the divine.

At evening prayer this week we had that verse from the letter to the Colossians which always confuses me, where Paul says: “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church”.  It confuses me because it seems to suggest that I have to kind of ‘top up’ Christs sufferings with some of my own.  But what the verse really means is that we are all ‘In Christ’, that is, in the suffering and pain of being human we are with Christ.  Being Christian is not about avoiding pain and suffering but rather about sharing in it with Christ.

We share too in the mystery of identity, of what it might mean to be human, to be part of the changing narratives of how we relate to and love each other.  About how we can, despite our many failings, our many past and present prejudices and past and present wounds and dysfunctionalism, still be seeking to be made whole both as individuals and as the community of the Church.

Maybe all of us need to start by being silent, that we might better enter an examination of ourselves as people called to participate in the divine life, a life where status finally gives way to a unity and an inclusivity which is beyond our present imagining.  Amen.

 

Sermon: The Wedding at Cana

Last week Robert and the ministry team gave me a wonderful painting for my birthday and on the back, was written some words from the Benedictine Tradition: ‘Why have you come?’  Which you might think are strange words, I mean I work here!  In the Benedictine tradition when anyone comes to join the religious community they are not given an easy time, in fact Benedict’s rule states that they should be kept outside for 4 or 5 days to see if they persevere with their knocking on the door.

Its good to hear that religious communities want to ask some difficult questions of people who want to join.  But it is also common for individuals themselves to be reluctant to respond to a sense of vocation.  Often people discerning their vocation to the priesthood say, ‘I was reluctant, but God had other plans’ and traditionally in some parts of the Church those who are asked to be Bishops decline at first as a sign of their humility.

One begins to wonder how anyone ever gets to do anything in the church with on the one hand people saying that they are reluctant and on the other hand the Church asking, ‘Why have you come?’

In the Gospel today, Jesus and his disciples go to a wedding – and they go because they have been invited.  The story begins with the words’ ‘On the third day’ which could mean exactly that but could also be a reference to the resurrection which took place ‘on the third day’.  This gives us a little clue to some of the ways in which we can read this story.  So I just want to share with you some of the key themes of this story to help us unpack it.

This miracle is only in John’s Gospel, it is the first of seven miracles or signs which reveal to us that Jesus is no ordinary man but is the Son of God.  That is why we have this reading in Epiphany, the season all about the revelation of Jesus to the world – the miracle at the wedding at Cana is the first sign that Jesus is not just anybody, that Jesus is divine.

 

At the end of the story we hear that Jesus did this sign, the first of his signs, and that this revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.  We, like the disciples, have come to follow Jesus maybe reluctantly, maybe feeling judged by a church which asks us why have you come here, but this miracle is the first stage on the journey – the disciples saw it and they believed in him.  So one of the key themes of this story is discipleship – that when we follow Jesus, when we begin the journey, maybe sceptically or reluctantly, God rewards us with the gift of belief.  Some more than others, but we are gifted belief.

The second important theme is the wedding.  Jesus draws on the theme of the wedding and the banquet often in his ministry.  The wedding Banquet is a sign of messianic fulfilment.  i.e. it’s a vision of the ideal community of the church, of life in heaven, of our life with God in Jesus.  The end of discipleship in this life might be suffering and death but ultimately it is the marriage feast, the banquet in heaven.

So when the waiter says ‘you have kept the good wine until now’ – it’s a proclamation of the coming of the messianic days, that Jesus is the messiah, that God has come to be among us.

And of course, the main theme is the abundance of wine.  120 gallons – that is a lot of wine.  Throughout the Old Testament one of the great signs of the Joy of God’s Kingdom is an abundance of wine.

 

So three big themes: discipleship, the disciples follow and believe, the wedding Feast as a vision of the fulfilment of God’s promises, a vision of heaven and lastly an abundance of wine, a sign of what the kingdom of God is like, filled with the abundance of God’s love.

Aside from Jesus the other key person in this story is Mary and her last recorded words in John’s Gospel:  ‘Do whatever he tells you’.  Mary can be seen as both a symbol of the Church and of the New Eve.  Jesus calls Mary ‘Woman’ in this story, which always sounds a bit rude but it actually gives us a clue about who Mary is.  Just as Jesus is sometimes called the New Adam, so Mary is the New Eve in a very particular sense.  God is redeeming, saving creation and he does it through showing us a new way of being human, a new Adam and a new Eve.  Just as Mary will stand at the foot of the cross and be a sign of God’s mission after the death of Jesus so the Church is called to be a sign of God’s love in the world.

Her words ‘Do whatever he tells you’ are good advice.  Once we make the decision to follow Jesus – however reluctantly, sceptically or uncertainly we are obliged to try to live according to Jesus’ instructions.  We may fail to live according to Jesus’ advice, but we nevertheless seek to follow it because we consider ourselves to be disciples of Jesus.

So, answering the question ‘Why did you come?’ is in one sense very easy.  We came to follow Jesus.  But we know from bitter experience that in our life of discipleship we often fail, we are weak, we lack discernment, we lack judgment, we lack courage.

The story of the wedding at Cana is essentially a story about discipleship – about you and me being followers of Jesus.  And what it seems to say to me is that although we don’t have all the answers, although we are often confused or hurting, although we are often sceptical or uncertain, yet by remaining faithful disciples we open ourselves up to the free git of a mystical abundance.  Not a sufficiency but an abundance.

The abundant love symbolised by the wine at Cana prefigures the abundant love of the cross, resurrection and ascension.  This is the wonder of the glorified Christ which Fr. Benson was talking about last week – this is what the wedding Banquet and its abundance of wine represents.

What are you doing here?  Why have you come?

Do whatever he tells you.

“What Jesus did at Cana in Galilee marked the beginning of his signs; thus he revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.”

 

Amen.

Sermon for January 14th 2018: Fr. Benson Commemoration.

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Relying heavily on M.L.Smith’s essay “The theological vision of Father Benson” in “Benson of Cowley” OUP 1980

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”

One of the joys of getting older is that you forget things far more often, but I had forgotten just how miserable January can be.  Days where it never quite gets light properly, where one struggles with some new variant of flu, where the problems and anxieties you left in the last year wake you in the night to remind you just what a mess you’ve made of things.  Positive thinking, like the cold fog, seems next to impossible.

 

So maybe it wouldn’t be your first choice to come to church today to celebrate the memory of the founder of the Cowley Fathers and first Vicar of this Church, who was once described as being made of ‘cat gut and iron’, a man who inherited much of the sober austerity of his hero Edward Pusey, a man who in one version of the story made the Cowley Fathers so gloomy and life denying that they sent him off to America so others could inject a bit of joy.

 

If that’s how you feel then its worth remembering that we don’t come here to meet people we like, we come here to meet people we are called to love – and we might end up liking them in the process – maybe.

Benson, our first vicar, is worth spending time with because he shares so many of our hopes and fears.  He once said, a very January thought I think, “Christian Dogma is often spoken of as dead and dry and indeed as men are apt to fight for it, it is dead and dry…It remains a dogma of the faith but no more like the original dogma of the faith than an empty husk that lies on the ground identical with the fruit once found upon the tree”.  Benson shares our January grumpiness.  He is also critical of the conventional concept of faith as an assent to propositions.  The divine Mystery is not mere knowledge says Benson but ‘the continuous apprehension of a continuous realty, a living receptivity’.  He goes on to say the Beatific vision will not be a stationary contemplation of a fixed form… we are called to rejoice in God’s truth as a continually progressive acquisition’.

 

And I hope by now you are warming to Benson, to his desire not to be static but to an elastic, and energised faith.  It turns out that Benson is quite Tiggerish, and invites us to some theological tiggerishness in this dark time of the year.

And as we all know The wonderful thing about tiggers / Is tiggers are wonderful things / Their tops are made out of rubber / Their bottoms are made out of springs / They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun / But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is I’m the only one / IIIII’m the only one!

Benson, like Tigger, is a man on the move, he has an ecstatic and dynamic understanding of human beings and this feeds all his writings.  He bemoans those whose antagonism to faith lacks ‘the clothing, the atmosphere, the elasticity, the emotions of the divine life’.  Benson is forever ‘stepping forth’, rising up or breaking bonds.

In our most gloomy January moments God seems so static, so brittle but Benson speaks of ‘the relative energy of God within himself’ – the word energy keeps coming up in his attempts to give utterance to the Divine life.  In talking about God’s creative act, God’s outpouring of himself into creation he speaks of God “Having burst the bonds of his own Divine existence”.  What an amazing thing to say – God bursting the bonds of his own divine existence, as if even God can’t keep God in – the creative energy bursts forth, it must be proclaimed, like a kind of undiluted joy.

At the heart of Benson’s thinking about God was a great devotion to the mysteries of the Ascension.  I love reading about this because I am deeply fearful of a Christian community that has so lost its elasticity, its bounce, that it has fragmented the birth of Jesus from his death and from his resurrection and ascension.  This is Benson at his most beautiful, talking about the Ascension, about Jesus’ joy in his exaltation: “His humanity rejoices to be welcomed and rewarded as the Father’s son with the infinity of eternal love flowing forth in the perfected consciousness of his human nature”.

In Baptism, in the Eucharist, in our life together in the Church we are caught up in Christ, we inhabit the space of the risen and ascended Christ.  Benson writes: “We do not, I think, dwell as we ought on the present glorification of our natures, in our own persons, as the members of the glorified body of Christ”.

It is January, it is gloomy but we are here, we are members of the glorified body of Christ.  As its my birthday indulge me by listening to this much over used quote from Thomas Merton when he, it seems, had a revelation of our common calling:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Benson was fascinated by the 10 days between Pentecost and the Ascension – days when Benson imagined Christ moving through the nine angelic orders in an intensifying process of glorification.  Even here Benson cannot let Christ stand still, his glory is intensifying.  We are singing two of Benson’s hymns today – they don’t write them like that anymore – wow, that last verse:

“Oh the depths of Joy divine

Thrilling through those orders nine

When the lost are found again

When the banished come to reign.”

On this day when we honour Fr Benson’s memory, may we too be filled with the energy, the bounce, the elasticity, the light and the Joy of the ascended Lord, with a Spirit filled faith that recognises our salvation as rooted not in personal good works but in the grace we find in the community of the Church.  Angelic Light, illumination not of our own making but, in Fr Benson’s words, ‘an inherent participation in Divine self knowledge’.  Amen.

Christmas Day Sermon 2017

“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”

Lying in bed as a child being read to by my dad, usually the latest Roald Dahl story – is certainly one of my early memories.  Stories, it seems, were easier to hear back then when the boundary between real and imaginary was less clear, when the world in my head interacted more openly with the world out there.

One of the cruelties of adulthood is the removal of story from that central position, the relegating of the things of the heart, the things of the imagination to a secondary place.  It’s a process, maybe necessary in some ways but also destructive.  With the teenage years can come a ‘grown-up’ perspective where story becomes something less than real.

As a teenager I disliked Luke’s soppy story of the birth of Jesus with its shepherds and stable and sheep.  I had ‘grown up’ sufficiently to know that it was all just a fantasy, an invention that took place in Luke’s head alone.

Thankfully as I get older I find I can creep back into Luke’s story, peer round the corner of my scepticism into that back yard stable and maybe glimpse something that I never saw before.

Lancelot Andrewes in his 1618 sermon for the feast of the nativity calls the manger in which Christ was born a cratch – in fact its an old Middle English word for a feeding trough or rack for animals and it comes from the Old French Creche.

Andrewes writes:

We may as well begin with Christ in the cratch; we must end with Christ on the cross.  The cratch is a sign of the cross…  The scandal of the cratch is a good preparative to the scandal of the cross”

The beauty of these lines is the powerful link they make between the manger and the cross.  The story of Jesus can move us, can transform us but it is when we see the bigger story that our life is changed.  When we allow ourselves to hear the story from the cratch to the cross.

Sometimes when we know stories well it can be difficult for us to hear them again, as if for the first time.  I am sure all of us have had that experience of seeing a play again after many years have passed or reading a book for a second time that we first read decades ago only to find that the story disappoints or that it hits us like a whirlwind and seems to transform everything.  I am not good at returning to novels but when I have done it often seems like a different book!

Some people are keen to distinguish between nostalgia and the deep longing for a lost innocence – but I am not sure I can always tell the difference.  However we are richly blessed by God when he gives us the grace to see this story of the birth of Jesus again, as we first saw it, to rekindle, as it were, our first love.

The word manger seems to have lost all its dirt and horror, the word cratch is maybe too niche and beasts feeding trough sounds too utilitarian.  But whatever it is, it holds on this holy night of story, the son of God.  It is the sign that the angels have given to the shepherds, a sign that speaks of great humility.  Would that we could be overtaken by such humility ourselves this Christmastide.

The profound humility of the manger is a story we can never tire of hearing but it is also a story about love.  To quote Andrewes again:

“The cratch is the cradle of his love, no less than of his humility, and able to provoke our love again”.  How does this story of God coming to us in the Christ child, provoke your love?

The Greek Philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics insists that in certain expressions form and matter are indissoluble, that the transformative power of story and the meaning of the story are grasped through the story itself.

Which is a posh way of saying, read the story dummy – its all there.  God appears to us in a manger, in a stable, surrounded by the beasts of the field.

Luke’s angels and shepherds, his stable and Christ lying in a manger is just a story, the stuff of childhood make believe.  By God’s grace may it be a story that leads us from the cratch to the cross and beyond, a story that provokes our love and helps us to see once again the son of God lying in a manger.  Amen.

Midnight Mass Sermon 2017

I can still remember sitting in a Coventry classroom being told about Forster’s novel Howards End.  ‘Only…connect’ my lovely English teacher would say gently touching her hands together.  I was glued to the BBC version which begins, like the novel with the delivery of a letter.  In this novel Words are very important but also how they are communicated.

Our Midnight Mass order of service could also have printed on its cover the words ‘Only Connect’ because we come here at the dead of night to celebrate the mystery of the incarnation, the Word made flesh.  God seeking connection with his creation.

When I first arrived in the parish 2 years a go I delighted in telling people I was the new Adam.  The last Vicar was called Adam but ‘the second Adam or the new Adam is a title for Jesus.  God becoming Man in Jesus.  The title second Adam reminds us that Jesus doesn’t appear out of nowhere.  As the 17th century Divine Richard Hooker writes:

All things which God… hath brought forth were eternally and before all times in God… Therefore whatever we do behold now in this present world, it was enwrapped within the bowels of divine mercy, written in the book of eternal wisdom…” (Bk 5. 56)

The world around us, the created order, our loved ones, our communities, trees, sky, land and sea – all of this is at root of God.  But our failure to recognise this, to see God in the world around us has led to a disconnect between us and creation.  We live selfishly for ourselves forgetting the poor, the needy, nations torn apart by war and forgetting  our place as participants in creation rather than its rulers.

Christmas is the celebration of God redeeming creation through creation.  God comes into creation as a human person, showing us the path to a renewed creation.

This Christmas lets hold on to the inherent goodness of the created order, hold onto the divine mercy which infuses every part of creation.  Did any of you see Judi Dench’s amazing programme about trees.  I only caught a bit of it but she seemed to have named all the trees in her garden – maybe after departed loved ones, but she also spoke to a succession of ‘tree experts’ who revealed to her the incredible way in which trees communicate with other trees and with the world around them – changing the taste of their leaves when under attack or sending off clouds of dust to attract or repel.  The most amazing thing was the network of fungi on the roots of trees which allows them to communicate underground.  The planet in all its diversity is talking to itself in numerous ways we are yet to understand – created through the word of God, those words are still reverberating.

Some Christians get very taken up with the notion that God had to send Jesus because we had messed up the world with sin.  While this may be so there is a Franciscan tradition that Jesus was always coming, that this birth carries with it not primarily a note of admonishment but primarily a desire to connect, an opening to joy, to divine sharing.

And just as Jesus was always coming to be with us so the work of the incarnation continues as the love of God is realised in our living and our connecting. Jesus Christ is not a sign pointing beyond himself to an angry God, he is himself the indivisible God/man, he is the reality he signifies.

 

I was talking to someone a few months back about my spiritual life and she said something along the lines of – Phil you are always like water, flowing out, on the move but you need also to remember to be more tree like, to remind yourself of your rootedness.

In so much of our lives we can be so taken up with the flow of life that we fail to remember our rootedness.  God becoming human in Jesus is not just another event in the endless flow of events which pass us by, another thing to pick up on the way to fulfilled living.  It is the calling to a new rootedness in the divine life of the creator God.  A rootedness that demands a new connection with the earth in all its variety and diversity.

As Margaret declares in Howards End:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect…”

And from our Gospel tonight:

“The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have see his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Amen.

 

 

 

Lamp 7 – The Feast of Christ the King

christ-the-king-constantinople

 

On  the January 21 1924 in the hills near Moscow Lenin died. Many, including Lenin himself, had wanted Trotsky to take his place but it was Stalin who got the job, and the rest, as they say, is history. It wasn’t until my early 20s that I realised that Russian Communism maybe wasn’t the answer, until I started to see a bigger picture.

World war One had seen the fall of so many big dynasties the Hohenzollerns , Romanovs, Habsburgs, and the Osmans.

For the church and for society there was a fearfulness about what the future held – maybe Stalin was the answer?  The world was changing fast and new ideologies where moving quickly to fill the apparent vacuum.  The Feast of Christ the King was created in 1925 to speak directly into this vacuum.  And although the names and groups are different it is easy to see some comparisons between the mid 1920s and our own time – Brexit, militant Isalm, Trump, Putin and the cult of the strongman leader – we too live in uncertain times and we too, as a Church need to proclaim the Kingship of Christ.

But Kingship sounds so medieval, so feudal, so hierarchical, so patriarchal!  What do we really want to have to do with another group of people proclaiming the ultimate power of yet another strongman?  What’s the difference?

We’ve been reading Mark’s Gospel in the house groups this term.  And in the first half of the Gospel you could be forgiven for thinking Jesus was yet another enigmatic and powerful strongman.  He arrives with no word of introduction and begins telling people to follow him, he casts out demons, he speaks in parables which many can’t understand.  There is no Christmas story, no family background – who is this man?

One would have thought that a powerful strongman who wanted to rule the world would have given us a bit more background, made more of an announcement.  If God exists then why doesn’t he tell us where he is?

But Mark’s Gospel does point us to the Kingship of Christ by making over a third of his story about the passion and death of Jesus Christ.  By in effect saying to us, ‘Do you want to see where God is? – He is here amongst the lonely, the despised, the persecuted, the oppressed.’

The message of God is not, ‘look at me, I am all powerful and here is Jesus my king, the strongman leader.  No, the message is ‘Do you want to see the victory of Love?  Then see what love does in Jesus: The God who created the world comes to sit alongside the poor, the persecuted, the lost.

Today, the last Lamp is evangelism.  The Lamp we all run screaming from because we’re horrified of being associated with the Christians who seem to treat Jesus as some kind of magic man, some kind of spiritual strongman who will instantly take away all our problems.  We know it doesn’t work like that.

But we need to be wary of opposing Christians who just want to convert people with Christians who just want to help people.

We should be passionate about conversion, but a conversion which is not just about the soul but about how we live with others.  Not Christianity as a ticket to heaven but to a relationship which changes all  our other relationships.  We don’t need to be greedy about getting more people to join our club – that’s not evangelism. We need to get on with showing our solidarity with those in need, with the homeless, with those who find themselves on the margins for whatever reason.

But, and this is the big but, we ought somehow to feel able to give voice to our motives for all this.  Sometimes it can feel like our faith is so deep and so inward that we can’t utter any words about it to others.  Karl Barth the theologian writes ‘Ask yourself…is your shyness not shyness about emerging from your uncommitted private world? Going on to say that “where the Christian Church does not venture to confess in its own language, it usually does not confess at all. Then it becomes the fellowship of the quiet”

How fair it is to say that Mary and John church has become a fellowship of the quiet?  But what does it mean to give voice to the kingship of Christ here in East Oxford?

Jesus in his ministry is always engaging people in the matters of the heart, making relationships with people around the things that matter to them, their need for healing, their bereavement, their tortured minds, Jesus is always making connections with them.  And we need to be making connections as well between people but also between the things of the spirit and the practical needs – physical and emotional – of the people we meet.

Sophia turned 17 on Thursday but I still remember taking her when she was about 10 days old to the Church of Christ the King next to the monastery at Mirfield.  There was a lovely priest brother, Fr Dominic who worshiped there on occasion and used to visit all the ordinands with apples from the community trees when we first arrived.  It was his way of bringing together the religious community with the local church and with the new ordinands.  In a small way he was being a sign of reconciliation.

Christ is king because he re-unites humanity with the creator, because he fulfilled the work of reconciliation in his own body.  To be evangelists is to be walking signs of the reconciliation that Christ revealed to us.  And one of the ways we give voice to our faith is in the Eucharist that we celebrate together every Sunday.

During Advent we are going to use our high altar for communion – An opportunity for us to reflect on the kingship of Christ.  Alongside the immanent Jesus in our midst is the transcendent Christ who reigns in the heavens.  The journey to God is in many ways an inward journey to the heart but it is also a search for something that is other, which is beyond and outside of us.  God calls us to be ‘with and in the processes of the world’ but also to be recognising our dependence on the God who is more than our personal subjective hopes and desires.

I suppose all this is to say I want us to recover our contingency.  By that I mean recognising that we are alone, creatures with an uncertain future in an uncertain world.  Wittgenstein once said ‘never allow yourself to become too familiar with Holy things’ – and I think he was warning us not to domesticate God.

Part of the Christian life is recognising our distance from God, living with the pain of our need of God even in the midst of suffering.

Jesus is the answer, an answer we can share with others.  But his Kingship is not a military victory or a coercive act, it is not a personal will to power.  Jesus’ kingship is an act of love, an act which revealed to us the nature of the God who is love.  Jesus places himself in the heart of God by going to be in solidarity with those in need.    He invites us to follow.  The seven lamps so beautifully restored to our sanctuary are not the answer but they are lights on the way to the mystery of God’s love revealed to us in Jesus Christ – our saviour and our King.  Amen.

 

Conversations: A Sermon for Multi-faith East Oxford

I went to see the film ‘Victoria and Abdul’ this week.  A film about Victoria’s friendship in the last years of her life with a Muslim called Abdul.  The great power of the film lies in its critique of the arrogance and violence of the British Empire.  By creating a real friendship and empathy between Queen Victoria and Abdul a link is created between Victoria and the Islamic faith.  Where the film fails in my view, is in its air brushing out of any valid Christian spirituality or presence in Queen Victoria’s life.  The Church of England gets one mention as part of the colonialist hierarchy, never a source of spiritual comfort.  When Abdul is present at Victoria’s deathbed he quotes Rumi but there are no Christians to be seen.  The film doesn’t pretend to historical accuracy but to me it is typical of our recent love affair in the West with the spirituality of  other faiths.

Today we come to the third of our 7 lamps – Christ at our heart, Health and Healing and today Inter-faith dialogue.  We live amidst the diversity of multi-faith East Oxford, this is part of our calling and our vocation as Christians in this place.

At this weeks School Governors meeting the head teacher asked if we could take the phrase ‘Community cohesion’ out of a document.  It sounded out of date, community cohesion was, so she said, a Blairite phrase, we changed it to ‘Equal opportunities’.  The discussion reminded me of the 90s where a new generation of the Left in Manchester wanted to do away with multi-culturalism and replace it with anti-racist.  My only reflection on all this is that community cohesion and Multi-culturalism were attempts to speak about the whole not just to protect the parts.  One thing my Christian tradition tells me it that however difficult it is we shouldn’t just speak up for all the different sections of the community we should also try, challenging as it is, to speak to and embrace the whole community.

The secular world view, also so important to this part of Oxford sees Religion as, at best something for the personal consumption of those who like that sort of thing, not part of the discussion about the whole community.

For me the question of what it means to be Christian and yet live in community with Islam here in East Oxford.  Dialogue has to be something which we engage in but how can we also proclaim the love that we believe is revealed in Jesus?

This debate between Dialogue and proclamation has been at the heart of Christian disagreement about inter-faith conversations for years,  With Conservative Christians focusing on Proclaiming the Gospel and  Liberals on dialogue and conversation.

Last year on an inter faith course I had to get a taxi in Birmingham – one of those days when I wish I didn’t go round in a dog collar.  The Muslim man who picked me up gave me a 20-minute lecture on Islam.  He questioned the legitimacy of the Christian Bible in comparison to the certainty of Islam and the Koran.  Unsure how to respond to this deluge which was very much one sided I interrupted “What is the best thing about being a Muslim?” and he spoke for the first time in a more heartfelt way about the Brotherhood and about care for each other including all their brothers in Syria.  This man didn’t want a dialogue, he wanted a ‘my faith is better than yours’ conversation.  I had to step back and engage in a slightly different way.  But what the encounter taught me is that, like my evangelical Christian friends, there are many Muslims who want to prove that they are right and I am wrong.

In the Church of England primary school that the taxi man took me to the head told me that they had  unashamedly Christian Collective worship in their 90% Muslim school.  No provision for Halal either just vegetarian or meat.  I still want to say that I am more dialogue than proclamation but I also think this is a ridiculous division.  When are we going to realise that multi-faith consciousness is not just a potpourri of everything, it is a willingness to be in conversation with the Other, if you like with the Jesus we find in Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism.  We are not a hermetically sealed Christian identity, the self is a fluid thing which is touched and influenced by all sorts of spiritual and religious experiences.

But we need to start with the riches of our Christian Tradition.  This is where God put us, where we found God or he found us –  in the church, even if you’re only holding on by your fingertips!

In the 21st century there has been a move amongst some Christian inter faith thinkers to begin not with texts – ‘my book is better you’re your book’ or ‘lets compare my text with your text’ but to return to the Christian monastic virtues of humility, empathy and hospitality – its an approach which sits well with our position here in Benson’s church on the Cowley Road.

Empathy is explicitly dynamic, it is disempowering and decentring.  It is not that empathy is the only answer, all these debates are hugely complex but rather than it begins the process of entering the place of dialogue with other faiths.

Being pro-active in our understanding of this multi-faith community means that we also inform ourselves and become more empathetic to other situations.  The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic group, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Currently, there are about 1.1 million Rohingya but hundreds of thousands of them are being displaced.  The BBC doesn’t always show us the whole picture.  One of the cleaning staff at Paula’s school showed her horrific pictures of Muslims killed in Myanmar.  These things might feel like they happen far away but they are having a direct effect on the emotional lives of our next door neighbours.  Why aren’t we talking more?

We need to step back from a religious debate which sometimes feels sterile or stuck and re-engage in a different way.  That’s exactly what Jesus does in today’s Gospel when the Pharisees try to trick him into either being pro Cesar or pro rebellion in the question of paying taxes – he side steps the question.  He avoids the binary opposites and affirms a practical position.   Sometimes I need to step back from my own passions, angers and disillusionments in order to really hear what is being said to me.

The great Jesuit Jacques Dupuis claims that: the Christ event does “not exhaust the power of the Word of God who became flesh in Jesus” (p.319 TCTP).  The power of the Word of God exists beyond its revelation in Jesus.

Dupuis seems to suggest that people in other religions can be saved, can know God, can have penetrating experiences of the divine.  Now this isn’t news to me and it probably isn’t news to you but it does lead us to ask what does it mean to be Christian in this multi-faith context?

And there are people who want us to give answers that are oppositional and divisive, just look at todays Gospel.  But when we move powerfully to the depths of our own tradition in prayer and contemplation so that we can inhabit the space of our faith then we can engage openly with the many gifts that other faith have to offer us.  Empathy, humility, hospitality are the gifts of the Western Monastic tradition that can guide us. The Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff once wrote:

“We must place ourselves in minor and servile positions, and we must renounce pretension that we are superior or privileged because we are Christians” (Quoted in Gaston p.148-9)

This renunciation is in no way a backing away from Christianity towards an endless celebration of diversity but rather it reminds us that we are first and foremost followers of Jesus Christ who died and rose again to new life with God.  Amen.