Sunday, 26 June 2016

Sermon for Trinity 5, 26 June 2016

Before I preach today, I think it's important to say something about what has happened with regard to the referendum.

We need to acknowledge that the last few days have seen the most important political decision for our nation in my lifetime and probably yours too. As many of you will know, my convictions were and still are that staying in the European Union was the better choice for the United Kingdom, and for the international community. I know a number of you, like me, are shocked and concerned at such an outcome. Others will be of the opposite opinion as we gather today. Whichever way we voted, we have yet to see what the future may hold, or indeed who will lead us into it.

I'm not going to say any more personally on that, as I don't think it would be helpful, so I'm going to read the joint statement issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on Friday. Our service today also includes prayers and a litany published by the Church of England in the aftermath of the vote.


The Statement

On Thursday, millions of people from across the United Kingdom voted in the referendum, and a majority expressed a desire that Britain’s future is to be outside the European Union.

The outcome of this referendum has been determined by the people of this country. It is now the responsibility of the Government, with the support of Parliament, to take full account of the outcome of the referendum, and, in the light of this, decide upon the next steps. This morning, the Prime Minister David Cameron has offered a framework for when this process might formally begin.

The vote to withdraw from the European Union means that now we must all reimagine both what it means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world and what values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.

As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.

The referendum campaign has been vigorous and at times has caused hurt to those on one side or the other. We must therefore act with humility and courage – being true to the principles that make the very best of our nation. Unity, hope and generosity will enable us to overcome the period of transition that will now happen, and to emerge confident and successful. The opportunities and challenges that face us as a nation and as global citizens are too significant for us to settle for less.

As those who hope and trust in the living God, let us pray for all our leaders, especially for Prime Minister David Cameron in his remaining months in office. We also pray for leaders across Europe, and around the world, as they face this dramatic change. Let us pray especially that we may go forward to build a good United Kingdom that, though relating to the rest of Europe in a new way will play its part amongst the nations in the pursuit of the common good throughout the world.

Archbishop Justin Welby and Archbishop John Sentamu

[opening prayer]

Sermon: Galatians 5:1,13-25

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one of his earliest letters. We can’t be certain, but there’s a reasonable consensus that it was written by 50AD, and possibly as little as 15 years after Paul’s conversion. It’s written in a brusque, quite aggressive style, as Paul shows the enthusiasm and zeal of a relatively new convert and communicator, eager to convey how meeting with the risen Christ has fundamentally changed his understanding of all the traditions and rituals he had kept to in the past.

The central message has been for Paul to convey to his readers that they should not feel bound by the Jewish rules that had applied to him before he met with Christ. Following Jesus is not about adopting a set of laws and rules, and then adding on Jesus; it’s a whole new and free way of relating to God directly through him. However, some people had been pressurising the Galatians to do precisely that, and adopt Jewish religious practice as a precondition of Christian conversion. Paul has some pretty harsh words for those trying to influence in this way, and warns the Galatians to reject them.

That’s what the first sentence we have here is all about. Christ has set us free from those requirements of religious ritual and practise, so there’s no need to go along with those who teach otherwise. That’s what the yoke of slavery is – the religious duties of the old era that didn’t even work in connecting people to God and giving them a living faith.

Now, if you say to a bunch of people that they are free from rules and regulations, you can immediately see the potential risks. It can lead to chaos, potentially placing people in great danger. For example, if I thought that I am set free from the rules and regulations of the highway code, I could infringe them in ways that don’t place anyone at huge risk. For example travelling at 41mph in a 40 limit breaks the rules, but is unlikely to expose me or anyone else to great danger. However, if I drove on the right instead of the left, it could cause a fatal accident.

So Paul is well aware that giving free reign to the people he’s writing to could be disastrous, without further advice. This chapter is that advice. By the way, the Church of England set readings omit verses 2-12, perhaps for taste and decency as they cover circumcision and castration! Anyway, our focus is on 13 onwards, with verse 1 provided to add come context.

Freedom is a gift, Paul is saying, which we should steward well. The key to that is "love your neighbour as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). That word love in the original is the Bible’s special word for love – agape – sacrificial committed love. The love expressed by Jesus on the cross, prepared to put all self-interest at stake for the well-being of another, not just emotion or simple friendship. This is the expectation he has for the Christian community. To reinforce the point, Paul says “become slaves to one another” – a memorable way of putting it, picking up on his earlier argument, which was all about slavery and freedom.

The opposite of living in a community of selfless committed love is, of course, a collection of people pursuing their own competing and conflicting self-interests. Paul cautions the Galatians that taking that path will consume them – destroy them (v15).

Paul refers to these two ways of life – love and selfishness – as spirit and flesh. The next section spells those out. Now this can sometimes look like a long puritanical naughty list, but they actually connect with what he has said earlier about living together bound by love. So sexual immorality – translated here as fornication - damages families, marriages, and communities, and undermines mutual trust. Idolatry and sorcery – religious and occult practices that take people away from being committed to Christ – questions loyalties, disrupts community and questions the authority of Jesus.

You may notice dissension and faction in that list (v 20) – quite topical to say the least. That isn’t about honest disagreement. The New Testament is full of profound disagreements between people of sincerely held but conflicting views. We see it in the life of Jesus, when he confronts the Pharisees and other religious leaders. We also see it in the account of the early church in the book of Acts, especially when the leaders are debating precisely this issue about the role of Jewish laws and regulations.

Here again the original words have more depth in their meaning. Perhaps a better word for our day would be fragmentation. If a Christian community fragments, it is destructive. Finding ways to disagree well will be the key for the Church to maintain its life. We know that in the Church of England over profoundly held opposing views on issues such as the ordination of women and our understanding of same-sex relationships. The latter being something that the Church of England is very much engaged with at this time, along with other Anglican churches throughout the world. Perhaps disagreeing well is what the wider community needs right now as we come to terms with the result.

Likewise the word for faction in the original Greek has the same root as the English word heresy. It carries with it a sense, not just of disagreeing or disliking views, but of things becoming more personal. There have been shameful times in the church’s history when heretics were thrown out of the community, or even tortured and executed. So it’s about when passion about an issue turns into personal abuse about the holder of the view. That’s one we’ve all fallen for at some time in our lives, I’m sure, perhaps even over the last few days.

Time prevents us going through them all in detail. Meanwhile, the contrast is what the Holy Spirit brings: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That's a sermon for another day, so I'll only a brief comment now.

Notice how they contrast with the previous list. These are all qualities that build community and build each other up. Love and generosity are the opposite of self-interest. You don’t need laws to regulate them, and in nurturing these qualities within ourselves and in others, all the evils of the previous list would be prevented, without the need for the application of preventative law.

Freedom is not a free-for-all. Paul is telling us that God has set us free – free from the obligations of religious law, from the slavery of ritual, and from fear of getting it wrong. But he has not given us licence to do exactly as we please, because it's not about us or what we want. Instead he has given us the ultimate example of love in the person of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we may follow in his way, not simply in our words, liturgies or prayers; but in our lives, attitudes and actions.

Mike Peatman, Rector of Morecambe Parish Church

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Sermon for Sunday 5 June 2016 (Trinity 2)


Sermon for Trinity 2   Luke 7:11-17

For any newcomers or visitors, my name is Mike Peatman, and I’m the Rector here at Morecambe Parish Church. It’s been quite a long time since I preached here at MPC on a Sunday morning, as my wife, Debbie, died a few weeks ago, and only now am I starting to get back to things.

I’ve been torn between two options this morning – whether to just prepare a sermon as Anne, Sue or David would, or whether to address more directly how I understand faith relating to Debbie’s illness and her dying.

Well, before I had seen the readings, we had selected today as the date I would try preaching, as part of my way back into things. One look at the Gospel reading and the decision was taken for me. Jesus restores to life the son of the widow of Nain. A story of bereavement and loss, and of healing and restoration.

Let’s just get the scene clear in our minds before we start. This story only appears in Luke’s gospel – it’s a piece of the Jesus story that only he chose to include, and probably only he was aware of. Nain would only have been a very small place – no more than a small English village, and even now it’s a small community, located near Mount Tabor in the north east of modern-day Israel.

Jesus enters Nain with a crowd following him, and they meet a very different kind of procession – a funeral – carrying the body of a young man out of the village for burial. His mother was a widow. She’s already suffered one loss – the loss of her husband. Now she has lost her only son.

Following Debbie’s death, I’m slowly getting used to describing myself as a widower. Along the way I’ve discovered all sort of things. For example, I am deemed to have a child who is a dependant. As a result, I receive an ongoing allowance from the DWP, which I was surprised still existed. It has certainly helped, but it wasn’t essential to save me from destitution. I would have had a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and the light would have stayed on. However, back then, women depended on men to work for an income. With her husband dead, her son would have been looking after her. Now he had also died and she was not only facing the pain of a terrible bereavement, but also poverty and dependency on the generosity of others. She might have to turn to begging, and she would have known that some women resorted to prostitution as the only way they could generate an income. Her grief was multiplied.

Then the two processions meet, and Jesus stops the cortege, and restores the young man to life and gives him back to his mother. It’s a happy ending – who could possibly have a problem with such a lovely story, or begrudge such happiness to the woman?

Well, many of us here will have experienced bereavement at some point in our lives. In some cases, they may have felt a very natural end to a good and long life. For example, my own mother died a few years ago at the age of 80. It’s not the kind of situation where we would have been looking to Jesus to do anything like this. In other cases – and Debbie is an example – it feels very different. We may well be asking the Jesus in this story as to why he didn’t do anything in our case. Why do something here, but not there? Any of us who have seen loved ones suffer would give anything for a miracle like this

Then we find ourselves with a pretty stark choice. We either have a lot of frustration and even anger to resolve with God for not selecting us or our loved ones for a miracle, or we end up saying that we don’t believe any of this.  There is, at least, some cold comfort in choosing to believe that no miracles ever happen – at least everyone gets the same deal. This is not a new problem. Wiser people than I have written many thousands of words trying to come to terms with the same dilemma.

So are those two choices the only ones available? Get angry or be an atheist?

Let’s go back to this story, and see if we can identify why something happened here, and why this might not be the template for our expectations of Jesus today.


Compassion
Firstly, there seem to be overriding compassionate grounds for Jesus to intervene here. As I have already said, this widow had been through a great amount of suffering and probably feared for her future. Luke specifically records that Jesus had compassion for her. In the original language, it’s the same word that he uses in the parable of the Good Samaritan to describe how the Samaritan felt when he saw the man who had been robbed and beaten. It’s also the word used for how the father felt when he ran down the drive to greet the Prodigal Son when he returns home. There’s a very specific depth of feeling here.

Jesus would also know the story of Elijah in the Old Testament – it was the other reading we could have used today. He also revived the son of a widow he was staying with who died, and the connection between the scene Jesus had in front of him, and the great prophet from the history of Israel, may well have come together to mean that Jesus knew he had to intervene here.

And, of course, there were lots of people Jesus didn’t heal or restore to life. He came with the limitations of a human body in a particular place at a particular time, and he ministered to the people he met. His mission was not to cure everyone, everywhere, but to preach God’s message.


His Mission
Another clue is in the next bit of Luke’s Gospel. It’s a limitation of having a service sheet that I can’t point you to other passages. We finish at verse 17, but in verse 20 John the Baptist’s followers come and ask Jesus if he is “the one who was to come”. Are you the real deal?

Jesus says this:

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight [Luke 7:21], the lame walk [5:17-26], the lepers are cleansed [5:12-16], the deaf hear, the dead are raised [this passage], the poor have good news brought to them [6:20].”

We have to wait until chapter 11 for a deaf man to be healed [the man who was 'mute' is often assumed to have been deaf also], but you get the idea. We can find ourselves thinking of miracles arbitrary things, where Jesus was caught in a good mood, so he delivers the goods. But actually, this is very different. It may well be that the specific tragic circumstances meant Jesus chose this funeral and this moment to do this miracle. However, we shouldn’t think that he was wandering round looking for miracles to dispense to worthy candidates, or to people who said or did the right things. This is part of a pattern of revelation of who he is.

And as we’ve already noticed, it places him as the successor to the great prophets of old who risked all to speak God’s message in their own day.

Resuscitation vs Resurrection
Finally, (and this may sound strange) this is a resuscitation, not a resurrection. This young man will die again, and we don’t know when that was to be. Jesus has not taken away his mortality by restoring him; he has extended his biological life. Dying is an inevitable part of being human, and this miracle doesn’t do away with that. In a very real sense, this miracle merely postpones what for all of us is an acute and profound issue – that of our own mortality.

Instead of taking away that mortality, what Jesus did come to bring us was something else – the message of resurrection. I quoted Debbie during my address at her funeral when she observed that Jesus didn’t die to stop us having to. Denying the reality of death is to deny our humanity. However, what Jesus brings through his life, death and resurrection is the possibility of having the fear of death lifted from us. The raising of the young man is not what opens up that possibility; it is what Jesus goes through himself.

There is something unique here in the Christian faith. We believe in a God who came in a specific contained human form, experienced all of the limitations that brings, knew hunger, thirst, love, grief and pain from a human point of view, and then went through suffering and death and out the other side. He doesn’t come to take our humanity away, with all its complexities, but to transform our experience of being human, knowing we are loved to eternity.


That doesn’t answer all the questions. It doesn’t stop me having moments of frustration that Jesus didn’t turn up at the Hospice and say “Debbie get up”. It doesn’t stop me sometimes feeling it’s not fair. But it does help me not to throw everything away, and encourages me to hold on to the hope that in Jesus we don’t have a temperamental wonder-worker who sometimes delivers the goods, but that in him we have something truer and deeper. A hope that in the love that he revealed, our fears can be calmed, we can know we are loved, and we can trust ourselves and our loved ones for eternity.