Tag Archives: theology

God’s Attitude Should Be Ours

 

Rainbow Through the Trees

Our attitudes to God and each other should be the same as his attitude to us. A sermon for Evensong based on Jeremiah 7:1-16 and Romans 9:14-26

May I speak and may you hear though the grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want us to reflect this evening on our attitude to God and our attitude to each other as Christians. How our differences can be a stumbling block not only to our relationship with God but also to those who see us a stumbling block to any sort of belief in God or the Christian Faith. By ‘us’ I am not necessarily referring to individual Christians here at St James’ church, but a more general broader identity, but it does us no harm to consider what our own attitudes might be in some of these situations.

First though, we have to go back to the pre-Christian ‘church’ where Jeremiah’s radical and hard hitting words proclaim God’s judgement on a nation that believed they were unassailable in their right to God’s protection and salvation. Their interpretation of the scriptures, the laws that protected their faith and their judgement of others was predestined and incontestable. However, they were in for a shock – there was no way that God was going to let them treat the temple in a mindless, shallow way by assuming that forgiveness was automatic simply by walking through the doors.

As Jeremiah stresses quite forcibly – ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ – a triple, Trinitarian reminder, that even though Christ was yet to live on earth, that here was Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here was the simple statement that if you want to be true believers then you have to stop abusing foreigners and the weakest members of society, the easy targets. Neither could you disregard the most basic of commandments nor cherry pick those that have more in common with your way of thinking or lifestyle. If you mistreat your holy places, turning them in to a ‘den of robbers’ – a sentiment echoed by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel – then you should know that God will not protect them, they will be abandoned and eventually destroyed – there was and is no automatic security of God being with you… A self-righteous attitude will not save you.

The people’s disobedience of God’s commandments, brings what would appear be a harsh response and directive to Jeremiah, ‘do not pray for this people, do not raise a cry or prayer on their behalf, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.’

For the people in Rome, whom Paul was addressing, they were struggling with their identity, attempting to understand what the term ‘Israel’ meant in regard to being chosen people. Paul explains that God hasn’t broken his covenant to original people of Israel, as this was never intended to just apply to the race who shared Abraham’s blood group, but, as he states earlier in his letter as well, those who shared in his faith. Moreover, here was a God who would not be contained by people’s views and attitudes, here was a God who sprung surprises even on the most faithful, choosing Jacob over Esau, demonstrating his sovereign right to do so. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart to highlight his greater power

God does what he wants, as evidenced in the metaphor of the potter’s right to create from the same lump of clay whatever objects he chooses. He has a purpose for of his creations, and the fact that some are chosen and some are not is not the same as pre-destination, this is amazing grace.

God's Amazing Grace

The belief in the omnipotence of the one true God may lead to the conviction that God exerts control over every human action, but God is not only powerful but just.  It is not an injustice to be merciful, to apparently treat some people better than they deserve. To be chosen by God is a gracious gift, not an achievable reward. He can be trusted because he had done what he promised, calling people regardless of their faith; their gender, their sexuality.

We may question why, as Paul says, ‘Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’’. That conversation though is between God and us as individuals, others have no right to ask the same of a person.

There is an arrogant complacency within the Church of England that breaks my heart for it as an institution. An arrogance among Christians today who feed their own theologies into the media, which then labels divisive and exclusive views as representative of all Christians. It is not our job to decide who is unworthy and it certainly isn’t for us to link unworthiness to those who disagree with our theology based on limited fragments of scripture.

John Barton in his commentary, describes God as ‘an untamed deity, a wild thing not reducible to theological formulae.’

As Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”, and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”. ’ ‘And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, there they shall be called children of the living God.’

As Christians, representative of the one, true God we do well to make this our own attitude. Amen

 

Challenging Hatred and Prejudice

Crumbs blog

‘Even the dogs are grateful for the crumbs from under the Master’s table’

It’s funny when certain things start to press into your consciousness and suddenly you see and hear it all around you. Over the last few weeks there has bubbled up so many events that have displayed hatred and prejudice among different groups of people and all of this fed into my wanting to say something. This week’s gospel of Jesus and his meeting with the Canaanite woman seemed to offer an opportunity to do so.

Based on Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 and Matthew 15:21-28

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

I was once asked by a bishop to think of a story where Jesus had had his mind changed… by a woman. At first my senses bristled slightly as the nuance that it might have been a more unusual moment because a woman had done so… but actually what I think he was trying to explore was my attitude to feminist theology.

Feminist theology, in case you’re wondering (and according to Wikipedia), includes goals of ‘increasing the role of women among the clergy and religious authorities; reinterpreting male-dominated imagery and language about God, determining women’s place in relation to career and motherhood, and studying images of women in the religion’s sacred texts and matriarchal religion.’

Feminists and women’s rights campaigners were very much part of the social history that surrounded me in my formative years – people like Germaine Greer, the Greenham common women protesters, being encourage to ‘burn your bra’ to make a stand for women’s rights. This was of course another stage on from the Suffragette movement and ranged from extreme hatred of anything masculine to fighting for equal opportunities in the workplace.

Alongside this were the big news stories of racial segregation, race riots in America, the assassination of Martin Luther King and apartheid in South Africa. Images and words that soak into your consciousness – to be absorbed and considered often subconsciously, but tempered with the opinion of your family and friends.

Nearer to home, and yet still not directly affecting my everyday life were the tensions in Northern Ireland, the segregation along faith lines – of roman catholic and protestant, the IRA bombing campaigns and the tragedies of Enniskillen and the killing of Airey Neave. Although no doubt my views were coloured to some extent by fear and shamefully a sense of annoyance,  when early on in our marriage my husband David was not able to openly wear his naval uniform outside of ship or barracks and had to have the subframe of his car checked with mirrors on sticks – just in case

Hate and prejudice between men and women… black and white… Christian and Christian… and they were just the big prejudice issues.

And this last week or so, that ugly prejudice has reared its head again in Charlottesville, USA. Where groups of people believed they were justified in chanting racial slogans and inciting violence against those who disagree with their points of view and lifestyle, a humourless parody of neo-nazism and white supremacy – a belief in one group of people being ‘the chosen ones’.

Charlottesville Riots 2017

Charlottesville, USA – where hatred and prejudice flared up

The shame is that these are often views that have been formulated and passed on using specific scriptures and texts to validate their attitudes – a real reminder to us that we should not cherry-pick individual verses and hold them up in isolation – better to see the bigger picture from Alpha to Omega

It’s true though that in the bible we can find it difficult to get away from the motif of certain people being ‘the chosen ones’. In the Old Testament how often do we hear of the Israelites being God’s own people, chosen and special, to the disadvantage of all other peoples. This week alone in readings from the lectionary, Ezekiel spelt out God’s wish that ‘no foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary’ and Jesus himself in Matthew’s gospel, talking about reproving another who sins, used the phrase, ‘if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.’

Even the verses that we don’t hear today in our New Testament reading, Paul talks to the Romans about the salvation of the gentiles only coming through the stumbling of God’s ‘own people’ and that although they have been ‘grafted in to the original branches and root’ they are not ‘to vaunt’ themselves over the branches’.

Subtle prejudice creeps in however hard we try and distance ourselves from it. I would count myself as very liberal-minded, open-hearted and very much against prejudice in all of its forms; willing to defend those views without compromising my faith, and yet I know that there are times when I can catch myself thinking of things I was taught and heard as a child, things that I spurn when I realise that it’s not appropriate or even Christian. The trouble is as a white, middle-class woman the only prejudice I have really suffered has been positive prejudice.

I can never feel what it must be like as a young black male driver being six times more likely to be pulled over by the police than my white contemporary; or a young male Muslim suffering discrimination because of the radicalisation of a small minority of my faith; or a young female Asian, subject to an arranged marriage, virtually imprisoned and sold as a chattel in twenty-first century Britain who doesn’t have a voice.

I could say ‘What do these things matter to me? They are not part of my life; these are not my experiences of prejudice’ – and yet it doesn’t stop me from empathising and feeling in my heart the injustice and wanting to speak out – to challenge those who hold these prejudicial viewpoints.

So what has that got to do with the gospel we heard this morning? Well, if you hadn’t already guessed this was the passage that the bishop wanted me to call to mind. A passage in which both the disciples and Jesus himself appear to display prejudice against both women and people of other races and faiths; and were challenged.

What of the Canaanite woman? The same story is told in Mark’s gospel, where she is called an Syrophoenician, and he very clearly identifies her as a Greek and a Gentile – a non-Jew. The place where she lived near Tyre and Sidon had traditionally been at the edge of the land of Canaan.  However, now this area was a prosperous Roman city port, but its people had already heard about the things that Jesus was doing and now he was coming to them. So when she comes running after him, she had already made up her mind that he was going to be the one who could help her.

A Gentile… a woman… begging insistently for him to help her, only for Jesus to turn around and tell her that he had only been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – the Jews. You could almost imagine his friends nodding and exchanging superior glances. Then he adds possibly a rhetorical question, ‘Would it be fair to take food from the mouths of God’s chosen children and give it to anybody gathered around the table?’ Those with him were no doubt thinking, ‘No of course not – come on let’s move on and not waste any more time here’. She was dismissed!

Yet, she wasn’t going to be brushed aside and it must have taken a lot of courage speak out and challenge Jesus, and perhaps this was what he was waiting to hear. ‘Everyone who gathers around the Master’s table will be grateful, even if, like dogs, they only get the crumbs.’

No doubt there was a sharp intake of breath from Jesus’ followers, but Jesus would have looked at her and seen just much faith she really had because she believed in him. Was the Syrophoenician woman a Christian? Did it matter what she looked like? Did it matter where she came from?

When we believe in Jesus, when we believe in God, when we believe in the Holy Spirit, we confirm our faith……and it’s when we truly believe, that we begin to understand the importance of being ready to challenge prejudice and to be challenged.

Paul will go on to confirm to the Galatians that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. and last week, he confirmed that ‘the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ We can therefore be very clear that at the heart of the gospel message, salvation and acceptance is open to all. Let me just emphasis that – to ALL. There is no room for hatred or prejudice of any kind

How great then is our faith?

Amen

The Syrophoenician Woman blog

‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’

Sermon preached on Sunday 20th August 2017

 

 

Where is God on the Streets?

God on the Streets

God on the Streets

As part of your preparations for Ordination training, you are advised to lay some things aside – at least for the duration of your training – and it’s one of the things that I am finding it difficult to decide about. Having spent the last couple of years actively increasing my ministry – I now have to review everything and push to one side the feeling of guilt that some things will have to be relinquished. There is one thing however, that I hope very much to continue with.

As a firm believer that God is not just found in Sunday worship but is found wherever Christians reach out into their communities, my work with the Street Pastors has proved this time and time again. There are also sound theological reasons for doing it as well.

As part of my BAP (Bishops’ Advisory Panel) I was asked to prepare a short reflection and I share it with you now

Where is God on the Streets?

In 2012, Paul Rowlinson, a Street Pastor in Bangor, spoke about the work he and his colleagues were doing. He commented that “Street Pastor’s doesn’t have any particular theological or social standpoint. We are there to offer pastoral care and practical help and to listen to people. We are not out there to preach or anything like that.” As a Southampton Street Pastor, I would generally agree with this overview. However, I would argue that many facets of theological thinking are demonstrated in abundance within the work of Street Pastors.

At its heart, the work is both pastoral and practical.  The people that a Street Pastor meets on patrol are usually at their most vulnerable. The homeless man sitting in a shop doorway, who for one reason or another didn’t get an overnight hostel place, needs a drink of hot chocolate (and maybe a biscuit for his dog) before making his way to the multi-storey car park to find a hidden corner in which he can feel safer than sleeping in the open. The nightclub reveller who, having been thrown out of the establishment which earlier sold her bargain 50p vodka shots, wending her unsteady way barefooted on the glass littered and vomit splattered pavements, needs a pair of flip-flops. The young man slumped down on the frozen floor, and who proceeds to empty the contents of his stomach, not quite over my shoes, needs a space blanket and his face wiped.

Practical theology in practice? Street Pastors see what is going on, know why this is, what ought to be happening and respond to it. As they become better known in the community they gain credibility. People know that the Church is there for them in a practical yet unconditional way. As MP David Burrowes put it Street Pastors is about Christians rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in practically responding to the problems of crime and safety.” God becomes known in our actions; a modern day application of the Good Samaritan parable.

But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. (Luke 10:25-37)

Practical theology answers the how, but what about the why? We should remember that people who become Street Pastors are not there as government employed social workers. They are Christians willing to give their time as part of their mission,  or Missio Dei – ‘sending of God’  and instituted by Jesus, first to his disciples (Matthew 10:1) then to a larger group (Luke 10:1-4, 9) This type of work puts into practice many strands of Mission theology including sociology, communication  and ecumenics.

Coats, caps and rucksacks declaring in ‘Hi Vis’ letters the fact that we are ‘pastors’ – not police – not medics –  prompts the inevitable questions. What is a pastor? Why would you do this? This is our chance to ‘evangelise’ in the gentlest of terms. “We’re from local churches and we’re here to help people; to keep you safe. We do it because we believe we’re called to do it”. Sometimes the discussions go deeper and give people opportunities to explore their own theological wonderings and experiences.  It’s then that the Holy Spirit seems to appear, in these five minute ‘chats’.

Ecumenically, Street Pastors have to be willing to work with fellow Christians in collaborative ways, helping to develop trust, to acknowledge and value difference and to bring about the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’

Perhaps the most poignant statement I’ve heard was from a slightly tipsy young woman, who declared, “You must hate us!” Her own self-appraisal of society’s apparent need to indulge in these sorts of behaviours and assumption that we would judge people because of that,  simply confirmed the need for our pastoral role and for a wider engagement by the Church in clarifying and spreading its message in this way

Phoning back as each encounter arises, develops and concludes enables the Prayer Pastors to pray ‘into’ the situation, underlining the fact that we are not dependent on our own strengths and skills but need the intercession of Christ and the Grace of God.

What we do as Street Pastors is not dependent on whether it earns us ‘brownie points’ towards eternal rewards; the theology of Grace is that it cannot be earned but is given because God desires us to have it. We often, therefore, have to almost make an unconscious decision to put aside the reason why we are doing what we do so that we can honestly answer,

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  (Matthew 25:37-39)

Where is God on the streets? He’s wherever he sends Street Pastors!

References:

http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/2012/08/18/street-pastors-helping-bring-peace-to-streets-of-bangor-every-friday-night-55578-31646776/

http://www.streetpastors.co.uk/

Charles Van Engen sums this up in his definition of Mission ‘Mission is the people of God intentionally crossing barriers from church to non-church, faith to non-faith, to proclaim by word and deed the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ’ (1996). Mission on the Way; Issues in Mission Theology