Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Sacred and Secular in Cyberspace

Here's the text of a Lecture I gave on Friday evening - to the Waterside Ecumenical Community. Click here to read it.

Health warning: it was a 30 minute lecture...not the normal 10 minute talk!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

For the love of money...

Ok Ok I know I said that I wasn't going to blog anymore...but perhaps I was just feeling a bit overworked that day. It seems a shame to put in so much work on my sermons, and then only have them disappear into the ether once I've delivered them. So, even if I don't blog very often (in a diary format) I'll still try to post my sermons here. Enjoy!

1 Timothy 6: 6-19

For the love of money...

Once upon a time there was a ship which was going down in a storm. On board was a man who had been planning to emigrate to a new life, and who had brought all his money with him in cash - in a suitcase full of pound notes that he had stashed under his bed. As the announcement was made to man the lifeboats, the man took out his suitcase from under the bed, and realising that he would not be allowed to take any luggage with him, he stuffed all his pound notes inside his clothing. He put money up his sleeves, and down his trousers. He stuffed his pockets and his shoes. Every nook and crannie of his clothing was filled with money - and walking about like a Michelin man, he made his way to the lifeboat station.

The Petty Officer on duty at the station raised one eyebrow at the man as he got into the boat... he did look rather strange. But then the Officer had seen plenty of strange things in his life, so thought no more about it. He set about the task of letting down the lifeboat into the seething seas below. But horror of horrors - just as the lifeboat was about to safely touch the water, a massive wave swamped the boat. It twisted against its ropes, flipped over, and threw out all its passengers...including the Michelin-Money-Man...into the watery hell below.

Quickly, the Officer ordered the lifeboat to be drawn back up, righted, and then lowered back into the water. Once that had been accomplished, all the lifeboat's former passengers were able to scramble back on board. All, that is, except one. The Michelin-Money-Man was last seen disappearing below the waves, while desperately trying to remove his waterlogged money from all his nooks and crannies. But he was too late. His last thought, before dying, was a question... "I wonder, he thought. Did I own this money...or did it own me?"

How many people here have either read, or seen the film of "The Lord of the Rings"? Those of you who know the film - or preferably the book - will know exactly what I mean if I say "My Precious...we loves you my Precious!". I'm talking of course about the character Gollum - or Smeagal as he once was - before he became so obsessed with owning, and keeping, and touching, the precious Ring which forms part of the title of the whole story. Of course, being a story, the Ring itself was a magic object - filled with the evil power of the Dark Lord, Sauron. It was more than simply a piece of was a thing with a life of its own; and an ability to draw its owner into an intense relationship with it.

The Lord of the Rings is a Christian allegory. Its author, Tolkein, was a close friend and associate of C.S.Lewis - who of course wrote stories about another magical land, Narnia. I don't know exactly what Tolkein had in mind when he wrote about the Ring - but one very clear message is that it is possible for us to become possessed by our possessions - so that we no longer own them... they can start to own us.

And that is, of course, one of the underlying themes of Paul's first letter to Timothy. Paul commands his younger disciple that he must warn the rich people of his congregation that (in verse 9) "those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction". He goes on, "For the love of the money is the root of all kinds of evil".

And just as an aside - just in case no-one has ever pointed it out to you - that is one of the most often mis-quoted lines of the Bible. It is not money that is the root of all kinds of evil... but the love of money. Money itself is a thing...a useful thing for oiling the wheels of human society. But when we begin to love money, to desire riches and wealth... then we are on dangerous ground. We can so easily become (verse 9 again) "trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction"

There is of course no clearer example of the dangers of loving money than the terrible scenes we've seen this week on the streets of Burma. And it really shouldn't surprise us to see that Generals who have spent so many years stuffing their pockets with money would use deadly force to hold on to it. They are, in Paul's words, trapped by their senseless and harmful desires. They have failed to understand that they can't take any of their wealth with them - and that they have failed to grasp hold of life that is really life.

This teaching of Paul undercuts any kind of prosperity Gospel. Don't listen to those preachers on GodTV, or in numerous books, who try to tell you that God wants you to be fabulously wealthy. For Paul, the acquisition of wealth is anything but what God wants - rather it is a serious threat to Christian character and community. For Paul, the idea of Godliness is set up in complete opposition to riches. He wants us to find value in life not possessions. The idea that being a Christian ensured prosperity is seen by Paul as a false priority - with faith-threatening, and life-threatening consequences.

Paul tries, through this letter, to help us to develop a healthy perspective about our wealth. This is not least because, as he says in verse 8, "we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it". Instead, he invites us to find value in life rather than possessions. Or rather, "life that is really life" - as he calls it in verse 19. To help us, Paul develops some ideas about the concept of 'contentment'. Consider the opening verse of this passage: "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment".

Now, I am no Greek scholar - but with a good quality commentary, anyone can begin to get a grasp of some of the more important words in which Paul actually wrote. I'm told that the word that is translated here are 'contentment' is the Greek word 'autarkeia' - which, like many Greek words, has more layers of meaning than the English translation alone can communicate. 'Autarkeia' is a word that denotes contentment, yes, but also an attitude that cherishes simplicity, and which accepts the hand that we are dealt by nature or fortune.

And that's an important point. Jesus did command the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions before he could follow the Lord. But that is not what is required for all of Jesus' followers. Instead we are called to hold the things of this world lightly - to be content with whatever we have, and to be ready to let it go at any time. We are, in Paul's words from verse 18, "to do good, to be rich in good works, generous and ready to share". Being ready to share means being able to hold our possessions very lightly between our fingers... easily able to let them go when they are needed by anyone else.

There is a sense in which, as we read Scripture, it tends to read us, in return. I don't know about you, but I find this an uncomfortable scripture to read. As I read it, I find myself asking myself "Is this me? Have I fallen into this temptation?" I find myself squirming as I hear Paul's words echoing across the centuries. And I know that I will squirm even more uncomfortably in a couple of weeks when, I hope, I shall find myself in Uganda... experiencing, no doubt, the poverty of two-thirds of the world's population.

One of the ways that Christians have historically tried to come to terms with this portion of scripture is to use the phrase "all things in moderation". I don't know about you, but I go through all sorts of complicated justifications for the wealth that I possess which are along the lines of 'well, I don't have that much in comparison to some people. And compared to old Mrs Smith I really do live quite modestly. I'm only having one foreign holiday this year...the other holiday was spent in our old battered caravan...that's pretty moderate isn't it?'

But the trouble with that kind of internal argument is that that way lies madness! If we spend our whole lives agonising over every spending decision, and worryingly comparing ourselves to those who have more, or less, than us - then we stand a very good chance of making the concept of 'moderation' itself into a kind of god. No, the biblical basis for handling money is not 'moderation', but 'contentment' - autarkeia - contentment with whatever we have.

Consider what Paul also wrote to the Philippians (chapter 4, verses 11-13). "...I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me".

So let us be on our guard against letting the love of money lead us into destruction. But let us also guard against setting up any new gods... like the god of moderation. Let us, instead, hold lightly to what we have been given - and learn contentment in all the circumstances of life.

And if - because you are now holding lightly to what you have been given - you should want to give me some money to take with me to Uganda in two weeks... money that will be used to alleviate poverty, and bring hope to some of the world's poorest people... then let me encourage you to hold lightly on to your money in this direction!


Saturday, September 08, 2007


Hi Folks! I'm back! Sorry to have been silent for so long - but I've been away at two conventions, and had a couple of weeks holiday. I'm feeling nicely refreshed and ready to take up my parish duties again.

For those among you who enjoy reading my sermons (bless your hearts!), here is the text of one I gave just before my break. I hope it gives you something to think about until I post another.

Luke 14: 1 & 7-14 - Humility

This morning, at our family service, we thought about the fact that this is a time of great change for many people as they make their way to new schools or new jobs. Simon reminded us that, among all that change and turbulence, God never changes - that his faithfulness and goodness are unending. Simon also reminded us that God’s loves us as we are, but that he loves us too much to leave us as we are. In other words, the closer that God draws to us, the more that he changes become more like him.

God, of course, has many wonderful qualities - all of which were exhibited in Jesus. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self control. Those are the fruit of the spirit that Paul listed in the letter to the Galatians. (5:22). Each of those fruit, as God waters and tends them within us, make us more like Jesus - and I’m not sure which of them, if any, is more important than any other. Paul does not describe the fruit of the spirit as separate items (as he does, for example, with the gifts of the spirit). The gifts (plural) of the spirit - like the gift of tongues, or healing, or prophecy, or serving - are distributed among the people of the God. But the fruit (singular) of the spirit should all be visible in all the people of God.

But it seems that for Jesus, the growth of the quality of humility was one of the most important - or one to be particularly grasped.

In the gospel reading we’ve just heard, Jesus is seen observing people at a banquet, jostling for the place of honour at the table. He gives some very simple advice - “Don’t sit yourself in the place of honour - otherwise you are going to look rather stupid when you are asked to give it up for the real honoured guest. Instead, take the humblest place...and perhaps you might be pleasantly surprised and honoured when the host invites you to sit further up the table”

It’s very practical common sense that Jesus offers here. I remember once sitting on a government committee, for which the relevant minister was delayed. I had the biggest mouth, so the group asked me to chair the meeting until the minister should arrive. So I sat in the chairman’s seat and started to feel all important. Suddenly the minister arrived, and I had to give up my seat at the head of the table...and as there were no other chairs in the room, found myself perching on a window-sill at the side of the room. Pride truly came before a fall!

In the gospel story, Jesus seems to observe this kind of musical chairs taking place, as people jostle for positions of honour. He gives his practical advice, and then extrapolates that into a spiritual principle: “Everyone who makes himself great will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be great”. In this, of course, he echoes the words of his mother, in the Magnificat: “he has put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek”.

Once again we see the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God at work. We serve a king who was born in a stable, who used his death to give us life. We serve a king who is a servant of all, and who exalts the humble, while putting down the mighty.

And that is not, I think, to suggest that we are encouraged to be humble in order to be exalted. It is not as though Jesus says “Be humble for now, and then I will make you a ruler in the kingdom”. Humility is not a temporary necessity on the road to riches and power. Rather Jesus says that humility is at the very core of what it means to be his follower. The greatest people in the kingdom are the most humble. It is, in the topsy-turvy world of the kingdom as though the descent into lowliness and humility is in fact the ladder by which we climb up to the heart of God.

So I hope that you will agree with me, that humility is a quality which we all need to embrace if we are to become more like Jesus, and if we are to see the other fruit of the spirit hanging from our branches. At this time of the approaching harvest, I’m reminded of an anonymous saying: “It is the laden bow that hangs low, and the most fruitful Christian who is the most humble”

But what does this mean in reality? How are we in fact to embrace the humble life? What does real humility look like? If we haven’t understood that, then we are surely in danger of acting like Uriah Heep in David Copperfield: “I am well aware that I am the ‘umblest person going…’umble we are, ‘umble we have been, ‘umble we ever shall be”.

For a first clue as to what real humility might look like, I find myself going back to even before Jesus - to Socrates. Socrates was often described, in his time, as the wisest man who ever lived - a title which was conferred upon him by the Oracle at Delphi. At his trial he was asked to defend himself on that count, and he said that he had been astonished to hear the description himself. So he set about asking questions of everyone around him, to determine whether there was anyone who was wiser than he. Socrates’ technique was to constantly question pompous people until he had stripped them of all certainty in their position. A bit like a child who keeps asking ‘why?’ to every statement...until logic disappears in a puff of infant perception. In effect Socrates said that ‘the beginning of wisdom is the acknowledgement that I know nothing’. Or to quote that old maxim: “Only a fool knows everything. A wise man knows how little he knows”

The great Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon helps us to see this bit of essentially Greek thinking in a Christian context: “You cannot expect anything from God unless you put yourself in the right place, that is, as a beggar at his footstool. Then will he hear you, and not until then”.

So the first way in which we might begin to embrace true humility is to acknowledge that we have a tendency to make God in our image - to go along merrily thinking that we’ve understood God, that we’ve got him nicely sewn-up. And to imagine, that actually God is rather like me… a sort of bigger, wiser, version of me...up there...who basically thinks about things the same way that I do.

Let me share something a little bit personal. I freely acknowledge that there have been times in my life when I have got my theology so sewn up with certainties about this and that, that I have left no room for God to be God. I arrogantly believed that I had a clear idea of what God thought about every theological subject - from transubstantiation, to the role of Mary, to the place of infant baptism, to the opinion of God about gay marriage or women bishops. But, slowly, slowly, God has been bashing away at my arrogant presumption - introducing me to encounter people whose experience of God is no less real than mine, even though their personal context is entirely different. Gradually, God has helped me to see how little I yet know of his infinite goodness and his wonderful grace - and opened my stubborn heart to want to find out more about him. The more I have put aside what I thought I knew, the more God has been able to show me what he is really like.

If the first step to humility is acknowledging how little we know about God, then, I suggest, the second is acknowledging ourselves as we really are. I don’t know if you have ever read “The Cloud of Unknowing”? It is a mystical, Christian book - written in medieval times by an unknown author, who wants to help his readers to penetrate the cloud of unknowing between us and God. He offers this advice: “Humility is nothing more than an accurate self-assessment, an awareness of oneself as one really is. And surely, anyone seeing himself for what he really is, must be truly humble”.

I’m reminded of that story about Oliver Cromwell, who once said to his portrait painter, “Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture freely like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it”.

An honest, warts and all, assessment of ourselves will indicate, pretty quickly, how much we are in need of God. Which of us is capable of living up to the standards we set ourselves?...let alone the standards that God sets us? Even a short reflection on our many failings tells us what hypocrites and sinners we are - and how incapable we are of living the life of love that, deep down, we truly crave.

If we are honest enough to acknowledge the truth of that self assessment, then we can take the next step on the road to humility… an acknowledgement of our utter dependence on God… a heartfelt acknowledgement that we can’t do it on our own.

Humility starts, then, when we realise how little we know of God - and become people who are open to God’s action in our lives. Humility grows when we see ourselves - warts and all - as people who are in need of God’s action in our lives.

And finally, I’d like to suggest, humility flourishes when we meditate upon what we do know about God - through Christ. Teresa of Avila offered this advice: “By meditating on Christ’s humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble”.

Christ is our master, and our touchstone. He is the image of the invisible God. He is the yardstick by which everything is measured. By imitating him, we can become transformed into people who are like him. Andrew Murray has written that ‘Christ is the humility of God embodied in human nature; the Eternal Love humbling itself, clothing itself in the garb of meekness and gentleness, to win and serve and save us.’

Jesus described himself as ‘meek and lowly of heart’ (Mt 11:29). Jesus washed his own disciples’ feet, and commanded them to do the same. Paul points out, in his letter to the Philippians (2:8) that it was Jesus’ humility which led to him being “obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” Peter, the rock on whom Jesus chose to build his church, told his readers to “put on the apron of humility”. (1 Pet 5:5)

Christ-like humility will break down our opinionated, pseudo-wisdom, and force us back to the example of Christ himself. It will force back to the pages of the bible; the book which sits unopened in the homes of people who believe they know more than God, or who have happily made God in their own image. Christ-like humility will force us onto our knees in search of the real God, penetrating the cloud of unknowing with hearts that long to touch God, and to be like God - to be his true daughters and sons.

Christ-like humility will drive us to serve others in every part of our life...metaphorically washing the feet of those who serve us in a never-ending virtuous circle of Christian love and compassion.

So let us remember, as Simon said this morning, that God loves us as we are. But he loves us too much to leave us as we are. By his Spirit, he offers us the precious gift of humility so that we might:
  • put aside our man-made images of God,
  • see ourselves for who we are - people in desperate need of God
  • dwell on his likeness, lived out in Christ, described through the Bible.

By embracing those aspects of humility, we will leave the door open through which Christ can enter in...and change us to be day by day, more like him. So as we gather around his table, in a few minutes, let us open ourselves to God - let us humbly kneel before our Master, and as we take the spiritual food that he graciously offers, let us allow him to transform us.