Monday, February 18, 2008

A New Job

Regular readers will be interested (I hope) to know that I've been appointed to a new job. I've been asked to take on the role of Team Rector of North End - a parish of three churches in the north of Portsmouth. You can read more about the parish on their website at

I expect to take up the post towards the end of May. Clare, Emily and I are really looking forward to the opportunities and challenges ahead - though we will, of course, miss the lovely people of Warblington with Emsworth.

There will be plenty of time to reflect on our time in Warblington and Emsworth over the coming months. For now, I just thought everyone who may be interested should know that I'm on the move!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Original Sin? (A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent)

Lent already? It only feels like yesterday that we were celebrating Christmas together! Well I suppose that’s what we get for aligning a Christian festival to a pagan one! Easter, as I’m sure you know, was superimposed onto an existing pagan feast of the goddess Eastre – the so-called ‘goddess of the dawn’. Which is why we still have eggs and bunnies, and all that lovely imagery of new life.

But for now, we’re in the period of Lent… and period in which we pause, and hold our breath before the celebrations of Easter morning. And, of course, it’s a time for examining ourselves, and for asking ourselves whether we’ve fully understood the full implications of the Easter message that we are about to celebrate in 40 days time.

This morning’s readings, which come straight from the authorised lectionary for this year, invite us to consider one of the key messages of Scripture…the rather disturbing notion that we are all sinners, who have inherited our sin from Adam.

It’s a message that many people struggle to hear. I think that I will never forget the first funeral that I conducted soon after my ordination as a deacon. When trying to explain to the family that we would have a prayer for forgiveness near the beginning of the service, they asked, “what’s all that about then?”. I replied, innocently, that it was a chance to ask God for forgiveness of our sins…at which the family erupted. “Sinners!” they said. “We’re not sinners…and our Gran definitely wasn’t one!”

I could see that I was not going to get very far with this particular family. The idea of sin had become irretrievably linked in their mind with heinous crimes like murder. They had no concept that sin could be something far less dramatic. I found myself rather amused a little later however, when I asked them what their dear Gran’s favourite leisure-time occupations had been. “Oh”, they said, “she liked to go out into the country on Sunday, and do a bit of poaching!”

So what are we to make of this word ‘sin’ – what is actually meant by it? Clearly it includes murder. But what else? Are we really meant to define ourselves as sinners who have all erred and strayed from God’s ways like lost sheep. Are we really the ‘miserable offenders’ that we declared ourselves earlier to be – in the words of the confession? I think that if we are honest, most of us probably don’t see ourselves in quite that way. We are normal, honest, church-going people aren’t we? I doubt that any of us have done anything particularly evil this week. I can’t imagine that many of you have been out murdering anyone in the last seven days!

The Genesis story tells us that the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He told her that if she did so, she would be like God – understanding the difference between good and evil. He also told her that God was lying when he said that she would die if she ate the fruit.

And of course, the Serpent was lying…on both counts. Physical death arose as a direct consequence of Eve’s, and then Adam’s actions. But more than that, the Serpent lied when he said that Adam and Eve would become like God, understanding the difference between good and evil. Patently, that was not true. Oh, we can understand the very basics of the difference between the two… but we are not capable of making the tough decisions about what is right or wrong. If you want proof of that, just think of all the ethical issues that the church has grappled with throughout the centuries. Slavery? The equality of the sexes? Attitudes to abortion, or stem cell research? Even the current debate in the Anglican Communion about the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality.

We are simply not wise enough to be able to judge these issues with any sense of certainty. All our decisions are provisional, and open to challenge by equally committed and faithful people who are grappling with the same questions. Our knowledge of good and evil is certainly far less than God’s.

So the story of Adam and Eve – whatever we think of its merits as an actual historical event – is a powerful statement of what happens when we human beings try to make ourselves like God… when we move from allowing God to shape us, and try instead to shape ourselves. We end up in a mess. We become subject to sin. We create societies and cultures which are infected with incompetence, and the inability to reach clear moral decisions about just about any important issue.

It might also be helpful if we see sin like an infection. The things that our ancestors got wrong, continue to affect us – or infect us today. And the things we are getting wrong (like destroying the planet, or tolerating great evil around the world) will affect, or infect our descendents. I think that’s the idea that St. Paul is leading us towards, in our second reading, when he says that ‘sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned’ (Rom 5:12)

So if sin has infected the world, like a disease, what is the cure? Well St Paul outlines the remedy for that too. He makes a comparison between the first Adam – the man through which the infection of sin first entered the world – and the ‘second Adam’ – which of course is Jesus. (We might like to remember that the word ‘Adam’ simply means ‘Man’). In other words, the first Man (with a capital M) has now been replaced by the second ‘Man’ (with another capital M). The way of disobedience – of thinking that we are capable of living without God – is replaced by the way of obedience…modelled by Jesus up to and including the point of death. That’s what Paul means when he says, in verse 19: “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous”. Paul himself summed this idea up much more succinctly in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he said “All in Adam die. All in Christ are made alive” (I Cor 15:22)

There are, I think, two distinct ways in which this new life is offered to us through Jesus. The first is, plainly, through his death. Again in Paul’s words, a little earlier in Romans chapter 5, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6) By a mechanism which remains an eternal mystery – something that we can only begin to grasp with our feeble human minds – Christ death had the effect of wiping away our sin. Entire branches of Christianity have been founded on trying to understand the depth of that statement. Was Jesus sacrificed in our place? Were our sins attributed to him so that he was punished for us? Or was his death an immense example of how far God is willing to go to draw us back to his ways? Did he, in some way, pay a ransom to the Devil to free us from the Serpent’s clutches? Substitutionary atonement. Penal substitution. Ransom. Redemption. Moral example – all these, and many other ways of grappling with the meaning of Jesus’ death have been offered – even by different writers in the New Testament. But what they are all pointing to is essentially the idea that Jesus the second Adam – somehow undid the damage of the first Adam. Jesus was the cure to the infection of sin.

And the second way that Jesus offers us new life is quite simply through his teaching. If his only purpose was to die for us, then he could quite simply have done that without spending three years telling us what else we needed to know.

What Jesus called us to, throughout his life of teaching, was the idea that we can chose to live under the Lordship of God – the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God. Jesus offers us the chance to live in a kind of relationship to God – similar to that of a subject to their King, or a child to their father. We are offered God’s way of living, through the teachings of Jesus. It’s a way of poverty, and of peace. It throws aside notions of power and wealth and warfare and exploitation. It reaches out to the poor and the sick – and declares to the meek and the humble that theirs is the Kingdom of God.

And Lent is a period when we might spend some of our time thinking about that very question. Accepting entirely that Jesus has done all that is necessary for our salvation; we then need to consider whether we have truly begun to live the eternal life that he offers us now! Jesus said that he had come so that we may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10) He didn’t just mean life after death – he meant eternal life that starts NOW. Jesus’ challenge is that we are capable of living lives that are pure, holy and, in Paul’s words to the Romans, ‘made righteous’ – now.

So what about us? Have we heard the voice of Jesus, calling to us across the centuries? “Repent” ‘Turn away from doing things your way – and turn to my way’. The Kingdom of Heaven is breaking through now… you can live a righteous and holy eternal life…now.

Let me invite you, then, to take time this Lent to slowly, deliberately, and prayerfully read through the Gospels. Take time to let Jesus’ radical call to a new way of living get soaked into your mind and into your consciousness. Take time to begin fully living eternal life, in the ‘family’, the ‘community’, or the ‘lordship of God’. Now. It’s there for the taking.


Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Just Dust and Ashes

Isaiah 58. 1-12 & Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18 Ash Wednesday.

(Please forgive this slightly early posting of tomorrow evening's sermon. It's just that if I don't do it now, I'll probably forget!)

Do you remember the dustmen's strike of the late 1970s? I do – simply because of one very memorable event – which happened soon after we had moved into a new house. My Dad decided to deal with the overflowing rubbish bin by the simple expedient of having a bonfire in the garden. However, he wasn't quite as careful as he might have been – and accidentally consigned an aerosol can to the flames. Sure enough, the can exploded – sending a missile over the fence at the bottom of our garden, to land in the open kitchen door of a new neighbour.

Our neighbour, who turned out to be the headmaster of our local school, came screaming out of the house. "What on earth to you think you are doing?!" My Dad was, of course, very apologetic – but thought that this rather bossy man was over-reacting a bit. It was only an accident after all. He was then rather puzzled by the neighbour's next question: "What would have happened if a net had been there?". "Well," replied my puzzled father, "I suppose a net would have caught it!". What Dad didn't realise, was that 'Annette' was the headmaster's daughter!

(From the Blog point of view...I wonder if my Dad will exercise his right of the comments section below?!)

Ashes were something we got used to many years ago. Everyone had bonfires, in the time before smoke-control zones. I guess most of us have had the experience of raking ashes out of the grate, in the days before central heating. Ashes are just rubbish, aren't they? The product of burning something away. Just carbon. Waste, after the heat and light are gone.

So why, tonight, are we going to put this rubbish, this ash, on our heads? I want to suggest three reasons why we maintain this tradition - though I am sure there are more.

First of all these ashes are a reminder of who we are. The Bible tells us that we came from the dust and to the dust we shall return. As I'm sure you know our bodies are made up of about 50% water, and about 22% carbon (which is all that ashes are in the main). Mixed in with that are a couple of pounds of nitrogen (such as we find in good compost) and a couple of pounds of calcium (like the chalk hills of the Downs). On top of that there are about 30 or 40 other trace elements. But if I were to have all those elements here, and threw them all into a bucket, would I be able to make a human being? No, of course not.

The mythological imagery of Genesis tells us that the first human was formed out of the dust of the earth by God and then God breathed life into that dust. That is a powerful image. God is the source of our life – and the ashes we will use later on remind us of our utter dependence on him. Without the breath or Spirit of God moving in us, we are just ashes – dust: lifeless - worthless.

Secondly ashes are also a sign of repentance. As well as being a time of preparation for Good Friday and Easter, Lent is a time of mourning for our sins. It is a time when we are called to repent, turn away from our sin – which why, throughout Lent, we do not sing the Gloria, but focus instead on the Kyrie. "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy". For many of Lent will involve giving up something which we enjoy, as a personal discipline, and as a sign of our repentance.

Repentance is of course a key biblical theme. Time and time again the Old Testament prophets called people to turn away from their way of doing things, and to turn towards God's way. Sometimes, as we heard from Isaiah just now, that even meant repenting about the way that repenting was done! Fasting - or the giving up of food - was (and still is) an excellent discipline. It is designed to train us in the task of looking to God for spiritual and physical sustenance. It was an outward sign of a contrite heart - a heart that longed to be obedient to God.

But in Isaiah's day, fasting had become sort of fashionable, and as a result, hollow. Isaiah, speaking for God, says "Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes. Do you call this a fast - a day acceptable to God?"

Then, as we heard in the reading, Isaiah goes on to outline what true fasting, true repentance will look like. It won't be a mechanistic tradition of wearing certain clothes, and going without certain foods, or, in our case, for example, just performing again the ancient traditions of Ash Wednesday. It won't be the public wailing and showy-ness that Jesus condemmed in our Gospel reading. Instead, true repentance will be the complete changing of our minds to be more like the mind of God. This, of course, means being like the God whose heart is for the poor, and the hungry, and the homeless, and the weak. It means not being religious - but being practical, outward looking, loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. It means moving from a state of receiving God's love for us as individuals, into expressing that love for other people, through our actions, through our prayers, through our giving.

This year the Bishop of Liverpool has suggested that we should give up using carbon for Lent – or at least to cut down on its use as much as possible. That is a really tangible way of loving our neighbour – cutting down on our personal use of planet-destroying carbon emissions – that will ultimately flood, and starve, some of our poorest neighbours around the world. Let's turn off some lights. If you have any clusters of lights, like a small chandeliers, for example – why not remove one of the bulbs for lent – as both a real contribution to climate change, and a symbolic statement of our commitment to live with less? Perhaps you might leave the car at home? As we are marked with the carbon of Ash, in a short while, perhaps we might like to make a commitment to reduce our own carbon use this Lent...and then, hopefully, throughout the rest of the year.

But there is one final point I want to make. The people in Biblical stories put the ashes on top of their heads - so why do we put them in the sign of the cross on our foreheads? It's not just because we ministers are of those who have just had their hair done! We make the sign of the cross because it is a reminder of how we are marked for Christ. It is in once sense a reminder of our baptism, when we were signed with the sign of the cross. And the cross of ashes also reminds of the mark of the Lamb as it is described in the Book of Revelation. Revelation tells of an angel marking the faithful before the tribulation. These faithful would then be protected. The mark of the cross is a mark of ownership. These ashes tonight remind us that we are Christ's, we belong to him; and that he died so that we might live.

So let me summarise. These may be just a few ashes, but they mean a lot. First, they are a symbol of our need for God, for His breath of life. We are nothing but dust and ashes apart from Him.

Secondly, they are also a symbol of our repentance and mourning. They are a way of showing on the outside what is happening on the inside. Our trust in our own powers and abilities has tarnished the image of Christ in us. We have failed to live as he commands us to live. We've allowed ourselves to be seduced by the wealth and comfort of the world, while our neighbours are starving. The ashes are a sign of our deliberate repentance, our turning away - from our way of being, to God's.

Finally, in the midst of our repentance, these ashes, marked onto our forehead, are a sign that we are forgiven and marked as Christ's own. The very burning away of our sin by the fire of God's love makes us God's own. And as his own we are stamped and certified as children of God through the cross.

So as we come today to have the sign of the cross placed on our foreheads, let us

  • remind ourselves of our need of God, the source of our life, without whose life we are just ashes and dust
  • commit ourselves anew to living for him
  • remind ourselves that we are forgiven, and marked as Christ's brothers and sisters; children of our heavenly father.