Christian values and immigration


This is the transcript of a sermon I delivered on 16th October 2016. The texts were Isaiah 1:13-17 and Colossians 2:16-23.

Last month, on the eve of his final conference as leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage called on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to stand down from his role, accusing him of not standing up for “Christian values” in the UK. His words were in response to criticism from the archbishop of UKIP’s strong anti-immigration policies which he described as “legitimising racism”.

Mr Farage in particular pointed to Archbishop Justin’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis, accusing him of turning a blind eye to a series of sexual assaults carried out in Cologne, Germany, mainly by asylum seekers. He compared it to the condemnatory response of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Germany, saying that, in comparison, Archbishop Justin was simply not willing to protect Christian values and culture by supporting allowing further immigration and acceptance of refugees from the war in Syria.

This is simply one of many political rows and statements in recent years concentrating, or using concept of Christian values. Many areas of the press, many politicians and other pressure groups speak of defending Christian values from a whole range of things, from Muslim immigrants and refugees, to gay rights, feminism, political correctness, secularism and multiculturalism. All of these things are portrayed, to varying degrees, as a threat to our way of life and our Christian culture and values.

The one thing which is very rarely mentioned, however, is exactly what is meant by “Christian values”. It’s usually taken as written that people will instinctively know what is meant by the term and, it appears, most people do have something in mind to define it whenever the term is used.

This all begs one very important question: If politicians, campaigners, the media and the public all have an idea of what Christian values are, what actually are they?

Well, I could spend the whole time talking about what they are not, after all, Isaiah and Paul were extremely clear on the sorts of things many people feel are necessary, but don’t really constitute the values God wants of us – They are not turning up at Church on a Sunday, or refusing to do work on a Sunday, or making sure we observe festivals, or demonstrating piety, or saying our prayers, or telling people we are Christians or so many of the other public demonstrations of faith we can make. These are the easy things, the things which take no real sacrifice – no real faith – and are also easy to demand of others.

You see, when we hear of Christian values, these are the kind of things which are meant; the easy, cultural values which we can demand of everybody, the strict rules and conditions of being “one of us”, and a list of all the things we disapprove of and stand against.

When we hear, or even speak of Christian values, what we often really mean is our values. We impose our own world view onto others and say we are doing it to protect our Christian identity, demanding all conform otherwise they are oppressing us, they are a threat to us and must be resisted. Eventually, Christian values end up being viewed as things we are against, rather than things we are for.

The thing is, though, that these are all human values. When we think about what Christian values we all have a habit of fitting our own values into the description. These values have no right to be called Christian, though because they don’t meet the only criteria that term demands.

What are Christ’s values?

If we really want to live and promote Christian values then we need to look to Christ. Not to politicians or newspapers, or even ourselves, but to Christ. It’s one of those occasions where the old slogan “What would Jesus do?” applies perfectly.

So, let’s try to apply that question. In the face of millions displaced by a vicious war, fought by oppressive regimes on both sides; in the face of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children risking their lives to escape hell on earth in order to reach lands of freedom and safety; in the face of people living in relative poverty moving country in order to find a better life for them and their families – what would Jesus do?

One way to tell is to actually listen to his words:

Matthew 11

“Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest. For the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I will put on you is light.”

Matthew 25

“I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me”

Luke 3 

“Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it.”

Luke 4 (quoting Isaiah 61)

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”

These are Christian values; relieving the burdens of others, sharing our plenty with others who have little, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, freeing the captives and oppressed.

In her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality As A Christian Tradition, Christine D Pohl wrote this,

“to welcome strangers into a distinctly Christian environment without coercing them into conformity requires that their basic well-being not be dependent on sharing certain commitments. When basic well-being is under attack by the larger society, Christians have a responsibility to welcome endangered persons into their lives, churches, and communities.

And there are no conditions put on this. At no stage does Jesus say we should only do this for other of his followers, or only if we can keep our own way of life intact, or only if people are willing to integrate into how we live. Love is unconditional, it stems from a life truly lived in Christ, from living under his control. When we live like this, when we allow ourselves, as Paul writes, to die with Christ so we can let go of our own worldly interests, then we find ourselves loving unconditionally in the same way.

You see, Christian values aren’t something to be protected, or forced onto others, they are something which comes from Christ himself and he gives to us, through the Holy Spirit, if we properly submit to him.

As far as placing conditions on love based around conforming to certain, man made standards is concerned, Jesus certainly had things to say on this as well with attacks on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who would laud it over the people, making big shows of their religious observance and condemning those unable to live up to their standards; but only doing it all for show and status, rather than for any desire to honour God.

Jesus knew that this went way back. Isaiah wrote about it when telling Jerusalem of their impending destruction. The people of Jerusalem would go through the motions of following rituals and rules, but there was nothing in their heart when doing it. There was no justice, no help for the oppressed, no rights for the vulnerable.

When we become like this then our worship, our songs, our prayers mean nothing to God. Less than nothing, they become detestable to him. All because we have lost sight of him and his desire for us to look after each other as human beings, his creations. As far back as Leviticus he said,

“Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

God wants us to forget our race or nationalities and to become one in him, treating all others – ALL others – with a welcoming, caring, giving and unconditional love.

So, when we come out with language alienating others on the basis of their nationality, or even their religion, and seek to make them unwelcome we are turning away from God, from Christ; when we speak of being worried about immigrants destroying the British way of life; when we stop innocent and suffering people from coming to safety for the fear that their religion means they may be a terrorist; we aren’t defending Christian values, we are turning away and destroying them.

It is our obligation as human beings and as Christians to offer safety and shelter to refugees, to be welcoming to strangers in our country and to share our own resources with those less fortunate. That is what Christian values and community are all about, loving one another as Christ loves us.

I’ll leave the last word to Justin Welby, a man who spends his life not defending, but promoting Christian values,

“God calls us to look outwards and care for those things He cares for; the poor, the sick, the suffering, the lost.”

Amen

The Tories and Brexit – The middle of the wedge

I didn’t sleep last night. It wasn’t sickness or stress. It wasn’t that I wasn’t tired (I really was). It wasn’t that my bed was uncomfortable.

I was angry. Really bloody angry.

I get frustrated, fed up, a bit cheesed off or even snappy at times. Rarely, however, do I feel real anger about anything.

Last night, though, I did.


Foreign workers are to be registered. Foreign doctors are to be “allowed” to stay until they can be replaced. Limiting freedom of movement seems to be the only non-negotiable element in Brexit. 

The message is clear – If you aren’t British then you aren’t welcome here. That’s right, Jonny Foreigner. This isn’t your home. It’s simply a place you get your money from, and we need to make sure you are treated differently to those of us who are native of this land.

This is as hard right as I can remember from a UK government, and it’s seriously scary. We’ve been through the language of “swarms of immigrants” and “bogus asylum seekers”. As many of us said, that was simply the thin end of the wedge.

It’s fair to say, with language you would expect to read on Stormfront and policies to match, we are now firmly in the middle of that wedge, and moving further up as we go.

The Brexit vote has confirmed one thing alone to the Tories, many people fear immigration. Theresa May addressed this in her speech today, attacking the mythical “liberal elite” for finding fears about immigration distasteful.

No, most of us don’t feel quite that way. Fears about immigration are, to a certain extent, understandable. People coming into the country, our communities, with a different language and culture can feel unsettling if you aren’t used to it. Stories in the press about millions coming over, taking jobs, benefits, NHS places, houses etc. can lead to fears. Of course it can.

The issue comes with addressing those fears. I believe that addressing fears should involve allaying fears. Pointing out the many, many benefits of immigration: they pay more tax and claim fewer benefits per person, they are helping to fill major shortages of staff in health care and the hospitality industry, they help us to learn about cultures beyond this small island…

The Tories, however, see addressing fears in a different way. They see it as pandering to those fears. Stoking them with increasingly hateful rhetoric and policies, then using the EU Referendum result as a way to justify those fears. In the same way those on the far right are using the result to legitimise their own bigotry and racism.

The Government often speak of standing up for “British values” or “Christian values”, yet these values they speak so highly of are not the ones I recognise when I think of them. I think of fairness and equality of all people, regardless of gender, race, colour, nationality or creed. 

I think of standing up for the vulnerable, the victimised, the poor, the oppressed.

I think of respecting those who work in professions which serve the wider good: health care, education, law and order, rescue and protection.

I think of a culture made up of many cultures over many centuries. Changing and evolving as we grow as one giant melting pot, celebrating the progress we make as we go.

I think of love, the most powerful thing on this planet, sweeping away hatred and fear as it goes. Healing people, communities, cities and nations.

Please, if you truly fear the idea of people coming from other countries, whether for economic reasons or for their own safety, and making their home here I beg you to think again. We learn from each other when we let down the artificial barriers of nationhood we have built around us. We learn customs, languages, festivals, food, ways of creating a caring society we had never thought of before when we realise that there is no us and them. There are just people. Human beings. Ordinary men, women and children.

The language of the Tories, the language of Brexit right now, is a dangerous and frightening path to go down. It is the language, and the policy, of division, inequality, blame, mistrust and hatred.

We are better than that. British people… all people are better than that. Please, let’s be better than the people we are being taken for. Before it’s too late.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

‭‭Matthew‬ ‭25:35, 40‬ ‭

Counting memes

It’s 2am and, for the umpteenth night in a row I can’t sleep. I’ve tried reading, music, just laying there… even cricket commentary (as 10CC sang, I love it).

Eventually I decide to check into my Facebook. A bit of social media browsing can’t do a worse job than anything else, can it?

Its busy. Mainly because, although its 2am, I am currently in Mumbai, India, so I’m 4 1/2 hours ahead of my friends in the UK, for whom it is only 9.30pm. 

After a minute I stumbled upon this post, shared by a friend, by the British Humanist Society.

The much mourned “Hitch” was an incredibly erudite, passionate and intelligent speaker and writer, even though I disagreed with him strongly on matters of faith. However, here he is spot on. Human decency is certainly not derived from religious practice or tradition. The BHA are right, the non-religious are as capable of good, sound moral actions as those who adhere to religions, and they do not need religion to help them do this.

There is literally nothing wrong with these statements.

There is, however, something badly wrong with the premise they are made upon.

They assume that all religious beliefs are centred around the idea that you need religion to have morals, or to be good. That the only way to be a truly good person is to follow religious teachings. That those outside of that religion are incapable of becoming a moral being.

I’m sure those arguments have been made, but I’ve not heard anybody making them.

I have heard the argument, however, that you cannot be good without God. Even if you don’t actually believe in him. It’s known as the Moral Argument and I would describe it for you, but it’s 2.25am now and I’m too tired to do so. So here’s a short video.

That is harder to argue against than needing religion to be capable of good. Not impossible, I’ll grant you, but harder.

And this is the problem when we try to reduce argument and debate to short Facebook posts, tweets or memos.  You lose nuance and find it easy to fall into the trap of making the wrong point. Unfortunately it’s also easy to fall into the trap of believing it, sharing it and forming values and beliefs based on it. I know I’ve fallen into that trap. Most people I know who go online have as well.

This isn’t just the case with religion. Politics is another area where debate is reduced to soundbites and infographics which, whilst eye-catching, don’t always stand up to scrutiny. But they seem to be shared and used in argument and debate all the same.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we need to think more. Think before speaking, or posting online, or even before hitting that share or retweet button. The important things in life are usually more complicated than we would really want them to be, and to reduce them to single quotes or trite statements is to do them, and us, a disservice.

Now, I really need to sleep.

How to react to Brexit – Sermon 26 June 2016


If only something of note had happened in the world over the last few days which I could have based a sermon around…

So, we had a vote on Thursday. One which will determine the political direction and position for generations. We are to leave the European Union and now…

Well, now the negotiations should be starting. Now the leaders of our country should be sorting out the terms of our exit from the EU so that neither the people of the UK nor the people of Europe are disadvantaged. Now we should be starting to heal the deep divisions which have opened up during one of the most vicious political campaigns these islands have seen.

That’s what should be happening.

Instead, we see recriminations. Instead, we see the name calling, accusations and fighting intensify. Instead, we see a nation deeply divided between the areas who voted to remain and those who voted to leave.

The words racist, bigot, traitor, smug, arrogant, liar and so many more are being bandied about social media, phone-ins and even some streets.

So, was it all worth it?

Of course, if you supported leaving the EU then you will feel it was. If you wanted to stay, you’ll think otherwise. And if you really didn’t know, you’re probably still utterly, and understandably, bewildered.

There will be people reading this from each of those three categories. You will all have your own views, thoughts and feelings towards the campaign and the result. The result, the rights and wrongs of leaving the EU, is not what I want to talk about here, though.

What I do want to talk about is the reaction, our reaction as Christians, as the body of Christ, to the events of the last few days and months.

The Church is nothing if not a divided body. The American comedian, Emo Phillips wrote a joke which was voted the best religious joke ever on the satirical Christian website Ship Of Fools. He said this,

“Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What denomination?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him off the bridge.”

I think we all recognise what’s being said here (although I do keep meaning to Google some of the terms in the joke). Throughout the years the Church has seen split after split after split. We have had splits on which language the Bible should be in, the authority of Rome, what translation of the Bible we should use, the links between church and state, the role of bishops, infant baptism, full immersion baptism, women in the priesthood and, now, homosexuality and its impact on the priesthood and marriage. We seem to love a good schism.

This is different, however. This isn’t a theological argument which simply affects one branch of the Church. This is an argument which has divided an entire nation and has gone beyond facts and values into personal insults and recriminations.

So, how do we react? When many of us within the Church have those same feelings of deep joy or total despondency, how do we keep ourselves from tearing ourselves apart in the same way that the country is threatening to do?

I think that the answer lies in the two readings; John 17:20-26 and Colossians 3:1-17. Jesus’ prayer for His believers and in Paul’s letter to the Church in Colossae.

Paul said this,

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

Paul recognised that we will have disagreements, arguments and fallings out. Some disagreements will simply not be resolved. But that doesn’t mean that relationships need to suffer as a result of it. Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; these are vital to any interaction we have with anybody. The second we start to forget to show these things, to forget to love, we also fail to reflect the image of Jesus to the world.

When we feel passionately about something these things seem to be the first things to be thrown out of the window in our dealings with people who disagree with us. It’s hard sometimes to keep our cool and interact with others with a cool head on our shoulders, but we must. And the first step in doing so is to listen.

Much of the cause for such divisive arguments is the failure to listen to opponents. The way that people tend to listen is that they hear a point being made, then spend time thinking of a counter argument or a reason for exposing an untruth. What we fail so often to do is to listen and to fully appreciate why people think and feel in a different way to ourselves. What are their experiences, their values, what has led them to take such a different point of view to ourselves? Take time to actually listen to someone with the opposite view to yourself, not just on Europe, but on any point of division. Ask questions, purely for the purpose of finding out information and not with any sort of agenda. You may not end up agreeing, but the insight you gain could lead you to a much greater understanding, not just of that issue, but of the person you are speaking with.

And don’t assume. As I said earlier, there have been assumptions made on both sides of the EU debate regarding the kind of people who would vote the other way. I heard two callers on a radio phone in today; one was a Remain voter who thought all Leave voters were elderly and/or bigots, the other a Leave voter who though Remain voters were young people brainwashed by educators or folk who sit around reading the Guardian all day. I wanted to crawl inside my radio and yell at them to stop! How can you know somebody’s motivation for doing something without listening to them in the first place? When we make assumptions we are pre-judging someone. But prejudice is not the way in which Jesus dealt with anybody, treating Samaritan women, Roman centurions and religious leaders all as people. Human beings who are loved and treasured by God.

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

There is also no remain voter or leave voter, no Conservative, no Labour, no SNP, no UKIP, no Green, no left wing, no right wing, no Scottish, no English, no Irish, no Welsh, no German, no French, no Polish, no Romanian, no Turkish… Christ is all, and is in all. We must never allow ourselves to forget that fact.

And we must be respectful in the way we communicate our own views.

“But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.”

Again, the more passionate you are about an issue the harder it is to keep away from the things Paul warns against. But the more level headed we are when explaining our point of view, the more we stick to facts and our own experiences, the more likely the person we speak with is to understand our point of view. Again, though, without necessarily agreeing with us.

It’s vital we do all of these things. Vital for ourselves, vital for the Church and vital for the country.

Jesus prayed for our unity as believers. He knew we would disagree and argue, but it’s the spirit of that disagreement and, more importantly than that, the recognition of what unites us, that he is praying for here.

He is praying for us to recognise that we are all united by him, by the grace that God showed by sending Jesus, and by the glory of God demonstrated to us in the person of Jesus. We are united in the common aim of bringing God’s kingdom here on Earth. We are united in a desire to see people, families, communities, nations, the whole world won for Christ, for everybody to experience the love and saving grace of Christ.

That unity of purpose, that uniting power of Jesus, is what we all need to draw on at all times. Jesus is inviting us to be the light of the world, let’s shine that light. Let’s be the examples of how to disagree in love, to show the world that you can work with those who hold different viewpoints to your own. Let’s be examples of how we can work together, in the circumstance we find ourselves in, to make this country and this world a better place, regardless of how happy or unhappy we are with those circumstances. Don’t forget, Jesus spoke of unity and love in a time of occupation and violent oppression; we live in a free, democratic society, we have literally no excuse for not being able to act in the same spirit.

We must work together. We must work together to make the situation we find ourselves in work, we have no other choice. And if that changes again, if Scotland decides to become independent from the UK, we must work together to make that work as well.

We must work together to heal the divisions; a thing we can only do by acting in love, respect and true, God given unity with each other.

And we must work together for the Gospel of Christ. Amongst all of this is an opportunity. An opportunity to show people how we can treat other people. An opportunity to show how we can cooperate despite disagreement. An opportunity to demonstrate a different way, a way of love.

But, above all of this, we can’t lose sight of the most important thing of all.

NT Wright said “Jesus is Lord, therefore Caesar is not”. Whatever earthly institutions, powers or nations we cling to, they are nothing. There is only one true authority, one true kingdom and one true power and it is our responsibility and our privilege to represent it on Earth. Our role is not to point to the EU, or the UK, or an independent Scotland. Our role is to point towards the cross of Christ, to say that this is where all hope, all salvation, all mercy, all rest, all healing and all power really lies. This is where we can truly lay aside our differences and become one with Christ and in Christ, forever.

I want to end with a prayer which the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Russell Barr, has written and is using as he leads worship this morning.

God of grace, trusting in Your continuing concern for us and for all creation

we bring You our prayers for this land and its people.

We thank You that in all the changed and changing circumstances of life

You are always with us

Your Spirit around us and within.

With Britain having voted to leave the European Union

some people are excited about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead

while others are fearful of what it will mean.

Some are pleased with the outcome of the vote and think it good

while others are left feeling disappointed and vulnerable.

Hear our prayer for those who will be involved in the coming negotiations

people who will make important decisions

affecting the political and economic life of our nation and continent.

Grant them Your gifts of wisdom and compassion

a commitment to seek the good of all people

and a desire to protect people weak and the vulnerable.

Free us from all bitterness and recrimination

and in all things grant us the serenity

to accept the things we cannot change,

courage to change the things we can

and wisdom to know the difference through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen

Tomorrow’s calling, now – Sermon, 19/06/2016


(This is a sermon I preached on Sunday 19 July 2016 at Zetland Church, Grangemouth. The scripture readings were 1 Kings 19:19-21, Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 1:1-12)

What do you want to be when you grow up?That was the question we were probably all asked all of the time as children, and continue to ask children today. What direction is your life heading? What are your dreams, aspirations, hopes for the future? Who will you become?

In my primary school, in East Tilbury, near the mouth of the Thames Estuary in Essex, most of the boys seemed to want to be long distance lorry drivers. We didn’t live far from the port of Tilbury (you could just see it from my classroom window) and that was the jobs many of their dads did. The odd one fancied being a car mechanic, or a soldier, but lorry driver was definitely the in thing at my school.

I, however, didn’t really have a clue. I’d have loved to have been a footballer, but I am comically bad at football. I liked the idea of being an astronaut, but I can’t even handle a roller coaster, let alone a rocket launch.

At one stage in my life I worked in a call centre. One of the managers had a picture on his desk of a little boy looking, wistfully into the distance and saying “When I grow up, I want to work in a call centre”. The humour in that derives from the fact that almost nobody grows up wanting to do that, or work in an office, or a shop, or as a delivery driver, or sweeping the streets… most of us either don’t know what we want to do when we grow up, or never really make it and end up “making do”. Dreams go unrealised, lives feel unfulfilled.

Sometimes the direction we had planned for ourselves, though, does seem to work out until something gets in the way and we end up changing path, or it all falls apart completely.

I have no idea what Elisha’s dreams for his life were. It may be that working on his father’s land for the rest of his days, ploughing the fields with his oxen, was exactly what he had in mind or, at least, was how he expected his life to pan out. It may be that he had dreams of building the family business up, acquiring wealth and status. It may be that he hated working the land and wanted to try his hand at a different job. I simply don’t know.

What I do think, however, is that suddenly upping and leaving his home to become an apprentice prophet to Elijah was probably not foremost in his mind. Just a few verses earlier God had told Elijah to find Elisha and anoint him as his successor. Now, here was the great man of God putting his cloak around Elisha’s shoulders and following God’s instruction.

Now, I want you to stop for a moment and think – if something like this happened to you, a clear indication of God’s calling, one which would leave your own plans in tatters and completely turn your life upside down, how would you react? Now you have answered the question I didn’t ask you in your heads, which is “how would you like to think you’d react?”, imagine how you actually would. This is not a small request. Elisha isn’t being simply offered another job with great prospects. He is leaving his home, his family, his job; he is leaving behind everything he knows.

I would like to think that I’d be able to follow God’s command, trusting him fully in whatever he was asking me to do. Trusting that I and those I left behind would be given the strength to cope with the change, and that I would be equipped in the Spirit for whatever task I was to carry out.

I’d like to think that…

In reality, I really don’t know. I don’t know how strong my faith is to do something like that. Whether I would go, or could go. Or would I spend weeks, or years, pondering what to do in the hope that, maybe, God might change his mind?

Elisha acts in the way I’d like to think I would. He leaves to follow God’s path for him. And he does it, apparently unquestioning. Stopping only to say goodbye to his family and to slaughter the two oxen. It’s an astonishing display of faith and trust in both Elijah and in God.

Jesus appears to ask even more of us, saying to his followers that they need to leave without burying their dead or saying goodbye to their family, to follow him to a life of apparent homelessness.

This life of discipleship is not an easy life, and neither is any job we are given to advance the Kingdom of God. It’s a life of sacrifice, self-denial and obedience; something we find increasingly difficult to do in this secular, self-satisfying world.

The Church of Scotland currently has an initiative called “Tomorrow’s Calling”. It’s a campaign to get people to look at jobs within the church as opportunities they may want to take, rather than something for someone else, someone more holy or talented. Much of it is centred around training for full-time ministry, but it goes much further than that as well into all sorts of diverse roles.

On their website there is a quote from a minister from Stornoway, who says,

“I would have done anything to be honest, other than be a minister, but God made it very clear that’s what he wanted from me. I knew it would be demanding. I’m on call 24/7. Although it’s challenging, the more you give to people the more you see the beauty and diversity of life. You never lose from that.”

So often we find ourselves called to the one thing we don’t want to be called to. When I was a student I had to deliver a speech, as a member of the Student Union executive, to a lecture hall full of first year students. I was terrified at the prospect, I hated public speaking. I completely froze. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. It was an awful and incredibly embarrassing situation.

The idea that God might call me to a form of ministry that primarily involved public speaking would have been ridiculous to the 19 year old me, but here I am. And I’m here because, over time, not only has God equipped me to serve in this way, but has actually changed my heart from within to the extent that I’m never happier than when up here speaking to a church full of people.

You see, that’s what he does. He calls us to do things for him, not because we want to do them, but because he sees something in us that can be used to do his will. He chooses us, not because we are perfect for the job, but because we are perfect for the job only with his intervention. He chooses us and changes us and soon, without us even noticing, his will becomes our will.

Every single one of us is being called to service for God. Some have answered, some are denying it and some still haven’t heard it, but we are all getting that call.

Elisha got the call in a very obvious way, and he followed. For most of us that call is not so obvious, not so clear. We need to take time in prayer, not only to talk to God, but to listen to him as well. To sit, or walk, or drive or however you feel most comfortable doing it, in silence, just listening for the voice of God to guide you and to call you.

The call may come in other ways. You may find that people you know well and trust will give you that guidance. You may find that odd “coincidences” take place which seem to point you in the right direction. Any number of things could happen which answer that age old question to God “Please, Lord! Give me a sign!”

And then we need to be ready to actually answer it. If anything, this is the difficult part. Hearing a call can sometimes be fairly easy, but being ready and answering it is a whole different matter.

I think I first heard the call to preach about 15 years ago, but I either ignored it, or disbelieved it, or was just “too busy” to do anything about it. I wish I’d answered it sooner, but I did eventually. As another minister on the Tomorrow’s Calling website said,

“If you feel a sense of Calling in your heart you can’t run away from it.”

You only need to see the story of Jonah to understand that. Running from God is impossible; wherever you run to, he’s already there.

Elisha, however, was ready and willing. All he wanted to do was say goodbye, which he did with a meal consisting of his two oxen, and he was off on his journey to become the next great prophet of Israel.

We aren’t all being called to be a great prophet. Well, it’s possible none of us are, of course. We’re not all being called to preach, although some of us definitely are. But we are all being called, and Elisha is a wonderful example of what to do when it comes – We need to listen for the call, get ready for it coming and just act on it. Don’t run from it, or ignore it, but embrace it. God will be with each one of us every step of the way, guiding us and equipping us for his work.

And, above all, remember that to be called by God, by the creator and sustainer of the whole universe, to do his work is the most wonderful privilege we could ever hope for. He doesn’t need us to do his work, but he wants us for it because he wants to work with us, to share in our lives, our battles, our rest, our triumphs, our failures, our sadness and our joy. And, in return, he wants us to share in his glory and majesty.

If that’s not a reason to take a leap into the unknown, into God’s great adventure, then I don’t know what is.

Amen

Fight the power – Sermon: 29/05/2016

myth-bird-on-sign

This was a sermon I preached on Sunday 29 May 2016 at Zetland Church, Grangemouth. The lessons were 1 Kings 18:20-39 and Luke 7:1-10.

 

In 1961, in a basement at Yale University, psychologist Stanley Milgram carried out one of the most famous, and infamous, psychological experiments ever conducted. Inspired by the recent trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, as well as stories of guards carrying out atrocities due to “only following orders” he asked volunteers to read word pairs into a microphone to another volunteer in a different room. They would then read on word out and the person in the other room had to give the word it was paired with. If they got it wrong, the volunteer reading the words would press a button to administer an electric shock to the person in the other room. With every incorrect answer the voltage in the shock increased, finally reaching 450 volts.

What the volunteers administering the shock weren’t aware of was that the person they were shocking was actually an actor and no shock was actually being given. Milgram anticipated that just over 1/10% of the subjects would go so far as 450 volts, bearing in mind the screaming and pleading for mercy which would be heard from the actors in the next room. Amazingly, however, 65% actually went to the final shock, despite it being evident that they were killing the person in the next room. Many of the subjects displayed extreme stress and distress, but still carried on pressing the button at a wrong answer.

This experiment has been replicated, with similar results, on several occasions. In each experiment the reason for continuing was that they were being told to continue by a man in a white lab coat, holding a clip-board. They were obeying an authority figure. It shows how even ordinary people are prepared to commit inhuman acts when told to by those with authority.

Authority is an incredibly powerful thing. It can lead to people doing things they wouldn’t normally consider or dream of. It can be used, as the Nazis discovered and as Stanley Milgram demonstrated, as a tool for evil destruction. In the wrong hands, authority is dangerous and to be challenged and mistrusted. Even in the right hands, because it is in the hands of mere human beings it can still be misused or badly misguided.

Challenging authority is a necessity. History is laden with tales of ordinary men and women who fought against the powers of the time, even against the prevalent views of the time, in order to defeat evil and injustice, often putting their lives on the line for such actions. The Peasants’ Revolt, the anti-slave trade movement, the Suffragettes and many others either directly or indirectly brought about social and political change for the better by rising up against the authority of the day and saying “this is wrong”.

Elijah was such a man. He was a hunted man whose life was at risk from the Baal-worshipping king of Israel, Ahab. However, he had returned and presented himself before Ahab in an extreme act of defiance and faith in God. This one man, the only prophet left of the Lord of Israel, challenged the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to demonstrate the power of their god.

On the face of it this seemed like utter madness. Not only could the king and his men just take Elijah, but to the people of Israel who were watching this unfold he was also trying to overcome insurmountable odds. Surely the prophetic action of the 450 worshipping Baal was so much more powerful than this one man invoking the name of a deity who, they thought, was on his way to being consigned to the history books.

But Elijah knew he was right. He knew that standing up to the earthly powers that be was nothing to fear if he had the ultimate power guiding him every step of the way. And, of course, so it proved. The altar to Baal remained intact whilst the altar Elijah built, and had doused in water, burned brightly. The onlookers could see who the true God really was and immediately started worshipping him.

One man, listening to God and allowing himself to be guided by him, stood up to all the power and might Ahab and the prophets could muster and he prevailed. That God-given certainty in his actions gave him the strength to challenge the authority of the time and, in doing so, allowed God to change an evil, Godless society into a righteous, God-fearing one once again.

We stand at the brink of the same precipice which Elijah stood at on top of Mount Carmel. How often have you watched the news or looked on the streets or heard stories from friends and family and thought “this is wrong!”? How many times have you said to yourself that you wish you could do something, but you don’t really think you can make a difference? How often have you wanted things to change so badly, knowing that they are far from God’s intentions for his creation, but just feel that fighting big industry, or the media, or government, or even society itself is just too difficult, too much of an impossible task?

Imagine what would have happened had Elijah had those same moments of doubt, of insecurity, of hoplessness. Of course, he may well have done. But he didn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed by them. He didn’t let figures of authority, who were clearly in the wrong, dictate his actions in the way those who took part in the Milgram Experiment did. He stood up and let himself be counted. He listened to the voice of God talking to him and acted in the way in which he knew he had to, with little or no regard for the consequences this may have for him. As the line said in the intro to the 80s TV series Knightrider, one man can make a difference.

We are called to be Elijah. We live in a world no less broken than the one he found himself in all those centuries ago and God is calling us to stand up against it.

There is a song by the theologian and former songwriter Vicky Beeching which encapsulates what I mean by this. It’s called Break Our Hearts and some of the lyrics are as follows:

“It’s time for us to live the songs we sing

And turn our good intentions into action

To bring the kind of worship You desire

And move beyond our self-absorbed distractions

 

It’s time to move outside our comfort zone

To see beyond our churches and our homes

To change the way we think and how we spend

Until we look like Jesus again

 

Break our hearts

With the things that break Yours

Wake us up to see through Your eyes

Break our hearts

With the things that break Yours

And send us out to shine in the darkness

 

Here I am send me

To be Your hands and feet

Here I am send me I will go”

 

This needs to be our own prayer as we go out into the world, for God to break our hearts for the things that break his and for us to allow ourselves to be changed and moved to action as a result of it.

And, in challenging earthly authority, we need to submit to real authority. The Roman Centurion Luke wrote about recognised this authority when he sent his men to speak to Jesus. This was a man whose entire life revolved around following those in authority or exercising authority over others, so for him to realise that Jesus would simply be able to say the word and his servant would be healed, from a distance, was remarkable. Jesus himself was struck by the level of faith demonstrated by this gentile and holds him up to the crowd as an example of what faith should look like.

This is the same example being held up to us today. To recognise real authority, through Jesus Christ, and to allow ourselves to be led and changed by it, even if that means acting against the earthly authorities around us.

Ultimately, we are God’s hands and feet in this world. Scripture, prayer and the Holy Spirit all lead us to his will and we need to look at our world through the prism of all three of them to see it through his eyes. When we do that, we can have no other reaction than to stand up and, with his help and guidance, to change it.

What do we want…

ME_113_Patience

“Why is patience so important?”
“Because it makes us pay attention.”
Paulo Coelho

On Monday I had my final exam of the academic year, a 90 minute paper on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. it’s been, as you may expect, very hard work, the language and some of the stories are very difficult for a 21st century mind to grasp. However, it was also very interesting work to look back at the stories, culture and religion of a Middle-Eastern tribal people from around 3-4000 years ago, which so massively influences the lives of many people today.

A great deal of the course centred around a quote from the theologian David Clines,

“The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment – which implies also the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs. The promise or blessing is both the divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster, and a reaffirmation of the primal divine intentions for man.” (David JA Clines (1997) The Theme of the Pentateuch, Sheffield – JSOT Press)

The gist of this is that God created the world with a specific intention, but humanity screwed up royally and let sin into the world. God met this sin with judgement at every turn, but also demonstrated grace towards humanity at the same time. This happens over and over, not only throughout the Pentateuch, but throughout human history.

The question I had in the exam regarding this was to to with what is known as the “primeval history”; the first 11 chapters of Genesis from creation and Eden, through the Fall, the Flood, and culminating with the Tower of Babel.

The answer I wrote (which I really hope was right/good enough!) was that this pattern of sin, judgement and grace is repeated several times in the primeval history:

  • God creates the heavens and the earth, tells the first man and woman they can eat any fruit, except from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or they will die. They eat it anyway, but the punishment is banishment from paradise and separation from God; death will be over 900 years away.
  • Cain, upset at God favouring Abel’s offering over his, kills his brother. Again, the punishment is banishment, rather than death. And God puts a mark on Cain to show he is not to be harmed.
  • Humanity goes totally off the rails in a way which means God decides to wipe them out and start again. But, he saves humanity again in the form of Noah and his family, even going so far as promising never to do something so drastic as the flood again.

Sin, judgement, grace. Over and over again.

Then the people of Babel decide they want to be like God by building a tower so high that it signifies an attack on Heaven itself. Again the judgement comes, the people’s language is confused and muddled. They are scattered across the world. Humanity’s unity is gone.

And the grace? Well, nowhere. Nothing. It looks like God has finally given up.

Of course, he hadn’t. He brings Abraham, followed by his descendants, to a promised land (via Egypt) with the promise that “all nations on earth will be blessed”.

Obviously my answer was a bit longer than that, this was just an overview. It came back into my mind with a couple of other things this week, though.

Firstly, I read an excellent article in Christianity Magazine by Jamie Cutteridge about the need for instant gratification in the age of the Internet, smartphones, tablets etc. We have become an impatient generation; What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!

Secondly was the preparation for the festival which some colloquially call “the birthday of the Church”, Pentecost. The disciples, having come back from the brink following Jesus’ crucifixion and galvanised by his resurrection, face more uncertainty as he ascends into Heaven, leaving them by themselves again.

However, Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to them and, on the day of Pentecost, that promise is fulfilled,

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome(both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’”

(Acts 2:1-11 NIVUK)

These fishermen, tax collectors and serial Messiah followers, none highly-educated, can suddenly speak different languages, proclaiming the Gospel to Jews from all over the region.

Finally! God promised land, he promised nations, he promised he would be the God of Abraham’s people and he promised that they would be a blessing to all nations. And here, with sin already being defeated on the cross, we see a reversal of the events at Babel. The unity of humanity is back once more, a mere 1500 or so years after the people were scattered.

And that’s the point I realised. The events of Pentecost are a reversal of the judgement at Babel, something made possible by the events weeks earlier on the first Easter. But that reversal wasn’t a quick process, it took centuries after the initial judgement for humanity to be in a position for them to be ready for this.

That’s a difficult message for us to hear in an age when our news, music, food and coffee need to be instant. Yes, we need to wait and sometimes the answer to prayer is “not now”. But sometimes, “not now” means “not in your lifetime”, or “not in your children’s lifetimes” or “not for many, many generations”. How on earth are we expected to take that when we can’t even accept a YouTube video buffering for 5 seconds?

Well, I don’t have a quick fix for that. It would miss the point by a mile if I did, obviously. My patience is appalling and this need to wait on God challenges me all the time. But I do have examples to look back on to see how to cope with it. When I read Genesis I read stories of the patriarchs, especially of Abraham and Jacob, who sometimes displayed a lack of patience and decided to take things into their own hands (which didn’t go too well for them), and also displayed real patience and faith in God, waiting for the fulfilment of a promise they knew would not happen in their lifetime.

The times they coped with the long wait was when they were nearer to God, speaking to him and listening to him. That assurance they got from his presence allowed them to keep that patience because they knew that God would make good on his promise.

At Pentecost, we remember that God is closer to us than ever, since the Holy Spirit was sent to the disciples and continues to work in us today. This divine presence strengthens us and focuses us on God’s will, not ours. But it can also help us to galvanise our faith that God will do what he promised; to bless all the nations and to redeem his people.

Ok, it may take another 1500 years, or more, before it’s fully realised. It may take decades or centuries for the fruit of our own work to bloom.

But what’s a few hundred years compared to an eternity?