Monthly Archives: January 2021

Epiphany: Love casts out fear!

As a season Epiphany doesn’t get much of a “look in” in Methodist Churches because it tends to be pushed aside to make way for Covenant Services. I have many more sermons in my files for Covenant Sunday than I do for Epiphany. This is a pity so I was pleased in one of my churches to be able to move Covenant Sunday to September to mark the beginning of the Methodist year and what used to be called the “winters work.”

Just this week I read an American article by a University theologian who set out to link Epiphany with the Covid -19 pandemic in a most imaginative way. Allow me to share with you some of his reflections.

The magicians or astrologers in Matthew’s story had a vocation. It was to gain control over the human and celestial worlds in order to assure a blessed destiny for human beings through wrestling control from the hostile evil powers. To control the elemental spirits of the universe and the laws of matter which ultimately they thought governed the world was their craft. They were the scientists of their age and they worked alongside the pagan priests of the time to bend reality to the will of humanity.

In the story the magi or the wise men follow the star that puts an end to astrology and magic. They encounter Jesus and they fall down and worship him. They have discovered that life is not simply a product of impersonal laws and the random movements of matter because at the heart of everything there is a personal will, a good Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as love. Love it is, as the great Italian poet Dante wrote, which moves the sun in heaven and all the stars.

In the loving purposes of God magic, astrology and the techno-scientific apparatus we engage with so as to control the universe are unnecessary. Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. In him all things came into being and in him all things hold together and it is in him that we live and move and have our being.  

During the past year we have seen a desperate search for magic bullets: the NHS app: remember that!, the find, test, trace, isolate and support system which never seemed to work, the lockdowns and now the jabs that will set us free!!. Now I will be glad to receive the jab and I have tried to observe the rules as closely as possible. But a route back to the world as it was before may not be open to us and perhaps that is a good thing for we need to build back better.

The Church has a very special vocation here. It is to proclaim that it is love rather than magic or science that is ultimately the key to life and that the universe is the work of a loving God. We should remember that as Isaiah wrote: Truly the Lord has born our infirmities, and he has carried our sorrows.

Covid-19 is a scary thing but we should remember that perfect love casts out fear. God loves us and he is not angry with us nor has he sent the virus to punish us. What he has done is enter our life. He has become as we are that we might become as he is. He is love and he calls us to embrace the love that is at the heart of the universe. That will involve repentance for we have used and abused his love and our actions have wasted much of his creation and now we are facing the price of our prodigality.

And suddenly there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

And the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sisters and brothers that’s our vocation too!

Church and Crown

The Crown: Netflix Confirms Fourth Season For The Fall And Here Is All You  Need To Know

One of the big hits for Netflix, the television streaming service, has been ‘The Crown’. It is beautiful, compelling and emotional programming — drama well crafted, stories well told, and above all, it is a visual feast.

The disorienting quality of the series is that it is no documentary. While creator Peter Morgan says that the show has been thoroughly researched and is true in spirit, each episode so seamlessly intermingles what is known with what is imagined that any viewer may have difficulty deciding what is fact and what is fiction.

Did Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher say that to Her Majesty the queen in their weekly audience? Did Princess Diana really roller-skate around the palace because she was lonely and bored? Is Prince Philip always in such a foul mood?

The vision for ‘The Crown’ is of an institution that leads almost exclusively by looking backward. Royal duty is portrayed as synonymous with preserving inviolate continuity with the past. Decisions in the Buckingham Palace of the series are framed by cautions like, “Remember your great-grandmother Queen Mary” or, “What would your father have done?” In the series we see Prince Philip trying to modernise the way the palace works , constantly battling with courtiers from King George VI’ s day whom he refers to as ‘the moustaches’. Watching this I am reminded of every church committee that has ever protested, “But we have never done it that way before.”

The Christian commentator Gregory L Jones once wrote “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,”. Not on religious matters alone but in almost everything. Yet, despite the portrayal of the battles within the British court, Queen Elizabeth has done much to advance the monarchy from a medieval institution to a more modern one while simultaneously preserving what is at its heart. History with adaptation. Tradition with responsible innovation. This pattern of change and development should be true for the church. Church leadership inevitably involves the stewardship of tradition as well as enabling the church to change and respond to situations our forbears could have never conceived of.

Our churches are not ahistorical organisations, we must find our place in a polyphonic tradition that reaches back in history before there were royals in England, before England was England, (and Scotland was Scotland, and Wales was Wales, before somebody comments!)

That past informs our future, but what matters is how we allow it to do so. We cannot lament what lies ahead of us in hopes of returning to the past or perpetuating it perfectly; this is the Christian problem with nostalgia. Instead, we must reckon with the past, retrieving from it the best and lamenting in it the worst, all for the sake of God’s future.

2021 has started with as many challenges as 2020 gave us our response is vital for the future life of the church how do we adapt and innovate whilst maintaining the heart of our Methodist tradition? (And there are two more series of ‘The Crown’ still to come!)

God bless and stay safe,

Alan

Insights from my Aunt

During our various lockdowns I have been enjoying Family Zoom sessions with relatives in New Zealand. These meetings require some prior negotiation because of the time difference but we manage it. It has become evident to us that New Zealand has managed things well. They locked down hard at first and they imposed strict quarantine measures. Consequently they have had only 25 deaths and only this week I was able to admire my cousin’s holiday photos following her week long trip to the Mount Cook national park.

There has been a tendency in my own thinking, to offer seasons for New Zealand’s success. Namely that it’s a long way away, that there are only a few ports of entry and that the population is quite low whereas the UK is densely populated. But they did rise to the challenge, they locked down hard and early and imposed strict quarantine controls at the borders. The New Zealand Government inspired confidence led by the beautiful and charismatic Jacinda Ardern and so on and so forth. If only etc., etc. Yes New Zealand has done well. I have even bought masks from a New Zealand supplier.

But there’s another consideration which I hadn’t thought about until my Aunt offered a reflection about recent events and compared this pandemic with that of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918/19. This hit New Zealand hard and according to my Aunt decimated the population. That I think is probably an exaggeration but there’s no doubt that it was a serious crisis for New Zealand. There was a response in the form of a Royal Commission and new public health legislation. What however my Aunt’s comments reveal is that it created a powerful folk memory and a resolve to address such crises more effectively next time. That is to say this time.

In our country there is no similar folk memory of the Spanish flu pandemic. Our folk memories of 1918 are associated with the armistice of November 11th 1918 and victory over Germany. Nevertheless the pandemic cost many more lives than the world war. When we see pictures of rejoicing crowds on November 11th we do not think as perhaps we should that these people are failing to observe a proper social distance.

Among the fatalities of the flu were the following:

Max Weber German sociologist

Frederick Trump (Donald Trump’s grandfather)

Gustav Klimt Austrian painter

Alfred Hindmarsh New Zealand Labour Party leader

Among the sufferers and survivors were the following:

Walt Disney

Mahatma Gandhi

Franklin D Roosevelt

Woodrow Wilson

David Lloyd George

Franz Kafka

Raymond Chandler

I have a book on my personal shelves entitled “1918”. Although this is a military history of the year there is no reference to the flu pandemic in over 500 pages despite the fact that it is believed to have begun in an American Army camp.

These reflections are important for they raise questions about what we chose to remember and what we chose to forget, what occasions are to be remembered with thanksgiving and what other occasions are to be remembered with repentance. There is a great deal in our past as Churches, nations and individuals that we should remember with repentance.

When the pandemic crisis is over we should come together once again with joy and give thanks for our deliverance. At the same time however we need to repent and repair our relationship with God and His creation. This pandemic occurred because of “spillover” by viruses into the human population occasioned by our careless abuse of the environment that God has gifted. We must acknowledge all that has been amiss, resolve to build back better and not simply return to normal.  

Collective guilt is not something we find easy to accept since we regard sin as a personal and individual failure. This is a mistake on our part and is contrary to the witness of scripture. Coming to terms with collective guilt is a valuable therapy for nations and leads to renewed healing and wholeness-just ask the Germans!

Plagues Past and Present

One of the best things about reading history is that it lifts you above what others have called the narcissism of the present. This is the foolish idea that our times are completely unprecedented and that we have nothing to learn from the wisdom and the follies of the past.

Two books in the past year have offered a corrective to this point of view. The first is “Epidemics and Society” by Frank Snowden. Written before the present pandemic which is nevertheless referred to in in a revised introduction it describes the history of humankind’s relationship with infectious disease and gives an account of the pandemics of the past. How lucky we were to escape a pandemic for so long! We had this one coming our way for some time and pandemics can be much more serious than this one. Think smallpox, Ebola virus and bubonic plague.

The other is “The Fate of Rome” by Kyle Harper. Harper is a professor of classics and ancient history in the USA. Most of us are dimly aware that the Roman Empire can be said to have fallen. Some of us know that pandemic disease gave the Empire a series of shocks. There seem to have been three main ones: the Antonine Plague of 165-6, the plague of St Cyprian in 264-6 so called because Cyprian Bishop of Carthage wrote a detailed description of it and the plague of Justinian which raged across the Mediterranean world in the sixth century and of which there are many reports. These diseases had a devastating effect on population numbers. In addition the Empire had to face the effects of climate change-not anthropogenic climate change to be sure- but none the less devastating for the strength and welfare of the Empire and its inhabitants. These findings have been resourced by a new science: bio-archaeology. The Roman Empire was not a blessing for the health of its inhabitants. To the question: What have the Romans ever done for us?-the answer might well have been: got us sick.

From my perspective particular interest attaches to the response of the Church in worship teaching and service. In the case of the plague of the third century Christians were initially blamed and persecution intensified. But the response of Christians in caring for one another and for strangers strengthened the Church and showed up the uselessness of the pagan gods. Preaching both at this time and later became darker with an especial emphasis on judgement and the end times. By the time of the plague of Justinian Christianity was the official faith of the Empire.

Against this plague the Church mobilised all its resources. There was special preaching, new Biblical commentaries were written and prayer walks across the city of Rome were held led by the Bishop-Gregory-known to history as St Gregory the Great. Gregory’s writings on pastoral ministry can still be read with profit today. An important theme of Gregory’s preaching was judgement and a belief in impending judgement is an impetus to action. So Gregory was inspired to initiate a mission to the savage Anglo-Saxons a mission which sadly remains incomplete to this day.  Special days of prayer were decreed for the Christian calendar by the Emperor’s command.

One of the most famous icons which led the processions –an icon of Mary devoted to the health of the Roman people can still be seen in in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. It would be interesting to know whether it’s been brought out as an aid to intercessory prayer during the present pandemic.

So far during this pandemic the Churches response has been disappointing. The leadership seems unable to speak prophetically and their prayers are sometimes half hearted. The theme of judgement and repentance is scarcely ever mentioned and yet the scientists know that behind the pandemic and the climate crisis lies environmental degradation driven by greed. The later Romans were taught by their Church to repent of their greed, inequality and waste. Why is our Church so timid and so silent?