First of all a quick apology that our service broadcast last week was lacking sound – a technical oversight I’m afraid. I have deleted the service from the feed as I didn’t think there would be much interest in watching those who took part miming the whole service!
There is no streamed service this week from Erdington and next week Erdington is hosting the Circuit Service for the new Methodist year which will appear in the Circuit Feed rather than Erdington’s own feed.
Sorry for the chopping and changing – normal services will resume the following week in their normal place.
Well the summer seem to be drawing to an end and with it the start of a new Methodist year. For most people this will pass almost unnoticed but for a minister in their last appointment it is important as it means a year closer to retirement. (?!)
Time is one of those aspects of life which we have little control over, we either accept its passing or constantly rage against its unstoppable march.
As a young christian moving from a Sunday School faith to an adult understanding I was constantly told that we were in the last days and that Jesus was surely coming soon. Well 45 years later I am still waiting! Perhaps the time is still not right.
That is another facet of time, not the liner progression of hours, days, weeks, months, years, but a point in the time-space continuum for a specific event to happen. Whether planned or serendipitous.
In God’s realm the time is always right for something, God knows the when and the what. God’s activity is steady and it is also specific. As a church we have to discern and point to what God is up to and when God is working—when the timing is right and what it’s right for. It is true not only in large, cultural ways, but also in specific, personal ways.
Of course, since the first lockdown, churches have faced incessant questions and squabbles and downright fights about the time for gathering in person. Who could gather, and where they could gather, and what could happen in the gathering, what needed to be worn in gathering? If the first-century Christian was concerned about propriety, including what kinds of covering in worship, no less is the twenty-first-century church! For some, the ability to worship without gathering signalled an end of the worship gathering, at least in its current form.
Not only did COVID challenge the ability of the church to gather, but it also challenged our ability to tell time. Sure, we measure time by clocks and calendars; through hours and days, time marches on. But during lockdowns, days of the week lost their uniqueness and days as a whole lost their rhythm. I have heard more than once that the last 18 months have felt like a time warp.
We didn’t lose the ability to measure time, but perhaps we lost the ability to keep time. At the recent Tokyo Olympics, time-keeping mattered a lot particularly when Canadian Andre De Grasse edged South African sprinter Akani Simbine by four one-hundredths of a second to win the Bronze Medal in the Men’s 100-metre race.
We record how long and how fast and when and so on. But COVID has also adjusted how we keep time by our faith. Worship “gatherings” now happen at personal times and start when a button is clicked. To point out an irony, you might say that when we don’t have religion to help us keep time, rather that we will keep time religiously using other things! If measuring and keeping time is only or even mainly done for cultural accommodation and athletic competition, then we will lose not only our ability to tell the time by our faith, but we will lose the ability to recognise timing. Gathering helps us to keep time and to recognise God’s timing.
Another way we tell time is by ages. The American writer, Joseph Bottum calls the present age ‘an anxious age’, (An Anxious Age – The post-Protestant Ethic) as the religious heart of the West is replaced by something else. Social foundations that attempted to mirror the foundations of reality are upended when the foundations of reality are being reconsidered. And almost sixty years ago, sociologist Philip Rieff prophesied the therapeutic age, when individual persons would be tasked with finding their own wellbeing—designing, achieving, and living their best life with the help of some friends—and perhaps a professional or two. I think both of them are right: It is an anxious age and it is a therapeutic age.
This unique age pressures the church. First, the church is pressured to become radically convenient. Consumers don’t have time for church, so the church must be open at all times. The church is encouraged to become the 24 hr convenience store of the religious market in order not to compete with football training, IKEA, family, the park, and all the other things that compete for people’s time. Second, the church is pressured to become a place of religious coaching. There is pressure to apply knowledge of Scripture and the care of souls to give advice on marriage, employment, and so on to help others take their lives to the next level.
Now, church should be convenient inasmuch as convenience means removing unnecessary barriers for those whom Jesus is beckoning, and the church should coach inasmuch as it guides people to and through spiritual disciplines in pursuit of Christ by the power of the Spirit.
But convenience and coaching can also be detrimental to the ministry that is needed in an anxious and therapeutic age. In an anxious age, the church must present hope. And in a therapeutic age, the church must present healing. Hope and healing are about neither convenience nor coaching. Hope and healing are about the presence of Jesus Christ in the body.
As a gathering, the church is about time: First, the gathered church is about time-keeping, a rhythm that orients the rest of time. And the gathered church is about timing, sensing the unique and charged time of Christ’s presence.
So is it the right time to meet together at church – probably. Is it the right time to do away with masks – probably not. Is it time to walk with Jesus – always!
How are we to read our gospel passage? What is going on here? At one level Jesus is engaged in controversy seeking to show those who question him who he is and what he’s about. At another level scholars have suggested that John’s gospel was written to reflect controversy between those who understand the truth about Jesus and those who rejected it – some of whom may even have been Christians of a kind.
A somewhat grumpy tone is characteristic of this gospel. “He came to his own but his own received him not” Chapter 1. The light has come into the world but men preferred darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” Chapter 3. And now in Chapter 6 “after this some of his disciples drew back and did not go about with him” So there’s opposition and disquiet even amongst those who had called themselves disciples and had followed him.
So opposition is a theme here and indeed throughout the New Testament. Opposition to Jesus is a consistent theme uttered by many voices. And today we need to ask ourselves do we Christians have opponents and even enemies. To be honest-yes we do! Should we name them? Dare I name them! Well here are two candidates –those who deny Jesus’ mission to extend the love of God beyond the boundaries and those who ignore his call to leave self behind and prefer to focus on our rights and my privileges. Thinking of this week’s news I’m sure that if the parable of the Good Samaritan were to be told again the focus would be on the good member of the Taliban. And in the epistle passage from Ephesians the dominant theme is spiritual warfare and there’s no warfare without an enemy and the devil has many human agents. The whole point of the passage about spiritual warfare is to highlight the need to confront them.
One of my favourite recent quotations is this one from the Catholic literary scholar and author Terry Eagleton. “If you claim to be a follower of Jesus and you don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do. I just love that! It applies not only to the first disciples who followed Jesus on the way of the cross but also to martyrs of more recent days. It has been said and truly said that the twentieth century generated more martyrdoms than any previous century. Remember Jesus own words. If anyone would come after me let him take up his cross and follow me.
As for Methodist martyrs that seems to be something of a blank page. A google search for Methodist martyrs produced only the Tolpudddle martyrs but they were something entirely different. And yet the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Truly it’s a paradox that the way of self-giving love is the way in which God’s grace reaches us. Discipleship is costly but true grace is costly grace.
The idea that Christians do have enemies makes many of us feel uncomfortable. Christianity we were brought up to believe was another name for respectable and proper behaviour. But now as times have changed Christianity is sneered at and dismissed as backward, traditional, unhelpful, and too complacent about racism and abuse. Some of these criticisms are fair at least fair in the present climate of opinion. I once met a Minister who was being stationed to Glastonbury to confront as she put it the “alternative society”. But now Christianity is itself the alternative society.
As Christians we can be regarded with suspicion. Social occasion’s especially family occasions can be tricky. Should one speak up or keep silent. On the whole I prefer to smile and keep quiet always erring on the side of kindness and tolerance especially towards the intolerant. Being elderly doesn’t really help either as it’s easy to be dismissed as unprogressive, out of touch or whatever. Judging by his letters I don’t think St Paul would always approve of my behaviour.
In my offerings of these days I try to offer something about the environmental crisis. In the case of the environmental crisis the enemies of the faith are those people and agencies who foster greed, envy and waste-all those things that are detrimental to a thankful approach to God’s goodness in creation. What should our response be as a follower of Jesus? Some as you know favour civil disobedience and direct action in the name of Jesus. I have grave doubts about the wisdom and rightness of this approach. I fear it may be counter-productive. Remember the two disciples in Luke’s gospel who say to Jesus at a moment of crisis. Look Lord hear are two swords. And he says: that’s enough of that. No I think personal witness is the only way. But not everyone agrees.
And then at the end of Chapter 6 Jesus challenges his disciples. Do you also wish to go away? Some you will remember had drawn back and had put a distance between themselves and Jesus. Others perhaps had decided to follow Jesus but from a distance-preferably a safe distance. This then is a challenge to us. Are we following Jesus but only from a safe distance?
Challenged as to whether he will cease to follow Jesus Peter’s response is one we should take to heart. Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have come to know that you are the holy one of God.
That’s a very authentic Christian confession. Just consider. You are the holy one of God. Or as we might say the best image of God we have.
This is Jesus-not a social reformer, or a distributor of free lunches, or a psychotherapeutic counsellor or a political radical but the holy one of God. He speaks the words that are the truth about real life as God has purposed it. He not only speaks the words but as this gospel is at pains to point out he is the living word. Words that lead to actions, actions of grace and love.
Everything that Jesus does signifies this and Peter has got the message-at least for the moment-which poses a question to you and I. Have we got the message? Are we living in grace and truth? What would it mean to live as if this were true?
In our Old Testament studies course at college one of the most heated discussions was about how we confront the ethical question of the psalms of vengeance. Some people argued that they were in scripture so we should just accept them others worried over the ill that could come if these words are prayed from our pulpits and in our private prayers. They fear what could happen with the expression of our rage.
My concern moves in the opposite direction. I fear the cool and collected civility of church life that denies those who have experienced trauma the space for public expression of that anger, which lingers in the air as palpable discomfort for the powerful.
I have herd christians complain about those who have raised issues of racism in the church. I’ve watched as those of LGBTQI community are reprimanded for interrupting business as usual, despite decades of silencing them through many conference resolutions. People who occupy seats of power control the agenda by censuring the anger of those demanding change. Certain voices, “respectable” voices, are given space while others are shut out.
The psalms that call for God’s intervention are written as a reminder of the enormity of human suffering within systemic and sustained forms of violence that cannot always be rectified by good work, good intentions, or reasonable dialogue. They show us the way that power is structured across and within interpersonal relationships and geopolitical realities. Rather than showing resignation or reasonableness, the psalms keep before us the trauma of inequitable suffering. These psalms hold the space, and they push us all toward response.
In psalms of justice we hear the cry of those whose words mark the places of oppression and degradation in history. These are people who are acted upon, who apprehend their own helplessness before suffocating violence. These are people whose very existence hangs in the balance of political and economic forces beyond their control. There will be no negotiation or discussion, nothing to bargain with, no scheme, no outsmarting, no escape. These are the prayers of dead-ends.
And yet something else happens here. To speak this violence aloud is also to generate a hope which destruction cannot overcome. To make space for the words of those facing catastrophe, who have nowhere left to turn, who have nothing left — this is the memory preserved in the psalms.
“In the face of monstrous evil, the worst possible response, is to feel nothing. What must be felt is grief, rage, outrage. In their absence, evil becomes an acceptable commonplace.” (J. Clinton McCann – Introduction to the Psalms) The psalms of rage remind us that somehow, in spite of absolute defeat, someone dared to say aloud that the world is not as it should be.
In my own prayer I sense no conflict between the psalms of justice and the New Testament’s call to love our neighbours as the way to describe prayer for our persecutors. The prayers offered in the Bible include those by Zechariah, asking God to save us from the hands of all who hate us. The prayers of the Gospels encompass Mary’s Song, a call to tear the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty. Throughout his ministry Jesus is intolerant of prayers meant to look pious. He lashes out at prayers being used as a public gesture rather than as an offering to God of one’s internal orientation. I would guess that praying as we “ought to pray” falls in line with the false piety of those who pray loudly on the street corners so that “they may be seen and praised by others” (Matthew 6:2).
Prayer may be transformative of our desires, but this can only happen by stopping pretending we are something we are not.
Jesus gives a rough outline of how to pray in light of this remarkable change of perspective. We start by positioning our prayer from the place where God is in control of history, working things out in the world around us, not distant from it. God is charged with the care of creation. We can let go of outcomes, of our attempts to control history. “Our Father in heaven. Your name is holy.” We recognise that God’s kingdom is established, firmed up in our midst. Our desires, our intentions for the righting of wrong, the reign of justice — let it come to pass.
After we have established God’s reign, Jesus tells us to offer our own needs. In this prayer, Matthew slips out of Hebrew, the formal language of the Temple, and into Aramaic, the everyday language of the people. It is in this language in which people argued in the market and whispered to their children as they went to sleep. The purpose of prayer is to move ordinary life and common speech into the communal form of God’s reign.
I suspect Jesus uses this informal language because there is no point in offering up prayers about the things we ought to want. Prayer may be transformative of our desires, but it will not be so by pretending we are something we are not. Rather than putting out pious prayers for public consumption or pretending that God doesn’t already know what we desire, we come to God as we are.
The Dominican monk and writer, Herbert McCabe reminds us that “genuine prayer means honest prayer, laying before your Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart — never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that.” We pray for the things we want and the things we need because we can’t fool God. In the end, we only fool ourselves.
“One of the great human values of prayer is that you face the facts about yourself and admit to what you want,” McCabe tells us, “and you know you can talk about this to God because he is totally loving and accepting.” This is why Jesus tells his followers to stop babbling like the pagans. This kind of prayer is an extraction exercise; stone and wood idols are impersonal amulets that intercede to reckless deities. The prayer Jesus offers to us makes space to come face-to-face with who we are and to deal with it plainly, alongside someone who loves us absolutely and unconditionally.
I have offered forthright prayers, prayers asking God to remove, by any means necessary, the government of my country. I have asked God to cause institutions to crumble and people to lose their jobs. I prayed these prayers in honesty, placing my anger before a holy God. And more often than not my prayers were not misplaced in their earnestness and longing for a world set right. At other times, my prayers of wrath, seething with demands for punishment and revenge, revealed that my own incoherent and blistering rage would do nothing to set me and others down in the renewed order of God’s creation. What I really wanted was pain. In these prayers, I reengaged the cyclical violence of perpetual struggle, only now on behalf of victims. But until I said the words aloud, until it was held before me, I could not see another way out.