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Sunday, 23 February 2014

In the beginning, God

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I seem to have published this before I preached it, which isn't something I tend to do! Without checking the formatting first! Ah well.... Listen to the podcast, as I am not sure how closely I stuck to my script!

Our first reading today was that lovely poem that begins the Bible, that tells how God created order out of chaos. It's a lovely poem, one of my favourites.

You start with the absolute blankness, nothing. I don't think we can ever experience that sort of nothingness here on earth. Even if you all shut your eyes tightly, you can still hear and smell and taste and feel. Although some people have gone through what they call "sensory deprivation", which sounds as if it's very nasty indeed. Some people do it voluntarily, to prove a point, but for others it's quite literally torture. I suppose that might give us a glimpse of what it was like before the world was made. Although even sensory deprivation, unless you have it in space, doesn't turn off gravity!

 And then gradually, day by day, order forms out of chaos. First the light - not yet the light of the sun or moon, but an unspecified light. Then the sky, then the land, then vegetation, trees, plants, seeds, grasses. Then on the fourth day the sun, moon and stars, on the fifth day the birds and the fish. And on the sixth day, firstly the land animals and then the pinnacle of creation, human beings.

 "So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them". And on the seventh day, that great Sabbath rest that we have such trouble either understanding or implementing.

 The chorus of the poem, at the end of each stanza: "And God saw that it was good." "And there was evening and there was morning, the whatever day". It is a lovely poem, isn't it?

 Incidentally, nothing here about the man naming the animals, or the woman being created from his ribs, and them being placed in a garden – that is another story, I suspect a separate one, that comes in the next chapter. This poem is self-sufficient. And it is true. I don't mean literally true, of course – we know that the actual history of how this world came into being is told, firstly by astronomers and then by geologists and those who study tectonic plates and so on, and finally by naturalists and geneticists.

 But it is true in other ways.
 It shows how God is intimately involved in creation; it shows how pleased God is with that creation;
and it shows how we, in our creativity, are made in God's image.

The story shows how God is intimately involved in creation. Well, yes, that goes without saying. But I think it does bear repeating, because all too often, we act as though God created the world and then left it to get on with it. But those who wrote down this story – and I suspect they were writing down a tale that had been repeated and repeated and repeated for generations – those who wrote down this story did not, I think, believe that. For them, God was intimately involved in every detail of creation; why would He abandon it? No “God of the Gaps” theology for them.

 It's not always easy, when we know that we share much of our genetic material with earthworms and other animals; we know that it is the characteristics that enhance survival that are the ones apt to persist down the generations. Mind you, when it comes to some birds, the characteristics that their mates seem to prefer are more decorative than practical!

 But sometimes, I know, we wonder how much God has wound up his creation and left it to get on with it! But our Gospel reading reminds us that God is still involved in creation, providing food for the sparrows and clothing for the flowers; we are told that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. And we know that the poem shows God is still intimately involved in our lives today and that we are able to have a relationship with Him – or why are we here this morning?

 So yes, God is intimately involved in His creation, and God is pleased with that creation.

 Every stanza of the poem ends “And God saw that it was good”. God was pleased with what He had made. Sometimes we forget that, don't we?

 I know I used to, years ago – I got so used to the idea of myself as a sinner that I somehow forgot that, actually, God meant to make me – I, and the rest of humanity, wasn't some kind of dreadful mistake on God's part! It's all too easy, I find, to get into the mindset where God only tolerates humanity because of what Jesus did – rather than God loving his Creation so much that it was His idea to send Jesus to fix what had gone wrong. God doesn't hate his Creation because, through humanity's fault, it became flawed and broken – rather the reverse; God loves it so much that he fixed it!

 I sometimes wonder, don't you, what creation is like on other worlds, other planets. There has been endless speculation about this; we know now that Mars is mostly desert, but scientists are still looking for traces of life, although they don't think there was ever intelligent life there.

 But before we knew what Mars was like, people speculated, and some really good stories were written about potential Martians, and what they might be like. And, indeed, on what people from all sorts of other places might be like. But all too often, our authors have created them in our own image. They might be bug-eyed monsters, in fact, they frequently are – but it is the word “monster” that is significant here.

 It was, I think, C S Lewis, among others, who drew attention to the fact that other civilisations might not have fallen, as humankind did. In an essay from 1958 entitled Religion and Rocketry, he says that if animal life exists on other planets, and if any of those animals are self-aware, rational beings like us, and could be argued to have souls, as we do, then are any of them, or all of them, fallen as we are? And if so, what provision has God made, as He undoubtedly has, for their redemption.

He quotes a now-forgotten poem, Christ in the Universe, by Alice Meynell, which I rather like, so I'm going to read it to you:

With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us.  These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.

But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How He administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord’s entrusted Word.

Of His earth-visiting feet
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet,
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.

No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.

Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens be guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way
Or His bestowals there be manifest.

But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.

O, be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The myriad forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.

 Lewis comments that it is just as well that the distances between stars is so vast that it is unlikely we shall ever meet beings from other planets. Given humanity's record of dealing with people from other places, he doesn't think we would be very good at dealing with them, whether or not they were the bug-eyed monsters of pulp fiction or a race of wonderful, unfallen people, of whatever shape, who are able to worship their Creator and to know Him in ways we cannot. Or whether they have been redeemed in some totally different way. We will never know.

But what we do know is that God reckons that His creation is very good. And where it is no longer good, He has redeemed it. God is pleased with His Creation.

So, then, God is involved in His creation;
God is pleased with His Creation;
and God created humankind in His own image.

 Earlier, we looked and thought about some of the things that we have made. Few other animals make things. Some do make tools – apes certainly do, and some species of bird. And some birds, the Australian bower-bird in particular, make beautifully-decorated bowers to attract their mates.

 But by and large animals are not creative in the way that we are – they don't bake cakes and decorate them, or knit themselves sweaters, or weave fabrics that last beyond a brief nesting season. It is, I think, in our creativity that we are made in God's image.

 God thought of the whole of this universe – or is it “these universes”? I am never quite sure. And in our turn we have thought of most extraordinary things – just look around you when you leave this place.

 Some years ago now I happened to be visiting my parents when someone who had been given permission to use a metal detector on some of my father's land came to call. He was showing us some of the things they had found in the field, ranging from a brooch that had been lost off a Roman cloak to a button that had come off a railway-worker's uniform. I held the brooch and could see how it was made – much more interesting than just seeing them laid out in display cases in a museum, when you really can't tell what they are supposed to be. Human beings had made all these things.

Some years ago we went to Bolzano, in Italy, and saw Oetzi, the so-called Ice Man, whose preserved body was found in a glacier about twenty years ago. The artifacts found with his body were wonderful, too – a copper axe, among other things, and shoes and other clothes. Even five thousand years ago, people were making things!

We have gone on making things down the ages, right down to the cup of tea we made this morning! Some of the things we've made we could wish we hadn't – guns and bombs and other tools for killing people with. Other things, we are very glad we did – respirators and iron lungs to keep people alive, for instance.

 But all our creativity, whether we have used it for good or for ill, harks back to that of our Creator. And like God, we need to look at what we make, and be sure that it is good. God is still involved in His Creation; God is pleased with what He has made, and God has gifted us with creativity in His image. We may well misuse that creativity, but it is still in God's image.

So, my sisters and brothers, let us praise our Creator in the words of hymn no 699: Lord of Creation, to Thee be all praise.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Choose Life

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Only the podcast today; if you want to read the text, I re-preached this sermon from three years ago, more or less identical. Listen to the podcast if you want to know what changed!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Salt and Light

I didn't record the Children's talk, the podcast only applies to the main sermon 

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 Children's talk:

When it's really dark outside, what do we do? We turn on the lights, and we draw the curtains, and we are all snug and cosy indoors. Here in London, we don't often see it being really dark, unless there's a power-cut, because of the street lights and all the lighting up.

When I was a girl, the street lights in the town where I went to school were switched off around 11:00 pm or so, and last weekend Robert and I stayed in a village in France where that still happens. And it gets really, really dark. What if you were out then? You'd be glad of a torch or a lantern so you could see where you were going, wouldn't you? And you'd be glad if someone in the house you were going to would pull back the curtains so you could see the lights.

In our Bible reading today, Jesus says that we, his people, are the light of the world. He didn't have electric lights back then, it was all candles and lanterns. But even they are enough to dispel the darkness a bit. And when lots of them get together, the light is multiplied and magnified and gets very bright, so people who are lost in the dark can see it and come for help. Which is why, Jesus says, we mustn't hide our light. We don't have to do anything specific to be light, but we do have to be careful not to hide our light by doing things we know God's people don't do, or by not saying “Sorry” to God when we've been and gone and done them anyway!


Main Sermon:

“You are the salt of the earth;” says Jesus, “but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.”

Salt. These days it's often considered a bad thing, as too much is thought to be implicated in raised blood-pressure, and so on. But back in the days before refrigeration and so on, salt was vital to help preserve our foods. Even today, bacon and ham are preserved with salt, and some other foods are, too.

Salt is also useful in other ways. It's a disinfectant; if you rinse a small cut in salty water – stings like crazy, so don't unless you haven't anything better – it will stop it going nasty. And if you have something that has gone nasty, like a boil or an infected cut, soaking it in very hot, very salty water will draw out the infection and help it heal.

Salt makes a good emergency toothpaste, and if you have a sore mouth and have run out of mouthwash, again, rinse it out with salty water and it will help.

But above all, salt brings out the flavour of our food. Processed foods often contain far too much salt, but when we're cooking, we add a pinch or so to whatever it is to bring out the flavour. Even if you're making a cake, a pinch of salt, no more, can help bring out the flavour. And if you make your own bread, it is horrible if you don't add enough salt!

Imagine, then, if salt weren't salty. If it were just a white powder that sat there and did nothing. I don't know whether modern salt can lose its saltiness, but if it did, we'd throw it away and go and buy fresh, wouldn't we?

And Jesus tells us we are the salt of the world. Salt, and light.

But how does this work out in practice? I think, don't you, that we need to look at our Old Testament reading for today, from Isaiah.

In this passage, Isaiah was speaking God's word to people who were wondering why God was taking no notice of their fasting and other religious exercises. And he was pretty scathing: it's no good dressing in sackcloth and ashes, and fasting until you faint, if you then spend the day snapping at your servants and quarrelling with your family. That's not being God's person, and that sort of fast isn't going to do anybody any good.

Jesus said something similar, you may recall, in another part of this collection of his sayings that we call the Sermon on the Mount: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

It's what your heart is doing, not what you look as though you are doing that matters! Isaiah tells us what sort of fasting God wants: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

This is what God wants. It's not just the big picture, you see. Yes, maybe we are called to be working for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, or whichever tribe is oppressing whoever – sadly, it seems inevitable throughout history that whenever two tribes try to share a territory, there will always be friction, whether it is the Muslims and Hindus in India and Pakistan, or Greeks and Turks, Tutsi and Hutu, Loyalists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland, or Palestinians and Israelis. Throughout history it has been the same – and that it has not been very much worse has been down to the efforts of God's people, often unsung, often not thanked, often, even, persecuted and tormented for their efforts. But they have been there, and they have helped. And God knows their names and has rewarded them.

But it's not just about the big picture, is it? It's about the little things we do here at home, every day. We can't always take homeless people into our homes, although some do – but we can give to the food bank, either in cash or in kind. And maybe we should be asking our MP awkward questions about exactly why, in 2014, our food bank is so necessary! There's a man has opened a soup kitchen in Brixton – a secular one, as he reckoned people in need shouldn't have to sit through prayers that meant nothing to them in order to get a meal. That's terrific work, and we should support it – but again, why is it necessary in 2014?

That's part of what our being salt and light to our community is all about. Not just doing the giving, not just helping out where necessary – although that too. But asking the awkward questions, not settling for the status quo, making a nuisance of ourselves, if necessary, until we get some of the answers.

It's not always easy to see how one person can make a difference. Sometimes, I don't know about you, but when I watch those nature documentaries on TV and they go on about how a given species is on the brink of extinction and it's All Our Fault, I wonder what they expect me to do about it, and ditto when we get programmes about climate change and all the other frighteners the BBC likes to put on us. But it's like I said to the children – maybe one little candle doesn't make too much difference in the dark, except for being there and enabling us to see a little way ahead. But when lots of us get together, it blazes out and nothing can dim it. One person alone can't do very much – but if all of us recycled, and used our own shopping bags, and public transport when feasible, and limited our family sizes, then there would soon be a difference.

Obviously you don't have to be God's person to do such things. As I said, the Brixton soup kitchen is firmly secular, and I know nothing about the faith of the person who runs it, even if he has any. But we, God's people, should be in the forefront of doing such things, leading by example, showing others how to help this world. Historically, we always have been. But sometimes the temptation is to hide in our little ghettoes and shut ourselves away from the world. It's all too easy to say “Oh dear, this sinful world!” and to refuse to have anything to do with it – but if God had done that, if Jesus had done that, then where would we be?

We don't bring people to faith through our words, but through what we do. As St James says in his letter, it's all very well to say “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” to someone who hasn't enough clothes or food, but what good does that do? That person won't think much of Christianity, will they?

I heard, over the weekend, about someone who was left a widow with four very small children, and how the local church heard about her plight and gave her very practical help; they were there for her when her husband died, and helped her cope with all the practical details; now they keep an eye on her and do things like paying for a baby-sitter so she can go to church events without always having to be with her children. And so on. And it is through their steady love and support, rather than through any preaching they may or may not have done, that this woman has come to faith.

Ordinary Time, and we are in a brief bit of Ordinary Time before the countdown to Lent starts, is the time when what we say we believe comes up against what we really believe, and how we allow our faith to work out in practice. It's all too easy to listen to this sort of sermon and feel all hot and wriggly because you're aware that you don't do all you could to be salt and light in the community – and then to forget about it by the time you've had a cup of coffee. It's also all too easy to think it doesn't apply to you – but, my friends, the Bible says we are all salt and light, doesn't it? It doesn't say we must be, but that we are. It's what we do with it that matters! We don't want to be putting our light under a basket so it can't be seen. And if, as salt, we lose our saltiness – well, let's not go there, shall we?

Many of us, of course, are already very engaged in God's work in our community, in whatever way – youth work of various kinds, including our Girls' Brigade, our parent-and-toddler groups, the Pop-in club and so on. We might not even think of it as God's work, but that's what it is. We are being salt and light in the community.

The question is, what more, as a Church, could we or should we be doing? What should I, as an individual, be doing?

And that's where we have the huge advantage over people who do such work who are not yet consciously God's people – we pray. We can bring ourselves to God and ask whether there are places that need our gifts, whether there is something we could be doing to help, or what. Don't forget, too, that there are those whose main work is praying for those out there on the front line, as it were. And even if all we can do is put 50p a week aside for the food bank, and write to Chuka Umunna every few months and ask why we still need food banks in this day and age and what he, and the rest of Parliament, is doing about it – well, it all adds up.

Because I don't know about you, but I would rather not risk what might happen if we were to lose our saltiness. Amen.