Sunday, 15 January 2017

Facing the Monsters

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
15 January 2017 11.00am

John 1.29-42  
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 

Exodus 12.1-14 

I wonder, when you were very young, were are you afraid of monsters?

It seems to be a fairly universal experience of childhood that we fear the unknown,
and fill it with monsters of our own imaginings.

From the void under the bed to the dark of the wardrobe,
            the lurking spiders of the dark have the capacity
            to assume monstrous and threatening proportions in our minds,
as we place onto them our worst fears and darkest dreams.

And let us not kid ourselves for even a moment
            that the inner world of a child is all innocence and light.

I can remember, even at a very young age,
            finding within myself the capacity to explore very dark thoughts and emotions,
            and I assume I'm not alone in this.

What is significant, of course, is how a child learns to process and cope with
            their developing sense of themselves.

What we do with our inner monsters
            is a key question of the process of reaching maturity.

And one of the things we do
            is to take those inner demons and externalise them,
                        we get them out of ourselves,
            and then we try to find ways to appease their gnawing appetites.

And so I remember that when I was very young,
            I had a teddy bear that I loved very much,
and I would dangle him over the edge of my bed
            so that he could see into the fearsome and unplumbed depths beneath me,
            and face the creatures that lived there on my behalf.

I used to promise him that I'd never let him go,
            that he was safe as long as I held his hand;
but I also took comfort in knowing that if anything happened to him,
            if the fear got too much for me and my grip faltered,
I could quickly withdraw my hand back to safety,
            leaving him as a sacrifice to the dark,
            to be collected in the morning if he survived the night down there alone.

The question I have, re-visiting these memories from my childhood,
            is who, or what is the real monster here?
And who, or what, is the sacrifice that is being offered?

And so to John's Gospel, to our lectionary reading for this morning.

"The next day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and declared,
            'Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.'" (1.29)

And I find myself wondering what we mean
            when we speak of Jesus as the 'Lamb of God"? 

What did John the Baptist mean
            when he greeted Jesus in this way,
and what did John the author of the fourth gospel mean
            by repeating it here at the start of Jesus’ public ministry?

The background to the phrase "Lamb of God" is well known,
            finding its origin in the two old Testament passages
            we had read for us earlier in the service.

The first of these is the story of the institution of the Passover,
            set in the time of Israelite slavery in Egypt.

Moses had been unsuccessful
            in persuading the pharaoh to release his people.
Despite the devastation of the nine plagues that had already happened,
            Pharaoh's heart remained hard, and set on slavery.

The final plague to visit to the Egyptians was that of the death of the first born,
            with the citizens of ancient Egypt bearing the horrific cost
            of their leader's dedication to domination.

But the Israelites were spared the angel of death,
            because they obeyed the instruction to kill a lamb without blemish
                        and to mark their doorposts with its blood,
            so that the curse of death would know to pass over their houses.

It is clear that the author of John's Gospel
            has the festival of the Passover very much in mind
                        as he tells the story of Jesus,
as, unlike the other gospels, we find that John’s Gospel
            gives us three specific mentions of the Passover (2.13; 6.4; 13.1),
with the events of the crucifixion taking place at the third of these,
            and the Passover being celebrated on the day following the death of Jesus.

The gospel writer clearly wants his readers to understand
            that Jesus is the Passover lamb,
with his death functioning to bring release from the empire of domination
            that, like the Egyptian pharaoh of old,
            still holds people in perpetual captivity.

But still, what kind of a lamb is this?
            What kind of a sacrifice is being offered here?[1]

And so we must turn our attention to the second scripture passage
            that lies behind the acclamation of Jesus as the Lamb of God;
            the suffering servant passage from Isaiah.

This is a text which, like the Passover story,
            also finds its origin in a time of imperial oppression.

These words from Isaiah were offered originally to the Jews in exile in Babylon,
            and they gave the people of God a way of understanding
                        their present sufferings in exile
            in the context of God's activity for the release
                        of all who live in slavery and oppression.

As the sins of the pharaoh caused the suffering of many,
            so the sins of the many cause the suffering of the one,
who goes to his death like a lamb that is led to the slaughter (Isa 53.7).

However Isaiah's words were understood
            by those who first heard them,
John's Gospel is quite clear that Jesus is to be understood
            as the Lamb of God who goes to his death
                        because of the sins of the many,
            to secure the release of the many
                        from the dominating powers of sin and death.

"Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." (1.29) 

But even if we are clear that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb,
            we still haven't resolved our question
                        of why this sacrifice is being demanded, by whom, and on what basis.

And here, I'd like to return to my childhood for a moment again,
            and think about the human experience
            of how we deal with our own monstrous desires.

There is a way of understanding the death of Jesus
            where God is like the small child, perched up on high,
                        safe from the monsters that live below,
            dangling his dearly beloved son over the precipice
                        and then letting go, as an offering to assuage the appetites
                        of the monsters that would otherwise devour the cosmos
                                    and all who live there.

Or, to put this perspective another way:
            God is in his heaven,
                        but the wages of sin demand a sacrifice unto death.
            Someone has to pay that bill,
                        so Jesus pays it, and the rest of us get off scot-free.

Many of us will have heard this, or something very similar to it, before.
            It is, in essence, the standard evangelical understanding
                        of the death of Jesus as the one who pays the price for our sins,
                        so we don't have to.

Sometimes, it even comes with diagrams,
            so that it can be more easily explained to those
                        whose sins have not yet been washed away by the blood of the lamb,
            which apparently (according to one way of reading the book of Revelation)
                        washes whiter than white (Revelation 7.14). 

However, I have something of a problem with this way of seeing things,
            because the more I think about it,
            the more it seems to me that in this scenario
                        the monsters are not dwelling on the earth,
                        or even under the bed.

The monster here is God.
            This is a monstrous view of God,
            who tosses his son to feed the encircling wolves of sin and death.

Just as the monsters under my bed as a child existed, in reality, only inside my head;
            so it is with God if we fashion him as the divine child on high,
                        projecting his own needs and insecurities onto his creation
                        before destroying his own beloved son
                                    to appease these demons of his own creating.

No, in the final analysis, I reject this understanding of the death of Jesus
            as an immature projection by humans,
in which we create God in our own image
            and then endow him with our own sinful characteristics.

It seems to me that, for any understanding of Jesus as the sacrificial lamb
            to be genuinely transformative of our human experience,
it must begin with an understanding of God as love.

If God is not love, and love unrestricted and freely given,
            then I would suggest that God is not God.

If God is violent, vengeful, cowardly, remote, or judgemental,
            then God is nothing more than a projection
            of our own psychological traumas.

For God to be God, God must be love,
            and therefore God's saving action in Christ
            must be an act of love, and not violence.

So here's a thought:
            what if it is not God who demands the sacrifice?

What if the sacrifice is not required by some immutable laws
            which God grandly wrote into the universe,
            but which now not even he has the power to overrule?

What if the monsters baying for blood
            are not projections of the tortured mind of God?

What if the monsters are really me, and you?

What if the sacrificial monster,
            demanding a sacrifice to expunge its guilt, is humanity itself?

This, I would suggest, changes everything.

By this understanding, the death of Jesus
            is not about paying some cosmic debt,
but rather is about exposing the sacrificial predilections
            that lie deep within each of us,
as we cast about for someone to rid us of the guilt
            of our own darkest fears and desires.

By this reading, Jesus is the one who bears our infirmities,
            and carries our desires;
he is wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,
            and by his bruises we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray;
            and the Lamb of God comes from the father and returns to the father
            that we may be freed from the burden of our fallen humanity.

This is not God casting our sins on Jesus
            as an act of divine violence against an innocent victim.

Rather, this is God entering into the depths of human depravity,
            to expose to the light of his truth
                        our capacity to inflict violence on one another,
            in our quest for personal or communal justification.

This is the act of a God of love, who so deeply loves humanity
            that he is willing to take into himself the worst we can do to another,
                        in order that our desires for a violent solution to our plight
                        may be deconstructed.

Jesus the sacrificial lamb is not some spotless Lamb of perfected humanity,
            given to appease a vengeful God;
but the Lamb of God, given to bring release to human communities
            locked into cycles of scapegoating.

And, I would add, the world has never needed the Lamb of God
            more than it does at the moment.

We are locked into global cycles of violent scapegoating,
            where the "other" is continually and creatively held accountable
                        for the sins of the many,
            in order that the many might feel some brief glimmer of justification.

The sins of the world are many and grievous,
            as we victimise the powerless,
            and systemically extinguish empathy for the other.

It happens on all sides, and there is no way out
            without an intervention to unmask the darkness that lies within each of us.

The world needs those who will join with John the Baptist
            in the heralding another way.

It needs those who will cry to a world of sin:
            "Look, here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

The world needs to hear the story, and see the brutal reality,
            of the Lamb of God sent to his death by human hands;
because without this unmasking of our sins,
            we continue to misrepresent the victim as the enemy,
            and the spirals of sin and death continue unabated.

And this task of proclaiming of the Lamb of God to the world
            begins with and within each of us.

If it is not true for me, or for you, then we have nothing to say to others,
            because we ourselves are still trapped by our own monsters,
unable to step down from the safety of our beds,
            forever retreating into our own comfort zones,
and all the while scapegoating those who we deem expendable,
            requiring others to pay the price for our own sins.

We have to grow up, and to grow into Christ.

We have to learn to see Christ in the other,
            and to recognise the monsters in ourselves;
rather than seeing Christ in ourselves
            and monsters in others.

We need the Lamb of God to take away our sins.

And so we need the spirit of Christ to remain within us,
            that we may remain within God.

And, I wonder, what might this mean in practice?
            What does it mean for us to recognise in ourselves
                        our capacity to deny our own inner darkness
                        by demonising others?

I think it starts with self knowledge,
            with us learning to have the courage to stare into the darkness within,
            and to recognise our fallen state for what it is.

For me, this meant a year of psychotherapy,
            as I exorcised certain ghosts that had been haunting me
            for most of my adult life.

It was Socrates who famously declared
            that the unexamined life was not worth living.

But of course, merely learning to face the darkness
            is only the first step of the process.

Because to truly abide in Christ, the Lamb of God,
            is a process of surrendering to love,
            and of letting go of our driving sense of self.

It is allowing him to take from us the hatred, bitterness, pain, and guilt,
            that define our lives and our relationships.

It is becoming vulnerable to the ultimate other
            who comes to us in love
            and offers us release and forgiveness.

And this means becoming vulnerable to one another,
            as we surrender ourselves to the body of Christ,
the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.


Sunday, 8 January 2017

Bringing our Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

Lord of all eternity, in whose hands are all our times, we come today to  give you our gifts, as people have come for millennia with gifts to offer in your service.

We are the rich and we are the poor, we are the strong and we are the weak, we are the powerful and we are the disempowered; and we bring the offering of our lives before you for transformation and redemption, for the salvation of the world.

So we bring you our gold; our money, our power, and our strength. And we rejoice that you receive our offering.

Too often in our world money, power and strength create corruption, coercion, and catastrophe.

We pray today for all those who are seduced by the mythology of their own success.

We pray for politicians and presidents, for monarchs and dictators, for those who have inherited wealth and for those who have acquired it. We pray for those who rule over kingdoms, and whose power is beholden to money and strength.

We pray especially for America, with the forthcoming transition of power, and we ask that those who will hold power will not lose sight of the responsibility they bear for the weak and the vulnerable.

Just as magi brought wealth and power to your cradle, and you accepted the gift, may those with such gifts to bring in our world discover your willingness to receive and transform their offering.

And we recognise that we ourselves have to live with the responsibilities of our own place in that world. Those of us with jobs, savings, and houses need to find in you a way of living well with our wealth, and so we bring our gold before you.

And we do so in faith that you are God revealed in human form. Our offering of ourselves is not merely an act of self transformation, it is an act of worship to the one in whom all of life finds it's beginning, its end, and its redemption. You are love incarnate, and we worship you with all that we are and all that we have. We bring our offering of frankincense to the God of creation.

And as we do so, we hear the challenge that you bring to all other claims on our allegiance.

The clamour of the false gods is strong, and all too easily we are seduced into offering them our worship.

May we learn to resist the lures of materialism, the deceptions of individualism, and the compelling drive to competitiveness and violence.

So we pray for those who are trapped in servitude to these gods of our society, that demand ever-greater tribute, but never offer release. May the world discover the freedom that is found in the God of love who gives freely to all who seek. May the world discover the path to peace that opens through following the way of Jesus.

And so we worship you as our saviour, and as the saviour of the world. We bring our offering of myrrh to the one who dies that the world might be redeemed. We proclaim our faith that it is only in and through your life, death, and resurrection that our own lives acquire meaning.

And so we pray for all those seeking meaning to their lives; for searchers and seekers, for the curious and the questioners. May they hear in your story, the path towards freedom, love, and eternal acceptance.

We pray for our friends and our families, for those we meet and those we avoid. Help us to remember that it is not our calling to save others, but rather that it is our vocation to live out our own salvation before the world, always pointing to the one in whom the God of love is made fully known.

In weakness and in strength, in poverty and in power, in loneliness and in love, we offer our prayers to the one in whom all our times are held.


Sunday, 1 January 2017

There's always another way

Whitelands College Carol Service 13/12/16

Matthew 2:1-16
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

What do you do when confronted by a murderous tyrant
intent on killing innocent members of his own population?

This is neither an ancient nor a rhetorical question.

‘Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road’

…and so, Luke tells us, the great Herod was left waiting.

And here we meet the wisdom of the wise men,
echoing down the centuries to us.

There’s always a different route.
There’s always an alternative path.
There’s. Always. Another. Way.

Especially when you’re dealing with a murderous,
self-aggrandizing, self-important ruler
who is intent on protecting his own power, whatever the cost.

When the wise men arrived in Jerusalem
asking where the new-born king of the Jews was to be found.
They could hardly have asked a more worrying question of Herod…
In a superstitious age, to a paranoid man,
their quest must have made it seem like even the universe
was conspiring against him.

And they nearly fell for Herod’s quickly-hatched cunning plan:
let the wise men find the child,
and then arrange to have him killed.

From the point of view of the wise men,
the obvious course of action would have been to return to Herod,
make their report, and be on their way.

But as we know, an angel warned them to return by another route,
and so they just left Herod waiting.

Predictably, perhaps, he reacted badly,
and Matthew tells us the terrible story of the massacre of the innocents,
based on the story of Moses in the book of Exodus,
helping us understand that Herod is just another Pharaoh,
just one more psychotic paranoid ruler
in a long line of tyrants,
and also that Jesus, like Moses,
would lead people from slavery to freedom,
by pointing them to another way, another path,
by offering a new route out of the seemingly endless spirals
of violence and intimidation and retribution.

And so the wise men,
in their encounter the infant Christ,
heard the wisdom to take another route.

They discovered what we need to discover in our world;
that sometimes, the wise route is not the obvious one,
sometimes, the wise route is not the expected one.
Sometimes, the wise route is walking in the opposite direction
from the way the world is pointing.
Sometimes, the wise route is refusing to engage
the systems of oppression that so desperately seek conflict
in order to legitimate their own position.
Sometimes, the wise route is robbing the tyrant of his power
by walking away from the fight that the bully so desperately craves.

And this is a tough path,
because it flies in the face of common sense.

Common sense tells us that if we meet a tyrant
we must engage him and defeat him.

‘You can’t let the bullies win, you know!’

But the wisdom of the angel to the wise men
was that while we may not be able to stop the murderous regime
from killing its own population’s innocent children,
taking the 'other way' offers us an act
which denies the regime its power
by undermining its legitimacy.

And this is more, far more, than symbolic action.
The departure of the wise men by ‘another route’
re-wrote the story of Herod definitively;
it left him nowhere to go
but further into his own depravity,
and as he acted to kill the children,
he revealed himself to be just another Pharaoh,
and so the mythology of ‘the great Herod’ took a fatal blow.

By taking the other path,
the wise men not only avoided complicity in Herod’s sins,
they also acted to set in place the downfall of his carefully constructed ideology.

And here’s the point:
when faced with a murderous tyrant,
there is always another way.

The wise men who followed the star that led to Jesus
found an alternative path through violence
that not only disempowered the mighty Herod,
but which effectively re-wrote history’s verdict his life.

He wanted to be remembered as ‘Herod the great’,
and he could have done it.
But, as they say, history is written by the victors,
and the unfavourable association of Herod with Pharaoh,
through the parallel stories
of the massacre of the innocents
and the killing of the Israelite children,
has become history’s verdict on his life.

Whether it happened or not is not really the point
– it’s a story that summarises his life,
inviting eternal judgment on him, and all those like him,
who would seek to impede the coming
of the prince of peace in this world of sin.

The ‘other way’ of the wise men is the ‘other way’ of Jesus,
it is the path of nonviolent resistance,
it is the route of subversion,
it is the path which, once taken by the few, becomes open for the many.

Mary and Joseph in their turn followed the ‘other way’ of the wise men
on their flight to Egypt
as they too sought a path out of Herod’s murderous clutches.

And so we come to today,
and what the ‘other way’ of the wise men might look like
in our own world of sin and violence.

The reality of our world is that now, as then, in so many ways
Herod still reigns.
And so now, as then,
Herod must be resisted.

Just as the wise men returned to their own country by another route,
so those who would be wise in our time,
need to find ways of bypassing the scheming Herods of our world.

Herod, and those like him, all too readily embrace violence:
it is how they deal with their enemies:
they kill or co-opt, by force if necessary.

We have too many deal-makers in positions of power
who would do a deal with the devil himself
if it ensured their ongoing appearance of success.

But, what the path of violence does not know how to deal with
is a movement, a kingdom,
whose citizens refuse to believe
that violence will determine the meaning of history.

The rise of the alt-right ideology in America,
and other far right groups in Europe,
will mean that the need is very great for us, in our own time, to discern what it means
to non-violently disarm and disable powers of oppression.

In this, we will need the alternative wisdom of the kingdom of God,
and those who embrace this wisdom
will become those who bear witness to the new way of being human
that comes into being in the Christ-child in the manger.

There is always another way.
Violence does not get to write the rules we must follow.

It's easy for those in favour of a military solution to the Herods of our world
to characterise those who take a stand of principled nonviolence
as fuzzy peacenik cowards who go weak at the very thought of danger.

And compared to a man with a gun in his hand,
the unarmed man will always look vulnerable.
But the 'other way' of Jesus teaches us that this is a false dichotomy,
it's not a straight choice between 'hero' and 'coward'
- there is, as the wise men discovered, always another way.

And here’s the thing.

Being nonviolent isn't about doing nothing.
It is the world of the aid worker, the military chaplain, the journalist,
the international observer, the International Accompanist;
not cowards, but heroes to the cause of peace.

Carrying a gun does not automatically make someone a hero,
and neither, if I may say so, does being injured on active service.
When we designate our combatants as heroes,
we end up inferring our peace workers are cowards.

Our society constructs narratives that sanctify violence,
and we learn to live with casualties, deaths, and collateral damage,
and we do so them by telling ourselves
that it's all a necessary sacrifice because the end justifies the means.

In other words, we walk straight into Herod’s trap.
But what if there is another way?

What if the way to hell is indeed paved with good intentions,
and the road taken by the many is indeed wide and broad enough to take a tank?
And what if the way of Christ is truly narrow and steep,
and taken only by some, who have the courage to speak out
and act against a prevailing ideology
of violent retribution and intervention?

When I was a child, I developed a philosophy of game-playing,
and it was this: if you can’t play to win, don’t play the game.
It’s why I don’t play rugby, or football, or tennis, or cricket…
well, you get the picture.

But I wonder if we might rephrase this philosophy slightly,
in the light of the wise men, to:
If you can’t change the game, don’t play it.

We may not be able to stop ISIS in its tracks,
we may not be in a position to prevent the Herods of our world
from killing their own innocent people.
But we can take action to de-legitimise their ideology,
we can work to subversively undermine their power,
we can re-write the narrative of history
away from retribution and towards peace.
We can, in other words, refuse to play their game.

We can, as the wise men discovered, take another path.

It remains to be seen whether President Elect Trump
will carry through on some of his more potent and extreme election promises.
But the fact that he made them, and that they won him votes rather than lost them,
tells us much about the culture of Western liberal democracy,
and our enslavement to spiritual powers
that are ultimately destructive of peace and stability.

And so we’re back to the wise men.
And the world has never needed their ‘other way’
more than it does today.
We are still playing our games with rules set by Herod, and we need to stop.

And as the wise men discovered, there’s always another way,
and in the name of Christ we need to discover this path of Christ.

As Martin Luther King Jr. put it,
‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’

We need to learn what it is to walk away from the games of violence,
and do something different.

And what we will discover, of course,
is what Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and so many others
have discovered before us,
which is that walking the different path
undermines the power
that was legitimating the game of violence in the first place.

The game-changer will not be Brimstone missiles in Syria,
nor will it be boots on the ground in Raqqa.

The game-changer is the way of Christ,
and the wise need to listen and act
or we all continue on the path to hell.

It is my firm belief that the eternal hope
made flesh in the baby who comes to us at Christmas
is the only path through death and violence
to resurrection and new life.

And it is our calling as the people of Christ,
to live that eternal hope into being in our midst,
as we learn to be wise,
and to read the signs,
and to have the courage to tread the ‘other path’ as Christ leads us.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Christmas Day 2016

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

I was pondering the nature of God this week.
          I think it's my job, so I let my mind run with it.

And I found myself asking:
          Can God be known in the midst of human life?
          Who is this God of whom we speak?

What does it mean to confess faith in God,
          in the face of our experience of what it means to be human?

From Berlin to Aleppo,
          to the many and hidden sufferings and sorrows of our own lives;
where and who is this God of whom we speak?

The stories of Christmas Day are not always a helpful thing to us here.
          Improbable stories of divinely ordained parthenogenesis,
          inherited traditions of god-babies, wise men, and shepherds.
          Medieval mysticism and Victorian sentimentality.

And yet, maybe, somewhere in the midst of all this;
          maybe, indeed, through all this,
we catch a glimpse of something deeply profound.

Where is God? Who is God?

God is there, in the manger, blinking unseeing through baby eyes.
          A tiny, helpless, hopeless scrap of life,
                   which nonetheless speaks uniquely
                   of the commitment of God to human frailty.

Part of the problem with speaking of belief in God,
          is that there are so many definitions of God
                   that we are invited to believe in.

          God who intervenes directly in human affairs,
          God who judges the unrighteousness,
          God who punishes the wicked.

And the problem with these invitations to belief
          is that they are, for some of us at least,
                   unsustainable in the light of our knowledge of science,
                   or our experience of the depth of human suffering,
                   or our beliefs about mercy and love.

And I am, so to speak, atheist with regard to some of these Gods,
          and agnostic about others.

So where, then, might we seek a God in whom we may have faith?
          Where do we find a God who faces unflinchingly the darkness of the world;
          a God of love and mercy as well as justice?

Well, today, we are invited to seek God in the baby.

This is God whose intervention in human history
          is very far from the offering of easy solutions
                   to the petty or pressing problems of our lives.
This is God found in human form, from baby to adult;
          God immersed in humanity to transform it from the inside out,
                   not from the outside-in.

This is God vulnerable, God impoverished, God-forsaken.
          This is God in the manger.

Bad things happen to good people,
          and good things happen to bad people;
this last I know to be true because good things happen to me.

And this is where we find God.
          In the midst of life.

The miracle of Christmas is not that an absent and distant God
          miraculously intervenes in human history.

Rather, it is in an invitation to us all
          to experience the miraculous moment of recognition
                    that God is found in human form, from birth to death.

'God is here and God is now', to quote the hymn we sometimes sing.

God is love, God is life,
          God is hope, God is peace,
God is here.

Immanuel, God with us.