Monday, 19 October 2020

George Fox comes into the garden

 It is worth paying attention to coincidence.

Irusu is not one of those yappy dogs (thank goodness), that go hysterically on and on. She is mostly a quiet animal.

But that morning, as Danshari sat reading his book, she barked very loudly. He didn't mind being interrupted as it happened. He had thought the book sounded promising by the title, but the story wasn't quite what he'd been expecting and, truth be told, he was getting a little bit bored (and he hadn't even reached the middle). It is a good book, there's no doubt about that, but he'd been imagining something a bit more like Roald Dahl's stories, which this one is not. Nothing wrong with the book, but perhaps it was meant for a different kind of animal.

So then, at the top of her voice, Irusu yelled "FOX!!!!"

And just for good measure she augmented it with "DANSHARI! THERE'S A FOX IN THE GARDEN!!!!"

I expect you have heard dogs saying that — often late in the day, as dusk is deepening and the shadows of night are gathering. 

But this was in broad daylight, and the crows at the top of the ash tree backed her up, shouting "FOX! FOX FOX FOX FOX!!" to anybody willing to listen. Foxes can be very dangerous to small animals, and crows like to be helpful. So do dogs.

Danshari lifted his head from his book, closed it, glanced at the cover, and put it down. "How very odd," he murmured; "I guess I'd better go and take a look."

By the time he'd gone all the way down from the attic where he was reading, and out into the garden, Irusu was nowhere to be seen. He was not surprised. "Hiding, I expect," he said to himself. And the crows had cleared off as well.

So Danshari surveyed the garden. "Where is it, then?"

And then Danshari saw something most unusual.

The people next door have chickens that live in a coop. 

Not a co-op. That's something different. A coop. A hen-run. A sort of big cage that has their house in it with bedrooms where they can lay their eggs.

Now, our neighbour is not mean and cruel. The hens are prisoners, it's true, but the stout chicken wire that keeps them in is really there to keep foxes out. Because we live just up the hill from the park, you see, and behind our houses there's a wilderness of trees and brambles, a sort of housing estate for foxes. A chicken will feed a whole family of hungry fox cubs, and I've seen a vixen sitting crying in our garden, right next to the wall outside that hen coop, looking up sadly at the chicken wire, thinking about dinner. Those hens kept very quiet that day. They were listening too.

So the unusual thing about this particular fox was not that it was hanging around the hen coop, but that it was standing on the wall looking down into their run and talking to the hens — who were not squawking and screaming and running in circles as you might expect, but paying close attention and occasionally saying small words like "Amen."

Danshari was surprised.

He walked silently down the path that winds through the trees until he stood just beside the wood shed, where he stopped to hear what the fox was saying.

"Stand still in that which is pure," the fox said. "Stand still in that which brings peace."

And the hens did stand still, looking up at the fox with their bright, beady, interested eyes.

"Be valiant for the Truth upon earth," said the fox; "tread and trample all that is contrary under."

The hens stirred and muttered and scratched at the earth, and walked around a bit.

"Keep in the wisdom of God that spreads over all the earth,"said the fox, "the wisdom of the creation, that is pure. Live in it; that is the word of the Lord God to you all."

And all the hens said (several times) "Amen."

Then the fox said to them, "Christ, our Priest, sanctifies both inwardly and outwardly the walls of your house, the walls of the heart, and all things to his people." And the hens, in contented devotion, all said "Amen, amen, amen."

After that the fox turned round on the narrow top of the wall, and spied Danshari as he jumped down into the garden.  

"Hello, friend," said the stranger, who had kind eyes. "My name is George Fox."

Aye, it would be, thought Danshari, but he didn't say so.

He just invited the fox indoors for a cup of tea.

Which is how George Fox came to be part of the gang. Just like that. He's been here ever since. And every evening he goes down to take some grapes and blueberries to the hens in their prison, and to exhort them to be still and cool and quiet in their minds and spirits, and to keep in the fear of the Lord.

A Who's Who for The Campfire Kids (and for you)


There's Danshari the lion (or you can just call him Dan). The others usually rely on him to sort things out. Mostly he can manage it, but he talks things through with Ursa, The Great Bear.

The Great Bear helps people to find their way — what is sometimes called our True North. That means who we really are and what we are here to do. Wow. That's useful.

Then there's Hanafubuki the unicorn (who is okay with being called Fu). Hanafubuki is magical and mysterious and hard to pin down. There is a sort of innocence about Hanafubuki, if you know what that means. If you don't, well, most of the world has no idea what Hanafubuki means, so you'd be in good company.

Now we come on to Irusu the dog (and she doesn't mind if you just call her Su, but try not to muddle that up with Fu who is obviously someone else).

Honestly? She was not all that keen on having her photograph taken, as I think you can tell from the picture. Irusu is not exactly shy but she does like to be left in peace. When she sees somebody coming up the path to the front door, under her breath she murmurs, "Oh no." And you know what she does then? Yes. Hides under the bed. Or behind the sofa. Or locks herself in the bathroom. Anything, just so she doesn't have to talk to the visitors. All that smiling and chatting makes her feel really, really tired. Irusu won't answer the phone either. She just likes being quietly at home with the gang.

Moving on. This is Ebenezer.

There is a certain amount of confusion about Ebenezer, for two reasons. One is that Ebenezer is a boy's name, but Ebenezer will tell you that — whatever you may think or assume about her — this Ebenezer at least is a she not a he. So we go with that. The other reason is that you have to look closely and think hard to realise that Ebenezer is a giraffe. The thing about giraffes is that they have massively long legs and a massively long neck, and Ebenezer has neither, because she has a Physical Condition (that's a bit like an illness) which meant her neck and legs stayed short. Ebenezer gets tired and isn't very strong, but she is sharp and clever, a very thinky kind of giraffe. She reads a lot.

There's also Yūgen the sheep, caught here by some kind of miracle on camera, somewhere yellow.

Yūgen is usually quite hard to find, because she is at one with everything — in the garden generally, or wandering quietly in the woods or up the hill. Yūgen thinks a lot about the odd way things join together and find each other — for instance, that when life is difficult for a person it is very sad, but at the same time it often makes something very beautiful emerge; kindness, perhaps, or courage or patience and determination. So that means what is bad and what is good are hard to tell apart. How puzzling. Yūgen's idea is that everything you can think of is somehow joined up to everything else. It's all one thing really. When I try to imagine that, I get it and then I lose it again, and that's how it is with Yūgen; she gets around but she's hard to find, and then you suddenly come across her. She just turns up.

There's also George Fox, who walks cheerfully over the world sniffing out the spark of goodness in every living soul. 

Cheerfulness. What does that mean to you? It's easy to think a cheerful person must always be jolly and smiling, but I have to tell you George Fox isn't easygoing; he can a formidable adversary to the enemies of Truth. I'm sorry about the long words. Also you could be forgiven for thinking a cheerful person would always be loud and chatty, but George Fox says "carry around some quiet inside thee". That's very good advice. "Thee". Do you ever call anybody "thee"? It's an old way of speaking that just means "you", except it's the kind of "you" a person would say if they're talking to their friends — rather than talking to someone posh or important they don't really know. And George Fox is ready to be anybody's friend, but that doesn't make him a people pleaser — oh, no — George Fox speaks the plain truth exactly how he sees it. But honestly, that makes him the best kind of friend, at least in my opinion. You can trust someone like that.

So here they all are (and yes, where is Yūgen? At large in the universe, I guess).

And George Fox? Well, later on, here at Kindred of the Quiet Way, I'll be telling you about the day George Fox arrived in the garden — and then there are another four other people you have to meet. But those people are still travelling and haven't arrived yet. They once were lost but now they're found, but they haven't yet made it all the way, and isn't there a hymn about that? Amazing Grace would know.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

The Campfire Church (Facebook) ministry of the word: Forgiveness and boundaries

[I recommend you to click on the link to the Youtube video, and actually listen to the sermon rather than just read it, for the best experience of it and if you are able to do that on the device you are using.]

Jesus taught us to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, which should alert us to the reality that righteousness and sin are intimately connected to respecting boundaries.

I know only three places in this life where it is safe to be unboundaried — with newborns, with the dying, and with Jesus. In those three settings, I have abandoned reserve, swum out of the sea of my own being and into the other person’s reality. In all other situations, I keep a watcher on guard, monitoring things, evaluating, determining when it’s safe to proceed or imposing what the Quakers call a Stop.

“Stop. Look. Listen”, as the Green Cross Code used to say, teaching kids about crossing the road.

Falling in love is also defined by psychologists as a collapse of ego boundaries, but even — or perhaps especially — then, you should keep a set of objective criteria that remind you to check for porcine tendencies before you toss your pearls at the feet of your beloved. Decisions come with consequences, and consequences have long tails. The heart, the head and the gut should all be engaged and functioning in all decisions about personal relationships; and even then we can often be in for surprises.

Do you know the work of Brené Brown? If not, I commend it to you in thinking about boundaries and forgiveness. You can find her on Youtube or in the Amazon bookshop. She teaches about such issues as vulnerability, confidence, empathy and shame.

When she came to research the topic of compassion, Brené sought out and interviewed large numbers of people whose vocation required a compassionate approach to others. She expected that the commonality she’d find emerging would be a strong grounding in spiritual belief. To her surprise, that was not the common ground shared by compassionate people.

Instead, what she discovered is that the most compassionate people had what she described as “boundaries of steel.”

She went back to check if her findings resonated with these extremely boundaried people and what they thought. Did they *intend* to set clear boundaries in their lives? How had did their firm boundaries come about?

In general, the response she got was, “I would not have said it that way, but yes, I am very clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay. I don’t subject myself to the abuse of other people.”

As Brené put it, firm boundaries allow you “to be generous towards others while continuing to stay in your integrity. It’s staying true to yourself and grounded while also feeling compassion towards others.”

Saying yes will burn you out if you are incapable of saying no.

It’s very important for us to hear this as Christians, because all too often this is not what we have been taught. On the contrary nearly all of us have been encouraged to believe that love means lowering boundaries, means sacrificing our own preferences and interests in favour of others, and submitting to their desires and agendas, and merging those with our own lives. This is, of course, what has allowed abuse to cut through the church community like a knife through butter. 

In an authoritarian culture where people have been told to put on a smile even when they are miserable or afraid, to show respect and deference even to sadists, bullies and liars, and to organise into hierarchies of obedience that leave some people — children and women, usually — vulnerable to the predilections of church leaders, is it any wonder that abuse has flourished?

Furthermore, in a culture where almost everyone is routinely lying — pretending to feel and believe what they do not, because they are afraid of being ostracised and excluded — the members lose their feeling for authenticity, and this also makes them vulnerable to abuse.

All this is addressed by creating and maintaining firm boundaries; by, as Brené put it, “staying in your own integrity”, which then gives you the breathing space and groundedness that allow you to be generous.

As church communities in every denomination have tackled the horrible mess of spiritual, sexual, emotional and physical abuse, everywhere the question has come up, “What is the place of forgiveness?”

Because, forgiveness is central to the gospel and the teaching of Jesus.

As, traditionally in the church, love was understood to be a lowering of boundaries, it followed that forgiveness likewise implied a lowering of boundaries. The wife beaten by her husband was encouraged to take him back. People cheated and abused were encouraged to continue friendly towards those who had hurt them — and oftentimes were even encouraged to apologise to their abusers as an act of humility. It was also assumed that forgiveness would necessarily include feeling positively and warmly and kindly toward the transgressor; indeed, that’s what forgiveness has often mistakenly been assumed to actually *be*.

Our reading [from Matthew’s gospel, Chapter 18, verses 21-35] speaks about relational forgiveness as being the same as forgiving a debt of money, and I have always found that a most helpful way to look at it. 

If someone owes you money, you can decide to forgive the debt. You cancel it. You write it off. It’s over, you can go your separate ways. 

This doesn’t imply anything about what you might feel towards that person who owed you the money, and on balance it seems less (rather than more) likely that you would ever lend them anything in the future, because you know they cannot be trusted. But the debt is forgiven, and this act is itself quite dispassionate — it comes from a decision to be generous, to be kind, to be free, not from being manipulated or coerced; and it is intentional not responsive. You forgive because of what you are in yourself, as a decision.

Of course, when it comes to matters of relationship, the practice of forgiveness is bound to have feelings associated with it — maybe relief or lightness, perhaps the joy of reconciliation; but maybe also sadness because this is a parting of the ways, or a feeling of injustice because there was no apology, or emptiness because this feels like unfinished business, or just tiredness and hurt. The feelings come from the forgiveness, but forgiveness is not a feeling and is not done on the basis of feelings. Forgiveness is practiced quite independently of how you feel about it.

Forgiveness does not at all imply a re-establishment of trust or close personal interaction. In my own life I have had to forgive (and go on forgiving) individuals with whom I hope never again to share the same physical space. But I wish them well. I hope they are happy, and peaceful, and free — just, not near me.

The purpose of forgiveness is to set you free — you, the person doing the forgiving. It’s to set you free from the karmic entanglements, the psychological adhesions and toxic legacies that are part and parcel of the misery we call sin.

Forgiveness lets you make a fresh start — either with the other person, or without them; your choice. It lets you walk freely in the world. It stops you being exhausted by bitterness. It sets you free.

So, my recommendation is that you (with help if this is difficult for you) establish and maintain firm personal boundaries, living authentically, with integrity and without apology, what you really feel and really believe. And from this firm base, I recommend you to set others free from whatever they owe you — but name it, specify it, identify it, don’t downplay it or pretend it didn’t  happen. Set them free, with or without a conversation; let it be a private thing between you and God if you prefer. And do whatever is necessary to break the pattern. 

One thing more. Sometimes you will be the person who has hurt and abused others; of course you will, because every single one of us has done so. When you wake up to the reality that you have hurt somebody, the right thing to do is offer a humble, honest, entirely unqualified apology. Just say sorry, and do what you can to put right the harm you did. After that, the job is done. Don’t pursue the person you hurt for connection, or allow them any particular hold over you. Be friends if it works out that way, but don’t force it. Don’t let toxic adhesions form. No strings. Apologise, sincerely, make restoration, and let that be the end of it. Free to start again.

As William How put it in his hymn “O my Saviour lifted” —
“Bringing all my burdens,
Sorrow, sin and care;
At thy feet I lay them
And I leave them there.”

Friday, 16 October 2020

The Lion and the Unicorn — for The Campfire Kids Church

 The Lion and the Unicorn are two majestic creatures. 

People have thought of the Lion's mane as being like a crown or even like the rays of the sun — a glorious, kingly beast. Do you know the name for a group of lions who live together? Yes, that's right — we call it a "pride of lions". In folk-lore, lions stood for royal majesty.

The Unicorn is a noble beast from the world of myth and legend — and people said its beautiful shimmering horn had miraculous powers, and could even cure illnesses and get rid of wickedness and restore life. In folk-lore, unicorns stood for spiritual strength.

Where I live — Hastings in England's East Sussex — on the road that runs along the shore of the sea, at the back of Debenhams there's a small strip of garden with a stone pillar either end. One pillar has a statue of a lion, and the other has a unicorn. They are old now, their stone bodies all pitted by the salt and wind, and the unicorn has lost his horn. Here they are:

In the old days, England chose the Lion to be a symbol of English pride and power. And Scotland chose the Unicorn.

This is where the children's nursery rhyme comes from, about the Lion and the Unicorn. James I of England unified the two kingdoms of Scotland and England in 1603, so the lion and the unicorn are on the coat of arms of the United Kingdom. But this uniting was not altogether kind and friendly. The English are not known for gentleness. 

The nursery rhyme goes like this: 

 The lion and the unicorn were fighting for the crown.

The lion beat the unicorn all around the town.

Some gave them white bread and some gave them brown,

Some gave them plum cake and drummed them out of town.

And when he had beat him out, he beat him in again;

He beat him three times over, his power to maintain.


So lions and unicorns may live together, but there are murky depths to the relationship. 

But I know at least one lion and one unicorn who try to be good friends, even though it isn't always easy.

Hanafubuki is a unicorn.

Hanafubuki is a lovely name, but it's a bit of a mouthful isn't it, so he lets us call him just Fu. Fu de unicorn —

Danshari is a lion. Not quite so difficult to remember as Hanafubuki, but people do like to shorten names, don't they. So most people call him Dan. Dan de lion.

Here he is with his friend Fu.

Danshari — you can call him Dan, most people do, but I like his whole name — finds he has to be very patient and respectful with Hanafubuki (who you can call Fu if you like).

Unicorns, you see, are somewhat one-pointed in their thinking. They like to go their own way. When I was a child, my sister gave me a birthday card I loved, that said on the front:

They tried to persuade me not to cross the curious hills,

Calling me foolish, stubborn.

That's how it is, I said.

I'm going where my pig is headed.

And that could have been written about a unicorn.

You can't argue with unicorns. And, truth be told, I'd advise you against trying to argue with a lion as well, but Danshari is a quiet and reasonable soul. Most of the time.

And he works hard at becoming a good person, reading and thinking about the path he's on.

Hanafubuki does too.

Danshari has mixed feelings about Hanafubuki's reading choices.

He does what he can to find something they can enjoy together.

And most of the time, they live together in peace.

Hanafubuki likes to sit right at the front of the shelf, so he doesn't feel hemmed in. But Danshari murmurs, "Mate, you aren't Pegasus," and keeps a protective arm round Fu so he doesn't fall off. Danshari never minds squodging into the corner. True kingliness, he knows, starts with humility. Besides which, it's a long way to fall.

This Sunday is Hanafubuki's big day at The Campfire Kids Church, when we are going to be thinking hard about unicorns.

Well, some of us are. Others are easily distracted.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet — Ministry of the word from today's gathering for worship at The Campfire Church on Facebook.

[Tony Collins]

The Wedding Banquet – Campfire Church 11th October 2020
Matthew 22:1-14
It’s tough to be a minister of religion. I have never been ordained, but during the course of my life I have worked with hundreds of ministers. There have been one or two bad apples, but the great majority have been decent, hard-working, conscientious people.
Which is quite a considerable achievement because there are a number of hurdles facing any minister.
One of the most obvious is that you are a representative of your faith. Ordinary women and men will form their opinion about the God you serve at least in part as a result of your conduct. This can lead to the habit of watching yourself anxiously to see what impression you are creating. To do this is a path to disaster, as you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, and in truth your faith, your identity and your character run through you like the lettering in a stick of rock. It is fatal to try and prop up your public image, because those around you will detect a false note in your behaviour.
Another hurdle is that you will usually belong to a denomination, or a church, or a social group, which demands certain fixed positions and the following of certain rules. Whether it is your interpretation of the Bible, or where you stand when celebrating the Lord’s Supper, or your views on gay identity: all are matters which can cause trouble, and for many ministers it is important not to offend their peer group. It costs a lot to disagree with those who hold your reputation in their hands.
A third hurdle is that almost all religious and political movements ossify over time and lose touch with their original identity, and you may find yourself attached to something you no longer support. What was once a matter of vision and fervour becomes an preoccupation with form over substance. A striking recent example has been the obsession over safeguarding, where a legitimate and passionate conviction about protecting the vulnerable has quickly morphed into an exercise in box-ticking.
When we think about the Pharisees, we need to understand what was driving them. At heart they were not bad people. In first century Palestine religion carried the identity of her people. The Romans had crushed, very brutally, a number of political uprisings, and although they usually left matters of day to day administration in the hands of local leaders, the Roman presence was everywhere.
The Jews coped by maintaining a strict code of living which covered all aspects of daily life. God was holy, Israel was holy, and she expressed her holiness by clinging to God and keeping herself separate from anything that would threaten her identity as his chosen people. In practice this came to mean a rigid adherence to a body of social and religious observances designed to prevent assimilation between the Jewish nation and her Roman masters. Ritual became all-important, as did strict laws covering diet, personal cleansing, social relationships and even permitted occupations.
Several groups adopted strategies to foster national identity, including the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Zealots. For today’s purposes we will focus on the first of these.
The word ‘Pharisee’ meant ‘separatist’. Pharisees were not priests. They were a lay movement of men committed to the preservation of holiness by devotion to all aspects of religious law, which for ease of access they had expanded into a system of 248 commands, 365 prohibitions and 1521 amendments. The Pharisee movement began as a sincere attempt to do all that was humanly possible to live in a way pleasing to God. They drew support from the scribes, scholars trained in the law.
The Sadducees shared the Pharisaic emphasis on the law, but focused solely on the written law, excluding the vast body of oral law which had grown up around it. They also denied the survival of the soul after death. They were an aristocratic and conservative group, and at the time of Jesus they occupied most of the seats on the ruling council of the Sanhedrin.
Jesus had no time for either group. In chapters 21 and 22 of Matthew’s Gospel he tells three parables about the dangers of religious observance and religious hypocrisy. These follow on immediately after he had driven the moneychangers out of the temple. First comes the story of the two brothers, one of whom refused to work in his father’s vineyard, then changed his mind and set to work, while the other willingly agreed to lend a hand but didn’t actually do so. Then Jesus told the parable of the tenants, who rented a vineyard but refused to give the landowner his fruit when he sent his servant to collect his share of the harvest. Today’s reading concerns the third parable, about the wedding banquet.
There are two parts to this story. The first concerns the original invited guests, who not only ignored the invitations, but seized and killed the servants who delivered them. The second part concerns one of those invited to replace the original guests, who does not wear a wedding gown. This individual is bound hand and foot, and thrown out. Jesus could have made his point about the Pharisees – the first group of guests – without adding the second story about the man without suitable clothing. The first part of the parable is addressed to the Pharisees, but the second part applies to everyone listening.
Let’s unpack the parable. I am indebted to the theologians Ian Paul, Jonathan Bower, Alison Morgan and John Barclay for some of what follows.
The first thing to note is the setting. Jesus uses various metaphors to speak of heaven, such as the pearl of great price. Here he speaks of heaven as a wedding feast – something unusual and precious and wonderful. In this story the king is the author of all good things; he is the source of all power, and all blessing. He greets the guests in person, and sees them clearly for who they are.
It was a huge honour to be invited, and a grave offence to refuse.
Preparing a feast in Jesus’ day was a costly, time-consuming and strongly communal process. Formal invitations would be issued, and then, on the basis of the number of those who had accepted, the host would slaughter the appropriate number of animals (which itself would be an important communal activity, involving other members of the village), and prepare the meal over several days. Only then would the second invitation, announcing that the feast was ready, be sent out.
Those who now refused would be reneging on their initial acceptance, would be spurning the offer of food that had, at some expense, already been prepared, and would be publicly insulting the host in front of the whole community. The equivalent for us would be coming to dinner in someone’s house, enjoying the drinks and nibbles, and then when the main course is put on the table, taking one look at it and getting up and leaving.
Read in context, it is clear that those originally invited never really intended to come. They clearly thought the long-term occupations of their present lives much more important than the feast of the king, so much so that they are ready to spurn his generosity and humiliate him in public—particularly significant in a culture so aware of honour and shame.
The fate of those who were first invited is not in question. They are for the chop. There are no ways round this: Jesus was publicly undermining the authority of the Pharisees.
However, the anger of the king is transformed into energetic grace; the places at the table will not be left empty, and the generosity of the king will not go to waste.
As is often the case, behind Jesus’s words lies a familiar Old Testament passage. In this instance behind the parable lie verses from Isaiah 25: 6-8. Note the repetition of ‘all peoples’:
On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.
Those listening to Jesus would certainly have picked up the reference. Jesus makes it clear in his telling of the story that the invitation will go out to everyone, good and bad, deserving and undeserving.
So far, then, Jesus has told the Pharisees in no uncertain terms that they have lost the plot, they have abused their trust and position. He has spoken of the kingdom of heaven in terms of a wedding feast, that most precious and celebrated event, and he has made it clear that the invitation is open to all, specifically including those of low status. In his previous parable, the story of the two sons, he says unambiguously to the Pharisees, ‘the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of you.’
Now he transfers his attention to the interloper, the guest without a wedding garment. The feast was in honour of the son, but the wedding crasher was only there to enjoy the meat and drink. He offered no homage to the son. Why was the wedding guest not wearing appropriate apparel? We are not told, but may speculate. He may have been indifferent, or may have had a misleading sense of his own importance.
If you want to enter the palace – if you want to join the party – you play by the rules of the king. And to join the party there is only one rule: you have to accept the king’s grace.
The idea of putting on righteousness like a garment is a strand of teaching that runs through the Bible. For example:
Job 29:14 -
‘I put on righteousness, and it clothed me;
My justice was like a robe and a turban.’
Isaiah 61:10 –
‘I will rejoice greatly in the Lord,
My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,
As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.’
Revelation 7: 13 –
‘Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”’
The whole idea of grace can be hard to accept. It was very common in Paul’s world to speak of the worth of the recipient. Gifts should be given lavishly but discriminately, to fitting or worthy recipients. ‘Worth’ could be defined in different ways, according to a number of criteria—ethnicity, social status, age, gender, moral virtue, beauty or success. Just as, today, prizes might be awarded on different grounds (for musical, literary, sporting or academic achievement) but keep their value only if they are given discriminately, to people worthy of them, so gifts in antiquity were normally given according to some criterion of worth.
For this reason, the most subversive gift is the gift given without regard to worth. If you expect God to give the best gifts to the freeborn adult and educated male, but if you find that, in fact, these gifts are given both to the free and to slaves, both to adults and to children, both to the educated and to the uneducated, both to males and to females, then your whole notion of worth, and thus of social value, is thrown into disarray.
In our parable about the wedding feast, the guest cannot accept this. I suspect he was clinging to the idea that he deserved to be there. Many people struggle with this idea, and in practice a lot of religion is about following rules which bring you a bigger dose of merit. They are all an illusion.
This is not a cheap or passing matter. The price was immense, but it was paid by the king’s son. The gift is free and readily available. Our part is to accept it.
You can see why Jesus grew so impatient with the Pharisees and the teachers of law, who imposed such severe restrictions on the people. They had a laudable aim in mind, to maintain the identity of the nation of Israel. But in this case the lesser aim conflicts with the greater.
From this parable, I think we can take three things.
First, the gates of the kingdom are open wide. Salvation is not based on ethnicity, education, income bracket, popularity, ministry position, personality type, cultural savvy, athletic ability, or attractiveness. For this reason, we should be very careful not to assume that the people most fit for the kingdom are those who look most like us.
Second, though the gates of the kingdom are open wide, the kingdom still has gates and we must enter through them. The kingdom imposes conditions on us. We must bear its fruits. We have a particular kind of clothing to wear to the feast. In the words of Paul in Colossians, we must put on, as God’s chosen ones, compassionate hearts, kindness, and humility. A bitter and unforgiving heart is not a part of the Christian way.
Finally — and we mustn’t miss this point — the kingdom of God is a feast. And we should act like it. God means to be enjoyed. He is the God of laughter, full bellies, and second helpings. In his presence, says David, there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).
So come. There’s a seat with your name on it.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Ministry of the word for The Campfire Church on Facebook today: Two Shirts

[The reading from The Campfire Church gathering for worship today was here]

The big challenges facing us in today’s world are climate change, the ravages of the coronavirus including the associated financial recession, political corruption, wealth and power consolidated in the giants of the commercial realm and, in the UK, Brexit.

The solutions to these challenges are relatively straightforward, but without the political will (in either governments or the general public) to act appropriately and decisively, we remain very vulnerable to their severe consequences.

In such times, the laos — the faith community — bears responsibility to hold our light steady, to act with integrity and reverence, and to bring as much healing, hope and peace as we possibly can, starting in our own homes and personal relationships and radiating out from there.

In respect of climate change, here are the things we can do — in addition to voting shrewdly and lobbying loudly. The first is to plant. It has been clearly demonstrated that earth itself absorbs carbon from the atmosphere. Earth is held in place by plants. Tilling creates bare earth and leads to desertification. The people of God have a responsibility to the Creator, to creation (of which we are stewards) and to each other as part of our duty of loving our neighbour, to get as many plants as possible into the ground and keep them there. If you live in a high-rise flat without a spot of earth to call your own, fill your home with house plants and donate generously to Tree Aid and The Woodland Trust. I especially commend to you the new Netflix movie, “Kiss the Ground’; it lays out the simple and perfectly do-able strategy for healing our planet and restoring our climate. We do have to act, but what’s needed is so simple that any and all of us can do it. Please watch it. The other things for us to do, of course, are to use our consumer choices, to reduce our fuel usage, particularly fossil fuel, to choose renewable energy sources, to reduce our plastic use and waste — those sort of things; you know them.

Moving on from that to the other challenges we have to fix — the political and commercial challenges have a moral dimension: there’s nothing wrong, in and of itself, with a company being big or with a career as a politician. The problems arise from lack of integrity — working the system to milk public funds with a view to becoming extremely rich, and acting dishonestly and unscrupulously in pursuit of personal advantage. 

Obviously you can’t make someone else good, and therefore there’s a sense in which fixing the problems caused by moral corruption in high places is not within the capacity of us ordinary people. They, not we, have the remedy; though we should not neglect to bring pressure to bear by our choices as consumers and as voters.

But the consequences of corruption in high places play out in the public realm, in the lives of ordinary people like you and me — and these consequences present the challenge I wanted to think about with you today.

Because of political corruption — specifically, lies — the UK is approaching Brexit. The situation has been moved from bad to dire by a combination of incompetence and dishonourable actions. The beginning of 2021 is looking very worrying indeed, as we face legal action in the international courts, freezing of supply chains to our island, and neglected legal frameworks freezing our ability to source our food and medicines from Europe. Significant numbers are moving away from the UK in our manufacturing, business, education and health sectors. On top of that, our coronavirus rate of infection is once more rising and the job losses and business crashes associated with the pandemic have created a bleak landscape in the near future. 

As globally the problems of climate change result in unrest, then extremism and terrorism and war, and increasing numbers of refugees must be accommodated, the UK response to those few who try to make it to our shores is increasingly brutal, cruel and inhumane.

In all of this, it seems to me the challenges you and I face are addressed by the advice John the Baptist gave to the ordinary people when they came and asked him, “What must we do to escape the wrath to come?” Because in our present circumstances I think it would be reasonable for us to be asking the exact same question.

His reply to them did not come in the form of a 35-point strategy or a political manifesto. It wasn’t as long as even one of the minor prophets, let alone the book of the prophet Isaiah. He just said, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’

This assumes two highly significant principles:

The first integral assumption is that everyone is living simply. It assumes you might *not* have two shirts, you might *not* have any food to share. It assumes you are not stockpiling, not building bigger barns and sitting on a massive hoard. You are living simply.
Already that will have solved a lot of problems you might otherwise have had to contend with. If you live simply you will be more flexible, have more space in your home and schedule, have more capacity to respond, less to curate and maintain and pay for. If you only have two shirts you’re not going to be overwhelmed by the ironing pile, or urgently in need of a walk-in closet and a tumble drier, are you?

So part of what we can do to make ourselves ready to meet adversity is streamline our lives. You’re aiming for a two-shirt life, by which I mean a practice of minimalism. This will make everything you have go further — if your brother-in-law goes bust and loses his house, you can more easily take him in. If you lose your job, you can more easily set up to work from home. Your debts will already be fewer and your savings greater and what you have will be better maintained; that’s the two-shirt life in operation. Two shirts is what you’re aiming for, one shirt is a bit difficult, three is too many. When you are living simply, you know when you have enough. This is a *principle* you understand — we’re not talking about shirts per se, it’s a way of living.

The second assumption is that the goal is equality. Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same. You level up, not down. You lift people up out of poverty and suffering — not to a goal of growth economics and interminable consumerism, but to the goal of having enough to live simply. 

This is John the Baptist’s path for the people. Simplicity and equality effected by sharing. The political term for it is socialism.

Simplicity, equality and sharing generate a social dynamic. In their book ‘The Spirit Level’, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett set out how almost everything — from life expectancy to mental illness, violence to illiteracy — is affected not by how wealthy a society is, but how equal it is. Societies with a bigger gap between rich and poor are bad for everyone in them — including the well-off. While we’re thinking about books on this topic, may I also commend to you Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’, proposing that our challenge in this century is to meet the needs of everyone within the means of the planet — to ensure no one is without the essentials of life (food, housing, education, healthcare and a political voice), without over-pressurising the Earth. The goal is to provide for all without sacrificing stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer.

What I find exciting about John the Baptist’s simple strategy of simplicity, equality and sharing, is that it puts constructive action within reach of us all, in the same way as ‘Kiss the Ground’ movie puts the power to heal the Earth back into the hands of ordinary people.

To plant a garden; to share what we have to create equality; to need very little — everyone can do this, even a two-year-old. And it isn’t sacrificial, it’s *beneficial*. As I am growing old and my energies are waning, I can no longer cope with multi-tasking and moving furniture and sorting out loads of stuff or cooking complicated meals. I need simplicity as urgently as a thirsty person needs water in a hot and dry land. And in these months of the pandemic, nothing at all has brought me solace and peace greater than sitting quietly in the garden or walking in the park. And nothing makes me happier than seeing someone lifted out of crippling and exhausting anxiety by having been sent a little bit of money.

This, friends, is the way of blessing, and I commend it to you. 

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Harvest sermon for Campfire Church today — Grace Garner

Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions”, before proceeding to tell the Parable of the Rich Fool, in which the man builds ever bigger barns to store his grain, before dying in the night without having used any of it.
Many people have observed that, while money may not buy happiness, a lack of it certainly brings misery. I think the angst some of us feel about wealth and money, particularly in Western countries, can lead us to bring a certain amount of baggage with us when we hear Jesus’ stories that have to do with riches. When Jesus was alive, although money was useful, a person could also manage without it. It’s important to remember that in modern Western culture, money stands for food, clean water, shelter, healthcare and other necessities. A certain amount of money is vital for life. But what Jesus is talking about here is the pointlessness of hoarding wealth, of trying to prepare when you cannot know what is coming.
Sometimes when we think about this parable, I feel a ‘yes but’ rising in me. “Yes, but Jesus, are you saying we shouldn’t be prudent, that we shouldn’t make good use of what we have, that we shouldn’t ensure our provisions last through barren times? Are you saying we shouldn’t take responsibility for ourselves?” Only a few weeks ago we talked about Joseph, who saved Egypt and the surrounding lands by the building of barns and prudent saving of food – and that was all through God’s direction!
But Joseph had enough to meet the needs of the people. Once the famine was over, the saved food had been eaten. And Joseph shared. He was doing it for everybody, not just himself; not even just Egypt, in the end. In this parable, the rich man has more grain than one person can use and keeps it for himself. He has so much of it that he never gets the use of it, and nor do any of the people he could have shared with. This goes beyond mere prudence. And the Jews of Jesus’ time would have known the scriptures that instructed farmers to leave their excess for the poor to eat, that expressly tell those who have plenty that they should share it with those who are without. (And, by the way, there’s no question of people who do not deserve to be shared with. You share with those who are needy because of what *you* are like, not because of what they are like, or how deserving or not they may be.)
So the problem with the rich man in the parable is not that he’s rich, but that he chooses to hold onto his wealth in a way that benefits neither him nor anyone else. Better, says Jesus, to use your time and effort in more worthwhile things, and trust that God will keep providing for you year on year. Our future is in God’s hands, regardless of what we do or don’t do. The Harvest Festival is for giving thanks to God, who has faithfully provided for us once again. It’s an acknowledgement that we have received not according to what we deserve, but purely out of God’s goodness. As the character of Death says, in Terry Pratchett’s book ‘Reaper Man’, “OH LORD, WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR BUT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?”
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” said Jesus, “for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus exhorts us to share what we have with each other and to trust in God; to create the Kingdom by taking care of one another, and thus also taking care of ourselves. He encourages us to focus not on what we have – like King John sitting in his tower counting out his coins (“Taxes! Taxes! Mwaha!”) – but instead on the world we seek to bring into being.
This week saw the Autumn Equinox, also known as Mabon or Alban Elfed. It is the point of balance, when the light and the dark are momentarily equal, before we step through the gateway of the year and head towards the long dark of winter.
The feast of Michaelmas, or St Michael and All Angels, on the 29th September, is placed at this time of year for a reason. In some Christian traditions, it was Michael the Archangel who led the Heavenly Host against Lucifer’s uprising, and cast down the Prince of Darkness. This is why you see pictures of St Michael with his foot on a dragon and holding a flaming sword. He is a Prince of Light, who looks at darkness and rides out to meet it. So it’s fitting that he stands within the gateway of year, as darkness begins to rise. And he faces into the darkness, unafraid, reminding us that the light has overcome the darkness and will do so again. And he holds up his flaming sword to light the way. ‘Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil.’
Michaelmas also marked the beginning of the agricultural year, and was a time of reckoning the accounts, as well as celebrating the Harvest that had successfully been brought in at the end of the previous year. So it’s a time for taking stock of what has been, for giving thanks for the good and throwing out the bad. A time to accept sunk losses. A time to reset our course to manage any hardship to come. A time to look around and see whose harvest was wanting, to ensure that they will be OK. And a time to envision the year ahead. What will we create?
As well as the Harvest of the Land and Sea, we also take a moment to think about the Harvest of the Soul. So far, 2020 has been momentous indeed, and I don’t think it’s ready to settle down yet. I wonder what has happened this year that you are thankful for? I wonder what this year has taught you to set aside, to throw away? I wonder what values we would like to focus on as we shake the dust off our feet and step through the gateway into the coming dark? What we sow now will be next year’s harvest.
Let’s pray.
God of all mercy and goodness,
We give you thanks for the lessons of this year;
for the kindness and grace welling up in our communities,
for the revelations of truth, however bitter or painful,
for the fight for justice, the outcry of your children,
the knowledge gained, the humility grown, the determination developing.
We gaze into darkness, calling on St Michael and his flaming sword of truth,
knowing that the infant Christ will be born in the darkest hour.
With the heavenly host, we unfurl the banners of justice, peace, joy and grace, and ask that you will lead us in the way of righteousness for the year that is to come.
In Jesus’ name we pray.