Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Greenbelt 2015 - A view from the morning after

This was the Greenbelt when we only went for two days - Saturday and Monday - so my reflections are limited.  I confess I was not impressed with the ticketing pressure from Greenbelt (buy before Easter or you may not get them, come for the weekend because we don't know whether there will be any day tickets).  But in the end, sanity prevailed and we went.

This year, Greenbelt was a smaller festival.  In particular, there was no mainstage.  The Big Top played the role of the biggest venue, and in the event the cover was appreciated.  There were things we missed (the Goan Fish Curry, for one); and the smaller range of speakers meant that audiences burst out of tents (OK on Saturday in the sunshine, less fun in Monday's rain).  But over all it made for a more intimate festival and was a better use of the Boughton House site.

Highlights for me - Talks are the obvious ones: the Corymeela community's sessions on scapegoating; Paula Gooder on the Bible.  Unexpectedly, I made a musical discovery - Grace Petrie was both energetic and engaging, even as we just passed the end of her set.  I left with CDs!  The most unexpected joy was Three Acres and a Cow, a telling of English history from the underside and 90 minutes of history peppered with folk songs.  Other highlights were guided walk telling about trees and Occam's Razor's performance of the Mill.  Finally, the preview of Baked Alaska by Riding Lights has made me want to see the full performance.  Oh, and a TARDIS selfie is always good.

Greenbelt was its usual mix of bumping into friends old and new, bits of politics and faith bumping into one another, creativity and abject nonsense.  The kids really enjoyed it, as always.  They left shouting farewells to all the wonderful stewards and promising to be back.

Greenbelt 2015 was great.  It has left me waiting for next year.  Here's to Silent Stars!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Searched by good news

A sermon for Trinity 13

‘Gospel’ means simply good news, and the Gospel reading this morning is just that – good news.  But whilst it is good news for anyone; it transpires that it is not good news for everyone.

The lectionary gets a little squeamish this morning – it wants to spare you particular Jewish customs and Jesus talking about bodily functions. I however think you can cope, and so have read the whole of the passage from Mark! In those missing verses we hear this: “Thus he declared all foods clean”. If only it were so simple. In fact, what Mark summarises as a very straightforward piece of teaching took much of the first generation of the church to work out. The letters of Paul show a good deal of evidence that the church fought bitter battles over the question of whether Gentiles had to become Jews first before they could become Christians.  Frankly, it took the Roman destruction of Jerusalem to really settle the question.

What we have in this story of Jesus is a hand grenade. The pin has been pulled out, but the explosion is delayed. There is something important here for a theology of the Bible – the full significance of something that Jesus said, or of a text or story from the Bible, may have surprising implications for us. It may be as explosive as this story was for the early church.

But important though it is, the theology of Biblical interpretation is not what we need to hear most from this Gospel story. What we need to hear most from this story is Jesus’ criticism and exposure of the way that the Pharisees and scribes use religion in order to mask their own defilement. That is why Jesus complains about the tradition of Corban, in which declaring things to be dedicated to God means that they don’t have to be used for the needs of family members. It was a kind of religious off-shoring of assets, and just like off-shore tax dodging, it was simultaneously legal and morally abhorrent.

Now the Pharisees get a bad press in the New Testament. But an important thing to remember is that they were the church goers of their time. They were the ones that turned up to services, listened to sermons and took their faith seriously. That should prompt us to ask questions of ourselves, questions that ask whether we are doing the things that the Pharisees are accused of doing. Do we use our faith as a means of dodging our responsibilities to support and help those around us? Is spending time here or at the Cathedral a way of avoiding spending time elsewhere? I am not at all meaning to be critical of the wonderful volunteering and other work that folk here do. But we do need to check in with this question from time to time. My answers are not always as comfortable as I would like them to be.

Even more searching is the next set of questions with which Jesus confronts us. In the midst of this argument about washing hands and purity, Jesus complains that the Pharisees use ritual washing to obscure their true impurities – ‘It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ he says. And then gives a long list of examples: ‘fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.’ So here is the searching question for us. Do we use our faith, our religion, to hide our own sinfulness even from ourselves? Do we assume that because we are religious, because we go to church, that we are good people? As I run through Jesus’ list, I find that I can see the roots of many of the things the Jesus lists in my own heart.

During this and every Eucharist, we confess our sins. That can have two effects. It can be a pretence that we are good and that all is well. Or it can be an honest acknowledgement of our faults and a continuing commitment to following Jesus. 

The Gospel is emphatically good news; but it transpires it is not good news for everyone. It is only good news for sinners. We are sinners, and we are capable of using our faith as a way of hiding from that uncomfortable fact. But if we will allow ourselves to be searched deeply by the Gospel we will be sinners who are the only ones for whom the Gospel is good news. Amen.

Originally given at the Chapel of St Mary on the Bridge, Derby, 30.8.15

Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Launch

Taking the Fear out of Bible Reading
- Book launch

How to Read the Bible
(without switching off your brain)

by Simon J. Taylor

£9.99    paper    ISBN  978 0 281 07380 1   17 September 2015

The book will be launched at Evensong in Derby Cathedral on Sunday 13th September at 6.00pm with drinks following the service.
Copies of the book will be available at a special launch day price!

This book offers Bible reading for everyone. It speaks to those who already read the Bible but find themselves asking why; and to those who don’t read the Bible but would like to if only it weren’t so strange. It explains what the Bible is, offers an overview of what is found in it, and addresses questions people ask, such as:
  • Does science disprove the Bible?
  • Why is there so much violence in the Bible?
  • What does the Bible say about sex?

The author also presents an account of reading the Bible in the context of a life of faith and suggests how the Bible might be integrated with a life of prayer.

All Welcome!! Do come and say hello.

Copies of the book are also available to pre-order from Church House Bookshop here.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Is it news? Is it good?

Review of Tom Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel in News and What Makes it Good (SPCK, 2015).

A new Tom Wright book is often a treat, but I confess to being a little under-inspired by the title of this one.  Perhaps it sounded like just another book on the Gospels and their historical basis.  I was wrong, this book has lots to say and is more than another history of Jesus.

In fact this is a book about evangelism, about the practice of commending Christian faith to those who are outside the church.  What Wright does really well is to use his knowledge of history to explain what telling the gospel meant in the New Testament and what the implications of that are for today.

He starts from the (hardly controversial) observation that the gospel is good news.  That is simply what the Greek work euangelion (gospel) means.  It was used to announce the births, successions and victories of Roman emperors.  Rather brilliantly, Wright distinguishes between this original sense of good news and the way in which this has been adapted in the practice of the church to become ‘good advice’.  “The whole point of advice is to make you do something to get a desired result … News is an announcement that something significant has happened” (p. 4).  This shift from news to advice has distorted the good news that the church has told.

Through accounts of both Paul and Jesus, Wright offers his version of the Good News.  “The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world … all this has happened in and through Jesus; that one day it will happen, completely and utterly, to all creation; and that we humans, every single one of us, whoever we are, can be caught up in that transformation here and now.  This is the Christian gospel.  Do not allow yourself to be fobbed off with anything less” (p. 55).

The church has got much of this wrong.  There are those parts of the church who have forgotten that the gospel is news.  Rationalists want to commend Christianity as making sense and romantics want to emphasise the personal experience of God’s presence.  But both try to collect the fruit without the roots of the happening at the start of Christianity.  I suppose the implication is that either rationalist or romantic Christianity could manage without Jesus.  On the other hand, there are those who forget that the gospel is good news and tell stories of an angry God, sinful humanity and the sacrifice of Jesus to spare us from God’s wrath.  Wright points out that this misses the role of creation in the Bible and downplays the love of God.  In doing so, this approach distorts the gospel, and usually ends up in offering advice rather than news.  Of course all of this has elements of a caricature, but like a great cartoonist Wright highlights parts of our life that need correcting.  That someone of Wright’s stature is lampooning the ‘two ways to live’ approach to evangelism is significant.

In its place, Wright offers a gospel that has implications for the whole of creation and for individuals; a gospel that is rooted in the history of Jesus and that impacts on life today.  This is a gospel that challenges the old ‘go to heaven when you die’ approach, and makes demands on all of us to be committed to new ways of life.  In his final chapter, Wright offers an account of how this gospel is prayed through the Lord’s Prayer.  Praying this prayer makes us into good-news people, people who are able “not only to know and believe the good news but to become part of it ourselves” (p. 169).

There is more to say about this excellent little book.  I found it excited me in a way I hadn’t expected it to.  If nothing else, it offers a very helpful twofold test to prevent the good news becoming good advice: does what it say constitute news? and is it good?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

What sort of god do you want?

A sermon for Trinity 12.

I want to begin with a question and a warning.  First the question: What sort of a god do you want?  That is the question that our Gospel reading sets before us this morning.  What sort of a god do you want?  Perhaps before we go any further it is worth taking a moment to reflect on that question.  What sort of a god do you want?


I’m not going to ask you to share your reflections with anyone else.  But try to hold them in your mind as you go through the remainder of the service.  Now, however, comes the warning.  “This teaching is difficult.”  That’s what Jesus’ disciples say to him.  “This teaching is difficult.”

This encounter comes at the end of a long sermon that Jesus has given after the feeding of the five thousand.  Positively he has been teaching that the feeding points to something about himself.  “I am”, he tells them, “the bread of life”.  More negatively he wants them to know that he is not just a food manufacturer, not just a miracle worker on demand.

Which brings us back to our question.  What sort of god do we want?  Perhaps we want a god who will be that sort of miracle worker.  A god who will feed the hungry – that’s a big job in itself.  And wouldn’t it be good if everyone in the world was fed, think of the lives that would be saved?  Perhaps we could go further, and ask for a god who would ensure peace and security throughout the world; a god who would ensure that refugees were well housed and cared for, and would also make things so that all the things that cause people to flee their homes would disappear.  A god, in short who would clean up all the messes that we have made.

On the other hand, perhaps we would like a god who will essentially leave us alone.  A god who will leave us where we are, confirm us in our comfortable existence.  A god who doesn’t make too many demands of us, but who appreciates that we’re busy; a god who will just let us be, after all we’re not too bad.

My own reflections on what sort of a god I want tend to veer between these poles, that itself might say something.  I want a god who will make everything right, but who won’t let that interfere with my comfort.  Surely that’s not too much to ask for?

That is not the God who Jesus offers to us.  Remember, “this teaching is difficult”.  The God who Jesus offers to us invites us to share our lives with him, so that we might share in the life of God.  All of the long and complex sermon about the bread of life points to this.  And in sharing the life of God, we are invited to share with God in the work of mending the world.  We are to feed the hungry, to work for peace and justice, to care for the refugee and the stranger.  To do so is to discover that the roots of the problems that we face lie within our own hearts.  So the invitation to share in the life of God, is an invitation to share in the work of mending and an invitation to change and to be changed as we do that.

The god we want to fix everything is not the God of Jesus.  Jesus offers us a God who asks us to share in the task of mending the world.  The god we want to leave us alone is not the God of Jesus.  Jesus offers us a God who invites us to change and to grow.  And all of this is founded on a sharing in the life of God, which is what comes first.  We share in God’s life, we are held as we face up to the change that we have to make; we are supported in the work to which we are called.

There is a constant need for us to be converted from the gods that we want, to the God that Jesus shows us.  It is a constant temptation to fall back on a god who will fix everything and leave us alone.  Whatever the god that we want, the God of Jesus will challenge and surprise us. The God of Jesus will give us life.

This morning we are invited to bring the gods that we wish for to the altar, and there to receive the Living Bread.  We are invited to come to the true and living God, to share in the life of God.  We come away from the altar to share in the work of mending the world, and to be changed.  This is the challenge and the adventure of the Christian life; this is the invitation that Jesus offers to us this morning. 

This is a hard teaching, but it is a true teaching.  To who else can we go; Jesus has the words of eternal life.  Amen.

First given at the Chapel of St Mary on the Bridge, Derby and Derby Cathedral 23.8.15