Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas: Lighting up the Darkness

A few days ago was Midwinter’s Day. The winter solstice on 21st December marks the shortest day of the year; the day when it is darkest for the longest. When we wake up, it’s dark. And when we go to bed, it’s dark. If fact, daylight is in such short supply that there’s a winter gloom that hangs like a shroud over this time of year, especially around three o’clock in the afternoon when it starts to get dark.

For most of us there is still a residual primeval fear about the darkness and the night-time. We light up our towns and cities with electric lights, but deep down so many of us are still scared of the dark. The other night I took a short cut down a dark and unlit alleyway (without a torch) and I don’t mind telling you that I was very relieved to get back onto the main road to where the streets were lit!

There is something about darkness that unsettles us. If you’ve ever walked in the woods at night or walked alone down an empty street in the dead of night then you’ll know what I mean. So it is no coincidence that during the first millennium the Church fixed the celebration of Christ’s birth to December; the darkest time in the year. For these early Christians, who lived in a world without electricity and central heating, Christmas symbolised the coming of a great light into a very dark world and what better time to celebrate this than around midwinter.

And Christmas certainly does cheer us up, doesn’t it? The nights may be long, dark and cold but I think that most people feel a bit more cheerful when they see our towns, streets, houses and churches all lit up. With twinkling fairy lights, sparkling Christmas trees, warm log fires and flickering candles, there is a lot to cheer us up in the depths of a bleak midwinter.

However, Christmas isn’t there simply to cheer us up on a cold, dark evening. Many centuries before the birth of Christ, the Prophet Isaiah wrote that: ‘the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.’

There is much about this world that is as dark as a midwinter evening. These last weeks have seen terrible acts committed in Pakistan and Australia. Many innocent people have died as the victims of war or terror, or simply in tragic accidents as was seen in Glasgow this week. But there is also much unseen suffering: those who are homeless and who sleep on the streets in winter, those who have no food and have to resort to using food banks, those who are the victims of exploitation, and those who suffer illness or addiction behind closed doors. Then of course there are the small injustices: the ways in which we can all act selfishly or be unkind to each other. We see it in the playground, at work and in the family home.

The world can often be a dark place and it would be easy to despair. And yet, though we walk in darkness we can have hope because a great light has dawned.

Christmas is not about the parties and the presents. It is not about spending more and more money. It is not about turkeys and mulled wine. It’s not about Christmas trees or decorations. Instead, Christmas is about a baby born two thousand years ago for you and for me. Jesus Christ was and is that light that shines in the darkness.

In the same way that our streets and homes are lit up in the darkness of midwinter, the light of Christ comes to bring light and hope to our lives. At Christmas time, we remember the Christ-child whose coming was foretold by the prophets. In that child, all the fullness of God came to dwell. He was our Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’

In that single human life, God came to live with his creation. In the stillness of the night he came down to inhabit humanity with all the mess and trauma that we have to endure. Christmas shows us that God is with us and understands what it is to live a human life. And what is more, Christmas was the first act in God’s rescue plan for humanity. The Christ-child didn’t stay in the manger. He grew into the man who would be nailed to a cross on Good Friday and raised from the dead on Easter morning. Through his death and resurrection, humanity would receive forgiveness and new life. 

In Jesus, darkness was destroyed; through him and his coming a light has dawned and because of him we can have hope and new life.Though there remains darkness in our world, Jesus gives us light and the capacity for goodness and love. Even in the darkest places, the light of Christ can be found.

One hundred years ago, the world was thrown into the darkness of the First World War. Young men fought and died in trenches. And yet exactly one hundred years ago, on Christmas Eve 1914, a strange stillness descended on sections of the front line. Men stopped killing each other. They emerged from their trenches, exchanged cigarettes and gifts. They sang carols and there are even reports of spontaneous football matches. The light of Christ emerged from the darkness of war and for a miraculous few hours peace broke out. Men remembered each other’s humanity and God performed a miracle.

‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.’

This Christmas, I pray that the light of Christ would burn brightly in all our hearts and that each of us would meet with the Christ-child who lay in the manger and receive his peace and his light. 

Adapted text from sermons at St Barnabas' Alwoodley and St Paul's Shadwell on 21 December 2014.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Black Friday and Advent Sunday

There was something deeply unpleasant and deeply unsettling about shoppers fighting like crazed animals over discounted widescreen TVs at supermarkets up and down the country on Friday. Black Friday is yet another marketing strategy from the United States with the sole purpose of making us spend even more money in the run up to Christmas. The logic is simple. In order to make consumers spend more, goods are discounted on the last pay day before Christmas. In America, Black Friday has been around for a while and has even seen people killed in stampedes as shoppers fight with each other to buy discounted goods.

For me, Black Friday sums up all that is wrong with our Western consumerist and materialistic culture. It is evidence of the continued erosion of Christmas as a religious festival and its transformation into the worship of Mammon and all that the gods of consumerism have to offer. The tragedy and the scandal is that we as a society have bought into a culture that is the direct antithesis of all that Jesus stands for. Jesus was not born in order for companies to make a profit at Christmas. He was certainly not born as an excuse for us to gratify ourselves with the latest products. Neither was Jesus born so that shoppers could fight in supermarket aisles over a bargain.

Black Friday is the right name for this phenomenon as it lays bare the dark side of capitalism and consumerism for all to see. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against buying gifts for our loved ones at Christmas, but I am against the insidious culture of greed that Black Friday perpetuates and the constant pressure of retailers to make us spend more and more. There is something fundamentally wrong with a society that pushes people into debt simply so they can buy more and more each Christmas.

The best response to our rampant consumerism I think comes from one of the street artist Banksy’s works of graffiti art. It depicts Christ crucified while holding bags of Christmas shopping. For me, that image sums up all that is wrong with, not just Black Friday, but the whole culture of insatiable consumerism that surrounds the Western celebration of Christmas.

As a society we don’t need yet more stuff. Instead, we need an antidote to the retail bombardment we are faced with in the run up to Christmas. For me, that antidote comes during the season of Advent which starts today. But beyond it being a countdown to Christmas (usually in the form of a chocolate Advent calendar) Advent is lost on most people.

Traditionally, Advent was a time of self-examination and preparation for Christmas. It was a time of expectation in which Christians inhabited the wait for the long promised Messiah by reliving the wait for Jesus’ birth and also looking forward to his final coming at the end of time. It was when they pondered the big things of life: death, judgement, heaven and hell. Frankly, the themes of Advent are uncomfortable to the Western consumer’s mind so it’s not surprising that they have been long forgotten by most and have been replaced with tinsel and shopping.

However, I think that the frenzied shoppers of twenty-first century Britain still need Advent as it reminds us that there has to be more to life than shopping and more to life than fighting over electrical goods. After all, Advent reminds us that when life is done we leave behind us all our possession and stand before God. However much we want that flatscreen TV we can’t take it with us. Perhaps I am really a colossal scrooge and a festive killjoy, but I think we need Advent to put Christmas into perspective and to help us realise that the nativity isn’t a cosy children’s story but instead is the coming of one sent to rescue us from, amongst other things, enslavement to money and possessions.

Advent is like that last hour before dawn. The world may still be dark but we know that the sun is coming soon. In Advent we inhabit waiting in the darkness, but we also know that the darkness will not last forever. The darkness of our consumer-driven society may be all around us and we may have experienced a Black Friday, but soon the sun will dawn and the world will know the light and hope of Christmas morning.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

On Scottish Independence

Today the people of Scotland will vote to decide whether to remain within the 307 year old Union, or whether to strike out alone as an independent nation. The polls have been on a knife-edge for the last few weeks and nobody can predict what the Scottish electorate will decide to do. Personally, I hope that Scotland votes to stay in the Union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It would be a shame to throw away the historic bonds that link the inhabitants of this very small island in the Atlantic. The world is also now a place where the nation state counts for much less than it used to. Most nations are now interdependent rather than truly independent of each other. 

Scotland has also a played a prominent role in the story of the United Kingdom. Indeed it was when a Scottish king inherited the English throne that the road to full political union began on this island. Had James VI of Scotland had his way when he became James I of England, then Great Britain would have come into existence in 1603 rather than 1707. Since King James’ reign countless Scots have achieved much within the Union, but there is a real possibility that all this could end with the result announced on Friday morning. There is everything to play for and the eyes of the world will be on Scotland.

The energy that has been driving the pro-independence campaign has come from a growing sense of Scottish nationalism, a deep dissatisfaction with the Westminster elite and a palpable desire for change. I can see the attractions of voting independence in order to achieve a better and fairer society in Scotland, and if I thought that this would happen I would support independence. However, I don’t believe that Scottish politicians are any more trustworthy than English politicians. I don’t believe that Alex Salmond is any more honourable than David Cameron, or Ed Miliband, or Nick Clegg. The New Jersusalem will not be built in Scotland’s green and pleasant glens any more than in England’s green and pleasant lands. People in Scotland (and the rest of the United Kingdom) may be crying out for change, but even if independence were achieved then I think people would end up being disappointed and disillusioned.

In morning prayer today there was a clear warning in Psalm 146: ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.’ Ultimately politics and politicians are flawed. They will always let us down in the end. The election of Tony Blair in 1997 and Barack Obama in 2008 were both supposed to herald new dawns, but they are mere men and have disappointed many. If our salvation is to be found in politics and politicians then God help us all.

So if redemption cannot, ultimately, be found in politics, where can it be found? If you’re expecting me to say the Church then you will also be disappointed. The Church is just as fallible and prone to error as any political party. Just look at our history. I guarantee you that if you put your faith in the Church then you will be let down. But the one the Church professes to follow is different. Jesus Christ is beyond the Church, and I truly believe that in him we can have hope. His teachings offer us an alternative way of living, but more than that, Christians also believe that in him we can find the change and new life that we all desire.

So is the Union worth saving? I believe it is because it speaks of interdependent nations living together in unity rather than separation. However, ultimately it is of course just as flawed as any other political system. Should we worry about our identity as Britons if the Union dissolves? It might be hard to accept that Britain no longer exists, but ultimately our identity shouldn’t be found in our nationality. Instead, who we are should be found in Christ alone. For in him there is neither British nor European, Scottish nor English. Ultimately we are not citizens of the United Kingdom but instead citizens of the Kingdom of God and children of the same heavenly Father.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

1914: Remembering the Lost Generation

For those alive who saw in the new year of 1914, few would have guessed what horrors this year would usher in or how the events of that summer would change the world they lived in and shape the world we now live in.

Rededication of the war memorial at St Paul's, Shadwell
For those of us who have lived afterwards, the time before 4 August 1914 has seemed like a long lost summer of golden innocence. Indeed in August 1914 Britain basked in glorious sunshine and all must have seemed as it should be. Britain ruled over a quarter of the earth’s population in the largest empire the world had ever known, and we were the world’s preeminent super power who truly did rule the waves. King George V sat on the British throne and Herbert Asquith was in power in Downing Street. A young actor called Charlie Chaplin made his film debut in movies that were still silent. In the FA cup final Burnley defeated Liverpool 1-0, and in cricket the summer before, Kent had won the County Championship.

The world seemed to be as it had always been. But on 28 June 1914 a foreign prince who was unknown to most in Britain was assassinated in a place most Britons had never heard of. It was the murder of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist that set off a chain reaction that dragged all the major European powers into an apocalyptic struggle.

World War One broke out on 4th August 1914 and the nations of the world endured a four year bloodbath which cost the lives of millions of men and women from every continent. In this village alone dozens of families were left grieving the loss of their young men. Today is a day that we rightly commemorate the events of 1914. We do not glory in them but we do remember a generation that was willing to make a terrible sacrifice for their King and their country. It is impossible not to feel moved when seeing the rows and rows of white gravestones in France and Belgium, each representing a young life mercilessly cut down by gunfire, shelling and disease. Today is a day when we remember a lost generation and the deep trauma that this country suffered

In 1914 they called this conflict ‘the war to end all wars,’ but as we are all too aware from our TV screens, war was not consigned to history on Armistice Day. As we gather in this church today, exactly one hundred years after the start of the bloodiest war for this country, men, women and children are still being slaughtered in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, the Central African Republic, Ukraine, and countless other lands across the world. 

As human beings we seem to believe in the myth of human progress. We often look with distain at our ancestors and marvel at how wrong they could be. And yet are we really so different? Twenty-first century human beings still have a remarkable capacity for great evil and we inflict terrible suffering upon other human beings. Today, war is still a scar across the face of humanity. If today is a day to stop and remember the countless lives lost a hundred year ago and every year since, then today is also a day when we remember the utter futility of war. 

One voice that speaks of both the courage of soldiers and the futility of war is a voice that was born here in Leeds. In those months leading up to the war, a young man was living here in Leeds and serving as curate at St Mary’s in Quarry Hill. His name was the Rev. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. He was born at St Mary’s Vicarage in 1883 and was the son of the Vicar of St Mary’s. And a hundred years ago in the first few months of 1914, at the age of 31 he was living in this city and assisting his ailing father by serving as his curate at St Mary’s.

After his father’s death Studdert Kennedy left Leeds and moved to Worcester to become vicar of one of the city’s poorest parishes. At first Studdert Kennedy was an ardent supporter of the war. However, in 1915 he left his parish, became an army chaplain and travelled to the front in France. It was his traumatic experiences in the trenches that would transform him into an advocate of peace. Studdert Kennedy endured the horror of trench warfare and for him the war changed everything. He returned to his parish in 1919 with the conviction of the courage and bravery of ordinary soldiers, but also convinced that war was immoral

He wrote: ‘When I went to the war, I believed that the war would end to the benefit of mankind. I believed that a better order was coming for the ordinary man, and, God help me, I believe it still. But it is not through war that this order will be brought about. There are no fruits of victory, no such thing as victory in modern war. War is a universal disaster.’

This year’s commemoration of the outbreak of war should also be a catalyst to spur us on to work for peace in our broken and fractured world. The Bible reading that we’ve just read comes from Micah 4:1-4 and looks forward to a time when there will be no more war and when everyone will live in peace under God. It speaks of a time when God will arbitrate our disputes and weapons will be made into farming tools. It is a time when everyone will live in peace and no-one will be afraid.

At the heart of the Christian message is a message of love and peace. Throughout his life, Jesus demonstrated how to live in love and peace with all. Even throughout his horrific crucifixion he never called for vengeance and instead prayed that God would forgive those who were killing him. Jesus announces a different way of living. He calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. The Christian message is deeply counter-cultural and incredibly hard to live by. None of us will ever manage to live as Christ lived on earth. I guarantee that the one thing that all followers of Christ share is our collective failure to live like Jesus. But despite our failure to live in peace, Jesus is still calling all of us to live in peace with God and with our fellow human beings.

However, does that mean that the prophet’s vision from the Book of Micah an unrealistic goal? If we know that peace will never be possible in a world filled with fallible human beings, then should we even bother trying to create a peaceful world? Our God is a God of peace and Christians do believe that one day we will live in a world where there will be no more death and no more suffering.

But do we just put our feet up and wait for that time? Never! As followers of Jesus, Christians are called to live a life of peace in the here and now, and to struggle for peace with every fibre of our being until that day when God will wipe away all our tears. Until that time, we carry on living for peace in a world that seems to favour the sword. Now, as in 1914, we see a world desperately in need of peace. Jesus said: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ Let each of us hear the call of Jesus in our lives be advocates of peace in our world. Amen.

Sermon preached at a service of commemoration at St Paul's Church, Shadwell on 3 August 2014 marking the centenary since the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Are we all Nazarenes now? The eradication of Christianity in Iraq

In northern Iraq we are seeing the systematic and brutal eradication of Christianity by ISIS. Through murder, rape and expulsion, ISIS have succeeded in eradicating Christianity from the northern city of Mosul. Last Saturday, Christians were given an ultimatum: ‘We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract - involving payment of jizya (a tax on non-Muslims); if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.’ Chillingly, the Arabic letter ‘N’ for ‘Nazarene’ has been painted on Christian homes to mark them out from the rest of the population. Not surprisingly, most Christians have decided to leave and so ends an ancient Christian community in Mosul which long predates the birth of Islam itself. 

The Arabic symbol for 'N' painted on Christian houses
What is even more shocking is the deafening silence from the West. Of course there are whole host of international crises occupying the world at the moment. The shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine and the awful atrocities in the Gaza strip have caught the world’s attention. However, very little attention has been given to the plight of Christians in Iraq. What is happening to them is no different to the ethnic cleansing that happened during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

As Tim Stanley eloquently writes in a blog for The Daily Telegraph: ‘The West’s direct intervention in Iraq has created Hell on Earth for its Christian citizens.’ The sad truth is that Western nations such as Britain bear some of the responsibility for the current genocide of Christians in Iraq. The 2003 invasion fatally unbalanced the delicate eco-system between different religions and ethnic groups in Iraq. Since 2003 Christians have found themselves under attack and now with the implosion of neighbouring Syria and the rise of ISIS across both Syria and Iraq, Christians are caught in a hellish firestorm.

I am profoundly angry with what is happening to Christians in Iraq, but even more so with the response of most in the West. I am also deeply frustrated that more energy is spent on internal wrangling with the Church over women bishops and gay marriage than on speaking out for Christians and other minorities who are enduring the most appalling suffering. I also know from previous blog posts that more people have been interested by what I’ve written on the Pilling report than on the suffering of Christians in the Middle East. For me that is a damning inditement on the skewed priorities of comfortable Western Christians. Of course I agree that, for both sides, the debate on gay marriage and other controversies is important, but surely the genocide of fellow brothers and sisters demands that we put our own sectarian differences aside and focus our energies on acting for them.

There is much that we in the West can do. Primarily there is prayer. Ultimately, all we can do is call on God to help those who are suffering terrible persecution. We can also petition our political leaders to make this situation a priority for the international community. There is a shocking unwillingness for Western political leaders to speak out on this issue. Finally, we can also give financial support to support those families who have been forced out of their homes and into exile. Open Doors and Canon Andrew White’s Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East are two organisations that are appealing for help to provide for Christians who are now refugees in their own land.

The response of the West is simply not good enough. Quite rightly thousands have been out on the streets of Britain protesting against the latest incursion into Gaza, but where are those who are standing up for the Christians of Mosul? On social media many people of all faiths have been using the symbol ن to symbolise their support for the Christians of Iraq, but in the West how many of us really are all Nazarenes now?

‘Speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ Proverbs 31:8-9

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Is God Back? ‘Doing God’ in the Public Square

The Prime Minister hosts an Easter reception for Church leaders
Crown Copyright under Creative Commons Licence
For Christians, Easter is a time for resurrection. On Easter Day, billions of Christians all over the world gathered in churches, in homes and in the open air to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is also a time for surprises - after all, none of the first disciples expected to find an empty tomb on that first Easter morning. However, for me too, this Easter morning was a surprise. Both my churches on Easter morning were packed with regulars, visitors and lots of local people who don’t come to church very often. In one of my churches the congregation was well over double what it is on an average Sunday. It was a welcome surprise, and something that was replicated in churches across the country.

This experience of welcoming people into church people who don’t come that regularly was all played out amid the backdrop of an almighty row caused by David Cameron’s Easter message in the Church Times in which he called Britain ‘a Christian country.’ No sooner has his words been reported than a group of eminent atheists and secularists wrote to the Daily Telegraph to accuse the Prime Minister of ‘fostering alienation’ and claiming that Cameron’s words ‘needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people.’

The row is still rumbling on. Other faith groups were quick to point out that they recognise that Britain has a ‘Christian heritage’, and today the Attorney General and the Work and Pensions Secretary have both attacked those who deny that Britain is a Christian country.

So is David Cameron right? Is Britain a Christian country? If a Christian country is a country in which the majority attend regular worship and have an active faith then the answer is probably no. However, if a Christian country means that its laws and heritage are based on Christian principles and that the majority either subscribe to a non-doctrinal Christian culture then the answer is probably yes - certainly my own experience in parish ministry points to small numbers of active worshippers but a very large number of cultural Christians. Either way, for me, whether or not Britain is a Christian country is not what concerns me in this debate, as the facts and statistics that both sides use are always subjective.

The anger that atheists and secularist have towards people of faith is something that I have always found troubling. Prominent and aggressive new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, have for sometime now been attacking religious faith as irrational, dangerous and deluded. Atheists are often very keen to blame religion as the cause for all the world’s ills, while ignoring the fact that the 20th century’s most brutal regimes (Nazi, Stalinist, Fascist and Communist) were predominantly secular or aggressively atheist.

There appears to be a mistaken belief amongst some in the intellectual establishment that atheism is a neutral philosophy and that it should be the default position for all rational human beings. This in turn leads many secularists to try and marginalise faith away from public life and into the private sphere. Whenever the Church speaks out on an issue there are always secular voices who tell Christian leaders that their faith should be kept in the pulpit. Christian faith can never be something that simply affects our own private spirituality. The faith Christians have in Jesus is something that affects all of who we are and it has something positive to say in the public sphere. No-one ever suggests that atheism has no place in public life and should be kept private, so why do atheists hypocritically demand that religious faith should be silent in public discourse?

In a liberal democracy the voices of all are valid contributors to public debate. That includes both atheists and people of religious faith. No group has the right to demand silence from another group. That is not how a liberal democracy functions.

The Church is called to make a positive contribution to human flourishing and that includes speaking passionately and prophetically into the public sphere. We are not called to police the bedroom (as many Christians mistakenly seem to obsess about) but instead to share God’s love with others, improve the lives of the poor and oppressed, and to make Christ known to those who don’t know him. 

The end of Christianity is much prophesied by the new atheists, but perhaps the reason why many new atheists are so aggressive towards those with faith is because God might just be back.