Sunday, 11 March 2012

Why did Jesus die? (A rather political answer)

(A sermon for Lent 3B, 11/3/12, at Hodge Hill Church)

The longer I go on as a parent, the more I realise that children’s questions need to be taken with utter seriousness.

In the last few years of my previous job, every Easter we’d invite classes of primary school children to church to ‘experience’ the Easter story. And at the end of every session, there’d be at least one child who asked the same question: ‘why did Jesus die?’

And every time, it was clear that the traditional answer – ‘to save us from our sins’, or something similar – just didn’t work. Just try it – with the nearest child to hand. I’m willing to bet that, like me, the succession of ‘why?’ questions that follows ends up in a great tangled mess, with you saying things that either don’t make any sense, or that you actually have great trouble believing yourself.

The thing is, that’s just not the kind of ‘why?’ question that the children are really asking. When they ask, ‘why did Jesus die?’, they’re asking, ‘what did he do to get him crucified? Especially,’ and you can almost see the cogs whirring in their heads, ‘as we’d been led to believe by you grown-ups that he was ever so nice and kind and good and well-behaved…?!’

It really is a much more interesting question. And if we dare to explore it, it inevitably brings us to today’s gospel reading [John 2:13-22]...

If you want a short answer (and forgive me for descending into the ‘vernacular’ for a moment), then Jesus died because he pissed people off. Powerful people especially, but also what our politicians today fondly call ‘ordinary, hard-working people’ too – people, that is, a bit like you and me.

But I’m guessing you’re interested in a slightly longer answer. Jesus died, I suggest, because of three things he did...

1. Jesus made friends with the wrong kind of people

  • Just think of the kind of people Jesus shared meals with, and called to follow him: the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’, in the gospels’ words; the hot-headed freedom fighters, the uneducated fishermen.
  • Just think of the kind of people he touched: the lepers, the ‘demon-possessed’, the sick, the dead – all those officially deemed ‘unclean’.
  • Just think of the kind of people he talked to with respect: children, women, foreigners…

Jesus made friends with the wrong kind of people – and that made the ‘respectable’ and ‘religious’ types uneasy. Envious. Angry…

And then we get to today’s reading…

2. Jesus went right to the heart of his nation’s power and turned it upside-down

Why the Temple?

  • It was the place not just of religious power, but of political power too.
  • It was a place built by the rich & powerful, on the backs of the poor & powerless.
  • It was a place caught up in ‘the market’ – where ‘transactions’ were the rules of the game: having to buy God’s favour with costly sacrifices, having to pay the extortionate Temple tax every year, and getting ripped off by the money-changers in the process.
  • And it was a place that excluded. Its walls and courtyards made a series of concentric rings, like the skins of an onion, designed to keep at arm’s length, or outside completely, those who couldn’t afford its prices, those who were deemed ‘unclean’, women, disabled people, foreigners… exactly those people who Jesus called his friends.

That’s why Jesus came to the Temple. And he got angry. And he placed himself, his body, right in the middle of its business, literally ‘in harm’s way’, to face down and challenge, to disrupt its ‘business as usual’, to clear a space for something completely different to happen…

  • A bit like 81-year-old Shirley, who chained herself to the railings outside the House of Lords, angry at the government’s selling off the NHS to private companies.
  • Or the chain of wheelchair-users blocking Oxford Circus, angry at savage cuts to disability living allowance.
  • Or like the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp, until a couple of weeks ago outside St Paul’s Cathedral, angry at the power of international markets to make the rich richer and the poor powerless. And like the Christians who were dragged from the cathedral steps by Police as they knelt in prayer on the night of the camp’s eviction.
  • Or like Chris, Martin & Susan, 3 Roman Catholics who cut through the fence of the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire last year, and fixed a sign to it saying ‘open for disarmament – all welcome’…

Jesus dared to challenge, to disrupt ‘business as usual’, to put himself – his body – literally in harm’s way, fully knowing what the consequences would be. And he cleared a space, for something completely different to happen...

Listen to these words of St. Augustine of Hippo, 4th Century teacher of the faith: "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."

I’d want to add a third ‘daughter’ – Imagination – to see what a different world might look like. A glimpse of the possible – of the kingdom of God.

It’s no coincidence that just before today’s gospel reading, just before Jesus comes to the Temple, he’s making the wine flow freely at the wedding in Cana, ‘the first of Jesus’ signs’, as John calls it. Which brings me to my third reason why Jesus died…

3. Jesus played by different rules – or better, he started a completely different game – and the powerful just didn’t ‘get’ it…

  • At Cana, Jesus shows the power of celebration – using the stone jugs for water for the rituals of purification, to pour out the best wine anyone had ever tasted.
  • At Cana, Jesus changed the game from ‘run out’, ‘not enough’, to ‘overflowing’, ‘too much!’. Suddenly we’re in a different ‘economy’ – one of gift, grace, abundant generosity.
  • And at Cana, Jesus showed us a different society – where no one is left out, no one is deemed ‘unclean’ or ‘underserving’, no one is excluded because they can’t afford it… and no one is in charge of who gets what…

So why did Jesus die?

  • Because he made friends with the wrong kind of people
  • Because he went right to the nation’s centre of power and dared to disrupt its ‘business as usual’
  • And because he started a new game that those in power just didn’t ‘get’...

And what about us?

  • Here in Hodge Hill, we might well feel a long way from the centres of power in our country. Even in England’s ‘second city’, we might well feel rather on the edge of things. But there may well, in the coming years, be places in our own community, lines in the sand right here in Hodge Hill, that will demand our presence, our bodies, to stand or kneel in solidarity with our neighbours, and against the forces which seek to exclude, deprive and demean them.
  • And in the mean time, let’s get on with making friends, as Jesus did, with all the ‘wrong’ kinds of people, the kind of people our current government apparently class as not worthy of respect or value, but who our God counts, and knows, and loves as made in his image. Let’s find opportunities, through what we do as a church, and through who we meet as neighbours, to cross boundaries, open arms, share meals, make friends, break down divides…
  • And as we edge closer to Easter, let’s use these days of Lent, and beyond, to get trained up in the utterly different game that we call ‘the kingdom of God’, where passion and compassion, gift and abundant generosity, vulnerability and trust, celebration and friendship are the only rules we need – and where, like a seed that has been dead and buried, hope springs up and blossoms from seemingly barren ground.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

What’s the point of Lent?

(A sermon at Hodge Hill Church, 26/2/12)

The desert waits,
ready for those who come,
who come obedient to the Spirit’s leading;
or who are driven,
because they will not come any other way.

The desert always waits,
ready to let us know who we are –
the place of self-discovery.

And whilst we fear, and rightly,
the loneliness and emptiness and harshness,
we forget the angels,
whom we cannot see for our blindness,
but who come when God decides
that we need their help;
when we are ready
for what they can give us.

(Ruth Burgess)

One of the gifts of the ‘Everybody Welcome’ course that we’re following during Lent in Hodge Hill is the way it seeks to open our eyes to how church looks and feels to someone who comes as a ‘stranger’ – passing by, coming in, meeting people, joining in, for the first time. And thinking about this again, I was moved to remove a poster which has been bugging me for, oh, the 18 months or so since I started here.

The poster has a simple message: “Life before Jesus” (sad face), “Life after Jesus” (happy face), “Any questions?”. I have two big problems with it. The first is it’s not true. Any of us who have lived through the loss of a loved one, or illness, redundancy or divorce, or who have suddenly found ourselves unable to do what we’ve always done or loved dearly, or have found ourselves suddenly ‘not at home’ – we know it’s not as simple as that. As if being a Christian somehow makes it ‘smiley faces all the way’, no questions, no doubts, no struggles.

My second big problem with it is that it’s not anything like the gospel. Or to put it in Lenten mode, it hasn’t been ‘tested in the desert’. In Mark chapter 1, just before the desert, we see Jesus baptised: the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends like a dove, a voice from heaven says, “you are my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased”. Wonderful. Awesome. Joyful. And then he’s slung out into the desert.

And then just after the desert, out comes Jesus, proclaiming to anyone who’ll listen, “the kingdom of God has come near – repent, and believe in the good news”. But he doesn’t just proclaim it, he lives it – he brings the ‘good news’ to life, and specifically among those who have been pushed to the very edges of society. Those who know the desert as he does.

The ‘good news’ of Jesus is good news that has been tried and tested in the desert. We talk about Lent as a journey, and it is – but a journey through the desert – the ‘testing place’, the ‘training ground’, of Christian faith. The place where we learn to live with limits (some chosen, many more unchosen). The place where we discover our attachments (what are the things we think we can’t do without?). The place where our insecurities emerge (what are the things that make us ‘edgy’? what inner voices come out when we’re not feeling ‘at home’?). The place where we learn to live with boredom! The place where we find ourselves wrestling with ‘internal dialogues’ like this:

Are you hungry?
I am famished
Well, what's wrong with that?  Are you dying?

Can you stand being hungry for a while longer?
Maybe.  I guess so.

Okay, so what else?  Are you lonely?
Yes, I am!  I am terribly lonely!

What's wrong with being alone?  Will it kill you?
I don't like it.

That's not what I asked.  Can you live through it?
Probably not, but I'll try.

(Barbara Brown Taylor)

I want to offer three ‘rules of thumb’ for the desert journey of Lent. The first comes from the Iona Community’s daily liturgy: “We will not offer to God offerings that cost us nothing”. Or, we might also say, “We will not offer to others ‘good news’ that has cost us nothing”. The second is this: “We will not give up, or take up, anything during Lent that we don’t expect to leave us changed by at the other end.” What’s the point, if it’s just a 40-day blip and then ‘business as usual’? And then the third: “We must expect to be changed, not just for our own good, but for the good of others.” The desert is for anything but self-indulgence, or self-improvement. In the desert, we learn to resist turning stones into bread for ourselves, so that we come out of the desert ready to share our bread with our neighbours.

And if none of that is specific enough, let’s remember the five ‘values’ that we as a church committed to nurturing, just over a year ago – compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope – and which we explored together last Lent. Easy to say, harder to do. But let me share with you just a little of the hard-won, painstakingly-learnt wisdom we shared and discovered together last year, that points us not just to the ‘what’, but the ‘how’ of Lent. Maybe pick one, rather than feel like you need to try all five. And stay with it for the next six weeks. And see what happens…

  1. Let a stranger in. Physically perhaps, but certainly ‘emotionally’. Notice someone – maybe in the news, maybe on the street, perhaps even your next-door neighbour. Maybe someone who’s been labelled: ‘old’, or ‘young’, or ‘disabled’; ‘single mum’, ‘homeless’, or ‘asylum seeker’. And try asking them (or, if that’s not possible, ask yourself), “what’s your story? how do you feel?”. And you’re learning the beginnings of compassion.
  2. Give up grumbling, take up gratitude. Simple! Well, for some of us, moaning takes a lot of ‘weaning off’, so 40 days might end up feeling like an eternity. But as we discover the gifts that we have been given, and slowly open our hearts to be thankful for them, we discover that we are freed to share those gifts generously with others too. And we discover that generosity, like gratitude, is infectious.
  3. Admit a mistake or two. This is one that I find really difficult. I hate having to say I’m wrong. But how about finding someone that I need to say ‘sorry’ to, or even just to tell them that I’ve screwed up somewhere, each week of Lent? What better way is there to restore, and nurture, trust?
  4. Listen to someone. I mean really listen. Not necessarily a stranger – maybe someone you know well. But give them a good listening to, rather than our normal half-distracted efforts. And don’t try and get in there with ‘answers’. Don’t try and ‘fix it’. Don’t even dare to suggest you ‘know how they feel’. Try practising a bit of gentle, patient attention. It’s how real friendships are grown.
  5. And finally, how do we nurture hope? It’s easy to tell people there’s hope, to talk about hope, to encourage people to ‘be hopeful’. But that’s to fall back into offering good news that hasn’t been tried and tested in the desert. It’s not about talking, it’s about doing it. ‘Enacting’ hope. Making it a reality that can be seen, felt, lived in. Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see”. We can’t do better than that.

(with thanks to Stephen Cherry for many of the insights here)