Easter Peace – Alleluia!

On the one hand, there are the people who would like me to preach a sermon at e.g. the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, because there are so many people there who only come to church once a year (or thereabouts), and how else are they going to hear the Gospel?

On the other hand, there are those like the husband of a colleague I met last week. He's an academic, a university chaplain, who says, “I never preach at major festivals. I just let the liturgy and the scriptures do their stuff.”

This year, as I tweeted the other day, I have dealt with Holy Week by deciding I wouldn't think of it as having to deliver or lead loads and loads of services, but as having the opportunity to meet with Christians to pray and hear the scriptures every day. And most days I have shared a few thoughts I've had about the readings, but never for more than a couple of minutes. It hasn't been profound theological reflection, or prophetic social commentary. But then, I'm not a pope or archbishop. No one reports or probably remembers what I say. Is it enough? I hope so.

The main thing is: for me it has worked. I haven't suffered the extreme exhaustion that some Holy Weeks have brought. Nor can I say there have been great emotional convulsions or fireworks. But there has been something like a deep contentment, a sense of the rightness of it all, a kind of quiet joy. Which I rather like.

 

Whom does the Grail (or the Vicar) serve?

A response to the article in the Guardian, What the vicar's wife is really thinking.

Of course as clergy we are called to serve the world, and our fellow men and women; that's part of what Christ calls us to do. And we call the acts of worship we prepare and lead in church, 'services'. But if we think of our services as being in the service of men and women, then of course we will get depressed and demoralised if people don't come to them, and if congregations dwindle. Just the same as the supermarkets go into agonies of panic and self-questioning and restructuring if people don't buy their services as much as they did 6 months ago.

It would be better and more correct to understand services in church as serving God. Liturgy means 'the work of the people', i.e. in serving God. That's all that matters. It's the service we (or often, I) offer to our Lord. If no one else at all is there, I offer it still, and gladly.

My heart bleeds for colleagues who feel ground down by the demands of parishioners and the Institution of the Church. No doubt I have been very fortunate in my ministry, to feel this is an occasional, not a frequent or constant, cross I bear. But a part of me also thinks, that if we set our minds on serving God first, the rest falls into perspective. For example, I don't allow backbiting or sniping in church, because that doesn't serve God. I teach the congregation that isn't how Christians behave, and trust my wonderful congregation to actually be trying to live it out – and they do. People who don't like that have other places they can go and be zealots or bigots, and they are welcome to them. Sorry. It's not that we kick them out of our church, it somehow seems to work by self selection.

In some of the Grail legends, the land is sick because of Sir Percival's failure to ask the right question: Whom does the Grail serve? Could it be one of the reasons the Church of England is sick, is that we aren't asking that question?

 

My heart sheweth me

Here’s one of the places where the Coverdale version of the psalms speaks to me more powerfully than any of the modern versions.

It’s in Psalm 36, appointed for Morning Prayer on the 7th day of the month, and it reads:

My heart sheweth me the wickedness of the ungodly: that there is no fear of God before his eyes. (verse 1)

Modern versions read:
Sin whispers to the wicked, in the depths of their heart:
there is no fear of God before their eyes. (Common Worship)

Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts;
there is no fear of God before their eyes. (NRSV)

But what I love about the Coverdale translation, used in the BCP, is its psychological wisdom. I don’t need to look at anyone else to see the depths of wickedness. Still less does the wickedness of others allow me to judge anyone. Because it’s in my own heart that I can see and learn it all. My heart shows me the wickedness of the ungodly.

KJV is nearer to Coverdale, and reads: The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes.

According to bible.org, the original Hebrew reads, “[the] rebellion of an evil man [is] in the midst of my heart”. So this is a fascinating example of where the archaic version is not only psychologically and spiritually true, but also a more accurate translation, than the moderns.

That’s Enculturation

 

All things bright and beautiful is – how shall I say? – not my favourite hymn. But I have always thought of it as quintessentially English, in a Victorian kind of way. Imagine my surprise then when I was recently asked for it by some Canadian visitors, who attached their version of the words. You'll see not only that verse 3 describes a very different landscape from England's green and pleasant land; the fauna and flora of verse 1 are also rather more exotic.

All things bright and beautiful,

all creatures great and small, ​​​

All things wise and wonderful,

the Lord God made them all.

1. Each radiant flower that opens,

each vibrant bird that sings

God made their glowing colours,

God made their lively wings.

2. The cold wind in the winter,

the pleasant summer sun,

The ripe fruits in the garden,

God made them every one.

3. The rocky mountain splendour,

the loon’s wild, haunting call

The great lakes and the prairies,

the forest in the fall.

4. God gave us eyes to see them ,

and lips that we might tell

How great is the Creator,

who has made all things well.

Has anyone come across other regional variants? For Africa, say, or Australia? Or Antarctica?


 

1950s Attitudes

As I tweeted earlier, today would have been my old Mum and Dad's 66th wedding anniversary. They were married on 28 March 1948, just about 16 months before I was born.

I also suddenly remembered how, at junior school, we were given a personal and family history project of drawing a timeline of our lives. I accidentally marked my parents' wedding day as 28 March 1949. The teacher said laughingly, “That can't be right, can it?” Oh, no.

Goodness! Can you imagine anything like that happening today? Imagine the trouble a teacher could be in for even having an opinion about whether her pupils were conceived or born out of wedlock, never mind assuming they weren't – or were… Or do they just not bother to draw family timelines because of the potential minefields they can lead to?

 

Two Clergy Conferences

The Oxford Diocesan Clergy Conference at Swanwick on Imagining Faith (24-27 March 2014) was the first clergy conference the diocese have held for 22 years. Yes, the last one was in 1992.

As one of those – increasingly feeling like dinosaurs – who were present 22 years ago, I spent a lot of time this week reflecting on what had changed. And it does, indeed, feel like that was a world away, a different planet altogether.

The greatest difference this time, of course, was the large number of women clergy taking part, including having a wonderful woman bishop – Bishop Victoria Matthews of Christchurch NZ – as a keynote speaker. Back then there were hardly any women present. No women priests, of course, and not that many deacons either. It was a peculiar atmosphere and mood, and rather like the lepers at the gates of Samaria (2 Kings 7), there were many who were saying, “What we are doing is not right.” It was all too clergy-ish, and just, well, MALE. So it was decided not to have any more exclusively clergy conferences, but to run joint conferences of clergy and laity for the diocese. This was the origin of the extraordinary Bognor Conference in 1995(?) and the High Wycombe weekend a few years afterwards.

But I always felt it was a great loss, not to have the opportunity for the clergy to meet together from time to time. It's such a big diocese, and when we only meet in deanery or even archdeaconry meetings, it's very easy to lose sight of the big picture. The Big Picture is a beautiful one, and as Bishop Victoria reminded us, one of immense wealth of resources.

And the joyful mix of male and female clergy meant that everything that was missing in our mostly male clergy gatherings was wonderfully supplied. It made me think, as I so often have before: How can ANYONE still be against women priests and bishops? Whatever the dogmatic reasons anyone could have had against, anyone who has actually experienced the priestly ministry of women must know that it is blessed by God. Real, effective, God's gift. The priestly ministry of women alongside men, is a whole ministry. At last. It's only taken us nearly 2000 years to get here… And so at last it was possible to say at this conference: “What we are doing is right. Very right.”

As ever I come away from this kind of event inspired, excited, enthused, humbled, energised, feeling completely inadequate among such committed and gifted people, yet also hoping and praying and I suppose knowing at some barely guessed at level, that I share some of those gifts and commitment.

The daily worship – Morning and Evening Prayer, Eucharist and Night Prayer – was a glorious pot-pourri of styles, often deeply moving. The music was of a high standard, as well as deeply spiritual and enabling. The organization was superb and apparently relaxed and seamless. The bishops were (are!) welcoming, friendly, human. The speakers were dauntingly intelligent and erudite. As well as Bishop Victoria talking about how her diocese has dealt with and grown through the disaster of the earthquakes, there were Graham Tomlin, giving the Bible studies, Sam Wells on what the Christian faith is, Graham Ward on current trends in culture and society, and our own Bishop John on The State We're In. The workshops – I co-led one of them, on storytelling – were varied and interesting: my only problem with them was, there wasn't enough time to go very deep. We had fun evenings with Paul Kerensa, and, because one of the planned speakers had had to pull out, a shared viewing of the first of Rev. series 3, with panel discussion after.

So now, the work begins. The work of processing, applying, Imagining Faith in our own places and contexts. I'm praying for us all to have an imagination as big as God's, to work towards his Kingdom futures. And that we won't have to wait 22 years for the next time.

Bach’s Cantatas for Sexagesima

So, how am I getting on with what I intended would be this year’s project, of listening to the whole set of John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings of Bach’s Cantatas, throughout the Church’s year?

Not as easy as I thought, apparently. It’s partly a matter of time, even to listen to them once. And, to get to know them better, I find I need to listen to them a couple of times.

So, a long car journey or two is a real help. Last week I had to drive to Ely and back, to take part in a BAP (Bishops’ Advisory Panel) examining a group of amazing men and women who are offering for ordained ministry. Two hours plus each way, meant that I was able to listen to the CDs of cantatas for Septuagesima and Sexagesima, at least twice each. Even without the text, I managed to hear and understand a tolerable amount of what was going on.

The texts for Sexagesima are almost identical to those in BCP: Epistle 2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9, and Gospel Luke 8:4-15.

Bach bases his treatment of these chiefly on the Parable of the Sower, and the different ways of receiving God’s Word, represented by the four different kinds of soil. In BWV 18, Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt, he goes to the words of Isaiah 55: As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and water the earth, making it bring forth fruit, seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so will my word be which proceeds from my mouth; it will not return to me void, but will accomplish what I please, and prosper in the work for which I sent it.

The tenor and bass recitative is interspersed with an almost jolly litany which includes the distinctly non-PC sentiment: And from the Turk’s and the Papist’s cruel murder and blaspheming, raging and fury, fatherlike protect us.
Hear us, dear Lord! The contrast between the gravity of the words and the levity of the tune sounds to post-modern ears like some kind of irony – or am I imagining it? We have similar sentiments in some of our BCP texts, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard them set to this kind of music.

The following soprano aria, Mein Seelenschatz ist Gottes Wort; (My soul’s true treasure is God’s Word) expresses a real, heart-felt devotion, to the words of scripture.

BWV 181, Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister (1724), also begins with a strikingly flighty bass aria about the ‘frivolous flibbertigibbets’ (or light-minded flutter-spirits?) who by their carelessness collude with Belial and his children in robbing God’s Word of its power. They are the ones who cause the seed of the word to fall on the hard ground of the path, where like the birds of the air, the devil snatches it away from the heart of those who will not hear it. I wonder what the pious Lutheran congregation in Bach’s church made of this? Was their organist and choir director having a laugh at their expense? Perhaps suggesting that, for all their wig-wearing solemnity, they were no better than those frivolous flibbertigibbets themselves?

BWV 126, Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (1725) begins with what seems like a more serious tone, as if some of those worthy Bürgers had taken him aside the previous year and said, “Look here, Herr Bach – let’s have no more of this nonsense about flibbertigibbets – we want to hear serious music in church!” But even then, Bach’s high spirits will out in the bass aria Stürze zu Boden, schwülstige Stolze! – Dash bombastic pride to the ground! It makes the mortification of our fleshly sins sound positively lively and fun, certainly not a miserable pastime but something to delight in, like children chopping down nettles, or a householder taking a really ruthless line on decluttering a room and throwing out almost everything. Or is he thinking of his haughty Bürgers again? Hmm.

Next week (if I get around to it) Quinquagesima, then a break: we give up Cantatas for Lent. Or alternatively, we use Lent to catch up or get ahead with some of the other Sundays, or maybe study the Passions or Easter music?

Exceeding Righteousness

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has quite a good press really. Lots of people who are very far from being practising Christians regard it as being evidence for the belief that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Sadly, that doesn’t always (often?) lead them to follow these teachings. It’s easy to see that if more people did actually live by them, most of the world’s problems would simply go away. But I don’t know whether Christians have been all that much better at following these teachings. In fact I seem to remember that the Scofield Reference Bible (a very influential study bible among evangelicals even today) has a note explaining that since the Sermon on the Mount is impossible to actually put into practice, it must be Jesus’ teaching about how people will live after the Second Coming has taken place and he has established his kingdom. If this is actually what it says (and I haven’t just imagined it) it’s a disastrous example of how Christians misread and misunderstand even the most important of scriptures.

It’s true that we struggle with the Sermon on the Mount – but so we should, and we’re going to struggle with it a bit more this morning.

It seems to me that the passage we have for this morning’s Gospel (Matthew 5.21-37) can be read as a kind of exposition or unpacking of what Jesus tells his disciples in v.20: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Now, his disciples will have felt crushed at this point. Oh! whoa! what chance have we got then? Because the scribes and the Pharisees were the. most. righteous. people. ever. They were the ones everyone looked up to, regarded as an example of godly living, were sure they could never aspire to. Well, the scribes and the Pharisees thought that as well, and had succeeded in getting everyone else to think it. And that, probably, was the problem.

Because what follows is Jesus explaining the Law and its teachings in such a way (remember, he’s said that he hasn’t come to abolish the Law; not a stroke of a letter will pass from the Law until all is accomplished) that he completely undermines much (most?) of what the religious teachers stood for, and shows that their so-called righteousness is really nothing of the kind, it’s not what God has in mind at all. This is the thing about so much of what religious people mean by righteousness: it’s based on a very legalistic kind of religion, which puts external conformity way ahead of the heart of the matter.

Here’s what I mean. Legalistic religion is all about knowing, and telling other people, how to be righteous. You must do this; you must not do that. And perhaps even more importantly: you don’t need to do that; doing this will suffice for you to make the grade. So, if the Law says Thou shalt not kill, it will be sufficient if you haven’t actually terminated someone’s life. If it says Thou shalt not bear false witness, it will be OK to lie anywhere else, as long as you don’t lie in court.

But Jesus isn’t having any of this dishonesty, this cheating with God – which is what it actually is. The Sermon on the Mount undermines these pretences by going to the heart of what God really desires. Jesus wants to talk not just about what the Law is, what it says, but what it’s for. And I would say the whole purpose, aim of the Law, is to enable human flourishing. It is all about shalom, the total peace and well-being and common-wealth that is God’s will for humanity, in fact for the whole creation. So, it’s not enough not to have murdered anyone. We also need to deal with the root cause in the human heart: which is anger, despising your neighbour, thinking that they are of so little worth that you can call them fool, or spit on them, or abuse them, or discriminate against them, or mistreat them in some way. It’s not enough not to have actually committed adultery: we must deal with the lust in our hearts which looks at another person not as a person at all, but as an object for our physical pleasure or gratification. It’s not enough to observe all the proper legal forms when you want to divorce your wife (and in those days men could do that, on pretty trivial pretexts): you shouldn’t even be there in the first place. Don’t even think about it, I think Jesus is saying – remember what marriage is, what it’s for. It’s not enough not to swear falsely: you shouldn’t need to be swearing at all, your speech should be so true, so transparently honest, that it doesn’t need any So help me Gods, or whatever. So all the time, when Jesus is saying, You’ve heard that it was said… but I say to you… he’s not undermining or revising the Law. He is saying: The teachers of the Law have misrepresented what it means; and what I’m telling you, is what it’s really for.

So. How may we relate any of this to the moral issues that concern us in our day? With the Church we love tearing itself to pieces in arguments about gay marriage, and women bishops, and looking more and more stupid and irrelevant to people outside – wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus had said something about these things. Sadly he didn’t. So I don’t know what the answer to that question is: How may we relate any of this to the moral issues that concern us in our day? I don’t know, and I’m getting too tired of the argument, and the people who are doing it. Because so many of them seem to want to portray themselves as the righteous ones, and their opponents as the opposite. It reminds me of a novella that I had to study at university, Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist. I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it, except for the description of this central character, in the very first sentence: On the banks of the River Havel there lived, about the middle of the 16th century, a horse-dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, who was at the same time one of the most righteous, and one of the most [entsetzlich] [terrible, dreadful, horrific, inhuman] men of his time. His passion for justice, righteousness, was so overwhelmingly huge, that it led him to commit the most terrible atrocities, causing death, destruction and mayhem to the whole country.

It’s not a bad description of people who adhere to any extreme form of religion or morality, whether it’s bombing abortion clinics and killing people who work there in the name of the right to life; or killing women for sexual transgressions, even if the transgressions in question is having been raped. Of course, the squabbles about gay marriage and women bishops aren’t exactly in the same league, but there’s a tang of the same tendency. We are right, and we know we are right, and we don’t care how much damage our rightness causes to those who disagree with us.

Let’s step back and say, It’s time to stop looking at what we think the rules are and what they say, and think about what they are for. If they contribute to shalom, the flourishing of human beings and creation, then OK. If they prevent that flourishing, perhaps it’s time to let go of our interpretation of the rules, and change it, or the rules. I haven’t been keen on the idea of gay marriage. In fact when I was first ordained I would have taken the evangelical line that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, and that’s it. As if we could say to a gay person: You may think you are attracted to someone of the same sex, and your life will be enriched by being with them, but you’re mistaken. What you need is to marry a nice girl (or boy) instead. But what I’ve been hearing for years from the gay people I listen to (and how brave are they, to speak about it at all!) is that their sexual orientation is a deep part of their identity, it’s how they experience that God has created them – not a wilful choice, not any kind of choice. And a permanent, faithful, stable union with a partner – what we call marriage if it is between a man and a woman – will save them from loneliness and desperate promiscuity. In other words, help them to flourish. Why shouldn’t they have the same opportunities to flourish, as men and women who want to share their lives?

I’d say the case for women bishops is even clearer. Not that I welcomed the thought of women bishops either, at first – but then I’m not all that keen on male bishops (don’t tell Bishop John). The supposed arguments against, from scripture and tradition, are frankly unconvincing, while the effect of not having women in leadership positions serves to perpetuate the subjection of women to the rank of second-class human beings, which has so often been the way not just in the church (actually, I think the Church can point to some shining exceptions) but in so many societies to this day. Giving proper scope for the wonderful gifts of women in ministry, releasing those gifts in the church, not only helps those women to flourish, but helps the whole church to flourish.

You might disagree with how I’ve applied what I think Jesus’ approach to the Law in the Sermon on the Mount is. I’d have to accept that, because it’s part of what I described as our continuing struggle with understanding, and living out, these teachings. But what I would encourage us all to so is keep on with that questioning and struggling. The heart of the Sermon on the Mount is the idea that we are called to live as children of God, our heavenly Father, and that relationship undermines, or trumps, all other human loyalties or obediences. Let us pray.

Listening to Music

Whenever I try and listen seriously to music, I feel like I'm a colour-blind person trying to understand fine art. It's not so much that I just don't know how it works, as that I feel I'm missing some vital faculty. It could be because I never learned how to make music. Which always seems a bit strange to me, when music was so important to my dad, who sang well and was certainly able to pick out a melody on the piano, at least. But perhaps he tried to find out if there was a germ of musical interest in me, and realised early on that I was the musical equivalent of colour-blind, and just gave me up as a bad job.

So a project like trying to listen to the complete set of John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantatas, from the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, was always going to be a bit of a challenge. I feel like that lady walking through the fields in gloves, missing so much and so much. Or maybe it's like a baby with its mittens tied on so that it can't get its hands dirty. (Or perhaps it has its mittens tied round its ears!)

Reading JEG's book Music in the Castle of Heaven is fascinating because even though I'm understanding so little of it, it's still opening windows onto wonderful things I can just begin to see the outlines of. But apart from these glimpses, most of what I'm able to do is relate to the German – which I can understand well – and the theology. What was Bach trying to do with the themes of the Sunday? Why did he choose to tackle them in this way? Are there aspects of the Lutheran (and sometimes frankly somewhat pietistic) spirituality, which can feed us in our own walk with God?

The Gospel for the Second Sunday after Epiphany is John 2.1-11: the miracle at the wedding in Cana when Jesus turned water into wine. In German there's the pun between weinen (cry, or weep) and Wein (wine). I'd never thought of that before. Jesus is the one who turns our sorrow into dancing, by turning the water of our weeping into the wine of our celebrating.

 

Have you found Jesus?

The correct answer, if anyone asks you that question, is of course, “I didn’t know he was lost.”

But according to Luke’s Gospel, chapter 2, there was a time when Jesus was lost. His parents Mary and Joseph had taken him up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, as was their custom. Jesus was 12 years old: the age for his Bar Mitzvah, when he would enter into a new, adult participation in the covenant between God and his people. At the end of the feast, the parents set off to return home, thinking Jesus was somewhere else in the group of travellers; but he had stayed behind in Jerusalem. When they finally realised he was missing, and went back anxiously looking for him, they eventually found him calmly sitting in the temple, listening to the religious teachers and asking them questions, like any zealous apprentice rabbi.

The two cantatas Bach composed for the First Sunday after Epiphany, in 1724 and 1725, draw their inspiration from this Gospel passage. The Lutheran lectionary of Bach’s day, like the Communion lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer, appoints as the readings for the day Romans 12.1-5, and Luke 2.41-end. So no hint of the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, which most of us have had to celebrate today? (And where did that come from, anyway? – Question expecting no answer – According to Wikipedia it is a pretty new-fangled invention of the Church of Rome.)

BWV 154 Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren imagines the Christian soul in the place of Mary: My dearest Jesus is lost. This is our condition when our human sinfulness has separated us from God, and the movements of the cantata express a longing to be reunited, and a prayer: Jesus, let yourself be found by me; don’t let my sins be a thick cloud in which you hide yourself from me; show yourself to me again!

The bass arioso gives Jesus’ answer from Luke 2.49: Didn’t you know that I must be in the place that belongs to my Father?

By leaving Jesus behind and going off on their own way, in pursuit of their own agenda, Mary and Joseph were like any of us who wander away from Jesus. The only recourse is to turn around (repent) and go back till we find him where we should expect him to be: in his Father’s place. When the soul hears his Friend and Saviour’s voice, and returns to him, then: Yay! My Jesus is found! My trouble is past, I will never leave you again.

BWV 124 Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht (1725) is built around the same chorale which Bach had used at the end of the previous year’s Epiphany 1 cantata. It’s an upbeat, almost rollicking piece, expressing the exuberant joy of that decision: I will not give up on Jesus! The reason? Because he gave himself for me, and as long as there’s a drop of blood in my veins, Jesus alone will be my life, my all. There’s not the least sense of glumness or mortification about the duet aria’s appeal to the heart: Be quick, and detach yourself from the things of this world. You’ll find your true fulfilment and satisfaction in heaven.

One of the points Gardiner makes so strongly, is that the image we have of Bach as a boring old 18th century Lutheran in a powdered wig, doesn’t do anything like justice to the passion of his faith in Christ, and the joy of the God-intoxicated believer.