Of lust and the Bishops

The notes from my sermon on Matthew 5 21-37

St Paul – fed with milk not with solid food – you’re going to get some solid food this morning – I’m going to talk for about 20 minutes, and it may raise lots of questions that you may wish to discuss with me privately – please do so
Jesus in St John – there are some things that you cannot cope with yet; the Spirit will guide us into all truth – well, we in the church are on that journey with the Spirit

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Jesus says that to look at people lustfully is already committing adultery in the heart
lust is a deadly sin – remember, sin is anything which breaches relationships, either horizontally with other people or vertically with God
so lust is essentially a corruption of love – it still looks outwards from the self, but it treats others only for what they can provide for our own bodily appetites; rather than giving other people their own dignity, other people simply become means to our own ends
this runs completely counter to everything that Jesus teaches and embodies

having said that lust is a deadly sin, it is worth pointing out that on the scale of sin – lust is the least dangerous of the deadly sins as it is misplaced love, not an absence of love – need to tackle the pride which is the most deadly sin, as that is when a person has become completely curved in upon themselves

everything that Jesus teaches and embodies, which is all about recognising the human significance of all those who are not seen as worthy by the religious establishment of his time, such as the Samaritan woman at the well
his is a movement of inclusion, to bring into a relationship with God all those who had been excluded, the Samaritans and the tax collectors, and lets not forget that he teaches that the prostitutes get to Kingdom ahead of the priests – which is why priests can find Jesus unsettling

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so let me say something about the priests – and before I go on I should say that I am very conscious of the other elements that Jesus teaches in this passage, especially that those who call other people fools are liable to the fires of hell

so with that in mind I would like to talk about the House of Bishops of the CofE

they have recently released a document about same sex marriage in which they have reaffirmed the traditional teaching that marriage is a union of one man with one woman for life, and that any expression of sexuality outside of that context is sinful

in saying this, they are drawing on a perspective about what is the true end or purpose of sexuality, that is, what sex is for. The tradition, derived in part from Aristotle the Greek philosopher, says that the purpose of sexuality is procreation, and any form of sexuality that is not open to the possibility of procreation is therefore deficient and more or less sinful, dependent on how far it is driven by lust

this is why the Roman Catholic church does not accept contraception – and I can understand why they do so, for the implications of accepting contraception are quite profound, and would undermine a large part of the RC teaching on sexuality

however, the Church of England has a different perspective, and in the teaching of this church, marriage is instituted of God for three reasons, not just one – for the procreation of children, for the right ordering of our passions, and for the mutual society and help between a couple

this is, in part, why the Church of England some eighty years ago accepted the use of contraception by married couples – that is, the Church accepted that there was an expression of sexuality that was not open to procreation but was nevertheless not sinful, for it served the wider purpose of enhancing the love between a couple – the right ordering of the passions fostering the mutual society within the marriage

[a brief aside: to my mind there are still question marks around how we are to understand marriage, as the traditional core of marriage – around providing a structure for procreation – has now been almost entirely eclipsed, and I believe that we need to do some serious theological work specifically focussed on procreation, and establishing a parental covenant or something like that, because we need to take parenting more seriously]

the trouble for the church is that, once this step has been taken, there isn’t a coherent place to stand from which to reject same sex relationships. Let me explain that a little further – if we accept that it’s OK to have sexual expression when it is not open to procreation, then it means that we accept that non-procreative sex is valid when placed in the context of the right ordering of our passions and the mutual society of the couple concerned. There is then the possibility of what we might call holy passions amongst those who are not both fertile and straight

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to reject the validity of same sex relationships must then rest upon a more spiritual argument, which is what our House of Bishops needs to be concerned with

now one line of argument is simply to say ‘Scripture says…’ It is undoubtedly the case that Scripture is uniformly negative about the sexual expression of homosexual relationships. However, to rest the argument at that point is, at best, sub-Christian. We are not a community that does without rules, so long as those rules are rightly understood as being based upon grace and serving a higher purpose.

Furthermore, the church has the authority to change the rules that we live by – this is an authority explicitly given by Jesus himself to the disciples, to Peter in particular – that what we bound on earth will be bound in heaven and what we loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

We are given a worked example of how the church is to change the rules in the description of the council of Jerusalem in Acts, when there was an argument over whether the gentiles had to be circumcised in order to enter the Kingdom. Scripture was very clear that if a man wasn’t circumcised then he couldn’t join the community – but ‘it seemed good to the spirit and to the [disciples]‘ that this rule should be discarded.

So the question isn’t about what scripture says in terms of a rule for us to follow, but what is the deeper spiritual question at issue. So, to go back to what Jesus says in our reading this morning, the spiritual argument has to be something along the lines that a gay relationship, in contrast to a heterosexual one, is necessarily characterised by lust rather than love. That a gay relationship, in contrast to a heterosexual one, is not pure.

That position is at least a coherent one, and it is one that has the benefit of being shared by the tradition, and by the majority of Christians in the world.

Yet I do not agree with it, and on this issue I would align myself (with the caveat about marriage I mentioned earlier) on the progressive side of the church debate. Whilst the church hierarchy is still arguing about this, our wider society, including the majority of those in our congregations, has quite clearly come to the conclusion that gay relationships are simply human – yes, open to lustful exploitation, but also vessels for the amazing grace of god – that within a committed relationship it is for the couple themselves to determine the right ordering of their passions to foster the mutual society, help and comfort appropriate to their relationship. In this they are treating homosexual relationships on the same level as heterosexual relationships – they are including all within the covenant community – and this seems to me deeply in tune with what Jesus was pushing for.

This seems to me to be what the Roman Catholics call the ‘sensus fidelium’ – the mind of the faithful. We are not there yet, but that seems to be the way that, at least in this country, we are being led, and I do see that as a movement of the spirit.

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Our Bishops, however, are in the almost impossible position of trying to reconcile two sides that have become more and more opposed, and the dominant impression that I have is that they are acting from fear – that they are terrified of causing disunity both within the Church of England and between the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. I am not without sympathy for that – it seems like an impossible job to me

but there is one area where I would want to raise a criticism against our Bishops, and it is this: within the report, indeed within all the ways in which our Bishops discuss this issue, the gay and lesbian community are seen as ‘other’ – not seen as within the church, but seen as a problem amongst those who are outside, to be touched only at a distance

I don’t believe that we as a church community will be able to make progress on this question until we accept that we are talking about a part of ourselves, part of our own body, when we talk about the differences between the homosexual and the heterosexual, and the right ordering of our passions.

Those who are baptised are a new creation, and their identity is found first and foremost in Christ. That must be the starting point for our conversations – we have to take our baptism seriously, and consequently, we have to listen to what the Spirit is saying through that part of our body which is gay.

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Christ did not come to lay a burden upon us that we cannot bear; rather, Christ came that we might have life and have it in all its fullness. That fullness of life does not come when we surrender to our passions and allow them to dominate us; nor does it come when we needlessly tear out pieces of ourselves out of a misguided quest for spiritual purity.

We need to start from the love of God, that Christ came not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. We need to begin from a place of rest, resting in God’s love for us, and allowing that love to lead us into all truth. We will not get to God by making ourselves pure; no, it is by allowing God’s love to lead us that we will become pure in heart.

May God give us the strength and the grace to remove all lust from our hearts and minds, that we might truly be vessels for his inclusive love. Amen.

In praise of dodgy women

This morning’s sermon is in praise of dodgy women. It is not a response to the nomination of the first woman bishop in the church…

I was asked for advice about reading the bible the other day, and one thing I said was ‘skip the genealogies’ – but sometimes they repay careful attention. I want to talk this morning about the lineage of Christ given in the first chapter of Matthew. There are five women listed, and I think that Matthew has a particular purpose in listing them. After all, they don’t have to be mentioned – Luke’s version of the genealogy doesn’t list them – so why does Matthew choose to do so? What is the point that he is making by including them?

First on the list is Tamar, found in Genesis 38. Tamar is a woman who impersonated a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law, and thus preserve the blood-line of Judah in Israel. Not a conventional hero.

Second on the list is Rahab, found in Joshua 2. Rahab was both a prostitute and a foreigner, who betrayed her own people in order to protect members of the Israeli army in their desire to destroy Jericho. Not a conventional hero.

Then comes Ruth, who has a whole book of the Bible telling her story – and it is a wonderful story – but at its heart is the tale of a foreign woman seducing her ‘kinsman redeemer’ in order to establish a safe and secure future. Not a conventional hero.

Fourth, and crucially, comes one that is not named – a woman who decides to take a bath on a rooftop in order to catch the attention of King David, following which comes tragic tales of murder and slaughter. Bathsheba is really quite far away from being a conventional hero.

So what do all these women have in common? They are all sexually compromised, they are all dodgy.

Which brings us to Mary, mother of Jesus, and the last named woman on the list. A woman of whom it can also be said that she was sexually compromised. A girl carrying a baby but betrothed to someone who isn’t the father. It’s quite possible that Matthew is responding to gossip about Mary, and the unusual nature of Jesus’ birth, by including all these women in the list.

He can do this for the simple reason that God works through them. That is, the whole point of the genealogy is that without these dodgy women then we wouldn’t have Christ.

From which I would simply want to ask the simple question: do we have room for dodgy women in our congregation? For those that society sees as sexually flawed or broken? And they don’t just have to be women! We are all of us dodgy.

I rather think that if we don’t have room for those who are dodgy, we don’t have room for Jesus either – if we say to the sexually compromised or unacceptable that there is no room for them in the inn, then I believe that Jesus will also move on. So as we prepare for Jesus’ arrival at Christmas, let’s also make room for those without whom he could not have come, and remember to give an acceptable place to the dodgy. Amen.

When you go home, tell them

We have gathered together today to remember before God those who have gone before us, who gave their lives in war in order that those whom they loved would be saved, and be enabled to flourish in their lives and homes in peace. This year we especially mark the passage of 90 years since the foundation of the Royal British Legion. How can we best honour those who gave their lives for us?

Well, in a simple sense, we can honour them by what we do today – simply by remembering them, and naming them. Anything beyond that runs the risk of being superfluous – but I would run that risk today. Clearly it is in living out our lives freely, making the most of the gift that we have received as a result of their sacrifice, that we do honour them. A straightforward example will demonstrate this point: in Afghanistan today there are girls being educated who would not be were it not for the courage and sacrifice of those men and women serving there. For those schoolgirls to honour those soldiers simply requires them to take advantage of their education, to have and to enjoy better lives. That is enough of a purpose and an honour. Sadly, what seems straightforward thousands of miles away seems much less clear closer to home. For what does it mean in this country to enjoy such better lives? What might it mean for us to enjoy the freedom that has been so expensively bought? How can we here, today, best honour those who have given their lives for us?

Earlier this week, as part of his homework assignment from Mersea school, my eldest son has been tasked with learning something about the First World War, most specifically about the trenches. Now the trenches were a barrier, there was the enemy in front, and there was the home to be protected behind. I expect to be going through his homework with him this afternoon, and what I am wanting to teach my son is that the place for battle, the place for military excellence, for courage and skill, is on that front line. But the most important thing is that those virtues are placed in service of something larger – something larger than any one soldier’s own interests or personal advantage. This is what makes the difference between the heroes and the villains in all the stories that he has become familiar with. For example, my son greatly enjoys the Harry Potter stories – Harry Potter fights on behalf of a community and, in the end, he accepts his own death in order that they might flourish. His enemy, Voldemort, is simply pursuing his own immortality, and he is quite willing to dispose of his closest allies if it allows him to get closer to his wish. What I want to do is tie together what he has been learning through reading such fictional stories, with what actually has happened, and does happen, in our world.

It is this sense of serving something larger than our own desires that makes the difference between the hero and the villain, and it is this sense of something larger that I think our society has been forgetting for several decades now. It has become unfashionable to say that there are objective values, that some things are definitely right, and some things are definitely wrong – irrespective of what anyone might actually think about them. It is because our society has been so corroded by this moral relativism that we have the spectacle of young men hanging from the Cenotaph in London during the student protests last December, whose defence was that they didn’t realise the significance of what they were doing. They hadn’t been told the stories, their community hadn’t insisted on the importance of telling them the stories, of saying – this matters.

I asked earlier what it might mean for us to enjoy the freedom that has been so expensively bought – and that is Christian language. As Christians we claim that in Jesus is our fullest and truest freedom – and that it is in so far as those who laid down their lives for us did so in resemblance to Jesus laying down his life for us that we honour them, and we remember them. What that means is that their stories find their meaning and purpose through being a part of the larger true story, the story of the creation of the world in love, the breaking of that world through our own sinful mistakes, and then the ongoing healing of that world through a loving sacrifice. As Christians we insist that there are values that are independent of our own judgement or preference, values that are woven into the fabric of this world by the one through whom it was all created, and it is by tuning in to those values and aligning ourselves with them that we start to touch the real and genuine freedom which is God’s intention for us. Freedom is not license, the ability to do whatever pleases us. True freedom comes from recognising the nature of the world and aligning ourselves with it: the truth shall set us free. This is the overall story that binds us together and within which all our own individual stories find their meaning. This is the story that gives us the fabric of our common life – and it is that fabric that has been unstitched over several decades by those with no awareness of the havoc that they have caused – Father forgive them for they know not what they do.

I asked at the beginning of these words what is it that we can do to best honour those who have given their lives for us. I believe that I can now offer you an answer: the answer is simple, but very hard to live up to. We honour them best by telling their stories, and we give those stories meaning by embedding it within the larger story which gives it sense and purpose. We honour our heroes – those who fought for something larger, something bigger than themselves – by also telling the story that is bigger than them themselves. It is this bigger story which allows us as a community to live together and to enjoy the fruits of a hard-earned peace. This is our common story, within which the stories of the veterans and fallen take their place and within which they find their meaning – and we honour them by continuing to tell all of those stories, from the stories of Jesus in the gospels through all the different stories of those who at different times in different places have given their lives and health that we might enjoy our lives and health. As the Kohima declaration has it: when you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow, we gave our today. That is the essential thing, to best honour those who have given their lives for us: keep the story which structures our lives alive. So today, when you go home, tell them.

A short sermon about music (West Mersea Civic Service 2011)

Those of you who read my Courier articles will know that I have a favourite philosopher, who has had a profound influence on how I understand the world – Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was raised in an extremely musical environment as his parents house in Imperial Vienna was one of the most important musical salons in that city; Brahms, Schumann and Mahler were regular house guests, Richard Strauss would play duets on the piano with Wittgenstein’s brother – this is the context for Wittgenstein to write, after finishing his greatest philosophical work ‘it has been impossible for me to write one word in my book about all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?’

Perhaps I should stop there… After all, what can be said in a sermon about music? It is rather like trying to talk about God in some ways – every attempt is bound to fall short of the reality, and yet sometimes we cannot but speak and the words have to stumble out of our mouths. Even shipwrecks have their uses.

Our first reading described the musician David with King Saul; here David can play music to soothe the troubled breast of the king – and this is certainly one element of music, as something which can soothe our spiritual aches and pains – bringing harmony out of discord – and yet, there is so much more to music than this.

In the context of this civic service, where we are dedicating ourselves to the welfare of all, we might perhaps call to mind the wider context at the moment. The financial crisis that has been running for a few years now but has not yet run its full course; the environmental and resource crises that are starting to bite as we start to run up against the Limits to Growth; the frankly frightening world context where violent militancy is on the rise. These are so many deep bass notes in a minor key, and we cannot overcome them with a blithe and bland melody. Yet there are ways to harmonise with those movements in a way that makes the music overall something that can be listened to, something which reflects who we are, something which might, perhaps, even heal. There are things which we can do even in this disquieting context.

For even though I don’t have much confidence that our governing classes have much idea about what is going on – one might say that their range of hearing doesn’t go down as far as basso profundo, or perhaps it’s just that they’re distracted by the sound of cats – my trust in God is still intact. In the end it is not for us to be in control – we are not the composer, we are not even the conductor, we’re not even the first violin – I suspect there is a good Trinitarian image there for Father Son and Holy Spirit – but we do have our own parts to play. We do not have to worry about the overall composition, it is not for us to know how the main themes and contradictions will be creatively resolved, we simply have to play our own part as best we can, confident that the creator can redeem any mistakes that we might make – as those marvellous words of Leonard Cohen have it ‘and even though it all went wrong I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…’ For where there is no dissonance the music is in the end bland and boring and, most of all, unreal – and surely the complexity is real, the mournful notes are real – and in the end it is from the real deep well of our suffering that we will draw the refreshing water of joy. That is the trust with which we simply have to press on with the tasks that we have been given to do. And we have been told what we need to do: we are to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before our God.

So may we commit ourselves this day to making real music together, in the service of our community, following the composition of, allowing ourselves to be conducted by, and being led in our playing by, the One in whom all things are harmonious, the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

We are responsible for our own feelings

This is a line of thought following Sunday’s sermon (Mt 18.15-20), in which I said:

“When was the last time that one Christian in this church admonished another for sinning against them, for falling short of Christian standards? Note this isn’t a passage about one person saying to another ‘you’re not being good enough’ in any particular public way – it is about one person sinning against another. So all the fuss that the church ties itself up about, for example, homosexuality – that largely falls outside of this conversation. No, this is about one person hurting another, and the hurt person saying, not simply ‘you hurt me’ – which I am sure is a complaint that is often heard, but ‘you hurt me because you are sinning and failing in your faith’ – in other words, embedding the pain in a larger context and understanding. Because it is that larger context and understanding that enables transformation to take place, that stops the conversation being simply ‘you hurt me’, ‘you hurt me first’, ‘biff, bash, pow!’ If a community is to mature it needs to be have individuals within it who are strong enough to put aside their own feelings – their feelings of hurt, or betrayal, or broken trust – and see the bigger picture. It is only that larger context that allows God into the conversation.”

So often I see hurt feelings being used as a stick with which to beat other people into submission – we can’t do this because it will hurt so-and-so’s feelings. This is infantile. The spiritual path is about taking control of our feelings – or, better, letting God take charge and shape our feelings. We set aside our own inner responses in order to pursue a larger picture.

A while ago we had an evening reading (we use this great book) which was about our anger. It talked about a situation that provoked a disciple to anger, and then pointed out that in similar situations in the past, the disciple had not been provoked to anger. What had changed was not the external circumstances, but the internal spiritual state of the disciple. In such a situation the Christian response is to thank the person for making us aware of our own internal spiritual disorder, and resolve to improve matters.

This is why we are to use the language of sin, which presumes a shared faith. It means that we can put aside our feelings – that great oceanic and abyssal chaos – and instead set our minds on things above, things which are good, true and beautiful. This is the way in which we cultivate the gifts of the spirit – of love, peace, gentleness, self-control and all the rest. It makes all the sense in the world to point out when someone has sinned against us – for really, with a right understanding of sin, you are pointing out where someone is stabbing themselves in the eye. The escalation to the wider community is not really about establishing matters of justice so much as about establishing the correct diagnosis of what has gone wrong. It is not about blame – for we are not to judge one another – but about healing and transformation. This is why those who reject the community’s judgement are to be ‘pagan and tax-collector’ – in other words, people who are no longer a part of the community. This is a matter of logic, not jurisprudence.

So if people reject the community, and they reject the theology and discernment of the community, then there is no longer a shared language with which to share a common life. To reject that judgement is to reject the faith. I think this is what is meant by ‘what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…’

A different place

Back from holiday, and feeling that, having been in one place, I have very much now travelled to a different one. Which is good. A handful of self-referential links:

My satnav and my God – this morning’s sermon, which was more joyfully received than usual :)

Honi Soit qui Mal y Pense – me on phone-hacking, and the triumph of prurience.

How do we fight for what we believe in? – a slightly more considered reflection on Breivik.

There might be something long and ruminative later this week. On holiday I was completely without screens, I couldn’t read books, I was with people that I loved and who loved me, and I had time to think and dream. It has done me the very world of good.