Saturday, 30 April 2011

Being a 'biblical' Christian?


I've been reading Rachel Held Evans - her blog article on 'Discussing the Bible: Seven Rules of Engagement' from which I wantonly pinched the opening cartoon.  Think she has some very sound words and it looks like the beginning of a good conversation....

Something that drives me quietly nuts is the term 'bible believing Christian'.  Or, perhaps, more to the point, the misuse of that term.
Perhaps the key word in the phrase is 'believing' - and the inference from the term that there is only one way by which belief, or understanding, of scripture can be held... and that 'truth' is something that is limited to literalism.
I believe truth is much broader than that which can merely be put in a bottle and measured... truth is more than just 'fact'.
The move [in some quarters, not all] to a literalist interpretation of scripture is a child of the post-Enlightenment - born from a need to somehow 'prove' one's faith via the medium of fact.  This seems to me to be an oxymoron, particularly if one takes note of Hebrews 11: 1 on the nature of faith - faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

For what it's worth, my own understanding of the bible is that it is an amazing collection of inspired, God-breathed books.
Each book having its own integrity, each written in distinctly different genres - from poetry, to history, to legalities, to ritual -
each written at different times, in different circumstances, in different places, and for differing audiences...
yet all, somehow connected by an understanding that as a gathered collection, they reveal a story of an ongoing, always developing relationship both vertically and horizontally.
Vertically, as in the relationship between God and human beings and vice versa;
horizontally as in relationships of all kinds between human beings - from the way we conduct our business relationships, to the way we conduct friendships, to the way we conduct our romantic and sexual relationships. 

The Church of Scotland in 'The Articles Declaratory' - the constitutional bits stating who we are, and what we're about - states in Article One that it 'receives the Word of God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as its supreme rule of faith and life'.  I think the wording of the statement very wise: it does not go into a debate about whether one is to believe literally or otherwise.  God's Word is contained in the scriptures... and I wonder, by going down a solidly literalist hermeneutic, is there an attempt to try to pin God down - to contain God in the scriptures?  And does this lead to a kind of 'bibliolatry': a pocket-sized bible becoming 'God in my pocket'?  The bible being used as a weapon to proof-text folk into submission to what might just be a cultural understanding of how to interpret scripture?
And are we all, whether literalist or other, as guilty as each other for perhaps taking a 'pick and mix' approach to scripture as and when it suits our arguments?
I think big dollops of wisdom, humility, openness to listening, and kindness are probably in order, as opposed to beating each other over the head with the bible.
And even as I write this, I'm very conscious of feeling that I have trashed the viewpoint of someone who may be inclined to a more literal viewpoint re. scripture.  If so, God save me from a 'my way or the highway' approach... help me engage in constructive conversations, help me keep listening, and help me avoid the temptation to place labels all over people.  As someone once said: 'labels are for jars, not people'. 
At any rate, I'll be fascinated to see how the conversation develops...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

'migrant workers'

I suspect that this post is one to file under 'statin' the bleedin' obvious' category however, stemming from a conversation with current supervisor, it has bubbled up as one of those things to go 'ah, yes, hmm, think about at some point' for me - perceptions 'n suchlike, and so, I'll blog it anyway...




'Migrant workers': it's been the phrase that is usually followed in the tabloid headline by ...
'undercut our jobs/
destroy our economy/
get 'em out',
and other such scaremongering words.  It's been handy fear fodder for both the previous Labour government, and the current ConDem pact of horror.  And it does seem to be a battle about perception.
Being away from the UK has provided a little food for thought already on how we perceive others, and how we perceive ourselves.  I google-imaged the term 'migrant workers' and was met with row upon row of pictures of non-white, impoverished looking people - refugees, illegal immigrants: popular stereotypes.
But ... I'm a migrant worker.
I just hadn't thought of myself as such!

Apparently, here in Geneva, 1/3 of the population is made up of foreign/or migrant workers: from huge multinationals and NGO's, all the way through to illegal folk, hoping for a better life, but who have fallen through the cracks in the system.  So perhaps a case in point, again, of the dangers of assumptions and painting labels with wide brushes.
In the context in which I'm currently working here, the church is mostly - not entirely as there are some Swiss - comprised of non-native Swiss... thus, mostly 'migrant workers'... and this makes for a fascinating dynamic.  The congregation has a core of longer term folk, but also has a high proportion of folk on the move - on one/ two/ three year contracts.

With so much movement, one of the questions I'm beginning to reflect on is how this affects a congregation - relationally, spiritually, liturgically?  Does it make a congregation opt to stay with a more traditional form of worship or does it mean that changes can occur without too much turmoil?
Here in Geneva, I think perhaps, a little of both.  Given that the congregation is not just made up of Scottish Presbyterians, but a wider spectrum, a more traditional format is at least something that provides familiarity: it can be recognised from Church of Scotland, to PCUSA, to Uniting Church of Australia, etc. In this context, it provides a helpful structure, I suspect.  From a community point of view I guess the challenge is to 'plug' the new folks into the existing community as quickly as possible, given time factors, but also not to make them feel 'pounced on'.
[Oh dear, now I have an image in my head of zombie apocalypse and the words 'fresh meat' being uttered... not quite what I actually had in mind!!!!  Pesky zombies do crop up at inconvenient moments in my reflection process - what would Jung say, I wonder?  Note to self: Geneva is not a zombie apocalypse!!!]
One of the church groups I've been involved with the most has been the woman's group.  It's excellently run: a good and varied programme as well as being an incredibly welcoming bunch.  Very good sense of folk belonging and feeling supported... finding community, friendship, fun, spiritual nurture.  I've been really impressed by the hard work of the organisers to keep the thing not only running, but fresh and lively.

As an aside... re churches and migration:
Further afield in the Presbytery of Europe...
Malta has seen a large influx of Libyans, due to the current unrest as the Gadaffi regime clings to power in the face of protest.  As a response to this, the Church of Scotland has set up a project to provide aid to those seeking refuge from the conflict.

In the end, though, I am brought back to thinking that all of us are strangers in a strange land: exiles for a time, here on earth, searching for that heavenly kingdom where all are citizens, all are welcome, all belong.  A vast multitude bound together in and through and by the love of God.  And also, thoughts return once more to Augustine and my favourite quote: 'our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you'. I never tire of that one - it goes deep!

And a tangent to end:
It is also a very odd feeling - I can't believe how quickly this month in Geneva has gone.  It seems no time at all since I arrived and suddenly it is time to think about returning back the the 'burgh.  Last day is Wednesday.  I will miss the people and the place - we have bonded very quickly and it has been a superb experience.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Yr A Palm Sunday sermon: the whole city was in turmoil

Sermon for Palm Sunday, in the Auditoire Calvin, Geneva...

texts: Matt. 21:1-11; Philip 2: 5-11

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, o Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘who is this?’
Some said ‘Jesus’,
Others said ‘the carpenter’s son’ –
or, ‘the Nazarene’,
One joked and said:
‘Can anything good actually come from Nazareth?’
There were grins at that.
Crowds lined the cloak-strewn streets
A crushing, jostling mass of people,
Waving palm branches in the shimmering heat,
Shouting ‘hosanna, hosanna!’
As he rode in.

The whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘who is this?’
Some called him ‘prophet’
Others said ‘the new Elijah’
I didn’t know what to think:
Couldn’t quite pin him down.
Something seemed odd
Out of place.

In amidst the crowds, the palms
the heat and noise and excitement –
the weight of the crowd’s expectations –
in amidst it all,
he seemed strangely alone
a solitary man...
calmly riding into town for the passover,
listening to the roar of hosannas.
‘Hosanna, hosanna!’

I watched him, this man whose friends called him ‘teacher, rabbi’
And who even now, followed him along the processional route,
laughing,
joining in the cheers,
the excitement,
caught up in the moment
some of them singing the age old holy songs –
pilgrim songs of journeying to the temple to worship the Lord...
Their songs and cries mingling with the crowd:
‘hosanna, hosanna, hosanna!’

It was a crazy, busy, crowded time –
People thronging to the city carrying doves,
Tripping over stray animals
Being charged extortionate prices by the street vendors hawking dodgy looking meat,
or selling old vinegary wine warmed by the heat of the sun.
First-time pilgrims from the back of beyond
gawped in awe at the city,
suddenly stopping without warning
to have a closer look at this building,
or that market stall,
slowly plodding along the streets enjoying the atmosphere,
or anxiously hurrying, looking for a place to stay.

The whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘who is this?’
Some said ‘deliverer’.
Several shouted ‘healer – heal us!’
Some said ‘madman’
Some said ‘messiah’...
I ...held my tongue,
Listening to the cries:
‘hosanna, hosanna!
Watching the man who bore the weight of the crowd’s expectations.
Watching, as he rode in on a donkey.
A messiah...
On a donkey?

In the time of my grandfather’s grandfather
Another deliverer rode into Jerusalem
Palm branches waved
Cloaks covered the road...
Cheers sounded
Deliverance, victory, hung in the air:
Judas Maccabeus –
Judas ‘the hammer’ –
Rescuer of his people
Restorer of the temple...
But, he died,
And after an all too brief independence,
another empire filled the power vacuum.
Although free to worship
We were once again under the yoke of the oppressor.

Was it to lead us in an uprising against the Romans
that Jesus came to Jerusalem?
But what kind of uprising...?
The conquering hero,
the mighty longed-for,
hoped-for liberator
not riding proudly in to town on a horse dressed for battle,
but riding in, humbly, on a donkey.
It was an odd symbolism
A strange mis-match
Unexpected
And quietly challenging our assumptions.
‘Hosanna, hosannah!’
‘Free us! Save us!’

Save us from what?
Ourselves,
burdened with a vast storehouse of needs....?
Needing healing of body, mind and soul;
Needing hope to replace despair;
Needing a renewal of spirit;
Needing to rise up and be freed from corrupt puppet kings
propped up by foreign occupying powers? ...
Needing to mould and make this man conform to what we wanted him to be?...

The whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘who is this?’
I wasn’t sure who he was
Or what to call him
How to label him...
But it seemed to me he already had enough labels to last beyond any one person’s lifetime –
Already had enough to carry along that road:
The hopes
The needs
The agendas.
And so, I remained silent, in the midst of it all
watching him pass by,
wondering,
waiting to see what might come of it all....
wondering if the salvation he offered was actually the salvation being expressed by the crowds –
the salvation they wanted.
‘Hosanna, hosanna!’
And he was gone... ... ...

In Jerusalem, so long ago, at the time of the Passover,
the whole city had been in turmoil, asking ‘who is this?’
But underneath the buzz,
behind the festive atmosphere
was a society splitting and fracturing,
ill at ease;
simultaneously colluding with its enemy
whilst surreptitiously stabbing them in the back.
Political factions,
Religious factions,
And people just trying to get on with their lives...
And it was into this particularly volatile mix that Jesus rode ...
A place where people jostled for position, prestige and power, whatever the cost.
He had already managed to offend the religious sensibilities of the Pharisees,
with his unfortunate habit of healing people on the Sabbath,
his seeming lack of concern for purity laws;
talking to the untouchable – the outcasts:
lepers, tax collectors
giving honour to the disregarded:
women, children, Samaritans.

As his popularity grew, and crowds listened to him, he was also becoming a concern for the political power brokers of the day.
Was he yet another rabble-rousing rebel intent on bringing down the system?
As the self-interest of both the pious and the politicians began to merge together,
and the wheels of political machinations began to turn,
was it really such a surprise when the cheers turned to jeers,
when joyful shouts of ‘hosanna!’
became angry cries of ‘crucify him!’
The whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘who is this?’
And wondered what to do about this man in their midst. ... ... ...

Our whole world is in turmoil:
earthquakes rocking the very foundations of the planet;
waves washing people, towns and villages away.
People crying out to be saved:
to be liberated from the oppression of tyrants –
attempting to bring down governments.
And people, clinging onto power regardless of cost.
A world of banks collapsing, financial downturns, government cutbacks, job losses –
People crying out for security in the midst of instability;
People calling out for justice in the face of injustice;
And for fairness in the face of corruption.

Our whole world is in turmoil and perhaps in the midst of it all, we too wonder who Jesus is...
And how a man, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey 2 000 years ago could possibly have any relevance to where we are now;
how this man could possibly have anything useful to tell us about the politics of power,
or of where true security might be found?

And yet...
The very act of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a war-horse,
was a rebuke against a ‘might is right’ mentality –
a reminder that power in and of itself is not bad, but that rather, the way in which we choose to use our power can have disastrous consequences: on the planet, on other people.

Riding into town on a donkey was a subversive act that turned the definition of power onto its head: the all-powerful creator of the universe demonstrating that true power is to be found in service:
Service to God, and to others –
a power that has at its heart utter vulnerability –
That powerful vulnerability seen in the incarnation:
Of God made human:
emptying himself:
Becoming a tiny scrap of human flesh born in a stable,
dependent upon the hospitality of the human heart to take him in...
Of God, made human:
challenging the power-brokers of his time by emptying himself upon a cross
and overturning the horror and power of death in the process.

Our whole world is in turmoil:
and into this broken, messy hurting world
Jesus rides still...
for, all who follow him are his body.
The sixteenth century mystic, Teresa of Avila,
put it best by noting:
Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
no hands but ours,
no feet but ours,
ours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
ours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
ours are the hands with which he is to bless all now.

As Christ’s hands, feet, and body,
We are called to challenge systemic structures of sin and injustice – be it political, financial, or ecclesial;
As Christ’s hands, feet, and body,
We are called to be his compassionate community of care...
being at the margins with those dehumanised by the system
standing with the voiceless, the disregarded. The overlooked.
It’s easy to follow Jesus when we simply make him into the person we want to follow.
To mould him to fit around us,
around our needs,
around our expectations.
It‘s a different prospect,
a much harder task,
to follow the one who rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey moving steadily towards his death –
a much more frightening task to empty ourselves of our own definitions of power and allow ourselves to be powerfully and utterly vulnerable…
but we don’t do it alone –
we follow the one on the donkey,
we walk the same path as those who have followed him down through the winding years –
a holy company of pilgrims bound together in and through and by his love,
committed to sharing that love with others.

The whole city was in turmoil, asking ‘who is this?’
Our whole world is in turmoil…
And in the midst of it all…
Who do we say Jesus is…
And what impact will that make on our lives,
the lives of others,
And the life of the world? Amen.