Christianity and Politics don’t mix! How many times have we heard this? The Church is like the Tory Party at prayer, I have heard said! The theme of this morning’s sermon is clearly a contentious one. If you have brick bats please may I have them at the end of the service where I will be happy to take them one by one.
I wonder have you ever considered the history which led to your presence here this morning. I want to briefly highlight two. The first regards the Roman Emperor Constantine who in the 4th century effectively rescued the Christian Church from the clutches of persecution and secrecy. Up to this point the church had been the church of the poor and marginalised and had met in the Catacombs. Here was the action of a powerful political leader who promoted Christians to high office, built churches and basilicas and offered reduced taxes to the clergy-brought Christianity out into the open. He instigated the Edict of Milan which led in its turn to the Council of Nicea from whence we receive the Nicene Creed.
The second person of huge political influence was Henry 8th. In an attempt to continue an unbridled life of chasing women he severed links with the Pope and the Catholic Church and created in effect the current Church of England whilst claiming to be its spiritual head. Church becomes wedded to state with all the status and power this brings. I guess we see this clearly as our senior bishops take their places in House of Lords.
Christianity and Politics is a heady mix and a complex relationship. Let’s start with the Bible. In the Old Testament we have a special kind of history we call salvation history; we have stories of how kings, judges, national leaders and prophets encountered their God in the development of the nation of Israel. We hear how the prophets especially stood up for social justice and moral judgements and the lives of the poor, oppressed and marginalised were championed against the might of powerful kings and aggressors.
Moses champions his people in the face of the Egyptian oppressors. We hear Moses and Aaron withdrawing their labour in making bricks for the Egyptians,
“But the King of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron why are taking the people away from their work?’
In other words Moses and Aaron called a strike in refusing to make bricks for the Egyptians.
“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” (Jeremiah 22:13).
“He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plow-shares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4).
The constant theme of the prophets is of God who looks favourably upon the weak and the powerless and desires peace, in the face of those who would use their power over others. Following the example of the prophets Jesus of Nazareth engages with the powerless of his day, women, gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes and the poor-all of whom, in the political and social environment of first century Palestine, were fully paid up members of the ‘marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed’. Jesus was quick to point out the hypocrisy of those who thought and acted as religious and political elites of his time. In his lament over Jerusalem which we heard read this morning, Jesus reminds the Jews of the role of the prophets, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones who are sent to it!”
What should be the response of the disciple of Jesus in today’s world to the complex and far reaching political issues of our day? There is no one right answer. Each must weigh up the issues involved alongside their revealed faith. Let us briefly look at some principles arising from the gospel.
First. What do we make of economic self-interest?; the Protestant work ethic?; the accumulation of private wealth? We have the troubling parable of the camel passing through the eye of a needle and we have the parable of those who work to produce a harvest in the vineyard and their reward-both speaking for a balance between the rights of capital and labour based on mutual respect and legal protection. How is this working out in the UK today? Is the ‘minimum wage’ fair? Is it possible to live on the ‘living wage’? What is the responsibility of a Christian employer? If the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, do we remain passive bystanders or do we make our views known to government? Are the banks and the great multinational companies exercising their power fairly? Anyone who imposes power then has to maintain their position with more imposed power.
Second. We are daily bombarded by images of war on our TV screens. What is the Christian view of violence carried out by the state against other nations? All human life is sacred. When is it or is it ever just to meet out violence against another? I think a reading of the gospels would indicate Jesus as a man on non-violence. The power Jesus talks and lives is a power which is patient and transforms lives from the inside. The problem with a nation imposing their will on another nation by coercion, punishment, threat, money or any other external force is that it leaves a legacy for another generation to clear up. It is certainly efficient and often quick.
Third. How Christian is nationalism? This issue was highlighted this week in the mild spat between Donald Trump and the Pope. The Pope pointed out he thought Donald Trump could not be espousing Christian principles if he wants to build a wall between Mexico and the rest of the US. The mission of Jesus certainly was totally inclusive of all races and peoples, and sought to pull down barriers which divided people from one another. Those who would support the UK’s removal from Europe certainly seem keen on pulling up the drawbridge on arrivals from Europe unless you are rich. Probably there is no doubt that the UK does need a new deal with its membership with Europe, but not at the expense of us becoming an imperial island seeking to assert its dominance over other less well off than our nation.
These are but a few complex questions. I believe it is our responsibility as Christian individuals and as a Church to pray about, reflect, debate and participate in political action which supports the powerless and weak, promotes the peace and well being of all humanity, and seeks to establish Kingdom values seen in the face of the person of Jesus Christ.
What do the following have in common -connections, sequences, connecting wall and missing vowels? Yes, they are part of BBC 4’s quiz programme ‘Only Connect’ compeered by Victoria Creswell. Teams are pitted against one another to find connections from various clues. The name of the programme is related to a famous saying by the 19th century author E. M. Forster from his book ‘Howard’s End’. He wrote,
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect!”
That is my question this morning. What is the connection between the Lenten Season (started on Ash Wednesday), St. Valentine’s Day (which is today, 14 February), and the theme for the today’s sermon in Lent which is Christianity and the Environment?
The clue to the answer was staring me in the face very loudly. It is LOVE! It is not a surprise I guess, when we think a little bit deeper about our three clues. Those of you who have read the front of Partners will have had a précis of what I am going to say, so if you wish to have a snooze, now is your moment, but please don’t snore!
I want to suggest that a constant theme between all our clues is being connected by love or in a relationship of love and what might that mean in our daily living. Traditionally Lent is a time when we might give a little more time to reflect on the meaning of our Christian vocation. The title of this year’s Lent Course is called ‘What’s the point in being a Christian?’ I want to suggest that the starting point for our reflection is how I connect with God who lives within me and outside of me in his world. The divine love lives within us as Spirit and in our moments of prayer, meditation and contemplation we seek to be at one with this divine love-to renew our connection with the source of all loving and compassion. The Mother Julian of Norwich was able to say, ‘Love was his meaning’. But how we become distracted! The gospel narrative this morning from Luke’s gospel tells in graphic poetic form that experience of wilderness within us when we lose that connection with the Spirit of divine love within us-unable to establish communion, feeling isolated and abandoned. As Harry Williams writes, ‘To love is to give. To give is to be. To be is to find yourself in communion with all about you. And this communion is glory. Christ’s glory and yours’. We press on in our many Lents knowing that love and glory awaits those who love God.
Pope Francis in his Environment Encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ stems from his belief that ‘everything is connected by love’. At the heart of the mighty act of creation there is a resounding shout of love which connects us to God, to each other, to ourselves and to God’s creation in all its glory. Maybe that is the point of us being here-to love and be loved-that is all that matters. All the rest flows from this mighty act of loving.
The scientists create for us a picture of ecological systems and networks of molecules and atoms between plants and animals. We cannot consider the environment in isolation. We are intrinsically bound up with nature and nature with us. Pollution of our planet, for example, is as much a social, economic and political problem, as it is environmental. Therefore any solutions must include consideration of all the factors affecting the environment. Climate change is but one factor in whole changing nature of the planet.
Bishop John Taylor once called our attitude to consumerism as like ‘a child’s spoilt nursery’ where we play momentarily with a product, discard it and move on to the next new one. Our TV screens constantly sell us the lie that more goods mean a richer life.
Last week I watched the story of Joshua, a seventy year old man who lives on the rich island of Madagascar. For years as a young man to survive he hunted and killed the lemur monkey for meat. Gradually the forest trees were used for timber and the lemur became stranded from their habitat and eco system. Now in his seventies he shares in the Joshua Project seeking to preserve the endangered species of lemur from hunters, and to help restore the natural habitat. All are connected.
As Christians Pope Francis calls upon the church to involve itself in this environmental enterprise. Out of love for love God creates and continues to be co-creator in the world. Humankind is constantly tempted to exploit and spoil the creation simply for its own selfish consumption. This is for us spiritual journey. Those first words from the reading from Deuteronomy spell out the essence of the intention of the Creator, ‘When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance……..’ (26:1). Our planet earth, is a gift to be treasured. It is a place where all belong. It is a place held together by the mystery of God in his great love for us. Again and again we must ask ourselves the question, ‘What is the purpose of our life in the world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? How are we exercising our responsibility to pass on this gift to generations to come?
Pray, give thanks, reduce your carbon footprint, hold governments to account, alleviate poverty, move investments to a zero-carbon portfolio, examine the values of trade agreements, hold our government to account for increased overseas aid, deepen the links with places like Kinchesi-nine suggestions for action made by Bishop David Atkinson and Ian Christie (Church Times article 2016).
Finally and briefly we celebrate St. Valentine a 5th century Roman priest defending the values of Christianity in the face of persecution. He reminds us that if we will love, then it is costly. 100,000 Christians are persecuted and killed annually. How many more of other faiths and none? For all of us belong to each other. Bonheoffer, the German Pastor reminds us that to be a Christian is the preparedness to share in the world’s sufferings for love’s sake after the manner of Jesus. For us also it holds a romantic connotation. In a moment we shall share the joy of Christine and Graham Fry in a blessing for 50 years of married life.
Love connects all, sustains all for as the Mother Julian reminds us ‘Love is his meaning.
“Daddy! Mummy! Grandad! Granny! Lift me up! I want to see!” Those of us who have any contact with children will know the situation in which there is something or someone which the young child cannot see because they are too small or pointing in the wrong direction. The desire is not to miss, to have a glimpse of whatever is to be seen.
After Easter, I shall be travelling yet again on the motorway from the airport close to the lovely city of Pisa in Italy on the way to my little hill house in Liguria. I am aware that I am always excited to get a glimpse of the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, which you can see only intermittently from the motorway because of the trees which hide it from view.
The story which formed the gospel reading for today is a well known story told by Luke of the Transfiguration of Christ on a mountainside. Peter, James and John, three close friends and disciples of Jesus are led by him to a mountain. And the gospel writer tells us the Jesus ‘was transfigured before them’-his face shone and his garments became white as light. Those three disciples are granted but a glimpse of Jesus as someone who points us to the mystery of the Universe we call God. They report that Jesus is seen speaking with two great Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Moses, both of whom are seen as archetypes of the coming Messiah, the liberator, the redeemer man.
It is interesting to note that it is the same three that Jesus takes with him into the garden of Gethsemane before his suffering and death at Calvary’s hill. St. Luke wants us to see these two events, Transfiguration and Crucifixion, are linked.
The three hear a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son, with who I am well pleased. Listen to him’.
Something extraordinary is happening. We are confronted with the nature of mystery. Something deeply personal and significant is happening. It is like a miracle – what is an ordinary situation ‘comes alive’, ‘the light dawns’, ‘the penny drops’. In this story of transfiguration Luke is telling us that God is profoundly disclosed to his three friends in a way which gives them a glimpse of Jesus as being the embodiment of the mystery we call God, ‘the depth of our being’, ‘the beyond in the midst’. And this mystery is not an excuse for not being able to say what is happening in a scientific way. Our belief in God is not a belief in what Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ fame calls ‘the God of the Gaps’-some experience that science cannot account for. For what the gospel writer is telling us is something about the profound nature of God, the Ground of all our being. The disciples could only but fall down in awe and wonder at this disclosure. This man Jesus is also God incarnate who in this story is prefigured as the liberator and redeemer who will suffer and die and be raised to life for all humanity.
Peter, who can never keep his mouth shut, blurts out, ‘Master it is good that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’ – such was the depth of his experience of this mystery. The gospel writer tells us that dear old Peter and the other two disciples do not understand what is happening, and in his impetuous way wants to capture forever this moment of bliss. They had not grasped that there will be no glory without the cross. Alas, God’s mystery cannot be captured, he can only be glimpsed- and then?
How many times have you wanted to capture a moment of your experience? Maybe it was a glorious sunset or landscape view, a child’s innocent but deeply meaningful comment, a moment of intimacy between individuals. We are a generation of photographers and video camera especially on our mobile phones, enthusiasts in our desire to capture moments. It’s a bit like viewing pictures in an art gallery. We are captured by a truth momentarily, and then when we look at the painting a second time our experience is different, maybe not so intense. I remember particularly a reading of the poem ‘God’s Grandeur’ of Gerard Manley Hopkins by Dame Judi Dench. She was so breathtaking in the way she read the poem. We are granted a glimpse, a deeply personal experience, an awareness that life is greater than the sum total of what we can see, feel and touch. We penetrate the mystery of life momentarily.
For some, God is disclosed in the most unlikely of places and moments. The late Bishop Ian Ramsey tells the story of his friend who is profoundly moved at the fish and chip shop – it is something about the smell, the order of frying and serving, the buzz of conversation- a unity and order that compells his friend to say ‘yes to God’.
Peter, James and John are too granted but a glimpse of the glory of God embodied in the man Jesus.
The story that follows the Transfiguration Luke is another deeply personal story of an epileptic boy who was healed by Jesus, the disciples having failed in all their attempts to heal him. He paints the picture for us of glory on the mountainside to suffering in the valley-maybe a reminder no glory without the cross.
So what is the significance of this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus? It doesn’t matter quite how it happened. It is an epiphany story. It is a disclosure story. It is told for us to grasp that Jesus, Son of Man, the man for others is none other than the Eternal Word made flesh, God. Also, it is told for us to understand that this same Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God is destined to suffer and to die and to be raised to life. The voice from heaven declaring him to be ‘My Son’ echoes that from his baptism in the Jordan.
The challenge the gospel writer presents to us is the same as that for Peter and his friends – can we be content with glimpses of the divine nature in life and trust that life will provide for us all that we need for daily living? Or shall we pester and live our lives with the pursuit of an unquestioning certainty as a result of which we may miss further glimpses of the divine in the midst of life?
How do Christianity and politics relate? How should Christians be involved in politics? A few thoughts on our engagement with the world around us.
You can read the sermon here: Sermon-Christians & Politics – Gary Philbrick, February 2016
If you’d like to read the Bishops’ Letter I refer to, you can find it here:
WHO IS MY NEIGHBOUR? – April 2015
Life with the Stars. “Gigs, Giggles and Gossip“. An audience with Rosemary Squires, the Big Band singer who has shared Top of the Bill on both sides of the Atlantic with such performers as Danny Kaye, Sammy Davis Jnr. , Cliff Richard and at the London Paladium she shared Top of the Bill with Ken Dodd.,It will be an amusing anecdotal chat recalling the golden years of song. Sandleheath Church, 4th March at 7.30pm. Tickets £5.00 at the Church , Sandleheath Shop, and Caxton Decor Fordingbridge. This is truly a big event for our church and we hope that as many as possible will attend . The proceeds will go toward the Ceiling Projector Fund.