The Programme for Lent and Holy Week can be found by clicking here:
4/III/18 Lent 3 Ex 20:1-17, Jn 2:13-22
May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. AMEN.
What place does anger have in our life of faith? That’s a question which is raised in different ways by both of our readings this morning.
As part of a list of instructions to new Christians, the writer to the Ephesians says, ‘Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger’ [Eph 4:26]. What place does anger have in our life of faith? Is there such a thing as righteous anger? Is it possible to be angry without being led into sin?
Our first hymn [AMRW 563, v. 2] is one of the few which reflect Jesus’ anger, and it was good to sing it this morning:
Jesus Christ is raging,
Raging in the streets,
Where injustice spirals
And real hope retreats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I am angry too:
In the kingdom’s causes
Let me rage with you.
Let’s come at this slightly tangentially by looking at the media storm about revelations of sexual misconduct at Oxfam. There are at least two shocking aspects to this story.
The first, the less shocking of the two, is the discovery that Oxfam workers had been paying for sex in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. By calling it the ‘less shocking’ of the two, I’m not trying to undermine the awfulness of what happened, or to condone the actions of the aid workers who have done so much damage to individual Haitian people and to the reputation of Oxfam, but simply saying that we should not be surprised that in a large organisation which is helping about 18 million people in the poorest countries of the world each year, there will be a number of bad eggs [See Paul Vallely, CT, 23/II/18, p.15, for that number]. And the reason that we shouldn’t be surprised, is that we know, as God says to Cain, shortly before he murders Abel, that ‘sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it’ [Gen 4:7].
Sin lurks at the door – we know, as Christians, and those trying to explore the Christian journey, that sin is ever-present; that often, even when we’re trying to do good, sin creeps in. We do something nice for someone, and we can’t help just dropping little hints about how good we’ve been, so that others will know; we make a donation to charity, and come away with a smug feeling that we’ve done something good, when we’ve only given the price of a cup of coffee; and so on.
Because we know all this, one of the first things we do when we come to worship together each week is to acknowledge sin, both individual and corporate – we have confession and Absolution. And we need this each week, not just once a year! We acknowledge our sin, and the sin of the world, we receive forgiveness, and we move on to the rest of our worship. It is important to acknowledge our sins and failures to God, but that is not his last word to us. Yes, we are fallen sinners, but, more importantly, we are redeemed by God’s love in Christ. That is God’s last word on us!
Human beings have an infinite capacity for good, but also an infinite capacity or evil, and for self-deception. We’re very good at convincing ourselves that we’re doing something bad for good reasons.
All human beings, and all human organisations, are capable of sin – individually and corporately.
And so, although the Oxfam exposé is sad and shocking and makes unpleasant reading, we shouldn’t be surprised that sin has crept into even the most worthy of human institutions.
What I have found even more shocking is the way that some of the media, and some politicians, have used this scandal as a way of attacking Oxfam as a whole, and aid organisations in general.
When there is a sex scandal in Parliament, and goodness knows, we’ve had a few of those over the years, we don’t hear politicians saying that we should cut off all funds to the House of Commons until it has been sorted out. When there were extremely unpleasant revelations about the misuse of power for sex in the film industry, no one said that we should boycott all the cinemas and not watch any films on TV.
And yet, because of the regrettable actions of a small minority of Oxfam employees, people have been calling for a suspension of its funding, from Government and other donor organisations – the only effect of which will be to damage the lives of those 18 million people, living in unimaginable poverty, whom Oxfam helps each year.
The actions of a few are, in some quarters, being used to harm the interests of the many, often by those who question the whole basis of aid. There may be legitimate questions about the aid agencies, but they should be addressed honestly, and not via the back door of a scandal such as this.
Which brings me back to anger.
Very few of us will not be angry at some point – and many people carry large amounts of anger about with them all the time. What’s it for, and what do we do with it?
As Nicky points out on the front of this week’s Partners, Jesus’ ‘Cleansing of the Temple’, as it is usually called, appears in each of the Gospels. In the three Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, it appears as Jesus enters Jerusalem at the start of the last week of his life. In John’s Gospel, as we read this morning, it comes at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, immediately after his first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee.
That’s a very significant placing of the story. In the first chapter of John, we hear of John the Baptist, and his pointing to Jesus as the Lamb of God; and Jesus calls his first Disciples to him. And then, in John 2, Jesus is, in effect, called out by his mother, and turns the water into about 150 gallons of wine – that’s a lot of wine by anyone’s standards. And immediately after that, after the narrator comments that Jesus ‘Revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’ [Jn 2:11], he goes up to Jerusalem for the Passover, and his first action there is to drive out those selling the animals for sacrifice, and to turn over the tables of those exchanging normal everyday currency into Temple Money for the offerings. That must have caused quite a scene!
We know that Jesus was capable of enormous compassion. Here we see that he is also capable of anger – he shares the human condition with us, and he feels our anger and pain.
There is lots in the background of this story, about those making excess profit from selling the animals for sacrifice, and those changing money charging high rates of commission, and so on. I don’t think we can extrapolate from that that every financial transaction in a place of worship is always exploitative.
But Jesus obviously has a burning anger for justice. Unlike us so often, the things that made him angry were not things which impinged on his own self-interest, which trampled on his own feelings, or his own well-being. The things that made him angry were those which impinged on the poorest in society, on those on the margins, on women, children, lepers, outcasts, those mistreated by society, by the wider world.
There seems to be a righteous anger, which is directed at those things in the world which are against God’s will – as opposed to the infant-like anger we so often feel when we don’t get our own way, when the whole world seems stacked against us.
It does seem like there is a place for anger in our faith. But like every other aspect of our lives, sin can creep into our anger. ‘Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger’ [Eph 4:26], says the writer to the Ephesians. We should be angry at the injustices in the world, at the terrible things which happen to people, at earthquakes, and cancer, and people dying too young, and children suffering – all of these things and many more should provoke us to anger, to prayer, and to action. Our hearts should burn for righteousness, we should give to charity, use Fairtrade, try to make a difference. This is righteous anger.
Ann Lewin, whose material we are using in the Lent Groups at the moment, puts it like this, in her poem ‘Temple Cleansing [Watching for the Kingfisher, p. 103]:
I guess it’s not strange that when I read the two readings set for this evening, I thought, “I’ve spoken about all of this before”, the subject matter being faith.
A number of you here are roughly the age Abram was when God commanded him to up-sticks and move his family to a faraway land. For most people the age of 75 denotes a time to settle down, not to start on another new journey. I reckon if I had been Abram I might have decided to stay put. But he didn’t. For some reason he heard and he believed and he obeyed. And of course it didn’t stop there did it, not long after he and his equally aged wife were expecting a child – that must have been quite a shock.
The musings that follow are utterly mine and I don’t ask you to agree with any or all of them, some I have already voiced before.
To have faith in our society in this place is a very simple and straightforward thing to do. Yes some people might wonder why you come here and believe in someone you’ve never seen but the worst most people will think of you is that you are a bit strange. No one is going to come knocking on the door in the middle of the night and drag any of us away because we believe in God.
The attitude to faith, to Christianity, is quite benign in this country and in some ways I think that’s a real issue for us. Because if we come here, say nothing controversial and go about our lives without worrying others, we will be easily tolerated, because we can be easily ignored.
It is only when one of our leaders does something controversial that the non-Christian community pricks up its ears – the Archbishop makes a political point and is roundly told off, even though he is by right a member of the highest form of government in the land, or the Pope makes some amazing gesture which appeals to the media for a few days and then everything returns to normal.
So what place does faith have in our lives? Some people come to places like this out of curiosity, for some it’s little more than a comfortable habit, perhaps an escape from the world, for others the hour or more they spend it such places per week is a chance to meet with God, and for others it is a place they come to as part of a complete life built around the God they worship. Now I suspect we all fall into that spectrum somewhere and we have been in different places at times in our lives.
I probably shouldn’t pick on Gary, but he’s an easy target – suppose next Sunday you are all here and Gary says “God came to me in a dream overnight and he has told me that we all have to sell everything we have because we are going to start a new Christian mission in Middlesbrough. Do you believe Gary is a faithful servant of Christ? – I do, and then what if John or Kate came in and said “I’ve had the same dream” – what would we do, what would you do? Would you follow Gary’s lead believing he really did hear from God? It wasn’t just Abram who upped and left because he heard God – his whole family went as well.
Or suppose something happened akin to Len Deighton’s SS-GB whereby this country was invaded not by a Nazi regime but by a pagan regime that banned the practice of our faith? Would you go out there and stand up for it or would you decide that a quiet life which didn’t include meeting to worship God was the best option?
Of course we don’t know the answers to any of this until we are tested do we? And in my lifetime we certainly haven’t been tested.
So it begs the question, should we make something happen? We know our numbers in this country are in decline, but we still come here, so it must mean something to us. Are we going to fight for it or are we going to let it go to the grave a little more every time Mr Newman is called upon to despatch one of us? (For the sake of balance other funeral directors are available.)
Let’s list some issues; of course we don’t see so many because we live here but what about:
- Knife crime;
- Deep seated poverty;
And the things we do see
- Families ripped apart
- The health service teetering on the brink.
Are these issues ones which we should be actively involved in trying to resolve because we have a faith in God who tells us to love everyone? Is that part of our faith, or is our faith limited only to praying for the world. Don’t get me wrong, prayer is a very powerful thing and a huge part of what we are, but we only have to look at Jesus’s own life to see that prayer was just one side of the coin – did he only pray for Zacchaeus? Did he only pray for the Samaritan woman at the well? No he didn’t – he got involved, he got his hands dirty in both cases and many more. He intervened. Neither of them were a massive threat to him or to those around, he could have let both incidents go, but he chose not to because he felt compelled to help those people live a different life. What about us?
In case you think I’m building up to a big ending with a blindingly obvious answer, I’m sorry I’m not. It’s easy to stand here and spout at you all. Some may go home and say, “well there he was, ranting again, never mind it’s Rachel next week”, some might email Gary and say “can’t you change his tune or ask him to keep his thoughts to himself” and others may go home and switch on “Call the Midwife” and forget everything I said. My point though is this – I don’t know any more than any of you what we should do, but I guess that’s at the heart of it – our faith drives us individually. God talks to us all in different ways and for different reasons and it is up to us to answer that call in whatever way we decide is the right one. Some of us might get an extra nudge like Jonah – “try running away from me and I’ll keep after you Jonah” says God and Jonah finally gets the message, but in my experience, in this age, he puts few of us to such a severe test.
Due to the way my diary has worked out, I have written this several weeks before I shall deliver it, and before the P.C.C. meets to deliberate on what our response in faith is to the gift of the Lillington legacy. For me it’s not about how it is spent, but what we have decided our purpose is here in this place at this time. Let me reiterate my earlier warning before I finish – this is just my opinion and is one of many, but if all we do with that money is to keep this place in tip-top order, beautiful though it is, then for me we will have wasted a massive opportunity to be faithful. If however we spend that same money doing something to this place which is based on welcoming others to us, looking after them, responding to their needs, allowing us to go out to them in Jesus’s name, well, that’s a very different matter.
Abram stepped out in faith and was richly rewarded in due course, but he had to take that first step into the unknown. Do we have that faith?
Being a servant isn’t as common now as it used to be. When my father was young, just about 100 years ago, being in service was common, whether it be at a big house or as the person who “did” for the doctor or some other local professional or business person. One of my aunts was a housekeeper for a doctor in a small seaside town called Sutton-on-Sea in Lincolnshire, and because of that I have been a part of a Scripture Union beach mission since I was eleven. One of my uncles was a butler and in the second war he became the personal valet to a general, neither ever leaving the U.K, and it appears from his postcards to his mother, they spent much time roughing it in the castles of Scotland.
But being “in service” is much less usual now although there are still people who have enough wealth to employ housekeepers and gardeners. Being a servant implies that you are not free – perhaps the situation isn’t quite as bad as being a slave but the servant’s time is very much dictated by their employer. Both Hudson and Carson of Upstairs, Downstairs and of Downton fame, may have been master of all those below stairs but both still had to jump even when the lowliest member of upstairs told them to.
But notice in the reading that Jesus refers to all of his true followers as servants – “whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it”. He might mean the actual loss of life but I think he also means giving up living your life for your own benefit – become my servant, live your life according to my wishes and you will prosper, you will be more satisfied and fulfilled.
What do we think about that? How do you live your life – do you live it for yourself or for Jesus? When I was in my teens Margaret Thatcher came to power. I was living in the town which had been her home – Grantham, and my mother-in-law went to school with Margaret Roberts, as she was then. My mother-in-law, Mary, seldom has a harsh word about anyone but she reserved a few for Margaret Roberts, who clearly she didn’t take to. Mrs Thatcher and her lieutenants were very keen to make us all responsible for ourselves, “get on your bike” as Mr Tebbit once put it – their philosophy, it seemed to me, was all about “me, me, me” and not society or community.
I’m reading a book about rural ministry at the moment and the book suggests that many people who attend church are more likely to volunteer elsewhere in society than those who do not have a faith. That’s not to say volunteers only come from Christian or faith backgrounds, but it is a more prevalent activity amongst people of faith than of the whole population. Is that surprising to us then if we are already servants of God?
Of course it’s easy to sign up to as long as it doesn’t affect your life unduly. We might get some satisfaction out of cooking for the luncheon club or volunteering at the food bank but just suppose a real change is brought to bear – what then?
I’m preaching at evensong in St Mary’s Fordingbridge this evening, a sermon I wrote before I was asked if I could come to be with you today and it’s about faith and believing. In it I have said this – do you believe that Gary our vicar is a person of faith – I’m guessing you do. So suppose next week he stands here and says, “I’ve had a message from God – we are all to sell everything and we as a congregation are to move to Middlesbrough and start a new mission church.” In the congregation are two more clergy who volunteer to work in our patch and they stand up and say “I had that message too”. My question to my congregation tonight is – what are you going to do? Will you go home and accept that God has spoken and that you are servants of his and sell up, or will you come up with a million reasons why you can’t do it a bit like the excuses Jesus encountered from some of those he asked to follow him?
I guess most people would accept your reasons for not going as being perfectly valid but if that really is the test of being a true follower, carrying your own cross – could you – could I really do it?
It doesn’t surprise me that our numbers have dwindled over recent decades, because the Church hasn’t seemed very relevant to wider society, the church hasn’t engaged. I generalise of course. In some inner cities the Church is the one place that has cared for the least and the lost but even then it doesn’t often result in a full church on Sunday. But in recent years things have changed. Take the rise of the foodbank for example. I should declare here and now that until 2 weeks ago I was the interim CEO of the Trussell Trust which supports 430 foodbanks across the UK. Every one of that 430 was started by a group of churches – it was a response from the Christian community to the poverty of so many of our fellow citizens. To be fair the momentum came from the free churches first and especially the majority black churches but gradually even we, the good old CofE caught up. Is the need for foodbanks a good thing – clearly not, but the fact is they are needed and the bigger fact is, it was the Christian population of this country which stood up and did something about it, in service to those who needed that help, free, without charge, without any form of response. That’s why we have a health service and an education system because it was all started by people of faith who understood the need to serve others.
So like or hate foodbanks – the Christian community is now relevant to society at large again – we aren’t just preachers, we are doers and many who volunteer in such places feel a real sense of worth as a result.
Which brings me to one of my favourite passages from the bible in the book of James, chapter two. The writer says – if you go to church every week, even every day, and praise God, and then you walk out of here, see someone in trouble and simply wish them well and walk on, then you might just as well have not been to church at all. He is clear that whilst we must worship God, we must also serve him and we do so by serving those around us – let me finish with another passage from Matthew – so Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, naked or in prison – and the Lord replied, whatever you did for one of these sisters and brothers you did for me.
“If anyone wants to come with me”, he told them, “he must forget self, carry his cross, and follow me”. Amen.