Head above the Parapet

head above parapetIt’s not easy to put your head above a parapet: there is a risk of being shot and wounded.

I know that if I had been in the trenches in the war I’d probably have hidden away in a corner. I’m not brave. I like to be agreeable and I like to be liked: it can be a strength at times and a weakness as well. I worked out very early on in school that being on the outside of a group is horrible and lonely and so I made sure to fit it, to agree with the majority, and to keep my head down in arguments.

But now I feel that I need to stand up, lift my head up and be braver: a belated new year’s resolution perhaps?

For as long as I can remember the church that I belong to and love has been discussing and debating whether or not LGBTI people can be fully accepted into the family of God, and whether their relationships can be fully acknowledged and blessed. This debate has been trundling on for years and just as we seem to be at the stage where just as we are beginning to listen to one another and be getting somewhere, we then seem to take enormous steps back and hurt each other once again.

The Bishops of the Oxford Diocese wrote a measured, loving and pastoral letter to all 1,500 ministers of our Church in October: you can read the letter here. It called for an attitude of inclusion and respect towards LGBTI people whilst further discussions take place; it recognised that many LGBTI men and women are priests working hard to further the Kingdom of God in their churches and communities, and that we are all part of the same family; and it called for us to be ‘clothed with compassion’ in the way in which we conduct ourselves. It seemed to be one giant step forward.

And so yesterday we read a letter signed by 104 mainly evangelical church leaders which seems to take us right back to the beginning again. You can read it here.

There are three things I want to say about this letter which have moved me to say something.

Firstly, the language is overly inflammatory and dramatic: they are ‘dismayed’, ‘disturbed’, ‘concerned’, the situation is ‘serious’ and ‘a tragedy’. Really? Is it really a ‘tragedy’ if we prayerfully look at scripture and come to different conclusions? Many of us disagree over female priests, but would we say it’s a tragedy that a female priest like me is working among students in Oxford and showing them the love of God each day? Or is it a tragedy when I offer the sacrament of marriage to couples who have been living together and clearly enjoying sexual intimacy before they tie the knot? Why then, do we use this language to describe a difference of opinion when it comes to same-sex relationships? The tragedy surely is that we are willing to split apart a family because we can’t agree to disagree.

Secondly, the letter assumes that LGBTI Christians haven’t done any of their own theological study, prayerful reflection, repentance and soul searching. They write of the sacrament of Baptism and the Eucharist being for ‘the community of faith’, and cite St Paul’s teaching which, they say:  ‘clearly discourages participation in the Lord’s Supper for those who have not examined themselves’. Are they saying LGBTI brothers and sisters are not part of the community of faith? Or are they not part of the community of faith when they fall in love with someone? Or does this non-acceptance happen when they express this love sexually? At what point do they think LGBTI people should be excluded from the Lords table I wonder?

And my final point is one that is far better expressed by Marcus Green is his blog ‘A Possibility of Difference’ which you can read here. The letter ends with this threat:

we would ask them (the Bishops) to recognise the seriousness of the difference between us: advocacy of same-sex sexual intimacy is either an expression of the love of God or it creates an obstacle to people entering the kingdom of God. It cannot be both. The situation is serious.

I always thought the Kingdom of God was entered into through the gift of Grace in Jesus Christ, and that all we need to do is accept that gift. That’s the message I get when I read my bible. That’s the message I tell to those who come to my services each Sunday.

As Marcus says:

All have sinned – but sin doesn’t create an obstacle to anyone entering the kingdom of God. We do not pull ourselves up by out bootlaces into the kingdom of God. We cannot. If we think we can, or think others should, Christ died for nothing.

Now to put my head above the parapet. I dearly hope that one day sexual intimacy between two human beings of the same sex will be blessed and hallowed by the Church that I love. And I don’t think that because I’m a ‘liberal’ who doesn’t really care about the gospel, although I’m sure that’s how some will view me. I think that because I’ve read, thought, studied, prayed, spoken to people, and reflected about this over the last 20 years. According to those who have signed this letter I’m now no doubt guilty of ‘advocacy of same-sex intimacy’ and so have put an obstacle in my way to enter the kingdom of God. They can think that if they like.

Thankfully I know that Jesus loves me and on Sunday I will preach that love of God to those students in my care (gay, straight, questioning) as we stand to affirm our baptism vows and remember the words from Luke’s Gospel:

‘you are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased’

 

God’s Daring Plan

Image source: The adoration of the shepherds, Rembrandt

Adaption of a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor

I came across this narrative sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor and loved it so much I thought I’d share it with you on this Christmas morning.

 

Once upon a time—or before time, actually, before there were clocks or calendars or Christmas trees—God was all there was.  No one knows anything about that time because no one was there to know it, but somewhere in the middle of that time before time, God decided to make a world.  Maybe God was bored or maybe God was lonely or maybe God just liked to make things and thought it was time to try something big.

Whatever the reason, God made a world—this world—and filled it with the most astonishing things: with humpback whales that sing and white-striped skunks that stink and birds with more colours on them than a box of Crayola crayons.  The list is way too long to go into here, but suffice it to say that at the end when God stood back and looked at it all, God was pleased.  Only something was missing.  God could not think what it was at first, but slowly God became aware of what it was.

 

Everything God had made was interesting and gorgeous and it all fit together really well, only there was nothing in the world that looked like God, exactly.  It was as if God had painted this huge masterpiece and then forgotten to sign it, so then got busy making a signature piece, something made in God’s own image, so that anyone who looked at it would know who the artist was.

God had one single thing in mind at first, but as God worked, realized that one thing all by itself was not the kind of statement that God wanted to make.  God knew what it was like to be alone, and now that God had made a world, knew what it was like to have company, and company was definitely better.  So God decided to make two things instead of one, which were alike but different, and both were reflections of God—partners who could keep God and each other company.

Flesh was what God made them out of—flesh and blood—a wonderful medium, extremely flexible and warm to the touch.  Since God, strictly speaking, was not made of anything at all, but was pure mind, pure spirit, God was very taken with flesh and blood.  Watching these two creatures stretch and yawn, laugh and run, God found with surprise feelings of envy.  God had made them, it was true, and knew how fragile they were, but their very vulnerability made them more touching, somehow.  It was not long before God was found falling in love with them.  God liked being with them better than any of the other creatures God had made, and God especially liked walking with them in the garden in the cool of the evening.

It almost broke God’s heart when they got together behind God’s back, and did the one thing they had been asked not to do, and then they hid— Hid from God!—Hid while God searched the garden until way past dark, calling their names over and over again.

Things were different after that.  God still loved the human creatures best of all, but the attraction was not mutual.  Birds were crazy about God, especially ruby-throated hummingbirds.  Dolphins and rabbits could not get enough of God, but human beings had other things on their minds.  They were busy learning how to make things, grow things, buy things, sell things, and the more they learned to do for themselves, the less they depended on God.  Night after night God threw pebbles at their windows, inviting them to go for a walk, but they said they were sorry, they were busy.

It was not long before most human beings forgot all about God.  They called themselves “self-made” men and women, as if that were a plus and not a minus.  They honestly believed they had created themselves, and they liked the result so much that the divided themselves into groups of people who looked, thought, and talked alike.  Those who still believed in God drew pictures of God that looked just like them, and that made it easier for them to turn away from the people who were different.  You would not believe the trouble this got them into: everything from armed warfare to cities split right down the middle, with one kind of people living on that side of the line and another kind on the other.

God would have put a stop to it all right there, except for one thing.  When God had made human beings, they were made free.  That was built into them just like their hearts and brains were, and even God could not take it back without killing them.  So God left them free, and it almost killed God to see what they were doing to each other.

God shouted to them from the sidelines, using every means available, including floods, famines, messengers, and manna.  God got inside people’s dreams, and if that did not work, woke them up in the middle of the night with whispering.  No matter what God tried however, God came up against the barriers of flesh and blood.  They were made of it and God was not, which made translation difficult.  God would say, “Please stop before you destroy yourselves!” but all they could hear was thunder.  God would say, “I love you as much now as the day I made you,” but all they could hear was a loon calling across the water.

Babies were the exception to this sad state of affairs.  While their parents were all but deaf to God’s messages, babies did not have any trouble hearing God at all.  They were all the time laughing at God’s jokes or crying with God when God cried, which went right over their parent’s heads.  “Colic” the grown-ups would say, or “Isn’t she cute? She’s laughing at the dust mites in the sunlight.”   Only she wasn’t, of course.  She was laughing because God had just told her it was cleaning day in heaven, and that what she saw were the fallen stars the angels were shaking from their feather dusters.

Babies did not go to war.  They never made hate speeches or littered or refused to play with each other because they belonged to different political parties.  They depended on other people for everything necessary to their lives and a phrase like “self-made babies” would have made then laugh until their bellies hurt.  While no one asked their opinions about anything that mattered (which would have been the smart thing to do), almost everyone seemed to love them, and that gave God an idea.

Why not create God’s self  as one of these delightful creatures?  God tried the idea out on the cabinet of archangels and at first they were very quiet.  Finally the senior archangel stepped forward to speak for all of them.  He told God how much they would worry, if God did that.  God would be at the mercy of God’s creatures, the angel said.  People would be able to do anything they wanted.  And if God seriously meant to become one of them there would be no escape if things turned sour.  Could God at least become like them as a magical baby with special powers?  It would not take much—just the power to become invisible, maybe, or the power to hurl bolts of lightning if the need arose.  The baby idea was a stroke of genius, the angel said, it really was, but it lacked the adequate safety features.

God thanked the archangels for their concern but said no, thought it best just to be a regular baby.  How else could God gain the trust of creation?  How else could they be persuaded that God knew their lives inside out, unless God lived one like theirs?  There was a risk.  God knew that.  Okay, there was a high risk, but that was part of what God wanted them to know: that God was willing to risk everything to get close to them, in hopes that they might love their creator again.

It was a daring plan, but once the angels saw that God was dead set on it, they broke into applause—not the uproarious kind but the steady kind that goes on and on when you have witnessed something you know you will never see again.

While they were still clapping, God turned around and left the cabinet chamber, shedding robes on the way.  The angels watched as the midnight blue mantle fell to the floor, so that all the stars on it collapsed in a heap.  Then a strange thing happened.  Where the robes had fallen, the floor melted and opened up to reveal a scrubby brown pasture.  Speckled with sheep—and right in the middle of them—a bunch of shepherds sitting around a camp-fire drinking wine out of a skin.  It was hard to say who was more startled the shepherds or the angels, but as the shepherds looked up at them, the angels pushed their senior member to the edge of the hole.  Looking down at the human beings who were all trying to hide behind each other (poor things, no wings), the angel said in as gentle a voice as he could muster,

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

And away up the hill, from the direction of town, came the sound of a newborn baby’s cry.

From Bread of Angels, Barbara Brown Taylor, Canterbury Press

 

Advent Sunday: there is a light, don’t let it go out

Sermon given at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on 2nd December 2018

Revd Clare Hayns, College Chaplain, Christ Church

A few weeks ago we took ourselves off the 02 arena in London to see the rock band U2. For those of you who haven’t heard of U2 (!!)  they are one of the world’s best selling rock bands, selling over 170 million records worldwide. It was an incredible concert with 15-20,000 people, loud (of course), visually engrossing with an enormous ‘barricage’ (a barricade cage) the length of the arena on which vast screens bombard the audience with imagery before the band emerge from within it. It was a fabulous concert.

The final song of the set was a complete contrast to what had gone before.

The noise, bright lights and flashing imagery stopped.

The whole stadium was immersed into darkness: all the screens had gone; there were hardly any instruments on the stages; the band had been dismantled.

We were just left with the lead singer, Bono, on stage with a faint light marking his steps. And he sung of darkness and fear.

And if the terrors of the night
Come creeping into your days
And the world comes stealing children from your room

 When all you’ve left is leaving
And all you got is grieving
And all you know is needing

Hold on, Hold on

What I found so moving about this moment in the concert was that for a few minutes we were invited to recognise the darkness, to acknowledge our fears, ‘the terrors of the night’, and to be truthful about the shadows.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. A season of calendars, chocolates, and consumerism. But amidst all of that, a season where we are invited to acknowledge the darkness, see it for what it really is, and look with hope towards the light.

And we begin the season with the reading from Luke’s Gospel:

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves’. (Luke 21:25)

There is fear, fainting and foreboding. Images that begin Advent aren’t of swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, fleecy lambs, but of reality of the world as it is. Jesus was warning his disciples of hard times ahead. Luke was writing to a people who were living in uncertain times. In AD 69 there was the threat of war in Judea, the Romans had laid siege to Jerusalem, the city faced civil strife and starvation, the Emperor had died. All the fixed points had been removed.

And so this imagery best described the tumultuous times of the world as it really was, and is.

Thankfully we aren’t living through war or siege, but we are living in uncertain times. We don’t know what Brexit will bring, or what the result of the MP’s vote on 11th December will be. We hear rumblings in our news every day about the political and economic turmoil that may or may not be ahead of us.

Someone wrote that ‘Advent is not for the fainthearted’.

It’s a season where we are invited to dwell on the darkness and the shadows and not turn the light on too quickly. Advent is a time when we acknowledge the darkness of the world we live in: the sin, the suffering, the poverty, the greed. This is why our Advent Carol Service this evening will begin in darkness. It is because sometimes song, imagery and drama can help us to understand the theology, in ways that are far more powerful than merely words.

Generally speaking, we don’t like focussing too much on the dark things in life. Someone asks how we are and we say ‘fine, thank you very much’, regardless of whether or not that might be true.

Often when faced with challenged and dark times two reactions are common.

One is that we run away from them: we distract ourselves. There are endless ways we can do this. Social media. Shopping. Drinking. Planning parties. Countless ways in which we can turn on all the lights on and ignore the darkness.

The other is that we give in to the dark and begin to believe that this is all there is. We give up. We get cynical and lose hope, in ourselves, one another and in God.

Jesus speaks to both of these reactions when he says:  ‘stand up, raise up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ (Luke 21:28)

There are signs of God’s kingdom here and now. Jesus points us to notice those signs of hope all around us. Look at the fig tree, he says. Look at all the trees. Next Spring’s seeds are already germinating in the dark winter soil. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

In Advent we can acknowledge the shadows but have hope that the light has already come into the world.

In amidst the darkness and uncertainty of our world we have hope, because as Christians we have the audacity to believe that God, the creator of heaven and earth, came amongst us, took the form of an infant child, lived, healed, taught and then died, taking upon himself all the darkness that the world could throw at him, and then rose again, heralding a new way:

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it’ (John 1:5)

We don’t need to either hide from the dark, or give into it. We can face the dark, in the knowledge that we are not alone and that these times are not the full story. We can face it with hope…

Hope is not about false optimism – head in the sand, it will all be OK. Hope is about ‘a conviction concerning the future which transforms our present in such a way that we feel secure in the here and now and ready for God’s future’. (Bishop Sarah Mullally, A Good Advent).

Confident that Christ will save us, that the best is yet to come, that his kingdom of justice will ultimately triumph. We can then live in the light of that hope.

Can we be people of hope in the world? People who are alert to what is good. Who look out for buds of Spring. People who don’t give in to the dark.

The collect today is:

‘Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light’

Let us put on the armour of light, stand up, raise our heads, our redemption is drawing near.

While we still wait for Jesus’ complete redemption, we have good work to do in the meantime. And we undertake the good work of being Jesus’ disciples in the world:

The work of compassion for those who are hurting; encouragement to those who are afraid; solidarity with those who are oppressed,; resistance to evil; forgiveness for those who have wronged us.

Paul’s prayer to the Thessalonians:

‘may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you” (1 Thessalonians 3:12)

At the U2 concert when Bono was singing about the darkness in the world a single oversized lightbulb was lowered so that it hung by its flex at about head height just over the stage.  He then pushed it so that it swung back and forth and around the stage and over the heads of the audience.

The song is called There is a Light and was written in memory of the Manchester bombing.

If there is a light
We can’t always see
If there is a world
We can’t always be
If there is a dark
Now we shouldn’t doubt
And there is a light
Don’t let it go out

Hold on, Hold on.

And with that Bono left the stage, the concert ended and we were left with the lightbulb swinging silently.

Here is a clip of U2 playing There is a Light at the 02