Monday, 2 March 2015

On burning books and people


Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
1st March 2015 11.00am

You can listen to this sermon here: 

Mark 8.31-38  Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." 


The News Media this week reported that
            ‘Isis militants have … ransacked Mosul library,
            burning over a hundred thousand rare manuscripts and documents
            spanning centuries of human learning.’[1]

I am well aware that in a world of internet-beheadings
                        and other less visible atrocities,
            this is just one more tragedy amongst so many others,
but for this book-lover at least, it is heart-breakingly symbolic of the depths
            to which human beings can sink.

As I read this news story this week,
            I found a quote I’d thought I’d forgotten coming to mind.
It’s from a play written 1821, by the German writer Heinrich Heine,[2]
                        and it’s about the burning of the Quran during the Spanish Inquisition.
Heine said, ‘Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.’[3]

Ironically, his own works were themselves on the list of books
            destined for the Nazi book burning purges of the twenthieth century.

And, again and again, through human history,
            we have seen it to be true,
            on every side of the political and religious divide,
            that where freedom of expression is smothered,
                        and independence of thought is extinguished,
            so the destruction of persons inexorably follows.

Words become flesh,
            and both are burned.

From the Spanish Inquisition to IS militants,
            from Farenheit 451 to Orwell’s 1984,
book burning has functioned as a potent tool of suppression and control.

One of the earliest examples is found in the Old Testament,
            in the book of Jeremiah,
Where the King Jehoiakim of Judah seeks to silence the words of the prophet:

Jeremiah 36:22-25  Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him.  23 As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier.  24 Yet neither the king, nor any of his servants who heard all these words, was alarmed, nor did they tear their garments.  25 Even when Elnathan and Delaiah and Gemariah urged the king not to burn the scroll, he would not listen to them.

One of my great treasures is a photograph of the front page of John’s Gospel,
            taken from the first edition of William Tyndale’s New Testament.
It was given to me by my College Principal, a certain Brian Haymes,
            when I left my time at Bristol Baptist College.

Tyndale was the first person to translate the Bible into English
            from the original languages,
and he is the person Melvyn Bragg once called,
            ‘The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England’

There are only three copies of Tyndale’s first edition in existence,
            because they were seized as they entered the country,
                        and burned in bonfires in London,
            overseen by Cardinal Wolsey and Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London.
In scenes which could come straight from Wolf Hall,
            six thousand of his New Testaments were burned
                        on the steps of Old St Paul’s Cathedral,
            despite Anne Boelyn and Thomas Cromwell’s efforts
                        to reconcile Tyndale to the King.

One of the three surviving copies ended up in the library at Bristol Baptist College,
            but is now in the possession of the British Library,
            who have it on permanent display just up the road from here at St Pancras.

When he heard that his Bibles has been burned,
            Tyndale famously remarked ‘no doubt they will burn me too, if it be God’s will.’
And sure enough, a few years later,
            he was caught, and burned at the stake.

You see, books are more than words,
            they are ideas made flesh,
they create worlds,
            and invite us to enter into the worlds they create,
            and to start living those worlds into reality.

Books are dangerous,
            words are inflammatory,
and ideas are incendiary.

And supremely this is true in the stories of the word-made-flesh.

When God speaks words of salvation and restoration,
            he speaks them in the person of Jesus,
and the written records of those stories of Jesus
            make these words real to us in our world also.

This was the insight of Tyndale,
            that the words of Jesus might take on fresh life
                        in new languages, in new cultures, in new ways,
            not restricted to Latin, or Greek, or Hebrew,
                        but rendered in English, so that everyone might hear them,
                        from the scholar to the plough boy in the field.

And this is why people burn books,
            and it is why people burn people.

They do it because world-shaping ideas must be suppressed,
            if those who seek to hold power are to be free
            to shape the world in the way that they want it to be.

And nowhere in literature do we encounter a more inflammatory idea
            than that which we meet today in our reading from Mark 8.

This, truly, is a text to turn the world upside down,
            and it is as inflammatory now
                        as it was when Tyndale first translated it into English
                        nearly five hundred years ago.

Just as Tyndale knew that his act of academic rebellion
            against the religious control of the scriptures
            had put him on a course which would end in his own death,
so here in Mark’s gospel we meet Jesus facing the future with a similar certainty,
            as he too takes his stand against the religious and political powers-that-be,
                        and sets his face towards the cross,
            knowing that he is starting down a path that can only end in his own execution.

‘Deny yourself’, says Jesus to his disciples, and ‘take up your cross’
            and in so doing he calls those who would follow him
            to similarly set their faces towards the cross.[4]

The link between words and death is made:
            as words become actions,
            and actions challenge power,
            and power retaliates in defence of its privilege.

Of course, the cross was not a religious icon in first-century Palestine.
            No-one wore the crucifix as an item of jewellery,
                        or gazed upon it as an item of devotion.

The phrase Jesus uses here, so moving rendered for us into English by Tyndale as               ‘whosesoever will follow me let him forsake him life
                        and take up his cross and follow me’
            was no metaphor for personal anguish or pious forbearance,
            in the way it is sometimes used in the contemporary world.

Crucifixion, at the time of Jesus, had only one connotation:
            it was the vicious form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome
            for those who were marked out as political dissidents.

As we all know, we still live in a world
            where violent and visible execution
            remains a potent tool of those who would seek to intimidate others.

There are those who still seek to silence voices and mute narratives
            in the interests of asserting dominance and control.
And there are those who seek to do so through the burning and desecration
            of anything that dares to speak an alternative reality into being.
Whether that be ancient Islamic texts in a library in Mosul
            or aid workers seeking to negotiate peace and protect the innocent,
            or civilians wanting to quietly get on with their lives,
            farming their farms, taking their tubes and buses to work…

Such terrorism plays to our deepest fears

The thing is, none of us wants to lose our lives:
            we are afraid of the bomb on the bus,
                        the outrage in the shopping mall, the man in the street with the knife.

It sometimes seems as if the terrorists’ greatest symbolic weapon
            is the ability to persuade people to sacrifice their lives for their cause,
                        taking others with them.

It is here that we hear Jesus’ potent words as he set his own face to the cross,
            inviting others to do the same:

35For those who want to save their life will lose it,
            and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 
            37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Does Jesus sound like a terrorist here?
            Taken in isolation, he could certainly start to sound like it.
But of course, this is not a sound-bite of incitement to violence.

There is a fundamental difference
            between the faithful disciple who carries their cross to its bitter conclusion
                        rather than compromise their calling,
            and the suicide bomber who carries their cross strapped to their chest
                        intent on taking others with them.

Crosses were a common enough sight when Mark wrote his gospel,
            since there was a Jewish insurrection under way.
And in contrast to Judean nationalists
            who were recruiting patriots to ‘take up the sword’ against Rome,
Mark’s Jesus invites his disciples to ‘take up the cross.’

And this action of taking up the cross
            is to be understood as an action of self-denial,
                        understood not in terms of private asceticism,
            but in the context of a political trial.

Under interrogation by Roman state security forces,
            anyone who admitted allegiance to God rather than the emperor
would face in charges of subversion,
            because this was a world where Caesar alone claimed Lordship.

‘Self-denial’, in this context, is therefore about costly political choices.,
            And it is in this world that Jesus speaks words
            that restate the matter another way.

It turns out that if one attempts to ‘save one’s life’ by denying Jesus
            then one is actually losing grip on what it is to be truly alive (8.35)

And conversely, to live - and die - ‘for the sake of Jesus and the gospel’
            is truly to experience ‘life’ in all its fullness…

So, what does, ‘deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow me’ mean for us?
            How do these ancient words reach down the centuries to us?
            How do they translate into our language, our culture, our world?

In many ways, our situation is not so dissimilar to that of the first century.

Like the early followers of Jesus, we too live in an imperial society
            that has stretched its political and economic arms around the globe,
                        seizing the resources of the many to the benefit of the privileged,
                        and overriding the self-determination of other peoples along the way.

In such a world, what does it mean for us to deny ourselves,
            take up our cross,
            and follow the executed and living Jesus in our context?

To avoid this question is to refuse to encounter
            the powerful challenge of this text in our contemporary world.
To turn from its critique of our lives and our culture
            is to burn the words of live that call us to a new way of living,
            and which challenge, once again, the dominant power structures
            of the world in which we live.

‘taking up our cross’ has specific political and personal implications for us all,
            and we cannot afford to ignore them,
            lest we lose our grip on true life along the way.

Taking up the cross does  not mean
            shouldering the personal burdens put before one in life
            and carrying on in the hope of heavenly rewards.

The language of ‘it’s just a cross I have to bear’
            is a misreading of what Jesus is doing here…

The call to self denial does not mean
            the negation of experience, selfhood, human rights, or physical integrity.

Rather, denying ourselves, and taking up our cross,
            is about challenging the self as the centre of our universe.

In this language, Jesus calls us out of life centred on individualism and self-interest
            and into life lived in the reality of God’s love.

The call to take up our cross and follow Jesus
            is a call to walk in a path of radical love,
            that challenges all oppressive power structures,
            wherever they may be found

For some of us at least, this can lead to danger and even the possibility of death,
            because we live out this call in the midst
            of overwhelming forces of greed and violence
            which take no long-term prisoners
            and which fight back viciously when challenged.

Suffering, in the form of persecution,
            is not something any of us should seek out.
But we must recognise that for many who follow Jesus in our world,
            suffering unto death is the consequence of their discipleship.

For those of us in the relatively safe and affluent West,
            we must never turn our faces from the suffering
                        of our sisters and brothers elsewhere in the world,
            because when we look away, leaving them to the flames of persecution,
                        we turn our faces from the burning of the words of life,
                        and become complicit in the evil that would silence love.

To ‘take up the cross’, then, is to resist systems and structures
            that cause or perpetuate injustice.
It is to rebuild systems
            grounded in justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.

It is to resist the rampant and seductive narratives of nationalism
            which tell us the old Lie;
            Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori
It is never a beautiful thing to die for one’s country,
            for one’s sect,
            for one’s tribe.

It is to make our voting choices in the forthcoming General Election
            on the basis of values of justice, equality, and care for the poor.

Did you see the Bishop’s letter recently?[5]
            I didn’t agree with all of it, but, they said:
"The privileges of living in a democracy
            mean that we should use our votes thoughtfully, prayerfully
            and with the good of others in mind, not just our own interests."

The letter goes on to say that:
"In Britain, we have become so used to believing
            that self-interest drives every decision,
that it takes a leap of imagination to argue
            that there should be stronger institutions for those we disagree with
            as well as for those 'on our side.'
Breaking free of self-interest
            and welcoming our opponents as well as our supporters
            into a messy, noisy, yet rich and creative community of communities
            is, perhaps, the only way we will enrich our almost-moribund political culture."

Or, as Jesus might have put it, ‘deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me…’

And the thing is, wholehearted commitment to this way
            is the path to true life;
whilst not choosing this path is to choose the path of death-in-life.

So where now does Jesus call us to take up the cross and follow him?

Where in our lives are we called to resist self-negation,
            the culture of violence, the lure of consumerism, the justification of injustice?
And what are the possible consequences for us of following this path?

Another way of putting this might be to ask,
            what do we most fear?
It may be in our deepest fears,
            that the path to the cross through self-denial may become apparent.
And this will be different for each of us.

This is no one-scheme-fits-all ideology
            where we all behave the same, think the same, and vote the same.
But we do walk forwards towards the cross in community with one another.

Mark’s Jesus did not call people to walk the path of discipleship alone
            but to do so in loving community.
Bound to one another through disagreement and difference
            every bit as much as we are bound to one another
            through our shared commitment to the path of Jesus Christ.

What do you most fear in life?
            Illness? Poverty? The mocking voices of others? Uncertainty?
What do you most fear?

What does taking up your cross, and denying yourself mean, for you?

I’m going to close by quoting from a sermon by Sarah Dylan Breuer [6]
            This was a sermon that she wrote to her congregation,
                        so I’m going to steal her words, and let her speak to us.
            She says:

‘This is a powerful congregation.
            We have power by virtue of our education,
                        our relative wealth in the world,
                        our privilege in society, our voice.

‘It can be very tempting -- all too tempting –
            to seek nothing more than charity.

‘Charity is a start, but it can take us to a dangerous place
            in which we release some portion of our resources
            in order to get more power.

‘We maintain a death grip on the unjust privilege that makes us wealthy,
            that gives us the illusion of control,
            and then we give away just enough to feel generous
            without seriously compromising our privilege.

‘The way of the Cross -- Jesus' way of life -- calls us to let go of that.

‘Jesus' way calls us to be honest about the power we have
            -- both the worldly power we've got
                        because of our skin color, our gender, our social class,
                        our education, our birth in one of the most powerful nations in the world,
            and the spiritual power we have
                        as a community upon which God has breathed the Spirit
            -- and then to let all of that pour out –
                        “let justice roll down like waters,
                        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24)
            -- to empower the poor.

‘We are called not only to make sure
            that the most marginalized have a place at the table,
            but also to recognize whose table it is.

‘The table around which we gather belongs to Jesus the Christ,
            who saw, as Peter in this Sunday's gospel [reading ]did not,
that true power is made perfect in self-giving love,
            that the way of abundant life leads to the Cross.

‘And the symbol of humanity's brokenness,
            of power corrupted to become domination,
            becomes a sign of peace, and freedom, and life.

‘Thanks be to God!’


Also used in shortened form at Informal Church 7/10/2012



[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-burns-thousands-of-rare-books-and-manuscripts-from-mosuls-libraries-10068408.html
[2] Almansor
[3] Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen
[4] Parts of what follow draw verbatim from ‘Say to this Mountain’ by Ched Myers et al.
[5] https://churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2015/02/house-of-bishops%27-pastoral-letter-on-the-2015-general-election.aspx
[6] http://girardianlectionary.net/year_b/lent2b.htm

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Honesty

Sermon preached at Wood Green Mennonite Church
Sunday 15th February 2015, 3pm.

Reverend Smith was shaking people’s hands at the door.
            One by one the members of the congregation filed past
            “Thank you so much…”
            “Lovely sermon today…”
            “very uplifting…”
            “Oh, you were so helpful today…”

Reverend Smith resisted the urge to reply
            “in what way?
            “how was it helpful?
            “what area of your life did it challenge?
            “how did God speak to you?

This really wasn’t the time or place
            Not with another hundred or so hands to shake
            Another hundred or so smiles
            Another hundred or so brief pastoral encounters

“Pastor, thank you so much for the worship”
            said one elderly lady with grey hair
            “you were really in touch with the Lord this morning.”

As she said this, Reverend Smith thought to himself “if only you knew”
            His mind was already on how he was going to try
            And sort out the argument he had had
            With his whole family
just before leaving home to come to church

He looked past her to his wife and children
            All smiling happily
            Keeping up the image of Happy families

And so the members of the congregation
            Smiled their way out of worship
            With the rousing tune of the final chorus
            Still ringing in their ears

They got into their cars,
            And set off back to their lives
            Back to the trials, stresses, strains,
            And problems which they had been able to happily forget about
            For the last couple of hours

Reverend Smith sat down,
            after another half an hour on the door,
And looked round at the small groups
            Still hovering in the corners

He thought back over the service
            Yes, it had gone well
                        The worship had been uplifting
            The music very professional
                        The sermon was one of his better ones
            Very challenging, and assuring people
                        Of God’s love for them

And suddenly it dawned on him

That through the whole time
            Not one person in the entire church
had demonstrated the slightest degree of honesty.

He had been operating out of a façade himself
            Forcing the pastoral smile
            While wanting to curl up and die inside
                        out of guilt at the things he had said
            only a few hours earlier

The congregation had, to a person,
            Not been honest with him or each other

If the answers to his often repeated “how are you today?”
            Were to be believed
            One hundred people were fine, not grumbling, and doing okay
            thank you for asking

Actually no, 99 were doing okay.
            John had indicated that he had a problem
            But there had been so many people queuing behind him
            That there had been no time to talk or pray with him.
            Or even to find out what the nature of his problem was

They had all rousingly sung the songs
            The volume of the singing
had been quite up to its usual standard
            if not slightly louder!

The Amens to the prayers had been resounding
            And the Hallelujah’s during the sermon
            Had been very inspiring
                        ………(Oh, nevermind!)

Well, thought Reverend Smith
            Is it likely that all those people
                        Were really able to worship happily today?
            Is it likely that they were able
                        To sing the happy songs
                        The songs which told God how much they loved him
            Is it likely that they managed to mean every word

Somehow Reverend Smith thought it unlikely

After all, if he was in pieces inside,
            And he was a Reverend
            Why should he expect more from the congregation

What if the truth was more depressing

What if two hundred people
            Had come together to meet with each other and with God

And had spent the whole time deceiving
            Each other
            God
            Themselves!

Surely this couldn’t be the case could it?

But what if it was?

What if the way the church was structured,
            the way they always did things

Forced people into behaving a certain way
            Smiling a certain smile
            Singing certain songs
            Praying certain prayers

When actually most of them could not
            In all integrity
            Mean a word of it!

What would it take for the worship of his church
            To allow people the space
                        to be honest about
            where they were before God

What view of God would be necessary
            For people to be able to own their hurt,
            Their anger, and their frustrations
            before God

What about those people who were angry with God
            For the way their lives had gone?

Was it really realistic to expect them to sit there
            and pray happy prayers, and sing happy songs?

And so Reverend Smith wondered…

What does the Bible say to people
            Who have had it up to here with happy songs?

Who feel that they never want to sing another happy song again?

And Reverend Smith’s thoughts turned to Psalm 137…
            That well-known psalm
            with the little-known ending

And it was especially to the last verse that Reverend Smith’s mind went

Psalm 137:1-9
    By the rivers of Babylon--
        there we sat down and there we wept
        when we remembered Zion.
    [2] On the willows there
        we hung up our harps.
    [3] For there our captors
        asked us for songs,
    and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
        "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

    [4] How could we sing the Lord's song
        in a foreign land?
    [5] If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand wither!
    [6] Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
        if I do not remember you,
    if I do not set Jerusalem
        above my highest joy.

    [7] Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
        the day of Jerusalem's fall,
    how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down!
        Down to its foundations!"
    [8] O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
        Happy shall they be who pay you back
        what you have done to us!
    [9] Happy shall they be who take your little ones
        and dash them against the rock!

The people of Israel in ancient times were a people of Song
            They had rhythm in the blood;
            and their whirling dancing,
            their praises to the one true God,
            everything about the way they were
                        shouted praises to the one true God

They were famous for their praise songs
            throughout the known world

Other nations looked at Israel’s worship tradition
            with awe

But the people of Israel were now in Exile

The Babylonians had conquered them
            And exported them to a foreign land

And so they sat beside the rivers in Babylon
            Looking wistfully at the horizon
            Remembering their beautiful land
            Their beautiful temple

Knowing that it was all in ruins

Their places of worship destroyed
Their homes burned
They knew they were never going back.

So what were they to sing now?
            How did their happy, renowned worship songs help them now?

And all the while the Babylonians tormented them
            “Come on… sing us a song
            “What about your famous worship?
            “What about your joyful dancing?
            “Come on… Give us a number!”

And the Israelites looked at one another in despair
            And there by the river, they wept

They wept with grief as they remembered their homes
            Their temple, their places of worship

They wept that all that had been so good
had been taken from them

They wept that God seemed to have abandoned them…
            How could they cope?
            What were they to do?

They cried out before God of
Their disappointment
            Their sense of bereavement
            Their loss

They asked how God could have allowed this to happen?…

And the Babylonians wanted them to sing a happy song of the Lord?…

So they hung their harps on the trees
            and said to one another

“how can we sing the songs of the Lord
            whilst in a foreign land”

They refused to sing their happy songs,
            because those songs were not the right songs to sing.
Not now, not here.

Singing happy songs now would be lying
            It would be mocking God
            It would be refusing to face up
            To what had happened to them

But they still sang…

They sang of their sadness
They sang of their anger
They sang of their disappointment

They were honest about their feelings

Not for them some effort to push their anger
            Deep down inside
            Where it would fester for years
            Before coming out to haunt them

Not for them some necessity to pretend everything was fine
            When actually everything was awful

They knew that God could take whatever they needed to throw at him

They knew that he could absorb their anger
            They knew that he could cope with their bitterness
            Meet them in their hurts

So they were honest before God, and with one another

And they sang before God
            “happy is the one who grabs the babies of the Babylonians
            and smashes their heads on the rocks”

---------

Well, you don’t get much more honest than that, do you?!

These people knew God well enough to know
            That he wasn’t about to disown them
Simply because they were honest with him about their feelings

Their relationship with God
            Was such that it could withstand
            The brutal honesty of emotions like this

And I wonder if we could usefully ask ourselves the question of whether,
if we hated somebody enough to want their children dead…
we would be prepared to admit it
            even to ourselves,
            let alone to others
            or to God?

Or would we still come along on a Sunday
            To meet with our brothers and sisters in Christ
            To meet with the living God
And behave like the congregation in Reverend Smith’s church?
            All smiles and happiness
            Fooling ourselves, others, and God.

What would it take for us to have a church
            Which modelled the example of the Israelites?

Where we could praise, and sing happy songs
            when we had things to praise and be happy about;
but where there was also the space
            To be honest and open about our darker emotions.

What would it be like to have a church
            where the voices from the dark underside of our humanity,
            could be heard from time to time?

What would it be like to have a church
            where honesty and integrity was more important than anything else?

How can we learn to be honest in worship?
            Honest with ourselves
            Honest with one another
            Honest with God

The first battle to be won here
            is probably learning to be honest with ourselves

A phrase from my days as a student at ministerial training college
            still sometimes returns to haunt me:
            “never underestimate our capacity to deceive ourselves”

It is all too easy to kid ourselves that we are doing fine
            to convince ourselves that we are coping,
            that our relationships are going well,
            and that other people can’t hurt us…

The reality for many of us is that when things get tough,
we don’t like facing up to the truth of what has happened to us
            or is happening to us
It’s much more comfortable to pretend
            that nothing is going wrong,
            not admitting even to ourselves the feelings we have

Possibly because they make us feel guilty…

If I wanted to smash someone else’s child’s head against the rock
            I think I’d feel pretty guilty about that emotion

Much more comfortable to ignore it, and
            Deceive myself into believing
            That I am doing fine.

Rather than admitting it to myself
            Facing the guilt
            And beginning the path towards healing

Of course, being honest with ourselves is only the first step

We may know deep down inside that things are far from right

But that doesn’t do anything about the public face.
            The happy smile
            And the twinkly eyes
            That belie the pain underneath

The problem with being honest with one another
            Is that we can’t be honest with one another all the time

We would never cope!

We don’t really want to hear everybody else’s problems
We are too damaged ourselves
            To be able to cope with everyone else’s honesty

But one thing that is worth thinking about here
            Is that one of the main criticisms of Christians
            By people outside the church
            Is that we are a bunch of hypocritical, self righteous whatsits

And if we go round giving the impression that we are eternally sorted
            Always having a happy smile
            with all our problems in the past
Who can blame people for finding that off-putting?

A bit of honesty from time to time
            Would go a long way towards rectifying this

If we could be honest about he fact that
            All we are is a bunch of sinners
            Who just happen to be forgiven

Maybe others wouldn’t find God so intimidating

Jesus, after all, didn’t hang around with the religious, sorted, people.

He said that they didn’t need him

Jesus hung round with prostitutes & foul-mouthed fishermen
                        He took drinks with adulterers
He spent time with people
whose sinfulness was so obvious
            that it offended the church-going types of his day.

And I fear that sometimes we are so dishonest with each other,
            in our attempts to appear holy and happy,
            that we alienate those who Jesus died for?

And my worry is that if this is so,
            we might find Jesus not wanting to spend much time with us
                        Leaving us to our singing
            Whilst he is off spending time with those who need him

But the truth, of course
            Is that we need Jesus just as much as anybody else
                        We still sin
                        We still hate people
                        We still have broken relationships

If only we could find a way of being honest about it

For some of us that place of honesty
            will be found through involvement in a small group of Christians who meet regularly,
a place where we can build the kind of close relationships
            where honesty becomes possible
and where we can find the support from our sisters and brothers
            That will help us through the tough times

Some of us will find the place of honesty as we meet with another Christian for prayer
            Being honest together about what we hear God saying to us

My own journey has found great honesty in the wise counsel of my spiritual director…
            a companion on the journey…
            who has helped me to learn to be honest with God
            and so to grow in my relationship with him

At a simple level, we can find honesty in the opportunities for prayer
that are on offer at church week by week.
            If only we learn not to leave, pausing only to pick up at the door
            our coat and the burden we put down when we walked in

            If life is awful, be honest with someone.
            Get some help, ask for some prayer.

Maybe in these and other ways
            We can be able to learn how to be honest with one another.

And a word of caution.
If someone trusts us enough to be honest with us
            We must treat them sensitively
            Because there but for the grace of God we go

But finally, let us seek to be honest with God.
            And in many ways this is the hardest thing

Being honest with ourselves is tough, and with others is difficult

But admitting our darkest feelings before God
            is a terrifying prospect

How is God going to react
            If I tell him I want to kill my enemy’s baby?

Well, the Israelites told him
            And he didn’t disown them!

Let us look at how we relate to God
            And consider what the opportunities
for honesty and dishonesty are…

What about our prays?

How we pray, and whether we pray,
            may tell us a lot about our relationship with God.

Do we always seem to be saying the same stuff to God
            or finding ourselves not bothering to pray any more,
            or only praying in the same old ways?

Maybe we might start to pay attention
to what it is that we are not saying to God

We may find that we are not being honest with God
            About some area of our lives
Maybe the time is upon us to own up to who we are before him
            And to receive his forgiveness and healing

Again, I have often found that talking to others can help here
            as we seek to understand how we are relating to God

And what about in our Sunday worship
            How do we do there?…

What are the opportunities for honesty or dishonesty
that Sunday presents us with?

We may not be quite up to Reverend Smith’s congregation’s standards
            But I wonder if we often we come close!

Many Christians have a tendency
            to expect victorious, joyous, Christian living
Which is fine - until their lives fall apart.

So sometimes we need to get real ourselves
            and ask just why we think we’re here on a Sunday.

Is it get an emotional lift out of the service
            that will see us through until at least Monday lunchtime?

Or is it to meet in honesty
            with ourselves,
            with others,
and with God
Who loves us, and longs to forgive us
            to heal us
            to renew us
            to refresh us
            And to comfort us

And to teach us to worship him
            in Spirit and in truth.