Thursday, 21 October 2021

Judging by Appearances

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
24 October 2021

Samuel anoints David, 3rd Century artwork from Dura Europos in Syria

1 Samuel 16.1-13
Psalm 51.10-14
James 4.7-10

I was in a meeting this week, with others from London Citizens,
            and we were discussing the fact that it’s only just over six months
            before the next round of UK local elections,
with all London borough councils, and all local authorities
            up for election on 22nd May 2022.
The opportunities for electing our leaders only happens periodically,
            and it always represents an opportunity
            to bring about change in the direction of justice.
This will be the country’s first chance since the pandemic,
            to choose who our local leaders will be,
            and I wonder what our criteria will be when we come to vote?
Will we simply vote for the local representatives of our preferred national party?
            Or will we engage deeply with the people, the policies, and the programmes
            that will shape our society for the next few years?
With COP 26 round the corner, you might want to take a look
            at the website of The Commitment UK
who invite us to make a commitment to voting
            with the health of the planet at the heart of our decision.
They then take everyone’s Commitment to local politicians,
            giving them a powerful reason to act on the climate and the natural world.
Because, of course, they really want our votes!
The months in the run-up to an election are a key time
            to obtain promises from those seeking office,
as they develop their policies to win confidence and, ultimately, votes.
We saw this with the London Mayoral election earlier this year,
            and a number of us from Bloomsbury joined with thousands of others
for an online Citizens Assembly,
            to put to the mayoral candidates a manifesto of requests,
            on the issues that we believe matter most to London.
So we got promises on
            Housing and Homelessness,
            Youth safety and knife crime
            The living wage
            Welcome and sanctuary for refugees
            and a Just Transition to becoming a carbon neutral city.
This last one continues to resonate, of course,
            with the threat of rising utility prices pushing more people into fuel poverty
            where they have to choose between heating their homes and buying food.
The task now is to hold the elected mayor to account on the promises he gave,
            and I’m personally involved in this, along with others from Bloomsbury.
At our Deacons’ meeting this week
            Jean mentioned the proud history this church has
            of taking action with others on issues of justice,
and if anyone would like to join me on the evening of Monday 15th November,
            I’ll be going to an event organised by our West London Citizens group,
                        which will be highlighting the importance of both the Living Wage
                        and the necessity to create good green jobs.
We will be joined by a representative from the Mayor’s office,
            who will be speaking about the progress they’ve made since the election,
and we will get to meet both employers seeking to create good job opportunities,
            and local people who are seeking fair employment.
Do let me know if you’d like to join me,
            and Libby will send the information round in the news email this week.
All of which is to illustrate my point for this morning:
            who we have as our leaders, really matters.
This is true nationally, internationally, locally, and also in church life.
As I said last week, it isn’t true that all politicians are the same,
            any more than it is true that all church leaders are the same.
And all leaders, even those with whom we may disagree on policy,
            are worthy of respect until they prove otherwise!
And so we come to the story we read earlier from the book of 1 Samuel
            which speaks powerfully, I think, to our current situation.
You may remember the story so far…
Israel under the Judges had become lawless and godless,
            a place where ‘Everyone did what was right in their own eyes’(Judges 17.6)
God’s answer to this was to call Samuel,
            the young boy who would be God’s prophet to the nation,
            calling them to a better way of being.
Those who suggest that religion should stay away from politics
            obviously haven’t spent enough time reading the Hebrew Bible,
because it is clear from stories such as the life of Samuel,
            that God’s people absolutely have a vital role to play
            in the way society is shaped and functions.
This week we re-join the story of Samuel a few chapters later,
            and we find him stepping into his vocation
as the person who is called to lead the people
            from a time of degeneracy and corruption
            into a new and better future as a society.
He finds himself representing the bright new hope for the nation,
            which is the popular call for the establishment of a monarchy.
The people cry that the judges have failed them,
            and that what they need instead is a king,
            like the other nations around them have.
In this we hear, I think, an early example of nationalist politics,
            and the parallels with certain contemporary political events
            are too obvious to ignore.
The people of Israel felt failed by the political system of the Judges;
            that had become bureaucratic and unwieldly,
            with corruption a constant threat,
            and leaders who were out of touch.
So the people cried out for a new national identity,
            a new way of understanding themselves,
they wanted to take their stand on the world stage
            on an equal basis to the other countries around them.
Does it sound familiar?
But instead of BREXIT, they wanted a king.
It’s interesting to note that Samuel
            was far from being an ardent advocate for the monarchy,
and he had profound doubts about whether kingship was a path
            that Israel ought to be following.
But Israel wanted its king,
            a bright shining personality of a leader
who could fix all their problems
            and be accountable to those who appointed them.
And initially, it looked like Saul was the perfect choice.
            He was every inch a king, but also, it emerged, brutal, faithless, and unpredictable.
And by the time we re-join the story in chapter 16,
            we find Samuel embroiled in another attempt to raise up a new leadership,
this time against the backdrop of the failing leadership of Saul,
            rather than the previously failing regime of the Judges.
And so Samuel goes to Bethlehem,
            to visit a man called Jesse,
because God has told Samuel that the next king
            will be one of Jesse’s sons.
As a leadership-appointment strategy,
            I think it lacks some of the nuances of democracy;
but then sometimes I look at who democracy appoints as our leader,
            and I wonder whether things are all that different!
Samuel sets up a kind of beauty-pageant parade of potential kings,
            and his first instinct is for a young man called Eliab.
However, as Samuel had already discovered with Saul,
            the person who looks most kingly,
            isn’t necessarily the person most suited to ruling.
And so we get God’s voice intruding into the narrative,
The LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."
The inference, although I may be being harsh on young Eliab here,
            is that he doesn’t have the right character to lead.
And it’s not until Jesse’s youngest son, David, is brought in from the fields,
            that Samuel takes the horn of oil, and anoints David for kingship.
David’s character, it seems, is just what God is looking for.
Except, of course, if you know what comes next,
            David’s character turns out to be, well, questionable.
He was, as they say, a complicated character!
There’s the cutesy David,
            the shepherd-boy, the talented musician,
            who knows the secret chord that pleases the Lord.
Although, at the risk of undermining Leonard Cohen’s great song,
            it’s not such secret…
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift;
            I can play that on the guitar!
But I digress.
Here we have David the pastoral musical boy-wonder,
            who also turns out to be a capable mixed martial arts fighter
            capable of giant-killing acts of violence.
And then we have David the adulterer,
            David the murderer,
who by the time of his death has become a kind of Mafia-boss,
            visiting death and destruction on those who displease him,
            through a complex family-based network of thugs and agents.
This, it turns out, is the Lord’s anointed,
            who despite us having just been told that the Lord looks not upon appearance,
            is also handsome, with a ruddy complexion and beautiful eyes!
What is going on,
            that this gorgeous poster-boy for the Israelite Monarchy 2.0 reboot
            turns out to be someone who could give Saul a run for his money
                        in the competition for the title of ‘dangerous tyrant of the century’???
Why is he the anointed one?
And here we need to pause for a moment,
            and locate this story within its wider historical context.
As with all these early stories from the Hebrew Bible,
            what we have in our Bibles
                        are texts written much, much later, than the events they describe
                        telling stories set in prehistory.
It’s a bit like going to see one of Shakespeare’s Henry plays:
            there’s the historical gap between us and Shakespeare,
            and then there’s another historical gap
                        between Shakespeare and the characters he’s writing about.
So it is with this story from 1 Samuel,
            which was written down during the Babylonian exile,
            some 500 years or more after the stories it is recording.
This is not contemporary, first-hand, eyewitness history.
            This is oral tradition, dramatized and retold over centuries.
And it’s written for the Jewish exiles in Babylon,
            who have just witnessed their capital city of Jerusalem destroyed
            and their king deposed by the invading Babylonians.
For these people, a story setting the seal of God’s approval
            on the mythic ancestor of their kingly line,
rooting that person firmly in the geography of Jerusalem and Judea,
            was a compelling narrative of national hope,
            told to sustain them through the experience of exile.
David, for the exiled Babylonians,
            functioned similarly to King Arthur’s role in medieval England.
The stories of Arthur, set in a mythic prehistory,
            defined what it meant to be English,
setting out in narrative form the values of chivalry
            as nobility, humility, bravery, and obedience.
Similarly, for the Israelite exiles in Babylon,
            the story of the mythic king David,
            defined what it meant to be Jewish,
setting out the dream of a land, a king,
            and a national identity rooted in God’s presence in the city of Jerusalem.
And just as King Arthur was often portrayed as a complex man,
            a flawed hero, far from ideal,
            whilst still defining the ideal of what it meant to be English;
so also for King David,
            another imperfect, inconsistent character,
            compelling and repellent in equal measure,
far from ideal,
            but defining the ideal of what it meant to be Jewish.
It may not matter to God if David is good-looking,
            but it certainly mattered to the scribe of 1 Samuel,
who needed his idealised David who his audience could fall in love with,
            before going on to explore the complexities of the great man’s character
            in the stories that followed.
We might say to ourselves that image isn’t important,
            that it’s a person’s heart and character that matter,
            not how competently they can eat a bacon sandwich on camera,
but the reality of our world,
            as for the world the ancient Israelites in exile in Babylon,
is that we like our heroes to look the part,
            and we expect them to play the part,
and as long as they do,
            we will overlook all kind of other moral and personal failings.
David is still Israel’s hero,
            despite his tendency towards adultery, murder, and violence.
Because he represents and ideal,
            he is more than the sum of his parts.
It doesn’t matter whether he even existed, historically speaking,
            he still writes the script of what it means to be Jewish,
every bit as effectively as Arthur writes the script
            of what it means to be English.
So what are we to make of this?
What are we to do with the fact
            that people continue to acclaim leaders
                        based on appearance rather than character,
            on the ideology they represent,
                        rather than the decency of their personality?
What are we to make of the fact
            that we live in a society where appearance is so often decisive
            in how a person will be treated by others?
From racism, to gender stereotyping, to transphobia,
            to conspicuous wealth, to a person’s weight…
in so many ways, we judge by appearance,
            and lives are blighted because of it.

Our new strategic partnership with Impact Dance,
            the black-led organisation now based on our 4th floor,
together with our strong stance as a church on issues of gender and sexuality,
            speak well of our openness to going deeper,
            to valuing each person as made and loved by God.
It was inspirational this week to be at the public launch of Impact Dance,
            and to hear the testimonies of young people whose lives have been turned around
            because of the acceptance and value they have discovered there.
And I look forward to finding ways as a congregation
            of us journeying with Impact Dance,
            as our church and our building are used to embody inclusion and justice.
Similarly, I am glad that we are church
            where gender and sexuality are no bar to full participation,
            and where we live into being the belief that each of us is created in the image of God.
But for all the steps taken,
            there is still a long journey ahead.

We need to hear the voice of the Lord,
            breaking into our narratives,
telling us that the LORD does not see as mortals see;
            they look on the outward appearance,
            but the LORD looks on the heart.
If we can truly hear this message,
            and learn to see people as God sees them,
it could be revolutionary for the way we live our lives:
            not just in terms of who we vote for as our leaders,
                        although certainly that;
            but also in the way we are towards others.
God’s call is on the people of God
            to radically reject any narrative or ideology
            that values or devalues people based on appearance.
Because God looks to the heart,
            to a person’s character,
and it is here that God’s persistence is most obvious,
            as God calls sinful people to repentance,
            to turn from their selfish ambition,
            and to live lives of love and concern for others.
This story from 1 Samuel isn’t, in the end,
            a fable about whether or not we should elect leaders like David.
Of course we shouldn’t, and of course we do.
Rather, it’s an invitation for us to see ourselves reflected in the life of David,
            as we too are flawed human beings,
capable of great sin, and great goodness,
            sometimes both at the same time.
And if God continued to call David,
            it was because beneath the flaws of David’s character,
he was a person who was willing to repent of his evil,
            to seek forgiveness, and to keep seeking the heart of God.
Like David, we are called to be continually responsive to the word of God,
            embodied for us in the word made flesh that is Jesus.
It is through Jesus that we are called to a new, a better way of being human,
            to live lives focussed on love of God, and love of the other.
People called Jesus the anointed one, the messiah,
            the son of David, born in David’s town of Bethlehem.
But unlike David, Jesus resisted temptations of power,
            Jesus turned away from nationalism, from overthrowing the empire,
            he refused to be King.
And in so doing, in Jesus, we see the loving heart of God revealed,
            because the LORD does not see as mortals see;
            they look on the outward appearance,
            but the LORD looks on the heart.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Speak, Lord, Your Servant is Listening

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
17 October 2021

1 Samuel 3.1-21
John 10.24-31
I don’t know how much you know about the story of ancient Israel
            in the years leading up to the time of Samuel,
but it doesn’t make for happy reading. [1]
To be honest, things could hardly be worse.
            Judges, the previous book,
            had ended with the community in chaos.
A man called Micah (not the good one)
            had established an alternative worship system
            based around a carved metal statue,
and the narrator comments in despair that,
            ‘Everyone did what was right in their own eyes’(Judges 17.6).
Meanwhile, the Danites had taken over a peaceful town,
            stolen Micah’s gods and priest,
            and adopted his religion for themselves (Judges 18).
Then there is the horrific story of the all-night gang rape
            and abuse of one woman by some Benjaminite men,
which led to a civil war
            that nearly wiped out the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19-20),
with the community only preserving its tribe
            by abducting and raping two communities of women,
            six hundred in all (Judges 21).
It really is hard to see how things could get any worse.
            The nation was falling apart.
            The system of judgeships had failed miserably.
With all of the chaos,
            you might well wonder how could the community of Israel possibly continue?
Would it die before it began?
            Would the promise God made to Abraham go unfulfilled?
            Who would God send to begin to deal with this mess?
This is another one of those endangered ancestor sagas
            I was talking about a few weeks ago -
where the story reaches a point of crisis
            when it looks like the whole thing is going to fail;
and there the book of Judges leaves the story…
But then along comes Samuel,
            Israel’s last judge and first prophet since Moses, as God’s answer.
He was born at a pivotal point in Israel’s history,
            and represents Israel’s transition
from a loose system of judges to a unified monarchy.
The writer introduces the reader to Samuel
            by first introducing his mother, Hannah.
Hannah’s story is the perfect segue for this transition
            because her story is diametrically opposed to the stories
            of abuse and sexual objectification of women in the book of Judges. 
Since the Bible seldom tells women’s stories,
            it is noteworthy that 1 Samuel opens with Hannah’s story.
With two chapters devoted to her,
            even before the narrator explains it, the reader instinctively knows
            that she and her son are significant characters in Israel’s story. 
In gratitude to God,
            Hannah leaves her son Samuel with Eli the priest,
            who will help Samuel discern God’s call for his life.
And so we come to our passage for today,
            of the call of Samuel,
            which came as a voice in the middle of the night.
Three times Samuel mistook God’s voice for Eli’s
            before being advised by Eli
            that he might actually be hearing the voice of God.
Now, I don’t know about you,
            but this kind of stuff doesn’t happen to me very often.
I’ve met plenty of Christians over the years
            who tell me they hear God speaking to them regularly,
and the cynical part of me thinks that most of the time
            what they’re hearing is the result of their own fertile imaginations
            combined with wishful thinking.
But do I think God speaks?
            Honestly, I have to say yes.
I don’t think it happens very often,
            and I certainly don’t think it is a get-out clause
                        for us taking responsibilities for our own decisions;
but yes, I do think God sometimes speaks into our lives.
The clearest example of this I can give you from my own experience
            was about eleven years ago, when I was interviewed for a job.
As the interview day progressed,
            I was feeling increasingly uneasy,
and at lunchtime I took a few moments to sit quietly on my own.
And I heard myself say to myself, quite clearly,
            that this job will be a gag and a straightjacket.
It was to have been a role working across churches,
            and I knew that if I was offered it and took it,
I would be unable to speak my convictions
            and take action on issues that matter to me.
So I withdrew from the process.
I remain convinced that that was God’s Spirit,
            nudging me into a course of action.
And of course what happened was that within a few months
            I was in conversation with Bloomsbury,
and the call to come and minister here was so strong, and so compelling,
            and such a contrast to the earlier experience.
But what if I hadn’t listened?
            Well, I’m sure God would have worked with that decision too.
I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea
            that there is only one divine plan for our lives
            and that our job is to find it or else!
God is far more creative than that,
            and far less controlling.
Something I notice from the story of the call of Samuel
            is that it emphasises the role that others play
            in the discernment of God’s call on a person’s life.
Without Eli’s help,
            Samuel would not have responded as he did.
And I wonder who it is
            that has helped you discern God’s call on your life?
I’m not just thinking here about career choices,
            although for some of us it does include that,
but God’s call on you to be most fully
            the person you have been created to be.
Jesus speaks of people experiencing life in all its fullness,
            and I think that this is not so much about what we do,
            as it is about who we are.
We are called to be ourselves, most fully and most truly,
            and to repent of and resist those things
            that distort the work of God in us.
But sometimes we need others to help here,
            to help us see ourselves clearly,
                        to hear the call of God on our lives,
            amidst all the other demands and distractions that assail us.
And in a parallel question, I wonder what is your role,
            in helping others discern God’s call on their lives?
How can you, and I, be Eli for others,
            prompting them to listen attentively
            and respond to the whisper of the Spirit in their life.
Can we develop the ears to hear and the eyes to see
            where God is active and moving in the world?
Can we learn to discern the mission of God,
            who is already at work in the world by the Spirit?
And can we find the courage to respond
            to the invitation to join in God’s mission,
whispering in the night,
            ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening’?
That song we sang together just a few minutes ago
            is one that is often used at induction services,
            and it’s not hard to see why.
            Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
            I have heard You calling in the night.
            I will go, Lord, If You lead me;
            I will hold Your people in my heart.
But in the story of Samuel’s call,
            the intensity of the night-time response to God’s voice
            comes swiftly back down to earth.
The thing is, the call of God
            is not always to a life of ease beside still waters.
Sometimes it is a steep and rugged pathway.
And Samuel’s first commission
            is to deliver a message of judgment to his mentor.
The innocent optimism and trust of ‘Here I am, Lord’
            runs straight up against the backdrop of corruption,
            lawlessness, and godlessness in the land.
As we’ve already heard, Israel was in turmoil,
            and the people were simply doing
            whatever was right in their own eyes.
This included Eli’s sons,
            who had a role within the nation as leaders and priests.
Just listen to what they had been getting up to:
1 Samuel 2.12-14, 22-24
Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord 13 or for the duties of the priests to the people.
When anyone offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant would come, while the meat was boiling, with a three-pronged fork in his hand, 14 and he would thrust it into the pan, or kettle, or caldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest would take for himself.
This is what they did at Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there.
Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 
He said to them, “Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all these people”...
But they would not listen to the voice of their father.
Eli’s sons were guilty of the age-old sins
            of money, sex, and power.
They were betraying the trust placed in them as leaders,
            and abusing their position for their own pleasure and gain.
It was, it seems, ever thus.
And what Samuel discovers
            as an innocent young boy serving in the house of God,
is that God’s tolerance for corrupt leadership is not unending.
God will not sit by forever
            whilst the innocent are abused and extorted.
But God’s action in judgment on such evil
            takes place through the lives
            of those who hear the call of God and respond with faithfulness.
Sometimes the role of the faithful
            is to stand up and name the evil in the land,
            and to take a stand against it.
This is not the same thing as Christian moralising,
            nor is it a holier-than-thou attitude towards others.
But when people are abusing others,
            God’s people have a role in highlighting the problem
            and taking action to change it.
Which is why the scandals that beset church leadership are so damaging.
If the people of God fail to safeguard the vulnerable in their own communities,
            and if the leaders of churches abuse their positions of power and trust,
            the mission of God to bring healing to the world is profoundly damaged.
This is why Samuel is called to take a stand
            and proclaim God’s judgment against the sons of Eli.
Having a famous and godly father is, in the end, no get-out clause,
            and they must answer for their abuse of power.
The recent report on church sexual abuse of minors in France makes grim reading,
            with over 200,000 children, mostly boys, having been abused since 1950.
It speaks of a church culture
            that tolerated and facilitated such actions.
But in this country too we have our ecclesial sins,
            from cases of clergy child abuse in all denominations,
to the systemic abuse of the LGBTQ community
            through widespread prejudice and enforced conversion therapy.
And it is true today, as it was in ancient Israel,
            that God’s judgment is against those
            who misuse their positions of trust and power,
and that God calls people to speak up and challenge such abuse.
But, the interesting lesson from the story of Samuel
            is that God doesn’t write off the idea of leadership.
Sometimes I hear people say that all politicians are as bad as each other,
            or that all clergy are corrupt and in it for their own gain.
And of course it isn’t true.
            Not all leaders are the same,
            but all are damaged by those who abuse their position.
So Samuel doesn’t just proclaim judgment
            on the abuse that marks the end of the time of the Judges,
he also anoints both Saul and David as Kings of Israel.
Sometimes reform is needed,
            and whether it’s Martin Luther
                        challenging the selling of indulgences,
            or Dr Martin Luther King
                        challenging institutional racism,
sometimes those who use their leadership positions to perpetuate evil,
            and the systems that facilitate them,
need to be broken down under the axe of God’s prophetic judgement.
But God continues to call people to leadership and to service.
            God continues to call people to life in all its fullness,
                        and to confront all that demeans and distorts
                        the image of God in each precious created being.
Jesus says,
            My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
            I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
            No one will snatch them out of my hand.
So, today, can you hear the call on your life?
The call to join with God in God’s mission to the world, to draw all people and all things into the eternal embrace of divine love?
The call to challenge evil, to speak up against oppression, to work for justice, both within and beyond the walls of the church?
The call to follow Jesus, wherever that path leads.
The call to be, most fully and truly, the person you were made to be.

[1] The opening part of this sermon draws on the commentary here:

Friday, 8 October 2021

Enough is Enough!

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
10 October 2021


John 6.25-35

Did you know that we have a ‘just in time’ supply chain in the UK?
            For food, manufactured goods, and of course petrol.

Much has been written about the effect of Brexit
            on this system of manufacture and delivery,
creating bottlenecks of labour shortage
            that make it vulnerable and fragile to changes in customer demand.
What struck me as I was preparing for today’s sermon on Manna in the wilderness,
            is that the recent petrol supply problems were caused by a change in behaviour,
            with the average re-fill of a tank jumping from 24 litres to 29 litres.
People got worried by news reports
            that they might not be able to get petrol tomorrow,
so they quite understandably decided that they had better fill up today,
            to ensure they had enough in hand for the journey they had planned tomorrow.
This sudden average increase of just 5 litres per petrol transaction
            led to the situation many of us have found ourselves in,
of experiencing empty fuel stations and long queues,
            as the bottleneck of driver availability
                        led to an inability in the supply chain
                        to respond to the increase in customer demand.
Well, you may be wondering quite what this all has to do
            with the biblical story of Manna in the wilderness?
And I want to suggest this morning that what we have here
            is an ancient parable of economics,
that can speak powerfully to two interconnected issues
            that affect our lives today.
I think these two areas are encapsulated
            in the example of the recent petrol supply problem.
So firstly I want us to think about politics,
            and secondly I want us to think about our environment.
The supply chain problem speaks to the world of politics,
            the way we choose to order our society;
and our ongoing reliance on fossil fuels
            speaks to the way we relate to environmental concerns,
            particularly the climate crisis.
These to concerns are also encapsulated
            in two current rounds of political meetings;
firstly the recent party conferences,
            and secondly the forthcoming COP26
            United Nations Climate Change Conference.
So: politics and the environment,
            two of the defining issues of our time.
Let’s dig back now into the book of Exodus
            and see what ancient wisdom we might hear for ourselves and our world.
If you were with us last week,
            you will remember that we were with Moses on Mount Sinai,
            encountering the call of God in the burning bush.
By the time we re-join the story in today’s reading
            Moses has led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt,
                        through the waters of the Red Sea, and into the  wilderness of Sin,
            at the start of what will end up being 40 years of wandering
                        before they find themselves at the entrance to the Promised Land.
And when we meet them here in Chapter 16,
            the people of God are complaining.
They are finding the wilderness hard,
            and are indulging in nostalgia for what have suddenly become
            ‘the good old days’ of slavery in Egypt.
They are hungry,
            and they remember with longing the flesh-pots of Egypt,
quickly forgetting the crack of the whip and the sweat of the brow
            of their generations of enslavement.
I think it is significant here
            that the context for the gift of the Manna from heaven,
            is the people looking back with nostalgia.
There is something about us, as humans,
            that tends us towards and idealisation of the past,
and this can seriously hamper our ability
            to take good decisions about the future.
The people of Israel at this point would rather have turned back to Egypt,
            than they would continue their journey
                        through the uncertainty of the wilderness
            in the hope of a better future.
And we do this too, both collectively and individually.
At a national level, our political discourse is dominated
            by populist resistance to change.
Whether the issue is immigration, education, or taxation,
            those who promise to recover the glories of the past do well at the polls,
whilst those who offer a less certain road to a different future
            are ridiculed and side-lined.
Just look at the way the prophets of our time,
            people such as Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai,
are belittled and silenced by those who speak
            in defence of the status quo.
And yet we ignore these prophets at our peril!
If we do not find a more sustainable way of ordering our society,
            and of living with our planet,
the cost in terms of human suffering will be immense.
But we also indulge in nostalgia at a more parochial level too.
            We do it in church life!
How often have you heard someone say
            how much better it used to be?
Like the Israelites in the wilderness
            we too can look back with rose tinted spectacles,
                        to a now-past golden age,
            to the church as it was when we first fell in love with it.
But I’ll guarantee you this:
            if you went back to that point in time, and listened carefully,
                        you would hear someone saying
                        how much better things were in ‘the good old days’.
The truth before us is the same truth
            discovered by the people of Israel in the wilderness:
            we have to stop looking back and start looking forwards.
This is true of our society,
            it is true of our approach to the climate crisis,
            and it is also true of our church.
At our church meeting in a couple of weeks
            we will be praying and discerning together
about how we will rebuild our congregational life
            as we emerge from the pandemic.
And we will have to be honest together
            about what has been lost.
In some ways it feels to me like we are emerging from a time of war.
            We have been in survival mode for the last 18 months,
                        as the bombs of COVID-19 have fallen on us and our society.
            We have worked hard, pulled together,
                        and kept the show on the road.
But now we are taking stock and realising
            that much of what we previously valued
            about our church community life together
            has been destroyed.
For better or worse, we have passed together through the waters of the Pandemic,
            and now we are in the unknown territory of the wilderness on the other side.
We cannot go back, no matter how much we might want to,
            and looking back with nostalgia will not help us
            in our new vocation of looking forwards.
And this is where God comes into the story,
            where faith starts to take shape in our lives,
                        our community, and our society.
Because what the people of Israel in the wilderness had to learn
            was that the provision of God in the present
            doesn’t necessarily look like it did in the past.
The nourishment of God’s people is not an eternal supply of Christian quiche,
            and we will need to discover together
the new ways in which God will feed us, nourish us, and strengthen us
            for the journey ahead.
The things that sustained our community in the past
            may no longer be possible in the new normal of our present,
but God has not abandoned us,
            and God will continue to give us all that we need
            to be the people of God in our time and our world.
Sam Wells, from St Martin the Fields,
            suggests that churches look to what they have,
            not to what they don’t have, or no longer have,
because all the resources we need
            to fulfil our calling as God’s people are already given to us.
The manna for today, sufficient for today,
            is already there on the ground before us,
            waiting to be picked up.
For too long churches have seen themselves as communities of strength,
            either in terms of numbers or wealth,
and they have acted out of their accumulated abundance
            to minister to the needs of the needy.
The lesson of the manna is that it is the daily dependence on God’s provision
            that builds the people of God.
We are not called to do things to others from our position of strength,
            but to act with others to build justice in the world.
This is why our partnership with London Citizens is so significant,
            as we act alongside others,
to bring about ‘the world as it should be’
            from the ashes of ‘the world as it is’.
And so we lift our eyes from our own concerns as a community of faith,
            to the wider issues of politics and the environment,
and we discover that the lesson there is that same:
            the economy of God is an economy of sufficiency.
The prophetic word we bring to society,
            and which we live into being in our lives,
            is that enough is enough.
The parable of the manna directly challenges
            the ideology of free market capitalism.
At the Conservative Party Conference last week,
            the Prime Minister said that the UK has
                        one of the most ‘unbalanced societies and lop-sided economies’
                        when compared to other richer countries.
He went on, ‘It is not just that there is a gap
            between London and the South-East
            and the rest of the country;
there are aching gaps within the regions themselves.’
And of course he’s absolutely right.
The rich are getting richer,
            and the poor are getting poorer.
The stories John told us earlier about the plight of those in prison
            demonstrates this so very clearly.
The rhetoric of ‘levelling up’,
            based on a commendable aspiration to address poverty and inequality,
is predicated on creating opportunities
            for those living in disadvantaged areas to improve their lot;
through economic growth, job creation,
            and attention to health and wellbeing.
In other words, it is based on creating a context
            where the poor can themselves start the process of accumulating wealth.
Whether this will work or not remains to be seen,
            and I hope that much good will come of it.
But I also hear the words of Jesus
            that ‘the poor you will always have with you’;
and I hear the lesson of the manna
            that the economy of God is an economy of sufficiency,
                        where everyone has enough;
and I wonder what the reality will be
            for those whose experience of exclusion and deprivation
                        reduces their capacity to grasp the new world of ‘levelling up’ opportunity
            that will, apparently, open before them.
Last year I preached a sermon the idea of Universal Basic Income,
            using the story of Manna from heaven,
and I still think we need more radical policies of wealth redistribution
            than simply creating opportunities.
Will it be the fault of the poor if they remain poor?
I fear for the victim-blaming rhetoric
            that can so easily creep into our national discourse,
and I remain convinced that the problem of inadequate provision at one end of society
            can only be solved by addressing the exorbitant consumption
            and accumulation at the other end.
And as Christians, as the people of God in the wilderness of this world,
            we have a role to play in modelling a better way of being human,
of embodying in our communities the economy of God,
            and of using our public voice to speak prophetically to our society
                        that enough is enough,
            and that unregulated accumulation by the few at the expense of the many,
                        is a deficient vision of human society.
This isn’t just about who you vote for, although it is that;
            it is about how you, how I, how we,
                        relate to the resources in our lives,
            how we spend our money, how we use our time.
Can we inhabit together the economy of God,
            which understands God’s gifts of nourishment and sustenance as sheer gift,
            to be held lightly, given generously, and shared fairly?
Can we become those who work for justice
            in ways that build collaboration rather than hierarchy,
            co-operation rather than dependency?
The manna of God’s provision speaks of a world
            where accumulation is resisted, and resources are shared.
And this is where we come to the second strand I want us to consider today,
            the way we relate to our environment.
Hopefully on the way in you saw our wonderful new banner,
            which I find both beautiful and terrifying in equal measure,
as it shows how global average temperatures
            have risen over nearly two centuries,
with the stark band of deep red stripes
            showing the rapid heating of our planet in recent decades.
Manna was a gift that fell from heaven;
            and bread is made from wheat that grows as it is watered by the rain.
All that sustains life is a gift given to us
            by the planet we inhabit.
Scientists tell us that there are enough resources on this earth
            for all to be fed, and live well, and to do so sustainably.
But the reality of our situation is that many starve
            whilst others accumulate vast resources.
We are where we are because we have constructed
            unsustainable patterns of consumption,
            and created mechanism that promote hoarding.
If we can recover the notion of gift
            in our economic models and systems,
this will subvert those practices predicated on taking.
If we can learn the lesson of the manna that enough is enough,
            we can offer a vital challenge to a world
                        that needs to change, and change rapidly,
            if the worst outcomes of climate change are to be avoided.
We can’t go back,
            and once again nostalgia and denial are no help to us here.
But by faith I believe that it is true,
            that God has already given us the resources
            to address the demands of the present.
A better future is, by the grace of God, still a possibility;
            and never has the world needed the people of God
            more than it does right now.
Jesus’ description of himself as ‘the bread of life’,
            spoken in the context of the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness of Judea,
invites us to see him as the manna from heaven,
            as the gift of God that comes by grace alone,
who calls people to lives of generosity and justice,
            care-full of all that has been made.
It also invites us to understand our calling as the people of Christ,
            the body of Christ bound together by his Spirit,
to be the embodiment in this world of the new humanity.
We are called to be those who respect God’s creation,
            and who live lives resistant to the sin of hoarding.
Can we discover, with the Israelites in the wilderness,
            that the economy of God invites us into a world of sufficiency,
                        where enough is enough.
And can we then join with others
            to proclaim the God-given truth to our world
            that there is a better way of being human?
This is why I am so proud of this church’s participation over the last year
            in the Just Transition campaign through London Citizens,
in which we engaged with the Mayor’s commitment
            to make London a Zero Carbon city by 2030,
successfully challenging him to create 60,000 good green jobs
            and upgrade 100,000 fuel poor homes by the end of 2024.
And it’s why we are teaming up, again through London Citizens,
            with other churches across the West End,
to challenge every church in our area to set their own house in order,
            by getting their own buildings to zero emissions
            through the Eco Church accreditation scheme.
For faith to be meaningful, I believe it must take shape in action,
            in ways that are transformative of our world.
This is the calling of the people of God,
            to say, loudly and clearly, to ourselves and all humanity:
            that enough is enough!