Archives for posts with tag: atonement

Sermon for 4th October 2020 – St Michael and All Angels (transferred from 29th September); St Francis of Assisi: Animal Welfare Sunday: on Zoom

Revelation 12:7-12; Luke 15:3-7 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=468720899)

St Francis of Assisi (unknown artist), from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Francis-of-Assisi/images-videos, accessed 8th October 2020

Today we commemorate St Michael and All Angels, and St Francis and his love for animals. 

Blessings of the animals and pet services are usually great fun, especially for the children – although perhaps a bit less so for their parents, who have to catch the hamsters, cats and other exotic creatures which escape from their baskets during the service. We don’t have that problem, because all our pets are with us at home and they are only appearing and being blessed, like us, on Zoom. But I still think that it is important that our beloved animals, our furry friends, should have the benefit of a blessing at least once a year. In saying Saint Francis’ prayer and in blessing the animals, as we’re going to do, we are giving thanks for all God’s work in creation. 

But what about those angels? I am what is called a liberal theologian, which means (among other things) that I am not wedded to taking everything in the Bible absolutely literally. I think this passage about war breaking out in heaven and the battle between Michael and his angels and the Dragon, known as Satan and the Devil on other occasions, is a good case in point. I dare say if we were in the south of Italy, where they are more used to miracles, we would hear this lesson from the book of Revelation without batting an eyelid. We wouldn’t be too troubled about exactly where heaven was or what the Dragon really represented – or indeed possibly who the Devil was. But we do understand the contrast between good and evil and the way in which frequently, in order to uphold the right and the good, there has to be a battle. 

‘Guido Reni’s resplendently theatrical depiction of St Michael, part Roman soldier, part ballet dancer, was painted in 1635 and can be seen in the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Rome.’ (Andrew Graham-Dixon at https://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/itp-238-st-michael-archangel-by-guido-reni.html, accessed 8th October 2020)

We will notice in passing that it is not George who slays the Dragon but Michael, although the stories are a bit similar. Also there is seemingly a second fight. It’s not just Michael. The good angels have conquered the serpent as well, the Dragon, ‘by the blood of the Lamb, by the word of their testimony and by their willingness to die’ for the cause.

So there are perhaps two stories here. One is the story of the war in heaven between Archangel Michael and the great dragon, a.k.a. Lucifer, the devil; and the other, where salvation is achieved and victory over evil by the blood of the lamb. 

In Jewish tradition there is this idea of a scapegoat, which could also be a ‘scape-lamb’; you read in Leviticus chapter 16 how this is supposed to work sacramentally, where all the sins of the people are symbolically loaded on the back of a lamb or a goat which is then cast off into the desert. In a sacramental sense, the scapegoat ‘takes the burden’ of the people’s sins, and dies for those sins. You can say that the lamb died for the sake of the people’s sin. It is very similar to the idea of what Jesus has done, ‘dying for our sins’ on the cross.

The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt (1854-1856) in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Liberal theologians like me have difficulty with the idea that a loving God would have demanded a human sacrifice, but certainly we can follow the development of the idea of the ‘atonement’, as it is called, by Jesus on the cross, by looking at the Jewish tradition of the scapegoat. 

You might think, from this story of the scapegoat, that people at the time of Jesus might not have been very nice to animals. But I don’t think we can necessarily draw that conclusion. There are many instances in the Bible where Jesus appears to love and care for animals. In the sermon on the Mount: ‘Behold the fowls of the air: they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them’ [Matt.6:26]; and as we can see in the parable of the lost sheep and indeed the other parable of the good Shepherd, Jesus certainly didn’t just think of lambs in the context of sacrifice, but rather as animals to love and care for. 

And this is one of the things which produced Saint Francis of Assisi’s distinctive theology, his famous preaching to the animals and his love for all creation. ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Brother Moon’, for instance. So on this feast of Saint Francis of Assisi it’s entirely right that we should bless the animals and bring them before the Lord in prayer. In a minute I will ask you to find your pets or pet pictures and put them up for a blessing.

But first, a final thought. This is the last of these Zoom Eucharists and we have become, I think, a proper little congregation. A proper little flock. Soon we will return to the various churches that we came from, as they are able to reopen for worship.

It seems to me that it would be nice to do something, to give some tangible expression to our gathering in the name of the Lord, every Sunday for the last few months. We could, of course, pass the plate round, and we would have to do it virtually using PayPal or something similar. But I think I’ve got a better idea. 

It occurred to me that on the day when we are blessing the animals, we should try to help our various zoos – Regent’s Park,  Whipsnade, Chester and Bristol (where I still hear Johnny Morris in my head) and all the others. They are all having a very hard time. Feeding all the animals at Regent’s Park, at London Zoo, for example, costs £1 million per month. So my suggestion is that, as we give thanks for creation and all the wonderful animals that the Lord has created, we should all consider taking a trip to the nearest zoo to where we are in the next week or two. I think that zoos are eminently safe places to visit even in the Covid epidemic, and the price of admission, if enough people turn up, will help to restore their finances. [Donations – https://tinyurl.com/y2m75jd4, https://www.chesterzoo.org/support-us/, https://bristolzoo.org.uk/save-wildlife/bristol-zoological-society-appeal, or to help a wonderful zoo in Hamburg, https://www.hagenbeck.de/de/_news/tierpark/Unterstuetzung_FAQ.php ]

We shouldn’t forget that the animals themselves will be very pleased to see us, because, as we ourselves have found, being locked down in quarantine with nobody to see is very lonely and no fun. I think that Jesus the Good Shepherd would want you to find out where your nearest zoo is and go and see all the lovely animals in it, very soon. 

Blessing of the Animals

Now we are going to bless all animals. If you have any with you, or any pictures of animals whom you used to have, please do bring them into the picture.

Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. 

You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. 

You inspired Saint Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. 

We ask you to bless all animals, and those which are or were our pets. 

By the power of your love, enable them to live in peace and harmony. 

May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. 

Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures!

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 22nd July 2018

Job 13:13-14:6, Hebrews 2:5-18

I’m always struck by how personal the relationship between the Israelites and God is. In the Old Testament, actually to see God face to face is fatal. There needs to be a prophet or a priest to go into the inner sanctum and intercede for you. But still, God speaks to the Israelites, through the prophets.

Here in our OT lesson, Job, an innocent man who nevertheless has been dreadfully stricken, is making a speech to God. What have I done to deserve this? What are the specifics of your charges, God?

It implies that Job doesn’t think of God as being a random sadist. He wants to have a courtroom battle, with charges and a defence, before the throne of judgement. It implies that, even though Job is suffering way beyond what he could possibly attribute to any crimes he might have done, this isn’t the sentence of a court after reaching its judgement in a careful and considered way. Job wants his day in court.

I warn you now that there are going to be two elephants in this room. Just keep that in the back of your mind for the next few minutes.

What Job is suffering is something he doesn’t blame God for, although he can’t understand why God would want to do it to him. By contrast, in our second lesson, in the Letter to the Hebrews, the undeserving sufferer is Jesus himself. Although He was innocent, not guilty of any sins or wickedness, Jesus was made to suffer, as part of the mechanism of our salvation.

Jesus had to enter into our human nature in order to be like us in every respect, to take upon himself the burden of our sins, following the Jewish idea of a scapegoat. In Judaism there was a sacramental idea of symbolically loading all one’s mistakes and sins on to the back of a sacramental animal, a goat or sheep, and sending it out into the desert to fend for itself – to starve to death, in reality.

It was a sort of homeopathic remedy. You exposed yourself to the thing that had hurt you.

I think you could be forgiven for having rested your eyes during the first part of this sermon. You might say, a massive ‘So what?’ What has poor old Job got to do with us, today? And what does it really do for us, in order to bring us to Jesus, to study a recondite theory of atonement?

I worried about that, about the lack of some contemporary relevance, when I was preparing this sermon. I had just read a challenging article in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin [accessed at https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/springsummer2018/understanding-white-evangelical-views-immigration] called ‘Understanding White Evangelical Views on Immigration’, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.

The article’s thesis was this. The Evangelical mega-churches in the US deep South are predominantly white, and they profess that nothing is more authoritative in their belief than the literal words of the Bible. ‘Sola scriptura’, only Scripture, matters. And, by the way, this isn’t meant to be specifically directed against one denomination rather than another.

Holy Scripture is overwhelmingly in favour of our helping the stranger, the alien, the refugee in our midst. Immigrants are to be protected and supported. The line of references stretches from Deuteronomy, with its injunction to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger that is within your midst, to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We are all children of God; where we have come from, whether it was a palace or a bomb-site in Syria, is a matter of luck, the ‘accident of birth’.

And so we might expect that the white Evangelical churches, and their congregations, would be supportive of immigration, would welcome strangers. But all the surveys apparently show the exact opposite. No-one is more against these strangers, orphans, poor and in need, than the white evangelicals.

The causes of this are investigated in the article. The history of the Cold War and the perceived Communist threat to world order, the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the ‘domino theory’; then 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’, when the threat to the American way of life was identified with Moslem kids hanging around on street corners, all had influences.

America, so the theory ran, needed to be protected – protected by strong men, ‘the meanest so-and-so’s you could find’, as they described it. Even one of the evangelical church leaders put it in exactly those terms:

In light of ongoing and ever-present threats, many evangelicals have concluded that we need strong men, and a strongman. For this reason, President Trump’s “character flaws” aren’t the stumbling block we might expect them to be. In the words of Rev. Robert Jeffress: “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”

‘President Trump’s character flaws’. Bet you were wondering when The Donald, as they used to call him, would come up. Well yes, here he is. Why would the Bible Belt in the southern USA have voted for him, when his character was – is – so inimical to the values of generosity, kindness and openness to others that one finds in the Bible? So he’s the first elephant in the room.

And Pres. Trump does have some major character flaws. He is happy to separate little children from their parents and lock them up, with little hope of their being reunited, sometimes ever: because the little children were with their parents, who were deemed to be illegal immigrants. And he is a sexist, saying most unsavoury things about what he has felt able to do to women, because he is so powerful, that it somehow suspends his moral obligations. He is a xenophobe. He tells blatant lies. And so on. Not, we might have thought, a suitable person to be the most powerful individual in the world. And he claims, I believe, to be a Christian.

But equally worrying, I suggest, is that large numbers of the electorate in the USA, who also claim to be Christian, voted for him, and, according to the article, don’t think that the Bible is relevant, when questions of national sovereignty and immigration arise. The article says,

‘In fact, the Bible appears to hold little sway when it comes to immigration: a 2015 LifeWay Research poll found that 90 percent of all evangelicals say that “the Scripture has no impact on their views toward immigration reform.” Evangelicals, then, are not basing their views on scripture. Instead, they are acting out of a powerful, cohesive worldview—an ideology that is at the heart of their religious and political identity, an ideology influenced by conservative media sources but that is also deeply rooted in their own faith tradition.’

This morning I talked about what we believe, and how we reach those beliefs. Here, we are seeing that people who claim to be guided supremely by Scripture, by the Bible, are in fact relying on a ‘faith tradition’ which has very little derived from the Bible.

Poor old Americans! You will say. I agree – having Pres. Trump is not good, in so many ways. But here’s the second elephant. What about us? Do we recognise the Bible’s teaching in our lives, when it comes to difficult questions, maybe even political questions, on such matters as immigration? Do we really believe that we were all made in the image of God?

What do we really feel when we sing the Magnificat? ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and hath exalted the poor and meek’? Does it just wash over us like poor old Job’s troubles – ‘nothing to do with us’?

Does it really resonate with us that Jesus was a man, a human being just like you and me? If He was like us, are we like Him? Are we, really, like Him?

Something for us to think about. Maybe we ought not to have to suffer as Job did – but equally, ought we to be quite so blasé – if we are – blasé about how closely we are following Jesus?