Archives for posts with tag: catastrophe

Sermon for Evensong on the 5th Sunday after Trinity, 1st July 2018

Psalm 53, Jeremiah 11:1-14, Romans 13:1-10

‘…the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God’ (Romans 1:1,2)

Wow! Is St Paul saying that all governments are ‘ordained by God’, and therefore right, therefore to be obeyed, in every case?

What about, obviously what about, President Trump? Are people supposed to regard his government as ‘ordained by God’? Separating little children brutally from their parents. Denouncing climate change treaties. Lying blatantly in public. How could God be behind that sort of thing?

But why pick on President Trump? We can immediately think of awful things that many governments, including our own, have done over the ages. Who invented concentration camps, for example? It wasn’t Adolf Hitler – it was us, in the Boer War. What about Victor Orban in Hungary putting up barriers against poor refugees that the EU, to which Hungary belongs, have agreed to take; or the ‘hostile environment’ for black people which our own government created, with such unjust and cruel consequences for the ‘Windrush Generation’, those West Indians who came at our invitation to drive our buses and be nurses in our hospitals? It doesn’t look at all plausible that all governments, at all times, reflect the will of God.

Think of the terrible controversy over ‘Brexit’. There is no love lost between the factions – and the government seems to be stuck. There’s no clear government policy which we could obey, even if we wanted to. But I’ll come back to that.

And what if you are ‘the powers that be’, if you are a member of the government? Can you claim to be ‘ordained by God’? President Trump might really go for that one, I’m sure.

This all looks pretty unsatisfactory. It looks as though St Paul was as unenlightened about obeying the government of the day as he looks to have been about the status and role of women.

But what about the rule of law? As a Jew, Paul was very conscious of the value of law – in their case, of the Jewish Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch. Jesus had said that he had not come to abolish the law – Matthew 5:17 – but to fulfil it. The rule of law looks less open to abuse than the power of rulers, almost by definition: ‘Be ye ever so high, the law is above you’, as Lord Denning said.

And come to think of it, Jesus himself said something very similar to what Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, when he said, ‘Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, holding up a Roman coin and asking whose head was on it (Mark 12:17, cf. Romans 13:7 – or in Luke 20:22). It seems rather odd, in the context that, at the time when Jesus and, later, Paul were telling people to obey the government, that government was the brutal occupying power of the Roman empire.

That is perhaps why the picture of the ruling authorities which Paul paints is so fierce:

But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Romans 13:4).

He carries a sword. He’s not Dixon of Dock Green. I have to say, in passing, that even today, I do feel rather uncomfortable when I see what our policemen and WPCs are wearing. No more policemen’s helmets and smart blue uniforms with silver buttons. Now they look like storm troopers from Mad Max 2, with ghastly baseball caps. I need one of our police members of St Mary’s please to explain! I must be missing something.

I think that, if we take into account the historical context of St Paul’s letter, we can understand that, for example, as the leading Pauline scholar James Dunn from Durham has said [Dunn, J.D.G., (1998) 2005, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London, T & T Clark, pp 674f], this apparent ‘quietism’ in the face of what were often bad, oppressive governments was partly explained as being in accordance with the Jewish tradition that there was ‘wisdom’ in government and wisdom shown by rulers – the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’, for instance – but also that putting up with rulers was ‘the realism of the little people, of the powerless’. (Dunn p. 679).

The church, at this early stage, (Paul was writing within 20 years of the Crucifixion), was a series of secret ‘house churches’, cell groups. As such, they were more vulnerable than the Jews in their synagogues. The Romans knew what the Jews were, and tolerated them – indeed, they gave them some devolved, delegated authority, so day to day power was passed down to King Herod. But although Christianity started as a Jewish sect, St Paul had succeeded in widening it out so as to appeal also to non-Jews, ‘Gentiles’ as well. As such, the Romans might well have regarded the Christians as seditious, as revolutionaries like the Zealots. Indeed, one of the disciples, the other Simon, not Simon Peter, was indeed a ‘Zealot,’ according to Luke chapter 6.

So the early Christians would not have wanted to draw the authorities’ attention to themselves, in case they were pursued as being terrorists like the Zealots. But arguably the most important thing for St Paul was what he said about how obedience to the law – and he didn’t distinguish between the Jewish law and the law of the land – how obedience to the law, and therefore how obedience to the government – depends on Jesus’ great new commandment, to love one another. He says,

‘Leave no claim outstanding against you, except that of mutual love. He who loves his neighbour has satisfied every claim of the law.

For the commandments, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet’, and any other commandment there may be, are all summed up in the one rule,

Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love cannot wrong a neighbour; therefore the whole law is fulfilled by love.’ (Romans 13:8-9, NEB)

I think that gives us another angle. There’s a hierarchy of authority under God here. Some ‘powers’ trump – sorry, bad word – some ‘powers’ have higher authority than that which the ‘powers that be’ have, albeit those powers are ordained by the Almighty. We are, after all, all children of God, some better than others. Think what tonight’s rather dystopian Psalm, Psalm 53, says.

God looked down from heaven upon the children of men

to see if there were any, that would understand, and seek after God.

But they are all gone out of the way, they are altogether become abominable

there is also none that doeth good, no not one.

So with other things that God has made. He may have made better things. We can still use our critical faculties to assess whether a given regime conforms with Jesus’ rule of love.

This chapter 13 in the Letter to the Romans comes just after a line in the previous chapter, which, I think, confirms the overall rationale. Paul says,

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)

His words are a strong echo of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Paul says:

Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not.

Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.

Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.

Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

So what you have to do, Paul suggests, is not let yourself be sidetracked into sterile opposition against whichever politician it is you disapprove of, but overcome what you think they do wrong they do by putting good deeds up against it as far as you can, and ultimately turning the other cheek. Those are the marks of a true Christian.

Perhaps I can leave you with my own personal conundrum here. I would stress that it is only my personal view.

Our government is apparently committed, by what it calls ‘the will of the people’, expressed in a referendum in which 37% voted in favour, to leave the EU. I personally believe that unless this ‘Brexit’ is stopped, our country faces catastrophe. I acknowledge that many other people don’t agree with me.

Does St Paul have anything to say here? I just do not believe that what he says means that Christians have to support our government. I think that it is much more believable that our system of government, in which a loyal opposition plays a vital part, could indeed have been ‘ordained by God’. A Christian must obey the system, the apparatus of government: but they can still choose to support either the government or the opposition.

And I do hope and pray that everyone on each side of the Brexit issue will eventually rise above it and become friends again. But first, I think we have to find a way, indeed perhaps by prayer, to avoid a catastrophe.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 12th July 2015
Job 4:1; 5:6-27

Why do bad things happen? Has it got anything to do with God? Sadly, we’ve had several cases in point in the last couple of weeks. This week we remembered the ‘7/7’ bombings. Last week there was the dreadful shooting of tourists in Tunisia. Before then, more shootings of innocent people, in a church in the United States.

Poor old Job had a similar experience. He was a rich and successful livestock farmer. He had a large and happy family.

‘There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.
And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters.
His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of the east.’

Then various disasters struck, and he lost everything; even his family were killed in a hurricane which destroyed the house they were staying in. The story in the first chapter of the Book of Job puts it all down to Satan, who had challenged the Lord God: strike down Job, he tempted, and he will curse you. The Lord didn’t exactly fall for the temptation, but

‘… the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.’

So according to the story, Job came to grief not at the hand of God, but of Satan – or perhaps more relevantly, he came to grief not as a result of anything he himself had done. Job is portrayed as a wholly good man. But nevertheless something, some external force, has brought disaster on him.

That’s quite an important step. There is an idea in parts of the Bible called technically ‘eudaimonism’, according to which, if you become ill or suffer misfortune, it is because you have done something wrong, you have sinned against God: and God has punished you. For example in St Matthew chapter 9:

And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’, not, ‘Here’s some medicine for your palsy.’ In this theory, illness is caused by, is a punishment for, sin.

Here, in Job’s case, it’s made quite clear that Job isn’t the author of his own misfortune. But I would just pause there, and say that eudaimonism isn’t an attractive idea anyway. Would a God of love make people ill? How would it be if, when you met someone who was poorly, your first thought was not, ‘I hope you get better soon’, but, ‘What did you do wrong, in order to bring your suffering upon yourself?’

And at first Job doesn’t blame anyone. He worships God and accepts his terrible lot. Then along come his three friends, the original Job’s Comforters.

In tonight’s lesson we hear from the first one, Eliphaz. His explanation for Job’s trouble is that troubles are just part of being human. There’s no-one specific to blame. Just put your trust in God, God

‘Which doeth great things and unsearchable; marvellous things without number:
Who giveth rain upon the earth, and sendeth waters upon the fields:
To set up on high those that be low; that those which mourn may be exalted to safety.’

It reminds me of the Magnificat: ‘Who hath exalted the humble and meek, but the rich he hath sent empty away.’

That doesn’t seem to me to offer Job much real comfort. If God has the power to right wrongs, to impose justice – then why has He allowed suffering to take place at all? If God is so capable, why has He allowed Job to get into trouble? This is something which still troubles us today. Even people with the strongest faith can find that it is tested to destruction. There was a moving dramatic recreation, on the TV this week, of the story of Rev. Julie Nicholson, whose daughter was caught up in one of the bombings on 7/7, and was killed. This terrible loss effectively destroyed the mother’s faith, and her ministry in the church. She just couldn’t square the idea of a loving God with what had happened.

Eliphaz goes on with a fine piece of Job’s Comfort:

‘Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty:’

I have never understood why people receiving punishment are supposed to be grateful for it. There are all those school stories involving corporal punishment, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays onwards. It is nonsense – and in a rather sinister way, getting the victim of brutality to thank the perpetrator, must be intended somehow to amount to consent – so that ‘volenti non fit injuria’.

This is the legal principle that ‘to a willing man, it does not turn into a hurt’, it does not become the cause of legal action. This is why rugby matches do not usually end up in the High Court, even when people are seriously injured. It is surely nonsense in this context. Hurting someone by way of punishment is not something which can or should be consented to by the person being punished.

But to go back to Eliphaz. He has introduced the idea that God may punish. He may punish, may do harm – but it’s all right, because He will heal the wounds afterwards.

‘For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole.’

I suppose this is a refinement of the earlier idea that God is good, God only does good things – which clearly seems not to be true.

But God does everything. God is the creator and sustainer of all – so He must make or do bad things as well as good. The created world needs light and shade, black and white, good and bad.

But if in a given instance, in your bit of creation, you encounter the bad side, you may still, quite naturally, want to protest, to cry out against God in pain. ‘Why me?’ you will ask.

Eliphaz accepts this, and says that although there may be pain and suffering, God will heal and comfort. That’s the first part of what he says. But then he says that God ‘reproves’, ‘correcteth’. Although Job may think himself to be blameless, perhaps he isn’t.

Eliphaz’ first scenario is where the person who suffers is innocent: the second is where they are somehow at fault. But God still puts things right –

‘He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee.’

There is an echo here of the Jewish idea of the Sabbath, the seventh day, the seventh year, the jubilee, the day of the Lord’s favour. It is described in Isaiah 61, which Jesus quoted in Luke 4:18-19 –

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Just in passing, I’m uneasy about the way that the restrictions on Sunday trading have been relaxed in this week’s Budget. Of course, we Christians have changed the original sabbath from Saturday to Sunday – it happened when the Romans adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, in the fourth century. Some people have said that one reason for changing from Saturday to Sunday was to get away from the Jewish idea of jubilee, of relief from debt and time off for recreation.

Canon Giles Fraser indeed commented this week that Sunday has become a day of worship – of shopping, not of God.[http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2015/jul/10/money-is-the-only-god-the-tories-want-us-to-worship-on-a-sunday] The thing which worries me is that for many people, Sunday will become just another working day.

The Jewish idea of the Sabbath, when, on the seventh day, the Lord of creation rested from his labours, is still vitally important today. Perhaps it is right that the weekly day of rest should not automatically be Sunday: perhaps it is better that the business of life (or the life of business) should not stop only on Sundays. But I do hope that the government realises that there must be a right for people to have a day off each week. I hope they – and the other European governments – remember about debt relief in the Greek context too.

Things do come right for Job. He gets his family back, and his sheep, and oxen, and camels, even more than he lost before. At the end, the Lord acknowledges that, unlike his friends, Job hasn’t tried to explain away how God works, and somehow thereby put himself above God. He hasn’t tried to be clever. He has just accepted that God is more than he can see or understand, and that God has infinite power.

There are things which we can’t understand. Awful things. But God has assured us, revealed Himself to us. In the Old Testament, He appeared through the prophets: for us, He has appeared in Jesus Christ. We have to acknowledge that this will not of itself take away our pain. But we can believe that God is there, God cares for us. He has told us what to do with pain and suffering. The answer is in Matt.25:35-40.

‘For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’

We have the power to feed the hungry: we have the power to heal the sick: we have the power to house the homeless: we can accept the refugees. We ought to do something about it. And then, just as Job found out, the Kingdom of heaven will be ours.

‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.’ [Rev. 21:4-5]