REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY

HALIFAX MINSTER

12 November 2017





2017 IS A SPECIAL YEAR FOR REMEMBERING as we commemorate the centenary of the battle of Passchendaele.     I cannot remember that battle as I am ONLY 75 years old, but I can remember meeting and knowing many surviving soldiers from it. When I was a boy at home in Hertfordshire it was a common sight to see older men in the street with a leg or arm missing, or with an unsightly wound in the head.   The English master at my Grammar School, Jimmy Irwin, had only one arm, his left one.   His right arm had been shot off in the trenches at Passchendaele.   So he could only write on the blackboard with his left hand and it was largely illegible.   But Jimmy was a wonderful teacher who didn't really need to write on the blackboard, and he taught us so much, not just about English literature, but about the First World War.   Unsurprisingly we were introduced in no uncertain way to the poets of WWI, and so I was familiar with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon from an early age.



IT WAS JIMMY IRWIN who first implanted the notion in my head that WWI was not a glorious victory but a terrible tragedy in which millions of young men and women from all across Europe and beyond were killed or left wounded and scarred for life.   Fifty years after the event he was still commenting on the futility of it all.   Yet he also acknowledged that in some strange way it was the most memorable time of his life.   A time when he had made deep friendships with his comrades – friendships which had lasted a lifetime.   And a time when he had learned how precious is the gift of human life, and what a precarious gift it is.   Each moment of life, Jimmy taught us, is an opportunity for love and the service of others.   I've never forgotten that lesson.



ANOTHER OLD SOLDIER I spoke with on many occasions was my grandfather Flack.   He had been an “old contemptible” who had fought at Mons in the early weeks of the War in August 1914.   He was wounded there and invalided out of the Army until 1916 when he was sent to the trenches on the Somme and later on to Passchendaele.   He survived there somehow because he was a crack shot and was often hidden from view so that he could be a sniper.   He was one of those people who seemed to have no fear.   After the war he became a gamekeeper, and then a poacher.   Throughout WW2 we had wonderful dinners thanks to my grandfather's shooting skills, which he had honed on the Western Front.   He would not be parted from his gun and so we buried it with him when he died in 1976.  



IN THE EARLY YEARS OF MY PRIESTLY MINISTRY – in the 1970's – I was called upon many times to conduct the Funerals of soldiers from the First World War – those who, born in the 1890's, had survived the fighting and lived a normal life span.

I sat with some of those men while they died and listened as they sometimes called out “gas”   “look out boys”   “stretcher bearers” and other words emerging from their deep memories of the First World War.   They were taken back in their dying moments to the experiences of 60 years before.



SO IN THE FIRST 35 YEARS OF MY LIFE I got to know many people who had fought in the First World War, and especially at Passchendaele.   It has led me to have a fascination for it ever since. That fascination led me to a very special visit to the WWI battlefields two years ago where I saw for myself many of the places I had heard and read about over the years.   I visited Tyne Cot War Cmetery where many of the casualties at the battle of Passchendaele are buried. It brought me to tears.   Nowadays when bodies from Passchendaele are dug up (and they still are) they are buried with reverence together. British, French and German soldiers lie beside each other, average age 19 (repeat).   Since we moved to Wakefield two months ago I've been part of a small group studying what happened to the men of Wakefield in that war.   And yesterday I counted 27 books on my bookshelf about the history, significance and literature of Passchendaele and WW1. In those books some of the men who fought in that battle speak for themselves.  



Here's Private Walter Green, aged 20, caught in the trenches

The captain came along and said “I'm sorry but we're surrounded. There's three alternatives as far as I can see: we can fight it out, a lot of us being killed, or we can lay down our arms which means we will all be captured. The only other way is EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF.   See that church over there?   If you get through we'll meet there at 12 midnight.”   I was one of the few that got through.   At 12 midnight there were 7 of us who had survived, 7 out of the 25 who had set out.



Here's Lance Corporal Cecil Withers, aged 18, on sentry duty at night

It was pitch dark and there was a chap out in No Man's Land, wounded and unable to move, calling out for his Mum. A cockney private on duty with me said “it's no good him calling out for his Mum, he won't see her no more, he's a goner.” When your mind goes back to these occasions they come up like a record in your head, you can't help it.   It makes you very bitter.   I was only 18 years old when this happened. I can still hear the voice of that dying soldier asking for his Mum.



And here's Private Harold Lawton, aged 19, taken prisoner

I was taken prisoner sitting on the side of a ditch dazed after I had been hit by shrapnel.   I was taken to a fortress behind the German lines.   It was a truly awful place.   There was only dirty water to drink and a thin soup to eat with creepy-crawlies in it.   Somehow I survived.



Those at home experienced suffering of a different kind.   Here is Vera Brittain, a nurse in WW1, aged 20, on hearing of the death of her fiance Roland Leighton

I immediately went to visit Roland's parents. They were sitting in shocked silence. Only the ticking of their clock could be heard.   On the floor beside them was a brown paper parcel they had just opened. It contained Roland's army uniform, covered in blood and mud, French mud. It was mud that smelt of mortality, death mud. In that moment, breathing in the dreadful smell of Roland's shirt and trousers, I began to understand the reality of war, of decay, the finality of death. Oh, the futility of it all !

Later Vera Brittain was to become the mother of Lady Shirley Williams, who is still speaking publicly of her mother' experiences.



The futility of which Vera spoke was present in much of Wilfred Owen's poetry.   He was killed in the last week of the War : his parents, Susan and Tom Owen, received news of his death at their home in Shrewsbury in the afternoon of Armistice Day, November 11th 1918, while the rest of England was rejoicing.   Just weeks before his death, Wilfred Owen wrote a poem called “Futility” about a dead soldier lying in the trenches



Move him into the sun                                        If anything might rouse him now

Gently its touch awoke him once                        the kind old sun will know

at home, whispering of fields half sown             was it for this the day grew tall

always it woke him, even in France                   Oh what made fatuous sunbeams tall

Until this morning and this snow                       to break earth's sleep at all

                            

IT IS NOT SURPRISING that so many of the people caught up in WWI felt its utter futility.   They felt it so much that they prayed that it would be “the war to end all wars”.   Sadly we know that it was NOT “the war to end all wars”, and that almost as many people are engaged in warfare today as they were 100 years ago.



YET WE CAN TAKE COMFORT IN THE FACT THAT those who gave their lives in that terrible war 100 years ago, are now in God's hands.   As our first reading reminded us

the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them.   They are at peace and their hope is full of immortality.  

We enfold those killed in that war in our prayers and our love today.   Many of you here, like me, will have relatives who died at Passchendaele whom you never met but who are real to us nevertheless.



AS WE REMEMBER THEM, WE ARE BROUGHT, 100 YEARS LATER, to the need for prayer and to the ever-present need to commit ourselves to Peace.   That's why, in this service, in a few moments' time, we shall be making the Act of Commitment together.   Please turn to it now and read it silently to yourself, so that you have thought about it before you commit :

Lord God our Father / we pledge ourselves / to serve you and all humankind / in the cause of Peace / for the relief of want and suffering / and for the glory of your Name



WE MAKE THIS ACT OF COMMITMENT in the light of Jesus's words in this morning's second lesson, from the Sermon on the Mount

Blessed are the peace-makers for they will be called the children of God

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven



WE GIVE THANKS for the soldiers of the Great War today because we believe that, after their torment and suffering, they live in the love of Christ, and that nothing can separate them from the God who made us all.   I hope you will join with me in giving thanks for those young men and women today, and in praying for them in their new life which lasts for ever.

Holy Week at Halifax Minster, 2017 Canon Chris Barber



Maundy Thursday

 

Today, tomorrow and Sunday, I want to take you on a pilgrimage. Pilgrimages have been popular from the earliest days of the Christian church, and a must-do for many other religions too, like your Muslim neighbours here in Halifax. But for this one you will not go outside these church walls, except in imagination. All the same, we shall be seeking for God, as all true pilgrims do -seeking for him to tell us something about himself and ourselves, both as individuals and as a church.

It will start on an actual pilgrimage, though -one on which Mary and I and a miscellaneous party of Christians and non-Christians went to the Holy Land in Holy Week 1986. Our aircraft landed at Tel Aviv, a totally uninspiring place, on Maundy Thursday, and a coach tookus past modern kibbutzes straight to Jerusalem. Our hotel was on the Mount of Olives, but our first task was to go through the streets of Old Jerusalem to St.George’s Anglican cathedral for the same service as we are all having today. All at once we were taken back through the centuries as we trod those narrow winding streets with their open shop fronts and their paving stones worn by the feet of countless pilgrims -even perhaps the steps of Jesus himself.

But it was what we did there at the cathedral, and after, which gave new meaning to the breaking of bread and the washing of feet. The church, with its congregation of Palestinian and Christian Jews -and us -seemed to expand to include the whole world, and the time seemed to include all time. It seemed to us as we shared the bread and the wine, as if we are taking them from Jesus himself at that timeless Last Supper, and the sermon (in English) from the Arab

Bishop of Jerusalem seemed to take us out of the narrow box of our Anglican church life, and speak to the whole world.

We began to understand what God in Christ had done for us and for all this world -responding to those words which we ourselves have just heard "do you know what I have done for you?" We felt so much more clearly how God was sharing his creative and sacrificial love for us in Christ, and how we were called to share it with one another. Not just that multi-national congregation there, not just this congregtion here: we were called to share our love and concern for all God’s widely different, and often threateningly different, children -starting right here in our own church as we cope with the challenges of living together as a very diverse family -going out to our local community with all its strains (and all its needs) -andbeyond them to a world which needs God’s love and care so much.

As we share in the washing of our friends’ and neighbours’feet, share with them in the communion of the bread and the wine, and give thanks to God for all he gives us to build up this part of his family, so we look outside these walls to a city and a world for which also Christ died, to feet which we must also wash, and minds with which we must also share the message and the reality of God’s love.

But why should we do all this? Tomorrow I am going to take you on an amazing walk as our pilgrimage goes to the Garden of Gethsemane and we get an answer to this question.

The hymn on the extra sheet will perhaps give you a hint of this, and will be something to guide your thoughts if you stay toshare the Maundy Watch.

Good Friday 

Yesterday, as shared the Eucharist and "did this in remembrance of him", we almost felt ourselves to be in that upper room with Jesus: we felt something extra of what "communion" means as we shared the fellowship of each other and the Lord. It helped us to see what is meant by being a Christian family, united at the table of the Lord. The foot-washing showed graphically how we need to care for each other as Jesus cares for us, and extend our care wherever it is called for. Today we ask the question "why? What sort of God commands us to do all this? Indeed, if there is a God, what is he like?"

But back for a moment, to our pilgrimage. The Passion story which we have just heard mentions some very specific places -Gethsemane, the High Priest’s palace, Pilate’s judgement seat, the place of the cross, and finally the tomb. Pilgrimages have always sought (and sometimes invented) holy places and holy things -Jerusalem, Rome, Compostella, Canterbury, Lourdes, Walsingham. There is nothing wrong with that, providing that it leads to the deepening of faith, not the worship of a place or a thing. Our own pilgrimage took us, immediately after the end of the Maundy Eucharist in St.George’s cathedral, to walk in silence through the dark streets to a garden, rough and stony and filled with nothing but ancient olive trees, some of them perhaps dating back to the time of Jesus. We stood without a word for some minutes and felt the atmosphere of the Garden of Gethsemane. Later on we were to go to many places associated with the passion , death and resurrection of Christ, but for me it was there that he felt closest, because there he faced the cross and saw it as God’s will, and said "thy will be done".

And this is the answer to the question I posed earlier "why? What sort of God commanded him to do all this? If there is a God, what can he be like?" The answer is in front of us -a rough cross,

standing for an even rougher death -and a strange answer it is. Strange to those who imagine God just as an all-powerful and all-knowing explanation for the very existence of this world. Stranger still to those who have imagined God as a merciless judge before whom we must all give account (and there has been more than a little of this in a lot of Christian thinking and preaching). Totally impossible to those of any faith who cannot see God as "the Merciful", but only as the destroyer of unbelievers. Yet this is what Christ faced, and this cross is what we face.

This cross is not a denial 0f God as creator and judge -rather is affirms the amazing richness of his creation and his longing for it to live up to the huge possibilities that are in it. It states in an only too tangible form what Jesus had already said in words in St.John’s Gospel, spelt out in John’s first Letter (4.16), "God is love". Now we can see what this really means. Bill Vanstone in his poem "Morning Glory" says it in verse far better that my prose can say it:

Therefore he who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree;
And the nails and crown of thorns
Tell of what God’s love must be
Here is God: no monarch he
Throned in easy state to reign:
Here is God, whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.

What God did is all summed up in the cross "love’s agony, love’s endeavour, love’s expense". What an extraordinary picture of God! No-one whowanted to win over people to his views would present them with a God like this. Yet this is what the cross tells us; this is the cross with which we were all marked in baptism, and this is the cross we are all called upon to follow. Like Peter, we

often can’t face the consequences and duck out of them, but Jesus (again in John’s Gospel) still tells him to "follow me".

Pilgrimages often lead to shrines which may seem impossibly (0r improbably) holy, unlike the world outside. The Holy Land, or parts of it, was like this. But high on the city walls of Jerusalem, above the crowds of pilgrims, sat an Israeli soldier with his machine gun, reminding us of how much this world needs this costly gospel of love -how much hate and evil there is in a world which God made free to love him -most of all in the words of preachers of hate. Well, this is what God, the God of love, is like. Go on then and touch the cross to say that this is the God you want to worship. And then go, as a Christian and as a church, to live it out in the world.

Easter Day

Easter Day is a landmark on a pilgrimage. Those of you who have been with me here on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday will know that I was recalling an actual pilgrimage to the Holy Land on which Mary and I went in Holy Week 1986. Some of the highlights from that journey have helped me to shed light on these days too. There was the washing of the disciples’ feet and the sharing of bread and wine, which pointed to the church’s constant task of care and love for each other and the world. There was the stillness of the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus faced the reality of the cross, and we too had a glimpse of the eternal love of God which brought him there, and leads us onward on our pilgrimage.

So today we find ourselves at the tomb in the garden, withMary Magdalene and John and Peter -and no body. We too in 1986 went to the Garden Tomb and shared Holy Communion there. It’s only the "traditional" site of the tomb, but all the same, on that day and in that place, we could sense the presence of the living Lord whom even Mary Magdalene didn’t recognise until he called her name. It was a feeling we experienced later in the week, sharing Holy Communion in a church overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and then crossing the sea on a boat and stopping to look at the same skyline as Jesus saw and feeling the "Sabbath rest by Galilee…and calm of hills above"

But was it -is it -all just "atmosphere"? Was there really a Resurrection, and is there really a risen Christ, perhaps even with us here today? The disciples for sure were totally confused about it, and the New Testament accounts differ -there is no tidy story.

Whoever put the New Testament together didn’t edit the accounts to present the same evidence. Their stories are those of men and women totally crushed by what had happened when Jesus died, yet trying to make sense of a series of episodes which gradually opened their eyes to a Jesus who was still with them -in the garden, in the upper room, by the sea-shore, on the mountain-top.

Despite everything that Jesus had said to them, they had even less idea of what resurrection could mean that our own present godless generation has. Yet these demoralised and confused people were to transformed by the experience they had -transformed enough to take the experience out to the whole world. A new age really had started in those unlikely people. That really happened -it was never fake news.

But if the news had merely been about a charismatic religious leader who had been killed by the regime and was somehow now alive, it would have died by the time the next page of history had turned. There was something far more than that -they called it "the Gospel", the Good News. It included all they had learnt from Jesus, and pointed to all that was still to be learnt -about the God of love whose nature had been displayed for all time in Jesus’ cross and who drove them on to tell the world (often heroically) what love really means.

Of course they were only human they were scarred by their experiences, such as meeting the risen Christ, and were constantly hampered by human sins and weaknesses which blinded people to the Good News.All that isn’t just history; it’s present fact, true in the world-wide church and true in each Christian community. The Gospel, the Good News, that God is love and calls his people to be people of love and care for each other, in each community -in this church, in this town, in this world, is as true as it ever was. And it seems as impossible as it ever has been.

But those few confused and dispirited Christians knew one thing for sure. It was the continued power and presence of Christ, who was "risen and still with them" as his words had promised. He is here and with us today in Holy Communion, and has promised "to be with us always, to the end of the age"

Happy Easter!

Christ and the Gap between Rich and Poor

A sermon preached in Halifax Minster on Sunday 8th March 2015, the Third Sunday of Lent

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus says about the Jerusalem temple that ‘it should be called a house of prayer, but has been made into a den of thieves’ [John 2:14-17].  This is not original – he is quoting from the prophet Jeremiah who had been called to give this message to the Jews 600 years earlier [Jer. 7:11] (and Jesus hearers would have recognised that).

Christian Aid recently issued a report [Having it All and Wanting Morehttp://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/file_attachments/ib-wealth-having-all-wanting-more-190115-en.pdf]  in which they claimed that in the next few years the richest 1% of the world’s households would own a half of all the wealth in the world. It is tempting for us to respond angrily to this, much in the way Jesus did about the Temple, suggesting that they have made God’s world a den of thieves and should be driven out.

But on examination of the evidence we can also say that already the richest 6% own over 80% of the world’s wealth, and the richest 30% own nearly all of it – 95% [Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, Shorrocks/Davies/Lluberas  http://www.oecd.org/site/worldforumindia/DAVIES.pdf].

Thomas Picketty, a French Economist, has recently published a book [Picketty T, 2013, Capital in the 21st Century] in which he traces the history of the distribution of wealth in the world and shows that the twentieth century was unusual in the reduction of the gap between rich and poor, and that there are signs in the 21st century that the gap is reverting towards its more normal long terms trend.

Should we then remember that Jesus said that the poor would always be with us  [Matt. 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8], or do we feel that all these rich households are thieves and should be driven out?.

Clearly there are some disadvantages to being poor – life can be a miserable grind, struggling for survival, with little opportunity to enjoy the wonders of the world.  But there are also some disadvantages to being rich – it cuts people off from those around them because it makes it difficult to know who really is a friend, it can lead to a feeling of control of life that it is startling to discover doesn’t apply to everything (e.g. health), and it can generate fear, the fear of losing the wealth.

The Bible has much to say about wealth.  The New Testament has little to say in its favour – but then most of the early Christians were poor, so that is to be expected.  The Old Testament sees wealth as a sign of the blessing of God – but has some caveats about the dangers of wealth –
Wealth can be a distraction from living the life which we were created to live:
it can cut off the wealthy from their surrounding community,
it can lead to a feeling of superiority and of self-reliance,
it can give power and access to power, making it easy to abuse others
once acquired it can lead to a fear of its loss and excessive defensiveness, as seen in immigration policies of rich nations
the pursuit of wealth can undermine the blessing that wealth could bring, and
it can become a goal in itself.

The danger is that wealth can take the place of God and tempts its possessor into playing God – a role in which humans will necessarily fail. This would explain Jesus reported saying that it is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven [Mt 19:23]

What would Christ say about the gap between rich and poor?  I think he would probably be against it, but not from the point of view of the politics of envy but because both poverty and riches hold people back from realising their potential with which they were created of being fully children in the image of God.

So what does all this might mean for us?

When we investigate world wealth and income a somewhat startling finding is that we (in the UK) are rich.
To be in the top 30% of households which own 95% of the world’s wealth you need assets of £7,500, to be in the top 6% which own over 80% of the world’s wealth you need assets of £75,000 [Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, Shorrocks/Davies/Lluberas  http://www.oecd.org/site/worldforumindia/DAVIES.pdf].  The average household wealth in the UK is £200,000 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_in_the_United_Kingdom.  You might be thinking that is ridiculous, but a pension of £20,000 a year is worth that.  If you have a pension and a house you could find yourself in the top 6% in the world.
The average world household income is £2,000 a year, in the UK it is about £30,000 [http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/was/wealth-in-great-britain-wave-3/wealth-and-income–2010-12/stb–wealth-and-income–2010-12.html#tab-Results]

.  If your household has a state pension for a couple of about £10,000 a year you have 5 times the world average household income – in world terms like having an income of £150,000 in the UK [https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/get-involved/how-rich-am-i].

We are rich and we would rather not be branded as thieves and driven out.  Is there any good news for the rich?

My reading of the Bible and economics come together in the concept of blessing.
Abram was promised by God [Gen 12: 1-3] that he would be blessed: he would have a multitude of descendants and through them all the people of the earth would be blessed.  It was not that the Jews were to be God’s chosen people because they were better than everyone else, or richer or more privileged.  They were to be the means by which God blessed all his creation.  Abram received this blessing as a free gift, not something to which he was entitled or which he earned.
The same can be said of the predominant attitude to wealth (especially in the Old Testament, but also in the New): it is a gift from God and to be used responsibly.

To attempt to use wealth in this way can never be easy – there are so many temptations and distractions – but it can be approached
by careful thought,
by a community that challenges the wealthy on the use of their wealth,
by prayer and
by deliberately walking with God 24 hours a day.

Meeting this challenge can do none other than help to grow closer to God – a richness of life that is beyond measurement in financial terms.

If we, in this Minster, however we might feel, are the ones on the wealthy side of the gap between rich and poor, then this is our challenge. The growing gap between rich and poor will continually remind us of it.
And we must thank God that in understanding and using our wealth as blessing there is good news for us (who are the rich) which will further enrich our lives:

The Gospel of Christ.

Reverend David Simon, Lecturer, Halifax Minster

Sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Sunday 15th March 2015 

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday)

Christ and Modern Science 

O Lord of every shining constellation, 

that wheels in splendour through the midnight sky, 

grant us your Spirit’s true illumination 

to read the secrets of your work on high.

Christ and modern Science is the subject for today’s reflection. I suspect we have all come with some preconceived ideas about what you are hoping to hear, and for those of you who know me well, you will understand that for me, sermons are about making us think, not wanting us to all agree. I’m delighted when people go home and talk about the issues raised, and begin to get passionate about why they believe in what they believe in!

Science is such a great subject because it affects the whole community: Christians, people of the other faith communities, and those who claim to have no faith at all. Here are some random thoughts of mine about Christ and Science.

I guess the advancement of Science is born out of a human desire to know more and more about the world we live in? What is it about gravity? What is it about reproduction? What is it about light and darkness? What is it about life and death? The desire for knowledge is no different from one faith community to another, its perhaps part of human nature to want to know more.

Up until the Enlightenment people of faith – Muslim as well as Christians – sought to understand about the world as part of their search for God’s will for themselves. It is only relatively recently that science and faith have been seen to be at odds with one another. So you could say that science is born out of the desire to know more about God and the world we live in.

One of the books I’ve read which has had a lasting effect on me, is Edward Patey’s ‘Faith in a Risk Taking God’. Patey maps out from the Big Bang onwards, a theology of how God created the Universe, and of the role of humanity, as stewards of the earth, but having done so, allows us the capacity to destroy the earth, to kill one another, and ultimately to kill God, as in the crucifixion of Jesus. God takes a risk with us, that we might in turn, take a risk with him. This notion of risk is perhaps focused in the idea of free will, and that we need to do science in order to exercise our free will as stewards of God.

Rather than focus on the extraordinary journey of the science revolution, the title for today is modern science, and so let’s just consider some of the latest scientific discoveries of the last few decades.

Firstly, there has been much research into understanding the science of food. We have areas of the world with major problems of famine, mainly due to issues of agriculture, the land is not conducive to reproduction of food, the weather is either too hot and dry, or flooding regularly destroys the land, and any crops sown in it. Other parts of the world have an abundance of food, with food mountains and waste products in abundance, whilst others go hungry. Scientists have been working hard to understand the DNA of plant life, and the advancement of this has now led towards Genetically Modified Food, which could be an important answer in the quest to produce enough food, in the right place, to feed everyone, and help alleviate those in the world who go hungry.

Secondly, over the last twenty plus years there has been much science research into understanding more about the beginning of life. Our understanding of the reproduction of human beings has enabled us to help men and women, who have been unable to conceive, or to carry full term, and to give birth and enjoy parenthood. Members of our own community have benefited from IVF, alongside thousands across the world. But now, scientists have developed ways in which we can begin to remove certain DNA from the embryo, and on the one hand begin to influence certain aspects of the human body, like the colour of your eyes and hair, and on the other hand, prevent suffering from certain hereditary diseases, now with the use of three peoples DNA to create a child, rather than the normative two. We know that in the past certain children would have died at birth, with many of their mothers too, and that now, the vast majority survive, with the advancement and knowledge of medical science.

Thirdly, as well as understanding something of the beginning of life, we also have a strong desire to know more about the end of life. Science is so advanced, that we can hook people up to machines which literally keep people alive for as long as we need too. We can shut the body down, giving the brain and other organs time and space to recover from disease and damage, and treat the body with chemicals to speed up the healing process. People do come out of induced unconsciousness, and make either a full or partial recovery. Others are kept alive until the family can arrive from across the world, and say their good buys. Many people who would have died from Cancer after a short illness, now find their cancer to be a chronic condition, which can be managed over time, if not irradiated. As a consequence of modern science we seem to have much more control over the beginning and the end of life. Now we have so many more difficult decisions being forced upon us, for which we are often so ill equipped to deal with, because we can end up ‘playing God’: yet as flawed human beings we lack the wisdom of God and  human mistakes can be made. Surely there comes a point when humanity needs to recognise a level of humility and our limitations, and seek repentance and forgiveness about our mistakes.

But what should the Christian response be to all this science?  I think the honest answer is that there isn’t a definitive answer, and that depending on how we read and understand reasoning, scripture and tradition, we may well come up with differing viewpoints. When reading Scripture or holy texts, we can read literally what is written on the page, and take it at face value. We can also read between the lines, and try and understand, what wasn’t written, and to understand the context, the time in history, and the audience the text was written for.

There will of course be those who do believe that quite literally the world was made in seven days, (well six days of work and God rested on the Sabbath,) because that is what Genesis tells us, and yet we know that Science tells us that can’t be true. If we understand the story of creation as only being a metaphor or an analogy concerning God’s engagement with how the world was made, we might value the idea of days to mean thousands of years, and without the literal meaning, the science and the theology no longer conflict, but are in harmony with one another.

Having suggested there is no need for a literalist reading of the Creation account there is still a need for us as Christians to be able to respond to the critique of the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, who argue that science either proves there is a God or that it disproves the existence of God.  There have been various responses by Christian writers, such as Alister McGrath’s The Dawkins Delusion.  In essence there are two useful lines of argument.

The first is to tackle the new atheists on their own scientific ground and point out that science never proves anything, it puts forward hypotheses and tests them to see if they can be falsified.  Neither the hypothesis that God exists nor the hypothesis that God does not exist lend themselves to testing and falsification: therefore not only can the New Atheists prove anything about God, in suggesting they can they are misusing their own scientific discipline.

The second is to recognise that science and religion address different aspects of living in this world and Universe.  Science attempts to answer the question of how things we observe happen.  Religion attempts to answer questions about why things happen and to evaluate what is and would be good and what is and would not be good.

Both science and ethics are needed for human life to be good.

So to conclude: to yearn to know more about the world, and to understand what it means to be human, I believe, is an essential part of our nature in being a human being, given to us in creation by the creator. For many people of Faith, including Christians, science and belief may or may not sit happily together, depending how we accept reasoning, scripture and tradition. God gave us a brain to use and develop, and we can use this knowledge to either care for the world and improve life here on earth, or we can use it to destroy the earth and ultimately ourselves, for we belong to a risk taking God. Ultimately though, our desire to know more about what it means to be human, leads us to meet with the God who made us, and who gave us his Son Jesus Christ, that we might have salvation and redemption, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

O Life, awakening life in cell and tissue, 

from flow’r to bird, from beast to brain of man; 

help us to trace, from birth to final issue, 

the sure unfolding of your age long plan.

Amen.

Reverend Canon Hilary Barber

Sunday 1st March 2015



Lent Sermon Series: 2: Christ and the Sexual Revolution

Gospel reading: Mark 8: 31-end

Please be seated

May the words of my lips and the thoughts of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Please note: The following sermon is rated PG for content and language. It is not intended to offend. Additional disclaimers: The views contained herein are not necessarily my own. I’ve attempted to build a plausible argument, not provide an ethical path – please don’t think my moral compass unduly defective. Please bear in mind it is a quite difficult topic.

So, how to begin… I’m aware that my admittedly arbitrary allocation of this area has been the subject of some amusement or at least irony. In the light of that, I would plead the following sermon be not perceived as an evasion of the question, but rather an attempt to address both the issue which is perhaps behind the subject and indeed also offer some observations of relevance to the series as a whole – with apologies for rather taking issue with the title. By way of further disclaimer I would ask you to pardon any Freudian slips and indeed invite you to follow the Radio 1 custom of playing ‘Innuendo Bingo’. In that spirit, let me assure you that in deviating from my brief I am not standing here in criminal undergarments, nor am I – to the contrary of common advice in speaking publicly in difficult circumstances – imagining you sitting there in your underwear; I am and you are all fully clothed, thank God.

This then, is the second sermon in our Lent series and I am tasked with the topic of ‘Christ and the Sexual Revolution’. I would like to properly begin by taking issue with both the subject matter and also by qualifying a possible implication. If this all sounds a bit nit-picky, well, blame the concept of a sermon series. Hopefully we’re all adult enough to cope. For the record, yes, that was a deliberate double entendre.

What am I getting at? Well, if we’d been ballsier as a staff team, we’d have just called this ‘Christ and Sex’ but that was (probably rightly) perceived as being a bit too risqué, though admittedly it may also be indicative of the Church’s discomfort with the topic in general. Instead I’m left with a sort of theological/ sociological lecture on an era 20+ years before I was born and which frankly, I’m afraid I find rather passé. Indeed, in the light of Fifty Shades of Grey, a resurgence of misogyny in popular culture and a proliferation of pornography, I’m afraid I find the concept of the sexual revolution quite frankly tame and possible laudable. I don’t wish therefore to say anything judgemental about sex or indeed the sexual revolution, nor do I think it is within the parameters of this sermon to do so. Which brings me on to my second point, the qualification. This sermon and indeed all those throughout this series and entitled, ‘Christ and…’, not ‘the Church and…’. Now I am conscious that for some Christ and the Church are to be more or less to be equated but I’m afraid this is not a theology nor indeed an eccelsiology with which I have a great deal of sympathy. When St Paul talks about the Church as the body of Christ I personally take that to be a symbol or a metaphor rather than a doctrinal blueprint. It is therefore on that basis that I would also like to say that while the Church may have taken it upon itself, particularly (and often heinously) in the past, to pass judgement upon sexual matters – and that may or may not have been and continue to be its prerogative – I’m not convinced that Christ did, and therefore I’m not going to here, because it is neither the topic of this sermon, nor – in my opinion – the Christ we encounter in Scripture. On that note, there is of course a good deal in the Hebrew Bible, which we as Christians refer to as the Old Testament, with regard to sexual ethics and Jesus as an obedient and (largely) observant Jew was no doubt someone who was informed at a very deep level by this teaching, but I’m afraid that the Christ who speaks to me most clearly from the pages of the New Testament is one who was graciously non-judgemental and who spoke truth into people’s lives while leaving them to sort out the details. It’s only with the earliest Church and particularly St Paul that we get into more legalistic territory and indeed I’m not saying that to be judgemental (much as that particular apostle on sex has proved difficult and problematic), rather that that was a different era, with different communal circumstances and needs and Paul was teaching into that. Basically, I want to talk about Christ and sex, not Christ and the Sexual Revolution, nor indeed the Church and Sex or the Church and the Sexual Revolution. To do so, however, would be to both risk connotations of the Da Vinci Code and somewhat trash the proposed topic. By way of compromise, if I ever get past prevaricating into preaching itself, I would therefore like to offer some brief thoughts on ‘Christ and the Legacy of the Sexual Revolution’ – not quite such a catchy, or indeed, dare we in rather clichéd fashion, put it, sexy title – but it is from that position that I (at last) proceed.

We need not concern ourselves therefore so much with what the sexual revolution was but where we find ourselves as a result of it. By way of a further gripe with the subject area I would like to say that part of the reason I referred to it as passé earlier is that I expect that its revolutionary spirit or at least its perceived deviance in contrast to previous generations has been grossly exaggerated. One has only to have a vague idea of soap operas of the Romantic movement or indeed the dark underbelly of Victorian society to know that Christian morality has not been as all pervasive as a cursory reading of recent British history might have led us to believe. For that reason also, I wish to concentrate on the cultural legacy of the sexual revolution in terms of its broad-brush effects and rather than bemoaning any possibly resulting increased acceptance of promiscuity, the reality of pre-marital sex or normalised cohabitation, dwelling on any eventual implications for the AIDS crisis or criticising some of the lifestyle choices of the period which were undoubtedly harmful, I’d like to concentrate in the little that remains of my designated 10-12 minutes on the largely positive emergence of acceptance and inclusivity for which free love must presumably take a good deal of credit.

I’m not going to stand here and say that Jesus was a hippie, or indeed that if he’d been around in the ‘60’s he would have been – that would be both a crass anachronism and a very poor application of doctrine – but I do think that the incarnation calls us to embrace the possibility that in some sense there is something of Christ to be celebrated about the sexual revolution.

In terms of its legacy therefore, Christ arguably calls us in love to among other affirmations, an acceptance of differing sexual orientations and a celebration of difference. If the Church sees it as its obligation to get its knickers in a twist about more specific matters then so be it.  That’s its own business and I can see why for perfectly good reasons, such as a desire to be ‘true’ in some sense to Scripture, it does so. Just to be clear, I am not saying that the Church should not have a position on sexuality morality, nor that it should not provide moral advice in this area, I am simply sticking to my slightly revised topic. I don’t envy our leaders.

If we define the sexual revolution as a challenging of boundaries, a rejection of institutionalised (moral) authority and like I said, an inclusive acceptance, than I have difficulty seeing why Christ would have much of an issue with it. However, in terms of legacy the problem arguably comes when the Church feels obliged to either follow or react stridently against cultural trends for the sake of reactionary relevance or polemical self-preservation: docetism or ebionism if we’re going to be heretical about it. But again, that lies outside the purview of this sermon for the reasons I have already outlined.

I guess the problem with this ‘Christ and…’ business is that it requires an act of monumental presumption on the part of the preacher. Whatever Paul may say, I’m not sure the Church can really claim to know the mind of Christ. Nor from scrutinising the New Testament and the Gospels in particular can we ever get back to the historical Jesus, we simply get portrayals of him and have to hope that somehow, through the Spirit we can discern an obedient path. Another reason why this sermon has not dealt in moral prescription: we don’t 100% percent know what Christ thought about sex, we only get the evangelists’ take on it. This in itself, rather undermines for me another possible argument from a doctrinal perspective that as the Christ is part of the eternal Trinity, he’s not going to change his mind so whatever he did [or indeed did not say] about sex by implication therefore applies (without pastorally sensitive exceptions) for all time. For me, it just doesn’t work like that.

Okay, so to sum up. Jesus didn’t say that much about sex, but he did challenge immorality. He was much more scathing about the religiously self-righteous who took the moral high ground. For me therefore, he would affirm the positive legacies of the sexual revolution, largely reject the Church as a moral arbiter, but challenge abuse. I can’t see him ever waving placards of hate, rather helping to hold up banners of love. Ironically, of course, my particular take on Jesus is directly informed by the cultural forces unleashed by the sexual revolution. I may not be a child of the 60’s, but I am just about a grandchild of it. In conclusion, therefore I hold my hands up and admit my bias: I have been conditioned by both my upbringing and societal factors much bigger than parental or familial influence to reject authority, embrace inclusion and rebel against judgement. My Christ is a Christ of the sexual revolution because I cannot escape its influence. My portrayal is deeply compromised and this whole sermon (and perhaps the series itself) deeply flawed. But hey, that’s the incarnation for you.

God bless and thanks for listening. Sorry I didn’t get round to the Gospel…

Amen.

Reverend Matthew Hunter, Curate