Facing the Storm

30 June 2012

Storm over the lake by Eularia Clarke (Methodist Collection of Art)

Storm over the lake by Eularia Clarke (Methodist Collection of Art)

2012 has been the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic

Numerous programmes, documentaries, dramas have been broadcast on TV and radio

Numerous special editions of newspapers and magazines carried special articles

1514 people lost their lives on the events of that fateful April night in 1912

The imagination of generations have been captivated by maritime adventures, the sinking of ships, of loss and survival

  • Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe spending 28 years on an island after a shipwreck based on the adventures of real life castaway Alexander Selkirk
  • The mysterious Marie Celeste found in perfect conditions emptied of its 7-man crew with 6 months of supplies intact
  • In Greek literature Odysseus ignores advice, is shipwrecked, is washed ashore and is forced to become Calypso’s lover for 7 years before he manages to escape
  • Not to mention the shipwrecks of Paul and the allegorical tale of Jonah

With the stilling of the storm on the Sea of Galilee nature is subdued; the fears of the disciples are quelled along with the waves and all turns out well.

This is reassuring to say the least; it’s a happy ending to a terrifying ordeal.

Over the centuries it has given confidence to those who face the storms of life.

From the less serious singing on the Kop at Anfield, though never suggest that football is anything less than being more serious than life and death (to make reference to Bill Shankly) to the prayers of the faithful in times of real distress and hardship.

The symbol of the World Council of Churches is a boat with a cross as its mast.  It is sailing pleasantly through the world symbolised by the sea in the logo.  It was devised and first used in 1948 and was inspired by the calling of the first disciples and the stilling of the storm.

Little did anyone know at the time that over the next 60 years the Church would face huge storms:

  • Increasing secularization that led to people asking why we need God let alone religion
  • Scientific progress that had been at work for centuries would come into its own and challenge our view of the world
  • Child abuse and subsequent cover up would raise questions about our integrity

We would become seen as part of the problem rather than the solution

The end result has been a diminishing of confidence in the Church over the past half century

In so many quarters we have lost our zeal for transforming lives and changing the world in which we live

  • We have remained silent in the face of growing inequality, injustice and poverty
  • We have shied away from challenging those responsible and as a consequence have fallen in with the perpetrators, indeed we may have even become perpetrators ourselves
  • We have lost our reason for being

There is a very real danger that we have spiritualized the Gospels and overlooked the fact that Jesus was bent on changing the world

  • Are we like the family in Clarke’s painting huddled together clinging on for life with only a care for ourselves?
  • Are we like the one whose foot is pressed against another in our attempts to survive?
  • Are we like the one who is throwing himself overboard of what is left of the sinking ship?
  • Or are we looking to Jesus?
  • Are we begging for him to rise and still the storm?
  • Are we prepared to draw nearer to the one who might yet save us?

As I journey round Lincolnshire I am inspired by the work of so many in their respective situations.

Messy Church is bringing children and those who are parentally responsible for them into the life of the Church.

Individuals are going into schools as volunteers to help with reading, playground duty, after school clubs and even taking assemblies.

We are opening up our buildings to local groups ensuring a warm welcome and generous hospitality.

Some churches are taking part in job-seeking advice, in transport rotas for hospitals, in all sorts of caring acts in the community.

Over the next year we will be raising awareness of what we can do for those amongst we live.

There needs to be not only more Messy Church projects but plans to look beyond Messy Church

We will be raising awareness of our schools involvement

There needs to be greater contact between the classroom and the congregation

We will be raising awareness of other ways in which we can partner others in changing the communities in which we live.

This has to be so; otherwise who else will do it?

I strongly believe that the Church is the sleeping giant on these islands.  We have been cast ashore having survived the storms. Much of what we had been travelling in for so long has been wrecked:

  • the theologies that ignored reality
  • the Sunday School faith that didn’t stand the test of the ultrasound scan
  • the belief that all would be well despite our inaction.

We are now washed up and wakening to the landscape about us.

We can sit it out and wait for a passing ship to rescue us; an unlikely scenario.

Or we can make the best of what we have; cut through some of the jungle, get acquainted with the locals, understand the customs and find fulfilment in whatever time there is left for us.  And with a listening ear and heart full of hope we will change the world.

 

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Each week some of us sit down to prepare a sermon for Sunday.  How we go about that is serious business.

What we read into a story or a passage will determine how the congregation will respond.

Over a number of years I have become more and more aware of my limitations as someone who seeks to convey what we claim to be the truth about Jesus.  Indeed I have become concerned that so much of what I had taken for granted is a distorted version of the truth to say the least, if not ill-informed by almost two thousand years of misinterpretation.

My serious quest began thirteen years ago when I became involved in working alongside Kosovan Albanian refugees during and after the Serb onslaught on the Albanian villages of Kosova in the summer of 1999.

It became apparent to me then, subsequently confirmed at a later date when I visited the destroyed homes, mass graves and shattered people picking up what was left of their communities, that religion had played a part; just as it has done in countless conflicts and wars over the centuries.

I stood with a woman at the entrance to her courtyard.  She was a Serb Orthodox woman who had married a Kosovan Albanian Muslim.  She had stayed behind while her family fled the Serb paramilitaries.

She pointed to the church about 100m away with its Serb Orthodox cross on its dome.  Through an interpreter she described how the priest had blessed the paramilitaries before they had gone about their brutal attacks.

It was not the first time that the Christian Church had been implicated and even complicit in the mass murder of people from a faith other than our own.

I became aware of the charge that 6 million Jews and countless millions of others had been rounded up, transported, selected and executed by, in the main, baptised Christians.

I became aware of Pope Pius XII’s silence on the Holocaust.

I became aware of the claim that 2000 years of anti-Judaism in the Christian Church paved the road to Auschwitz.

All this led me to explore deeper into how this could be.

How could the faith to which I had subscribed for so long be the root cause of such suffering?

How could the Church to which I had committed myself as a teenager and to which I had sought to remain true for decades be a contributor to the worst crime known in human history?

How could I be part of a movement with so much blood on its hands?

I discovered that according to the Rabbis up until the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple a significant chunk of the Early Church had simply been one of the twenty four sects of Judaism with the followers of Jesus still adhering to the practice and faith of Judaism.

I was to discover that the Jerusalem Church fell or scattered with the Roman Church under the influence of Paul rather than Peter becoming truly dominant; not only is history written by the winners so too is theology.

Later I was to discover that the two faiths, Christianity and Judaism, competed with each other for influence, Christianity winning with the conversion of Emperor Constantine.

I became aware of the open hostility the Church Fathers had towards the Jews.

I became aware of Good Friday rants where Jews were blamed for the death of Jesus.

I became aware of the blood libel, where Jews were accused of engaging in the ritual sacrifice of Christian children at Passover.

Since then I have become more and more concerned about what I am saying and doing so that I am not the purveyor of false or even half truths that distort the message of Jesus which lead to further misunderstanding, prejudice and hostility.

It has been a growing awareness.  It has taken time and the journey is far from complete.  But I am finding it to be an exciting adventure, one that informs me more and more about the essence of the message that Jesus proclaimed.

Most recently, only in the last few months to be precise, my understanding has been further enhanced by the purchase and reading of two very fine publications:  Amy-Jill Levine ‘The Misunderstood Jew – the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus’ and ‘The Jewish Annotated New Testament’ co-edited also by Levine.

She is an orthodox Jew who is a Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt a Methodist University in the US.

‘The Misunderstood Jew’ has put so much into context for me – I can’t even begin to explain its contribution to my understanding.  It has also acted as an additional warning to what I have taken so long for granted in my limited and narrow contextualising of the Gospel accounts.

An effective way of putting over the problem we face is encapsulated in a simple statement by Levine ‘whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn’t; whatever Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category’ (MJ p 19).

I recall a Rabbi friend of mine asking a group of Christian visitors to his synagogue ‘Have any of you met a Jew before?’ About a third put their hands up.  He looked at them with incredulity ‘and what about the rest of you?  Have you never met Jesus?’

We overlook in our blindness, subconsciously or otherwise, the historic fact that Jesus was a Jew who came not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it, not to overthrow Judaism but to reform it.

One of the challenges we face however is overcoming some of the misconceptions that have been promoted by preachers, commentators and scholars when they have either defined Judaism or Christianity in relation to Judaism.

Such misconceptions have sometimes been caused by genuine misunderstanding, sometimes because of fear of the other, sometimes because of envy and hatred and sometimes because there has been a need to cover up shortcomings in the Christian Church.  It has been easier to claim it’s better than it was than to change the way things are.

Looking back over my preaching ministry I wonder what I might have said that has stoked the flames of prejudice.  I am grateful that I took the step last summer of shredding all my old sermons, not that I ever go back to them for inspiration or other use but at least I can be spared the embarrassment should I have ever bothered to read them again.

Now I look to the future with hopefully a more enlightened mind, one that recognises that Judaism wasn’t as bad in the first century as I had been led to believe, hasn’t stood still, remains the rock from which Christianity was hewn and still has much to offer my own understanding of what it is to be faithful to God’s call.

Sunrise will come after Sunset Vale of the White Horse

Sunrise will come after Sunset Vale of the White Horse

In 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris.  The thief was an unassuming carpenter who worked in the museum.  His name was Vincenzo Perrugia and for the next two years he kept the painting in a box in his apartment.  His intention was to take it to Italy which he believed was its rightful home. But before he could do so the woman with the enigmatic smile was retrieved and returned to the Louvre.

The fascinating thing is that in the year after the theft more people went to gaze upon the empty space than had visited the work of art in the year leading up to its disappearance.  The loss had caused people to wake up to its beauty.  Facsimiles were produced and the Mona Lisa became the most famous portrait in the world.

Isn’t it true that we don’t know what we have got until we have lost it?

I am told that it was once said at the September Synod of the Cornwall District ‘Welcome to our new ministers.  You will find that Cornish people love their ministers, after they have left.’

We never know what we have got until we lose it.

And that is so not just through the itinerant ministry of the church.

So often we know it to be true in our relationships.

  • When we miss the kiss at the school gate, or the turn and waving hand as our little ones rush into class without looking back.
  • When no one turns their head anymore if once they did when we walked by.
  • When in our increasing years we lament our declining health.

We never know what we have got until we lose it.

Was that so for the disciples in the weeks after the death and departure of Jesus?

Were they to spend the rest of their lives reflecting upon his life, his teaching and the implications of those few years together?

Are we here today because of that awakening to what they had lost?

In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul juxtaposes affliction and consolation, loss and gain, death and life (2 Cor.8-12).

It is clear from his view that loss is not all that it first seems; that hope remains; that there is still much to gain.

‘For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’ (2 Cor. 5.1)

I once took part in an exercise where the participants were asked what they might do if the church building which they attended burnt down.

Imagine:

  • the building in which you may have first heard the Gospel preached
  • the place where you may have met your first love
  • where alleluias rung out on many an Easter Sunday
  • where your children had donned t-towels and stared wide-eyed at an angel with tin foil wings.

What would we do?

Would we only appreciate what we’d had once we’d lost it?

So would we rebuild it brick for brick?  Create a faithful copy?  But could it ever be the same?

Or would we start afresh?  Perhaps create something completely different? A new design fit for purpose in this still new century?  Or hire a school hall? Set up a café, a shop that would be open six days each week and on the seventh for worship?  The possibilities are endless.

Perhaps what we could create, given the opportunity, would be so much more exciting for us and more meaningful for those about us, perhaps even for those who are yet to come.

Is the building in which we worship a wise use of our time and money in maintaining?

What if the decision were taken out of our hands?

Is this what it is all about?

Paul thought not.

Wesley thought not.

In fact most of the saints and inspirational church leaders over the centuries thought not.

We will not be remembered by how we managed a building.

Our legacy, if there is to be one at all, will be how we impacted upon the wider community, how we were a part of transforming lives and society at large.

On Friday night I was reading some of Martin Buber’s lectures.  Buber was a Jew deeply influenced by Christian teaching; in fact it reawakened him to his own Jewish sources of inspiration.  In one lecture he noted that ‘Children are limited by space, adults by time.’

It’s a fascinating insight.  ‘Children are limited by space, adults by time.’

We who have been around a while know that for us time is short.  Now life will go on without us, probably just as it ever did, unless we do something to change it.  We can sit out the remainder of our time or we can make the most of it.  And in making the most of it we can impact like never before on those about us, our family, our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues whoever it is we encounter or should encounter. After all we are not so limited by space.

  • I do not lose heart when I look back and remember pews full of people singing at the tops of their voices.
  • I do not lose heart when I remember the Sunday School Anniversaries of old with the girls in pretty dresses and the teenage lads hoping to snatch a smile.
  • I do not lose heart when I recall all that took place when it seemed the church had always been as it was and would ever be thus.
  • I do not lose heart.

‘For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’ (2 Cor. 5.1)

So much of what we have so far seen is temporary but some of the things we have yet to see could be eternal.

I do not lose heart.

I strongly believe that the best is yet to come.

We can work this out.  With God as our source and the people about us as our focus we can work this out.

The church has taken a battering over the past fifty years.  Now is not the time to throw in throw towel.  We were made not just for a time such as this; we were made for this time.  We weren’t born fifty years before we were.  We were born when we were.  Now is our time.  Now is our time to radiate the love of God.  Now is our time to emit rays of hope, to build on the legacy of the past and create a whole new legacy for the future.

Look at what resources we have.

Look at what time we have available.

Look at what we can do.

Dream dreams. Grasp the vision.  God will not let us down.