Sunday, 25 September 2011

Take up the mantle - pass it on!

I’ve stuck my neck out and signed us up … in the hopes that others will join me! To run alongside the Literature Festival in this 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible the churches are joining together for a week long Festival of the Book which will include a reading of the King James Bible. I have signed up for an hour and a quarter on Tuesday afternoon from 2-15 to 3-30 on Tuesday, 11th October.

Of all the books I have been reading for this anniversary year one of the most fun is Begat – the King James Bible and the English Language. David Crystal, a linguist, read through the King James Bible and noted phrases that have come down into the English language. There were 257.. He then looked up the half dozen earlier printed translations of the Bible and identified how many of those phrases were unique to the King James Bible – just 18. The indexes list them all, with all the comparative readings – if you like Ben Schott’s kind of Almanack you will be in your element dipping into this book. In the bulk of the book he then discusses these phrases – with the help of Google. He is interested not so much in the phrases that are used exclusively by Christians as the phrases that have become embedded in the English language …As he sums up … The idioms are to be found in all contexts in which language can be used – from ABC television to zoology, taking in basketball, comic strips, dentistry, engineering, pornography and social networking. The people implicated cover all walks of life: Shakespeare and Sinatra, Byron and Beckham, Osama and Obama. The sources range from the News of the World to Newsweek, from Henry IV to the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I have spotted one idiom that slipped through David Crystal’s net … it is in 2 Kings 2:14 Of Elisha it is said …

And he took the mantle of Elijah

I googled it and it wasn’t long before I found reference to

23 Nov 2005 – Erkki Tuomioja took the mantle as the most experienced EU foreign minister - Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland:

How mumsnet took on the mantle of nanny state – headline in January 2011.

But the one that took the biscuit was from Unreality TV …

Britain’s Got Talent 2011: Louis Walsh was baffled as he took the mantle from The Hoff

The kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel seem to go from bad to worse as Ahaziah dies another of Ahab’s sons, Jehoram, becomes king of Israel and the verdict of the prophetic historians is pretty grim – he reigned for twelve years. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord … though fair play he wasn’t quite as bad as his dad!

It had been just after that visionary experience of the sound of sheer silence, the still small voice of calm that Elijah found Elisha, son of Shaphat, a farmer who was out in the fields ploughing. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah and asked first that he should go and say farewll to his mother and father and then he would follow Elijah. One last meal over, he set out and followed Elijah.

At the death of Ahaziah we find the aged Elijah walking with the younger Elisha from Jericho down towards the Jordan river. Elijah takes his mantle, rolls it up strikes the waters of the river and they part. And the two pass through. When they had crossed Elijah is talking about Elisha continuing his work, when he is taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire and a whirlwind.

Then it is that Elisha …

… took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;
14And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the LORD God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over.
15And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.

Elisha then begins his work – and what is striking about the way the story is told by these prophetic historians is that it is an echo of the work of Elijah. In 2 Kings 4 Elisha helps a widow by giving her oil that doesn’t ceasse to flow until she can pay off all her debts and look after her family. No sooner is she set up than her son dies and Elisha it is who raises the Shunnamite woman’s son.

Once again people are going hungry … and Elisha meets their needs, first purifying a pot of stew and then feeding one hundred men with a tiny amount of grain. He set it before them, they ate, and had some left.

Then it is that Elisha pushes the boundaries and does the unthinkable when he encounters Naaman the commander of the enemy Syrian army and heals him of leprosy.

Elisha as did Elijah, confronts the powers that be – challenging those in power to return to God, declaring the Word of God.

Elijah passes on the mantle to Elisha and the beginnings of a line of prophets is established.

When John the Baptist appears in the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair with a belt around his waist it is almost as if he is wearing the mantle of Elijah. He regularly takes people down beyond Jericho to the river Jordan where he baptises them. Some say that involved walking through the river and coming back again.

Jesus comes to John at that point in the Jordan to be baptised. I am not worthy, John says, it’s you I should be serving – but Jesus deliberately humbles himself to receive the baptism of John.

It is almost a re-enactiment of the point at which Elisha takes up the mantle from Elijah. Jesus takes up the mantle from John. John disappears from the scene.

And what do we find Jesus doing – he has a message which is nothing else than the Word of God, he brings healing to people who hurt. He raises a widow’s son at Nain. We catch a glimpse of him commanding the elements. He tells a story of farmer sowing seeds, just like Elisha at the plough. Jesus feeds a crowd not of 100 but first 5000 and then 4000 and they all are satisfied and there is some left over.

In our scientific age when we read those stories we ask how did he do that? What actually happened. Those weren’t the questions that interested Jesus and his contemporaries. They were asking why he was doing those particular things … and they could tell what was going on …

There are echoes here of Elijah and Elisha. No wonder people take him for another John the Baptist, another Elijah or one of the prophets.

And yet at the same time Jesus does not hesitate to bring something new – he says a marked ‘no’ to some of the things that Elijah and Elisha did. Elijah thought nothing of destroying the Prophets of Baal with fire, Elisha thought nothing of destroying youngsters who taunted him as baldy!

Jesus’ disciples recognise so much of Elijah and Elisha in Jesus that when a village refuses to welcome Jesus they know exactly what an Elijah or an Elisha would do – ‘Lord do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consumer them? But he turned and rebuked them and said, You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.”

Jesus has taken on the mantle … but is also something so very new and different – opening up a new dimension on God.

The most telling moment of all is when he begins his ministry. In his home town of Nazareth he goes to the Synagogue reads words which shape all that he is going to do …

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.’

When he said,
‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

That delight, however, turned to rage – and it turned to rage when Jesus gave two illustrations. Who are the ones we should be helping? As far as the people in the Syngaogue were concerned it was our poor, our captives, our blind, our oppressed.

But Jesus had different ideas. He had come for everyone’s poor, everyone’s blind, everyone’s oppressed.

He pressed his point home by quoting two stories – one from Elijah – there were lots of widows in Israel, but it was an outsider, the widow of Zarephath that Elijah helped.

There were lots of leprosy sufferers in Israel – but it was Naaman, the enemy Syrian army commander that Elisha healed.

That’s what those people could not stomach it was when they heard this that they were filled with rage.

Jesus had come to take on the mantle from Elijah, from Elisha, from all the prophets, from John the Baptist … to bring God’s word to all people, to bring transformation into their lives, to bring healing where there was hurt.

And just like Elijah and just like Elisha he drew disciples to follow him. They took on the mantle from Jesus … and those disciples got other disciples to follow him … and they took up the mantle.

And we too have followed Jesus.

We are to take up the mantle.

We have a message of Good news to share with all people, to share healing where people hurt, to respond to people’s hunger by providing for their need.

That’s exactly what we are doing in our Harvest collection – supporting Highbury’s mission through the work of our children’s worker … but not stopping with the people we know. Our message is for all. Food to share through County Community Projects.

And this chimes exactly with the ethos of Send a Cow. Supporting individual farmers the principle at the heart of Send a Cow is to Pass it On … whatever someone receives, they are to pass on to someone else …

Receive the mantle … and pass it on!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Elijah - When all's well ... something always seems to happen!

It’s strange how things can sometimes go very badly wrong just when everything seems to be going just right. I guess it’s the nature of life and the way things are … but there is something tragic that can at times overwhelm in what happens.

That was the experience of the widow Elijah looked after and who looked after Elijah. Thanks to that cruse of oil, those grains of corn the widow came through the drought.

But then calamity struck.

Her son died.

And she could not begin to understand what had happened.

She railed at God.

She railed at Elijah.

And Elijah’s response was to go to the young man … and the upshot is that he is raised again to life.

And there is a wonderful phrase – Elijah returned him to his mother.

And all knew that Elijah was of God.

Elijah’s task as a Prophet was to bring God’s presence into people’s lives and to speak God’s word especially to the powers that be.

Ahab’s rule was a catastrophic one. Made far worse by Jezebel, the Queen. It was on Mount Carmel that things came to a head … Jezebel and Ahab had led the people after Baal – and the priests of Baal had got a stranglehold on the people and their thinking. Elijah stands his ground and there is the wonderful story of the way Elijah prevails.

But again – just as all has gone well, so catastrophe strikes.

At this moment of triumph Elijah has to flee from Jezebel.

And he fears for his life. More than that he despairs of his life. AS he sits under a solitary broom tree he asks that he might die.

In his sleep he has a dream.

And in his dream a ministering angel provides him with food.

And then that same ministering angel invites him to take a journey to the holy mountain.

And there he feels no better. He is on the run. Everything has fallen about his ears. He wants out.

‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

Elijah now gets second wind. And he finds it in that sound of sheer silence. In the still small voice. And that is what strengthens him.

He finds he can stand his ground.

And his task is to speak truth to power.

And he will not be alone. He casts his mantle on Elisha.

And he holds his ground against Ahab.

At Ahab’s death, Elijah’s task continues. And he finds himself speaking out against Ahaziah, and it is at the death of Ahaziah, King of the northern Kingdom, that Elijah’s days are done.

It is a remarkable story.

Though there had been prophets before, it is Elijah who is held up as the great ‘father-figure’ of the prophets. The archetypal prophet.

There is so much for us to take to heart in the story of Elijah.

In particular I want to hold on to the way his story has that ring of truth about it as he despairs of ever achieving what should be achieved.

It is at that moment when we are knocked for six that God’s presence comes … but not in the drama, in the stillness. And in the stillness comes that second wind to strengthen and inspire and to keep at it.

Is there any way in our praying that we can sense that presence of God with us?

When Jesus’ ministry begins he lines himself up with John the Baptist, whose very behaviour and all that he does marks him out as once more a prophet. There hadn’t been prophets on the scene in Israel for many a long year. But now in John the Baptist was one who recognisably stood in that tradition. Some even thought of him as another Elijah.

Jesus quite deliberately lines himself up with John the Baptist and then he sets about his task.

His message is a powerful one and it has authority – it is about the coming of the kingdom.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus message is simple, it is nothing less than the Good News of God: The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

He calls those fishermen disciples to follow him … and then Mark gives us a typical day in the life of Jesus. It involves healing, it involves teaching … and it sets Jesus over against the powers that be.

So much so that by the end of that typical day the Pharisees and the Herodians, whose way of being Jewish was so very different came together in opposition to Jesus, determined somehow to destroy him.

There are echoes in what Jesus does and in the message he gives of that whole line of prophets going right back to Elijah.

That story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath is used by Jesus as he sets out his programme in the synagogue of Nazareth.

Before long he finds himself in a village only half a dozen miles away.

It is the village of Nain.

And what should happen to him.

He is confronted by a widow whose son has died.

She is over-wrought, devastated. And rails at God.

Jesus steps forward to the bier, touches the young man who is raised to life.

It fascinates our modern way of thinking to ask what exactly happened. But in Jesus’ day people just knew something remarkable had happened … but something else struck them.

And it doesn’t immediately strike us.

A widow distraught at the loss of her son.

An authoritative teacher who has taken up the mantle of a prophet,

The raising of the dead son.

And then comes that phrase. It’s just the same wording.

Jesus handed him back to his mother.

Not just a raising to life, not just a moment of restoration.

What Jesus is doing, is nothing less than what Elijah had done.

Here was a prophet come to hold the powers that be to account.

And so it was on his travels he comes to one of those cities that had only just been completed – the city that Philip, son of Herod the Great and ruler of the North East area beyond the Galilee, had built complete with it temple to the Roman Emperor. His father had named the harbour and city he had built on the Meidterranean, Caesarea after the emperor, the Caesar. His brother had named the city he built as a sign of Roman and Herodian power on the shores of the Sea of Galilee Tiberias after the Roman emperor. And so too Philip named his city after the Roman emperor Caesarea – but he had to differentiate it from his father’s Caesarea. And so he called it Caesarea Philippi.

Here it was that Jesus gathered with his disciples.

Not some out of the way place. But a place near to the seat of power of the powers that be.

Who do people say that I am? He asked.

John the Baptist? And others, Elijah. And still others ‘one of the prophets’.

They’ld got it.

Jesus smiled under his breath.

But there was more.

Who do you say that I am.

And Peter it was who said, You are the Messiah.

But they hadn’t got what that meant. When he started to speak of his suffering, of his death and resurrection, Peter would have none of it.

It was a week later, on the mountain top that it happened.

Jesus went up the mountain with his closest followers, Peter, James and John. And there on the mountain top, Jesus was transfigured before them and his clothes became dazzling white such as no one I on eartch could bleach them.

And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses who were talking with Jesus.

That’s it … it is if in that vision comes confirmation. Just as Jesus is another Moses, so too he is another Elijah. Just as Jesus has brought to its climax the Law and all it meant, so too he had brought to a climax the whole line of prophets.

And once again in Jesus we encounter the same thing.

When all is going well, everything falls apart.

They come down from the mountain straight into the suffering of the world … and their path takes them to confrontation with those powers that be, as Jesus is handed over, beaten, crucified.

And it is only through the darkness of that experience that he comes to resurrection.

In our praying let’s think ourselves into the story …

Do we fear something that lies ahead of us, something that we fear may overwhelm us?

Let’s see Jesus approaching us … just as he approached that son. And he lifts us and he restores us.

Let’s go up in our mind’s eye to the mountain top. Not in the wind, not in the flame, not in the earthquake, but in the sound of sheer silence, let’s sense the presence of God.

And as God in Jesus is with us when we have to go down from the mountain top let’s be sure he will be with us wherever we have to go

Sunday, 11 September 2011

9/11 Ten Years on. Reflections on Psalm 139

Ten years ago this afternoon I heard the news on the radio as I was turning into Carlton Street.

It was difficult to believe.

I got in, saw more of what was happening on the TV.

I decided to visit a member of our congregation who was over here doing a three year stint with the NSA of America and working at GCHQ.

She was living on her own, I wanted simply to go and be alongside her.

We had a cup of tea, we shared in prayer … what else could we do?

She was going to be on her own that evening and so I invited her to join us at church.

We had a long-planned planning meeting for an Alpha Course that was about to begin.

We got together that evening … but going into a planning meeting did not seem right.

We moved into church.

Priory Lacemakers were meeting under Lis Forbes’ tutorship. I invited the lacemakers to join us for a quiet time of prayer in the church.

It was most moving.

But what could we say? What could we do?

I found myself re-visiting the Sunday Evening service of the previous Sunday, the 9th September.

It had been quite a special day for us as a church as at both our morning and evening services we welcomed Petra, our German Time Fpor God Volunteer who was just starting with us. I was just starting a series of sermons on Romans and had decided to do the Order of Service sheet a little differently. Instead of mapping out an order of service, I simply listed the hymns, and added a short summary of the sermon I was going to preach.

It wasn’t long since I had attended the first in a series of lectures at the University which is still going strong on the Interpretation of the Bible. It had been given by Tom Wright, one of this generation’s great Biblical scholars with a wonderful gift of being able to combine in-depth scholarship with a real popular touch.

His lecture had focused on Paul and the Epistle to the Romans.

It was powerful stuff.

I turned up the note I included in the Order of Service sheet. It gives a summary of the theme I explored in my preaching that night. It is a theme I have returned to a great deal since.

“Half a century before Paul began his letter to the Christians of Rome Augustus had been the first Roman Emperor to regard himself as Son of God. In that time the Cult of the Emperor had caught on. Paul gets straight to the point – he calls on the Christian community to believe and obey Jesus, not the Emperor as the Son of God. Christianity is an alternative way of loife which subverts the powers that be. And at its heart is the righteousness of God – not a judgemental God to be feared, but a God who sets people right and sets people free to follow a different way of life. That is an act of pure grace which is ours to share as we respond in faith. But it then turns our world uspdie down! Paul’s indictment of Roman society (18-32) has a disturbing contemporary ring about it.”

In retrospect, those comments have a great deal to say into all that happened on 9/11.

But those comments were not what stuck in my mind.

Something else occurred in that evening service that I will never forget. That evening, it was simply an interesting aside. By the Tuesday night, it spoke very powerfully to me.

The Psalm of the day from the lectionary was Psalm 139. The suggestion was that we read just the first part of the Psalm, as we have done this evening.

I felt at the time it was a bit of a cop-out.

I wasn’t sure whether I could do it or not. But then I decided I would. I decided to use the whole Psalm.

Psalm 139 is at the same time one of the most beautiful and wonderful of all the Psalms, and also one of the ugliest and most disturbing of them all.

Look it up in Congregational Praise, and it’s innocent enough. I had grown up singing the Psalms from Congregational Praise, and I hadn’t realised how abridged they were.

As our church bible is the Good News Bible, I did as I occasionally do and decided to invite people to read the Psalm antiphonally, section by section.

I decided that I would pause before my final reading and add in a comment, and for us, a Christian Congregation reading the Psalms a reminder that we have to read the Psalms through the eyes of Jesus.

LORD, you have examined me and you know me.
2 You know everything I do;
from far away you understand all my thoughts.
3 You see me, whether I am working or resting;
you know all my actions.
4 Even before I speak,
you already know what I will say.
5 You are all round me on every side;
you protect me with your power.
6 Your knowledge of me is too deep;
it is beyond my understanding.


7 Where could I go to escape from you?
Where could I get away from your presence?
8 If I went up to heaven, you would be there;
if I lay down in the world of the dead, you would be there.
9 If I flew away beyond the east
or lived in the farthest place in the west,
10 you would be there to lead me,
you would be there to help me.
11 I could ask the darkness to hide me
or the light round me to turn into night,
12 but even darkness is not dark for you,
and the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.


13 You created every part of me;
you put me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you because you are to be feared;
all you do is strange and wonderful.
I know it with all my heart.
15 When my bones were being formed,
carefully put together in my mother's womb,
when I was growing there in secret,
you knew that I was there —
16 you saw me before I was born.
The days allotted to me
had all been recorded in your book,
before any of them ever began.
17 O God, how difficult I find your thoughts;
how many of them there are!
18 If I counted them, they would be more than the grains of sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.

It was at this point that I paused. Writing at a time when Israel had been devastated by the destructive forces of neighbouring countries, the psalmist put into words the gut reaction he had to such devastation. It is at points like this in the Psalms that we must bring to the forefront of our minds the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, from the end of Matthew 5. Nonetheless, there may be times when it is good to get the gut reaction we have out of the system and hurl our anger towards God. As we do that, however, we must forcibly bring to mind the words of Jesus.

19 O God, how I wish you would kill the wicked!
How I wish violent people would leave me alone!
20 They say wicked things about you;
they speak evil things against your name.
21 O LORD, how I hate those who hate you!
How I despise those who rebel against you!
22 I hate them with a total hatred;
I regard them as my enemies.

That’s the gut reaction … but we must bring to mind the words of Jesus …

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’
44 But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven.

And now in the light of Jesus’ words we can all join together in the final prayer of the Psalm …

The Congregation

23 Examine me, O God, and know my mind;
test me, and discover my thoughts.
24 Find out if there is any evil in me
and guide me in the everlasting way.

As we gathered in church that Tuesday evening, with our American friend joining us, there must have been about 25 or 30 of us present, we met at the front of the church, it was already getting dark.

I wasn’t at all sure what on earth we could say.

There wasn’t a lot we could say.

What I found myself doing was returning to that Psalm 139 with the introduction I had shared with people on the Sunday evening. And I saw it in an entirely different light.

It was as ever moving … doubly so in the face of what had happened to read again those moving words at the start of the Psalm.

Wherever we go, to the ends of the earth - God is with us.

We needed to hear those words.

But then we approached those final, hateful words.

Aor the first time, I could feel the gut reaction of those words at the end of the Psalm. It was that kind of raw feeling that had captured. This was what people were feeling, this was in some measure how I felt. There was an awfulness that gripped us.

It was good to articulate those feelings. Not to bottle them up, It was good to get them out. To shout them in a rage at God.

But. And this is the enormous BUT.

How vital it was, how good it was, how moving too to come face to face with the words of Jesus. Tough words. But words stemming from his own experiences in a Jerusalem that was subject to the violence of the oppressive power of Rome, all too often at its worst.

Those words of Jesus we also needed to hear.

And then to join together in the final prayer … how powerful that prayer was.

I have recalled it many times since.

I felt I wanted to re-visit it again this evening, ten years on to the day when at this very time we gathered in this very place and shared that reading and those reflections.

Maybe God speaks to us down through the last decade His Word through those words.

There was for me a follow-on to that evening’s time of prayer. And those reflections prompted by Psalm 139.

That day Rowan Williams, currently Archbishop of Canterbury, then Archbishop of the Church in Wales, was at a conference in an adjacent tower block to the Twin Towers. He had to run through that cloud of dust. He was massively shaken by the experience.

A few months later he wrote a very small, handbag sized book, little more than a pamphlet. I think it is one of the finest works he has written.

He took the very thought provoking title, Writing in the Dust.

He recalled the occasion when Jesus was confronted by a crowd of hateful men bent on stoning to death a woman who had been caught in adultery. When they asked Jesus what should be done, he bent down and wrote in the dust, before straightening himself up and making a response. He then bent down and wrote some more in the dust before straightening himself up and giving his response to the woman.

Rowan Williams, reflecting on 9/11 suggested first of all that there was wisdom in the decision Jesus made to pause a moment, and not give an insight response. That was the wisdom he felt was needed on the part of the authorities at this juncture. Now was the time not for an instant response, but there was a call for a pause, time for reflection, careful thinking.

The next morning the Welsh-Speaking Rowan Williams received a phone call from a journalist, presenting a news programme for Radio Cymru, the Welsh language BBC channel He was asked to make a comment on all he had experienced from his hotel room in New York. The journalist spoke in Welsh.

In that instant he paused. And the thought flashed through his mind. If he responded in the same language then his comments would be broadcast only to the Welsh speaking people of Wales. If he spoke in a different language, then what he said would be broadcast to all the people of Wales. He chose to respond in a different language.

Rowan Williams suggested secondly, that the powers that be needed at that moment to take time to reflect, and then he urged the need to respond in a different language. To respond to the actions of hatred in the same language of hatred would add fuel to the flames.

This is the radically different response that Paul urged followers of Jesus to have that was so different to the powers that be as he was writing to Christians in Rome.

The kind of Christianity that calls for that kind of response is radically different …

Christianity is an alternative way of life which subverts the powers that be. And at its heart is the righteousness of God – not a judgemental God to be feared, but a God who sets people right and sets people free to follow a different way of life. That is an act of pure grace which is ours to share as we respond in faith. But it then turns our world upside down!

The tragedy of 9/11 is that the powers that be did not pause for thought and reflection.

The double tragedy of 9/11 is that the instant response they made returned like for like with the systematic bombing first of Afghanistan and then the war in Iraq.

The challenge remains.

How important it is that we respond to terror and hatred not in the same language of terror and hatred, but in a different tongue.

The words of Jesus speak powerfully to our times … and they are an enormous challenge.

Maybe we need to get the hatred out of ours system in our praying to God … but then we need that most wonderful of prayers that comes at the very end of Psalm 139, and we need to take that prayer to heart.

Examine me, O God, and know my mind;
test me, and discover my thoughts.
24 Find out if there is any evil in me
and guide me in the everlasting way.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Multiculturalism and Elijah

It has to be one of the loveliest of places to have a picnic … each August Bank Holiday Sunday for the last twelve years Felicity and I have enjoyed that spot. High up on the Grandstand at the Race Course with that wonderful view of the hill. It was Greenbelt once again.

Our picnic lunch over, we settled down to listen to Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, the youngest female member of the House of Lords. She has been responsible in the last three or four years for building up the relationship between the Conservative party and the Black Christian community in Britain. She was asking whether a multicultural society was a bankrupt vision. In one sense she was a strong advocate of a multicultural society where people of different cultures, and different religions live together, but critical of some of what she regarded as artificial ways the state had adopted in our multi-cultural society.

It is an age old question – how do people of different cultures, and of different faiths live side by side in the same community? It is interesting that our Congregational part of the church has had a very specific contribution to make down through the centuries. We are absolutely clear about where we stand in our Christian faith with its distinctive values. But at the same time we will stand up for the right of others to follow their conscience in the faith they hold and the culture they belong to. That was what inspired the likes of John Milton in his tract the Areopagetica which is one of the bastions of the principle of Freedom of thought and freedom of speech in our country. It was what prompted the return of the Jewish people to this country after centuries of exile in the 1650’s. It was what prompted the Toleration acts of the end of the 17th century. And it was what inspired the Mayflower Pilgrims and the founders of the United States.

It is always a balancing act for someone of faith to hold firm the faith you have and at the same time show respect and tolerance for the faith of others.

The unfolding story told by the prophetic historians of the Hebrew Scriptures in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings shows two contrasting responses to the problem, from which we have much to learn.

Looking back at a moment when all had collapsed around them and they were in exilie they resisted the temptation to look back with rose tinted spectacles. They pored over the story of their nation and told it ‘warts and all’.

Even Solomon in all his glory got it wrong at one particular point. Wise though he was, and revered for being the one to build the temple, he had a weakness that contributed to his major failing.

Proverbs is not the only biblical book from the last section of the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures to be associated with Solomon. The other is the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon. More than any other it is a book that has been ‘spiritualised’ by Jewish and Christian writers alike. That’s because it is a book about sex and love between a lover and his beloved. It is sensuous writing at its best that is nothing less than a celebration of sexuality. And I guess that’s why it has been given all sorts of spiritual meanings to avoid the blushes of devout readers of the Bible.

Solomon reigned as King over the United Kingdom of Israel at its greatest. But he was very conscious of the need to build friendly relationships with neighbouring kings with very different cultures and religions. He sealed those alliances often with relationships, At the beginning of chapter 3 he makes a marriage alliance with Egypt by marrying the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. By chapter 10 he welcomes the Queen of Sheba and her retinue building relationships which added to his wealth.

It doesn’t stop there. In chapter 11 we read that King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian and Hittite women … among his wivers were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines.

This is beginning to get to excess. And the excess has a danger within it. That marrying in this way will lead you away from the faith that is yours and you will merge your faith in with lots of others. Solomon gets more and more involved actually presiding over many, many different religious practices, some of which have dimensions that are deeply offensive.

Inside this story is one response to ‘multi-culturalism’ and to living with different religions. It basically puts all different religions into a melting pot and merges them together.

That is something I am not drawn to. I believe we must be clear where we stand in our faith and in its values, and take a stand.

There is a strand in the Hebrew Scriptures – that at the point of the exile goes to an opposite extreme and forbids all mixing with people not of the faith – it is an exclusivism that tends at some points towards what can only be descibred as ethnic cleansing in an attempt to keep to the purity of faith and culture.

But there is another strand and we catch a glimpse of it as the story unfolds after the death of Solomon.

What happens then is a pretty tragic story. At Solomon’s death the fault line between the northern tribes and the tribe of Judah around Jeruselm in the south opens up and the kingdom divides into two.

From 1 Kings 12 onwards the story of those two kingdoms and their successive Kings is told. At the end of the reign of each king the prophetic historians give their verdict. This king obeyed God’s law and things went well. This king disobeyed God and things were pretty awful.

Solomon’s son Jeroboam succeeds his father and becomes King of the Northern Kingdom – and things are pretty awful as he turns against God. 12-14. Meanwhile another of Solomon’s sons Rehoboam reigns over Judah and does just as badly. Rehoboam is succeeded by his son Abijam and is condemned by the historians for getting it all wrong. And then his son Asa succeeded him and in Judah the people return to God and all goes well.

But in the northern kingdom things rapidly go from bad to worse. When Jeroboam dies he is succeded by his son Nadab who makes such an awful mess of things that there is a rebellion and an entirely different family: when Baasha reigns over Israel it is a brand new line of kings, a new dynasty. He too ‘did what was evil in the sight of the Lord’ and when his son Elah becomes King he is overthrown by another palace revolt and Zimri’s family takes over as a third dynasty, only to be overthrown by Omri – a fourth dynasty – Omri establishes Samaria as the new capital.

You can see in the north a decline … and the break with Solomon. What the prophetic historians say of Omri is typical of what they write on so many of the kings. They give a verdict – he disobeyed God. And they also give their references – it’s as if they had rescued the state archives and their readers could read up in those archives -
Now the rest of the acts of Omri that he did, and the power that he showed, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel? Omri slept with his ancestors, and was buried in Samaria; his son Ahab succeeded him.

Things surely couldn’t get worse in that northern kingdom! Don’t be too sure. Ahab marries Jezebel and turns away from the God of Israel and worships Baal.

Something needs to be done. Something has to happen.

This is where we must remember that these are not thought of as history books. They are considered to be among the prophets of the Old Testament. This is the point at which the first of the two great prophets of I and II Kings is introduced. It is of course Elijah. It is interesting that all the way through from 1 Kings 17 to 2 Kings 13 the story of Elijah and Elisha are told. Prophets are the ones who hold the kings to account. They are the ones who challenge authority. Who speak the Word of God to the powers that be.

Now Elijah, the Tishbite of Tishbe in Gilead speaks to Ahab. But what is interesting about prophets is that they do not just deal in words. They also carry out often highly symbolic actions.

The word of the Lord comes to Elijah and sends him to a Wahdi, a dried up river bed where he finds water. But it quickly runs dry.

The word of the Lord then sends him somewhere totally unexpected. He is sent beyond the boundaries of Israel – to one of those neighbouring nations, to Sidon, to the city of Zarephath where he is to be looked after by a widow.

And there is this wonderful story of the way in which the widow has nothing but her supply of bread is sustained, and her jug of oil does not run out – God sustains the widow of Zarephath in this most wonderful of ways.

And of course it is this story of the care of the widow and the support that is shared and the Cruse of oil that does not run out that gives the inspiration for the foundation of the bereavement charity Cruse – where those who are widowed provide help and support to others.

There is here a different approach to other cultures and other religionis. It is not becoming part of them, not mixing them all together – but it is one of respect – maybe it is a relationship characterised by the sharing of love and concern.

And this story is highly significant for Jesus who came to fulfil the prophets among them the prophets we are reading in these books of the Bible.

AS his ministry opens in Nazareth at the synagogue he preaches a sermon that becomes the manifesto for his ministry. Here are the values that we take a stand on as Christians. He draws them from scroll of the propohet Isaiah – chapter 61

‘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.’

When he says ‘today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” everyone spoke well of him and were amazed at the words of grace that came from his mouth.

But something changed. By the end of the sermon they are filled with rage and the mob is prepared to stone him to death. Why?

Many are those among the people in that synagogue gathering who have bought into the narrow line that emerged after the exile of purity of race.

But in bringing to fulfilment the prophets Jesus draws on a different line of thinking. Jesus comes to this opening story of Elijah and he makes his own commentary on it. And what he draws out is the relationship between Elijah and the Gentile widow from beyond the bounds of Israel.

And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

Jesus brings a love from God that reaches out to all and to everyone, and is not limited by a shared faith or a shared culture.

This is a very different kind of multi-culturalism – and this is where I want to take a stand.

I want to be true to Jesus Christ my Lord and Saviour – that commits me to these values – of good news for the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. But that is accompanied by an open-armed love for all beyond my faith and my culture.

That’s the kind of principle I want to hold to and then seek to work out in practical ways.