Anthony Falbo - Be anxious for nothing

Religion and Anxiety

Religion and Anxiety

What is religion for? I know there are some Christians who don’t like to describe themselves as religious (‘they have a relationship with God, not a religion’) but I think it is a useful term. The root of the word ‘religion’ may mean to bind up again (the same root gives us the word ‘ligament’): ‘religion’ is to bind something up again, to put something back together which had fallen apart. In short, religions aim to fix things – and they do this by giving us rituals and structures that repeat themselves. Helpfully, this means that we don’t have to imagine what God might be like afresh each week and how we should approach this God – we have a liturgy, an order of service, that helps us.

Of course, whether we allow these religious structures to help us actually get back in touch with God or whether we treat them as something to be worshipped in their own right is a moot point. Those Christians who feel uncomfortable using the term ‘religious’ rightly put their finger on what happens if we simply allow ourselves to get hooked on tradition. So, religion, I’d like to suggest, is a neutral thing. Whether being religious is good or bad depends on the aim and the spirit with which it is carried out.  Religion that takes a fragmented, disjointed human life, and puts it back together with the intention of making a violent person is clearly bad religion; but religion which takes fragmented and disjointed lives and puts them back together to make peaceful people is clearly a different matter. And, it seems to be, that any particular religion can be at times good or bad…

Why the lecture on religion? Last Sunday I attended a Creationist event at a local Catholic church. You’d be correct in thinking it’s not my natural haunt. I listened for several hours to two impassioned speakers earnestly speaking about how the Earth was only six thousand years old; how Genesis chapter 1 had to be interpreted as a historical account; how there was a real Adam and Eve; how there was a great flood that covered the whole earth at once. Questions about carbon-14 dating were raised; statements from previous popes and saints were adduced proving the authority of scripture as historically true about the Garden of Eden. And to cap it all I was shown a photograph of an 800-year-old carving which was said to depict a stegosaurus, thereby proving that dinosaurs must have been around only recently.

If you’ve ever been to an event like this it’s easy to get sucked in, either in agreement or in passionate disagreement. But I’d decided to try to control my temper by taking notes because what I really wanted to do was to understand the structure and motivation of the argument: what was it that could drive these speakers to give of their precious time to share their beliefs: what was so important to them?

It turned out that questions about science weren’t in the driving seat. No: it was anxiety that was the driver. In this case anxiety about changing sexual identities and roles today. You see: the speakers believed that if you did want to reaffirm traditional Catholic gender roles for men and women, and to reassert that heterosexuality should be the norm, then you needed the Genesis story to be historically true: for it was in Genesis 1 that God had revealed the perfect template for human sexuality: Adam and Eve together in the garden. But if evolution threatened the historical truth of Genesis 1, evolution had to be shown to be wrong.

Now, this seems to me a case of the dogmatic tail wagging the scientific dog: a problem with restating traditional Catholic morality resulted in an argument that tried to  overturn the last century and a half of biological thinking. Now, whatever we think a Christian view of sexuality and gender ought to be (and that should certainly be something we care about and argue over), nevertheless, I think that most of us would agree that denying the day-to-day work of modern biologists is probably not the best way to do it. Or, if I can try to put it more pithily: if we’re unsure of what our doctrine should be, the answer won’t be found in doing worse science, it’ll be found in doing better theology.

But, stepping back from these questions, what interested me most was to discover the role of anxiety: this anxiety about LGBT+ rights and around the apparent loss of heterosexual marriage. You’ll recall that a while back I mentioned ‘religion’ may mean to put back together again what is disjointed? Here was a case of religion trying to put some disjointed, worried faithful traditionalist Catholics, back together. But (I dare to observe) I don’t think it was very good religion. Not just because it rested on bad science, but because it was driven by an anxious need for security.

So here we get to the actual sermon: how do we deal with insecurity? Insecurity about anything – in our relationships, in our work-life, when it comes to our health or our future?

How can religion help with anxiety? One response might be to look to Christianity to provide us with firm answers. And it does provide us with some. Jesus was, in some ways, deeply conservative and firm about several matters: think of the Sermon on the Mount’s attitudes to money, forgiveness, non-violence. But in other ways the religion that Jesus shares with us is at the same time radically liberal, particularly when it comes to dealing with anxiety…

In our Gospel reading this morning we hear about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep for the one that was lost; and about the woman who sweeps the whole house to find the one lost coin. What could each of them have done instead? I guess the shepherd could have said, ‘Well, I still have 99! Never mind, I’ll focus on protecting what I’ve still got’. And what of the woman who had lost one of the coins which were often worn as jewellery and probably consisted of her precious dowry – her only source of independent wealth? I guess she could have spent the day shopping for a very strong box, then polishing each coin in turn and placing it safely inside, vowing never to wear them again. (That suggestion reminds me, by the way, of a story of the Queen visiting an elderly lady for tea. Whilst sipping from her mug the Queen points to some fine bone china on the dresser. ‘Those look lovely’, she says. ‘Yes,’ says the lady, ‘I save those for best’.)

But neither the shepherd nor the woman do these things. In the face of the anxiety of loss theirs is not a withdrawal into safety. These are parables that affirm the worth of moving towards what was lost, in hope, rather than seeking to avoid further loss by retreating into greater security.

Of course, both parables are about grace – Jesus is communicating his sense that God’s instinct for love means that God doesn’t avoid risk; God moves towards what is lost, in love and in hope. It’s approach to life that is the opposite of allowing fear to close down… Jesus’s life, rooted in God, incarnates the same attitude: he chooses not to avoid the risky encounter with the polluted or the morally compromised which might lose him favour or put him in the bad books of the authorities, or indeed open him to the challenge that he was being unfaithful to scripture. Indeed, just think of how little time Jesus spends in the Temple (the secure, safe, place); and instead how much time he spends on the margins of Israel. And this divine life which he takes on, Jesus passes to his disciples when he says, follow me… So, in the face of anxiety do we retreat or courageously journey out again?

Two years ago I conducted the funeral of a distant relative, Dick. He was a hoarder: most of the rooms of his house were full to the ceiling with bags stuffed with things that he ‘might one day need’. Dick rarely set foot outside. I think much of the world beyond his door felt to him frightening. But he didn’t start out that way – his hoarding was (I would guess) the end destination of many individual choices to retreat because it seemed the safest option. Few of us are so extreme as that, but all of us have choices about what we do in the face of uncertainty, and one path leads to withdrawal and another, apparently riskier path, leads outwards.

Our anxieties may take many forms: they may focus on our jobs, like the uncertainty of a parish job after a good curacy; or like the uncertainty of a parish as it awaits a new vicar after difficult past experiences… It may deal with our health, mental and physical; our experience of ageing.

And on top of these personal uncertainties we find, too, that we live in increasingly complex times, politically and environmentally. In the face of uncertainty about the effects of climate we could, if we wanted, withdraw into positions of self-protection. In extreme we might try to hide from the painful truth in climate denial; or perhaps start behaving in ways that try only to limit the consequences for ourselves. In the face of difficult international relations, that make us fear losing control, we could say that we have had enough of experts; we could listen to voices which offer simple solutions rather than the complex process of arguing for change.

These things are, of course, easy to say, but far harder to live – for none of us likes anxiety or uncertainty. I find, time and again, that these two responses (each of them offered by different ways of doing religion) can be reduced to two simple gestures: the clenched hand, or the open palm. In the face of whatever uncertainties we meet, shall we cultivate the daily prayer of letting go, ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’; or shall we cultivate the prayer of security: Lord, make me safe?

When it comes to dealing with anxiety, what is it that we want from our religion? As we approach the communion table, it may be that we will find that a clenched hand makes it more difficult to receive what God would like to give us.

Mark Laynesmith, 15 September, 2019

Image . Anthony Falbo – Be Anxious for Nothing


Climate, Catastrophe and Uncertain Hope

Luke 14:25-33, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Jeremiah 18:1-11

So a few weeks ago, I gave a sermon riffing on two readings; one from Luke with a very angry-sounding Jesus, and the other, a challenging part of Jeremiah, speaking of false prophets. And afterwards I thought to myself.. “thank goodness I won’t have to do anything like that for a while”…. hmm!

So today with an angry judgement-heralding Jeremiah, and an equally angry-sounding Jesus resounding in our ears – it’s tempting to feel gloom. But I want to talk about HOPE.

And even more so, as we begin our Creation Season, and think about the gift and beauty of the earth, and our inevitable sense of unease at environmental destruction… HOPE seems to be a good territory to explore..

But to speak of Hope, I need to speak honestly and realistically… and to do that I need to name the uncertainty I’m sure many of us feel.. Beyond the personal and political uncertainty we are facing of course, we are facing an even deeper existential uncertainty over our actual existence; the planet, children and grandchildren… We have to ask what does Hope actually look like? Or a phrase I use, ‘what are the contours of hope?’

Certainly it feels like we are at a point where there might be no hope… When I speak with young people, ( ) there is a growing sense of hopelessness, of no future… and the effects are devastating; anxiety, depression, suicide. But how can anyone live without hope? We shudder and lament over these stories, (and hear the echo in our own hearts).

And as we are called upon by the folks of Extinction Rebellion and Dark Mountain to face the most uncomfortable truths about our future… It really is quite terrifying… we need to truly shed tears – like Jeremiah – to feel in our own flesh the wounds of the planet. To find words of hope seems to be increasingly difficult.

As Christians we may speak of hope in Christ.. but again, what does that actually mean? What is the shape of such a hope, what are the contours? We know within ourselves that a simple notion that ‘God is in control’, therefore all will somehow be ok is not good enough. In fact, as we witness in American Fundamentalism; (false) hope has become part of the problem, a denial of reality which only hastens environmental disaster.

In the last sermon I spoke of the prophetic tradition present in both Jeremiah and Jesus. And how Jesus is accessing and re-issuing the same kinds of challenges as Jeremiah did almost 600 years earlier. And in the same way, using bold outrageous, almost absurd, language to illustrate the kingdom of God, false priorities and misplaced dreams…

Jesus and Jeremiah convey their message in forms of Art.. Jeremiah in poetry; Jesus in parable – and both in actions.

So let’s begin by looking at some art…


This is ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th C. German romantic landscape painter.

The romantic era emerged from a growing disillusionment with an increasingly materialistic society. A widespread idea was a strong belief and interest in the importance of nature. This is particularly felt in the effect of nature upon the artist when surrounded by it – and preferably alone. Romanticism correlated with a new spirituality – particularly a mystical relationship with nature – revealing the grandeur and awe of the natural world.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1817) shows a solitary figure (not Boris Johnson!) standing on a rocky outcrop gazing out over a vista of hills and mountains veiled in a sea of fog. The fog stretches out beyond the mountains eventually mingling with the cloudy sky. Writer Ron Dembo says that the Wanderer is a metaphor for the unknown ‘future full of risks; indistinct, hazy and obscured by fog. ‘How should we travel in this mysterious landscape?’ We – like the wanderer – yearn for the same vista where we can see a future beyond the waves of cloudy uncertainty and mystery..
That uncertain future seems to be where hope stumbles.

We often think of God like this too; Jeremiah implies that the potter is in control; defining history, shaping events, moulding us, making everything fit in some elusive plan..

But doesn’t such an attitude render us powerless? If God is in control, then is there anything we can do to affect the future? (that question challenges how we understand God to be..)

So dare I make an alternative suggestion…

When a potter works with clay, or a sculptor works with wood or stone, or when an artist picks up a brush, they never simply impress their idea onto the clay, the canvas, the wood or the stone… (I might dare to say something about music!).

Although there is an intention – there is also something of a negotiation; artists tell of how the developing work speaks to them, how they take care to listen and engage with their chosen material..

At St Ives, I read Barbara Hepworth’s words ‘One must be entirely sensitive to the structure of the material that one is handling. One must yield to it in tiny details of execution, perhaps the handling of the surface or grain, and one must master it as a whole.’  (A bit like this preacher daring to speak of God!)

This understanding changes how we see the potter in Jeremiah… and therefore suggests an alternative way of thinking about God.. the potter works with the clay, yielding, feeling, intuiting, tactile feedback evokes form.

Similarly, some (Process) theologians now speak of God as almost ‘ahead of time’ not ‘above time’.. evoking possibilities from us, inviting and discovering with us, working out ways of being… (Let that idea settle for a moment..)

God adapts, responds, and invites possible futures to emerge.. Calls us (from the future) to become more fully ourselves, more human, working with our possibilities and potentials. Is this the living fountain?

We began the service (deliberately) with the reading from Deuteronomy, as YHVH – dressed in cloud and fire – opens such possibilities to the fledgling Israel.. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse – now choose life..”
The potter responds with the clay to discover an unknown potential – It’s open, its invitational, its relational…

Its maybe a radically different perspective – and it might be helpful!

Charles Causley’s (Cornish) poem ‘I am the Song’ points to this inversion; reflects a deeper entwined relationship…

I am the song that sings the bird.
I am the leaf that grows the land.
I am the tide that moves the moon.
I am the stream that halts the sand.
I am the cloud that drives the storm.
I am the earth that lights the sun.
I am the fire that strikes the stone.
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.

(Which is nice Gary – but I thought you were going to speak about Hope?!)

And that’s the problem.. though I want to speak of hope – I cannot speak of hope in any concrete way.. when we are thinking about the fragility of the planet and our eco-system – how can we speak with hope which doesn’t sound delusional; or even worse, complacent, when the world is already suffering?

We do need to be truly careful and truthfully realistic… yet somehow we find ourselves held by a holy story which draws us towards hope. An elusive, hard to grasp, possibly weak, yet insistent hope in the future.

Which maybe is what Jesus is echoing under the shock of his inflammatory ‘family-busting’ words; He seems to be suggesting… hold on to nothing that you normally would. Hold on to no thing at all, even the things you hold most dear. Could that include our ideas of ‘hope’ – if such ‘hope’ is merely a denial of reality?

Jesus is once again the shibboleth, the dividing line; his way challenges us to our core.. and inspires us to look again with a new understanding towards God. It’s like he’s saying hold on to nothing you can make or contain – because God is beyond anything you can make or contain. So too Hope is beyond anything we can make and contain…

But hope is something we can still discover, encounter and live with…

We’ve heard a lot from Jeremiah these past weeks; but a few chapters later (Jer.32) comes the odd detail of Jeremiah buying a field from his cousin.. (Babylonian troops were already well across the border…. All hope was lost, but suddenly every things seems to pause as Jeremiah buys this field in occupied land, and honours a Levitical law).
What’s going on? Like our looming environmental catastrophe, the world was already ending for Jeremiah and for Judah… but he enacts an ordinary, straightforward transaction…

Maybe what we fear the most is not the end of the world – but changes to our world. The writer Rebecca Solnit says that, “people have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.”

So … I’m sculpting too; trying to piece themes together in a way that makes sense for us, and maybe – just maybe – reveals some of the contours of hope in the face of devastating uncertainty…let’s conclude;

Jeremiah’s vision of the potter working with the clay offers the suggestion that God working in creative partnership with people and creation; For example, for one moment imagine the idea that regeneration emerges even from fire-scorched forests… nature adapts. God’s life insists with and within nature and even the cycles of destruction and new life (Is.45:1-8).

I’m not saying we don’t fight climate change – on the contrary; But maybe the fight we begin with is to hunger and embody hope… even as we face reality.

Jesus seems to be challenging his listeners that the cost involved in following him is everything.. ‘none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions... (Lk. 14.33) (our security and comfort mechanisms)

Instead Jesus invites us to participate in an evolving and unfolding future.. a future full of uncertainty. We cannot guess what the future might be – and we cannot view a future from some high vantage point …

Instead we find hope by living in hope, living as if hope is already with us.. and hope finds us – maybe in the smallest of acts, (as Richard said last week), even as small as waking up in the morning to face a new day – to choose life.

It makes no sense – and maybe that’s the point. Jeremiah buying a field makes no sense.. it’s utterly absurd. But he chooses to; he chooses life – not death;  and so affirms hope in the future, in humanity, in God.

I cannot tell you what hope looks like for you, (or me!).. we cannot name or point to hope. The contours only make sense when we walk them and feel them under our feet.

But we must come off the mountaintop vantage point.. (we cannot see the future). Instead we descend into the misty valleys; we must face our world, (not rise above it). We are invited to roll up our sleeves with the potter, to enter the uncertainty and to co-create a new emerging reality; one of compassion, humanity and (hope).
GS Collins. 8th Sept 2019

The Poor invited to the feast - Luke 14:15-24

The fountain of living waters

Jeremiah 2:2-13, Luke 14:1,7-14

There can be few more painful experiences than that of a broken marriage. I am very aware that there are people sitting here today who have had exactly that experience. Those of us who are still married, or who are single, can imagine the grief and heartbreak, or have seen it at first hand from our friends. That is exactly the place which our OT reading in Jeremiah 2 takes us. The passage invites us to feel the pain of the breakdown in relationship, in effect the marriage, between YHWH, the God of Israel, and his chosen people. We’re talking several hundred years BC. Listen to some of the language again, God speaking in the first person: ‘I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness…What wrong did your ancestors find in me, that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?…my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord…my people have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’.


Although these words are nearly 3000 years old (that’s the iron age) written to the ancient people of Israel at a time way before cars or airplanes or mobile phones, there is a strong resonance with the world today. The ancient Israelites abandoned YHWH, The Lord – fell out of love with him, if you like, and begun worshipping and serving other gods – gods of war, fertility, wealth, national pride – and then wondered why it all went so wrong. The problem was that the values they then honoured, the things they aimed for, worked for, hoped for, began to change. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’, said Jesus (Matthew 6:21). No longer sharing, but keeping; no longer taking just what is needed, but more than that to satisfy greed; no longer welcoming the alien, but rejecting him; no longer justice, but injustice. Does that have a contemporary ring? The people who should have been showing the world what its Creator is like – loving, caring, sharing, forgiving – became just like everyone else. In this painful passage from Jeremiah, I am drawn especially to the last verse: ‘for my people have committed two evils: (firstly) they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and (secondly) dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water’(13). A ‘fountain of living water’ – what a beautiful image that God chooses to describe himself! Let that image of what it could be like soak you, fill you, refresh you. This is what God is like! Not a stuffy old man with a long beard, not a policeman in the sky, not a killjoy but like a fountain of cold water on a steaming hot day. Something to plunge into, to play in, to drink deeply of. And living water – water that gives life, that sustains life, that is alive itself. We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves too far, but a few hundred years later a Jewish carpenter turned preacher met a foreign woman at a well and told her, ‘…those who drink the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14). Alas, that wasn’t what happened. Instead of accepting the offer of divine grace like a fountain, flowing and bubbling, they turned to the worship of other things instead – like looking for another source of water to keep them alive – but instead of the flowing, clear water that YHWH offered, they built stagnant cisterns, water tanks – but even then, they leaked. They could not satisfy.

Last week, as some of you know, I once again visited Taizé, in the company of Ben and Dan Harwood and Alison Peyton. What can I say? It’s a corner of the world where the ‘fountain of living waters’ is flowing. It’s partly the loveliness of the community of people that gathers there. I led a group of young people  from Germany and the Netherlands in Bible discussion each day, and asked them at the end what impression of Taizé they will take away with them – most of them just enjoyed the openness and unconditional friendliness – the way you can talk to anyone about anything, enjoy each other’s company in the way you can’t necessarily back home. Then the beauty of the times of prayer which takes place three times a day in the huge church, the singing, the silence. Young people staying long after the prayer had ended in the evening, often to the early hours, singing, praying and maintaining silence. Added to that is simplicity of living – there is certainly no luxury at Taizé, but who cares? Suddenly you’re not distracted by stuff. There is for me, and for many, a deep sense of the presence of God in that place. It is, simply put, how it should be.

Many people, myself included, are finding the current state of affairs in our country and the world deeply depressing. Beyond all the shenanigans over Brexit – and that’s bad enough – is the stark and undeniable reality of climate change that we are now actually experiencing with too-hot summers, and alternating drought and torrential rainfall. The reasons for climate change are easy to understand – our over-reliance on fossil fuels on the one hand and deforestation on the other. How has all this come about? The reasons are many and complex, but human greed, the desire for more stuff is at its root. Where did we get the idea that the only home we know, that is, planet earth, could be plundered? By using the word ‘greed’ we actually frame it in spiritual terms by using the word ‘greed’. Greed is a form of idolatry, of serving and loving a false god. You might remember from a sermon I preached in Lent that it’s also one of the 7 deadly sins. And it turns out to be a cracked cistern, a water-tank with a hole in it. In the end, it doesn’t work.

At the beginning of the Jeremiah passage, God, through the prophet, speaks of Israel’s ‘love as a bride’. The whole picture of marriage – of YHWH as the husband and his chosen people as the bride – is wrapped around the mutual love of one for the other and the promises made – the covenant between them, in biblical terms. Once Israel let go of that, it was downhill for them. Let’s come back to love. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment in the law he replied without hesitation, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Luke 10:27). He was quoting the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the OT (Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18). We tend, I think, to focus on the ‘love your neighbour’ bit, perhaps because it’s easier to get hold of. It’s something I think that our church is pretty good at, on the whole. But loving God? This is where I want to land this sermon, for it is the first and greatest commandment and its loss was at the heart of the Jeremiah passage. Placing the love of God first in our lives will orient us in the right direction. Before Rosemary and I start on a walk or cycle ride, we always try and make sure that we start in the right direction! Doesn’t always work, but we’re so much less likely to get lost!

When we love a person, it involves all of us. It certainly involves our hearts – the warmth we feel for him or her, the desire to be with them, to spend time with them. It will involve our bodies, too: we may actually feel love as a warmth in our body, we will want to touch and be touched, to embrace. We will also want to do things for that person, sometimes even putting ourselves in harm’s way or at personal cost for them. It involves our minds as we talk and exchange ideas, share experiences and think about ways our love is expressed: ‘with all your hearts and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’. It’s easier to understand those words when we put them in human terms. Loving God is very, very close to this. In fact, any expression of love comes from God, since as we are told, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). But, like human love, we will need to give this time. If our relationship with God has become a bit mechanical and dry – do this, believe that – then we may need to refresh. The last time I preached I talked about the need for silence, and silence is a good place to start: the clearing out of our preoccupations and anxieties and giving space for God. Taking a walk in nature – forests, mountains, rivers is a good place to meditate and pray: to be still, to watch and see. There is something called ‘seeing again’, when you look at something and then really see it. Again, this is a bit like falling in love: you see someone and then you really see them and love them. In a way, that kind of seeing actually is love. So to see perhaps a flower, and then to ‘see again’ – to see its beauty, its colours, its frailty and to allow yourself even to love it – and then to realise that this is an expression of the Creator who fills and sustains all things and to love him – now we’re getting there. The love of the natural world, to each other, is very close to the love of God simply because the natural world is an expression of God. We won’t want to trash or plunder what we love.

It is said that the principal Christian virtues are faith, hope and love (see 1 Corinthians 13:13). Personally, I’m finding myself a bit short on hope these days so I’m trying to focus on love – which St Paul tells us is the greatest of these anyway. Brother Roger of Taizé said that in the face of huge problems which it looks as if you can’t do anything about, you should do something even if it’s very small. If our love of God and of all he has made leads us to do something then maybe there is a particle of hope there too.

I’ll finish by mentioning other ways of deepening your experience of knowing and loving God. A retreat is a good place to start, you can have a look at the Retreat Association website. Pilgrimage is another way: the reduction of your life to its bare essentials, just what you can carry on your back; spending time at holy places like Taizé, Iona, Lindisfarne; and engaging with spiritual direction. If you would like to know more about that, please speak to me, or Rosemary or Cathy Rowan after the service.

So, let us be a people of love.


Image Credit – The poor invited to the feast, 1973, Jesus Mafa, Cameroon


The fire & the passion

Jeremiah 23:23-29 Luke 12:49-56

This week, amid the many depressing items on the news, came the rather bizarre (though no longer surprising) story of a much older man publicly bullying a much younger woman, (almost still a girl). Arron Bank’s ‘joke’ about Greta Thunberg having a “freak yachting accident” as she sailed the Atlantic to raise consciousness of climate change was neither funny, no palatable. Greta has inadvertently become a prophet of our time. I’m not sure how I feel about such a pressurised role upon a single young person, but her stark warnings confront and divide our sensibilities… call us to uncomfortable realities…

In this church, we may generally find ourselves on the side of the climate change movement…
So let’s think about this topic for a moment too;

Fifty years ago the Stonewall movement began to bring solidarity and strength to the LGBTQI+ community. And for fifty years the church has prevaricated, judged, resisted and floundered.. so that in many respects the church has totally lost its place in the discussion. Whilst Bishops still deliberate on wording of placating documents; the rest of the world has all but given up on the church… we can recall Jesus saying the prophet is no longer welcome in her/his own town and shaking the dust off their feet. And if this prophet is gay? No wonder!

Maybe the church has neglected to hear the gospel of love, inclusion, diversity, acceptance and solidarity which has emerged loud and clear from the gay community.
Has the church not listened to God?

So do we really need a gospel reading which seems to encourage the very divisions we are struggling with in society which feels the tension of division very acutely right now?

Well let’s think – The reading today tells of a purifying fire which cleanses the world of injustice and oppression – it supports all that Jesus ministry has been about.

It tells us also that to follow Jesus into the way of love will cause division, much like the gay son or daughter who realises – and fears – that ‘coming out’ means dividing people’s opinions and loyalties, (and maybe me speaking like this?).

And finally a warning about only believing what we want to believe.. (that could be my reading, it may be a more conservative reading); resisting change, denying reality.

So where truly is the voice of God in the prophets? Where are the prophets today? (as Hamish asks).

Jesus language sounds terrifying… it might be better to simply skip over them. They can put us in fear.. give us a religion of uncertainty. But actually, his words are similar to the words of Jeremiah.

The prophets, Jesus & Jeremiah, both ask ‘do you really see what’s going on?’

For Jeremiah it is a world about to collapse.. and false prophets are saying, “no everything will be ok”… (SPOILER – but they wont). Jeremiah also uses fire imagery to reveal a difficult reality.

The whole section of readings around this in Luke are about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of justice and liberation; The kingdom demands and is impatient.. The reading has three parts;

1. Fire cleanses the world of abuse and oppression, it purifies.
in Luke – a manifesto of liberation…. The Magnificat & the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’

God’s fire is prophetic in that it calls the world back to a different reality, it reveals God’s kingdom as one in which people “act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor … the alien, the orphan, and the widow” (Jer 22:3).

Fire is the presence of God where evil cannot exist. No wonder Jesus wants to start the fire;

2. It does divide. are you against injustice, are you for love?

Do you really stand with the refugee and the orphan, with the vulnerable and the abused?

(words of consolation to the early church which would have felt the pain of this, and to us today)

3. And finally Jesus – like Jeremiah- warns against hypocrisy from the mouths of false prophets…

Hypocrisy is about deceiving ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be complacent and comfortable…

Hananiah, the false prophet whom Jertemiah challenged… emboldening complacency and hubris; ‘the royal consciousness’.

Jesus; “you may see tomorrow’s weather, but do you see the times?” Are you ready to really hear? Climate change, shifting ideas of sexuality and gender, the rising tide of far-right… voices from the margins – -some are healthy some are life-giving, others we ignore at our peril. The time is short.

Whats also worth recognising is that Jesus see the hypocrisy in all of us… it’s the way we all live, we are hypocritical in many ways.. that’s part of the purifying work of this fire.. it’s not there to shame or to point; instead it recognises that we are all conflicted, complex and messy.

So rather than fear, this reading suggests love; “thy kingdom come” is about the worlds well-being!

We often privatise and personalize our spirituality… when there is a wider vision at hand…

Christianity limits itself when interpreted only as personal piety, good behavior, keeping pure from the taint of… (you name it). This kind of passage is liable to cause paranoia, confusion, self-doubt, dualism and a ‘retreat mentality’ from the world and its bad ways. It promotes what Estella calls a ‘transaction mindset’ in the church “if I do ‘the good thing’ then maybe God will like me, but if I don’t….?”

But the OT and NT have a different take.. The gospel is radical in its vision. It is sociological and communitarian; about households and communities. For teachers like Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus ultimately about the whole world! “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?  Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jer. 23). The radical Hebrew vision of a God both ‘near and far’.

It speaks with people outside the church.. injustice, oppression, racism, inequality.

And, the good news is free; like Gods Holy Wisdom it calls from the streets. We need prophets, we always do – but they often come from unexpected places..

Such a perspective makes a place of common life-affirming humanity – we find solidarity with our neighbours and those concerned about the worlds and its creature.
God’s fire is woven through all these.

Jesus is the passion of God. Representing humanity and holding the fullness of humanity as he draws all to God’s desire for a kingdom of love. Whether humanity knows this – I’ll leave for you to ponder…

And what for the church?

Well, as the flame of Jeremiah’s frustration grew, so also did a hope;

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel […]  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jer. 31)

The Eucharist recalls this new covenant; the anticipated hope in Jeremiah, of divine love which both causes division and overcomes division. Jesus recalls that covenant, (Lk. 22) the unexpected/impossible hope. In the last supper, he becomes that hope, pointing to both death and new life. The fire and passion of God is given for all the world; – So that all may know the freedom of God written in their hearts.

GS Collins 18aug 2019

Image Credit – Asilah, Morocco. Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash