New hymn, to celebrate 100 years since (some) women were able to vote in the UK

The following words were written to the tune ‘Ewing’ (Jerusalem the golden), at the request of St Martin in the Fields, for a BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship broadcast in February 2018.  It would also go to pretty much any 77676D iambic tune, of which there are many.

There came a generation
Who rose to claim the hour.
They broke oppression’s silence
By speaking the truth to power.
Their courage met with conflict,
Yet still their hearts were stirred,
Their sole determination
To make all voices heard.

They claimed a shared vocation
As stewards of this earth,
Affirming all God’s people
In dignity and worth.
May all our children’s children
Take their intended place
In all that God has purposed:
One equal, human race.

O God, in whose great kingdom
The first and last shall meet,
With love and justice freeing
The mighty from their seat;
May all your kingdom-builders
Continue true and strong,
Creating, in our own day,
A place where all belong.

With a few amendments (as in the version below) this hymn might also be suitable for occasions reflecting on issues of social justice and equality more generally:

In every generation
Some rise to claim the hour
and break oppression’s silence
By speaking the truth to power.
When courage meets with conflict
Our hearts must still be stirred,
Our sole determination
To make all voices heard.

We claim a shared vocation
As stewards of this earth,
Affirming all God’s people
In dignity and worth.
May all our children’s children
Take their intended place
In all that God has purposed:
One equal, human race.

O God, in whose great kingdom
The first and last shall meet,
With love and justice freeing
The mighty from their seat;
May all your kingdom-builders
Continue true and strong,
Creating, in our own day,
A place where all belong.

I was delighted when the lovely @onehymnaweek chose to set these words – you can listen to it here:

A hymn about safeguarding, of all things

I wrote this for someone who was planning a service to pray for all those who work as safeguarding officers.  One sets out to write a hymn about this subject with a certain degree of fear and trembling.  But here it is. As always, it’s free for anyone to use – you don’t have to ask.   Feedback is always welcome, too.

The tune is Corvedale (that’s the triple time tune that’s often used for There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy).

May this place be one of nurture
where we all may come to know
how your endless love sustains us
as we live and move and grow.
May we work to build your kingdom
full of truth and light and grace,
living life in all its fullness
held in one divine embrace.

For our negligence and failures
you have called us to repent,
drawing energy for action
from the voices of lament.
As the secret hurts long hidden
may at last be brought to light,
may the truth unlock the freedom
that is every person’s right.

When the smallest child is valued,
and the strong empower the weak,
and each human life is hallowed
and the unheard voices speak:
then your justice stands like mountains
and your mercy falls like rain,
and you hold the brokenhearted
till they learn to live again.

So in gratitude we praise you,
and we lift to you in prayer,
all the people you are calling
to this ministry of care.
Give us wisdom, grace and courage,
holding fast to all that’s good,
seeing Christ in one another
we will love and serve our Lord.

The Pharisees ask the wrong question again…

A Sermon on Mark 10.2-16, which owes a great deal to Tom Wright. Thank you +Tom!

During the mid 1990’s it was not uncommon for clergy, and especially bishops, to be contacted by journalists and asked, ‘What does the church think about divorce?’  It would generally be framed as a hypothetical question, but of course it was anything but, and no matter how the bishop in question responded, no matter how hard they tried to make it clear that their response was a general and broad statement, or not even a statement at all, the journalist would always end up saying, So you’re saying that in the case of Charles and Diana….’  The question addressed to Jesus in today’s gospel reading is similar.

Consider that the location for this whole argument is just beyond the River Jordan – that’s John the Baptist’s old stamping ground.  And consider that the reason John got into trouble with Herod in the first place and ended up being beheaded was that he had dared to criticize Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife. The Pharisees’ question that claims to be a general one about divorce and adultery is in fact a very specific one, designed to trick Jesus into revealing where he stands on the whole subject of Herod’s marriage, and hence where he stands on the question of Herod’s integrity as a leader of God’s people.

Rarely in the gospels is Jesus asked a straightforward question, so he is wise to the trickery.  In public he answers just as he did with the question of whether a Jew should pay tax to the Romans: asking first what the law says and then pointing out what really matters.

But there’s more. Jesus asks what Moses says, and at that time Moses was held to be the author of the whole Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and therefore ‘what Moses says’ is not just what we might think of as ‘the law’ but also the stories of creation in Genesis – and it is small part of these this that Jesus goes on to quote.

It is not the law that Jesus is most concerned with here, but rather the deep desire of God for his people to live in relationship, at one with him, with each other, and with the natural world around them. Those words from Genesis are a way of capturing that desire in tangible form – marriage as a metaphor (albeit an idealised one) for the kind of relational living that is God’s desire for all of creation.

If we turned to Genesis 1.27 we would read, ‘male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them’.  Male and female are but one facet of the diversity of humanity – one could reasonably add into that verse any pair of opposites – introvert and extravert, black and white, and so on – without distorting the sense of what the writer is trying to convey.

And, of course, in Hebrew a pair of opposites generally encompasses the full spectrum of everything in between.  Jesus’ quoted verse is in the context of a passage that is about the radical diversity within the unity of creation, and of humanity in particular.

I would go as far as to say that the image of God that we may find in humanity is not so much in each of us individually (no matter how different we may be from one another) but rather it is in our diversity-in-unity that we are mostly truly – collectively and communally – the image of God. This is hardly surprising, given the Trinitarian God in whose image we are made.

It is relationality – with marriage as one possible concrete example as well as a metaphor – that represents God’s deepest desire for his creation and for us as the crown of all creation.

But we also remember what happened next in Genesis.  The fall of humanity, as Genesis tells it, cascades from simple disobedience and quickly distorts that relationality: Adam blames Eve (and blames God for making Eve), Eve blames the serpent (and therefore also God for making the serpent) and thus every aspect of God’s desire for right relationship is broken.

When relationships broke down in Jesus day, and when they do so in our own day (whether those relationships are marriage, or between parents and children, between or within communities, or even between nations) that is a continuing manifestation of the same brokenness.  And even functional relationships are not perfect – none of us can say that our common life is a perfect expression of the image of God, though we may sometimes glimpse it.

We are fallen people. Every broken relationship is a crack in the image of God that we were created to be, and marriage stands and falls not just by the actions and attitudes of the couple themselves, but all the networks of relationships of which they are part: that’s why the marriage service talks of marriage enriching society and strengthening community, and that’s why the whole congregation is asked whether, with God’s help, they will support and uphold the couple in their relationship.

This is the wider context for Jesus’ response. And when we look at it this way, it shows up the Pharisees’ question for what it is: petty, legalistic, and condemnatory.

Yes, Deuteronomy permits divorce, because of ‘the hardness of our hearts’ – an acknowledgment of our fallenness. But to ask ‘is it lawful’ is to reduce to a matter of legality something which is, or should be, so much bigger, so much deeper. The Pharisees want to talk about laws: ‘What can we get away with before God will start minding’.  But Jesus wants to talk about the deepest desires of God for his creation – it is this desire that the laws were intended to express in concrete form, but too often we forget this.  ‘Is it lawful?’ is a question that condemns, that divides, that reduces human relationships to a line of legal text that takes no account of people as people. In Jesus’ encounters we see the opposite: a vision of what human beings look like in the eyes of God, what we could be.

For in our own day just as in Jesus’ time, divorce – or indeed any broken relationship – is not a subject that can be dealt with either generally or hypothetically, because it’s not an abstract idea but a human tragedy that happens specifically, personally, to real people, one case at a time, to people we know and love, or indeed to some of us. Jesus spent enough of his time with people who had been hurt by life to be very aware of this.

Around a broken relationship there is untold hurt, no matter who might be at fault, and not matter how mutual or otherwise the decision to end it. And a divorce that is ‘by the book’ and legally straightforward is in no way painless. The law at its best may work to protect people from injustice, but it cannot magically make things ‘alright’.

What Jesus says in today’s gospel is really tough. But perhaps it is tough in a different way from how it looks at first.  His condemnation is not of couples who divorce, but on the hardness of heart that characterises fallen humanity, and that characterises the Pharisees’ question in particular; the hardness of heart which mars the divine image, and prevents us from seeking, let alone actually living out God’s deepest desires for us.

Perhaps this is why Mark follows this difficult passage with Jesus’ blessing of the little children: maybe they represent, for the Pharisees’ benefit, an open-heartedness that has not yet learned to ask ‘what is lawful’ but still has the capacity to hold out its hands and ask for all the blessings that God desires to give – this is what it is like to live in the Kingdom, I guess- the kingdom of the blessed.

This side of heaven, the divine image in us will always be cracked and damaged, broken by our own sins, by the damage done to us by other people’s, and by the collective sin in which we collude.  But we can still seek out those glimpses – as Jesus helped the crowd to do when he placed the little children in their midst – glimpses of what God’s desire for us might look like in real life.

Perhaps we might find these glimpses in our worship, in the invitation to stand or kneel alongside one another in our fallenness and participate in Christ at the Eucharist; in our common life as a church, in our other human relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours; in the miracle of forgiveness for deep wrongs, in the work of healing in the midst of conflict, in the willingness to risk everything to enable the love of God and of humanity to transcend the borders that human sin and pride perpetuate; in all the miracles of generosity and sacrifice and love that soften the world’s hard-hearted divisions.

Learning to perceive these as glimpses of the kingdom, to tap into a sense of what God desires for us, to keep ourselves open-hearted – these are habits of holiness that enable the kingdom to take root and grow here and now.  We are broken and fallen, but we are still the crown of God’s creation and what he desires for us and for all he has made is the same as it was at the beginning of Genesis.

For what, exactly, are we supposed to be ready?

A sermon on Luke 12.32-40

What matters most to you?  Take a moment to think about it.
People?  Values?  Things?  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” says Jesus in today’s gospel.  But he’s not making some simplistic division between earthly things (= bad) and heavenly things (=good) but rather inviting us to live as heavenly people, to live in acknowledgement of the fact that by virtue of being part of God’s creation, we are heavenly people, created to enjoy God for ever and to be part of his family and household. Our treasure is with God because God holds in his hands all that he made, all that really matters.

So how does that relate to the next bit of the reading, the part about the slaves. We may be very uncomfortable with the language, and it may have quite different connotations in our modern society in which we (mostly) tend to assume that slavery is a thing of the past.  But the difference between a slave and a more palatably-titled “servant” is that a slave actually belongs to the household, to the master of the house.  And if the master of the house is God, then belonging to him and to his household may not be such a bad thing after all.

And the work of the slaves is mind-blowingly important work – the master has entrusted his whole household to us, the care of everything that belongs to him, everything that he values. What an awesome responsibility, and what an awesome display of trust and affirmation!  In the household of God the work of the slaves isn’t polishing the silver and sweeping the floor, it’s building the kingdom, it’s working to make sure that everything that belongs to God (and that really is everything!) is how God wants it to be.

To do that work means we have to have some idea of what God wants his household to be like. What are the values by which God would like this household to run itself?  These are the values to which we work. Our work is no less than shaping God’s household into the sort of household he wants. Between us all, that means doing everything, and working out what our own task is within this great and noble work is the most crucial thing we’ll ever work out. And then getting on and doing it is our life’s work.

That’s why we won’t misunderstand all that stuff about being ready.  I have a friend who has a T-shirt with a picture of the Holman Hunt ‘Light of the world’ painting, with the caption, “Jesus is coming, look busy!”  That’s not it at all, being ready isn’t a clever guessing game about when precisely to get off our collective backsides and look as if we’re working hard just as the boss comes home. It’s about simply getting on with the task that God’s given us to do, because it’s the whole household that’s got to be ready, not just individual people in it.  The master doesn’t want to come and find slaves that look busy in a house that’s still a tip.  Being ready means getting on with our part in making God’s world nearer to how he created it to be.

And that incorporates our care and compassion for one another, for the environment and natural world, our economic choices and the impact they have on the world economy, and our lifestyle choices and their impact on our society and community, and much more besides.  We might look on the world around us and despair of it ever becoming more like the kingdom of God.  And we might long for a Revelation-like vision of the whole earth being recreated perfect.  And then we remember that God does, in fact, have a whole army of slaves whose job it is at least to begin this process of transformation and renewal.  It is we who build the kingdom according to God’s design.

Working out what that looks like can be hard – what does God actually most care about?  We should ask him.  We should pray, and read scripture, and think together and discern, and start to develop our own understanding of the values of God’s kingdom, God’s household, so that we know what we’re working towards.

And the end result of all this?  The story doesn’t talk about judgement, about failure, about bad slaves being sacked, or cast into outer darkness. It talks about how the slaves were ready, and that when the master comes home they’re invited to sit round his table and he serves them their dinner.   The slaves weren’t working for some other person’s benefit at all –  it turned out that all that preparation, all that cleaning and clearing of the table, all that polishing of chairs, all that washing up, was so that when the master came home he could sit down with his whole household and be a family.  That’s what they had to be ready for. That’s what they were preparing for all this time.  They had to be ready to be part of the family and household of God.  We have to be ready to be part of the household and family of our beloved heavenly Father.  And I sometimes wonder if we are.

We work to make earth like heaven because we want to be part of it; and the more we help to create the kingdom of heaven the more ready we are for it.  Everything we do here in church is supposed to be a foretaste of heaven, from the welcome when you come in to the sharing of coffee afterwards.  But more than that, everything we do in the rest of life is also supposed to be making earth a little more like heaven  – the encounters we have at work, in the street, in the shops, these are all opportunities for kingdom-making and kingdom-growing and kingdom-building.

And that’s what the story of the ‘ready slaves’ has to do with the treasure in heaven, and why far from being an injunction to separate a bad world from a good heaven it’s actually about being part of God’s ongoing work of reuniting the two.  And it’s about our own readiness to be wholly part of earth at the same time as we are children of heaven.