This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

It’s harvest time again, and all over the land churches are desperately trying to find something new to say about creation, cultivation and deprivation. A bit like the vegetables and flowers on display, it’s a big challenge to keep it all fresh.

Yet, telling the story afresh assumes that everybody already knows what harvest is about. And I wonder if this assumption might be false.

I grew up in a city where the answer to the question “Where does milk come from?” was likely to get the answer “the supermarket”. Then we would get some entertaining, but muddled, account of how we might not actually plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”, but someone did. And we would be grateful – particularly because we didn’t have to do the dirty work.

But, harvest goes deeper than this. If all too often our connection with the land has been broken, then we need more than stories to reconnect us to where our food comes from. What most religions offer is ritual – celebrations that remind us of relationships.

Nearly three thousand years ago the recently liberated Jewish people were about to enter the land they believed had been promised to them. Yet, along with words of encouragement and comfort went words of warning like this: When you get established in this land you will soon prosper. You will build your houses, cultivate your fields and grow your wealth. Then you will begin to forget that you once had nothing and could not save yourselves. It won’t be long before you start exploiting other people. So, the cycle of each year is going to be shaped by rituals that will compel you to re-member, re-tell and re-enact the story of your dependence … on God, the earth and each other.

Not very exciting, you might think. But, take just one of these annual rituals – the one that sees you bringing the first ten percent of your harvest to the priest and reciting a creed that begins with the words: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…”. In other words, you once were a nomad, dependent on the land and other people. You remember that you inherited creation, not as a commodity to be consumed or traded, but a gift to be cultivated and shared. You don’t own it; you are to be responsible for stewarding it for the good of the earth and its people.

And, to rub it in, you must leave the ten percent of crops around the edge of the field so that the travellers, the homeless and the hungry can help themselves to food.

Harvest, then, confronts us with our obligations to the earth and each other. It challenges our ethics and our economic priorities. And it reconnects us with the simple fact of our mortality and mutuality.

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This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

I came across a great line the other day. A hundred years ago GK Chesterton wrote: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” And can you blame them, we ask?

Well, I actually have no idea if any of the greats ever expressed themselves on the matter of dairy products; but, I do know that nothing is out of bounds when it comes to words teasing the imagination and sending the mind off in directions it didn’t know were there. As I once said to Billy Ocean: “When the going gets tough, the tough write poetry.”

The point of this is that some people are gifted in being able to look at the world differently – then to shine a light on it from a new direction.
We have just had a group of students from a German university staying with us in Leeds. They all study theology, but, shaped by their own experience of living not in England and emerging from a cultural memory that is coloured by a century of unspeakable violence, they look at things differently. And the gift of it all is that by looking at God and the world through their eyes – filtered through their perceptions – I get the chance to see differently. It is wonderful – as are those students.

And, believe it or not, that is the point of reading ancient texts like the Bible. You enter a different world, and then have to work hard at looking through the eyes of people from a different age and world in order to catch the glint of a glory too easily hidden behind the familiarity and busyness of ‘today’.

I have heard it said that if something is too hard to understand at first glance, then it isn’t worth bothering with. Well, I beg to disagree. Precious stones do not pop out of the ground and on to a jeweller’s display tray. Novels don’t leap effortlessly onto the page and appear in a bookshop. Wisdom does not drip from the Magic Meaning Tree, but has to be learned and dug out and refined and learned.

So, I go with the poets on this one. Nearly three thousand years ago one of them wrote: “The price of wisdom is above rubies.” I say: “Get digging.”

This is the text of my sermon at this morning’s Maundy Thursday Chrism Eucharist for the Diocese of Leeds in Bradford Cathedral.

1 Samuel 3:1-10 & Luke 7:36-50
I find this the hardest service at which to preach each year. Not because of the occasion, but because it is powerfully moving to see so many clergy together. I am immensely proud of the clergy of this diocese who exercise their ministry faithfully week in week out, day in day out, usually unseen. I am very grateful.

The best birthday card I got last year was of Satan, fully equipped with horns and tail, reading the Bible in bed and saying, “Bit harsh…”

I know the feeling. Reading judgements about yourself or the church and feeling that you can’t control the narrative, even when the narrative is either simplistic or one-sidedly erroneous – often in the media. It is particularly irksome when the damage is done from within and by those whose vocation n it is to build up and not break down.

A bit harsh?

The story is this. An ancient middle-eastern man called Elkanah has two wives; one – Penninah -has given him children, the other – Hannah – has not. But, in a surprising reversal of expectation, it is Hannah whom Elkanah loves best. In a moment of tender affection, and after yet another long year of barrenness accompanied by the humiliating ridicule of her fertile fellow wife, he says to her: “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

What a question. The answer is clearly “no”. Hannah, deeply distressed, prays that if God will give her a son, she will commit him to a lifetime of no alcohol or grape juice, no shaving or having his hair cut, no hanging around corpses – you can read the full list of Nazirite rules in Numbers chapter 6. My guess is that some of these rules were easier to keep than others. She duly gives birth, weans the boy, then hands him over to the priest. Actually, the text says that she “lent him to the Lord” (verse 28). She lent him.

Now, let’s just step back at this point and notice some of what is going on here. This woman has a hard life: loved by her husband, mocked by her fellow, humiliated in society, and unable to be at peace with herself or others. Yet, she had done nothing to deserve this. Don’t talk to Hannah about justice.

But, the song she sings at this point of blessing-followed-by-loss contradicts what we might assume to be a justified cry for relief from obligation. Couldn’t she break her vow, now that her longed-for son is born? Couldn’t God give her a break – even just to confound the smugness of Penninah? Yet, she sings of hope and freedom, of a God who brings light into dark places and who raises up those who have fallen low. Her song is the one picked up by Mary when her son is about to be born – the deeply subversive song of God’s paradoxical kingdom in which the wrong people are celebrated. The Beatitudes haunt this text, too, like the whispering of melody behind the raging noise of chaos and injustice.

In other words, life is rubbish. Even the good bits don’t satisfy, because other bits keep scratching away like a running sore that won’t stop weeping.

But, then the story moves away from Hannah to the priests at the shrine at Shiloh. If Hannah is the one who appears not to have God’s blessing, then the priests have forgotten what they are there for. The meaning and purpose of the sacrifices have been corrupted to the point that the young priests see the celebration of religious ritual as a means for their own self-fulfilment, power and greed. Religion has become a vehicle for something else. How Shiloh is fallen. And faithful Eli has to hear harsh prophecies about the fall not only of the shrine, but also of his own family. It is a miserable picture that is painted here.

Perhaps the point is rammed home in the reading we read earlier from chapter three. If the old time religion had lost the plot, then God would, as one commentator puts it, simply “bypass the established priesthood and disclose his intentions concerning that same priesthood to a novice”.

A bit harsh?

Well, the picture then looks like this – and I wonder if this sounds a little familiar to us in 2017: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Oh dear. Clearly there were many words spoken and many visions propagated in those days; but, how should the people discern the rare words of the Lord amid the cacophony of the shrine worship, political promises, voices claiming to be God’s voice, and religious allegiances? How are they to discern which of the many competing visions of God and his ways is the right vision? How might they work out whether their eyesight is myopic or dimmed? How do they know what is reality and what is truth?

These are hard questions, and they are made flesh in the person of the old priest Eli whose eyesight began to grow dim. He recognised the decline in some of his own perceptions and made space to allow the next generation to grow and to look and to see differently. The errant generation of young priests are bypassed by a God who will not be played off by religious professionals who have lost their sight of the glory of God that once drew them.

And the young prophet – that is, the one who will see clearly the world as God sees it – finds himself addressed by this God … addressed by name and called out to a new service.

Now put yourself into his ephod (as it were). Your mother took a vow that you had no say over. You take a vocational path that did not come to you via the careers officer. And, if her own life had been tough and contradictory enough, she has now shared the misery with you by bequeathing you a life not of your choosing, but of obligation anyway.

Yet, Samuel accepts this and makes this vocation his own. He chooses to go with it, discovering as he does (and as he grows as a person and as a prophet) that life is pretty messy and that there is no place for the self-indulgence of rights and self-fulfilment. Obedience is not a popular word, but it is one that has a place in the life of those who do not complain about their lot, but choose to make the best of what they have inherited.

I just wonder if this text, this story, has anything to say to us here in the Church of England, in the Diocese of Leeds, today? Maundy Thursday, when we re-live that poignant moment at which Jesus confounds convention, kneels at the feet of his friends – and of his betrayer and his denier and his doubter – and washes their feet. Maundy Thursday, when we see Jesus calling his people back from the manipulations and seductions of power and religious game-playing, and asking them to watch and listen and learn and do. Maundy Thursday, when he knows that life is closing in, that suffering awaits, that he could escape it all, but chooses the way of obedience.

After all, this is the same Jesus who, as we heard earlier, has a knack of bringing out of embarrassing dead ends something surprising and new. A woman intrudes into a party at which she is not a guest, and weeps all over Jesus, anointing his feet with expensive oil. The stand-off between propriety and humanity is electric as everyone waits to see which way Jesus would jump. In the end, as Tom Wright puts it, “Jesus keeps his poise between the outrageous adoration of the woman and the outrageous rudeness of the host” and comes up with something fresh and unexpected … and outrageous to those watching whose religion is fairly simple: keep the rules, avoid dirty people, and prioritise your own purity. Read the story: Jesus turns convention on its head and pours out grace where harshness had dominated.

I think both these stories hit on the same point and address us today with hard questions. Do we number ourselves with the religious professionals who have lost the plot, or do we allow ourselves to be outraged by grace … being grasped once again by the power of mercy? Do we rail against the call of God and the demands or privations of an obedient priesthood, or do we deliberately choose life and joy and commitment to an obligation we would sometimes rather throw off? Do we complain about our lot – especially when it seems inherited or not our fault or not by our choice – or do we, like Samuel, accept the choosing of God and get on with it, learning as we grow?

I don’t ask these questions glibly – or miserably. I ask them because I think they cry out from the texts we didn’t choose this morning. There might be much that we find irksome about the Church of England in 2017 – but, we are part of it and called to serve in it as clergy or lay disciples and ministers. If this is the case, then we must love the church as God’s gift and the locus of his vocation. This does not mean that we sit back and let it be; but, it does mean that we pray like Hannah and don’t mock like Penninah. It means that we pray and shape an uncertain future, conscious of our obligation to future generations to bequeath the faith that makes such demands of us. It means that we be open to hear the prophetic witness that questions our priorities, our attitudes and behaviours, challenging us to recover the vision that contradicts the easy visions and learns to listen for the word of the Lord that is – remember – rare, but not absent.

Our readings today invite us to take responsibility for the calling God has given us – to be faithful in our time to the gospel that draws and drives us. Not to blame other people or other generations for what we have inherited, but to take responsibility for accepting what is and helping make it what it might become. We might refer to this dynamic in words such as ‘loving, living and learning’.

Our diocese is nearly three years old. We began with no infrastructure, no governance, no integrated data, no inherited vision, not even the right number of bishops to do what we were being asked to do. We faced many challenges and it sometimes seemed that all the odds had been stacked against us making this work. But, thanks to the hard-won commitment, faith and – sometimes reluctant – persistent generosity of both clergy and laity, we started this year as a single entity. I do not take this for granted.

But, the challenges have not gone away. We face financial challenges and we must address the declining numbers of deployable clergy available to us in the coming decade and beyond. We will face the challenges posed by buildings and structures, and by people who do not want to change. We will see again that people and places thrive when they grasp the opportunity to choose change and don’t see themselves as victims of someone else’s terrible or malign decisions. Remember, Easter chants the mantra that we are not driven by fear, but are drawn by hope.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, if our feet are washed by the Lord who kneels before us in humility, should we not speak well of one another, seek the best of one another, and believe the best of one another? Should we not be generous, even though we know we kneel before our denier, our betrayer, our doubter? Are we not called back to a vision of love and mercy and grace that pulls out of polarised tension something new and fresh and hopeful? Do we believe ourselves invited as a church to shine the light of mercy on the intrusive woman and not just to show our cleverness in embarrassing the Pharisee?

We come today to re-affirm ordination vows and to recover the priority of our own discipleship of Jesus Christ. In doing so we allow the light of his face to shine into the dark places of our own prejudices, judgments and fears, leaking grace like an extravagant ointment onto the tired and dusty feet of our faltering journeying. And we pray that the Lord whose church we are, and whose beloved we are told we are, will anoint us for the next stage of our ministry – as a diocese, as ministers of the good news, as disciples and followers of Jesus.

Here I am, for you called me. Here I am, for you called me. Here I am, for you called me.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

Just about a year ago I skirted the Isis stronghold of Mosul in Iraq. I was out there with colleagues visiting refugees, internally displaced people, church leaders and politicians in Kurdistan – particularly in and around Erbil and Dohuk. We spent time with Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, hearing harrowing stories of loss and fear and hope.

Yet, Mosul, so solid a base for Isis only a year or so ago, is now seeing the possibility of release and relief. How the mighty fall.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, this is the part of the world where civilisation as we know it actually began. When you read the narratives of three thousand years ago which we call the Old Testament, the events recorded took place here – between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Here we find the ruins of the most ancient societies – where human beings brought order out of chaos and the first empires were built.

And this is what the story of Iraq teaches us. Now is not the end. There was a time when mention of the words Babylon, Assyria, Egypt or Rome struck fear into the hearts of ordinary people – not least those conquered by the apparently invincible powers. Living in what is often called ‘the ultimate Now’, it is hard to see beyond the suffering or success of the present day – to hang on to the possibility of freedom or the defeat of the empire which controls life and death now.

So, when we read texts like those of the Old Testament – their poetry, their protest and passion – the point is clear: empires come and go; the powerful will be brought down and the meek raised up; tomorrow will not always look like today.

But, such a perspective demands a rare discipline. We have to be able to see the present as transient – not the defining reality. Put differently, we have to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. Our central core as individuals and as a society has to be rooted in a clear understanding of what makes a human being and what makes a humane society. Christians would say that whatever the state of the world now, wherever power is seated, it is the God of resurrection who draws us into a future that is not held captive to the past. It is a vision drawn from a reading of history and scriptures that keeps power and suffering in perspective – that death, violence and destruction do not actually have the final word.

Now, not everyone will be fired by the same conviction. But, the warning to Babylon, to Isis, to global military, economic and political powers, has not changed since human society emerged in what is now Iraq: you won’t be here for ever and you might be called to account.

This is the text of an article published in the Yorkshire Post today:

A couple of years ago a book was published that offers readings, prayers, poems and reflections for Remembrance. It is called ‘Hear My Cry’ – a repeated and heart-felt wrenching of the spirit taken from the Psalms.

But, it is the subtitle that grabs the attention: ‘Words for when there are no words’.

It sounds like a ridiculous paradox, yet anyone who has ever found themselves in despair will know exactly what it means. There are times in life – and always in the face of death – when we find ourselves empty and silent. As human beings we seem made to make shape out of chaos; but, bereavement can leave us simultaneously speechless and desperate for order. And we find we cannot control the grief or make it better.

In such circumstances we sometimes need the words of others when we have no words for ourselves. Someone else needs to provide the vocabulary for grief, the words for when we have no words and silence is too painful.

If this is true of most bereavements, it is particularly true when death is violent and distant. To lose a son or father or daughter or wife or husband in the course of military conflict brings a particular silence, a particular grief. The distance and the unknowing of the context makes the death more grievous – even if death is always death.

I have never lost anyone close to me in war, but my parents lived through the bombing of Liverpool during World War Two. I also took part in the intelligence support for British forces in the South Atlantic, and saw the consequences for those who were involved and had to live with the deaths of friends and colleagues.

If Remembrance Day did not exist, I think we would need to invent it. For two reasons:

First, we need to create a public event of remembering the people and events that have shaped the society to which we belong and in which we invest. Those whose loved-ones have died in conflict on our behalf need that public recognition of their loss. For their loss is our loss. Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn watched the coffins of slain Canadian troops being carried off a military aircraft in Afghanistan several years ago, and wrote a song about it. Having described in the most moving language the tragedy and dignity of what he had witnessed, he writes: “Each one lost is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me”. That’s why need to remember publicly.

The second reason is that we simply cannot know who we are if we don’t remember where we have come from. It sounds obvious, but it isn’t easy to do. Our memories are selective and some memories do need to be left where they belong: in the past.

The story of Israel in the early chapters of the Bible is one in which public acts of remembering are integral. Prior to entering the Land of Promise the people are warned that they will too easily forget that once they had been migrants and slaves in a foreign land. Once they got their own land and built new lives they would prosper … and forget their own origins. Basically, they would then begin to treat other people as their slaves. So, the year was broken down into festivals that would compel the people to re-tell and re-enact their story, passing it on to their children and future generations. It would cost them the first and best ten percent of their harvest. And the edges of their fields would be left for homeless, hungry and sojourning people to find sustenance. That sounds like a twenty percent tax for starters.

Most religious communities shape the year similarly, celebrating festivals that shape our memory and remind us of what matters – especially that we are mortal, that we shall one day die, that a good society might be worth dying for. The loss of such festivals in secular society might be more costly than we realise.

The point is that we as a society need at least one day a year when we re-member – literally, put back together the parts (members) of our own story. We need to recall the cost that people have paid and continue to pay for preserving the freedoms we have. We need to recall with honesty and integrity those things which we should celebrate and those of which we should be ashamed – from which we might learn for the future.

That is where Remembrance Day fits in. Whether directly connected to the dead or bereaved, we come together in local communities to create space for remembering our common story. It stops the routine of life and creates silence in which we drop words for when words need to stop and silence reigns. We do it together, conscious of how fragile our lives are and how fragile our civilisation is.

It is said that we should know for what we would die. I think we should ask ourselves for what we, in the light of our mortality, will live for.

 

One of the questions constantly raised about the term “freedom of religion or belief” is that “belief” is assumed to be synonymous with “blind assumption”, “mere opinion” or “wishful thinking”. Having just finished with the IPPFORB in Berlin – read Angela Merkel's speech from yesterday in the Reichstag here but only in German – the matter is current.

One way of illustrating what really constitutes “belief” is to look at Mark's Gospel – the shortest of the four in the New Testament. The key to understanding Mark's narrative is found in verses 14-15 of the first chapter:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Right at the outset of his public ministry Jesus sets out his stall – against which he will be held accountable. So, what does he mean by these four phrases?

The people have been longing and praying for the time when the Roman occupying forces will be expelled and the people (of God) will get their land, their worship and their freedom back. Jesus boldly states that the time has come – that the presence of God is now among them again. But, the evidence of their eyes tells them that he can't be – because the Romans are still there. And the holy God cannot be contaminated by being present among the blasphemous heathen.

So, Jesus tells them to repent: not to grovel in humility at the recognition of their sinfulness, but, literally, to “change their mind” ('metanoia' in the Greek). Here repentance means changing the way they think about God, the world and us. So, the logic of the fourfold statement is this: change the way you (a) look at God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (b) see God, the world and us, in order to change the way you (c) think about God, the world and us, in order then to commit yourself to what you now see and think about differently. Here, “believe in the good news…” means to commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see differently … in this case the possibility that God might dare to confound our expectations and expose himself to the world as it is, contaminating it with love and mercy and grace.

I think this is a simple illustration of what is involved in believing. It isn't merely giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and the world; rather, it means committing oneself to a world now seen differently.

It is this element that our culture too easily ignores. It is now possible simultaneously to believe several mutually contradictory things about life and human meaning without being embarrassed, because we have lost the link between belief and commitment (with all its consequences for good or I'll) to the subject/object of that belief.

And it is this inconvenient commitment that is causing too many people to be persecuted and oppressed in the twenty first century. You generally don't get crucified for hosting a weird private idea that makes no difference to the real world.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

I have just got back from the reading of fat books on holiday. The one that grabbed me this time was Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar'. It all sounded so contemporary. The voice in my head kept repeating the plaintive phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Power, violence, subterfuge, ego, leadership struggles, populism and politics – it's all there. It always is.

I also kept hearing the line from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” The problem with vision is that it emerges from memory. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said this week that Judaism is a religion of memory. So, I would argue, is Christianity. Both remind us, for example, that empires come and go, that hubris is ultimately embarrassing, and that history sadly repeats itself. Christianity makes no sense at all without rituals that are there to compel compulsive amnesiacs to re-member their story: in this case that by recalling that we were once slaves, we will refrain from treating other people like slaves; that we are set free to serve; that we are to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (and one another). For Jews the Passover goes to the heart of this memory; for Christians the Eucharist re-tells the story into which we fit ourselves and shape our future.

We can only know who we are if we know from where and from whom we have come. The problems emerge when either we think we have been born into the ultimate 'now' – that nothing valuable went before us – or we choose the bits of memory that are convenient to our present or future self-justifications.

And that is as dangerous for nations, continents and communities as it is for individuals or religions.

With this in mind, and having read about the Caesars, I wonder if every government should appoint a Cabinet Historian to remind it of the past and challenge policy for the longer-term future in the light of experience.

Of course, all readings of history are partial, and memories are always susceptible to selectivity. But, some of the challenges we face (for example, in the light of Brexit) would be informed by a sober re-membering. Memories are short, but how will anyone born in this millennium understand Russia and Ukraine when they have no experience of the Cold War – and a world divided not just by affluence but by starkly competing ideologies? Memory is not quite the same as history, but both can become commodities in struggles for power, as the biblical narrative reminds us.

Well, I won't hold my breath, but without a memory the people cannot form a vision. And without a vision the people perish.