Last night I did a lecture in South Creake, Norfolk, and addressed the theme of my new book ‘Freedom is Coming’, seeking to distil lessons for today from the wisdom of three thousand years ago. As I said at the beginning, I believe a lecture such as this is a first word rather than the last word. The lecture itself was then followed by a Q&A during which I was pressed on a number of points. The basic text follows here.

We need to remember that when the Chinese say “May you live in interesting times”, it is a curse and not a blessing. There is something to be said for routine or boring times when life is fairly predictable and nothing much out of the ordinary happens to disturb or disrupt. If any such times ever existed, that is.

My parents lived through the Second World War in Liverpool – the bombings, evacuation, privations and rationing. Yet, I remember my father telling me more than once how his generation had had all the best deals: healthy food during the war (lots of vegetables and no sweets), the best jobs with the best pensions in an era of construction and optimism. His generation of civil servants certainly got the best pensions. Yet, in saying all this, he left out the experiences of conflict and the fact that some of his generation never made it into peacetime, or that peace in 1945 soon gave way to Korea, the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, Middle Eastern terrorism, the Red Brigades, and so on and so on. OK, we also landed a man on the moon and England won the World Cup – once – but it is too easy to re-shape our history in order to tell a particular story.

I don’t need to tell you that all times are uncertain – every age is “interesting” in its own way. I think most of us would have thought it inconceivable three years ago that we would now be in a constitutional crisis, with the fundamental arms of our parliamentary democracy under threat and the future of the monarchy being questioned. Add to the mix Donald Trump in the United States, the rise of the AfD in Germany and the dominance of ‘illiberal democrats’ such as Orban, Bolsanaro and Putin, and it just isn’t clear what is going on. Here at home, if you are a Brexiteer the BBC is now the spawn of Satan, whereas if you are a Remainer, the BBC is now the spawn of Satan. What on earth is going on?

One conservative blogger makes the interesting claim that Nigel Farage is a modern-day British Martin Luther insofar as he challenges, disrupts and disturbs without any clear idea of what to do once the disruption has been achieved. I think this is an interesting idea (though Luther knew he might have to pay a personal price for his disruption). History and circumstances sometimes throw up a character who makes a massive difference and forces ‘normality’ to break up and reality be faced afresh. (But, I am not sure I would compare Farage with Luther … for lots of reasons.)

David Goodhart on BBC Radio 4 in ‘A Point of View’ on Sunday 26 May, rather than bemoaning the rise of populism in the UK, the challenges of Brexit and the breaking down of ‘normal’ politics, claimed that what we are witnessing now is actually robust democracy at work. He maintains that the limited appropriation of power by elites has been denuded by the clamour through the ballot box for ignored voices to be heard again. And, again, I think this notion of robust democracy merits serious consideration, even if I think it also raises questions about the content of disruption and who best exploits and benefits from chaos.

But, as this drama continues to unfold and the latest putative saviours of Brexit and political order enter the fray, Christians might well ask serious questions about how we are to understand the world in which we live, how we are to read the Scriptures in this context, and how we are to conduct ourselves – in language and behaviour, priorities and common life – as events unfold. I take it as read that Christians are called to engage in the whole of our common life, to argue politics, to help shape the future, and to get our hands dirty for the sake not of our own prosperity, but for the flourishing of God’s people in God’s world.

Now, this is a huge task. We cannot look at the UK in isolation from Europe – which, we must remember, is not coterminous with the European Union – and nor can we look at Europe in isolation from the wider world of Donald Trump, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, Iranian nuclear development, or political instability in Israel or Iran. Everything is connected. And, given the global climate crisis, there is no escaping the complexity of interconnectedness. (Always be deeply suspicious of politicians or preachers who suggest there are clean and easy solutions to complex problems – like getting Brexit “done”.)

Yet, we also cannot grasp – or pay attention to – everything that matters. So, I want to cut through a section of these phenomena and focus on one people in one place at one time in history and ask if there is wisdom for us to be found in their experience and reflections, their decision-making and actions.

What I have to say is not neutral, however. I have written a book (published in August this year) called ‘Freedom is Coming’ which comprises readings through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany on Isaiah 40-55. I’ll explain why.

In Advent we try to reimagine the longing of God’s people for resolution – or salvation. For God to come among his people again and reassure them of their identity as his chosen ones. Their security and destiny lie in this, that Messiah will come and restore to Israel all that has been lost in exile and occupation, subjugation and humiliation. Jesus of Nazareth is to come among a people who are crying out for the fulfilment of God’s promises and trying to spot the evidences of this new day, this new world. As we enter into their experience, looking through Advent for the light, longing for renewal and hope, we cannot rush the experience. We slow down and think and pray and make time. Only once we have taken this time, and lived this yearning experience, can we truly experience the staggering joy of Christmas – what John Bell calls “God surprising earth with heaven”. Yet, rather than ending the wondering and solving all the questions, Christmas only opens up a different world with new challenges and demands … which leads us to Epiphany, Magi who search for the truth, and people beginning to see in the babe of Bethlehem and the boy of Nazareth something unusual.

In other words, the resolution of one question only reveals a pile of new questions that hadn’t been faced before because the phenomena from which they arise had not occurred before. Or, to put it more crudely, endings only proved to be new beginnings – and these new beginnings weren’t always welcomed by people who just wanted everything sorted out once and for all. All of this I explore in the book which I have with me.

So, to Isaiah and a bit of background. The background to the background, of course, is that Isaiah is not a bit of ‘scripture’ that sits disembodied in a holy book, dislocated or disassociated from the real world. It is precisely located in a world of empires, military conflict, violence, political intrigue, and all the things with which we, too, are familiar. And while the big beasts fight for power and prestige, the ordinary people just have to live with the consequences and get on as best they can. (And they are easily swayed in their political affections.)

Anyway, Isaiah was a prophet, writing in the eighth century before Christ, warning his people that they couldn’t take their future for granted. Chapters 1-39 see the prophet reading the signs of the times and discerning what lies behind and beneath events and the choices people face, and warning that departure from God’s ways will have consequences. As individuals are part of society, so will the consequences be social, political, economic, military, and so on. But, you might ask, in what ways have the people deviated from what God expects of them and, indeed, has called them to and for?

The text speaks for itself: if you bear the name of God and claim to be his people, then you must look like him and his character. And what does this mean? Those who have been called must serve; those who have received mercy must give mercy; those who have been slaves (in their ancestry) must never treat others as slaves. And that’s just a starter. The point is: you must in your common life and your individual character resemble and reflect the character, priorities and claims of the God you claim to serve.

Denial of this vocation is not evidenced by mere impiety or religious/liturgical negligence. Rather, it is exposed by allowing a society that penalises poor people, marginalises weak people, shuts the door on people ‘not like us’, associates nation with God, ignores the moral planks in the eyes of the ‘faithful’ while condemning the speck in the eyes of others. For example. The prophet maintains that it is a mockery of God to trample on the poor or sing songs of praise to God whilst denying his character in the choices we make and the society we construct.

These people are warned that God will not be taken for granted and that the consequences of living a life of denial are serious: the loss of those things that speak to the people of their identity, their vocation and destiny, their future and their security. Remember that the defining narrative that gives meaning and direction to these people is the story of the Exodus. After more than four centuries of humiliating and inescapable subjugation in Egypt, the people are liberated – the Passover – and led towards freedom in a land of promise. Yet, liberation is not instant and is not an event; it is a process, a journey, a leaving from but without knowing where it was leading to. (Why do some Christian songs suggest they left Egypt one day and bounced up next day in a land flowing with milk and honey?)

The Exodus, however, is not a simple story. The annual remembrance of the Passover was also for the Jews a reminder of the human reality, the complex choices, the fear and dread, the romanticising of the past along with the struggling with potential futures, and so on. The people were led out of slavery by a leader who, once in the desert and not giving the people the satisfactions they wanted, found himself rejected, bemoaned, ridiculed and abandoned. That’s leadership for you!

These people spent forty years wandering through a desert before they reached their promised land. A whole generation had died on the journey, the leader died before getting to the land, and they were given a load of instructions about what a good society should look like when they got the chance to build one. Yet, these people had to enter a new land, with new questions about their identity and what this identity demanded of them. They could learn from the past, but they shouldn’t repeat it.

So, back to Isaiah. The people who had forgotten the substance of this story were destined to head into their own exile. The cataclysm of loss was probably the only way they would be jolted by reality into rebuilding their identity and meaning, re-appraising their history, losing their illusions – about God, the world and humanity. Sometimes loss is the only way to stop us.

Which brings us to Isaiah 40-55. Here the people are in exile and have been for decades. This means that some of the exiles have died, families have been reshaped, the memories of ‘home’ have been kept alive and yet will also have become fossilised, romanticised or re-shaped to justify the current narrative. So, the words of comfort addressed to these exiles are not just intended to make them feel happy about the future, but to prepare them for a new world with new questions and new challenges. Yes, their exile is coming to an end – this is the meaning of ‘forgiveness’ for them. Yes, their punishment will soon be over and they will return home. But, home will be different – and not simply a place of assurance and satisfaction, but of new responsibility and faithful innovation.

Why, I ask myself, have I never heard this spelled out in sermons or lectures? I have read (and possibly preached) about the comfort of coming home after exile, as if this return meant the end of complexity, the end of hard decisions, the end of pain and uncertainty. But, I have rarely, if ever, heard about the real stuff of real human life and society which the text represents. We are meant to read through the text, not just to read across it. If the prophet’s text has any value – to the exiles or to us – it must be because it accords with and addresses our own uncertainties and longings for resolution or escape. But, faith and escapism do not go together.

Consider this. What happens to the remainers when the leavers go into exile? (And I am not speaking about Brexit here.) We know from our own experience in West Yorkshire how emigration and immigration work. I am always amused by friends of Pakistani – Kashmiri – heritage who visit family ‘back home’ and discover that those who never left are sometimes less conservative culturally than those who emigrated to the UK. Why does this happen? I think it is primarily because expats confect a memory of home that gets fossilised and refuses to move on. So, ‘home’ becomes a fantasy of what we imagine it used to be. Fantasy because it rarely allows for any development in my absence. (Having lived abroad in several places, we see the same phenomenon with British expats who promote and preserve a memory of Britain that is almost Victorian in nature.)

So, the problem is that the exiles return to what they expect to be the home they left generations before … and find themselves trying to make space among people who have continued to shape ‘home’ and resent this intrusion by people who want to impose their conservatism on the society that never left home in the first place. Do you see the problem? And doesn’t it sound familiar?

These communities – the remainers and the returning exiles – then have to negotiate the space and the priorities as they shape a new place together. A place that might have been simpler without the demand for generosity and the hard work of imagination. Yet, the questions they face and the choices to be made are precisely those that these people have not had to face before. The situation is new – is unique. So, what is to guide them as they adjust and adapt and face the challenges of creating one society out of the competing (or conflicting) imaginations and priorities of two sets of experience and two groups of people who can’t understand why the others don’t see the world (or the task) in the same way as they do?

Now, this should be setting off associations with the world in which we live today. Just like the returning exiles and the host communities into which they would now intrude (or assimilate), we cannot simply resurrect from the past some template of how to ‘do’ post-Brexit Britain or Trumpian America or a post-Brexit Europe. We have to face these questions anew, learning from the experience of the past and drawing on the wisdom of our texts, but having the determined imagination to face honestly and courageously these new challenges. We cannot go back. We cannot simply pretend that the world should have stood still fifty years ago.

So, what might Isaiah, from his particular political, cultural and historical situation, have to say to us – particularly us Christians who read these texts and call them “the word of the Lord” – in ours nearly three thousand years later? I will make several proposals by way of response.

First, read scripture properly. It is no good quoting comfortable (or comforting) verses or passages from the Bible without seeing them in the context of the bigger picture being addressed. One serious element of that bigger picture is that, to put it simply, empires come and go. History is never understood in the moment, but after time and distance that allow more objective reflection on the events experienced. Brexit, Europe, Trump and the rise of China and India (the end of the West?) cannot be fully understood while we are going through them. But, what looks powerful – invincible even – now will surely look different in the future in retrospect. When I worked at GCHQ in the early 1980s the bipolar world of USA vs USSR looked like a fixture. India and China were dysfunctional and backward oddities, both the subject of imperial occupation not so long before. And now? How invincible was the Roman Empire? Read Shashi Tharoor and ask how secure the British Empire really was?

In other words, today’s reality might not be as fixed as we like to think. What looks to be right and expedient now will certainly be questioned in the future. Will our children and grandchildren bless us or curse us for the choices we make today? Is our perspective informed by the narrative of Scripture that asks us to think longer-term?

This should lead us, secondly, to think, choose and act with what I often call a confident humility. I consider reality, bring to bear the wisdom gleaned from perusal of the past and the wisdom of our texts (and the story they tell), and then, together, make decisions that I recognise might turn out in the future to be wrong. These decisions will be made with confidence, but the humility of acknowledging my inherent limitations will temper the arrogance of certainty.

Yes, we must argue vigorously and test our assumptions and assertions, but, in the end, we must choose and know we might be wrong. And this is helped enormously if we face the failures of our past and don’t just romanticise our successes. For example, it is not a weakness to recognise the power of the British Empire whilst accepting that, although we can now see through a different lens, British gains came at the expense of subjugated people. (Read Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire and see that India had around 30% of world trade pre-Empire and only 3% post-Empire. Who benefitted and where did all the wealth go to?)

This is rooted, thirdly, in a commitment to hear and tell the truth. One of my problems with the whole Brexit process has been the rejection of truth-telling and the loss of truth-hearing. I have spoken of the “corruption of the public discourse” and this includes the unwillingness on the part of many politicians to face and tell the truth. For example, I asked a question in the House of Lords about the cost of Brexit. I suggested that if the prize is worth it (leaving the EU and “regaining sovereignty”, etc.), then tell us straight and we might all vote for it despite the cost. Tell us that we might suffer economically for fifteen years in order to gain the prize, and we might well vote for it. But don’t lie and tell us that leaving the EU will be easy or simple or cost-free. This has always been the problem for prophets: they tell the truth and pay the price. But, someone has to.

All this assumes, fourthly, that we are committed to the world as it is and not just as it might be. Israel’s calling – articulated by Isaiah and others, was always for the sake of the world. The blessing Abraham and the patriarchs were promised was to be a blessing to the world – even at the expense of those through whom the blessing would ultimately come. The blessing was not for the sake of Abraham and co. In fact, their vocation was to lay down their life in order that the world might see who and how God – Yahweh – actually is. People should look at the people of Israel and see the character of God worked out in real time, real place, real life, the ordering of society and the relating of peoples in the business of politics.

The prophets call their people back to this commitment and vocation.

Jesus embodies – incarnates – this vocation and lays down his life for the sake of the world that is God’s. The Church – the followers of this Jesus – are called to embody in their common life the life of this Jesus who embodies and fulfils the vocation of God’s people to lay down their life for the sake of the world. Christmas is about this: God opting into the world and committing to it in all its messy complexity and complex politics. And this with humility.

This demands, fifthly, that God’s people learn to compromise and commend such compromise in their own common life. But, isn’t ‘compromise’ a dirty word? It shouldn’t be. Compromise is essential to politics and to common life in a community. It is an art and a good, not a problem or a failure. Like the word ‘discrimination’, it needs to be recovered and re-valued. Compromise assumes that we are grown up enough to look through the eyes of ‘the other’ – my neighbour – and dare to see the world differently. This is a work of imagination. Imagination is not the same as fantasy. Imagination involves the capacity to imagine (a) how the world looks when seen through different eyes rooted in different experiences and assumptions, and (b) to envisage how, in the light of bringing my experience, assumptions and vision together with those of others, the compromise might be constructive and positive in creating a common life together. And, of course, this demands confidence, humility and maturity – a commitment to learn and grow.

Perhaps this is where I should conclude these ruminations; the recovery of imagination.

Freedom is coming. That is the plea and the promise of God to his people and to his world. But, this promise necessarily implies and involves the committed engagement of these people in addressing, from the wisdom of the past, the new questions of the present in order to create or shape the society and world of the future. We can only do our bit. But, if we are to learn from and be consistent with those who have gone before us, we must be prepared to sacrifice our own interests in order to serve the common good and be obedient to the God who calls us in the first place.

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

Television does not do justice to the reality of fire. Nor does what we might call ‘reasonable proximity’.

I once played with my children on a beach in Greece whilst watching aircraft try to extinguish a forest fire on the hills beyond the bay. It was interesting to watch – while we played and swam – and only became more than a spectator event when we later saw pictures of the destruction and learned the names of those who had died in the flames.

In his remarkable ‘Paradise Lost’ John Milton uses a phrase that has haunted many imaginations through the centuries. He speaks of ‘darkness visible’ – a term that has been used subsequently to depict severe depression, among other things. I think it speaks powerfully here, too. Fire, as it consumes and rages, often beyond control, sucks the light and oxygen to the extent that the dark emptiness it generates is only visible to those who spectate from beyond.

We don’t know who or what started the fires in Greece. There have been suggestions that they were started deliberately – either out of sheer wanton destructiveness or criminality. But, voices are also being raised in favour of climate-change. Who knows?

Whichever proves to be the right explanation in the end, each brings its own moral culpability. Of course, it’s easier to deal with criminality because we can blame the arsonist and distance ourselves from any responsibility for the destructiveness. Climate change, on the other hand, is harder to duck.

None of this is much comfort to those who have lost property, land or loved ones to these terrible conflagrations. It is interesting that newspapers have been describing the fires as ‘biblical’ without anywhere explaining why that word has been chosen or what it might mean. I assume it refers to certain biblical images of the end of the world – the apocalypse, hell or hades. Fire and brimstone, burning and darkness and dust. Darkness visible.

Yet, perhaps the word ‘biblical’ might actually point us to a different meaning. Even if the Greek fires do not presage the end of the world, they certainly represent the end of a world – someone’s world. Family members lost, homes and communities destroyed, businesses consumed. Yet, biblical warnings of fire and loss are always accompanied by defiant words of hope – language that holds out a future beyond the immediate darkness. What one theologian calls ‘newness after loss’ … so that the last word does not belong to destruction.

This is human experience throughout all time. And compassion for those who suffer is what should burn in the hearts of spectators, shaping the collective will of people and nations who seek to end the suffering and open a future.

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

I was getting off a bus in London late last night when a bloke standing outside a shop asked me the time. I told him. And he said: “That’s funny. I’ve been asking the same question all day and I keep getting different answers.”

I walked on quickly.

But, it did scratch away at the back of my head. It’s simple, really, isn’t it? The answer you get depends on the question you ask. Put the right answer to the wrong question and you get a mess.

I’ve had to live with this for years. Christians often get caricatured as naive people living in alternative universes. As a TV presenter commented just this week in response to an accusation of religious stupidity: “Of course I believe in dinosaurs. I am a Christian, not a Creationist.”

Well, both the Christian and the Creationist have to live in the real world.
Faith is not the same as fantasy. Fantasy avoids reality; faith inhabits the real world in all its complexity.

For example, the problem many people have with the book of Genesis and the creation stories is that they ask of it the wrong question. The early chapters of Genesis don’t pretend to ask the question “How did the universe come to be? – in terms of mechanics. Rather, the Hebrew poetry sets up really interesting questions about why life is as it is – why human beings get so messed up and, consequently, mess the world up. Now that’s a question of how to read, not a problem between science and religion.

And for me it’s a much more interesting question. Why am I the way I am? Why is the world the way it is? What is it at the heart of our humanity that is capable of cosmic beauty and generosity on the one hand and utterly corrupt cruelty on the other?

As Billy Ocean didn’t say: “When the going gets tough the tough write poetry.” But the job of the poet or the songwriter is to go beyond facts and play around with the ‘whys’ of life. As the Psalmist famously put it: “When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, who are we that you are mindful of us?”

Good question.

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.

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.