Friday, 19 December 2014

Unitarians, Dickens and Christmas.

A ‘Dickensian’ Christmas?

Every year it seems that certain elements of the British press and religious groups get ever more hot under the collar with regards to the increasing commercialisation and secularisation of Christmas – the Christian festival that marks the supposed birth of Jesus who traditional Christians see as the son of God. Newspaper editors hark back to the popular myth of the ‘Dickensian Christmas’, the perfect Christmas of carols, family and friendship and a good dose of morals. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, stated in 2010 that Jesus was being  ‘air-brushed’ out of Christmas and there is even a ‘Campaign Against the Secularisation of Christmas’ established by evangelical Christians.  But what is a ‘Dickensian Christmas’? It is rather ironic that Charles Dickens the creator of the ‘modern’ idea of the Christmas festival, did so to broaden the appeal of Christmas, and as a Unitarian, did not see Christmas as the birth of the divine son of God but as a day to explicitly remember ‘ the man Jesus Christ’ who was the ‘Great exemplar’ and ‘proof of loving kindness’. For Dickens and other like-minded individuals Christmas did not have the same religious connotations and overtones as it would for Trinitarian Christians, for example. That Dickens – and others – created the modern notion of a family Christmas is doubly ironic as Unitarians for much of their history had been anti-Christmas!

Monday, 15 December 2014

The True Meaning of Hogswatch

"The white boar lay on its side in the snow, which was now red with its blood. One eye stared at nothing. The tongue lolled. A breeze blew up. Something stirred in the landscape. Something under the snow. The branches of the ancient trees shook gently, dislodging little needles of ice.
The sun rose.
The light streamed over the landscape like a silent gale. It was dazzling. The great red ball turned the frost to fire along the winter branches. Gold light slammed into the mountain peaks, making every one a blinding, silent volcano. It rolled onward, gushing into valleys, and thundering up the slopes, unstoppable.
There was a groan.
A man lay on the snow where the boar had been. He was naked except for an animal-skin loincloth. His hair was long and had been woven into a thick plait down his neck, so matted with blood and grease it looked like felt. The man was tattooed. Blue whorls and spirals haunted his skin. The snow glowed orange from the newly risen sun.
The tattooed man made a gurgling sound, clutching at his throat, choking. His breath sounded like a saw. The man coughed and something bounced off a tree and landed in the snow. It was a black bean.
A bird trilled, high on a branch. A wren bobbed and fluttered to another twig.
The man was different. He had heavy furs now, with a fur hood, and fur boots. He was supporting himself on a stone-tipped spear. Something hurried through the wood, barely visible except by its shadow. It was a white hare.
Now the furs had gone and the man looked much older, although he still had the same eyes. The furs were replaced by long green robes, and he looked very much like a priest.
A little way off, four huge boars stood and steamed in front of a sledge put together from crudely trimmed trees. The Hogfather climbed aboard and sat down, he’d put on weight in the last few years and it was impossible to see anything other than the huge, red-robed man.
The idea of the Hogfather wearing red and white was a recent invention, it was believed. But, perhaps, it had also been remembered.
The figure hadn’t changed like the turning of pages in a book. All the images were there at once, and many others too. What you saw depended on how you looked."

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Homiley: Matt 11: 25-27

This is a rather tricky passage to preach on, especially if, like me you are a Unitarian.

But what I think the writer of Matthew’s Gospel is trying to say this: that God was revealed through the person of Jesus Christ.

God revealed through someone like you and me.

The technical term for this is Incarnation. An Incarnation as James Martineau saw which ‘is true not of Christ exclusively but of Man universally and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.’

God, or if you prefer, Good, with us. The distant and unknowable made knowable, the unseen made visible. The Divine revealed to us as and through humanity. God is relatable. God is not distant and far off, but in each and every one of us. And Jesus recognised this too when he contrasted intellectual pride – trying to find God in books and study – with those with a simple, experiential faith.

This relationship – this revelation of the Divine - is recognised by all the great seekers and mystics: this fundamental relationship with God and that God is revealed through all people, in all times. In fact, not just through people – through the whole of creation.

Michael Servetus, one of the fathers of the Unitarian faith, in his book ‘Christianity Restored’ which was published in 1553, put it like this:

God dwells in the spirit, and God is the spirit;

God dwells in fire, and God is fire.

God dwells in the light, and God is light.

God is in the mind, inhabits the mind, and God is the mind itself.

Our soul is a certain lamp of God. It is like a spark of God’s Spirit, and image of God’s wisdom; created, to be sure, but most like that spiritual wisdom and placed within it, having an inborn luminescence of divinity, a spark of that primary wisdom, and the very spirit of divinity. The spirit of divinity is placed within man, even after Adam’s sin, so testifies God himself...

In the very fruits of the earth, in animals, stones, pearls, metals, treasures, springs, rivers, wells, rain, clouds, thunder and lightning, and winds Christ’s mystery was figured.’

God is greater than religion, beyond churches and creeds; beyond race, wealth sex, and sexuality. Even though we are many, we are all one because we all share in the one light, live in the same blessed reality. This just isn’t theology; this is a way of life, a call of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.

It’s when we lose sight of this, when he lose sight of the Inner Light of the Quakers, the Divine Spark of Wesley or the Christ Light of Martineau – not only in ourselves but in others that the problems start. Treating ourselves (and others) disrespectfully. Or,  as the author Terry Pratchett says  ‘…sin, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself.’

Let us seek our own inner light, and seek it not just here in this congregation, but across the street, in faces we do not know, recognising the inherent worth and dignity of all persons, who are all bearers and reflections of the same inner light: recognising the Divine Unity that embraces us all.

I’d like to end with words by the Rev Cliff Reed

Because God is One, Creation is one. Because Creation is one, humanity is one. Because humanity is one, my neighbour and I are one. And, indeed, each of us is one integrated whole participating in one infinitely greater yet still integrated whole.


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Homily for St Elisabeths (9-7-2014)

The other day in Manchester, on Market Street was one of these Evangelical preachers. You know the type, with a sandwich board and little handouts, haranguing everyone. Apparently we’re all off to “hell” in a handcart unless we repent. Of or from what I’m not sure but everyone other than this preacher and members of his church are off to hell.

To be honest, if there are such places as heaven and hell, I think the more interesting people would be in hell. Winston Churchill famously said he’d rather not to go to heaven if it were full of people like Keir Hardie.

What really stuck in my throat was the condemnation by this preacher of other faiths and especially of the amazing ‘Berlin House of One’ – that interfaith house of worship for Christians, Muslims and Jews. A centre of worship, of tolerance, of love.

And it struck me this morning how at odds this preacher was with what Jesus said.

In this reading from Matthew’s Gospel Jesus didn’t send out the Apostles to convert the Gentiles or the Samaritans (the religion not the wonderful organisation). He told his followers to go and find the ‘lost sheep’ and tell them the good news that heaven is at hand. In fact, a little bit later on, Jesus tells his followers that the ‘kingdom of heaven is within you.’

When Jesus preached his first sermon he did so from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring the good news to the oppressed; bind up the broken-hearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to release the prisoners.

But, hang on a minute. That's not how this piece of Isaiah ends. Isaiah 61:2 actually says: 'to proclaim a day of vengeance from our God.' Jesus skips the last line because he isn’t here to announce vengeance. He has a completely different message, and thus critiques his own scriptures. What is his message about then? Love! love not vengeance!

Isaac Pennington, an early member of the Quaker Religion put it like this:

And now this is my desire and prayer to the Lord, and the travail of my soul in his life and spirit; even that those are yet scattered from the fold of rest, that the residue of the sheep of the house of Israel that are as yet lost, as yet scattered up and down in their own apprehensions, conceivings… may be gathered out of all these into the same life, power, and fold of rest, into which God has pleased of his great mercy and tender goodness to gather us.’

To cross over narrow societal barriers and to reach out with love; to touch the untouchables. To go to the lost; the rejected; the lonely; the unloved and the unlovable. And to welcome them home as part of our universal human family. To offer, above all, love.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Father's Day and Unity Sunday

Today is a day fraught with dangers for preachers!

On one hand it is Father’s Day. And, on the other, it is Trinity Sunday.

 Father’s Day, like Mothering Sunday, can be incredibly difficult days to preach on. I, for one, could not preach about fathers with any real authenticity because I never knew my father (alltho' Lloyd George may have done.....(joke)). And, for everyone who had an idyllic relationship with their father, there are others who had a turbulent time. And for every one  who has been able to talk to their father today, there are many others whose father has already died. Worse still, there are fathers who have lost children.

I could use this sermon to talk about the theology that caused Unitarians to question the Trinity (hence giving us our name, Unitarians rather than Trinitarians) then I open myself up to the accusations which are sometimes hurled at Unitarians: that we only ever bang on about the Trinity and that, sometimes we always talk about what we DON’T believe rather than what we do! We most certainly do not believe in Original Sin, Hell, or any form of bloody Atonement Theology. Maybe that's because we don't have a corporate set of beliefs? Maybe it's because several hundred years of persecution have left their mark on the body corporate? Maybe it's because we shy away from all forms of evangelism. Maybe that's a topic for the Westgate Forum?

I have always thought the concept of the sun and moon describes perfectly the Unitarian view of God and Jesus. That’s because the moon doesn’t cast any light of its own – we only see the light of the sun reflected on it – and if something casts a shadow and stops the sun’s rays reaching the moon, the moon disappears. 

Unitarians have always preached that there is One God – just as other churches preach – but then we are left with the question that has divided Christendom for centuries: if there is One God, then who was Jesus?

Orthodox and mainstream Christianity proclaims that Jesus is part of the 3 in 1 which makes us the One God.

Unitarians take a different view.

Unitarians see God and Jesus as being like the sun and the moon – very separate things.

Jesus, by his life, his ministry, his teachings and his example reflected the very nature of God. If you look at Jesus of Nazareth you see the very light of God reflected off of him. And if you look at the accounts we have of Jesus’ life, we find he was always very careful to acknowledge this.
He didn’t want people to worship him. He always asked people to keep quiet when they concluded that he was the chosen one. 

Granted, he was recorded as saying things like “I and my Father are one” – but I’m not sure that means he was saying he and God were one and the same thing. And anyway he also said "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you." He was calling us to a one-ness with God....just as he was "one" with God spiritually, poetically. The language of religion is poetry and metaphor. It is not to be understood  literally.

So if we – as Unitarians – conclude that Jesus was a human who reflected God, how does that make him different from other human beings?

Well the difference – as I see it – is about his refusal to let anything eclipse his calling. He allowed nothing to cast its shadow and so stop him reflecting God. He continued to reflect the light of God even though it meant certain death.

Even the most spiritual of humans allow their spiritual side to get over-shadowed at times. We all do things that stop us reflecting the light of God.The old fashioned word for this is "Sin". For some reason, humans tend to get attracted to the shadow side - the Dark side perhaps? - maybe that’s because it’s actually much easier not to reflect God.

Right at the start of the Bible it tells us that actually humans do reflect the image of God. And this is one of the theologies which sets us appart: we have no time for 'Original Sin' but we do beleive in Original Blessing. We are not 'Miserable Sinners' (Most of us are definately not miserable). But,  you know,  it can be so easy to let something come between us and the Divine, and before we know it, it has overshadowed us. 

Jesus is sometimes referred to as Christ. It’s not a term we use so often in Unitarian churches. We tend to refer to “Jesus of Nazareth” or even “Rabbi Jesus”. I don’t think “Christ” is an unhelpful term for Unitarians, if we use it in its true sense: meaning “anointed” or “chosen”. To me, Jesus was the Christ because he fully answered the call on his life and he fully reflected God.
We’ll probably never be able to do the same – but we can try. 

If we believe - to quote the Book of Common Prayer - that we are nothing but depraved, miserable sinners who can do nothing to help ourselves - - then that’s what we’ll be - - and we WILL do nothing. 

However, if we believe that Divine anointing is also trying to reach US, and that we need to start reflecting that, then we’ll live and act very differently.We have the in-built potential to be Christ-like. John Goodchild suggests, very movingly, that there was only ever one 'Christian' - Jesus - and that everyone else is a potential Christian. And I like that. It moves me quite deeply. Because there is no differance between Jesus and me other than time, space, .... and religion it means I have the same potential to be like him.

I am not setting out with the intention of criticising other churches and other beliefs today. I don’t want to be in the business of criticising sincerely held beliefs...... but I wonder whether mainstream Christianity actually sets people up to fail a little? Have they invented a disease for which they have the only cure?...

We get told that we need to be like Jesus and act like Jesus, yet at the same time get told that Jesus was God.
It gives us an impossible example to live up to.
What we need is a good human example.

If Jesus was God and had all the power of God at his fingertips then none of the things he did were difficult for him or even amazing, but if Jesus was human and still managed to accomplish all those things, then maybe there is hope for us too.

Maybe we have some hope of having “the same mind as Christ” - - opening ourselves up to the anointing, and choosing to reflect God.

And not only do we have take responsibility for ourselves, but also for others. It’s all very well saying that we all tred our own spiritual path, but how often do we cast a shadow over others and stop them reflecting God? Too often, we can cast a shadow on the Divine reflection of others instead of allowing them to shine. 
That brings me back to the subject of Father’s Day. We sometimes hear it said of people “he’s always lived in his Father’s shadow” – meaning that he was never allowed to decide things for himself, or never truly been allowed to shine. 

To me, that’s not the sign of a good father. A good father allows the child to grow up, to make decisions, to find its way in life. A good father doesn’t stifle the child..... and probably the sign of a good father, and good parenting generally, is that the child grows up to reflect the best attributes of their parents, not because it has been beaten into the child, but because the child wants to be like its parents. Just like Jesus, reflecting the very nature of God.

Over a decade ago, when I first walked into a Unitarian church I realised pretty quickly that here was the place I could best reflect God.I was at University ast the time, struggling with minor issues such as sexuality and really struggling with the 'Christians' on campus. In fact, I was a leader of one of the bible studies and was always told off for not using the prepared 'answer sheet' and asking too many questions. It started a lively email discussion with Kate Taylor over issues of the historical Jesus, authority in religion....And, to be brutally honest I don't think Ive ever understood Jesus or experienced Jesus as anything other than a human being. Mum always taught Paul and I to question everything - and by golly don't we just - and she often quoted the late Rev Nigel Jilson, the chaplain at her school, saying that, for example, the "Miracle" when Jesus fed the 5,000 was not that food spontaneously popped into existance, but the boy who offered to share his meagre food was the miracle, which triggered others to do likewise. Instead of praying for "instant" gratification, of instant food because I'm hungry right now is to see common humanity and share what we have so no one goes hungry. That's the miracle.

No religious experience that I had had in the past compares to what I found within Unitarianism.

I knew that this was the place I could shine, not because I have any particular talent, but because it was here I could feel safe enough to express what God really means to me. I can express my faith, and my doubts and do so in atmosphere of welcome, where others' expressions of all that is Divinen are welcomed, and affirmed, where like the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles there are countless differant reflections of the Divine.

It’s important to know where Unitarians fit in to the religious map and how we differ from other churches. 

It’s important to know where we came from. It’s important to know why Unitarians questioned the doctrine of the Trinity - - and when you learn about these things you realise that our respect for Jesus is not in any way diminished, in fact it is heightened because we honour a human being who fully reflected God, and it inspires us to try to do the same.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Sermon at St Elisabeth's 26 February 2014

As you may know, I am a Unitarian. What’s one of those I hear you cry. A Unitarian is a Christian who does not believe in the Holy Trinity, who does not believe Jesus to have been God. He was a great prophet and was the Messiah (literally the chosen) of God. And we think of ourselves as Christians because we are trying to follow the teachings of Jesus. But yet we have been branded throughout history as not being Christian because we do not accept the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as though believing the right things is more important than doing the right thing. And I think that is what Jesus in this morning’s Gospel is trying to say. It doesn’t matter whether you are part of my club or not so long as you are doing my work.

 "John said to him, 'Master, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he was not following us.' But Jesus said, 'Do not forbid him; for no one who does a miracle in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:38-40). Just a little bit later Jesus reminds the disciples that kindness shown by an outsider to someone simply because the latter was his follower deserved reward. Or, in other words, anyone who does a good deed is doing good. Jesus did not disown any one who was doing good works in his name.

That seems pretty straight forward enough. Anyone who does works in the name of Jesus, whether or not they are part of “our” group, is doing good. But in direct contradiction is the Jesus of Luke who says "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." And yet this sadly has been the response of the church through history:  if you are not with us you are against us. Until 200 years ago it was illegal to be a Unitarian…

The Jesus of Mark 9 makes no summons for anyone to join. Instead he acts the shepherd to go retrieve the lone lamb that John had driven forth from the flock. This is interesting to me: John tells Jesus that the unknown exorcist had not been following Jesus and the disciples. So to John he seemed to be poaching, violating the disciples' copyright on the name of Jesus. It is obvious that John considered the man a non-member. But it is equally apparent that the exorcist himself did not think himself a member either.

And, most importantly for me, Jesus does not suggest that the man should have joined up either!

From this Jesus we hear no invitation to join up, no summons to decide. No, what we hear is that such an explicit joining is superfluous, altogether unnecessary. Though he has not required you to join him, this very openness makes you think that maybe it would not be a bad thing to follow this Jesus. If this is a possible version of Christianity, maybe I can be (or remain) a Christian after all!

And that is the great point: as far as Jesus is concerned, the man does not need to join. Since he is doing the work that Jesus does, he is already a member. As the Epistle of James says, "I will show you my faith by my works." Jesus has drawn a circle that counts him in. Here is Jesus, in whose eyes one may be as Christian as one needs to be even if one's faith is anonymous or wears another name altogether.  And to, be honest, there is no monopoly on God, or Truth. Despite what the Church may say  - just look at all the different denominations here in Reddish (Anglican, Methodist, URC, Catholic all of which were founded because they and they alone had the “Truth”). That matters not. And I don’t think it even matters whether you are a Christian or not so long as you are acting upon Jesus ethic of Love, whether you know it or not.

I would like to ends with words from the Unitarian Bishop Francis David:

“We need not all think alike to Love alike.” Amen.

Sermon Preached at Wakefield, 16 February 2014

Love is all you need?

Jesus is said to have summed up the entire Christian life in terms of love: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great­est com­mand­ment. The sec­ond is like it: ‘Love your neigh­bour as your­self.’ All the law and the prophets depend on these two com­mand­ments” (Mat 22.37–40).

But Jesus didn't actually say that! Shock! Horror! It was the expert in the Law who says them. Jesus agrees with the answer (Lk. 10.28), but he’s not the one who actu­ally puts forth that trans­la­tion of Deuteronomy 6.5. In Matthew 22.37 Jesus does say “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and in Mark 12.30 he says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (NIV2011) We have in the Gospels three cita­tions of Deuteronomy 6.5 (two of them spo­ken by Jesus) and each uses dif­fer­ent word­ing.

 But regard­less of whether or not these are accounts of the same event, we don’t nec­es­sar­ily have the exact words that Jesus spoke, or even know if they were orig­i­nally in Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. The gospel authors record Jesus’ mes­sage in Greek (a dynamic trans­la­tion?) but for the most part we sim­ply don’t know pre­cisely what Jesus said. The mes­sage that the Gospel writ­ers are try­ing to con­vey is that Jesus replied by quot­ing Deuteronomy 6.5:

Deuteronomy 6:5
You must love the LORD your God
with all your heart (leb),
all your soul (nephesh),
and all your strength (me’od).

Luke 10:27
You must love the LORD your God
with all your heart (kar­dia),
all your soul (psy­che),
all your strength (ischus),
and all your mind (dianoia).

These com­mandments cap­ture the essence of who we are.  They are a holistic view of the self and of life and of belief. Before we can love God, before we can love others, we have to love ourselves.

We can’t fully love God, we can't fully love ourselves or others, if we only love emo­tion­ally, we can’t fully love if we only offer intel­lec­tu­al sup­port  — we can only truly and fully love if we do so with every­thing we have. And they are also a way of belief, too: love God – or all that we as individuals consider to be Divine – with all our heart, our soul and, most importantly for us Unitarians, with our mind. Think about what we believe, why we believe it. Not blindly following, unthinkingly, un-critically- judging for ourselves. But, so often in belief and religion it all ends up rather like the scene in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ where Brian of Nazareth tells the gathered multitude “You are all individuals… You have got to go away and think things out for yourselves”. “Yes! Yes!” they reply in unison, “we are all individuals, we have got to think things out for ourselves”. Apart from the Unitarian at the end who replies “I’m not.”

But I think sometimes, we Unitarians can place too much emphasis of loving with our mind, on the intellectual side of God, of worship which leaves a rather, some might say, dry experience. It removes all the uncomfortableness and ambiguities. It robs it of life, of mystery. Faith 0 and love – contrary to James Martineaus early writings is not rational, is not logical. All that is Divine is based upon reason, upon logic. And as we heard from John Goodwyn Barmby (paraphrasing the Gospel of Jogn), if God is love, and love is of God then neither are logical. As anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows…

These com­mands aren’t sim­ply feel-good plat­i­tudes, they are a pow­er­ful call to embrace a spe­cific and active love. The real­i­ties of life chal­lenge love at every turn, and love alone, as a dis­em­bod­ied feel­ing adrift on the Platonic ether, can­not save us. But love as a prac­tice, love as a way of life, love as an expe­ri­ence of God, love that encom­passes the total­ity of God— that love can save us and the world. Love requires par­tic­i­pa­tion, it requires main­te­nance, it requires atten­tion: “Above all, main­tain con­stant love for one another, for love cov­ers a mul­ti­tude of sins” (1 Pet. 4.8).

Love doesn’t obvi­ate other aspects of our life, love holds those aspects together. Love is not a soli­tary require­ment, it is the thread that uni­fies and empow­ers all the other aspects. If we don’t have love, noth­ing else works. If we don’t show love, we can’t expect to receive it. If we don’t love God, if – more importantly, we don’t love ourselves - how can we hope to love our neigh­bour? “But love your ene­mies, and do good, and lend, expect­ing noth­ing back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High because he is kind to ungrate­ful and evil peo­ple. Be mer­ci­ful, just as your Father is mer­ci­ful” (Luke 6.27–36).

Love is a means of relationship - not only between human beings, but between humans and the rest of nature. Having been privileged to be at the birth of my kitten and seeing the love, the nurturing between the new mother and her kittens, and between Ginger - my kitten - and myself there is more than just chemical impulses and pheromones. Love is also the means by which the Divine, all that is Holy can be related to.

So yes, to quote John, Paul, George and Ringo (or should that be Pete?):  “All you need is love” To those who accuse we religious liberals of putting an inor­di­nate amount of empha­sis on love, one must remem­ber that it was Jesus him­self who set the prece­dent. Love, prop­erly enacted and expressed, sub­sumes the dis­trac­tions of the­ol­ogy and over­pow­ers our per­sonal ten­den­cies to judge and criticize. If only the House of Bishops during the last week had and seen how the love of two persons of any sex overpowers judgemental and critical attitudes.

All we need, is love.