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.