Sermon: December 25 2016 (Christmas)

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52: 7-10

Hebrews 1: 1-6

John 1: 1-18

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Words from the Gospel according to St John, the first chapter.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

And the Word became flesh.

The doctrine of the Incarnation is Christianity’s beating heart. From it flows our understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; our view of the sacramentality of things; our vision of what it means to be human, made in God’s image. Without the Incarnation, the Resurrection is the little more than a parlour trick and the Church little more than a fan club.

It violates my anthropological intuitions to say so, we who are so allergic to claims to cultural uniqueness: but there is nothing quite like the Incarnation anywhere else, this idea that God—the God who made all things, and who upholds the whole universe—this idea that this God of infinite power is born a human boy, wet and screaming, nursing and sleeping, teething and throwing tantrums; that God grows up, gets grubby and grumpy, nauseated, constipated, gets himself killed. This is—I don’t know—something else. A hint half guessed, a gift half understood, or not at all.

I mean, gods that are like people are dime a dozen. Zeus and Thor, Shiva and Guan Yin, even Yahweh in the old days, are all anthropomorphised. Frankly, except on our very best days, even the God we imagine is likely a very powerful man. And shapeshifting gods are common too, including those who temporarily adopt human form. Zeus did this, of course, to nefarious ends; a bizarre passage in the Poetic Edda has Odin accusing Loki of having born children and “milked cow” as a woman on earth; even our own Book of Tobit has the Archangel Raphael take on human appearance to journey with the eponymous protagonist’s son, Tobias. But none of this is quite the doctrine of the Incarnation, which begins not with a humanoid god, but with a God radically other, so unlike anything in the world that the divine is beyond knowing and certainly beyond telling. God is the mystery to which all things owe their being, and yet it is this God who comes and shares in our fragility and finitude. And how fragile and finite indeed. Sea turtles break out of their eggs, and immediately dash for the ocean. Giraffes can walk within hours, despite their awkward gangliness. Human neonates, in contrast, are unable to lift up their own heads for the first two months of their lives. The Christ-child is, like all children, utterly dependent on others. This, we are shown rather than told, is what God is like: a baby in a manger, a man on death row.

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Of course, this is absurd. It makes no sense. Except that it is the only thing that really does make sense against a world in which might makes right; the value of things is reducible to their utility; and even people are means to our ends. The Incarnation is a repudiation of these poisonous ideas, lodged in our brains and our bones, our societies and their structures.

This is what true power looks like, not military might, nor media manipulation by monied interests, but a newborn in a world where infant mortality at the time is best estimated at 30%. It’s a crapshoot, whether Jesus would have made it to adulthood, and then we killed him by popular vote.

This is the value of the world, such that the God who, by definition, has no use for it, made it anyway and then made it home, became part of it. How dare we treat it merely as our pantry, our gas station, our playpen, our theatre of war?

This is what a human being is worth, a homeless foreigner, a boy born out of wedlock, a criminal, tried and executed. The heir of all things, who reflects the glory of God, who bears the very stamp of God’s nature.

The Incarnation makes moral sense, then, but in ways that run against our entrenched intuitions, either endowed upon us by our biological heritage or calcified by our cultural history. Evolutionary theorists tell us that the strongest survive, by which they definitely do not mean those who lay down their lives for others. Economists have no other way to conceptualise value except in terms of use. Psychologists have shown through decades of research that prejudice—suspicion and derogation of the other—is all but inevitable, baked into the way we process social information. The Incarnation renders none of these claims empirically false: it is not a scientific theory, after all. But it is a response to such a world as this that, far from escaping into denialism or cynical apathy, enters directly into these economic, political, psychological, and biological realities. The Incarnation is therefore an invitation for us to be defiant in hope, to resist being overcome by our own darkness, the darkness of the world around us. It is into this world that Christ is born, which comprehended him not, knew him not, received him not. And yet, the light shines. Perhaps this too is absurd, but if so, it is a necessary absurdity. To whom else can we go? Here is the Word of eternal life.

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The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth and from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace and one day eye to eye we will see the return of the Lord.

In the meantime, it is the first day of Christmas, and there are—sons and daughters of the most high—(there are) good tidings to bring, peace and salvation to publish. There is a Word we have received, to bring light to the world.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: December 11 2016 (Advent 3)

Third Sunday of Advent

Matthew 11:2-11

Isaiah 35:1-6, 10

James 5:7-10

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.

Words from the traditional entrance antiphon, from St Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, the fourth chapter.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Not so long ago, last week, many centuries past—in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests—John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, was in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. No reed shaking in the wind, was he, nor decked in soft kings’ raiment, but a prophet sent to face us.

And today he is told, from behind bars awaiting a puppet despot’s petty vengeance, he is told of the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, lepers cleansed, the dead alive, all good news. He will see confirmation of none of these things, not with his own eyes, our crotchety old faithful old John the Baptizer, none greater than whom has been conceived and born of a woman.

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It is the Third Sunday of Advent. And we are told to rejoice, thus the traditional name for this day in the Church’s year: Gaudete Sunday, from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And we are even given a reason so to do: The Lord is near, St Paul says. Near: a word, which like the word advent connotes both approach and arrival. In the same breath: presence and promise. The Lord is near. Nearer now than when we first believed. Not that this is particularly helpful to John the Baptist, languishing in a cell, or Paul, himself under custody and eventually also put to the sword.

The blind see, he told them to say to John, the lame walk, the deaf hear, but of course, they don’t. And the poor may have good news preached at them, but the World Health Organisation says that there are nearly 800 million people who cannot afford to keep themselves nourished. 3.1 million children die ever year from malnutrition. That’s 8,500 kids a day. 350 an hour. 60 in the time it takes to preach this sermon.

Shall we look for another?, John asks, not knowing whether he dares to be hopeful. It’s not a silly question, even now. Be patient, St James says, be patient for the coming of the Lord. But the Lord sure is taking his time. See, this is the why we need the Old Testament. Our forebears, they knew the importance of lament, they knew the place of impatience, of asking “How long, O Lord? How long?” Job 7; Psalm 13 and 35 and 89 and 90, I could go on; Habakkuk 1; pretty much all of Jeremiah. The call to be patient is all too often heard, even if not meant, as permission to accept the status quo, no matter how intolerable it is. This is, of course, not what St James means, who tells us to make the prophets our examples of this patience. Anyone who confuses what the prophets did for passive resignation hasn’t read them very well.

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Now it is time to awake out of sleep,

For the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

These are the words I associate most with Advent, which we say every morning in our common prayer, taken from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, this one incidentally not written in prison. They are for me a daily reminder of what it means for Advent to be a season of anticipation. Waiting, Christianly conceived, is not a passive act. Rather, we are called in this time to prepare, to make ready the path of the coming King. Saints, you will recall, are not just characters in pious stories or subjects for artistic endeavours, but examples for us now: this includes John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, martyrs both, who spoke truth to power.

There is another common misconception, not helped by off-the-cuff quips by clerics, that one Sunday of Lent and Advent each—them of these pink vestments—are to provide reprieve from these otherwise penitential seasons. This is a mistake not only because Advent isn’t a penitential season in the way that Lent is, but also because liturgical seasons don’t come with bathroom breaks. Gaudete Sunday is not a suspension of Advent, but an amplification thereof: our anticipation is heightened today as we are given a foretaste of what is to come. We see, even if through a glass darkly, the world for which we are preparing, to which we are paving the way. A world in which the desert shall rejoice and blossom; the ransom of the Lord shall return; sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

So, there is work to be done. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. We have our marching orders, and we should not pretend that we don’t. We have, most of us, been through enough Advents and Christmases to expect sermons about making the world a better place. We should not pretend that we haven’t. Nobody really needs another December tirade from this pulpit about the excesses of consumer capitalism. Tirades, by the way, that are, of course, hypocritical, given that none of the clerics here are anchorites. All the same, there is work to be done, by you and me, by us all. It is the Third Sunday of Advent, and if today we anticipate the coming of God’s kingdom more intensely, then this is as good a week as any to participate more actively, practically, actually in Christ’s advent. As the white of Christmas breaks into the violet of this season, it ought not be rose-tinted glasses that we receive, but a fragrance to be offered: to be offered back to God, of course, but if the New Testament is anything to go by (and it should be), what that looks like is an offering to those in need. The blind, the deaf, the lame, the poor; the homeless and malnourished; the imprisoned, and those who need second chances and thirds and then some.

Maybe you don’t know where to start. You will not be surprised to hear that I have specific opinions on the matter, but we can have that conversation later. For now: start anywhere. Start here, talking to each other about what you can do. Start just outside the church, where people sleep rough, and could do with a hot drink and a kind word. Start down the road, at the Gatehouse, who have called for warm hats and scarves and socks for gifts to the homeless. They need them by this Wednesday. Start with a standing order to a charity that supplies clean water and medical treatment to those who lack easy access. Start with a letter to your MP about what we can do together as a society to make this place look more, even if just a little more, like the glimpse we get to see of a world in which all things are put to right. Wherever you start: the Lord is near.

It is the Third Sunday of Advent. It is time to awake out of sleep. The night is far spent and the day is at hand.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Sermon: November 23 2016 (Baptism)

This sermon was delivered at St Mary Magdalen, Oxford as part of a course on basic doctrine. 

Very often, people talk about how certain things are just “symbolic” or mere “social constructions”. I find this attitude very puzzling, because as far as I can tell, pretty much everything worth caring about is symbolic and socially constructed. Symbolism is about the excess of meaning, about how something means more than it first appears. The 1975 film Jaws is about more than a giant shark terrorising New England beachgoers. Wedding rings are more than bits of dense, ductile yellow metal, beaten into short, hollow cylinders. Social construction is about the sharing of meaning, about a common vision, common values. It is what makes possible traffic signs and peace treaties. It is what makes language possible, and love.

There is nothing trivial—no justness, no mereness—to socially constructed symbols. A world in which all meanings are literal and all things are only as good as their practical functions is not one worth living in. Christians have always known this. It is fundamental to the Christian way of seeing the world that there is more here than meets the eye, that things are not just as they seem. And this is why we have sacraments: sacraments are signs, not in the sense that Post-It notes are signs, but in the sense that a kiss is a sign. When we kiss somebody, we are not just reminding them of our affection, communicating something to them easily and equally expressible in words. The kiss is itself the embodiment and consummation of this affection. Sacraments do not just show or say something, but accomplish it.

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Baptism involves water and the Trinitarian formula: I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Of course these days, we have white frocks and candles and vows and all sorts of things, most of which also brim over with significance. But the essential ingredients of a baptism are pretty basic. Water and the name of God. Basic, in more than one sense of the word. These elements are not incidental, of course: baptism would not be a very good sign if they were. But what do they signify? What does baptism accomplish?

Baptism is a kind of drowning. We don’t tell parents this, when they come to us with their precious newborns, but it’s true. There are other ways to talk about baptism—as a washing or cleansing, for example—but these descriptions tend to undersell the gravity of the thing. Baptism is a kind of drowning, a cleansing so complete that it is a kind of death. It is also like death, and not like bathing, in its one-off-ness and in its permanence.

Baptism is a kind of death, then. Specifically, it is Christ’s death: the New Testament tells us repeatedly that we are baptised into Christ, and thus into his death and resurrection. One of the drawbacks of not performing baptisms by immersion is that we don’t get to witness the dramatic enactment of plunging into the waters of baptism, and rising again into new life.

Baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are in this new life, dead women and men walking, and therefore, free. Free, that is, from the egocentric insecurities that lie at the bottom of our basest instincts, our insistence to assert ourselves and our desires, even at the expense of others. Indeed, as St Paul observes, baptism also relativizes all our previous sources of identity, those group alignments—our nation-states, our ethnic groups, even our families—from which we derive our comfort and self-esteem, again often at the expense of those who are different from us: there is, St Paul saith, neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. These divisions, which give rise to the most deadly and mundane sins—racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice—(these divisions) fall away because in our baptismal death and regeneration, we have our identities redefined. We are not our own but Christ’s, his Body, raised by God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, to participate in that shared life of eternal self-giving that is the very essence of God.

Go figure: water and the name of God go pretty far.

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There is, of course, an element of aspirational over-statement here. Every individual Christian life and the history of the Church is marked by a conspicuous failure to live up to our baptisms. We are called to live impossible lives. And while, for some, this leads to despair, it should not. There is nothing to fear from failure per se, only from rising again. Death and resurrection is kind of our thing.

Also our thing is mutual support. Christian lives are not meant to be lived individually, but corporately. We are baptised: the verb is passive; we do not baptise ourselves. The idea that we should only be baptised if and when we fully understand what it is that we are doing is just a misunderstanding of baptism, and indeed, of the Christian life. We never fully understand what it is that we are doing, not me, not you, not the Pope, not an infant brought before God’s people to be God’s people. In this we are the same. And so we stand–shoulder to shoulder; arms linked; ready to pick each other up and dust each other off should ever we fall; ever having each others’ backs–we stand and walk together, live together this impossible life of giving up our lives for the sake of the world.

Sermon: November 20 2016 (Christ the King)

This sermon was delivered at Queen’s College, Oxford for evensong.

1 Sam 8.4-20
John 18.33-37
It’s been a rough year. Remember when the most heartbreaking thing about 2016 were the deaths of beloved celebrities?

And then Brexit happened. Look, I don’t care how you voted, and how you justified it to yourself to help you sleep at night, but that referendum dug up some proper ugliness in this country. The campaign disregarded facts, and exploited the insecurities of the economically marginalised in an effort to scapegoat people who looked and sounded different from the nostalgic visage of old Britannia. The aftermath included a burst of hate crime, against ethnic and religious minorities; it did not include more funding to the NHS.

Sovereignty!, we demanded. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that life got a whole lot worse for immigrants and ethnic minorities over here. It’s hard not to take that personally.

And then Trump happened. And that was much worse.

Freedom!, our American cousins are wont to cry. Whatever the hell that means. What I know is that the Ku Klux Klan are celebrating over there, and diverse groups of people—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ folk—are being intimidated, harassed, and even assaulted. Far from being the promised champion of the working class, Donald Trump has now populated his transition team with corporate consultants and lobbyists. If the swamp has been drained, it is being refilled with orange Kool-Aid.

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Christians almost invariably say insipid things about politics. The sovereignty of God, for example, is often used as a means to justify the current regime. Vox Populi, vox Dei, and therefore Donald J. Trump is God’s chosen, who works in mysterious ways. Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, for Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, we say, as a convenient means to disengage from political action. But such sloganising—such memefication—is tantamount to the abuse of theological language. Make no mistake: there can be nothing Christian about casual and convenient complicity with bigotry and bullying.

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The Bible is iffy on the relationship between Church and State.

The First Book of Samuel narrates Yahweh’s—or, should we say, Samuel’s—displeasure at the shift from theocracy to monarchy. But it is not as though Israel became a secular state. Samuel is told to listen to the people…but also to tell them what they want. Samuel: the Steve Jobs of ancient Israelite realpolitik.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Jesus, a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine: he couldn’t be further from the centre of political power than Samuel was at its heart. There was no king but Caesar, and his vassals, including Herod’s family, who reigned over Judea at the pleasure of his majesty the Emperor.

Are you the King of the Jews? There was, of course, no such thing at the time. Herod the Great, to whom the title once belonged, was long dead, and his jurisdiction split among his male offspring: no surprises there. It was, in that sense, a trick question.

My kingdom is not from this world. There it is: the prooftext of Christian political apathy, which is really not so different from hipster cynicism. We are above the fray, too cool to believe that government can ever be anything but a stumbling block to be overcome by clicking things, or whatever people do these days.

And yet: You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

With that, Jesus seems to come back to Samuel’s position. This political criminal, with the nerve to claim that—unlike the Herodians whose titles even required the Caesarian stamp of approval—the Christ’s kingship is his birthright, is truth itself, and we had better heed his voice.

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The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. That’s what this feast day is called, just in case we had any doubts about the scope of our moral and political concerns. You would be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that the Church is only interested in where one puts one’s genitals, given her well-publicised obsessions.

This is not to say that the Church should be the Labour-Party-at-Prayer. The sovereignty of Christ relativizes all our group alignments, whether to political party or nation-state or ethnic group, or even family. We are first members of Christ’s body, who was crucified and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father. And, even as the Feast of Christ the King marks the end of the Church’s year, Christ is our end, our goal, our bottom line; there can be no other. Therefore, Christian political action cannot be a means to any other end, least of all grasping for political power for ourselves. Rather, if Christ is our goal, then our political action—our voting, our campaigning, our protesting—must embody Christ, whose mission was to the poor and marginalised and oppressed, who gave himself up for their sake.

If Christ is King, we cannot vote to prosper ourselves at the expense of the poor and needy, either here or abroad.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to take the lives of anonymous others far, far away, just to make us feel safe.
If Christ is King, we cannot vote to restore some imagined past, excluding those who fail to look or sound like us.
If Christ is King, we must stand with and for the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, long before we fight for ourselves.

There will, of course, never be a political candidate or party or platform that is unequivocally good. After all, we are none of us unequivocally good. Christians make the mistake of thinking that our moral choices are between right or wrong, when they are in fact mostly damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t decisions. And yet, moral disengagement is not an option for us who are in the world, even though our kingdom is not from it. We are not called to be above the fray, but to be mired in the clay, to be an infant in a manger, a voice in the wilderness, leaven pervading bread, beaten and bloodied on a cross.

I make no apology to the 81% of white evangelical voters (58% of Protestants more generally and 52% of Catholics) when I say that Hillary Clinton was far and away my preferred candidate, for all the reasons I have stated, and that support for Donald Trump is unconscionable for Christians. But even had Clinton won, the Church would still have work to do, leaning, pushing against her government’s warmongering, delegating of power to corporate interests, and dilly-dallying over environmental protection.

But the next leader of the so-called free world is a buffoon who, regardless of his own views, demonstrably inspires hateful people and hateful actions. A lot of people are scared right now, and I don’t blame them. The UK and US is an increasingly hostile place for immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, women, LGBTQ persons. Economic disparities are ever widening here at home and elsewhere. There are a lot of vulnerable people. If Christ is our King, then our concern for the people he loves must not remain at the level of pious platitudes. Go, as we say at the end of every Mass; go in peace and love. There’s work to be done.

Sermon: November 13 2016 (Remembrance Sunday)

This sermon was delivered on Remembrance Sunday at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

Malachi 4:1-2a
Luke 21:5-19

What a week.
I knew a great old lady—she died just a few months ago, aged 105—and while she had no memory of the beginning of the Great War, she could remember Armistice Day. She also remembered the day she was brought by friends and family to a political rally in Bavaria, where she was on holiday in her early 20s. She was told to pay no mind to the buffoon speaking: he couldn’t possibly go far. The next year, he became the Führer.

What a week.
I remember 9/11 like it was yesterday. It’s one of those events that get seared into one’s memory. The coronation was one for many of a previous generation. The assassination of JFK. The first moon landing. The death of Diana.
I was up all night, waiting for the news that after 240 years, there would finally be a woman in the White House, leader of the free world. Given her training and experience, she was the most qualified presidential candidate in the nation’s history: the choice should have been easy. Instead, the American voting public, with the help of a bizarre electoral college system, chose a sexist, racist, xenophobic buffoon, whose ad campaign ended with two minutes of criticism of the financial establishment featuring video clips of prominent American Jews. It is no wonder that neo-Nazis and the KKK support Donald J. Trump.

I’m going to remember the morning of November 9th 2016 for the rest of my life, for all the wrong reasons.

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There is a curious ambivalence in the Bible. On one hand, there seems to be a sort of naïve optimism. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays., says the prophet Malachi. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life., says Jesus. The same Jesus who, of course, gets arrested, beaten within an inch of his life, ridiculed, spat upon, nailed to a cross to die, and stabbed. As for his followers: by tradition (if not legend), all but St John were martyred. By the late second century, Tertullian could write that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”. The rhetoric of triumphalism is therefore tempered, to say the least, by the reality of failure and death. Of course, the Church finally did triumph in the usual sense of the word: it became the Roman imperial religion by the later 4th century, and thereby spread both gospel and tyranny around the world. It turns out that we don’t behave well when we win.

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81% of White evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. The figures are 58% for Protestants more generally, and 52% for Roman Catholics.

If my Facebook feed is any indication—and, of course, we know what bubbles we live in—Christians say the most sanctimonious, condescending things when things like this happen. They tell us to play nice. They tell us—as, indeed, both Malachi and Jesus do—that it’ll be alright. God is still sovereign, they say; some might even say that Trump is in power only by the will of said sovereign God.

Perhaps it will be alright. But even so, this is no reason to acquiesce, to accept the new status quo. That convenient option is the luxury of those who can afford to wait for things to pan out in the long run. The convenient option is very rarely the Christian one. No. Stand firm, he says. Which is to say, don’t back down. Turn the other cheek, to be sure; speak the words given unto you, or remain silent, even as Christ himself was. But don’t you—don’t we—dare stand by, stand back and let bigotry win the day. You will win life, he says, and if his own life and death are any indication, it is the lives of others that we must put before our own.

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We must never forget the sacrifices that have been and still are made by the women and men who gave up their lives in unnecessary wars that they did not start. Today, perhaps more than ever, when we have outsourced our violence to the poor, we must not forget. It is the poorest schools that are most targeted by army recruiters. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a socioeconomic gap between us and those whom we send to kill and die for us.

But this “not forgetting” is not a matter of entertaining pious thoughts about our grandfathers or the armed forces in the present day. Remembrance, Christianly conceived, is about changing the world. It is about changing the world so that nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation, neither shall we learn war any more.

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We have seen this kind of demagoguery before, which has pit peoples against peoples. Time and time again, we have blamed the Other for our woes. For the bubonic plague, we blamed the Jews. For the unemployment rate, we blamed the Polish. It’s the same play, over and over, sometimes even with the same characters. And the same is happening across the ditch. According to news reports, the violence has already begun, particularly against Muslim Americans. Again, this is familiar to us: Brexit was not so long ago, with its own subsequent spike in xenophobic hatefulness. Regardless of how you voted and why, we are all culpable for propping up the culture that has enabled such things. And as any social scientist worth her salt will tell you, and kindergarten teachers: violence begets violence. Therefore, the beating of swords into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, is not so much a symptom of the end of war as it is a remedy, a cure.

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We must not forget. And Christian remembering—eucharistic remembering—is about changing the world. Our celebration of the this most holy sacrament is, of course, our central act of remembrance and, at the same time, our central act of sacrifice, in which we are ourselves offered in Christ to be broken for the hungry and split for the thirsty.

We must not forget, but we must stand firm to win lives, allowing ourselves to lie down only if it is a laying down of ourselves for the sake of others.

This morning at Sunday School, the children were told about the brave women and men who were so brave and gave up their lives for us in times of war. And they were asked how they too could be brave. In our times, the answer could not be more obvious. We must be brave against bigotry and bullying, standing firm with and for those about whom the angry mob cries “Crucify, crucify—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ—even if it, God forbid, inconveniences us. Their lives must win, must trump hate.

The mass ends with an exhortation to go, to go out into the world, bellies full of Christ, to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. And what a world it is now. We have our work cut out for us.

Sermon: November 6 2016

The sermon was delivered at a Worcester College Chapel evensong service.

1 Kings 3:1-15
Romans 8:31ff

For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.
Words from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the eighth chapter.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous, there isn’t much biblical evidence for it.

Saul, you might remember, was king before David, Solomon’s father, whose throne he inherited. God ditched Saul after he had the nerve to offer sacrifices to God before battle, instead of waiting for that crotchety prophet Samuel who, by the way, was running late and never bothered to send so much as a carrier pigeon. The break was decisive when, instead of slaughtering all the men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys, Saul spared the Amalek king and some choice livestock. And no, God wasn’t angry because Saul was an elitist who only deemed royal blood worth keeping within the body envelope. If only. Old Samuel saw to King Agag’s bloody end, of course, Yahweh’s bulldog that he was, he hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.

All this happens before Solomon is born to David and Bathsheba, the wife he obtained by sending her first husband off to his death on the front lines. This, the guy in whose statutes Solomon was meant to walk. Clearly, there was redemption for David not at all clearly extended to Saul, who—you might recall—goes mad, dies in battle, gets decapitated and displayed on a wall. His heir, Jonathan, is killed too, whose love for David was wonderful, passing the love of women. David’s words, not mine. David, incidentally, is never really described as having loved anyone at all.

Anyway, Solomon. Solomon was born after God had already punished David for the thing with Bathsheba’s first husband, by killing their first son, Solomon’s elder brother. So Solomon was OK. More than OK: he was exceedingly wealthy, everyone loved him, and people still now keep saying that he wrote these great bits of the Bible that he probably had nothing to do with. But, of course, there was all that idolatry, worshipping Astarte and Milsom, Yahweh’s neighbouring competitors. Plus, he had 700 wives and 300 concubines, which just seems excessive. In the Book of Deuteronomy—which, in Israel’s mythic history, was written by Moses long before Israel ever had kings—it says that kings should acquire neither gold nor wives. By the Bible’s own legal accounting, Solomon was a bad king. And Yahweh knew it too. Which is why Solomon gets to die of natural causes in old age, and his son is punished instead, and his descendants after him.

If God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous, there isn’t much biblical evidence for it.

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Life isn’t fair. This fundamental Christian commitment is offensive to modern sensibilities, those of us who have imbibed the opiate of meritocracy and thus hallucinate a karmic vision of the world. It is Christianity 101—the ethics of Christianity is one of grace, not of fairness—and we have learnt this lesson well. Sometimes too well.

St Paul’s description of the Christian life is easily and often mistaken for the kind of life that Solomon and David lived. Lives in which nothing, not even our own attempts to sabotage ourselves at the expense of others, can get in the way of God’s love for us, passing the love of any man or woman. And, to be sure, this is indeed the life given unto us, we lucky bastards. The Christian gospel is the ludicrous news that, despite all evidence to the contrary, we are incapable of destroying ourselves. It seems too good to be true, and it is, and yet we believe it. But this reading of St Paul, meet and right thought it might be, should not blind us to the rest of the message.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Rhetorical questions, to be sure, but not as hypothetical to St Paul as it seems to us now. We are, in this way, more like Solomon than Paul, the apostle previously known as Saul. We are—despite our many and sundry sins, our minor misdeeds and acts of cruelty, our pedestrian participation in viciously mundane cycles of injustice and oppression that trickle up or down to affect the anonymous strangers who live far, far away, but whose underpaid brows sweat for those things with which our cups overfloweth—(we are), well, handed overflowing cups of Oxbridgeness, even those of us who tell ourselves that we worked hard to get here, which I’m sure we did. Hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or the sword? Hardly. And yet, St Paul does not list such things for no reason: such was the cup promised to the Christian, to them who dared to sign up to the so-called good news of the so-called kingdom. It is the cup promised to us, though that too rings false, perhaps even less believable than the good news that we’re all going to get away, by the grace of God, scot-free.

But what can this mean, that we are more like Solomon than like Paul?

It means at least that we are unspeakably lucky, having won the genetic, cultural, and social lotteries that have placed us at the top 1% of the world’s economy: the median income in the UK is £26,000, compared to the global average of £11,000. Life isn’t fair, and our dices are loaded.

Gratitude is in order, for sure. But also—and this is where it gets tricky—we have to keep asking ourselves if we are too comfortable, too complacent in our privilege. The Christian faith is meant neither as a crutch nor a convenience, but a life of leaning against the windmills of injustice and oppression, bigotry and cruelty. This is the other side of an ethics of grace: Christians are called to give of ourselves because we are not our own to keep, but God’s, the God who gave up life, even to death on the cross, for the sake of the world. That is what the Christian life looks like. And if we find our blessings getting in the way of this life, this vocation, we should instead look upon them as curses. Without fetishising suffering, we should equally refuse to remain content to merely enjoy the world in which we find ourselves, instead striving to make it better, even if it means giving up our riches and honour and longevity. And if we do, the promise of the gospel is that even in our poverty and dishonour and weakness and death, the love of God will be immovably with us. To some people, this will mean nothing. But they are wrong.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Election Week Blues

It’s been a long week. I’ve spent much of it poring at voter demographics, reading and listening to political commentary anatomizing the election, talking and listening to my American friends, and just sort of vomiting my feelings on social media. It’s frankly unbecoming; it feels like walking into a formal meeting flushed and eyes raw with weeping. At the same time, however, I don’t want to forget how I feel now, at the disastrous end of two elections this year, the EU referendum in the UK and the Presidential election in the US. Both were very upsetting to me, and for much the same reason. They were clear messages to me that the English-speaking Western world in which I have chosen to make my home doesn’t really want me here. It’s not me personally, of course; I’m sure Brexiters and Republicans would be alright with a tax-paying academic psychologist who volunteers as Church of England priest. But the xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia that characterised the political climate in both the UK and US are palpable. After Brexit, hate crimes against Europeans and Muslims rose. Right now, in the aftermath of the Trump victory, the same is happening here to immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, and others.

Here are some things I wrote, in the week of the election.

At this point, it might as well be over. From my perspective, anything but a Democratic landslide would’ve counted as a loss. Tomorrow, people will talk about how the political establishment have failed the American people, who have thus responded. And that may be true, despite the economic improvements during the Obama administration. But let’s not forget that the rhetoric of this election has been characterised by a disdain for facts, including economic facts; xenophobia; and reactionary nostalgia. Brexit, Trump, the rise of right-wing authoritarianism on the European Continent. These are not unrelated things. (Nov 9, 4.49am)

 

There had better be a fucking socialist revolution at the end of this shit tunnel. (Nov 9, 5.31am)

 

Dear white people,

It took under 24 hours for you to post links and messages about how the Trump victory isn’t “really” or “just” about sexism, racism, and xenophobia. You came up with counterfactual speculations about alternative Democratic candidates, particularly white male ones. You said it was class warfare. You blamed neo-liberalism.

Except that, it *is* about sexism, racism, and xenophobia. Maybe not “just” this, but then, no one said that. You protest too much. Some of your best friends are Black or Hispanic or Asian or queer or women. But if so, you have a funny way of showing it, by prematurely shutting down their experiences of this election.

Forgive me if my political anxieties are not primarily about the economic welfare of white people who have lost jobs because consumer goods can now be made more efficiently elsewhere. (And by the way, maybe think about that the next time you go shopping. You’re voting with your wallet.) My worries about Trump are about the minority groups he and his supporters and enablers are going to marginalise, persecute, and deride. It’s not that surprising. I’m non-White immigrant too. And judging by the experiences of others I’ve seen just in the past day, it looks like Trump-inspired prejudices have already reared their heads. (Nov 10, 8.06am)

 

It is certainly time to build bridges, to extend the arms of friendship, to embrace people different from ourselves. But might I suggest that we begin with the victims of our cultural ugliness? Ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities are being marginalised and vilified even more now than we have learnt to tolerate or ignore. (Nov 11)

 

In the past few days, I have come to feel a deep shame over what might be called the “Christian response” to the Trump victory. Not many of my friends cheered, but some certainly waved about platitudes about the “sovereignty of Christ” or even about Trump’s win being “God’s will”. They are calling vulnerable people to “accept” or “reconcile” with those who voted this bully into power. These are smug ways of appearing holy, as niceness is now our cheap imitation of holiness.

If Christianity had any moral authority left, it is responses like these that undermine it. We were called to defend the oppressed. We were called to be a city on a hill. And instead, we are cowards who are complicit with the oppressors. Instead, we hand over our ethnic, religious, and sexual minority friends to those who will persecute them. Instead, we tell victims to love their abusers, in the wholly misguided assumption that we are being like Jesus when we do so. And we rationalise, we tell ourselves stories to absolve ourselves. But we should be ashamed. I am. (Nov 11)

 

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Not being able to find very much to say that was uplifting myself, I also posted things from elsewhere:

  • Calls to actions, to support such groups as the ACLU, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood
  • Clinton’s concession speech, in which she says: “To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
  • An article by a Parks & Rec writer in Leslie Knope’s voice, in which she says: “And let me say something to the young girls who are reading this. […] You are going to run this country, and this world, very soon. So you will not listen to this man, or the 75-year-old, doughy-faced, gray-haired nightmare men like him, when they try to tell you where to stand or how to behave or what you can and cannot do with your own bodies, or what you should or should not think with your own minds. You will not be cowed or discouraged by his stream of retrogressive babble. You won’t have time to be cowed, because you will be too busy working and learning and communing with other girls and women like you. And when the time comes, you will effortlessly flick away his miserable, petty, misogynistic worldview like a fly on your picnic potato salad. […] Now find your team, and get to work.”
  • Great photos of Obama, especially with kids.

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The election also pervaded my sermons and talks. I gave a long one at Christ the Saviour, Ealing Broadway, which was meant to be about psychology and the Church. Download a copy of the talk here. Similarly, my Remembrance Sunday sermon at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is here.