Friday, 12 September 2014

Habakkuk - the Complaining Prophet!

This mini sermon is based on the following readings: Habakkuk 2: 60-20 and Mark 7:31-37

We could well be forgiven for having missed the book of Habakkuk which, at just three chapters long, is hidden towards the end of the prophets in the Old Testament. We could also be forgiven for struggling to get a handle on Habakkuk's message which is so full of poetic imagery and seemingly harsh injunctions from God. But the book of Habakkuk, when placed in its context, has much to offer us today in the face of the troubles and sufferings of the world.

Habakkuk was written by a prophet based in Judah around five hundred years before the birth of Christ, around the same time the prophet Jeremiah was writing. Habakkuk is living in a time of great turmoil and tragedy. Judah is invaded, the people are sent into exile from Jerusalem and the nation, as the people know it, ceases to exist. It is a time of violence and disaster and it is into this situation that Habakkuk speaks.

Habakkuk by F.O.Salisbury from

And Habakkuk doesn't just speak to God, he challenges God. Habakkuk is somewhat unique among the prophets for directly questioning God's wisdom. Habakkuk, in the first chapter of the book, complains 'how long will I cry to you and you will not hear? I cry out to you Violence and you do not save'. Habakkuk's challenge to God echoes another strand of writings from the Old Testament, the wisdom literature such as the book of Job and Ecclesiastes, which is not afraid to ask the tough questions of faith in the face of suffering and loss.

The book reminds us that God is quite able to handle our questions and even our accusations and our reading comes from God's reply to Habakkuk's complaints. God challenges Habakkuk to see the human hand in the suffering of the world and to take this seriously. He also gives Habakkuk a message of peace and hope that, eventually, 'the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea'. Then the violence and suffering of the world will end. We can see in the third chapter of Habakkuk that the book was used in public worship in Israel. Here a psalm is presented that was originally set to music. It serves to reassure the people that their prayers are heard and that one day transformation will come.

We are given a taste of this transformation in our reading from Mark's gospel. It is no coincidence that Jesus comes as a healer and that Jesus' ministry is one marked by both physical and spiritual restoration and release. It comes quietly, so quietly that Jesus even tells people not to talk about it, but they nonetheless can't help but talk about it because 'he even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak'. Mark's account of Jesus shows us a foretaste of what Habakkuk hoped for, an end to suffering in the world.

In our turbulent times we too can draw lessons, and ultimately hope, from these ancient writings that still speak today.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The world as it is, the world as it should be

This sermon was presented at St George's Barcelona on Sunday 20th July and is based on the readings Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Romans 8:12-25.

I don't know about you but sometimes I struggle to watch the news. In this age where information is at our fingertips, whether online, through television and radio, the very worst of the conflict and suffering in the world is right in front of us. It can make us feel helpless, that the world is out of control. It can also, for many of us, lead us to question our faith.

It is a rare person of faith who has never asked why God would allow the kind of suffering and evil we see in the world. It is one of the major reasons why people find faith hard to accept. How can there be a loving God when there is such suffering in the world? Even if we acknowledge that much of the evil in the world is man made, how can God stand it? Why doesn't he intervene?

In the passage we have just heard from Romans Paul describes that even creation itself is groaning under the burden of the sufferings of the world. We can quite believe that when we look at the effects of humanity on the natural world, the depletion of resources, pollution, even major changes in the world's climate that may yet affect millions of people in some of the world's poorest nations.

This is where the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds comes in. In this parable Jesus is trying to make sense of the world as it is. Importantly, the parable tells us that evil is not from God. The field is full of good plants, that will produce a good harvest. Evil is the unwanted addition. The weeds in the field. This reminds us that Genesis describes the creation of the world as 'very good', plants, animals and human beings.

As well as seeing the suffering in the news reports we see this goodness too. In those we love, in moments of kindness, in the beauty of the natural world. I experienced something for this yesterday on a  visit to the Sagrada Familia and seeing the beauty of nature reflected there in the architecture and use all the colours of the rainbow for light.


And yet even though evil is not from God, the parable tells us that God allows evil and good to grow up together. The parable suggest that God does this so that what is good and evil can be seen for what they are. It is for this reason that we are instructed not to judge others. The parable warns us not to try to uproot the weeds ,or even perhaps, attempt to identify the weeds at all. Our judgement is often inadequate or premature. By doing so we can even uproot what is good, a stark warning indeed.

Other New Testament writers have also written on this theme of why God allows suffering and evil in the world. As 1 Peter puts it, 'The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance.' God, then, wants people to turn from doing wrong and seek forgiveness and for that he gives us time.

So if the parable of the wheat and the weeds helps us to understand how things are then our reading from Romans allows us to see how things will be. God has not simply waited in the face of human suffering and evil in the world. He hasn't let the evil and the good grow up without intervention or without letting us know his intention for the world. This truth is at the heart of the Christian story.

Our reading from Romans reminds us that God has intervened personally in the world. He has come, in the person of Jesus, as Matthew's gospel puts it, 'to proclaim what was hidden from the foundation of the world.' In Jesus' life God enters into the suffering of the world and by Jesus' death God conquered death, defeating all that is opposite to him.

The days of the weeds in the field, 'the causes of all evil' as Jesus puts it, are numbered. And God has done this all at his own cost. This intervention is a very personal one and it tells us what the parable also reminds us that God is not the cause of evil and suffering and is, in every way, opposed to it. God will always intervene to restore what he originally intended, a good creation.

And this, Paul tells us, affects how we live our lives in the here and now. It affects how we deal with the reality of wheat and weeds in the world and in our own lives. At the centre of this change is a change in relationship. We know God as he is. And that relationship is one of a child to a Father.
We hear God spoken of as Father so often that sometimes it is easy to overlook the significance of it. God, the creator of the Universe and orderer of all things wants us to call him our Father. Me and you, just a few of the six billion people on the earth today and yet he loves us as his children, That, when you let it sink in, can really blow your mind Knowing God in this way means we live, as Paul puts it 'in the spirit of adoption'. We are God's children and he cares for us. No longer do we have to live with, as Paul puts it, 'a spirit of fear'.

And this change in relationship produces one of the foundations of the Christian life, hope. No matter what the world looks like, despite all those weeds, all those news reports that are so hard to watch, we know that God has a better plan. This plan has already begun through Jesus and through the power of the spirit in our lives. And this gives us a new life now even though we don't yet have what we hope for, an end to evil and suffering in the world.

So our readings today tell us two things, about the world as it is and the world as it will be. This is the basis for our hope in the face of the many weeds in the world and in our own lives. We do not have what we hope for yet, an end to evil and suffering, but we have seen a glimpse of it and because of that we have hope. And this hope can transform our lives here and now allowing us to live our lives as children of God, calling God our Father, and living without fear.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Last Supper

Two thousand years ago a man sat down with his friends and ate a meal.It could be argued that no meal has echoed down the centuries quite like this one. That meal is the Last Supper and this moment is remembered by churches around the world by eating bread and wine in memory of the man who first did it, Jesus.

If you haven’t read the account of the Last Supper before, or would like a refresher, then you might like to turn to the gospel of Mark in the New Testament and have a read of chapter 14 verses 12 to 26.Theories about the Last Supper, and how we should practice our remembrance of it in the church today, are widespread and numerous. It seems there are as many opinions as there are grains of sand on the seashore! But perhaps there is more to draw from the accounts of the last supper than a simple set of rules of how we should or shouldn’t conduct our church services.

Picture the scene: The tension is rising in this group of 12 friends. Their leader, friend and spiritual teacher Jesus has been confronted by the authorities many times.They are aware that Jerusalem is not a safe place for him to be yet he insists on going there to celebrate the Passover, an important festival in the Jewish calendar (see Exodus 12 for its origins).Two of the disciples head into the city early to prepare a space for the celebratory meal, the others follow.The meal starts off well. They sit back in their chairs, enjoy each others company and then suddenly the man who called this motley crew together changes the atmosphere. “One of you will betray me,” he says.

The reaction of these friends and disciples of Jesus is fascinating. They immediately ask the question ‘Is it me?’ I think this, and Jesus’ response, says something big about us and God.
The disciples loved Jesus, they had given up their homes and livelihoods to follow him and yet they still thought to themselves and said out loud, “Could it be me that betrays him?” I think we universally know this potential in ourselves.Words slip out of our mouths that we wish hadn’t. We make wrong choices out of anger, sadness and disappointment. We wish we could take things back, daily sometimes.

But what is really interesting is Jesus’ response to this rag tag bunch, none of whom is confident that they are not his betrayer.He picks up a loaf of bread and says ‘Take it, this is my body,” and a cup of wine saying “This is my blood which is poured out for many.”
Jesus sees their inability to be what even they want to be, to even know if it is they who would betray the one they love.Later that evening he tells them they will be scattered like sheep when he is taken from them, a prediction that comes true alarmingly quickly after this cosy meal among friends.And to Peter, one of his closest friends he says, “Tonight, you yourself will deny me three times.”

It is with this full knowledge that Jesus performs these powerful symbols of what is to come, his death within days on the cross–An act to unite people ever falling short with God who desires to give them a fresh start as many times as they need it. This offering of bread and wine at the last supper is the gospel in a moment. In this act Jesus says, I know you fail, that you can’t even be sure of yourself, but here is the solution: “Take, eat – it is given for you.”

Sometimes Christian life can feel like you are ever striving. Striving for a perfection that even you know you cannot reach.This story shows us that God knows full well our struggles and our inabilities. It is into this reality that he offers himself, going to die knowing that the closest people to him will run from him at the time he needs them most.

And to this he says, I have the answer. The answer is me.

This post originally appeared on the Underground Blog in 2010. I recently rediscovered it and now that the Underground has closed down it seemed like a good idea to give it a new, permanent home. Thanks for reading.

The Parable of the Sower

You can read the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, alternatively you can watch this cartoon. Yeah, you're going to go for the cartoon aren't you?!

My first degree, before studying Theology, was in Biology. A large part of my work in that course was practical field work and we often found ourselves in muddy English fields assessing the plant life and collecting soil samples. We would then take it back to the lab and analyse it. Did it have enough nutrients? Was it acidic? Were there any toxins lurking about?

Sometimes I think we can approach the parable of the sower in much the same way. Rather than hearing the 'Parable of the Sower' we hear the 'Parable of the Good and Bad soils.' We quickly get to work on analysing ourselves, doing a soil sample on our own lives. Are we enough for God's word to take hold? Are we choking the good things God is doing in our lives? Of course a clear headed appraisal of ourselves can be a good thing from time to time but when we immediately jump to this interpretation we often miss a really important part of this parable. The parable is about the Sower.

And what kind of Sower is he? Well, he's not the kind of sower who does a thorough soil analysis before scattering the seed. No, instead he spreads it liberally throwing it over any and every ground. The seed is not scarce. The ground is not assessed for its worthiness. The seed is sent out everywhere.

In the interpretation of this parable Jesus associates the seed with the Word of God. Sometimes the 'Word of God' has been interpreted to be the Bible but the Bible itself points to something more than this. The Word of God is depicted in the Old and New Testaments as a powerful force in the world. The Word is associated with the creation of the world, as Genesis reads 'Then God said, Let there be light, and there was light'. This link between the Word and creation is used by John in the opening chapter of his gospel. Echoing the Genesis story he begins his gospel with the words 'In the beginning' and writes that the Word is none other than Jesus, as John writes, 'the Word was with God and the Word was God'.

The Word is also described as influencing historical events and changing individual lives. The prophets speak into the circumstances of their time with the phrase 'Hear, the Word of the Lord' seen at the start of many of the prophetic books. For the prophets the 'Word of God' has something to say to all human life. To Kings and exiles. About wars and about reconciliation. Isaiah describes the Word as not only powerful but effective, he writes,

'For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
 and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be, that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it'

I recently planted some lettuces in my garden. They grew up well and I was so pleased with them. Then one night what must have been one very hungry slug (or perhaps he brought friends!), came and ate up all my lettuces in one night. I was very frustrated. I didn't, however, go back to my husband and say, 'Oh well, that's it then. No salads this summer!' No, I sowed more seed until I got a harvest.

Likewise the parable of the Sower can be read negatively as the final verdict. Some people are rocky ground, others are all choked up by the cares of the world. In the worst case this can be used to cast judgement not only on ourselves but on others. Suddenly we move from our own soil testing to testing others and finding their ground to be somewhat lacking too. The parable is quickly turned from an observation of the ways of human beings into a lifelong sentence on individuals.
But the Bible doesn't talk about a God who gives one chance. Who drops one seed and if it doesn't take hold, then that's your lot. No, the Bible talks about a God who sends prophet after prophet, speakers of his word, to his people. He is the Father of the prodigal son who wait and wait and waits, never giving up hope for his lost child. He is the shepherd who goes out looking for his one lost sheep until he finds him and then he celebrates with joy. The sower sows again and again. He sows generously and into all types of ground.

And we see that when the seed finally takes root that the harvest from this one small seed is abundant, thirty, sixty or a hundred times what was first planted. We see this at work all around us. In the natural world there is not one type of flower by over 250,000 different kinds. God the sower sows in abundance and nature testifies to that fact. So when reflecting on the parable of the sower lets remember that the parable is primarily about the Sower who is generous, who sows again and again and on each and every type of ground without discrimination. We can trust this sower and that this seed, his word, 'will succeed in that for which he sent it' and that we, too, can bear much fruit.

From a sermon given to St George's Church in Barcelona on 13th July 2014.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


We human beings love to categorize. It is part of how we make sense of the world and our place within it. But in recent weeks, and in as I dwell on the Christmas story this Advent, I have been thinking more and more about connections not categories.

At college I am currently studying Sociology of Religion. There the world is placed firmly into the category of the social. The behaviour and beliefs of religions are assessed on the basis of their social role. Of course there is much to be gained from this approach but it often places the individual into the social system as an unautonomous being who is simply moulded and changed by the social world around them. The connections between sociology, psychology, biology and belief are severed and this produces a flatter view of the world than it really is.

On Guardian Science today research was presented on the 'wiring' of male and female brains. The article presented sex differences as if they were a fait accompli. We are born with these wirings, that determines what it is to be a man or a woman and we just have to get on with it. The reality is, of course, much more complicated than this. Our genes limit what we can become but the expression of those genes, the development of our biology – even the functioning of our brains, is also determined by our environment. We create men and women on the basis of our cultural norms. We are not just biological, or social, or psychological, we are connections.

Our behaviour is full of connections. We are like walking self fulfilling prophecies. Psychological research shows that if you believe you will have a bad day, your behaviour shifts, you attract fewer positive responses from others (because we are, of course, social animals as well as individuals) and your perception of 'having a bad day' is reinforced. So much of our daily experience is shaped by our assumptions about it. Our behaviour is full of connections.

And in our typical way of categorizing we have done this no more so than in ideas about the 'spiritual'. We have sacred and we have secular. This is a very 'Western' thing. In many cultures there is no such divide. The spiritual is not the thing that goes boo in the night or which gives you a warm glowy feeling it, it is the wind blowing through your hair and a bird perched on a tree branch. That we separate the world so categorically breaks us off from so much of the reality of God and from the depth of our own lives. If God is only to be found in the 'spiritual' then will I miss him when a baby clutches my finger or when my Mum gives me a hug? Will I seek God out in the 'spiritual things I do' rather than in the way I have a conversation with my family over dinner?

The wonder of the Christmas story for me is that it smashes open these box and lays bare all the connections. God in a tiny baby. Divinity in the dust. Nothing about our humanity, our every day here and now, is untouchable. It is validated and made whole. Our assumptions are turned upside down, our categories broken down. It tells us to open our eyes wider, to see our every day as sacred. To stand whole and to celebrate those connections.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Seeking God - Love

A simple online search of the Bible brought up 731 instances of the word 'love'. Here a few drawn from the New Testament letters:

'Let all that you do be done in love' 1 Corinthians 16:4

'For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself' Galatians 5:14

'Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony' Colossians 3:14

'Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love' 1 John 4:8

'There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear' 1 John 4:18

The longer I have been on this journey of faith the more I have realised that there is no getting close to God without love. As is so well put by the authors above, God is love and our relationship to that love is shown by our action in the world and how we treat one another. There are no short cuts, there is no getting of the hook. Love is what formed the world and it is what we are made for. Just like skipping 'Go' in Monopoly, we cannot bypass love and still collect £200!

In Paul's classic passage on love in 1 Corinthians, that you have no doubt heard many times at weddings, the characteristics of love are laid bare. Love isn't arrogant or boastful or self seeking. It isn't resentful or irritable or rude. It never fails. I don't know about you but I fail miserably at this love test. And it really is done miserably because lack of love is like a wound within us.

As I reflect on love, and my lack of it, I've come to think it has something to do with the last passage quoted above on the relationship between love and fear. We live with an awful lot of fear in our lives. Fear of what others think of us, fear around our value (or lack of), fear about our place in our own world ( aren't we always questioning if we are even meant to be there?), fear that we are unloved or even simply unlovable. Piles and piles of fear that colour all our interactions and that we act out of constantly.

I am reading an interesting book on this at the moment and the author raised the point that much of our judgement and lack of love for others is often a projection of our worst fears about ourself. I can see a lot of truth in that. When we consciously begin to let go of snap judgements and condemnation of others we can begin to let ourselves of the hook too. When we forgive others, we can forgive ourselves. To love someone doesn't demand their perfection. Likewise we don't need to be perfect to be worthy of love either.

In the Christian story Jesus, God made man, comes to demonstrate true love to humanity. Love that ultimately led him to his death. A key part of that message is that God didn't come to a rescue a perfect world, he came to rescue a world full of war, anger and a bunch of people who just don't know how to love. He came to us imperfect because he knows our true value, that each of us is truly wonderful from the top of our head to the tips of our toes. He sees what each of us should be and can be when we are reconnected to the place that we came from, the beating heart of love that is the origin of all things.

I'm using the phrase 'perfect love casts out all fear' as somewhat of a mantra these days. When I feel insecure and want to act out, when I compare myself favourably or otherwise to other people, when I am irritated or frustrated with someone else I am trying to choose love over fear. With each conscious decision I hope that love will grow, that I will become more who I am meant to be. It's not an easy task but if you're seeking God, I think it is the only real way.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Seeking God – Creator

When you say you believe in God as 'Creator' these days people are pretty much ready to sign you up to the ranks of the crazies. The whole concept has been so hijacked by people on the one hand insisting on a literal view of the Bible, that I don't believe the Bible text itself warrants, and on the flip side those insisting we narrow the scope of our thinking to only that which can be examined under a microscope.

Don't get me wrong there is a whole world of spectacular things that can be learned through observation and empirical study of the world but we are one of the first eras that has insisted that this is the only way to understand the world. There will always be break points in our understanding, the place where our comfort and control ends and the unknown stretches out before us. We will always have the question of what to do with that, with those the ultimate questions. To my mind, we can close them down because we can't pin them down or we can be like the great philosophers that came before us and ask the questions.

My first degree was in Biology and I have always credited this as a major part of the opening of my mind to the possibility of God. Looking at the sheer wonder of the natural environment, its regenerative potential, its diversity and its sheer beauty was what made a believer out of me. Not a believer in God at the time but a believer in hope and in eternity. It is of course true that death is a fundamental part of the natural world but seeing the amazing power of evolution and how life always overcomes, adapts and perseveres put a deep seated sense of peace inside of me.
Snap by my lovely friend Hannah at
The Christian story, then, of hope rising up out of death made a lot of sense. The world is decaying every day, every thing is born with a shelf life and yet there is something in the natural world that speaks of regeneration and renewal. When a forest is affected by natural fire it looks like the end has come but that fire releases seeds which spring up to form new ecosystems, new life and new ways of being. It's the 'Circle of Life', if you will!

By Hannah Ruth King
The sheer diversity of that life, when I did develop a belief in a 'creator' (not I might add as a chap sitting there making Zebras like clay animals but the author and architect of all life commanding life into being like the conductor of an orchestra) left me in awe. Because I wonder how people who claim to believe in God can ever see him as joyless when they wonder on the fact that there are 400,000 different types of flowering plants on earth? I wonder how they can fail to see humour in the baboon or majesty through the elephant? How a great storm cannot help but stop and make them think about the tiny place we occupy in this great big world under a great big God.

Photo by my other lovely friend
So 'Creator' means a lot to me and I'm not willing to relinquish it, despite the connotations today. 'Creator' means walking outside and looking up at a thousand stars and being deeply amazed..That, to me, is something to hold on to.