08 October, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Woman's dignity in creation

Genesis 2:18-24
‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helpmate.’ (Genesis 2:18).
The creation of Eve - Monreale Cathedral Italy
Today the lectionary presents us with a short passage taken from the second account of creation. Here man and women are created at different times, Adam first and Eve later, and it would be easy to interpret woman’s creation as an afterthought or a somehow optional add on to man. It would be too easy, in fact, and many Biblical commentators have unfortunately gone down this route; more unfortunately still, their interpretations could lead into serious errors even to the point of providing the theological basis for unjust discrimination between men and women. Indeed, this passage from Genesis has been misinterpreted and misused many times in the history of our faith often in order to put women down, to put them in their place, as it were, somewhere beneath men.
So this morning, let us redress the balance by doing a little Bible study together and let us look at two simple questions; What? and Why? is being created by God as he says, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helpmate.’

What is being created here? The word used in our translation is “helpmate” – a word that is a corruption of the original English translation, and it may easily speak of a subservient role for woman as something a like an assistant or a subordinate. Yet, if we looked up this verse in the King James Version we would read this, ‘I will make him an help meet for him’. “Help meet” rather than “helpmate” – something that is “meet” is something that is “worthy” and “suitable” of man; not someone inferior to man, but someone on equal footing to man, someone of the same dignity.
That’s the second half of our word done. But I guess there is still a problem in seeing the creation of woman as a “help” to man. The word used here in the original text is ezer and it is used in other places in the Bible to mean – listen to this – “saviour” and “rescuer”, and in more than half of its uses it refers to God. For example Psalm 46 says that God is “help” to his people, much in the same way that Eve is to Adam. This psalm says,
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1)
In every case ezer, the help, is a figure more powerful that those who are being helped, but it seems that most Bible interpreters decided that in the case of Eve, the help must have been someone inferior. So, what is being created here? A “helpmate”. But the truer meaning of this word is “a helper as Adam’s fitting partner”, in a sense a co-worker.

Why is the helpmate created? Why was there need of one? The obvious answer would be to relieve Adam of his aloneness in creation, since we read ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’, but we mustn’t think of this as a selfish reason. As we see in our reading, up until the creation of Eve, Adam is alone in the garden, the only one of his kind; he is surrounded by beauty without measure, but has no one to share that beauty with, someone who would appreciate it and contribute to it with him.
But there is another point I would like to make in terms of why woman was created. Up until the time in which Eve is formed, the Scriptures describe Adam not so much as a male, but rather as a human, in a gender neutral way. It is only after Adam finds Eve that he is described as a “man”, a biological male, and Eve as a “she”, a biological female. So in a sense, it is only when Adam is confronted with Eve, with the one person who is equal to him and yet so different, with the one who makes him complete, it is at that moment that he becomes truly himself, and he is able to see himself for what he is.
So, why is the helpmate created? Just to relive loneliness? No, Eve comes in to complete creation and human creation in particular.

‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make him a helpmate.’
The story of the creation of man and woman may not contain much biological or scientific detail, but this was not its purpose. The creation story is there to tell us about relationships – the relationship between God and his creation, and between men and women. There is no negative language here about women; any such interpretation is just that, an interpretation driven by discriminatory agendas of the interpreters.

The lesson we ought to take from this short passage then, is twofold. As a general point, we must learn not interpret the Bible in order to justify our prejudices. But also, following what is said about Adam, we must not assume that we are totally and wholly complete within ourselves, but we need to be open to others to complete us – particularly to the one person who is able to complete us and help up see both the world and ourselves in their truer light.

21 September, 2015

Homily for Harvest Festival - "H" is for Humility

1Timothy 6:6-11; 17-19

On Friday we had our Harvest School Service and the children read the harvest poem which begins with these few lines,
“H” is for the Harvest.
Farmers work hard, hour by hour,
to cut and store the golden grain that's then made into flour.
Coming to church for Harvest Festival may seem a little out of place when most of us are not involved in agriculture or the production of food, but we do it anyway. Each year we gather some produce and place it in church as a symbolic offering to God, giving him thanks for what we eat and, more generally, or all that we have. Because of this thanksgiving element, celebrating Harvest is a bit like saying Grace at mealtime, only in a yearly fashion. Now, I wonder how many times I forget to say Grace. I wonder how many of us, alone or in our families, remember to say Grace before taking food…

A few years ago I went on my first ever retreat at a small monastery. The food there was very good, mostly grown by the monks themselves or given to them by the faithful who came to visit their church. Each monk cooked few days a week and they all contributed to the feeding of the entire community through their manual work. At every mealtime they would say Grace briefly and thank God for the food set before them. This left me a little surprised, because I wasn’t used to say Grace at home, but also because it made me think how I took for granted the food on my plate, only vaguely knowing the efforts and the odds involved in producing it. But when your food comes from the soil you work or from the generosity of others, giving thanks to God makes more sense. In saying Grace the monks remembered that everything they had for their life was given to them, provided to them by the goodness of God working through his creation and through the generosity of others. 

Likewise our second reading advises us to remember that all we have is given to us by God, and that we should not be proud of what we have, ascribing any merit only to God alone. Writing to Timothy St Paul says,
‘Warn those who are rich in this world’s goods that they are not to look down on other people; and not to set their hopes on money, which is untrustworthy, but on God who, out of his riches, gives us all that we need for our happiness (1Timothy 6:17)
Following St Paul’s instruction and remembering that all that we have is given to us in one way or another requires humility and in the same way humility is also necessary if we want to set our hopes on God alone and genuinely give him thanks for what he provides. This is because the virtue of humility grants us to see our proper place in creation, a place in which we are not infallible, almighty gods ourselves, but creatures formed by the one, only God, and creatures who depends on him for everything.

“H” is for the Harvest. But I would suggest to you that “H” is for humility. Practicing humility in our daily affairs allows us to do three things; first, to be truly thankful towards God as we acknowledge him as our creator and as the provider of all good things. Second, it allows us to be content with what we have, with our work, food and livelihood – humility doesn’t take away hopes of bettering ourselves, but it gives us the stability to be happy, settled, and content with what we receive from God. Third, humility enables us to recognise others for what they are – fellow creatures of God, not means to achieve our wishes. So in humility we recognise the value of other people’s work – of our farmers, for example; humility makes us thankful for what they do, and leads us to pursue justice for them through fair pricing and a fair market. In humility we recognise the needs of others as well; this virtue stirs up our generosity and makes us share the gifs we have readily received with others. 
“H” is for the Harvest and “H” is for Humility.

Let us pray,
Almighty God,
kindle and nurture in us the virtue of humility
that we may always praise you with thankful hearts
as our creator, redeemer, and sustainer,
and that through it we may be ready to serve others
with the good gifts you bestow on us.
We ask this through our model
and pattern of humility, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

06 September, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Faith and the Refugee Crisis

James 2:1-5
‘Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: it was those who are poor according to the world that God chose’ (James 2:5).
The Letter of James speaks words of encouragement and warning to the Church so that we who are the Body of Christ may learn to grow in imitating the life of Jesus and his faithfulness to the Father. For James faith, Christian faith, is not a thing of our own that we can possess. Rather, faith is something we have a share in. As followers of Jesus we have faith in the sense that we have a share in the one faith of Jesus himself towards God the Father. It is his life we try to live in our lives and it is his faith that guides us in doing this.
So, as our second reading opens it says quite boldly, ‘Do not try to combine the faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord, with the making of distinction between classes of people.’ (James 2:1) This is a strong statement, but somehow I do not feel that our translation captures its full force. A better translation would read, ‘Do not hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ while showing acts of favouritism’. Of course, at the back of our minds we sort of already know that showing favouritism it’s not always a good thing, and we know from other passages of Scripture that we should not do that, but what James is really trying to make us understand is something altogether more radical. We cannot hold Jesus’ own faith, we cannot have a share in it, if we discriminate in unjust ways; we cannot show favouritism if we live in the way Jesus did. What James invites us to do is to recognise that we cannot have double standards towards others and make ourselves judges over them because Jesus embraces everyone who comes to him, regardless of their wealth or status. If anything, he reaches to the outcasts of society and the poorest, siding with them. Likewise, if we do want to have share in the faith of Jesus towards the Father, and we want to live his life in our lives, we ought to do the same.

Yet, favouritism, unjust discrimination, and distinction between classes of people are things we see every single day. Then, how can we put this teaching into practice?
In our second reading James gives us the example of how we treat people with double standards. Suppose we wanted to find another setting for it rather than a religious assembly; we might set James example where other people gather; at a train station maybe; yes, perhaps at St Pancras International, at the Eurostar arrival platform… How would this example play out? Allow me paraphrase the text.
“Now suppose that a man arrives, dressed in beautiful clothes (a wealthy tourist travelling from the Middle East like the ones who holiday in London for the summer), and at the same time a poor man arrives in shabby clothes (someone who’s left his home with just his skin, someone who has seen his children drown on the way here) and you take notice of the well-dressed man, and say, ‘Come this way; there are lovely overpriced apartments in Knightsbridge for your to stay in’ then you tell the poor man, ‘Stand over there’ or ‘You can stay for a night in a heavily guarded refugee camp’. Can’t you see that you have used two different standards in your minds, and turned yourselves into judges?”
There is a refugee crisis sweeping across the globe. It is estimated that about 60 million people are fleeing their homes at the moment not just travelling in and towards Europe, but also in the Far East and Africa. It is a crisis that we cannot avoid, it is happening and it has only been brought to the attention of the national media in a slightly more compassionate way by the heartless, undignified, inhuman broadcasting of photographs of a drowned child washed up on a distant shore.
Yet, our political class seem to think that chucking money at the problem will make it go away. It would seem that as a society we are set to allow predictable, sanitised death for our citizens with an assisted suicide Bill, and to deny life to the poor outside our borders by closing our doors and letting our charity fall from on high.

‘Do not hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ while showing acts of favouritism’.
It is time for us to act. To paraphrase our second reading once again, “We cannot hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ while showing acts of favouritism” and treating refugees like second class people. It is time to really pray incessantly for peace, it is time to give generously, it is time to have the courage to reach out to people like Jesus did, and it is time to pester those in authority that they may actually do something this humanitarian catastrophe.

I leave you with the prayer the Church of England has issued this past week for the refugee crisis. Let us pray,
Heavenly Father,
you are the source of all goodness, generosity and love.
We thank you for opening the hearts of many
to those who are fleeing for their lives.
Help us now to open our arms in welcome,
and reach out our hands in support.
That the desperate may find new hope,
and lives torn apart be restored.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ Your Son,
Our Lord,who fled persecution at His birth
and at His last triumphed over death. Amen.

Enid Chadwick - My Book of the Church's Year - September

01 September, 2015

Homily on Assisted Suicide - Marris Bill

Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days (Psalm 39:40)
Jan Provoost - The Last Judgement
There is a rather pressing subject that will come increasingly to the attention of the national media over the coming days and as your parish priest, I feel I must address this. I am talking about assisted suicide, a subject which will be debated by the House of Commons on 11th September as the Marris Bill under the highly sanitised name of Assisted Dying, or Dignity in Dying. I fully understand that this is a thorny subject that attracts a great variety of views, even in this church, and it may bring back to mind the great hurt many of us have experienced in watching loved ones dying… Yet, it is a subject that ought to be addressed by Church in order to prevent further evil. Last year, I preached about assisted suicide looking at it from a secular point of view, but today I would like to offer a few pointers for religious reflection.

The Bill that will be introduced to the Commons is very similar to the one presented to the House of Lords last year – Lord Falconer’s Bill which run out of time before the general election. This Bill, which in turn is modelled on the one adopted by the State of Oregon in 1998, would allow individuals of sound mind, with ‘clear and settled intentions’ to terminate their lives with the help of physicians who if they were given no more than six months to live. Two doctors would have to evaluate the request and a senior judge could be requested to rule on the matter. After this, the help of physicians would be limited to prescribing lethal drugs to the person.

I understand that this Bill has rather a lot of supporters, and everyone seems to have an opinion on why our society should allow people to kill themselves with the help of the medical profession. Very often these opinions are based on personal experiences of seeing others suffer, on “gut feelings”, or on the idea that society has become so individualistic that one should be allowed to whatever they well like with their lives – even end it when there seem to be much prospect of health. In our Church too these ideas have crept in; for example a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, has been outspoken about Assisted Suicide affirming that is a
‘profoundly Christian and moral thing’.

A ‘profoundly Christian and moral thing.’ To be honest, I am not sure where Lord Carey, a high-flying evangelical Bishop in his days, gets his sense of “profound Christianity” and “morality” from, but it is not the Bible. According to Matthew’s gospel, at the Final Judgement, Our Lord will to the blessed, ‘I was sick and you took care of me’ and you visited me (Matthew 25:36); He will not say to them “I was sick and you prescribed me a lethal drug”. Or again perhaps Lord Carey is reading an alternative version the parable of the Samaritan, something that goes like this,
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.
Now by chance …a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and [helped him end his sufferings by giving him lethal drugs.] Then he went off again on his way”. (Cf. Luke 10).

The Bishop of Buckingham, a person whom I admire for the strength of his convictions, and his chaplain have also come out in support of the principle behind the Bill, yet the official position of the Church has not changed and should not change. The religious implications would be huge, if the Church were to support assisted suicide.
How would we justify our support for this Bill before God ?
How would we plead before God, when both the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church tell us to show true compassion to those who suffer and when the only example of assisted suicide in the Bible is dictated by pride (King Saul’s death wish, Cf. 1Samuel 21)?
There are further implications, however, which concern wider society. First, at a time of financial constraints posed on the NHS, palliative care may become seen as an expensive, needless luxury, when people are given the choice of opting out of the cheaper, quicker option. Day after day we see mounting criticisms towards the weaker in society who seem to “waste” precious welfare resources… How would society react towards those who may wish to continue making full use of or expand end of life care.
Second, the elderly and the disabled would increasingly be put under pressure by a Bill that, although not affecting them directly, assesses a person’s life based on their physical “fitness” rather than on the mere fact of their humanity.
Third, the unspoken moral pressure would be fall on people to do the “right thing” and get out of the way of relatives and loved ones. In fact, in Oregon, ‘40% of those requesting to end their life do so because they feel a burden on friends and family’ (Scope Charity 2014).
Fourth, further legal challenges to the Bill are already on the horizon, and they would open the floodgates for others to legally kill themselves; so if the Bills were to pass, what about people living day-in day-out with chronic pain? What about those affected by severe depression? What about those who cannot physically do the deed themselves?

Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days.
This is not scaremongering. These are serious causes of concerns already flagged up by different groups in our society that would not otherwise have much in common; both religions and secular charities, atheists groups, alliances of doctors, right and left-wing journalists, and others.
The Church should stand her ground for the protection of life in all its forms, and the messiness of it all – whatever or personal feelings on the matter might be. So, please, as you parish priest as ask you if you could write to your MP, and ask him to oppose this Bill.