Murder Mystery in Jerusalem

Given by David Teall
Palm Sunday – 25th March 2018
Mark 11: 1-11

One of the things Pat and I enjoy watching on television is a good Murder Mystery.  One of my current favourites is Death in Paradise, not least because, early in every episode, there is a clear introduction to each of the main characters.  That doesn’t entirely remove the need for me to stop the player every so often to ask Pat who the character is we are now listening to, but it does make it easier for me to follow the plot.

So, on this Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, the week in which we re-live the events leading to the death of an innocent man, I thought it might be useful to use the same technique.  Today I would like to introduce you to some of the key individuals and groups in the story, some of whom you may conclude played a part in the death of Jesus.

Today’s Gospel reading introduces us to three of the important individuals and groups that will play a key role as the story unfolds.

First, of course, comes Jesus, the hero of the story.  Jesus is an itinerant preacher from a humble background who has caused a bit of a stir in his home area around Lake Galilee.  He has a gift for healing and he is an outspoken champion of the poor and the oppressed.  He has never been afraid to criticise the religious leaders of the time when he considered they were at fault, which has not made him very popular in some circles.

Next, we hear about the ‘Disciples of Jesus’.  The word ‘disciples’ is used in a variety of different ways in the New Testament, but in this morning’s reading it appears to refer to a specific group of twelve men from a variety of backgrounds who have given up their day jobs to follow Jesus wherever he goes.  Known as ‘The Twelve’, they are all intensely loyal to Jesus – or are they?

Finally, we are introduced to a somewhat nebulous group described first as ‘bystanders’ and later as ‘many people’.  Aficionados of murder-mystery stories will be aware that the person or group that is given the sketchiest introduction often turns out to be a key player, so keep your eyes on this ‘crowd’ as the story progresses.

We shall hear about the remaining characters and groups as the story of Holy Week unfolds at our services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  To help you understand the story, here is a preview of the remaining players.

Some, but by no means all, of the disciples will be named suggesting they might have a more important role than others.  These include Peter, James, John and the keeper of the purse, Judas Iscariot.  Make a mental note each time one of the disciples is mentioned by name and ask yourself why.

Next comes a group that is best described as Jewish Leaders.  This includes some named individuals including Annas to whom, in the Gospel of John, Jesus was taken first after his arrest.

Annas was appointed by the Roman Quirinius as the first High Priest of the newly formed Roman province of Judea in 6 A.D.  He officially served as High Priest for only ten years but, even though he had officially been removed from office, he remained one of the Jew’s most influential political and social individuals, aided greatly by his five sons and his son-in-law Caiaphas who became puppet High Priests.

Caiaphas was no lover of Jesus and is mentioned several times in the Holy Week gospels, so keep an eye open for him.  What is his culpability in the death of Jesus?

Other groups of Jewish Leaders who get a mention include the Chief Priests, a level below the High Priests and the Scribes.  Together with the High Priests, former High Priests, Doctors of the Law and representatives of the most prominent families they formed the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish people.  It was the Sanhedrin who condemned Jesus and sent him to Pilate for sentencing.  Do they share collective responsibility for his death?

That brings us on to Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect or Governor of the Roman Province of Judaea responsible to the Emperor Tiberius.  He normally lived in Caesarea-by-the-Sea rather than Jerusalem, the stuffy, crowded, provincial capital of the Jews.  However, as the Passover always resulted in huge crowds descending upon the capital, Pilate had come to the city along with a large contingent of Roman soldiers to help keep the peace.  Indeed, in their book The Last Week, theologians Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan paint a vivid picture of Pilate and his soldiers entering Jerusalem by the main Western gate at the same time as Jesus made his Triumphal entry from the East.

The Roman Governor was the only person with the power to impose the death sentence which is why the Sanhedrin took Jesus to him.  It is not in dispute that Pilate eventually passed the death sentence on Jesus, but does that make him responsible for his death?

Next on my list of characters is Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea which he ruled as a so-called ‘client state’ of the Roman Empire.  We only hear about Herod in the Gospel of Luke who tells us that Pilate referred the case to him on the basis that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore subject to his rule.

Herod makes a half-hearted attempt to interrogate Jesus but soon gives up and sends him back to Pilate.  Could he have saved Jesus if he had behaved differently?  If he could, does that make him culpable?

Finally, I would like to return to one of the groups I mentioned at the beginning – the crowd.  They appear again towards the end of the story when Pilate offers to release Jesus.  “Crucify him, crucify him” they chant.  “Crucify him, crucify him” they persisted when Pilate offered for the third time to have Jesus flogged and then released.  Were they just engaging in a peaceful protest, or were they to blame for the death of Jesus?

Now, I said finally, but because I have been looking at the story as a murder mystery, I have so far missed out a very important group who play a very significant role in the final three days.  This group, often known collectively as The Women, are an unspecified number of female disciples, in the more general sense of that word, who supported Jesus throughout his ministry and often welcomed him into their homes.  Many had followed Jesus to Jerusalem and, whereas most of The Twelve abandoned him after his arrest, rather more of The Women remained by his side through his death, burial, and resurrection.

As with the Disciples, some of The Women are mentioned by name including the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany, identified by John as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  Later, at the foot of the cross we find, amongst others, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, who was possibly the mother of the disciples James and John and, of course, Mary Magdalene.

As the story progresses to Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene is there again, centre stage this time, as the first person to witness the risen Christ and to declare that Jesus had risen from the dead.

So, that does now complete my list of characters, but was I correct in looking at the story of Holy Week as a murder mystery?  Had not Jesus predicted his death and resurrection?  On the Second Sunday of Lent in Mark 8: 31 we heard:

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

In the view of the Gospel portrayed in the rousing modern Resurrection Hymn by Stuart Townend, the events of Holy Week are portrayed as ‘God’s Salvation Plan’.  Doesn’t that change everything?  If God planned it all in advance, then the characters all become puppets in his hands with no will of their own.  Judas, for example, far from being a traitor, becomes one of God’s chief ‘fixers’ helping to make it all happen.  There was no murder and very little mystery; just the carrying out of a pre-determined plan.

Whichever view you take, the events of Holy Week are a very compelling story which we will unfold through our services.  At 8.00pm on Maundy Thursday we shall have a service of Holy Communion at King’s Cliffe and on Good Friday we shall commemorate The Final Hour with a service at Bulwick at 2.00pm.  If you have not attended these services before, and you are able to do so this year, I do encourage you to come.  Without them it is difficult to make sense of the celebrations we shall enjoy at our service on the great Feast of Easter Sunday.

Whether you come to our services or read through the Gospel accounts at home, as you listen to the story unfold, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Which of these individuals or groups do you most readily identify with?
  2. If you take the view that the death of Jesus was brought about by the actions, or inactions, of one or more individuals or groups, who do you feel is the most culpable? Think carefully about this, particularly in relation to your answer to the first question. Your two answers taken together could well prove to be very uncomfortable.
  3. What situations in today’s world do you feel have parallels with what happened in Jerusalem during Holy Week?

The Passion of Christ is not an easy subject to grapple with, so it would be inappropriate for me to end by saying ‘enjoy your week.’  However, I do wish you bon voyage for your journey and I look forward to discussing your conclusions with you on Easter Sunday.

Is it ready yet?

Given by David Teall
27th February 2011
Matthew 6

The banner at the top of our Pew Sheet tells us that this is the Second Sunday before Lent, the point in the Lectionary when we get back to the sequence of Sundays that occur every year, no matter how early or late Easter may be.  However, that is not the only description that could be given to this day.  For many of you it might be more meaningful to describe it as the First Sunday post Panto, the day of the long-promised return to normality.  For others, it might be described as the Last Sunday of half term.  As I look around I see bleary-eyed grand-parents with a tired but happy smile on their faces, partly because of happy memories of exciting games with their grand-children and partly because they have got their houses back to themselves at last.

I can relate to both of these descriptions.  I enjoyed the panto very much, more especially as I didn’t have to do anything other than attend, and I have had the joys of grand-children coming to stay over half-term.  Oliver, one of my grandsons, aged 10, is particularly partial to Pat’s home-made Chocolate Cake.  This time it didn’t get made before he arrived so he had to go into the kitchen and ‘help’.  Under Pat’s watchful eye he assembled the ingredients:  Chocolate, Butter, Caster Sugar, Eggs, Milk and Flour.  Then the first exciting bit: creaming the butter and sugar.  Just as he was about to switch on the mixer his brother Josh rushed in (he’s seven – he doesn’t do anything slowly) and shouted (he’s seven – he doesn’t do anything quietly) “Is it ready yet Grandma?”  Aaah!  The joys of being a grand-parent!

I shall return to the Curious Tale of the Half-Term Chocolate Cake a little later and hopefully explain how it relates to my main topic for this morning: reading the Bible.

Philip has spoken to us over the last few weeks about the dangers of forming an opinion by interpreting a single passage of scripture in isolation.  Today’s Gospel is a very good example of a passage that can very easily be misinterpreted:  at first sight it appears to be a Hippy’s charter:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.   Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.   and a little later:  Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”

That’s all pretty clear isn’t it?  Don’t bother with all that sowing and reaping stuff: sit around and enjoy yourself and God will provide.  Don’t worry about what clothes you wear.  You’re beautiful!  Peace and Love!  Peace and Love!

For a baby boomer like me, who spent his teenage years in the 60’s this could all sound very attractive.  “do not worry about tomorrow” the reading goes on, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.   Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  And it’s all here – in the Bible – so it’s the Word of God isn’t it?

If only it were that simple.  The Bible does indeed contain the Word of God, but it is written in the words of men.

To hear God speaking to us through those words requires a much deeper study than that made so far by my inner Hippy looking for an excuse to do nothing all day.

Most scholars today believe that The Gospel of Matthew was written at sometime between 80 and 90 A.D.  The author is unknown but analysis of the text suggests that he was a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, possibly a scribe.  Similar analysis suggests that he used the earlier Gospel of Mark as one of his sources alongside a collection of stories about Jesus that was in circulation at the time often referred to as ‘Q’ and some other unknown sources of his own.  It was some time later that the Gospel was attributed to the disciple Matthew.

The Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s reading is taken, is a compilation of sayings of Jesus, not a word-for-word transcript of a particular sermon given at a particular place on a particular day.  The author has grouped them together in order to form the first of five major discourses in his Gospel, all of which end with the words: “and when Jesus had finished saying these things … …”or similar.  

Some scholars suggest that these five discourses reflect the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, which were traditionally written by Moses.  The author, speaking to a largely Jewish audience, wanted to portray Jesus as the new Moses who fulfilled the prophesies of the old and superseded them.  Thus, by presenting the sayings of Jesus as a single sermon on the law of the New Kingdom delivered from a mountain, the author is reflecting the story of Moses receiving the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai, a symbolism that would have been instantly recognised by his audience, just as you recognised my references to the Panto and to half-term.  By this means he retained ownership of the fundamental story from his Jewish roots but moved it on to proclaim the New Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Some of you may find this sort of analysis rather harsh and disturbing.  If Jesus didn’t really preach the Sermon on the Mount in the way described in Matthew’s Gospel;   if the author put stories together in order to put his particular ‘spin’ on events, then what are we to believe?  To hopefully help you to understand that, I have a confession to make, or maybe it is not so much a confession – more an explanation.

Oliver and Josh did, indeed, come to stay with us over half-term but it was not in the week just ended as was implied in my story: it was the week before as they go to school in Staffordshire where the holiday pattern is different.  We did many things with them but on this occasion Pat didn’t actually make a chocolate cake though she has done so on many previous occasions.  Joshua, like most seven year-olds, is always asking ‘is it ready yet?’ though whether he did so the last time a cake was baked I can’t be sure as that was a while ago and memories of one visit can easily merge with another.

So was my story true?  In a strictly historical sense it was not.  I linked it to the half-term just ended because, knowing my audience, I knew that many of you would relate to that and it would help me gain your attention.  The story gave you an accurate description of Oliver (he like his food) and Joshua (he is aged seven, impatient and noisy) and it gave an accurate description of family life in the twenty first century that would be of interest to historians in 2000 years’ time.  In one sense it was not ‘the truth’ but it contained a great deal of truth.  The Bible, for very similar reasons, is much the same.

So finally, with these thoughts in mind, let’s go back and have another look at today’s reading.  Is it really the Hippy charter that it appears to be?  To answer that we need to understand that Jesus and his disciples, and the people to whom he spoke and the author of the Gospel of Matthew were all Jews and were all very familiar with the stories in Genesis, one of which we heard as our Old Testament reading today.

In this story of the creation God said:  ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’  He didn’t say: ‘Behold, I shall give you a ready-made freshly-baked Pizza every day.’  We know too from other stories about Jesus that he had a great respect for and affinity with those who worked in the fields and those who looked after the animals: many of his parables were about them.  There is no way in which he would denigrate the hard work put in by such people nor deny its importance.  We need to keep looking.

Now that we know what the passage does not mean we can look at it with fresh eyes.  It is towards the end that we find the final clue:  “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

The story is not about whether or not we spend our time working in the fields to turn God’s gifts into food for the table or clothes for our back: Jesus has assumed that we will do that.  It is about the priority we give that work.  If our first priority is to eat good food and wear fine clothes then we are failing to give the necessary priority to building the kingdom of God.  By contrast, if we make building the kingdom our first priority, the material things of life, such as we need, will follow.  Far from suggesting an easy path through life, what Jesus is asking of us is to put the needs of others first, for that is the key to building the kingdom.  Building the Kingdom is a hard task that faithful Christians have been working on for the last 2000 years.  Like Joshua I’m tempted to ask: “is it ready yet?” but I know I would get the same answer as he did:  No – the work has only just begun and, now that you are here, you can do your share.

Harvest Reflection

Given by David Teall
26th September 2010
Genesis 1

Alongside the large pool where boats turn around at the bottom of Foxton Locks near Market Harborough is a large area of unused land trapped between the canal and the farmland beyond.  It is an impenetrable mass of nettles, thistles and brambles making it a complete no-go zone for all but the smallest animals which can sneak in at ground level.  Every time I pass it I am reminded of the old story about a young priest who, having been brought up in a city, was sent to serve his curacy in a small village.  Walking through the village one morning he stopped to talk to a farmer who was digging potatoes on his smallholding.  “Isn’t it wonderful” he said to the farmer, “what God can produce from such a small piece of land?”  The farmer scratched his head, looked around his field and replied:  “He didn’t do so well when he had it to himself!”

What the young Curate had failed to express is that farming, like all successful human endeavours, is a partnership between man and God.  When we come together each year for our Harvest Festival it is to thank both sides of that partnership for what they have given to us.  We thank God for the animals and plants that feed us and for the land upon which they live and grow and we thank the farmers for their skill and labour in looking after the land, caring for the livestock and growing the crops and all those involved in bringing their produce to our table.

Our reading from Genesis this evening took us back to the very beginning of the partnership between God and man.  The story, of course, is not a factual account of the mechanism of creation but a myth – a story that attempts to explain something of the nature of God in terms that we human beings can understand.  As such it contains some essential truths that are as relevant today as when they were written including the nature of the partnership between God and man.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

It is that word dominion that is the key to the partnership, but it is all too often quoted out of context.  Other translations of the bible use either the word rule or reign, which are words that we are more familiar with, but to understand their meaning we have to look at the whole sentence.  It begins: ‘Let us make humankind in our image.’  This is not talking about physical appearance but the very nature of God whom we know to be loving, caring and compassionate.  It was only after He had given us the capacity to exercise these qualities that He went on to give us the responsibility of reigning over the rest of His creation.  That is the essence of our continuing partnership with God:  to have dominion over His world and to exercise that dominion with the same love, care and compassion that He shows to us.

Our New Testament reading, which is, in fact, a quotation from Jeremiah, looks forward to the day when the whole of mankind is working in perfect partnership with God.

They shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.  For I will be merciful towards their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.

The world has not reached that day yet, but the partnership between God and man has led to some huge advances in Agriculture, even over the very short period of my lifetime.  When I was a young boy growing up in Nassington the corn was still cut with a reaper/binder and the sheaves placed in stooks in the field to dry before being carted back to the farm and stacked.  The harvest, which involved every willing hand from the village, started in August and continued well into September or even October in a wet year. When the stacks were broken open later in the year to be threshed the average yield of wheat was around a ton per acre.  Today the same fields are harvested by a team of three contractors in just a couple of weeks with average yields of over 3 tons per acre – a three-fold increase.

To the countless millions who have died of famine over the ages the prospect of a three-fold increase in food production would have seemed like the answer to all their prayers.  Unfortunately, it has not turned out to be as simple as that.  During the same period the world population has also increased three-fold, from
2 to 6 billion and the countries with the greatest population growth have not been those which have seen the greatest increases in yield.  The world as a whole has more food, but there are more mouths to feed and an increasing need for those who have to help those who have not. This too is part of the deal – part of the covenant – part of our partnership with God.

And what of the future?  The Human population of the earth is still growing rapidly and is expected to reach between 9 and 10 billion by the middle of this century – five times the population that I was born into.  How are we, as Christians, going to respond to the huge challenges that this will bring to the world of agriculture and to our partnership with God as we exercise dominion over His world?  There are going to be some very difficult decisions to be made.

The dramatic increase in crop yields over the last 60 years has been brought about largely by a combination of the increased use of artificial fertilisers and plant breeding.  Many of the fertilisers are manufactured from raw materials such as natural gas, a commodity that is rapidly being consumed, mainly for energy by the affluent west.  How are we to balance these competing demands on limited resources?

Increases in yield from the use of traditional plant breeding techniques appear to have reached a plateau.  Scientists tell us that further advances will need the more refined techniques known collectively as Genetic Modification or GM.  These techniques offer the prospect of crops that are resistant to disease and pests and so don’t need expensive, polluting sprays to control them; crops that will grow in less fertile soil; crops that will grow in much drier conditions.  Are we to view the use of these techniques as mankind interfering in God’s realm – that of creation – or are they an example of the partnership between God and man working effectively to provide daily bread to more of His children?

We are privileged to live in one of the most beautiful and most productive parts of God’s earth and we enjoy the luxury of knowing that we have a bountiful supply of bread for our tables.  This evening we offer thanks to both sides of the partnership that provide it for us.  We thank God for His mercy, for His generosity, for His love, for His compassion.  We thank the farmers and all those who work in the production line between field and table for their labour and for their faithfulness.  We thank those who work in plant and animal breeding programmes and those who work in the agro-chemical industry for their valuable contributions towards increased yields.  Finally, we pray for wisdom to discern a path through the difficult decisions that face us that will keep faith with and honour our partnership with God.  Amen.

Rich towards God

Given by David Teall
1st August 2010
Luke 12

We don’t have readings from the Book of Ecclesiastes very often yet I suspect that many of you here know the words of Chapter 3 by heart.  They were turned into the folk song ‘Turn Turn Turn’ by Pete Seeger in 1939 and later became a number 1 hit for the Byrds.  Felicity will be singing the song during our communion this morning.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth as it is called in the Hebrew Bible, begins one verse earlier than our set reading this morning.  The missing verse says: “The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”  These words were traditionally taken to identify the author as Solomon but scholars are now agreed that the book was written by a later author who used this introduction as a literary device to claim the wisdom associated with Solomon.

To understand what The Teacher is trying to tell us we must first consider his use of the word ‘vanity’.  The literal meaning of the Hebrew word hebel from which this is translated is ‘a breath of wind’.  The Teacher uses this word as a metaphor to indicate transience, uselessness or deceptiveness.

Looking at our reading again with this in mind The Teacher does appear to be a bit of an old misery.  If he were going to appear on a television show today it could only be on Grumpy Old Men.  A few years ago maybe he could have taken the part of Private Frazer in Dad’s army:  “We’re all doomed – doomed!”  Or maybe, for those of you whose memories go back a little further, he could have been Senna the soothsayer In Frankie Howard’s Up Pompeii: “Woe, woe and thrice woe!”

The depressing outlook of the Teacher has, at times, caused some to question the place of Ecclesiastes in the Bible as a book of Holy Scripture.  However, careful reading of the whole book does reveal two important conclusions of the Teacher:

  1.  We must accept our lot and enjoy the gifts that God has given us: our work, our food and our drink.
  2. We must please God, fear him and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone.

Moving on to our Gospel reading:  on first reading, the Rich Fool in Luke’s telling of the parable was being eminently sensible.  There had been a good harvest and, rather than let the food go to waste, he thought he would build some larger barns to keep it in.  Surely this was a praiseworthy thing to do?  Did not Joseph do much the same thing in Egypt fifteen hundred years or so earlier, and he was revered as a hero?

What is more, surely the Rich Fool was only doing what The Teacher in Ecclesiastes had recommended: he was accepting his lot (the good harvest) and resolving to enjoy the gifts that God had given him? 

So where did he go wrong?  Why, in the parable, did God round on him and call him a fool?  It was because he was seeking to take advantage of the first of The Teacher’s conclusions but to ignore the second:  “We must please God, fear him and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone.”  There was no thought of God’s commandments in his proposal: it was entirely selfish.  He just wanted to put his feet up, eat, drink and be merry.

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with his proposal to build bigger barns: it was his reason for doing so that was wrong.   He wanted to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason and with no regard to God.   As Ella Fitzgerald and later Bananarama might have said if they were being more biblical:  “It ain’t what you do – it’s the reason that you do it.”

Ecclesiastes took 12 chapters and an awful lot of groaning and moaning to reach his conclusions.  Jesus summed them up in a sentence:  “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

“Rich toward God.”  That is the key to the lesson from these two readings, but what exactly does it mean?  That’s not an easy question to answer in just a few minutes, but I can give you a few pointers.  It is to do with the value we place upon God and upon our resolve to follow his commandments.  It is about what we can give to Him and what we will allow Him to give to us.  It is about what we are prepared to do to help build His Kingdom here on earth.  “Thy Kingdom come” we repeat every time we say the Lord’s Prayer but just what are we prepared to do to help to build it?  Being “Rich toward God” involves our whole life, our whole being.  It is about everything that we do and, as we have learnt from today’s parable, our motivation for doing it.

To return to our readings, and to link them together, the rich fool was chastised by God because he was seeking to take advantage of the first of The Teacher’s conclusions but to ignore the second.  He was happy to accept God’s gift of a bountiful harvest but he was not prepared to be Rich toward God.

To express that using two different words, one of which we hear a great deal of these days:  he wanted what he saw as his rights (what God had promised him) without his responsibilities (what he had promised God).  As Frank Sinatra once sang (and I promise this is my last song quote!) “You can’t have one without the other”.

Though the message is clear, we human beings are very slow learners indeed when it comes to this lesson.  We want the Government to provide more services but we don’t want to pay more tax.  Trades Unions want more money for their members without regard for the profitability of their company.  Citizens demand their Human Rights with no mention at all of their Human Responsibilities.  Without a doubt, if I could change just one law in this country, high on my list would be to sweep away the Bill of Human Rights and replace it with a Bill of Human Rights and Responsibilities.  For each ‘right’ I would like to see stated the ‘responsibilities’ that go with that right: you can’t have one without the other.  For example:

The Right of Free Expression imposes, both on the media and all of us as individuals, a responsibility to be polite and civil and to be absolutely certain of our facts before expressing our views. 

The Right to Free Assembly imposes upon us the responsibility to behave in a calm and peaceful way and not to use the might of the crowd to intimidate others who do not share our view.

The Right to own Property imposes upon us the responsibility to respect the property of others.

The Right to a School Education imposes upon the children who receive it the responsibility to respect their teachers, to behave well in class and to do the work they are set.

We often hear politicians condemning this country or that because of their ‘poor human rights record’.  I have no quarrel with that as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough.  Whether they acknowledge it or not, what the politicians are judging is the extent to which the country in question has built, or is building God’s Kingdom here on earth.  As we have learnt from our readings today that can only be achieved by being ‘Rich toward God’ and all that that entails.

In our prayers today, and every day, let us ask God “How rich am I toward you?’ and be prepared to listen to the answer.   Amen

Pentecost 2010

Given by David Teall
23rd May 2010
Genesis 11

The story of the Tower of Babel is an intriguing one that comes early in the Book of Genesis.  In the preceding chapters of this gripping, fast-moving adventure story full of sex and violence we have heard about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their fall from grace through disobedience of God.  And about Cain and Abel and their descendants and how they formed a society so full of wickedness that God decided to wipe mankind from the face of the earth.  Fortunately though, as usually happens in the early chapters of an adventure story, there was a good kid on the block – a man named Noah – so mankind survived.  Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, and their wives survived the flood and through them the world was re‑populated.  It was their descendents who built the Tower of Babel.

In attempting to build their tower “with its top in the heavens” the descendants of Noah were attempting to put themselves on a level with or above God, just like Adam and Eve did when they ate the forbidden fruit.  What I find most interesting though, is the method God used to deal with their arrogance.  He “confused their language so that they would not understand one another’s speech.”

God knew that the ability to communicate with one another gave Noah’s descendents great power, and like all such gifts, that power could be used both for good and evil.  That is still the case today.  The rapidly-growing power of the Internet and the increasing use of English as an International language is taking us back to the position of Noah’s descendents in the land of Shinar when the whole population of the world were able to communicate with one another.  Will we use that power wisely for the glory of God, or will we use it to attempt to build another Tower of Babel and set ourselves above God?  Intriguing though that question is, I will leave it for you to ponder as I would like to focus our thoughts on some of the problems of understanding even our own language.

What have you been thinking as I have been talking about the stories in Genesis?  It’s all a load of rubbish?  We weren’t created in the Garden of Eden: we evolved from apes.  How could Noah possibly have built an ark big enough for a pair of all the animals on earth?  How did he stop the lions eating the antelope?  What about the dinosaurs?

You will not be surprised to hear that I have spent much of my time during my three-year course to train as a Reader studying the Bible.  One of the most interesting and liberating things I have learnt about is the many different styles and genres found in this best-selling book of all time.  Our Bible contains 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 books in the New Testament and up to 16 or even more books in the Apocrypha depending upon which have been included in the version you buy.  These 80 or more books were written by at least 40 different authors over a period of time spanning at least 1600 years.  Some are History, some are Law.  Some are Prophecy, some are Poetry.  Some are Letters, some are Biography.  Each book was written with a particular audience in mind and, in modern parlance, given a particular ‘spin’ to make the content relevant to them.

The authors of these books used many different literary devices to get their message over including, where appropriate, metaphor and myth.  Today we think of a myth as a legend or fairy-tale, but its proper meaning is to describe the actions of God in terms of this world.  That’s an impossible task, of course, but writers over the ages have felt compelled to try, as have painters, musicians and artists of all kinds.

If we read the Bible, as unfortunately some do, as if it was all written in the style of a 21st century history book we will fail to understand the truth that it contains.  The Book of Genesis is a whole collection of stories, many of which are Myth – an attempt to describe the actions of God in terms of this world.  Once we accept it as such we can dismiss the misguided criticisms of Richard Dawkins and his followers with the sadness they engender and see through to the real truth that it contains and understand its relevance to us today.  That is how the myth of the Tower of Babel can give us an insight into the development of the Internet.

The story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in our Pentecost Reading from the Acts of the Apostles is another Myth.  Not a legend; not a fairy-tale, but an attempt to describe the actions of God in terms of this world.

The use of both wind and fire in the description is an example of writing for a specific audience in a specific time and place.  Wind and fire are both used in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, to describe God’s self-revelation and the words for wind, both in Hebrew and Greek, are closely associated with spirit.

Relieved of the impossible task of trying to understand the story of Pentecost in literal terms we can begin to understand its true meaning:  The Spirit of God is for all people regardless of race, colour or creed.

I find that the concept of the Holy Spirit is actually easier to understand than to describe.  For me, it is strongly linked with the concept of the soul which I visualise as that part of a human being in which the Spirit of God resides if we will but let him in.  When we do allow the spirit in we are inspired, a word that literally means breathed on, by God.  When we are inspired in this way, our actions can be recognised as the work of God by people throughout the world, regardless of their faith or what language they speak.  The word of God needs no translation.

We witnessed a dramatic example of the action of the Holy Spirit on Boxing Day 2004 when we heard the dreadful news of the Asian Tsunami.  People throughout the world were moved to help in whatever way they could.  The voice of the Holy Spirit calling us to help was heard by people throughout the world, each in our own language.  It recognised no boundaries and accepted no limitations. 

Mercifully, events on the scale of the Boxing Day Tsunami are rare, but the power of the Holy Spirit is not just for emergencies: it is for today and every day.  If we will but let him in to our lives he can and will help us in everything that we do.  Look again at the prayer we said together at the beginning of this service:

As we wait in silence,
fill us with your Spirit.

As we listen to your word,
fill us with your Spirit.

and last of all:

As we long for your empowering,
fill us with your Spirit.

Fill us with your spirit.  That is our prayer for today, and every day.

Now have a look forward if you would at the back page of your Order of Service at the section entitled the Commission.  Here, at the end of the service, I shall ask you to go out into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit.  As you speak the words of the Creed in a few moments, and as we offer our prayers to God, open your hearts to him and ask him to fill you with his Holy Spirit so that, during the Commission you can answer boldly: 

By the power of the Spirit, we will.