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Today we begin a sermon series, leading up to Lent, looking at Jesus'
parables. Now in the last few weeks David and I have been building up
to this by setting out ways in which we can communicate our faith to others
and (understandably) this has caused some concern to some of you. So I
thought it might be helpful if I begin with an explanation of why and
what my overriding message will be. And I should say that this is not
a directive from the pulpit, but the start of a conversation and the continuation
of the partnership we have been building since my arrival.
The idea was conceived by David Jones in response to a news item about
some young women from Birmingham who had converted to another faith. Now,
they were, of course, entitled to do that, but what stung us was that
they had felt that the Christian community had nothing to say on the deep
questions of their lives. And I believe that this is quite a widespread
problem - people are looking for answers (or at least for help in formulating
enlightening questions), but the Christian community's silence about its
beliefs is letting people down, giving the impression that we don't care
and have nothing useful to say.
For too long now, the Church of England has given the impression that
our faith is essentially decent, but lacking in depth or substance. We
don't do it deliberately, but we're so used to operating in a society
where everyone knew about the Christian faith, that we've got out of the
habit of explaining it. And now, I fear that our dignified silence is
actually causing us to neglect people who need our help.
The trouble is that there is another side of the equation. The Church
of England has always been a voice of quiet moderation and that is something
most of her members (including me) value greatly. In world where religious
fervour has too frequently spilled over into immoderate behaviour, hatred
and violence, the Church of England has maintained a dignified, unruffled
humanity that is not only more attractive to human beings, but is also
(I believe) truer to the Word of God.
I, for one, believe in moderation and if we are going to raise our voice,
we must do it in a way that remains true to our essential personality
as the Church of England. I have no wish to turn our congregations into
the sort of fiery-eyed zealots that most of us turn to the CofE to avoid.
But I do want people to know that the good old CofE, which they all take
for granted, has at its heart a message of such wonder and majesty, that
it really does provide the best way to live. That message is, of course,
the gospel of Jesus - interpreted intelligently & humanely, with compassion,
modesty, kindness, decency and moderation, not just because it's nice
to be nice, but because we passionately believe that this was what Jesus
intended for his humanity.
And that quiet, smouldering passion is what I want us to rediscover. Not
a loud, brash passion, but a modest, compassionate passion. In a world
where extremist voices clamour ever more shrilly for attention I want
to raise a dignified flag for passionate moderation. If there is a phrase
that sums up my spirituality, it is "passionate moderation".
I want to demonstrate, through my life and through my speaking, that there
is a way of life that is decent and modest and restrained: not because
we don't believe in anything, but because decency and modesty and restraint
are wonderful values of fundamental importance to humanity, rooted in
the very word of God. Our decency is not because we are watery and faithless,
but because our faith has inspired us to live in a way that puts others
first. Our modesty is not because we have nothing to say, but because
we follow a God who embraced humility and taught us that love of our neighbour
is a far more potent answer to the world's problems than all the razzmatazz
of politics or the fervour of religious extremism.
And or restraint is not because we believe that anything goes, but because
Jesus has convinced us that it is more important, as Francis of Assisi
put it, not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood
as to understand; to be loved as to love.
In other words, I am seeking to help us find ways of making manifest why
we are who we are, but without ever deviating from our essential characteristics
as Anglicans. My hope is that we might do that, not by tub-thumping, but
by finding a quiet, distinct voice that will provide, for those seeking
answers, an alternative to the voices of extremism, so that people know
that at the heart of all our moderation lies not weakness, but strength;
not agnosticism, but faith; not apathy, but passion. Passionate moderation.
So with that in mind, I turn to the first of our parables of Jesus. The
word parable means literally "a word to throw alongside". In
other words a parable is a story with a parallel meaning - what we see
happening the story in some sense gives us the bigger picture of what
is happening to us.
These parables are about salt and light, taken from the Sermon on the
Mount and they introduce the main theme of his sermon. Now when he addresses
the crowd as "you", he is referring initially to the people
of Israel and he is throwing a parallel of what their calling is as God's
Chosen People. But of course, through Jesus' own life, it now applies
to us, his Gentile followers, as well. God's people are to be salt and
How salt? Well salt adds flavour of course, but above all (in Jesus' time)
it was used to preserve, to stop things from rotting. And it needs to
retain its saltiness to be of use. In other words, the purpose of being
God's people is primarily to cling to a way of life that stops the rot.
We are to be tenacious and unapologetic about our distinctive way of life
and the faith that underpins it, because it stops humanity from rotting.
Secondly, like salt, we are to provide flavouring. As you may know, cooking
is one of my passions and the correct use of salt is one of the keys to
getting the dish right. Too little and it is tasteless, too much and you
taste nothing but salt. Get it right and you hardly notice the salt, it
simply brings out all the other flavours to perfection. Here then, is
a manifesto for passionate moderation. Our saltiness is to be neither
too prominent nor too hidden. Get it right and you won't notice us, but
you will notice the difference our faith and our way of life makes.
How, then, about the light? We have all heard Jesus say that he is the
light of the world, but in this passage, he is saying that we are the
light of the world. How so? Well this goes back to the prophet Isaiah,
speaking at a crucial point of Israel's voyage of self-discovery. At a
time when they were overrun by nasty foreigners, God's word, spoken through
Isaiah, called upon them not to fight against the foreigners, but to live
in such a way that would show them the light - the right way to live.
And he promised that their light would enlighten all the nations. Now
Jesus embodied this way of life perfectly and through him, sure enough,
vast swathes of the world (including us) have seen the light of God and
live significantly more enlightened lives.
Jesus calls us to live enlightened lives - lives that shine through with
his teaching and his presence within us. And he calls us not to hide that
light, but to show it all around, like a city built on a hill (interestingly
Jerusalem, famously, was built on a hill) on show, seen by all around.
Now this passage is often used by preachers to show that we should be
sharing our faith with nonbelievers - and so it is, but note that Jesus
refers here not to our speaking, but to our deeds: "let your light
shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory
to your Father in heaven." So those of you who have pointed out that
our example is more important than our words are absolutely right - you
are backed up by Jesus himself.
It was Francis of Assisi (again) who famously directed his followers to
"go and preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words." Our
way of life preaches the gospel most convincingly. We must cultivate ourselves
as a community that deals graciously with one another, that welcomes the
outsider, that controls the sharp word and speaks good of others (even
if we don't feel it), that forgives, even at great cost. And, however
they treat us, we must relate to society outside the church in the same
way (because that is how our Lord treats us).
So our way of life, lived openly and in view, will be our greatest witness,
even without us ever uttering one word about our faith.
But, to Jesus, words and actions went together. It is not an "either
or". What we say is the product of what we have in our hearts. So
it is, I think, a fair interpretation of this parable to believe that
Jesus also wanted us to share our light with our words - and we will look
at that next week.
But for now, I leave you with the first building block - salt and light.
Living in a way that clings on to the life-preserving truth at the heart
of our faith and demonstrates its potency by the way we ourselves live
and the community we create through the graciousness with which we relate
to others and through the decency, moderation and restraint with which
we live, as inspired by Jesus.
But if we are to lives that shine through with Jesus teaching and his
presence within us, that, in turn, brings us back to our themes of the
past few weeks - loving study of his gospel and nurturing our relationship
with him through prayer, so that we feed the life we believe in with the
God who lies at its heart: not fostering extremism, but stoking up the
heart-warming flames of passionate moderation.
Preached: - Bolton (all age), Cliburn, Great Strickland,
6 February 2011