Daoirí Farrell: ‘The Creggan White Hare’

I’ve long suspected that the ideal folk festival for me to attend exists in Britain, not in North America. The lineup at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival is proving me right.

For example, here’s Daorí Farrell playing his version of ‘The Creggan White Hare’.

Here’s what the Festival website has to say about him:

A former electrician, who decided to change profession after seeing Christy Moore perform on Irish TV, Dublin-born traditional singer and bouzouki player Daoirí (pronounced ‘Derry’) Farrell is being described by some of the biggest names in Irish folk music as one of most important singers to come out of Ireland in recent years, and has delivered the album to prove them right.

Six months after releasing the album ‘True Born Irishman’ Daoirí won two prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2017 for Best Newcomer, and Best Traditional Track and also performed live at the awards ceremony at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Here’s his website.

The Treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven (a sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)

It’s good for us to ask ourselves sometimes ‘What are the things we treasure the most?’

Of course, for most of us, the answer will be about relationships, not material things. But still, most of us own a lot of material things! Maybe it’s not a bad thing to ask ourselves from time to time “If I had ten minutes to leave the house and I could only take a few things with me, knowing that I was going to lose the rest – what would I take?” Most people over a certain age think about grabbing photo albums – for younger folks, their photos are all on the iCloud anyway, so that’s not so crucial! But there might still be some family mementos or heirlooms that are particularly precious to us. And then there are things we love; I know I’d be trying to fit at least one of my guitars in if I could!

But deep down inside, I suspect most of us treasure relationships – with a spouse or partner, with children, with parents, with close friends. Love is what makes the world go round, and the people we love are the most treasured part of our lives.

Another angle on this is ‘What about communal things’? In other words, do our best treasures have to be things we own, or can they be things we share with others? For instance, one treasured part of my life is traditional folk music; I love learning these old songs passed down from one generation to another over hundreds of years, and I love passing them on to others in turn. The Way of Jesus is even more of a treasure to me – it’s what gives meaning and purpose to my life. These are not things that I own or even that especially pertain to me as an individual: they are common treasures, shared with many other people around the world and through time.

In two of the parables in today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God as a precious treasure. Let me remind you of Matthew 13:44-46:

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all he had and bought it”’.

Anyone who sells every single thing he owns to buy one pearl obviously treasures that pearl more than anything else in his life. We might even call him a fanatic; he’s obviously not doing it for the money, but because of some crazy attachment to the pearl. But what’s he going to live on? What’s his retirement plan? Is he insane? Unbalanced? Off his rocker?

It all depends on the nature of the pearl, doesn’t it?

So what is ‘the kingdom of heaven’? A lot of people today assume that when Jesus talked about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ he was talking about ‘going to heaven after we die’, but that’s not the case. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus talks about ‘the kingdom of heaven’, but when Mark and Luke tell the same stories, they have Jesus using the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’. The difference likely comes from the fact that Matthew was writing for Jewish people and they’re tend to be shy about speaking the word ‘God’, out of respect for God. But the two phrases – ‘kingdom of heaven’ and ‘kingdom of God’ – mean exactly the same thing. They’re not talking about some faraway, spiritual place where we go when we die. They’re talking about God’s loving rule in this world, the world we live in, in the here and now.

This world at present is full of evil and suffering, but God is working to change that situation. Jesus talks about this change in the Lord’s Prayer, when he teaches us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. The second half of that phrase explains the first: when God’s loving will is done on earth, as it is in heaven, then God’s kingdom is coming. God’s kingdom is all about God’s loving will being done on earth, as human beings acknowledge God’s rule in their lives and follow his ways. That’s why Jesus once said to his disciples, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21).

This is obviously not a geographical kingdom. You can’t see it on a map, like you can see Canada or the United States. This is a community of people that has spread around the world. They come from different races and nationalities; they speak different languages and have different cultures. But they are bound together by their allegiance to Jesus, God’s anointed king, and by their commitment to following the command of Jesus: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

What does this kingdom of heaven look like? Jesus told many parables about it, but I think it also helps for us to look back at the Old Testament scriptures that would have inspired Jesus and his early followers. The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’ rarely appears in the Old Testament, but the idea itself is all over the place, especially in the prophets. Here’s Micah:

‘In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths”.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’ (Micah 4:1-4).

So we see here a time when people all over the world will turn to God and seek God’s guidance. They will come streaming to Jerusalem to receive instruction from God and learn to walk in God’s ways. And the result will be that war will be no more; people will beat their weapons into farming tools and each of them will live in their own homes in safety.

This is obviously not talking about dying and going to heaven. This is a hope located firmly on this earth. There are still different nations and ethnic groups and from time to time they still have disagreements, but they accept God’s word on the matter as final and they live together under his rule.

Here’s Isaiah’s take on the same theme; he starts with the promise of a Messiah, a descendant of David the son of Jesse, who will be a good king over God’s people:

‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:1-4a, 6-9).

This passage is not talking about some mythical future time when the biology of lions and bears will be changed so that they become vegetarians. The animals are symbols for natural enemies; in Isaiah’s time that would have been Israel and Assyria, or later on Babylon. Today we can think of the United States and North Korea, or Russia and Ukraine. The Messiah is a good king who comes to bring peace between nations. As a result of his rule, natural enemies are reconciled with each other and don’t prey on each other any more. There’s no more hurting or destroying, and the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord – which, in the Bible, doesn’t mean knowledge about the Lord, but experiential knowledge.

So this is the pearl of great price that the man sold his house for. The Kingdom of heaven is the promise that God has set in motion a movement that eventually will lead to justice and reconciliation, peace and security. It will be an end to greed and selfishness, hatred and violence and war. It won’t be spread by compulsion; there will be no troops sent out to force other people to enter the Kingdom of God. Rather, an invitation will be sent to everyone, but the decision to come to the mountain of the Lord and receive his instruction will be a decision that everyone makes for themselves, of their own free will.

Interestingly, the early Christians did not see this as something that was going to happen only in some faraway future. They saw it as something that has begun to happen in the here and now. When the apostles and early missionaries went out from Jerusalem to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, they saw that as a fulfilment of Micah’s prophecy that ‘out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem’ (Micah 4:2). The early Christians turned away from all war and violence and lived out the command to love their enemies; in this way they were fulfilling the prophecy about beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Yes, there is going to be a future fulfilment of this prophecy, but it would be a cop-out for us to consign it to the future. This is something we’re invited to live into now.

You see now why Jesus asks us to make this the greatest treasure of our lives, above everything else that we value? We’re talking about a world with no more hatred and violence, no more selfishness and greed; a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much. We’re talking about God’s original dream for the human race, living together in peace and caring for his creation as stewards of the earth.

How is this spread today? Matthew 13 is all about this question. At the beginning of today’s gospel Jesus gives us some hints:

‘“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

‘He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:31-33).

These parables both emphasise the gradual growth of the Kingdom, and its hidden nature. This is not spectacular! It doesn’t make the news; the world doesn’t notice it going on. I think about Jean Vanier leaving his naval career and moving to France to start a home with two mentally challenged people – the beginning of the L’Arche movement that has slowly and quietly spread around the world. I think about the way Habitat for Humanity started from small beginnings and has spread around the world to make life better for people who can’t afford housing. I think of the millions of people of faith around the world who quietly serve in food banks and volunteer and give consistently to projects to improve the lives of the poor. None of this is about coercion and force; it’s all about love and service.

The Kingdom of Heaven spreads one heart at a time. People hear the message of Jesus and they are gripped by it; they decide that this ‘pearl of great price’ is the greatest treasure they could possibly imagine. So they turn from their previous goals and commitments; they make a commitment to follow Jesus, and they ask him to teach them the ways of the Kingdom of God. They ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’. They make the Kingdom of heaven the number one value of their lives. And because they do this, the world is changed for the better.

This is what we commit ourselves to as baptized Christians. As parents bringing children for baptism, or as adults being baptized ourselves, our baptism is about our citizenship in God’s kingdom. As we grow, we learn to treasure that Kingdom above any other goal or aspiration in our lives. We learn to seek first the Kingdom of God. And we do our best to spread it: not by coercion or force, but by love and conversation.

This is what Jesus is all about. This is what we’re all about as Christians. Christianity is a Kingdom of God movement, and each one of us is part of it. So let me challenge you today to do as Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel: to treasure God’s kingdom above every other priority in your life, and to make it your number one value. As we do that, and as we live it out in our daily decisions and habits, the love of God will spread until ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9).

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

A Resolution

I think from now on I’m going to restrict my political comments to quotes from my favourite songwriters.

Here’s a good start.

Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the streets shouts ‘Security comes first!’
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse –
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.

‘Isaac Prayed’ (a sermon on Genesis 25:19-34)

Some years ago a man in one of my previous parishes decided that he was going to read the Bible all the way through. Like many Anglicans he’d never really read the Bible for himself; he’d heard the readings in church on Sundays, but he only had a very vague idea about how it all fit together. He had a copy of the Good News Bible, which is a pretty easy translation to read, and he decided that last thing at night he’d read a few chapters and see how far he got.

I’m glad to report that he read through the whole thing over a period of about six months. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. When he was about half way through the Old Testament he and I were having coffee one day and I asked him how it was going. He said, “It’s not what I expected at all! I thought the Bible was going to be an inspiring and uplifting book, but it’s not! It’s full of people who fight and kill and commit adultery; it’s full of animals being slaughtered as sacrifices and so on. Am I supposed to see those people as a good example to follow? Because I really can’t!”

I know what he meant; the Bible is very honest about the sins and weaknesses of its heroes and heroines. If you think of the life of King David, there are stories of obedience to God and faithfulness and courage and all that, but there are also stories of disobedience and murder and adultery and abuse of power. Abraham is held up in the New Testament as the father of faith, but when we actually read his story in the book of Genesis we find his faith was often weak.

How could it be otherwise? The Bible is the story of God’s work through ordinary human beings, and human beings are a mixture of good and evil. We’re made in the image of God but also infected by sin; we do our best to create a good and just and beautiful world, but it seems inevitably to fall short of our dreams for it. I’m reminded of Francis Spufford’s definition of ‘sin’ as our ‘Human Propensity to F____ Things Up’! This is the material God has to work with, folks; yes, he rejoices in our gifts and strengths, but he often has to make allowances for our weakness and sinfulness as well.

In today’s Old Testament reading we have the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob, who are the grandchildren of Abraham. Some of you will remember that Abraham and his wife Sarah had to wait until their old age to have a child. God first spoke to Abraham when he was seventy-five years old, promising this childless couple that they would be the ancestors of a great nation. But it was twenty-five years before the promise was fulfilled, and Sarah gave birth to the miracle child, Isaac. This miracle motif comes up again and again in the Genesis story. In today’s story, we read that ‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren; and Yahweh granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21). The same thing happens in the next generation: Isaac’s son Jacob has several wives, but his favourite is Rachel. However, for many years she seems unable to have children, until finally the Lord hears her prayer and gives her the gift of a son, Joseph, who turns out to be the saviour of the whole family when the great famine comes upon the land.

Why is there this constant theme of barrenness followed by what seems like miraculous conception? What are the authors of Genesis trying to get across to us? I believe they’re trying to tell us that the creation of this family – which will become God’s people Israel – isn’t merely a story of human expertise and strength; it’s the story of God’s miraculous intervention into the history of the world. The world is going nowhere; like the womb of Rebekah, it’s barren. God created a world full of wonder, but human history has been poisoned by sin, and if we read the first few chapters of Genesis we can see sin in all its darkness and horror. If the world is going to be saved, it needs something more than human expertise and wisdom; it needs a miraculous act of God to begin to put things right again.

So what does God do? He doesn’t perform an act of judgement like the flood, or send a great military victory. What he does is to create a new community, a people who will learn his ways so they can be a light for the nations. In later years they came to see themselves as God’s chosen people, but that never meant that God was only concerned for them and not the nations around them. No – God’s original promise to Abraham said, ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).

You and I stand in continuity with that promise today. Our Lord Jesus Christ has come from the family of Abraham, and his gospel message has gone out to the whole world; the blessing promised to Abraham has spread through all the earth, just as God promised. And God has called the Church to carry on the work of spreading the light and love of God everywhere we go. As we love others in the name of Jesus and as we spread the gospel and invite others to follow Jesus, we’re taking our place in that great plan of God that started nearly four thousand years ago when wrinkled old Sarah had a baby and called him Isaac.

But sometimes that work seems to hit a roadblock. Sometimes churches seem to stagnate and get stuck in ruts. Sometimes we get focussed inward on our own survival or our own life, and don’t look outward in love to the world that God wants to bless through us. Sometimes we forget that the church is always only one generation from extinction; we forget the call to go out and make new disciples and we come up with all sorts of sophisticated reasons why evangelism is not such a good idea after all. Sometimes we get absorbed in the creation of beautiful buildings and splendid liturgies and forget that Jesus told us to serve him in the poor and needy. And sometimes churches are consumed by conflict – conflict in denominations, or at the local level between flawed and imperfect human beings who bring their insecurities and power struggles into the church with them.

What do we do when we hit a roadblock like this? Well, the leaders lead, the managers manage, the visionaries share their visions, the facilitators facilitate, and so it goes on. Dioceses send in consultants, and consultants help churches come up with plans, and committees set goals and objectives, and off we go. And let me hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with any of this.

Unfortunately, though, we sometimes forget what Isaac did when he and his wife Rebekah ran into the roadblock of childlessness. Genesis tells us simply, ‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren’ (25:21a). This story is told in a very simple and straightforward way. It doesn’t say that Isaac went through a complicated liturgy, offering a thousand rams and a thousand lambs in sacrifice to God, like some of the later Israelite kings did. It sounds more like a child coming to her mom and saying, “Mom, can I have a piece of cake?” And Mom replies, “Of course you can! I’ll get one for you right now”.

Not that this prayer was answered quickly. This little detail in the text often gets overlooked, but Isaac prayed this prayer for quite a while. Verse 20 tells us that he was forty when he married Rebekah (we’re not told how old she was), and verse 26 says that he was sixty when Esau and Jacob where born. Given the probability of a couple of years of trying before he started praying the prayer, that’s still eighteen years of praying and not giving up. I’m reminded of the time in Luke’s gospel when Jesus told his disciples the story of the widow and the unjust judge; Luke says this parable was about ‘their need to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). And this is what Isaac did, for around eighteen years.

And by the way, Isaac wasn’t exactly a spiritual superstar. He comes across in the book of Genesis as a quiet man who is easily manipulated by his clever wife; later on in the next chapter she devises a plan to make sure that the younger son Jacob, who is her favourite, gets the paternal blessing from Isaac rather than his favourite, Esau, the older son. I get the sense that she knew her husband well, and she knew how to mould him to do what she wanted. And also in the next chapter we find Isaac doing exactly what his father Abraham had done; going to live in a foreign country for a while in a time of famine, being afraid that the locals would kill him and steal his wife, and so asking her to pretend she was his sister so this wouldn’t happen. So this isn’t a spiritual superstar we’re talking about here; this is just Isaac, who prefers a quiet life and enjoys taking his older boy out trout fishing on Saturday afternoons!

This is the sort of thing my friend came up against when he was reading the Bible through for the first time; this was what scandalised him so much. To be quite frank, in the Bible God doesn’t seem to be picky about whose prayers he hears!

Let me remind you of some of the people whose prayers got answered in the Bible: Moses, who killed an Egyptian and buried his body in the sand to try to hide the crime. David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, and then had the soldier killed so that he could take Bathsheba for himself. Solomon, a king who apparently had seven hundred wives. Nehemiah, who when he got mad at people didn’t just yell at them, but beat them and pulled out their hair. Paul, who before his conversion worked hard to stamp out the church by having Christians arrested and executed, and who even after his conversion doesn’t always seem to have been a particularly pleasant guy to be around.

So don’t think you have to be some sort of spiritual hero in order to pray and have your prayers answered. The prayers of the Bible aren’t the prayers of spiritual heroes; they’re the prayers of ordinary human beings like us, and some of them are definitely not nice people – if you doubt that, read some of the psalms! If God only heard the prayers of spiritual heroes, no one’s prayers would ever be heard.

So here’s the people of God in microcosm – the little family of Isaac and Rebekah. They believe God has called them to be part of the family line of his chosen people, but at the moment their future isn’t going anywhere, and so they do the best possible thing they could in the circumstance: they pray. Now let me ask you – do we do that?

What is the place of prayer in our life as a congregation? When we read the stories of the early church, it seems as if prayer was at the centre of everything they did. And I’m not just talking about formal, liturgical prayer – the sort of thing we do on Sunday mornings. I’m thinking about the day of Pentecost, when they had been meeting for long periods of prayer together over a ten-day period, and then the Holy Spirit fell on them, and the explosive growth of the early church began. I’m thinking about the times in the early chapters of Acts when they were being hauled before the ruling council and reprimanded for preaching the message of Jesus – and sometimes whipped as well. Their first response when they got home afterwards? Prayer together. I’m thinking about Acts 13, the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the early church, when Paul and Barnabas were sent out from Antioch to spread the gospel in what is now Turkey. How did it begin? When they were meeting together for a long period of prayer and fasting, and somehow the Holy Spirit spoke to them: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).

Prayer isn’t just about getting what we want from God. Of course, in Isaac and Rebekah’s case, that’s exactly what it was about: having the children they longed for. But prayer isn’t a slot machine and it’s not magic; it’s more about aligning ourselves with God’s will than it is bending God’s will to our own. The main benefit of prayer is that it draws us closer to the God who made us and who longs for us to know him better. And when we pray together – honest prayer, that is – it draws us closer to each other as well.

When I was the minister of the Church of the Resurrection in Holman in the high Arctic, we planned an evangelistic mission for our parish. We invited Terry Buckle, who twenty years before had been the minister in Holman, to come back and lead the mission. We planned evangelistic services every night of the week, and meetings in people’s homes during the day. We really wanted people in the community to hear the gospel message through Terry and give their lives to Christ.

But Terry said we should pray, so we did. We decided to have a prayer meeting on Friday mornings at 7.30 a.m. When I first announced this in church, one of the men said to me afterwards, ‘You meant 7.30 p.m., right?’ ‘Nope – early in the morning!’ So for six months we met every Friday morning to pray, usually about five or six of us. Officially, we were praying about the mission, but when people get together to pray you can’t keep them on topic, and before long all sorts of other stuff was being prayed about. When the week of the mission finally arrived we decided to pray every morning, but we moved it to ten o’clock which was coffee break time in Holman; people walked over to the church for half an hour, and each day about twenty people gathered there to pray.

The mission was great and people’s lives were touched, but the really great thing was that after it was over the people said, “We can’t stop this praying!” And so they decided to keep meeting at 10.00 on Friday mornings, and when I left Holman that prayer meeting was still going on. It was one of the most fruitful things we did in all the time I was in that community.

Prayer is really important for a Christian church, and as we think about our growth as a parish and our ministry plan, I hope we will look for more opportunities to grow in prayer and to pray together. I think this should be our first priority.

But prayer is also important for us as individuals. Sometimes as individuals we hit barren times in our lives, when all the joy seems to have drained away and nothing seems to be working out the way we want it to. At times like that, it can make a huge difference to turn to God and pray.

Remember, you don’t have to be a spiritual superstar to do this. Very few people in the Bible were spiritual superstars; they were just ordinary flawed human beings like you and me. And you don’t have to pray particularly long prayers, either. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, which is a very short prayer! Sometimes the best thing to do is just to get alone with God and spend time in silence, paying attention to his presence and his still, small voice in our hearts. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be very very simple. And if it seems hard at first, remember that we all had to start somewhere, and the universal testimony of Christians is that practice helps! And also remember what we said earlier on: Isaac prayed this prayer for a long time. Perseverance – patience – faithfulness for the long haul – what Eugene Peterson calls ‘A long obedience in the same direction’ – this is incredibly important. As Luke says in his gospel, we need ‘to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1).

‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren; and Yahweh granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21).

Are we ready to learn from Isaac’s example?

‘The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases’ (a sermon on Genesis 24)

I want to begin this morning by making a confession; there are times when I get very annoyed at the institutional church.

Shocking, but true! I’m a priest, I work for the institutional church, but at times it irritates me intensely. I look at its structures, its more elaborate buildings, its traditions and procedures, and its tendency to get anal-retentive about things that don’t seem to appear on Jesus’ radar screen at all, and I ask myself, “How did we get from the Sermon on the Mount to here?” I suspect I’m not alone in asking that!

Actually, throughout Christian history people have often asked this question – in fact, it was the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, which is five hundred years old this year. Christians have often gotten discouraged about the state of the church. We’ve often looked back wistfully to a day when it was simpler, smaller, and less institutional. The Book of Acts has been very attractive to us: we notice that in Acts there seems to be very little structure and planning and organisation and tradition, and yet the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work, the gospel spreads around the ancient world like wildfire, and thousands of people turn to Christ.

Of course, when we actually read the Book of Acts we find that all was not rosy in that particular garden either. Christian missionaries quarreled with each other and parted company. Jewish and Gentile Christians couldn’t agree on whether or not you needed to be Jewish in order to be Christian. People pretended they’d given all their possessions to God when secretly they’d kept something back. And we haven’t even mentioned the uncomfortable fact that Christians were always getting arrested and punished because of their loyalty to Jesus!

That’s the way it is with idealism. Idealism is important to us – it inspires us not to be satisfied with the status quo – but sometimes it can present us with an overly simplistic view of reality. Genuine reality is always more messy.

I want to suggest to you this morning that the Book of Genesis is to the Old Testament as the Book of Acts is to the New Testament. Later on in the Old Testament we get the story of the nation of Israel, which becomes a mighty empire with kings, armies, and bureaucrats, and a huge expensive temple with priesthood and sacrifices and laws about who’s in and who’s out. But in Genesis, all of that is still in the future. In Genesis, God chooses a single family – the family of Abraham – and guides its development over three or four generations. There’s a promise of much larger things to come – God tells Abraham his descendants will be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore – but none of that has happened yet. There’s no priesthood, no written law, no traditions. There’s just God speaking, God calling, and people listening and responding.

Or ‘not’. Actually, often ‘not’. The people described in the Book of Genesis are every bit as stubborn and cantankerous as we are. They refuse to listen to God, they have feuds, they take moral short-cuts, and their family arrangements are very colourful by our modern Christian standards. And I’m glad about that. I’m all for a life of simple faith in God, but let’s be clear that no-one’s ever practiced it perfectly. No one’s even come near. Not even in the Bible. And especially not in Genesis or Acts!

Today in our Old Testament reading we have a rather confusing set of excerpts from the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac. Let me quickly put them in context for you by filling you in on the rest of the story.

Isaac’s mom and dad, Abraham and Sarah, were childless. Well, Sarah was, anyway; the Book of Genesis quietly admits later on that Abraham had concubines and had children by them, but none of them counted when it came to legal descendants. And this was a problem, because God’s founding promise to Abraham was that he would make of him a great nation, and ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). Later on God told him his descendants would be more than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore.

But Abraham had to wait twenty-five years, until he was nearly a hundred years old, for that promise to be fulfilled. By the time Isaac was born, Sarah was well past the years of natural child-bearing; this birth was nothing short of a biological miracle. Those twenty-five years had not been easy for Abraham and Sarah. At one point, in a moment of desperation, Sarah had given her slave girl to Abraham so he could have a child by her; in Sarah’s view, God obviously needed a bit of help!

But eventually, against all the odds, Isaac was born, and it didn’t take long for things to turn ugly. The slave-girl’s son Ishmael was now a problem to Sarah, and she made sure he was driven out of the family home; no one was going to take precedence over her boy! Sarah conveniently forgot that the whole ‘sleeping with the slave girl’ idea had been hers in the first place!

And so we come to today’s story. Isaac has grown up and he needs a wife. Abraham’s family aren’t originally from Canaan; they’re from Ur of the Chaldees, near modern Iraq, and they came to Canaan by way of Haran, where Abraham’s brother and other members of his extended family still live. Abraham wants his son to marry someone in the family, not one of the local girls. And so he sends his servant back to Haran; he’s confident God will guide him to the girl he has in mind for Isaac.

It’s a long journey in the ancient world; four hundred miles by camel. On the way we can imagine Abraham’s servant doing a lot of praying. He prayed when he got to Haran, too:

“O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink’, and who will say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).

And that’s exactly how it worked out. The girl who came down to the spring was actually Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel. Just as the servant had prayed, she offered to water his camels, and when he asked her about her family he discovered she was his master’s grandniece. She took him to meet the family, he explained his mission, and they agreed that she should go back with him and marry Isaac – marriage to a first cousin once removed being quite acceptable in those days. None of this nonsense about falling in love first, of course – in the ancient world, that expectation was frowned on!

If we carry the story on a bit, we discover that the basic family weirdness continues into the next generation. Like her mother in law Sarah, Rebekah has difficulty conceiving a child. Eventually Isaac prays for her, and she gives birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Esau’s a few minutes older, and when he grows up he becomes his dad’s favourite, because he’s a great hunter and Isaac enjoys the wild meat he brings home. But Rebekah has a soft spot for the younger one, Jacob, and eventually she manipulates her husband and deceives him into mistakenly giving his parental blessing to the younger son, not the older. This leads to anger and the threat of violence, and Jacob has to run away from home and go back to Haran for twenty years, where he can be safe from his brother. But more about that in the next few weeks.

What’s this got to do with us today?

Well, let’s go back to what I said a few minutes ago: Genesis is the Book of Acts of the Old Testament. Those were the days before Israel became a nation or an empire, just like Acts describes the days when the church was a movement and a community rather than an organization. Those were the days when the fire of personal faith burned hot and pure. Or so it seems to us, anyway.

We actually have no idea how Abraham heard the voice of the one true God, Yahweh, speaking to him. We don’t even know whether Abraham believed that there was only one true god; it seems unlikely, given that most people in his day believed in many gods. But we do know that Abraham and his family would have been a minority in worshipping Yahweh, and especially in not using idols in their worship. In the same way, the people in Acts would have been a minority; this message about Jesus was new, and most people didn’t believe it. The church consisted of small house fellowships scattered around the cities of the Mediterranean world. It wasn’t the majority world religion, like it is today. It was a lot more fragile than that.

And perhaps that fragility is where we can connect. Just in the stories I’ve told you this morning we’ve seen two instances where the community almost died. It was necessary for both Sarah and Rebekah to have children, so that the community of faith could continue. But it proved impossible, humanly speaking, for them to give birth to those kids. They needed a miracle to help them do it. The entire continuing existence of this tiny community of faith was a miracle from God. Without God, it could not have happened.

When he arrived in Haran Abraham’s servant prayed “O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham” (24:12). That phrase ‘steadfast love’ translates the Hebrew word ‘chesed’; the King James Version has ‘loving kindness’, but ‘loyalty’ would also be a good translation. It’s not just that God loves Abraham and his family; it’s that he has committed himself to loving them, through thick and thin, whether they’re lovable or not. That’s what this little community of faith is based on: not human fertility or wisdom or achievement or organization or skill, but God’s steadfast love.

And that’s true of us as well. There are times when our community of faith feels very fragile. Lots of churches seem to be closing down these days, especially in small rural communities. Only two or three generations ago, that would have been unthinkable; we were building solid buildings to last for a century or more. No one expected that within a few years, barely anyone would be attending them any more. And even in our church, which is younger than most, when we look around on Sunday morning we oldsters seem to be rather better represented that you youngsters!

That worries us. And we certainly need to think about it and work to change it and make good and wise plans to address it. But let’s remind ourselves of this one fact: the continuing existence of the church is ultimately based on God’s steadfast love, not any human plan or wisdom or strength. God had to make it possible for wrinkled old Sarah to have a baby. God had to give supernatural guidance to Abraham’s servant so that he would meet the right girl at the right time. Yes, God’s people have to be faithful, but we also have to be full of faith – faith in the steadfast love of God!

And that love is steadfast, even when we’re not! The church is not made up of super-spiritual types – it never has been. Genesis tells us that when Abraham was afraid that the folks around him would kill him to steal his wife, he asked her to pretend she was his sister. Later on Sarah suggested her husband sleep with her slave girl to raise up children for her – and then when her own son was born, she drove out the slave girl’s son. Rebekah favoured her son Jacob, but Isaac favoured Esau. And Jacob didn’t learn; when he grew up and had kids, he had a favourite too, Joseph – with the result that his family was split apart by the resentment of Joseph’s siblings.

These are the kind of people God works with: flawed, imperfect people. He has no choice; there are no other kinds of people. God doesn’t only work with traditional families with two opposite-sex parents and 2.1 kids. He works with families like Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s. He works with blended families and single parent families, and single people, and gay couples, and those whose marriages are in trouble and who don’t dare admit it to their church friends. It’s perfectly possible to be full of faith and struggling with weaknesses and sins and failings at the same time. We all do it. But God is patient and steadfast, and he never abandons us.

Brendan Manning calls this ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ – the idea that we’re all ragamuffins, but God loves us anyway. But Genesis goes further: God loves ragamuffins, and uses them to build his church. The community of faith is made up of ragamuffins. I’m one of them. So are you. And that’s why we need to be gentle with one another. As Paul says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). One translation says, ‘Blessed are those who know their need of God’. That’s what Abraham and Isaac, in all their flawed humanity, can teach us. They did all kinds of things wrong – they made plenty of mistakes – but they knew without a shadow of doubt that they needed God. They could not exist without God. Without God, the people of Israel would have died out after one generation. And without God, the Church of Jesus Christ will die from the inside out, even if for a while it still looks like a prosperous institution.

Fortunately for us, we never need to be without God, because the God we need has promised never to abandon us. Let me close with this wonderful promise from the book of Lamentations, written at a time when the city of Jerusalem had just been destroyed by its enemies, and many of its people taken away into exile. It was certainly not a time of great hope, and yet the author of Lamentations isn’t ready to give up on God just yet. Here’s what he says:

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:22-23).

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

Mitres?

miter-300x250Ian Paul started it. Thinking Anglicans (and its usual commentators, including me) weighed in. As did Bosco Peters.

Sexuality? No. Omar Khadr? They’ve never heard of him. Donald Trump? Not even close. This latest Anglican flap is about whether Anglican bishops should wear mitres on their heads.

Minor issue? I agree – which doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion on the subject!

But I’m not going to argue the case in and of itself. I’m going to state it in terms of some underlying principles which I think are important.

First, while traditions can be charming, it’s always important to keep asking ourselves whether they’re still fit for purpose. In other words, if we were starting the whole thing over again today, would we do it this way? If not, why are we still doing it?

Second, while very literalistic interpretations of scripture texts can be perilous at times, there’s an opposite danger which may be even more pernicious, when we adopt a standard interpretation that flies in the face of what the text actually says.

Jesus specifically addresses the issue of what we might call today ‘clerical pretentiousness’. Amongst the various manifestations he identifies, we find ostentatious clerical dress (Luke 20:46), and ecclesiastical titles (Matthew 23:7-12). Apparently he thought this an important enough issue to name and warn us about. That being the case, the burden of proof is surely on the side of those who would defend these things. And that proof needs to arise out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not out of later ecclesiastical tradition (which, all too often, owes more to the power structures of Christendom than it does to the message of Jesus).

Third, and related to point two above: as a priest (God forbid that I should ever become a bishop, but if such a travesty were ever to occur, the point would be even more important) and as a relatively self-centred human sinner, I think my tendencies toward self-importance are quite healthy enough by themselves, thank you very much! They don’t need the encouragement of overly ornate robes or pretentious titles.

Fourthly, I think we have to be very careful about optics. Bosco and others have claimed that mitres are almost the most recognizable item of clerical clothing in the world. That may be so, but my response would be, recognizable for what? I suspect (I have no statistical proof, but I do talk with a lot of non-Christians) that most non-Christian people under the age of forty have absolutely no idea what a bishop is or does. I am, however, concerned that more than one person has privately admitted to me that mitres remind them most strongly of KKK hoods.

Fifthly, and following on from the last point, I was present a few weeks ago at a cathedral service with the usual ordered procession: choir first, then minor clergy, then major clergy (the bishop would have been at the end, had she/he been there). The symbolism was clear: the further back you got in the procession, and the more ornate your robes were, the more important you are. In the entire cathedral, only one person sits on a throne and wears cope and mitre. An outside observer gets the point right away: this is about the trappings of power. And if we don’t think that’s what the ministry of a bishop is about, then why not rethink the symbols we use?

Sixthly and finally, I take it as central that the most important things Christians do are not done during Sunday worship, but during the week. Jesus had very little to say about what we do in Sunday worship, who should preside, what clothes should be worn etc. etc. He evidently thought practical daily discipleship – loving your enemies, living a simple life with few possessions, being generous to the poor and so on – was far more important. It’s during the week, as we go about our daily lives, that we seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. What we do on Sunday should support this and energize it.

That being the case, what we do on Sunday should flow out of genuine gospel values,  and support them, rather than working against them. It seems clear to me from the teaching of Jesus that those gospel values include simplicity of life, humility, and servanthood.

Many who wear mitres and copes on Sundays have demonstrated these values in their daily lives; I would never dare to assert otherwise. The question for me is how these articles of clothing demonstrate those values. Personally, I think they do not, which is why I think we would do better to avoid them.