Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1898 – November 22nd 1963

(Repost from previous years, slightly adapted)

On this day fifty-five years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

Because of the assassination of President Kennedy on the same day, the death of Lewis has always been somewhat overshadowed. Far be it from me to downplay Kennedy and what he stood for, but for me, Lewis was by far the more influential man.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?” Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, full-orbed, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’; although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to blaming his Irish Protestant background as somehow giving him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert to Rome. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. Miracles and The Problem of Pain are intellectual defences of Christian truth (the first examining the question of whether miracles are possible, the second dealing with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focussed on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis ‘industry’ today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

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St. Margaret of Scotland (a sermon for the celebration of the Feast of St. Margaret, Nov. 18th 2018)

When I first became the rector of this parish nearly nineteen years ago, I didn’t know anything about St. Margaret of Scotland. I had no idea when she lived, or what she had done, or why people thought of her as a saint. So I made it my business to find out, and the more I read about her, the more I was inspired by her story, and the more I found myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we, as a parish, could live up to the example of the woman we are named for?”

Many of you will have heard me tell the story of Queen Margaret of Scotland in years past. Some of you, however, have joined us since the last time we did this, and many of you will have been away on this Sunday in previous years, for one reason or another. So I’m going to tell the story again today, and then draw some lessons for us as we join Margaret in following our Lord Jesus Christ.

Margaret died on November 16th 1093, nine hundred and twenty-five years ago. She was a member of the aristocracy, and she came into a position of great influence as Queen of Scotland, but she didn’t think she’d been given that position in order to lord it over others. Instead, she’s remembered as a person who spent her life serving others.

She was the granddaughter of the English king Edmund Ironside, but because of dynastic disputes she was born in Hungary, in the year 1047. She had one brother, Edgar, and a sister, Christian, and many people in England saw her brother Edgar as the rightful heir to the throne of England. In 1054 the parliament of Anglo-Saxon England decided to bring the family back from Hungary so that they could inherit the throne when King Edward the Confessor died, as Edward had no children. So Edgar, Christian and Margaret were brought up at the Anglo-Saxon court under the supervision of Benedictine monks and nuns, who trained the young people according to the Benedictine ideal of a life of work and prayer.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of those Benedictines in Margaret’s life. From them she learned the importance of balancing times of prayer and times of working for the good of others; this would be a good description of her later life as Queen of Scotland. We know that she learned to read the scriptures in Latin, and she also knew the teachings of the church fathers from the early Christian centuries. Her sister Christian went on to become a Benedictine nun herself.

Eventually King Edward the Confessor died, and soon afterwards William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and claimed the throne for himself, so Margaret’s brother Edgar didn’t get to become king after all. Edgar and his sisters were advised to go back to Hungary for their own safety, but on the way their ship was blown far off course by a fierce gale. They spent some time in northern England and then sailed up the coast to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, where King Malcolm gave them a warm welcome to his kingdom. His court at Dunfermline was undoubtedly rather primitive compared to the English court that the family had known, but I’m sure they were glad of his welcome and the hospitality and safety he offered them.

Margaret was now about twenty years old; King Malcolm was forty, and unmarried, and he soon became attracted to young Margaret. However, she took a lot of persuading; she was more inclined to become a nun, and Malcolm had a stormy temperament, despite his other virtues. It was only after long consideration that Margaret agreed to marry him, and their wedding took place in the year 1070, when she was twenty-three. In the end, although she was so much younger than him, shewas the one who changedhim; under her influence, he became a much wiser and godlier king.

Although Margaret was now in a high position in society, and very wealthy according to the standard of the day, she lived in the spirit of inward poverty: nothing she possessed really belonged to her, but everything was to be used for the purposes of God. As Queen, she continued to live the ordered life of prayer and work that she had learned from the Benedictine monks. She was only the wife of the king, but she came to have the leading voice in making changes that affected both the social and the spiritual life of Scotland. She had this influence because of the depth of her husband’s love for her. Malcolm didn’t share his wife’s contemplative temperament, but he was strongly influenced by her godly character, so he tended to follow her advice a lot – not only for his own life, but also for the life of the church and people in Scotland.

It’s actually quite remarkable that the Scots accepted the church reforms that this foreign queen proposed, but she herself lived such a simple and Christ-like life that they seemed to feel instinctively that her way must be a good way. Let’s think about the sort of life she lived as Queen of Scotland.

Margaret would begin each day with a prolonged time of prayer, especially praying the psalms. We’re told that after this, orphan children would be brought to her, and she would prepare their food herself and serve it to them. It also became the custom that any destitute poor people would come every morning to the royal hall; when they were seated around it, then the King and Queen entered and ‘served Christ in the person of his poor’. Before they did this, they sent out of the room all other spectators except for the chaplains and a few attendants; they didn’t want to turn it into what modern politicians would refer to as ‘a photo opportunity’.

The church in Scotland at that time looked more to the old Celtic way of Christianity than to the way of Rome. Margaret had been raised in the way of Rome, and was keen to bring Scotland into unity with the rest of the world, but she didn’t do it in an overbearing and proselytizing way. She often visited the Celtic hermits in their lonely cells, offering them gifts, and caring for their churches. But she also held many conferences with the leaders of the Church, putting forward the Roman point of view about things like the date of Lent and the proper customs for celebrating the liturgy and so on. She convinced them, not because of the strength of her argument so much as by the power of her holy life.

In those days many people in Scotland used to go on pilgrimages to see the relics of St. Andrew at the place now called ‘St. Andrew’s’. Margaret wanted to help the pilgrims, so she had little houses built on either shore of the sea that divided Lothian from Scotland, so that poor people and pilgrims could shelter there and rest after their journeys. She also provided ships to transport them across the water.

I think it’s fair to say that most people recognized as saints by the Catholic Church were monks and nuns who lived lives of celibacy, far removed from the demands of the world and the pressures of family life. Margaret, however, is remembered as having a happy family life. She had eight children, six sons and two daughters. Her oldest son Edward was killed in battle, Ethelred died young, and we’re told that Edmund didn’t turn out too well. But the three youngest, Edgar, Alexander, and David, are remembered among the best kings Scotland ever had. David I, the youngest son, had a peaceful reign of twenty-nine years in which he developed and extended the work his mother had begun. The two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were both brought up under the guidance of Margaret’s sister Christian in the Abbey of Romsey, and both went on to marry into the English royal family. All of them we’re told, were also taught to follow Christ first – although I find it a little reassuring that even a saintly parent like Margaret didn’t have a 100% success rate with her kids!

Margaret was not yet fifty when she died. As she lay dying, her son Edgar brought her the sad news that her husband and her oldest son had been killed in battle. Despite this grief, we’re told that her last words were of praise and thanksgiving to God, and her death was calm and tranquil.

So what does Margaret have to say to us today?

I know that in this parish we have varying degrees of wealth; even though we live in one of the richest parts of the city, we’re not all rich by any means. But nonetheless, when judged by the standards of the whole world, we’re pretty well off, and even when we think of some of the less fortunate people in our city, we don’t have a lot to complain about. So how do we wealthier Christians see ourselves as disciples of Jesus? What are our responsibilities to those who are poorer than we are? What’s the best way to live a life of discipleship in the sort of situation we find ourselves in?

It’s here I think that Margaret can still inspire us. When she married the King of Scotland she found herself in a position of great power and wealth, but she didn’t consider it as having been given to her for her own selfish pleasures. She was a true Benedictine, living in the spirit of inward poverty. She saw her wealth and power as having been entrustedto her to do good works for others, and so she gave her life to serving others in the spirit of Christ.

One thing we can learn from her is to balance work and prayer.The Benedictine ideal was an ordered life, with certain times of day set apart for prayer, and others spent in active work for the good of others. We see this balance in the life of Jesus, too. In Mark chapter one we read that he was healing the sick, casting out evil spirits, and teaching the people all day long, but then Mark goes on to tell us that ‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’ (Mark 1:35). Luke tells us that this was Jesus’ habit: ‘But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray’ (Luke 5:16).

Is that our habit? Do we make time to pray regularly, by ourselves or with someone else? For some people, the ‘deserted place’ might be a room in their house; for other people it might a quiet office early in the morning; for others, it might be a quiet walk at some point during the day. For some it will be alone, for others it will be together with a spouse, or with the family as a whole. Those of us who care for young children will find some challenges here, and will need to support each other and think carefully about the best way to build prayer into our daily lives. Yes, it will take a bit of effort, but the lives of praying people down through the centuries have shown us that it’s well worth it.

So we can learn from Margaret’s balance of work and prayer. The second thing we can learn from Margaret is the way she lived out what is sometimes called ‘the ministry of the basin and the towel’. This phrase refers to the story of the last supper, where Jesus ‘got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel that was tied around him’ (John 13:4-5). After he finished this job, he pointed out to his disciples that he, their teacher and master, saw no contradiction between being their lord and being their servant. ‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’ (John 13:14).

This is the sort of life Margaret lived. Although she was the Queen of Scotland, she saw no contradiction between being the Queen and serving at tables for the poorest of the poor. She understood herself first of all as a servant of Christ; everything else followed from that.

So these are the two things I think we need to learn from Margaret: firstly, keeping a proper balance of work and prayer in our lives, and perhaps especially praying together with others on a regular basis. Secondly, having a servant attitude toward everyone we meet, just as Jesus was not ashamed to fulfil the role of a servant toward his disciples.

So let us remember with thanksgiving today our patron saint, Margaret, a woman of prayer, a woman who lived a holy life, a woman who served the poor, a woman who used her influence in a Christlike way to do good for all people. As a congregation, let us pray that God will give us the strength by his Holy Spirit to live up to the name we bear. Amen.

Welcoming the Stranger (a sermon for November 11th on the Book of Ruth)

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the experience of feeling like an outsider or a stranger. I’m a white Anglo-Saxon male and my first language is English, so in western Canada I don’t often have that experience! However, when I was in my early thirties I lived in a small aboriginal community in the central Arctic where my kids were the only non-aboriginal kids in the local school. The community was made up of large extended families and everyone was connected by those networks. Also, for everyone over the age of forty Inuktitut was definitely their first language. So even though many people made us welcome, at times we couldn’t help feeling like outsiders and strangers.

Of course, you can have a similar experience just by walking into the local café in any small town on the prairies. Have you ever tried that? Trust me – you’ll stand out like a sore thumb! Once again, most people in those communities are connected by extended family networks, everyone knows everyone else, and when they look at you as you walk I the door you just know they’re wracking their brains trying to figure out who you are and who you’re related to!

This morning in our Old Testament lesson we read the second half of the story of Ruth – the foreigner, the Moabite – who became the great-grandmother of King David and so was also an ancestor of Jesus. Let’s remember that in those days Israel saw itself as a distinct society, worshipping the one true God while all its neighbours worshipped idols. And in the law of Israel there were strong statements about not marrying outsiders and keeping pure from their idolatry and sin. But in the story of Ruth we read about someone who bucked that trend, and, possibly to her surprise, she found a community that was willing to welcome her.

Historically this little story is set ‘In the days when the judges ruled’. In other words, we’re taking about the time after Moses and Joshua led the people out of Egypt and into the promised land, but before the days when there were kings like Saul and David to rule over them. The story starts in Bethlehem in Judah, with a man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Chilion. There was a famine in the land so Elimelech took his family to the neighbouring country of Moab to live. This would be unusual for an Israelite, as the Moabites were traditional enemies of Israel. Elimelech died soon after the family arrived in Moab, but the two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth – another unusual thing for an Israelite family. They stayed in Moab about ten years, and then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, leaving Naomi all alone with her foreign daughters-in-law.

Naomi heard the famine was over in Bethlehem so she decided to go home to her own country, and her daughters-in-law began to go with her. But she tried to discourage them: “There’s no point in you coming along with me,” she said. “Even if I were to marry again and have sons, would you wait ‘til they were grown and marry them?” This refers to a custom in ancient Israel: when a man died without children, his brother was to marry his widow and raise up children, who would then be counted as the dead man’s children so his family line would continue. From this we can infer that both Naomi’s sons had died without producing heirs.

So Orpah turned back and returned to her own land, but Ruth would not. “Where you go, I will go,” she said to Naomi. “I’ll live where you live, your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and I’ll be buried with you.” So Naomi accepted her company and the two returned to Bethlehem together.

Of course in those days, two women living alone without a man to support them would have been in a vulnerable position. How would they earn a living? There was a requirement in the law of Moses that at the harvest time farmers should leave the wheat standing on the edges of their fields so the poor and needy could ‘glean’ it, and workers who accidentally dropped stalks of wheat were not to pick them up again but leave them for the poor. So Naomi sent her daughter in law to glean in a nearby field; it happened to belong to a man named Boaz. He found out who Ruth was – apparently her reputation for caring for her mother-in-law had gotten around. So he instructed his workers to make it easy for her by intentionally dropping some wheat behind them, and he invited her to eat with his workers when they took their lunch break. As a result Ruth did quite well that day, and at Boaz’ invitation she stayed in his fields and gleaned behind his workers all through harvest time.

We need a little background in Jewish traditions to understand what happened next. As we’ve already seen there was a lot of concern for the continuation of family lines and family property. If a man died leaving a widow, the custom was that a near relative should marry the widow so the man’s land would not pass outside the clan or tribe. The nearest relative, the one who had the obligation to marry the widow, was called in Hebrew the ‘goel’, which we could translate ‘kinsman-redeemer’; it was his job to ‘redeem’ the land if it was to be sold to support the widow, and to marry her as well.

It turned out that Boaz was a very close relative to Naomi’s late husband, and so Naomi’s next plan was to try to set him up with Ruth. She sent Ruth to the place where Boaz and his workers were winnowing barley at their threshing floor. “He’s going to sleep there tonight,” she said; “When he’s fallen asleep, lie down at his feet, and when he wakes, he’ll know what to do.”

Sure enough, Boaz woke up during the night and saw Ruth lying there. When he asked what she wanted, she replied, “Spread your cloak over your servant, because you are the goel.” Boaz was pleased; he was an older man and she was a younger woman, and he was flattered she had gone to him rather than someone younger. “I’ll do what you ask,” he said, “but we’ve got to do this right. It’s true I’m a close relative but there is someone closer still, and he actually has the right to redeem your father-in-law’s land. If he’ll do it, fair enough; if not, I will.”

So Ruth stayed the rest of the night and in the morning Boaz gave her a sack of barley to take home for her and her mother. Then he went into town and took his seat at the gate, which was where business deals and legal matters were transacted in those days. Pretty soon the other man, the closer relative, came by, and Boaz invited him to sit down. He then asked for ten elders of the town to sit there as witnesses, and they did so.

Boaz then said to the other man: “Our relative Naomi is going to sell the land that belonged to her late husband Elimelech. You’re the goel; you’ve got the right to redeem it. I need to know if you’re going to do so, because if not, I’m the next in line.” The man replied, “I’ll redeem it.” Boaz said, “The day you buy the field you also acquire the hand of Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabite, to continue the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” The other man replied, “Then I don’t want to do it, because I don’t want to damage my own inheritance.” So Boaz said to the people sitting around, “You are witnesses that I’ve acquired Elimelech’s land, and also the hand of his daughter-in-law Ruth.”  They all agreed, “We’re witnesses.”

So Boaz married Ruth and they had a son who they called Obed. What follows is remarkable: Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David, the shepherd boy who became the great king of Israel. So David’s great-grandma was a foreigner, a Moabite woman, an outsider. And not only that, but Jesus was a descendant of David, so Ruth took her place in the family tree of the Messiah.

On one level this is a lovely romantic story, a strong contrast to all the savagery and killing going on in the book of Judges which is set in the same time period. But on another level there’s a lot going on theologically in this story.

If you read the Old Testament you’ll come across a discussion about what it means to be God’s faithful people. The Israelites saw idolatry as the basic sin. If you worship something that isn’t God, then you’ve taken the one true God and replaced him with a lie. And worshipping a lie, you then come to believe all sorts of other lies about the sort of life you ought to live. That’s why the Ten Commandments lay such strong emphasis on not worshipping false gods. ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image.’

Most of the Old Testament authors believed that if you want to keep yourself free from idolatry, the best thing to do is to avoid idolaters. So keep strict boundaries for the people of Israel; don’t allow foreigners in, don’t trust them, and certainly don’t intermarry with them. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah – that were probably written about the same time as Ruth – take this line. In those books Israelites who’ve married outside of ethnic boundaries of Israel have committed a grave sin; they’ve put Israel in danger of being tempted toward idolatry again. Ezra and Nehemiah and people like them could point to all sorts of evidence, too: “Don’t you remember the story of King Solomon? He started out good, but then he married a bunch of foreign women who worshipped false gods, and the next thing you know, he was worshipping their gods too!”

This disapproving stance toward outsiders is the dominant view in the Old Testament. But it’s not the only view. There’s another strand with a more positive attitude toward foreigners, and the story of Ruth is part of this strand. Here we don’t see any disapproval of Ruth’s status as a foreigner. No one accuses her of being an idol-worshipper who was trying to lead Israel astray. In fact we’re told explicitly at the beginning of the story that she says to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” In other words this foreigner, who had been raised to worship the Moabite gods, decided to become a worshipper of Yahweh the God of Israel – and no one questioned that this was a perfectly right and proper thing for her to do.

In New Testament terms we Canadian Christians are like Ruth. In the Old Testament we would have been seen as Gentile outsiders; the Jews were in, but we were not. But we have a redeemer, a goel, who has brought us into the family. In the New Testament the relationship between Jesus and his Church is often seen as a betrothal or a marriage: the Church is ‘the Bride of Christ’. He has extended the borders of the family of God’s people, and now we’re inside.

But you can get too comfortable inside, and forget what it’s like for people who are still on the outside. That’s not a good place to be for followers of Jesus, who was constantly on the lookout for outsiders he could bring in. And like ancient Israel, we have a choice about this. We live in a culture that is becoming less and less friendly to organized religion. Our society used to be thought of as Christian, but now it definitely isn’t. So what are we going to do? Are we going to circle the wagons and assume that everyone out there has no interest in God and Christ at all? Or are we going to go out confidently with the message Jesus gave us: that everyonewho is carrying a heavy load is invited to come to him and find rest, that allpeople are invited to become his disciples?

And what about the folks who are coming to our country as Ruth came to Bethlehem – to look for a better life, or to get away from disaster at home. I say this, of course, as an immigrant myself. What’s our attitude going to be? Are we going to choose fear, like so many people in Old Testament times? Or are we going to choose to welcome the stranger, as Boaz and the people of Bethlehem did?

This is a very important thing for us to keep in mind as we observe Remembrance Day. One of the insidious things about war is that it divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – ‘us’, who are on the inside, the good people, and ‘them’, the outsiders, the evil people. So the foreigner, the person who is different, becomes an object of fear, and we circle the wagons to keep them out. We might even demonize them, see them as somehow less than human, to make it easier for us to kill them. The tragic story of the twentieth century should give us an object lesson about where that attitude leads. Sadly, we’re seeing more and more of it in North America today.

The story of Ruth tells us that to God there are no outsiders. There are only people made in the image of God, loved by God, people God wants to draw into the community called by his name. But we need to remember one thing – and I’m going to leave you with this thought. Would Ruth have come into the family of Israel without Naomi and Boaz to bring her in? I suspect not. No matter how interested she was in the God of Israel, the boundaries would have been just too great.

Who is the stranger God is bringing into your life? The person from somewhere else, the person who looks and sounds different? The person who needs to hear a word of welcome and kindness, and a little extra help to find their way around? Are you going to be a Boaz for them? Are you going to extend a warm welcome?

And of course we can understand this in terms of the witness of the Church as well. Outside the borders of organized Christianity there are many people like Ruth – people of good will, people who would love to know God, people who are curious about Jesus. I suspect you know some of those people; I know for sure that Iknow some of them. Are you going to be a Naomi or a Boaz for them – the one who will invite them to come in, the one who will introduce them to Jesus their redeemer?

What I Will Remember on Remembrance Day (Annual Post)

There are some pieces I repost every year, because I really can’t improve on them and still want to say what they say. This is one of them.

386302_10150434245270400_1399354246_nRemembrance Day is often promoted these days as a day to remember the sacrifices of military personnel who served our country in time of war.

In fact, the original Armistice Day, after World War One (the ‘Great War’ which was also called, optimistically, ‘the War to end all Wars’), had a wider focus; it was a thanksgiving that the guns had fallen silent after four years of butchery and carnage on a scale the world had never seen before, and a silent remembrance of all who had lost their lives, military or civilian. It was also a day to pray fervently for peace and to commit oneself to a simple message: ‘Never Again!’

So on Remembrance Day this year there will be many things I will remember.

First and foremost, of course, I will remember family members who were impacted by the ravages of war.

I will remember my grandfather, George Edgar Chesterton (1895-1963), who served with the Leicestershire Tigers from 1914-18. He was eventually captured and spent eighteen months as a P.O.W. before returning home after the armistice.

I will remember my Dad’s uncle, Charles Hodkinson (1912-1941), shot down and killed in a bomber over the Netherlands in 1941.

I will remember my great grand uncle, Horace Arthur Thornton (1896-1917), killed in action in France July 27th 1917.

I will remember Brian Edgar Fogerty (1924-1941), related to me through my grandfather’s sister, who served in the merchant navy during WW2 and died at sea Feb. 22nd 1941; he was just 17.

I will remember Brian’s uncles, Harold Edgar Fogerty (1892-1919) and Edward Ernest Vernon Fogerty (1901-1920), both of whom served in the Great War. They died of illnesses after the war ended, but are remembered on the war memorial in Cheltenham because it is felt that war injuries contributed to their deaths.

I will remember the many other relatives who served in the military in the two great world wars of the twentieth century, many of whom would never speak of their experiences when they returned, and lived with the trauma for the rest of their lives.

I will also remember the brave men and women who served in the enemy armies, many of whom were conscripted and had no choice unless they were willing to be shot. I will remember the people who died because of the bombs my Dad’s uncle Charles dropped. I will remember the U-Boat men who fired the torpedoes that killed Brian Fogerty; the U-Boat arm had the highest casualty incidence of any unit of the German military in WW2, and I expect that most of them died in terror as they heard the explosions of depth charges getting closer and closer; no doubt those who were religious prayed that God would save them, just as my relatives prayed to be saved.

I will remember the civilians whose lives were lost in carpet bombing: in the Blitz in London and other cities in Britain, in the fire-bombing of Dresden, in the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I will remember the residents of the towns and cities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, whose homes became battlegrounds and who lost everything they had, including (in millions of cases) their lives. I will remember the millions of children who became orphans, many of whom were institutionalized for the rest of their lives.

I will remember the ridiculous sibling rivalry between King Edward VII and Kaiser Wilhelm I, which was a primary cause of the arms race between their two countries in the lead up to World War I, and thus arguably contributed to the outbreak of the war. Britain and Germany had no history of aggression, but the Kaiser wanted battleships like his cousin King Edward, and the only excuse he could offer was to create the illusion that Britain was a threat to him. On such stupidity hung the lives of millions of young men.

I will remember the millions of people in eastern Europe who were condemned to forty years of communist tyranny because Britain and the U.S.A. needed the support of Russia to win the Second World War. Our victory was thus won on the backs of the freedom of millions; who were the ‘winners’ here?

I will remember the lies that have been told to justify war, from the lie that Polish soldiers had invaded Germany and killed men at a border post in 1939 (told by Hitler to justify his invasion of Poland) to the lie that Iran had weapons of mass destruction. I will also remember the appalling arrogance of western nations who assume that we have the right to impose our ideas of government on people who obviously do not want them.

I will remember how the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, ”greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, have been taken out of the context in which he spoke them – in which he was about to lay down his life without resisting, loving his enemies and praying for those who hated him – and have been used to honour and glorify the deaths of those who were killed while they were fighting and killing others.

I will remember all of this on Remembrance Day. I will pray that this madness will end, that human beings may find better ways to resolve their conflicts than sending young people out to butcher each other, and that those who profit from war will have their eyes opened to their own wickedness, and repent. And I will pray that the Christian Church throughout the world may be alive to the call it has received from its master, to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us.

And, as always, I will find Wilfred Owen’s immortal poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ to be a penetrating aid to true remembrance of what war is all about:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen, 1917

 

What about the other side?

I once had a church member who had been born in Germany just before the Second World War broke out. Most of her family members had been killed by the Royal Air Force in the fire bombing of Dresden.

I once knew an Arctic bush pilot who had flown for the Luftwaffe in World War Two. He was not a Nazi; he had been caught up in that massive event like millions of other people.

thI’m sometimes asked why I’m not happy about national flags and Remembrance Day activities happening in churches. This is one of my answers.

Remembrance Day was originally about the prayer ‘Never again’. At its best, it’s a remembrance of all who lost their lives in wars – soldiers or civilians, ‘our’ side and ‘theirs’.

Sadly, though, these days it’s often about honouring the sacrifice ‘our’ troops paid for ‘our’ freedom.

My question is, what if you’re not included in that ‘our’?

After all, the Church isn’t meant to be a national institution. Jesus calls his disciples from all nations, tribes, languages and peoples. When I look around St. Margaret’s on Sunday, that’s a reality.

As a Christian, my first loyalty can never be to my nation. My first loyalty must be to Christ and his multi-national kingdom.

Remember this Sunday: you may well have someone in your church whose parents fought on the other side. That person may be intimately connected to you as a fellow Christian.

How are you going to make Remembrance Day about them and their forebears just as much as it is about you and yours?

What Does Success Look Like? (a sermon for Nov. 4th on Mark 12.28-34)

If you were to make a list of the most successful people alive today, I think Bill Gates would surely be on it. He co-founded Microsoft in 1975, and forty-three years later it’s a mighty force in the world of computer software. And of course Bill Gates has done quite well out of this. As of this year his net worth was calculated at $97.9 billion, so, as the Irish say, he’s not short of two pennies to rub together!

 

It’s interesting, though, that over the past fifteen years or so Bill Gates seems to have taken a different tack altogether, as he and his wife Melinda have given vast sums of money to charitable projects in developing countries. To take just one aspect of the work of their ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – the ‘Global Development Program’ – their organization is currently funding projects supporting agricultural development, financial services for the poor, water, sanitation and hygiene, libraries, and emergency response programs around the world. If all this work has come from a genuine desire to help others, then it demonstrates that even Bill Gates has discovered that business success by itself isn’t enough. Maybe he’s begun to redefine what success means to him.

 

So if we want to be successful in life, what should we aim for? How does God define success? Fortunately, Jesus hasn’t left us in the dark about this; this is exactly what today’s gospel reading is about. A scribe comes up to Jesus and asks him “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mark 12:28), and the answer Jesus gives is a very clear picture of what success looks like in God’s eyes. He says,

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

Let’s take a closer look at these verses and ask three questions about them.

 

Question One: Is this, in fact, the central Christian message?Sometimes in workshops I’ve asked people to define in one or two sentences what they think the essential message of Christianity is. I’ve noticed that many people respond with some variation on these words of Jesus, especially the second commandment he quotes, “love your neighbour”. So let’s think carefully about this; is Jesus saying that these two commandments are the central message of Christianity?

 

Look at the question Jesus was asked. It wasn’t, “What’s the essential Christian message?” It was more limited: “Which commandment is the first of all?” In his response Jesus isolates two commands from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the commands to love God and love our neighbour.

 

But let me ask you: which comes first in the Christian life, our love for God or God’s love for us? In the first letter of John we read these words:

‘In this is love; not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:10-11, 19).

In the New Testament the Christian message is called the ‘Gospel’, which means the Good News. Commandments aren’t news, so commandments can’t be the Gospel. John tells us that the Good News isn’t that we love God, but that God loved us and sent Jesus to die for our sins.

 

Mark Twain once said “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that bother me; it’s the things I do!” I agree! I understand the commandments very well; my problem is I can’t seem to keep them! Every week when we come to church we all confess together our disobedience to these very commandments: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves’. If all Jesus is going to do for me is define the commandments more accurately, that’s not going to help me very much, is it? It doesn’t sound like good news to me.

 

No; the Good News is that Jesus came into the world as a human being to heal our broken relationship with God. On the Cross he demonstrated God’s forgiveness for our sins and gave us hope that our broken relationship with God could be healed. Through his resurrection he’s won the great victory over the forces of evil, and the New Testament tells us that God has made him ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). Now he invites everyone to come to him, put their trust in him, and receive the free gift of forgiveness and new life that he offers. And then – once our relationship with God is restored by Jesus – we can call on all God’s resources to help us obey these two great commandments – not out of fear of hell, but out of gratitude for God’s great love for us.

 

At the last supper Jesus got down from the table, put a towel around his waist and went around washing the dust off his disciples’ feet – the job of the household slave. Peter was offended; he thought it would be much more appropriate for himto wash Jesus’feet. But Jesus said to him “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” In other words, before we can do anything for Jesus, first of all we have to let Jesus do something for us. And before you and I attempt to obey these two great commandments, there’s a prior question we have to answer: have I come to Jesus and asked him to wash me, to restore my broken relationship with God? These two great commandments are intended for people who have received the Good News and are now asking the question “How can I show my gratitude for all the Lord has done for me?”

 

Question Two: What exactly is being commanded here? As an Englishman moving to Canada in the mid-1970s I soon discovered that even though we used the same language we didn’t always use the same dictionary. To me, a ‘napkin’ wasn’t a cloth you used at a meal to catch the crumbs on your lap; it was a baby’s diaper! The word we used for ‘napkin’ was ‘serviette’. And I very rarely used the term ‘vacuum cleaner’; we just called them all ‘hoovers’, and there was even a verb, ‘to hoover the rug’!

 

We often get into these kinds of dictionary problems when we read the Bible. It’s a very old collection of books and people had different ways of thinking when it was written. So when we hear Jesus telling us to love God and love our neighbour we assume that we know what he means by the word ‘love’. But we probably don’t. In our culture we use this word to describe an emotion, but the Greek language had other words for that: ‘storge’, which meant ‘affection’, ‘eros’, which meant passion or desire, or ‘phileo’,which meant the personal attachment we feel for family and friends. But the Greek word used in today’s passage is ‘agapé’, which is an action, not a feeling. It’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not.

It would have helped me years ago to have known this. When I was a teenager I worked for a newsagent in our little village in England. One morning I went in to work and discovered there had been a terrorist bombing at a pub in London the night before. My boss said to me “I’m glad I’m not a Christian because you Christians are supposed to love your enemies. There’s no way I could love people who would do something like that”.

 

I had no answer for him at the time. However, if he said the same thing to me today, I would have replied something like this. “You’re right: no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to sit around and work up a good feeling for those people. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He’s telling me to actin a loving way toward them, rather than taking vengeance on them. I might not be able to feelgood toward someone who hurts me, but I can still bring them a cup of coffee when they’re tired and thirsty. That’s what Jesus is talking about”.

 

So Jesus’ two great commandments are not telling us to feelanything, but rather to love God and love our neighbour by our actions. Now: Question Three. How do I obey these commandments?What practical difference will they make to our lives?

 

It’s often been pointed out that when people are on their death beds their regrets are usually to do with relationships: their failure to love their friends and family as they would have liked, and especially their failure to spend more time with them. As the saying goes, very few people say on their death beds “I really wish I’d spent more time at the office!” Most of us understand that relationships are the central issue in life, and Jesus agrees with this. His two great commandments deal with our two fundamental relationships, with God and with our neighbours. If we get this wrong, we’ve missed the whole point of life, no matter how successful we may be in other areas. If we get this right, we’ve grasped the main issue, even if the rest of our life looks a little frayed around the edges.

 

The first great commandment gives us a description of four kinds of love we can offer to God in gratitude for what he’s done for us. These aren’t four separate watertight compartments of our personality – heart, soul, mind and strength. They’re four overlapping ways in which we offer God our love.

 

The ‘heart’ would not have meant ‘feelings’ to Jesus’ hearers as it does for us; they thought that feelings came from the bowels, not the heart! When they used ‘heart’ they meant the will– the part of us that makes choices and decisions. To love God with all our heart means to make choices that show his kingdom is my number one priority. ‘Soul’ in the Bible means ‘the whole person’; even today we sometimes say, “There were one hundred and thirty souls on board that ship” – ‘souls’ meaning ‘people’. ‘Mind’ tells us that we will have to think carefully about what this faithful life looks like. A purely emotional response isn’t good enough; we have to ask hard questions and think through the issues as well. And the word ‘strength’ shows that this won’t be easy; it will require effort and discipline and good old-fashioned stick-to-it-ive-ness!

 

In the second command we’re told to love our neighbour and Jesus gives us a guide as to how to do it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Remember again that Jesus isn’t using a feeling word here. He’s drawing our attention to the way we instinctively care for ourselves. When my body tells me it’s cold, I put on a sweater or turn up the thermostat. When my body tells me it’s hungry, I feed it as soon as possible. Jesus is challenging us to give this same practical care to others.

 

And note the immediacy of the word Jesus uses: ‘love your neighbour’. My neighbours are first of all the people I rub shoulders with regularly – my wife and children, the people who live on my street, the people I work with, the people who serve me coffee at my favourite coffee shop, my fellow Christians at church, and so on. How would Jesus treat them? What would he say to them? What would he do for them? I’m to follow his way of living by treating them as he would treat them.

 

In Luke’s version of this story Jesus gives a concrete example of neighbour love, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man gets beaten up and left for dead by the roadside on the way to Jericho; a priest and a Levite both see him, but they do nothing to help. But a man from Samaria sees him, stops and helps him, puts him on his donkey and takes him to where he can get proper medical care. That’s how to be a neighbour: it means keeping your eyes open to the needs of ordinary people in your daily life, and doing what you can to help them.

 

So let’s sum up what we’ve learned. These two great commandments aren’t the Gospel: the Gospel is the good news that Jesus has lived and died and risen again to heal our broken relationship with God. All people are invited to put their faith in him and come to God through him, as a free gift. When we’ve done that, then these two great commandments will guide us about how to live in gratitude to the one who has loved us so absolutely. They don’t refer to feelings,but loving actionsby which we serve God and serve our neighbours. And they concern the fundamental issue of life: relationships, with God and with other people.

 

Let me conclude by saying again that this is ‘success’ in God’s eyes. Harold Percy says that when some people die, God will have to write this epitaph for them: ‘Brilliant performance, but he missed the whole point.’ The most important questions in life don’t deal with how successful my business is, or how rich or poor I am, or how fat or thin I am, or how pretty or plain I am. In Anthony Burgess’ novel about the Book of Acts he has the disciples saying over and over again “The time is coming when we will be questioned about love.” That’s the main issue.

 

Have I joyfully accepted the unconditional love of God from the hands of Jesus? And am I living out my gratitude for that love by loving God with my whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and my neighbour as myself? In the end, these are the only two questions that will matter. Everything else will be irrelevant. As the saying goes, the important thing is to keep the important thing the important thing! And Jesus is absolutely clear what the important thing is.