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Sermon for Epiphany 1 2014

The Reverend Canon Charles Royden - Preached at St Albans Cathedral

I was watching Star Trek llast night and at the end, the Starship having been saved, Captain Kirk and his crew set off on another mission then comes the words

Space, the final frontier,
these are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise
Her 5 year mission
to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations
To boldly go where no one has gone before !

I was stopped in my tracks, surely it was to boldly go 'where no man' has gone before ? Well they’ve changed it to make it inclusive of women, just like we have been going through our liturgies and bibles. The church like everybody else has been slowly changing its attitude towards women.

It is a great privilege to be invited to preach in this cathedral. Iin 1926 another Royden - Maud Royden - was the first woman to occupy the pulpit in Liverpool cathedral. Maud was the first woman pastor in England, she just wasn’t accepted by the Church of England because she was a woman. One of her writings was a pamphlet called ‘Women and the Church of England’ in it she said that women were not only barred from the priesthood but everything else. This was a time when Women were not allowed to vote on church councils or hold any office. At Holy Communion, men went first then women. She told of how one morning there was no male to be found to ring the church bell and a lady offered her services. After anxious thought the priest accepted her offer 'because the rope hung down behind a curtain and no one would see her'.

We laugh about it now and we have moved on. Yet much of this change has happened in the church because society has changed. It wasn’t because the church was prophetic and led the way. As with so many other issues the church was behind - like a nervous driver following the tail lights of the car in front on a foggy night.

At the time some people suggested that they would be more willing to regard women but it was forbidden in scripture for women to take on roles which were only for men.

  • God had created Adam first for a reason
  • Christ chose men for a reason.

People would say,

  • It wasn't that they themselves were against women
  • They even knew women themselves
  • They had friends who were women

But it was God who expected women to be treated differently, it was the plain word of Holy Scripture. We have to very careful how we read our bibles. I am always astonished at how many Bible believing, fundamentalists disagree with each other. There are over 20,000 bible believing denominations in North America alone. It seems that the more fervently you believe in the inerrancy of scripture, the more likely you are to end up worshipping in your living room with five or six friends.

We have to be really careful when we read our scripture, that we do not simply use it - as it has been in the past - to justify our custom and practice, what we have grown up with and what we find comfortable.

We as Christians are called to prophetic, we don’t want to be changing our liturgies at the same time as Star Trek. We want to boldly go where no one has gone before, we can lead the way.

So today I look at Joshua and the two Psalms and it makes me think about scripture and another subject - how we think about and treat people of different faiths.

I wonder if you remember being at school and hearing or saying yourself
'My dad is bigger than your dad'

It sometimes continued with
'Well my dad is a better fighter than your dad and he will come round and hit your dad'

My father was a police officer and I am sure that at some point I said well my dad is a policeman and he will come round and lock your dad up.

The idea behind all of this is one of superiority, I have some muscle behind me and therefore you had better watch out. There is some of that going on in Psalms 47 today and it is present in many places in scripture,

The Lord most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.
He shall subdue the people under us, and the nations under our feet.

It is not nice and the prophets and Jesus challenged it.

This is fighting talk. My God is going to come round to your house and beat your God up. All this about subduing people under us, this was a way of life for the children of Israel as they moved across the land conquering. Our first reading was from Joshua 3. When I was younger we used to sing a lovely song about Joshua
'Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down'

But of course we left out the bit which came next where Joshua gives instruction to
'utterly destroy all that was in the city, both man and woman,
young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.'

The Book of Joshua is quite clear that Joshua was able to do this because God was with him. (Joshua 6:27) His God was bigger than their God.

Our other Psalm 46 - has those adorable lines
God is our refuge and strength,
But it is no coincidence that the most popular occurrence of these words is when they are set to music with The Dambusters March.
God is our refuge, we claim God, our God is bigger than your God

This is the background into which Jesus was born, a nation which longed to see again the power and authority of God displayed in military terms, resulting in the defeat of the opposition. Jesus of course would have nothing to do with it.

Well, OK so what? We do not fight battles with the heathen, although sometimes our politicians need to be reminded of this fact when they wage wars against countries.
What importance is this ?

We have to be so very careful about our language and our attitudes and how we view people of other faiths. This stuff is in our religious DNA
Hans Kung said
'There will be no peace among the peoples of this world without peace among the world religions.'

Today more than ever before we need to start thinking about how we might better engage with people of other faith, and how we might learn to respect them and not imagine that God is just for us and the rest are all going to be judged for not believing in Jesus.

As the writer to the Hebrews stresses in the first chapter, we Christians have a lot to be proud about

'God has spoken to us by his Son'

But this can also become a reason for feelings of superiority. Because we have the Son, other religions have nothing to say, nothing to teach us. Jesus is all the inclusive, light of the nations, but Jesus is only good news for those nations if they turn from their God and join ours, otherwise they are going to end up in Hell

God given human logic and reason should have informed Christians

  • to recognise that women should never have been treated as second class citizens
  • to recognise that the third world was not there for us to go and make black people slaves
  • to recognise that apartheid was wrong
  • to recognise the importance of caring for our environment

you can extend the list with your own imagination

God given human logic should also remind us that the religion to which anyone adheres depends upon where they are born.

If you are born into a Christian family you are most likely going to end up Christian

  • The same, for a Muslim family, very likely to become a Muslim
  • Bhuddist family, very likely to become a Buddhist
  • Hindu family, very likely to become a Hindu

So it goes around the world, and even in localities, different faith communities producing people of that faith depending on where they live.

Now most people across the world are not in Christian countries, or homes.
Let's say
30 % of the world is Christian
This means that 70% of the world population is not Christian, and most will have no opportunity to consider what Christianity s all about.

23% a quarter muslim(1.6 billion)
15% Hindu 9 (1 billion)
7% Bhuddist

I do not know why God has placed so many people in other faiths but it is without doubt that religious diversity seems set as an accident of birth in our world.

I am privileged in Bedford to spend quite a lot of time visiting different faith communities, being invited to their worship and seeing how godly they are, taking to heart godly values which we would call Christian.What I am saying is that the great Christian teaching about how we should love and care for others is shared with people of other faiths.
This is genuinely Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist. Devotion to God, care for the family and the wider community, values such as respect for others. This is a godliness which is not peculiar to one religion it is shared.

We are fortunate as Christians to share in the faith of Jesus, God’s Son who represents God’s unique revelation and special gift. We share in showing that light of Christ. We live out our own faith - heart and soul, and we unashamedly speak of our faith and our love of God. As Christians we have held the light of Christ and been illuminated by his teaching.

However there are many lamps which burn from the one true light. We should be aware of the loving and caring, faith communities who show us examples of godly care and compassion.

We bring judgement on ourselves when we fail to respect God’s children of other faith.

God is not absent from people of other faith. Every person has been created by God, moulded with his hands. We are all pots created by the potter. The idea that the potter lovingly creates pots of great beauty and places them all around the world in places where they will inevitably be of different faith only to condemn them for not being Christians is as Mr Spock would say ‘not logical captain’

Rather God is the sole creator of the world and of all humanity, and he is loving, gracious and merciful, and His love and mercy extend to all humankind.

The church as I have said has often failed to be prophetic and even slow to catch on. We wake up to issues eventually, but we are seldom the pioneers. On this issue of faith, it is we who must take the lead. History has been littered with faith wars because people of one faith did not see God in the faith of somebody else.

If we are to tackle serious issues of conflict and security in our own country and around the world then it is up to us and we need to take a lead, there will be no car in front, this issue is up to us. Otherwise one day we might be like the two who challenge each other saying my dads bigger than your’s and then suddenly realise that they share the same Father. Amen