Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Et incarnatus est…

Maybe using a bit of Latin isn’t the wisest introduction to what I want to say. But the words we use Sunday by Sunday haven’t moved much beyond it: when during the Creed we say of Jesus that he “was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” I still remember much anguish in the debate over how those words should be translated when the Common Worship liturgy was introduced in 2000. For those who stick with the Latin at least those words haven’t been changed for the last 1,700 years.

Regardless of the language we may use, what the words are trying to do is to state the central truth of Christianity - that God comes to us in human flesh (the Latin is in carne, hence the word incarnate). We know God because of the birth of Jesus - born of the Virgin Mary, but also of the Holy Spirit. God doesn’t come to us merely in human form. That might suggest that Jesus only looks human. But God’s Son really is human - and he really is God. That’s something worth marvelling at, even if you end up struggling with the words of the Creed.

I started thinking about this again not just because we’re approaching Christmas, but also because I’ve once more came across a little book on my shelves called “Creeds in the Making.” I bought it on 14th February 1975 - and obviously read it carefully because it’s full of underlinings (my writing was arguably even worse than it is now, though perhaps a bit more legible). I read it as part of a college group when I was at university - together exploring the truths of Christian faith which are summed up in those words of the Creed we use each Sunday. I wonder if people would find it a bit dry now. It’s just 130 pages long - but perhaps too long for most study groups now. It was written in 1935 - so was already 40 years old when we read it. Not many books survive the tests of time so long these days.

Christian faith is something believed in now for 2000 years, built on still older foundations and expressing eternal truths. At its heart there’s the story of how God enters our human history - in the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. History isn’t just stuff that happened a long time ago. It’s the reality of what impinges on human existence. In the incarnation it’s the reality of God at work in a particular time and a particular place, coming to us in Jesus. And the result is that God is at work for every time and every place. We may wonder about that when atrocities in Paris are too close to home. Then we need to remember the harshness of life in so many other parts of the world. But in all of them God wants to make his home - as he does first of all in Bethlehem.                                        
Martin Jackson

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Homily for Remembrance Sunday

 (Jonah 3.1-5,10; Hebrews 9.24-28; Mark 1.14-20)

The Gospel reading today gives us the call of Jesus to his first disciples: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” The modern translation doesn’t have quite the resonance of the older version, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” But they’re saying the same thing. The urgency of the cause - recognizing that the Kingdom of God has come near - and the need for people who will proclaim it, even if it means leaving their livelihood, home and family.

Reading these words in preparation for Remembrance Day I have found myself reflecting on another rallying cry - Lord Kitchener’s, “Your country needs you!” The original in fact was “Your King and Country need You - Enlist Now.” Kitchener then appeared with the words we remember on the front of a magazine, “London Opinion,” at the beginning of September 1914. The famous poster of the Edwardian Field Marshal actually carried the words, “Your country wants you.” Just how to motivate recruits for war was a matter of critical importance for the generals of the time. Patriotism, bonds of friendship (joining up together with your workmates) and a sense of hating the enemy all played their part.

Whatever the motivation of those who fought, today we remember the victims of war. Inevitably we look back to the time of Kitchener and the First World War which saw a greater loss of life for our nation than any other conflict in which we have been involved. Just look at the names on our War Memorials. Too many for the Second World War with its clearer moral purpose. Still more again for the First Great War - and still we agonise over the motivations and morality of that conflict. We look back and honour the courage which took people from work, home and family as they sought to serve their country. But we do more than simply harken back to a history played out a century ago… We recognise the dreadful impact of war on the lives of millions to this day.

Last week I watched the film “American Sniper.” It may seem almost flippant to talk about a movie as we come together and remember the reality of war. But that is what the film attempts to explore. If you haven’t heard of it, you should know that it made more at the box office last year than any other film - and in fact it has grossed more than any other war film in history. We need to pay it attention if only because it drew so many people who paid to go and see it. And then there are the issues it raises… If many of us here think of Remembrance in terms of the First and Second World Wars, it’s a reminder that those conflicts go on - brutally - and they leave their scars not only on the battlefield but in the lives of loved ones left at home and those who finally return.

The film is the story of Chris Kyle, a marksman with the US Navy Seals, who undertook four tours of duty in Iraq. He wanted to serve his country and signed up after the 9/11 attacks. In the course of his military service he was credited with more “kills” than any other member of the American Forces - 160 officially recognized, probably many more than 200. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the film, afraid that it would glorify the killing. And it was a sniper who killed my great-uncle in the First World War. But there is an arguable moral purpose as to what Kyle was doing: not merely picking off the enemy but seeking to protect those with whom he served. But at a cost - the first people he targets are a young mother who approaches his unit with a rocket propelled grenade launcher and then the child who picks it up after she falls.

It’s a devastating story which takes its toll both on Kyle and his family until he is unclear as to who he is and what he is doing. Eventually he is discharged, he needs psychiatric help, he tries to re-build his life and he seeks to help other veterans too. Until finally one of those veterans, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, kills Kyle and a friend at a shooting range.

It’s a true story. It doesn’t seek to make an argument. It doesn’t challenge the decisions of nations which take them to war for what they consider the right reasons. But it tells us of the cost.

It’s the cost we remember today. “Your country needs you!” became the rallying cry to recruit so many to the national cause. We may want to challenge our leaders as they deliberate on matters of war and peace. But we can only feel for those who seek to serve - and for the victims: the dead, those who bear wounds both physical and unseen, their families. And as we ask the question “why?” we remember those who suffer in the world’s battle zones today, and those who flee them.

“The Kingdom of God has come near… believe the good news,” says Jesus. But how can we make it a reality? That’s Jonah’s question - who resists the call of God to preach to the people of Nineveh, that city of Iraq still in the news. Yet when he finally goes to them it makes a difference - we’re told they repent and turn from their evil ways. We cannot give up on our resolve that this world should be a better place, that there should be moral purpose, justice and peace for all.

Jesus sees Simon and Andrew casting their nets, and calls to them - and they follow. Further on he calls to James and John, the sons of Zebedee. The Gospel tells us that they were in their boat, “mending the nets.” I’m struck by this observation. The call to us as Christians - as disciples of Jesus - as people who work for a better world - is not merely to cast the net, to be at the sharp edge of things; it’s also to have patience, to be net-menders. And that way we may honour those who have gone before us in their task.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

“A Typical Family” - Poor Families - God’s Family…

“The typical family can expect to be £2,000 better off despite the proposed cuts in tax credits.” That’s one of the assertions I saw recently in the Press in the build-up to the House of Lords vote which overturned the Government’s plan to reduce the level of tax credits paid to lower-paid workers and poorer families.

I’m not sure how the politicians assess what a “typical family” is. The Government has some praiseworthy aims - amongst them the reduction both of the nation’s “deficit” and of the need for so many to be dependent upon benefits, whether they be social payments or tax credits. The increase in the National Minimum Wage is important in this respect - though I find myself disturbed that the Government has tried to call it the “National Living Wage” - effectively undercutting what others had independently assessed to be the true amount necessary to ensure a basic quality of living.

But the Maths don’t add up. It’s clear that at least half of poorer paid workers and families on tax credits would find the cuts greater than any increase received from the new minimum wage and higher tax threshold. And even if 80% stood to benefit - as the Government first asserted - such a course must be questioned if only for the effect on the 20% who would not benefit, because these would be the poorest of all.

All politicians these days sing the merits of “hard-working families.” But this doesn’t help when there is no job to work hard at. It doesn’t help when hard work is still rewarded only with the lowest possible wage. If you’re a “typical” person in employment, you might expect to benefit. But can you easily accept those benefits if their cost is real hardship for those who are poor?

I was in another church recently where someone was saying how disappointed he was at the congregation’s level of response to an appeal for a local Foodbank. I agree with the importance of Foodbank initiatives and glad we support our own. But then I thought of some of the people in that congregation of which he was speaking, who could themselves barely make ends meet; how could they contribute when they might themselves need the Foodbank? We need to recognise the needs of others - but I’m afraid we need to recognise that those others might include people we sit next to in our own churches. The poor are not other people, the object of our charity, somebody else. Remember that. Remember Jesus’ words: “He sent me to bring good news to the poor….”

Martin Jackson

from the November Parish Magazine - follow the links from the top of this blog page, or find it by clicking here