OT Lectionary Mar 16th Lent 2 Genesis 12:1-4a

Elsewhere in a different blog I’m writing about the church – what’s it’s for and how we can get it right or wrong (#whatschurchfor). This passage is absolutely key in understanding the state of the church today, and in order to grasp why I’ll need to take you back a few years to an evening spent in London with Chris my wife. We’d got tickets for some show or other, and we were going to eat first and then go on to the theatre. I have no remembrance at all about the show, or even what it was, but I’ll never forget the meal. We went to a well-know chain which wasn’t called ‘Simon’s’ but something in close partnership with him. We ordered our meal, which I have to say was very nice, and decided that if we were quick we just had time for afters. Trying to summon a waiter or waitress we found that all the staff seemed inexplicably to have disappeared. After about 20 minutes of hanging around we decided that we’d missed afters and we had to get going, so our quest became instead for someone who would give us our bill. We could easily have just walked out, and I have to admit we were tempted, but in the end I got up from our table and went hunting. Seated in a booth round the back somewhere about ten staff, all in their uniforms, were tucking into a meal. ‘Sorry to interrupt’ I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster, ‘but we need to pay and go.’ Grudgingly one of them got up and got our bill, which we paid in haste and just made it to the theatre in time. At least it saved us the cost of a tip.

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The Jews in the time of Jesus were very keen on being the ‘chosen people’, but what they hadn’t grasped was that they were chosen to be God’s waiters and waitresses to bring his blessings to the rest of the world. Abraham’s call in this passage was twofold: to be blessed, but also to be a blessing to all peoples on earth. And therein lies the problem: the Jewish nation wanted the first bit but forgot the second, a tradition in which much of the Christian church has been proud to follow. Whenever we claim exclusivity; whenever we operate as a holy huddle; whenever we subtly set up church structures which are hostile to newcomers or outsiders or people who are not like us, we are just like those staff who are happy to sit and feast themselves while others go unnoticed and hungry. This call, to remember that original commission to Abraham, both to be blessed and to bless, echoes through the rest of the Bible: most notably in Isaiah 49:6

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

When Simeon greeted the new-born Messiah he too knew that this was God’s call:

“My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32)

Since this narrow exclusivism and self-centred consumerism has been, and continues to be, such a perpetual problem for God’s people, we do well to look at our own church life very carefully, lest we find ourselves feasting at God’s table while others go hungry, wanting blessings but less keen on being blessings. It has long been my practice to remind people of this danger liturgically: whenever I give the liturgical blessing at the end of services I always use this adaptation of the usual words:

The blessing of God Almighty,

The Father, the Son,

and the Holy Spirit

be among you, remain with you always,

and make you a blessing to others.

What’s Church For? Church as Family

How many times have you heard (or indeed used) the term ‘The Church Family’?

I reckon that most churches have self-designated themselves as families at one time or another, and I can see why. It sounds like a great model of church – a happy family where we all love one another and are always nice to each other. A place where all can find a welcome, and where anyone can belong and be loved. Yet I want to suggest that this is one of the least helpful models of church. Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to find in the pages of scripture.

It is clear that God is pro-family: it isn’t good for people to be alone, and he sets the solitary in families (Ps 68:6). The term is used several times in the epistles (Gal 6:10, 1 Th 4:10, 1 Pet 2:17, 5:9 for example) but usually in the form of ‘God’s family’ or ‘the family of believers’. Never once is it used of a local church, but rather of all those, whether in a large region such as Macedonia, or in an even larger unspecified and therefore probably universal area. Christians who are adopted by God become members of his family, but that family is never seen as just a local congregation. The church universal may be a family, but the church local never is. It is fascinating that in 1 Tim 3 we’re told that a church leader should manage his own (human) family properly. If he can’t do that, how can he be expected to manage ‘God’s church’? Not ‘the church family’, as you might expect. The author deliberately shies away from using that phrase, which would have been a much more satisfying piece of writing.

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So why isn’t a local church meant to be a family? First of all because, unlike the picture of pilgrimage we used last week a family is essentially a purposeless thing. Families ‘are’: they don’t of necessity ‘do’ or ‘go’. They’re held together by relationships, not by purpose, and therefore are bodies much more attractive to women than to task-orientated men (I generalise, but I can defend this generalisation). Secondly, there is no growth imperative in the term ‘family’. In fact most families reach the time where they take deliberate steps to ensure that they don’t grow any bigger! Sadly many churches do too. Thirdly, families in real life tend to be selective in whom they let in. ‘PLUs’ are welcome (People Like Us), but there can be all sorts of devices and signals which say to others ‘Keep out!’ And if they are allowed in, it can be because they are poor and needy, and looking for welcome and shelter, rather than because they are fired up and ready to go on a mission. There’s the appeal to the feminine side again. Church as ‘family’ can quickly become church as ‘hospital’, where only needy people are made really welcome, and even then only some needy people. And finally families can be deeply dysfunctional, but are very adept at hiding it because keeping up the front of loving relationships is all-important, much more important in fact than honesty and genuine dealing with conflict. Church families, like human ones, can be deeply destructive and hurtful. Trust me, I know: I’m an out-of-work vicar!

I reckon we’d all do much better to remove this non-biblical term from our vocabulary. I’m going to suggest a better one to replace it, but first I’ll talk about one more model which I reckon is unbiblical and unhelpful. Next week: Church as ‘Haven’.

OT Lectionary Lent 1 Mar 9th Gen 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Just what is sin?

Today’s OT story is a game of two halves, almost child-like in its simplicity, and oh so true to human nature. ‘You can do anything you like’, says God, ‘except this.’ So what’s the one thing they do? There are goodness knows how many trees, shrubs and bushes to choose from, and just the one which is banned. So of course it’s precisely that one which they want, that forbidden fruit which they want to taste. Those of us who are parents have seen this scenario played out many times, giving the lie to those educationalists who, like Rousseau, believe that human nature is fundamentally good. We may even have used it to our advantage through the gift of reverse psychology: ‘Whatever you do don’t you dare eat those sprouts!’

We often label Genesis 3 as the story of ‘The Fall’. We use terms like ‘falling from grace’ to describe the action of going wrong and losing something of our previous exalted and virtuous state. But I can remember a talk long ago (although sadly I can’t remember who gave it) in which it was suggested that a much better term than ‘fall’ was that of ‘rupture’. Medically the term refers to something which has burst its boundaries and spread out into somewhere it should not be, where its containing tissues have split open and allowed it to lose shape. The danger is that it might not go back in again, with all sorts of painful and even fatal results. I was convinced that this was a really helpful way of conceiving of sin, not as falling off something, but of bursting out of something.

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The creation story of Genesis 2 tells us of four things which God knows that the human race needs. In fact we were wired up to need them right from the very start, and in his love he provided them for us. Work, companionship and responsibility were all given by God, along with the fourth, slightly less enjoyable but equally essential gift: boundaries. Like speed limits boundaries are there for our own good, to restrain our stupidity, to protect us and others, to give us something solid against which to kick, and ultimately to remind us of our created and mortal status. Paradoxically it is the bursting of this boundary which brings mortality to the human race.

There are several pictures of sin in the pages of scripture: missing a target, falling short of a standard, disobedience, rebellion, offending God and harming others, but I reckon that bursting out of our God-given restraints is a good cover-all one. I wonder if it can help us to rethink what is going on when we sin. As we spend time in penitence during Lent, maybe privately and maybe in our public worship, might it be a good idea to ask ourselves when we have overstepped the mark, gone further than we ought, broken through boundaries which were there for our own protection? The slightly less biblical picture of Pandora’s box nevertheless tells us an important truth: the best way to give up something is never to start in the first place. Fortunately the Master Physician of our souls is able to perform corrective surgery, but it may well leave a residual weakness which we will have to watch carefully for the rest of our lives.

There is another application, though, for those of us who are parents, especially of young children. Our job, I have argued elsewhere[1], is to be like God to our children, and we have a God who does set boundaries, which to cross brings consequences. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that disciplining children has gone a bit out of fashion in our politically correct and ‘rights’-obsessed culture. Christian parents do well to ponder the benefits of boundaries and their enforcement, just as our heavenly Father obviously sees their benefits.


Leach, C and J And For Your Children (Crowborough: Monarch, 1994)

OT Lectionary Ash Wednesday March 5th Isaiah 581-12

Why ‘ashes’?

On Ash Wednesday in many churches around the world Christians will have ashes placed on their heads as they enter into the season of Lent. But why ashes? What do they symbolise?

It is common knowledge that in the OT ashes (along with sackcloth and sometimes dust) were used when in some way or another the chips were down. The first reference like this is to Tamar in 2 Samuel 19 who, having been raped by Amnon, tears her ornate robes and puts ashes on her head. But even before this Abraham acknowledges his unworthiness to intercede to God in Gen 18. There are several other references throughout the OT: is it possible to tease out the symbolism and understand more clearly what we are saying by what we do on Ash Wednesday?

File:US Navy 080206-N-7869M-057 Electronics Technician 3rd Class Leila Tardieu receives the sacramental ashes during an Ash Wednesday celebration.jpg

The first reference is to mortality. To put it bluntly, that’s how we’re all going to end up. ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ says the minister as ashes are administered, just as God spoke to the fallen Adam and Eve. Don’t get any ideas above your station, because at the end of the day you’re going to end up the same as everybody else. The Christian gospel, of course, tells us that this isn’t actually the last word, but it never does any harm not to think more highly of ourselves then we ought, and to remember that without the breath of God in us we’re nothing at all.

Tied in with this is the motif of poverty. Hannah recognises in her outpouring of praise in 1 Samuel 2 that the ash-heap is the place where the needy find themselves, among the spent residue of life that has no further use or purpose. God alone is able to raise people from the ashes and restore them, as Job was to discover when God did just that, taking him from the ashes where he sat and giving back to him much of what had been taken from him. Isaiah echoes this in chapter 61, where the ashes of poverty and devastation ashes will be replaced by a crown of beauty, just as the oil of joy will replace mourning, our third symbol. Mordecai, for example, in Esther 4, learns of the edict that all the Jews are to be annihilated, and shows his deep distress and sorrow by tearing his clothes and covering himself with sackcloth and ashes, a common motif in times of anguish.

Sometimes the anguish which calls for ashes comes from what others have done, but our fourth symbol is about distress at what we have done ourselves, when ashes become a sign of penitence. It seems strange to us to show that we’re sorry by putting ash on our heads, but maybe there’s a link to the other motifs: we’re desperately upset because of who we are and/or what we’ve done; we recognise that it has made us poor and useless, and it reminds us that try as we might to live a good life we’re only human and in the end death will get the better of us.

So with all this richness of meaning we can understand a bit more clearly why Isaiah has such a down on insincere penitence. ‘Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?’ he asks, ‘for lying on sackcloth and ashes’ whilst continuing in the very sins for which we evidently have not an ounce of sorrow or penitence, and which we only pretend to be upset about (58:5). Real penitence requires all that ashes symbolise, and not just the ashes themselves. If our sin doesn’t get to us that much, there’s not a lot of point in using ashes as an empty ceremony.