Bring and share at the bandstand

It was our first rally chilly morning for many months but it was dry and we were happy to meet Jeremy and Sue and to discover several people we have in common – it really is such a small world!

We began with words from Ecclesiastes 3 about time for everything which Fiona had found so pertinent in a very busy and demanding couple of weeks. Wendy read verses from Hebrews 10:19-25 and we reflected on the knowledge that we were able to be in God’s presence here and now and then to encourage us she shared a story of a wonderful answer to prayer. It mirrored the story of Elisha and the widow’s oil – when we do everything we can and can do no more, God can intervene and save the day!

From the bandstand we were sent off with bird seed thinking of Jesus’ words about worrying and remembering that God feeds the birds of the air and cares far more for us. Walking through the park we shared with God our worries and then went to feed the ducks in the pond. It really was very helpful to throw our worries with those seeds and be reminded of the perspective we need in difficult times.

Back at the bandstand we blew bubbles as another symbol of letting those things go and then watched a short film from the Work of the People to lead us into sharing bread and wine.

Thanks to all who brought something for today – as ever it held together and spoke. Next week Soulspace!

The Wonder of Fungi

On a beautiful, but cold autumnal Sunday morning we met in the park for worship:

In the fading of the summer sun,
the shortening of days, cooling breeze,
swallows’ flight and moonlight rays
WE SEE THE CREATOR’S HAND

In the browning of leaves once green,
morning mists, autumn chill,
fruit that falls, frost’s first kiss
WE SEE THE CREATOR’S HAND

Just take a few moments to reflect on creation and in so doing worship the Creator.

Our Generous God

We praise and thank you for:

creation,

for changing seasons,

for life and love,

for incarnation and new life,

for unending undeserved love.

 

We rejoice in your persistent song,

yearning and calling,

waiting and welcoming,

gathering and loving,

making us whole.

 

We thank you for peace promised,

for the hope of kingdom shalom,

here and now

the three in one

God with us.

The wonder of fungi.

Of all life on Earth, there’s something more mysterious and more vital to our survival than anything else. Much of its life is hidden underground. And only at the end of its life cycle does it reveal its identity. The mushroom. They have a secret life so magical, so weird, that it almost defies imagination, to create new medicines and even clean up polluted soils. The  story of fungi is so strange it seems almost alien, yet they are crucial to all life on Earth.

The only place many of us encounter mushrooms is in the supermarket. Cultivated edible varieties like these, are all most of us think about when it comes to mushrooms. We British can’t get enough. It’s a multimillion pound business in the UK.  But there’s so much more to mushrooms than the examples in the vegetable section. The mushroom is just one species from an enormous kingdom, the kingdom of the fungi, and fungi are hidden away in all kinds of food products in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Blue cheese, and the blue is a fungus. A lot of soft drinks and fizzy drinks have citric acid in them, and that’s produced by a fungus in huge quantities. Many detergents also contain citric acid, just like fizzy drinks.  Here’s soy sauce, bread, QuornWild red salmon, the red colour, is sometimes due to a fungus called Phaffia. Some of the protein in pet foods, is actually produced by fungi. Then there’s alcohol. The fermenting activity is due to Saccharomyces, turning sugars into alcohol and CO2. Alcohol is therefore the metabolic product of yeast in beer and wine making.

Our supermarket shop wouldn’t be the same without fungi. They’re hidden away in all sorts of ways in the products, due to them having a  whole series of biochemical tricks up their sleeve. The global trade in edible fungi is worth £32 Billion a year.

 

Some may think they look like any other plant, but in fact, they’re a different organism altogether. Fungi have evolved as a kingdom in their own right, distinct from plants and animals. They evolved into a distinct kingdom over one and a half billion years ago. It’s thought that in variety, they outnumber plants by ten to one.

You may not realise that what we call the mushroom is, in fact, just one type of fungus. It’s the form that we are most familiar with and the easiest to recognise. The head of a mushroom is the cap. This is the stalk. Look underneath the cap, and you’ll find a set of sharp ridges known as gills. And it’s from the gills that the spores are released. A mushroom, is a fruiting body, it is the reproductive structure of a fungus and its sole purpose is to produce spores. Eventually, when the spores are fully ripened, they drop off into that air space between the gills, and fall from the mushroom, they are then carried away by air currents.

We can do something called a spore print. Every mushroom has its own unique spore print. These spores are like the seeds of a mushroom. They do create  a rather beautiful pattern on the paper. They’re just like the silhouettes of a mushroom, and that colour of the spore print is unique to that type of mushroom.

Fungi have the power to affect our lives in unexpected ways. One of the most striking displays of their power to affect our lives is through – the most widely-used type of drug on the planet – antibiotics. Antibiotics are tremendously important in our fight against infection. Up to about 30% of patients in hospital can be on antibiotics at any one time. They’re used to treat things like pneumonias, skin and soft tissue infections and prevent surgical site infections post operatively.

The invention of antibiotics has been a game changer for medicine and humankind. And we owe it all to fungi.

So far we’ve just been thinking about  the fruiting body of the mushroom, most people think that is the mushroom. But it’s only part of the organism. To understand how fungi relate to other organisms on our planet, we have to realise what’s going on underground. You might think that what we see above the ground is the main part of the fungus but the vast majority of the organism is hidden underground. It’s made up of a huge web of tiny threads, hyphae, spreading out in search of food. This network of fungal filaments is called  a mycelium.  A mycelium is the scientific name for the fungus’s feeding network. And the only way many fungi can get what they need, is by attaching themselves to other organisms, and engaging in a two-way exchange of nutrients. Symbiosis. It’s a process that results in one of the most complex, and important relationships in the natural world. It’s estimated that about 90% of all wild plants on Earth will form very special associations with fungi. The fungi will attach themselves to the plant roots, they then form sheaths on the outside, that envelop the root like a kind of glove. This is where the nutrient exchange takes place between the fungus and the root. This nutrient exchange works both ways. The fungus feeds on sugars from the plant that it needs to grow, and in return gives back water and minerals that the plant is unable to absorb enough of itself.

A healthier plant and a healthier fungus mean healthier soil. All this is invisible to us, but it’s all around us. It’s going on in every park and in every field and in every woodland in Britain. Without this relationship, plants wouldn’t thrive so well.

While some fungi are parasitic and feed on living organisms, others only eat things that are dead. These fungi are able to break down and digest organic waste and in doing so, recycle it. These fungi are called saprophytes. They are  vital for the natural world. Every dead leaf and twig and branch in this park is being consumed by fungal mycelia, which break down the cellulose and lignin and other complex compounds. So even dead wood can be digested by fungi. Were it not for the constant activity of fungal mycelia,  the whole planet would be covered with a mass of scrub and leaf. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the fungi  that digests dead plant material. They have successfully recycled the world’s natural waste for hundreds of millions of years, making entire ecosystems habitable for animals and plants.

Another amazing ability of fungi is to break down toxic waste. Fungal mycelia can break down the hydrocarbons present in much chemical waste. It’s a process called bioremediation. The fungi literally eat away the pollutants. As an experiment a heavily polluted petrochemical site in the US  was seeded with an oyster mushroom mycelium, it was later found that the soil had been transformed by the fungal mycelium and was teeming with new life, with lots of worms and insects. The  decomposition process that the fungi started is continued by other soil micro-organisms – bacteria and slime molds, and you eventually end up with soil that’s richer than it was to begin with.  The oyster mushroom mycelium can not only digest chemical waste – it can also create an entirely new soil ecosystem where plants and invertebrates can thrive.

Prayer

Watching a TV programme about fungi a few weeks ago I was amazed at how far the mycelium from a fungi spread under the ground, unseen, unsung and yet doing something absolutely crucial and amazing. It reminded me of the many unsung heroes who bring the love of God to others. Those who feed the hungry, stand up for justice, who are peacemakers, people who work with the unloved, the lonely, the homeless and all others in need. So often we come across organisations or individuals who are working selflessly, often in very difficult circumstances to show the love of God and yet they are usually unrecognised in a world that celebrates the rich and famous.

Using a stone mushroom I made something to represent the mycelium underground and we wrote the names of individuals and organisations that were bringing the love of God to others. We then wrote down the names of places or people who needed to know the love of God at this time.

Sharing bread & wine 

In this bowl with the bread
We place our hopes and dreams:
Those who are closest to us,
Those whose lives are bound up with our lives………….

And with these, we unite those more distant to us:
The whole of anonymous humankind
Scattered in every corner of the globe;
Our distant brothers and sisters remembering you in bread and wine today
A multitude of people, each reflecting your image, each needing your grace……….

And not only the living, but also the dead
We remember those who have loved us and inspired us and gone before us………

The Bread of life…………..

Into these cups of wine we pour

our sorrows and suffering,
our failings and fears,
our pain and sadness………..

The wine poured out…………

May all life – past, present and future, near and far –
Now be brought together  in this sharing of bread and wine,
And in the hope of your coming kingdom of shalom.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of birds and hippos at the bandstand!

Out time together in stunning sunshine and falling leaves and birdsong began with us writing three words describing our week. These were laid on a table – a sign of what was important to us that we had come with. We then focused on what we had come to…

Considering the beauty of our surroundings, we read part of God’s parading of creation to Job from chapter 40:15-24 in the Message – a captivating account for the hippo! With that we had a copy of Ann Lewin’s poem ‘Consider the birds’ from her wonderful book ‘Watching for the kingfisher’. We took it away to read and in search of birds we could hear and ducks in the river or pond to allow a response to the poem and to added words of Jesus – see below:

Consider the birds.

That’s one command
I have no problem with.

I held a swallow once,
Knocked senseless by some accident;
Fragile body, tiny beating heart
Cupped in my hand. The, restored,
With flirt of feathers,
Off to freedom flight.
I who have scarcely
Stirred beyond these shores,
Held one who, twice at least,
Had flown four thousand miles.
No map, no compass,
Only unerring inner certainty
Carrying him over land and ocean.
A moment to treasure.

Then there are sparrows,
So common we don’t notice them;
Eight a penny, or perhaps ten
Since decimalisation.
I wonder why you didn’t tell Job
To look at sparrows, instead of
Parading the juggernauts of your
Creation. After all,
Anyone could make a hippopotamus –
No finesse there, a lump with
Four legs and a great big head –
A child’s production.
But a sparrow, there’s craftsmanship:
Those shades of brown and gold,
Arranged and sculpted into
Subtly beautiful plumage,
Each one different;
The stocky bodies full of energy,
Brisk, going about their business,
Fighting, squabbling,
Caring for their young, chirping
In incessant cheerfulness.

In contrast to the heron,
Standing more still than a
Contemplative, alert,
Waiting for the moment.
And no-one could watch ducks,
Or better still, listen to them,
Without believing in your sense of humour.

Kingfisher’s glory, blackbird’s song,
The marvel of flight itself…
The list is endless.

And we more precious.
A mystery to ponder.

Ann Lewin

Matthew 6 26 Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds…
33 Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.
34 “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.

Back at the bandstand we brought those we were carrying to the table, writing their names there too. This led into the sharing of bread and wine with words written by Steve for the occasion:

Noah’s Ark Communion

And the animals came in two by two
Convened and expectant
It had been a harsh journey for sure
They surrounded the table
Who was to be the one?
The Lamb stirred uneasily

“This is all their fault” they agreed
The Hippo – out of kindness – began to make excuses for them
Then silence
We do need a restoration of that which was given
To put right what was wronged
To set right all relationships
They are at war with the very dust out of which they were crafted
The very fabric of what was given and this dispensation has to end.

It was the old Orangutan – so closely related – who spoke
“They have proclaimed themselves Wise when they are so dim; they have wrapped themselves with gold to cover their nakedness; they have destroyed more than they have built; they have despoiled so much of what they have touched. And therefore a willing volunteer from amongst them must come to this table and recompense for their abomination.”
Murmurs of assent in every animal tongue.

“And if this happens – the price paid – the world renewed – the red earth and the blue waters restored, we will welcome them once more at the table to eat and drink with us the gifts given.”

And then another quieter voice: “It is done. Once for all. And behold I shall make all things new.”

And so we come today because we are permitted – to this table – to share the bread within the matrix of God’s created order, with the talkative and the inarticulate, with the noisy and the silent. And we give thanks that we are invited to eat this bread.

EAT BREAD

And so we come today because we are forgiven – to this table – to share the wine within the matrix of God’s created order, with the talkative and the inarticulate, with the noisy and the silent. And we give thanks that we are invited to drink this wine.

DRINK WINE

And in those times the Lion will frolic with the Lamb, and there will be no more sorrow or tears, no more war and no more plunder because the order of the Kingdom and Queendom of God will rule for ever and ever. AMEN

And all this with golden leaves falling and swirling around us… SUCH a pleasure to be out in the midst of nature for our worship!

 

 

Small is Good

After a period when people have been away over the summer, one of us has been in hospital and visits and visitors have made it difficult for us all to be together I came across something that Ian Adams wrote about being in a small group.

We sometimes feel fragile and vulnerable because there are not many of us; just one family not being with us makes a huge hole in our number so it was encouraging to read the following.

Small is good

It may not always feel like it, but I want to suggest that when we start something like a missional community, small is good! I’d go on to suggest that smallness may even be good throughout the life of a community.

Be assured that there are really tough things that go with smallness – fragility, vulnerability, lack of recognition to name just 3 – but these challenges are full of possibility and hope.

Small is good because it opens the way to participation. If the thing is small it requires us to be involved – and when we get involved we both shape and are shaped by the experience.

Small is good because it takes us into relationship. This path can, of course also be hugely uncomfortable. But it’s in relationship with others that some of our rough edges become beautiful shapes, that Christ may be glimpsed as we learn to live, argue, accept and perhaps ultimately love our traveling companions.

Small is good because it has a vitality that cannot be easily defeated by difficulty, let-down or even persecution. The experience of people who attempt this way is that in the exposed state of smallness there can be a rediscovery of the God who is closer than we can imagine.

Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that small can be good. For 2000 years would-followers of Jesus have banded together in small groups to share the journey. It could be argued that the Church has been at its most vital and authentic when characterised by being small – and that we have struggled to live the way of Christ whenever we have become big, powerful, or the majority. So don’t be afraid of smallness. Work with it, embrace it, love it. Small is good!

Ian Adams

The One and the Many

On a beautiful, warm sunny morning we sat in the park and shared a Richard Rohr meditation:

Perennial Tradition

Richard Rohr

You can call it the collective unconscious; you can call it the One Spirit of God—the question is, why are so many people from different cultures, countries, ethnicities, educations, and religions saying very similar things today? This really is quite amazing and to my knowledge has no precedent in human history.

We are rediscovering the perennial traditiona phrase that points to an idea of a shared universal truth. Some of us called it the “wisdom tradition” which keeps showing itself in all of the world religions throughout history. This wisdom cannot be dismissed as mere syncretism—a word sometimes used to dismiss something unfamiliar or different as merely lightweight thinking, scepticism, or just wrong.

Too many of God’s holy people from other “flocks” keep saying the same or very similar things for them to be false. Hearing the same thing in different language and images helps us see the same reality more clearly.

The One and the Many
RICHARD ROHR

The beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile for us coming through matter. —Simone Weil

Much of our life we are trying to connect the dots, to pierce the heart of reality to see what is good, true, and beautiful for us. We want something lasting and transcendent.

How we search, however, will determine what we find or even want to find. I suggest that we should be searching primarily in the universal and wise depths of recurring symbols, metaphors, and sacred stories, which is where humans can find deep and lasting meaning—or personal truth. That is what we mean by the Perennial Tradition and why George Bernard Shaw wrote, “There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.” The best religious metaphors assert not just a truth held by one religion, but a universal truth.

Metaphor is the only possible language available to religion because it alone is honest about Mystery. The underlying messages that different religions and denominations use are often in strong agreement, but they use different metaphors to communicate their own experience of union with God. Jesus says, for example, “There are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and these I have to lead as well. They too listen to my voice” (John 10:16a). He is quite obviously talking metaphorically by calling people sheep. He is also saying that sometimes the outsider of the “flock” hears as well as the insider. Furthermore, he says that he cares about and respects the “other sheep,” which means that we should too. These are crucial points, and those who refuse to mine the metaphors will miss them.

Jesus’ intention here that there be “only one flock” (John 10:16b), and his later prayer “that all may be one” (John 17:21-23), can be achieved only by overcoming all otherness—so Jesus speaks of the “other sheep.” The goal is never to overcome all differences, since God clearly created us different in limitless ways. Differences are not the same as otherness, or at least they need not be. Through clever metaphors such as sheep and flocks, unity and yet differentiation, Jesus resolves what is sometimes called “the first philosophical problem” of the one and the many. How does one reconcile diversity with any underlying unity? To do this, Jesus, himself, uses many metaphors, so it is difficult to say that even he has only one and completely consistent image of God—beyond love itself!

We must never be too tied to our own metaphors as the only possible way to speak the truth. Rather, we must approach all metaphors and symbols humbly and respectfully, keeping all the inner spaces of mind, heart, and body open at the same time. I would call such respectful and non-egocentric attention “prayer.”

After a time of contemplation, we sat in the park with a takeaway coffee (Fairtrade obviously) and continued to enjoy the beauty surrounding us.

Of rocks and stones and rain and water

This last Sunday the weather suddenly broke and we met in the midst of heavy rain and bleak, low cloud – a first in a long time! We thought of those in the world who say rain as a sign of God’s rich blessing and of the Shekinah – the intense presence of God in biblical & Jewish tradition, symbolised as cloud in the Exodus narrative. So we began with thanksgiving for being in a place of blessing – our own thin place. We wrote examples of all we were grateful for and then joined together in our litany of thanksgiving.

Steve spoke about rocks and stone:
We’d just returned from our holiday in our favourite sacred place of North Pembrokeshire and revisited all our special places. We’d climbed Carningli – the rocky place of the angels, where it is believed that St Brynach would escape his monastery in Nevern to the solitude of the mountain to commune with God and be attended by the angels.

In Nevern we’d touched and revered the ancient Celtic Cross over 1000 years old. This is a steadfast reminder of the worship and prayers of the faithful down the years. Jesus himself advised that we build our lives on the solid rock of himself and his teaching. Such solid foundations would enable us to withstand the tempests of life.

In Joshua 4 as the people of Israel enter the Promised Land, Joshua instructs that’s 12 stones are taken from the River Jordan and laid down where they rest that night. These were to be a memorial to the great events that had taken place that day. This building of a cairn or a rock to bear witness to God’s dealings with his chosen people or to an individual is a feature though the Old Testament.

Long before the battles of Modernism and Post-Modernism over the nature of truth, philosophers and theologians speculated as to whether anything “solid and of permanence” could be deduced from a material world in constant process. Surely Perfection or Truth could not be found in the transience of our reality. We must look to some other realm for such a taste of transcendent Truth. This world may contain shadows but nothing more. This dualism claims, “Spirit good and Matter bad!”

However the Biblical affirmation is that God repeatedly calls his creation GOOD! And in the Celtic and Franciscan traditions such a claim is taken seriously and is celebrated. God’s good presence suffuses the created order, transience and permanence, spirit and flesh are not opposites and that God can be found in the very stuff of life. Jesus’ Incarnation – God becoming flesh – affirms this striking idea.
We had brought 12 stones taken from the ever changing estuary landscape of Nevern, which lay in the shape of a cross at our feet. We were invited to take a pebble as a prayer, a mini cairn, a commitment or promise, a memorial of some encounter or epiphany… We were to put it somewhere we might find it again and to build a Bethel (House of God) or a Shiloh (Place of Peace).

Under umbrellas – or not (depending on our lack of care or hair!) we met up again at the weeping beech. There we anointed and blessed each other with water from St Non’s well in St David’s, which is reputed to have healing properties. The rest we poured out on the ground – mindful of the story of David who poured out the water from the well in Bethlehem – and prayed for God’s blessing on others known to us who need Jesus now and for our world.

Using the words of ‘Divine entanglement’ we shared bread and wine…

 

Knowing God

So this morning at the bandstand, in glorious sunshine and warmth, we began with a prayer by David Adam called Veni Creator:

Come Lord
Come down
Come in
Come among us

Come as the wind
To move us
Come as the light
To prove us
Come as the night
To rest us
Come as the storm
To test us
Come as the sun
To warm us
Come as the stillness
To calm us

Come Lord
Come down
Come in
Come among us

Wendy led the time reviewing the past few months and weeks where we have thought about the kingdom of God being at a quantum level and carried within us and wrestled with how we know God. Much was based on her recent reading of David Adam’s book ‘Occasions for Alleluias’.
He points out that there is a problem with dissecting. Whist it is right to want to journey in our faith, to question assumptions and expand our horizons, there is a difficulty in dissecting it as with anything. A dry analysis of poetry or a novel in an English class can kill it and have us miss the spirit of it altogether. Cutting open an eye or a frog may be interesting but is far removed from the power of an eye that sees or a frog that leaps. In the same way, getting caught up with definitions of what we mean or believe can limit and, ironically, reduce, the reality of that which we experience. This linked with something Colin said last week about avoiding definitions of theological positions… (I’ve thought about that and concluded you were right Colin!)
In his book, David Adam points out that the solidity of matter is an illusion. 99.99% of matter is space – between and within cells. God loves space! It maybe links with our recent thinking of the sub-atomic level  Jesus speaking of the kingdom of God being within us?
No wonder we don’t understand God – it’s Flatland all over again! (Edwin A Abbott’s book about not understanding the dimensions beyond ours which must nevertheless exist).
But we can know something of God because God makes herself known! And so we all set out into the park with things to ponder and reflect on.:

God revealed in the world

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
‘All around us, to right and left, in front and behind, above and below, we have only to go a little beyond the frontier of sensible appearances in order to see the divine welling up and showing through… by means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. In eo vivimus. [We live in it.] As Jacob said, awakening from his dream, the world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it. Venite adoremus.’ [Come let us adore him]

The Gospel of Thomas 77 ‘’Jesus said, “Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

Exercise: Find a view, a plant, a person, a dog…to look at for a few moments and remind yourself – this is in truth a holy place and we did not know it.

God revealed in hindsight

Exodus 33: 18-23 ‘Moses said, “Please. Let me see your Glory.” GOD said, “I will make my Goodness pass right in front of you; I’ll call out the name, GOD, right before you. I’ll treat well whomever I want to treat well and I’ll be kind to whomever I want to be kind.”
GOD continued, “But you may not see my face. No one can see me and live.” GOD said, “Look, here is a place right beside me. Put yourself on this rock. When my Glory passes by, I’ll put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by. Then I’ll take my hand away and you’ll see my back. But you won’t see my face.”

Exercise: Turn and face the other direction! Often we are only aware of God’s presence in hindsight. We don’t experience him directly but can say later – God was in that, though I didn’t see it at the time… Have you had times you would say that? When? What do you now feel you know of God that you didn’t at the time?

God through journey

At the end of the book of Job, after enormous suffering and isolations and being misunderstood and misrepresented, Job says in Ch 42
‘My ears had heard about you.
But now my own eyes have seen you.’
On what basis did he say this? He had had no revelation, no answers to why his life had taken such a downward turn, no justice. Our only conclusion can be that in the trials of his experience, he had come, eventually, to a knowledge of God’s reality beyond any conception he had had of God before.

David Adam quotes WB Yeats:
“God guard me from the thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone”

Adam says that knowledge of something is rarely best communicated by words alone, but by a passion or love for the subject. Knowledge transcends facts. ‘Bone-marrow is responsible for creating red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells – approximately 500 billion per day in all- and can be viewed as the very source of life. For Yeats, thinking in the marrow-bone reflects living life in all its fullness. It is holistic, involving not only facts but also reality and our relation to it. Facts alone do not translate into real knowledge: facts can be written down and memorised, but what we know with our whole being cannot.’

Exercise: Have a walk and mull over these ideas: Think, to what degree has the journey our lives have taken – our experiences – led to a reshaping of who God is and what our faith means? What might it mean to know God with our whole being – in the marrow-bone?

God through love

In ‘The Cloud of unknowing’, the author says, “To our intellect God is evermore incomprehensible… By our love he may be gotten and holden: by thought never.”

John 4:12 ‘No one has ever seen God. But if we love one another, God lives in us. His love is made complete in us.’

Exercise: Look at the palm of your hand. The kingdom of God is within us – it is held in our very hands. God inhabits the gaps between and within our very atoms. God’s love is within us. God is not beyond us, not far off and we know God better every time we love. How can we love better in this coming week?

We then returned to the bandstand to pray for those who need to be encompassed by the kingdom of God, held in God’s love, to know and be known by their Creator Mother, Lover and Friend…

Finally we used Steve’s Pentecost Bread and wine words from last Pentecost as

God in bread and wine:

There are advantages to being 1,985 years old. I have always had some advantages even when they weren’t apparent. “The Bride of Christ” is what they called me. Really! And I was barely out of nappies then.
I have carried that with me though – in the difficult times. I have had to. Remember those dear Copts will you?
People ask what the secret is to a long life. I think they’re expecting me to keel over tomorrow. I always reply, “Taking a little wine” and they laugh! Not realising, I suppose, that the blood is that which gives everlasting life. Wine and a little bread.
I suppose that age lends a certain perspective. Highs and lows – leaven leavens unevenly. Some ground is stony. But we march still. Eyes fixed on the Bridegroom – he who laid down his life for us.
So take now the bread – for you it might be us, the body or his body. Let it nurture.
So take now the wine – for you it might be Happy Birthday wine, the wine of renewal and resurrection.
And so in our 1,986th year, let’s now go out with hope as our guide and with faith our firm foundation. May you and yours be entwined in the Trinitarian God. Amen.

And we finished with a blessing from St Augustine, quoted in David Adam’s book:

All shall be Amen and Alleluia.
We shall rest and we shall see.
We shall see and we shall know.
We shall know and we shall love.
We shall love and we shall praise.
Behold our end, which is no end.

Hoorah for searching and stretching faith but hoorah for ultimately knowing God beyond words, in the marrow-bone!

Parables

We met in the bandstand as usual for our Sunday morning worship:

welcome

to what you cannot see
to what you cannot control
to what you cannot ignore
to what you cannot hide from

welcome

the welcome is universal
the entrance is free
the invitation is open
the hand is extended
the time is now…..

welcome

to overflowing generosity
to gentle nourishment
to unspoken prayer
to inarticulate longing

welcome

to actions beyond words
to help without asking
to provision without measure
to hospitality without price
welcome

take hold of the unknown
accept the unconditional
let go of limitation
trust what you cannot question

god welcomes you

welcome

whether you deserve it or not
whether you think you deserve it or not

you are welcome
they welcome you to their mystery
their depth from which all creation springs

god welcomes you

the creator of everything….
the word that no-one recognised….
the spirit bringing tenderness without words….

they welcome you……

adapted from jonny baker –  worship trick 67 in series 4

PARABLES

A parable is a succinct story that makes an important point or teaches an important lesson. It differs from a fable in that fables employ animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature as characters, whereas parables always have human characters. The word for parable, mashal, translates literally as “side by side” (parallel explanations).

Sometimes parables have been used to say “hidden things”. Jesus often taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him this way and often expected them to work out the meaning.  When doing this it is essential that each parable is viewed as a whole rather than allegorising the parts.

A parable is often a type of analogy. Jesus also used metaphor, irony, exaggeration, satire and humour to make his point.

Jesus parables often involved:

  • stories from everyday life,
  • repeating traditional stories,
  • provocative statements,
  • oft repeated phrases.

Through parables Jesus invited his hearers to act on the truth of his vision for society.

His parables almost always shattered some kind of misconception about the world, about God, and about how we should act towards others.

He never used personal confession.

Sometimes he used parables in order to answer questions asked by a disciple or a Pharisee, Sadducee or lawyer. Jesus parables were about everyday life and he used them to show what God is really like, to reveal the values of the kingdom of God, and to shine a light on the many injustices in society.

 

Mark 4:1,2.

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered round him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge.  He taught them many things by parables………………..

Then we spent a few minutes around the park reading the following parables:

The parable of the persistent cleaner.

There was a woman who travelled from a far away country to a big city. She found work as a cleaner in a venerable institute of learning.  She soon  learned that she was not employed by the venerable institute of learning, but by a large multinational company.

One day while waiting for a bus she tells a fellow cleaner that her hours of work have been reduced contrary to what is stated in her contract of employment.  She worries about how her family will cope with even less money.  Her companion gives her a card with the name and address of a trade union.  But her friend says: “Don’t tell anyone that I gave you this”.

At first she is fearful because her employer will have no truck with unions.  She eventually found the courage to go to the union.  The union intervened on her behalf and sorted out her hours and missing back pay, she was so pleased she agreed to become an organiser for the union in her place of work.

Sometime later the woman thought it would be a good idea if the cleaners were actually employed by the venerable institute of learning.  The woman wanted access to sick pay, holiday pay, the minimum wage and all the rights afforded to the teaching and admin staff.  Everyone said it was impossible and when the woman approached the multinational company for these rights she was ignored.

So the woman approached the Student’s Union and the teaching staff for support.  They then badgered the venerable institute of learning’s management to take some responsibility for the “outsourced” workers.  With this help they eventually got the company to recognise the union.  Then after more pressure from the union, the teaching staff and the Student’s Union the institute’s management persuaded the multinational company to agree to pay some sick pay, some holiday pay and the minimum wage.

The woman was persistent and kept plugging away for changes with both the company and the venerable institute of learning. The company continued to mismanage the workforce causing outrage and forcing the venerable institute of learning to intervene.

Her persistence exhausted  both. And so the management of the venerable institute of learning brought all facilities; cleaners, catering staff and security staff back in-house.

The woman fought harder and longer than a multinational outsourcing company and eventually got better pay, plus full sick pay and paid holidays for 120 workers at the venerable institute of learning.

The Businessman and The Fisherman.

A wealthy businessman travelled to a distant island to relax and feel the sun on his face. One day he walked down to the quayside. A small boat with just one fisherman had docked and inside the boat was the morning’s catch.

“How long did it take you to catch them?” he asked.
“Just this morning” the fisherman replied.
“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” he asked.
“I have enough to support my family and give a few to neighbours,”

the fisherman said as he unloaded his catch.
“But what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The fisherman looked up and smiled,  “I sleep in the heat of the day, play with my children, chat to  my wife and stroll into the village in the evening, where

I drink wine and sing with my friends”.

The wealthy businessman laughed, “I can help you. You should fish more, and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. In no time you could have several boats with the increase in catches. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Then instead of selling your catch to the middleman, you could sell directly to consumers. You could control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small village and move to the city to run your expanding business.”
The fisherman asked “But, sir, how long will all this take?”
“15- 20 years.” said the businessman.
“But what then?” asked the fisherman.

The businessman laughed and said “That’s the best part, when the time is right, you sell your company and become rich”.
Then what do I do?” asked the fisherman.
The wealthy businessman replied, “Then you could retire and move to a small coastal village, where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your grandchildren, take a nap with your wife during the heat of the day, and stroll in to the village in the evenings where you could drink wine and sing with your friends.”

“Which is exactly what I do now!” replied the fisherman.

Everyone had been asked to bring along a copy of one of Jesus’s parables and a notepad and pen.

We again went and sat in the park and tried to answer one of the following questions:

Parables?

Either:

  1. Write a modern version of the parable you have brought?

OR

  1. How might you relate the parable to Britain today? Who would be the key players in the story?

OR

  1. Apply the parable to your own life. How are you like _____ in the story?

OR

  1. Imagine yourself in the crowd listening to Jesus, how would you react to the story? How would you apply the challenge of the parable to life today?

 

People returned to the bandstand and shared the thoughts they had come up with.

We next shared bread and wine before retiring to Cool River for Fairtrade coffee and hot chocolate.

sharing bread and wine:

In this place, through bread and wine,

we renew our journey with Jesus.

In this place, through bread and wine,

we renew our community with each another,

and with all who have worshipped with us.

In this place, through bread and wine,

we renew our communion with the earth and all living things.

 

We who have so much and are so blessed

give thanks for life and love,

for human relationships,

for good food and warm shelter,

and for all nature which surrounds us.

 

But especially we give thanks for Jesus of Nazareth:

story teller,

social vision weaver,

jubilee proclaimer,

justice demander,

violence rejecter,

power confronter,

price payer,

god revealer,

bread breaker,

wine pourer.

 

Long ago, on the night of his arrest,

Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it:

‘This bread is broken, as my body will be’.

And he handed it to his friends, and invited them to eat:

 

Long ago, on that same night,

Jesus poured wine into a cup, offered thanks:

This wine is poured out, as my life will be.

He gave it to his friends, and invited them to drink:

 

 

Constantine the Great

On Wednesday, 6th of June we met at Moca. Since it was a pleasant evening we sat outside to look at the life of Constantine and how his conversion to Christianity changed both the history of the world and the history of the church.

The World of Constantine – power and empire.

Constantine was born in 272 in Naissus, modern day Nis in Serbia. His father was Constantius, an ambitious army officer, his mother was Helena, a woman of lowly birth. After about 20 years together Constantius divorced Helena in about 290 in order to marry a woman from the Roman elite, he did this in order to further his political ambitions. In 293 Constantius was appointed Caesar (junior emperor) of the west with responsibility for Britain and France. Helena became a Christian – we do not know when, but she seems to have been a very keen and pious Christian, and no doubt had some influence with Constantine, particularly after he became emperor, in matters of Christianity.

Even the tetrarchy was unable to do away with hereditary privilege and so Constantine went to Diocletian’s court at Nicomedia to be educated as a candidate for future appointment as Caesar. During this time Constantine also campaigned with the army on the eastern front of the empire. He returned to Nicomedia from the eastern front in the spring of 303, just in time to witness the start of Diocletian’s Great Persecution (303 – 305), regarded by many historians as the most severe persecution of Christians in Roman history. (It is important to note that emperors varied greatly in their reaction to Christianity, from outright hostility to total indifference. Another factor was how zealously local governors implemented imperial decrees.)  The persecution seems to have been worse in the eastern part of the empire, Constantius enforced without much enthusiasm only the initial anti-Christian decrees in Britain and France.

Due to severe illness Diocletian abdicated in May 305, in a parallel ceremony in Milan, Maximian also resigned as Augustus. Galerius who was Caesar in the east persuaded Diocletian to appoint him to Augustus. Constantine expected to become Caesar, but was overlooked because he wasn’t an ally of Galerius. Thereafter Constantine was kept at court in Nicomedia so Galerius could keep an eye on him – he was in effect under house arrest

His future depended on being rescued by his father and escaping to the west. In the summer of 305, Constantius visited Galerius and requested that Constantine be allowed to join him to help his campaign in Britain. Galerius initially refused, but after a long night of heavy drinking agreed to let Constantine leave. Constantine claims that he was ready to leave as soon as his father obtained permission, he immediately fled from the court at night with his guard (probably a group of his father’s cavalry troops), before Galerius could change his mind. They rode away at high speed so that when Galerius awoke the next day Constantine would be too far away to be caught and brought back. Constantine joined his father in northern France before crossing the channel to Britain and on to York (Eboracum), home to the largest military garrison in Britain. Constantine spent the next year in northern Britain (the future Scotland) campaigning against the Picts. It is thought that the campaign penetrated as far north as Inverness. Constantine had been a popular officer with the eastern army, in Britain he was equally popular with the western army. They returned to York in the summer of 306, where Constantius died in July. Before his death he declared that Constantine should become Augustus of the west. Upon Constantius’s  death the York garrison proclaimed Constantine emperor. this was followed by troops throughout both Britain and France proclaiming him emperor. Constantine, was very astute, he did not travel to Rome but instead sent a portrait of himself dressed as an Augustus and wreathed in bay. He requested recognition as heir of his father and blames the army for his claim to the throne, saying that it had been forced upon him. Galerius apparently went into a rage and wanted to set the portrait on fire, while Maxentius, a claimant to power who feels he has been overlooked, mocks the portrait’s subject as the son of a whore!

Galerius’s advisers calm him down and persuade him to offer Constantine the position of Caesar in the west in order to avert civil war. He makes clear that he alone grants Constantine this position and sends him the emperor’s purple robes. Constantine accepted the decision knowing that it removed all doubts as to his legitimacy.

For the next six years Constantine remains in Britain and France campaigning against Rome’s enemies, and keeping well out of the way of political machinations in Rome, Milan and Nicomedia.

In the autumn of 306 Maxentius seized power in Rome by deposing Galerius’s appointee as Augustus, Severus. In the east Galerius became very ill in 311, his final act before his death was to send out letters to governors proclaiming an end to the persecution of Christians. He died soon afterwards, and Licinius became Augustus of the east.

Maxentius and Constantine both try to form alliances with Licinius. Constantine managed to forge an alliance by offering his sister, Constantia, in marriage to Licinius.

Maxentius’s rule was never popular outside Italy and by 312, Constantine, Licinius and Maxentius were all preparing for war. It was a time of which Bishop and historian Eusebius, claimed that “not a day went by when people did not expect the onset of hostilities”.

In the autumn of 312 Constantine invaded Italy, won battles at Turin and Verona and marched on Rome. The day before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (a bridge over the Tiber into Rome) Constantine claimed he saw a cross in the sky above the sun with the words in Greek that are usually translated: “in this sign conquer”. The special significance of the vision was that Constantine, a pagan, was a worshipper of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.

Constantine had his troops mark their shields with the sign of the cross before the battle.

Maxentius made several blunders before and during the battle. He did not need to leave the city to engage Constantine, having very large reserves of food and water, and monumental defences. He had also partially demolished the Milvian Bridge to block Constantine’s entry into Rome and built a temporary pontoon bridge over the Tiber for his troops to leave the city in order to engage Constantine’s army.  There is no doubt that Constantine was a very accomplished and skilful general, but Maxentius lined his troops up too close to the Tiber. Constantine reacted by ordering his cavalry to charge into the opposing cavalry. He then ordered his infantry to charge. Because Maxentius had set his troops too close to the Tiber, when they were driven back by the initial onslaught they had no room in which to regroup and so panic ensued.  Maxentius’s decision to order his troops to retreat was catastrophic.

His intention was to make a strategic withdrawal, protecting his army so that he would be able to mount a successful defence of Rome from the city walls. But with only a narrow strip of stone bridge and a rocking, heaving wooden pontoon as a crossing, the retreat across the Tiber became a rout as Constantine’s men continued to surge forward. A large number of troops drowned and others were slaughtered trying to climb out of the river. Maxentius himself drowned. Constantine had his body recovered from the Tiber, ordered that his head be cut off and then rode into Rome holding Maxentius’s head impaled on a spear. The other decisive factor in the battle was that Maxentius’s troops were used to a relatively easy life in Italy, while Constantine’s troops were battle hardened from campaigning  in Britain, France and holding back the Germanic tribes along the empire’s northern border.

In 315 the Senate dedicated a triumphal arch in Rome to honour Constantine, with an inscription praising him because “with divine instigation” he and his army had won the victory. Interestingly it did not say which god had provided the “instigation” for victory and so people could credit it to Sol Invictus, the Christian God, Jupiter, Mars, Apollo, Mithras, Hercules  or whichever god they chose!

In early 313 Constantine and Licinius met in Milan. They produced the Edict of Milan, a very important decree which provided freedom of religion to Christians, but also to Jews and Pagans – “to Christians and to all others full authority to follow whatever worship each person has desired”.  It required that the wrongs done to Christians in the recent persecutions be righted, including the restoration of confiscated items. It also stopped Jews from being able to stone to death Christian converts from Judaism. This Edict is not about human rights – ideas totally alien to Roman Emperors. It is about stability, stability within the empire, “to secure public order” and avoid social unrest. Constantine was very superstitious and so it’s also about placating the Christian God – who after Constantine’s victory is regarded as being very powerful, while at the same time trying to keep the many pagan gods happy.

The Edict did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire. This was done by Emperor Theodosius I in 380.

Constantine and Licinius ruled the west and east of the empire until 324. Licinius was accused of reneging on the Edict of Milan by sacking Christians from important positions and by confiscations. This is regarded by many historians as exaggerated in order to justify war and allow Constantine to take control of the whole empire. Licinius was a lot less supportive of Christianity and he probably saw the Church as being far more loyal to Constantine.

After a series of battles Constantine eventually prevailed at the Battle of Chrysopolis in September 324. Licinius surrendered at Nicomedia on condition that he would be spared. He was sent to live as a private citizen in Thessalonica, but in 325 Constantine accused Licinius of plotting against him and had him hanged. Constantine was now sole emperor of the Roman Empire.

In the summer of 326 Constantine had his eldest son put to death, and later that summer he had the Empress Fausta, killed in “an over-heated bath”. Their names were wiped from inscriptions, references to their lives in the literary record were eradicated, and the memory of both was condemned.

After 324 Constantine decided to move his capital to the Greek city of Byzantium, he carried out extensive rebuilding, which included the Church of the Holy Apostles. The city was dedicated in May 330, and renamed  Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The western part of the empire was more difficult to control than the east, with serious threats of invasion from barbarian tribes to the north, Constantine therefore saw it as prudent to move his capitol to the eastern part of his empire. He was proved correct as the Byzantine Empire continued in the east for over a thousand years.

Constantine died in Constantinople in 337 having changed history, and the history of the church.

 

Constantine and Christianity – the church after 312.

 Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity in 312 changed both the history of the world and the history of the church.

Recovering from a time of persecution it’s perfectly understandable that  church leaders welcomed Constantine’s reign with his adoption of the Christian cult alongside paganism. But unfortunately they were willing to make compromises, particularly about Jesus of Nazareth, so as not to offend the Emperor,  which proved detrimental to Christianity.

Constantine like every other King from every ancient civilisation from China to Peru would have regarded himself as divine. The bishops had to be careful how they portrayed Jesus – he could not be more divine than the emperor, so the answer was to play down Jesus and emphasis the cosmic Christ. This also involved spiritualising Jesus teaching so that it offered little or no challenge to the powers that be, and emphasising the virgin birth and his death and resurrection.

As the church absorbed Roman culture this was reflected in art. The Christian God began to be depicted as Jupiter/Zeus and Christ as the emperor with all the trappings of imperial power.

Philippa Adrych writes: Zeus on his throne was replaced by the new Christian God, ruler of heaven and earth, and the emperor, long associated with a variety of divinities, now imparted his image onto the figure of Christ.

When Constantine came to power Christians were still a minority, but a large minority. The recent persecution, which had just ended, did not stop the faith growing. Up to this point Christianity had been largely popular among slaves, soldiers and the lower orders of Roman society.

After 312 Christianity gained legal toleration and imperial approval which helped the church to grow rapidly. Bishop and church historian Eusebius, wrote of “the hypocrisy of people who crept into the church” hoping for the emperor’s favour. Adopting the Christian religion suddenly became a way to enhance one’s prospects in society.

Robert Markus writes: There had been rich Christians before Constantine, but rarely can their Christianity have contributed to their standing in society, their wealth or power. But from now on, their religion could itself become a source of prestige, and did so to the dismay of bishops who, like Eusebius, were sometimes inclined to look for less worldly motives for conversion to Christianity.

Markus continues: As it rose to dominance, Christianity had seamlessly absorbed Roman culture, and the lifestyle of these urban elite Christians was almost identical to that of their pagan peers except that Christians went to church. The lack of a distinctive Christian lifestyle troubled many thoughtful believers. Many committed Christians reacted by embracing asceticism, esteeming virginity, poverty and self-denial. Thus monastic communities came into being.

In 325 Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to iron out theological questions. Most centred around the idea of the Trinity, and the relationship between the Father and the Son in terms of equality. They formulated the Nicene Creed, affirming the concept of the Trinity, that the three persons were co-equal and co-eternal and that Jesus Christ was ‘of the same substance’ as the Father. This laid the foundations for only one kind of Christianity –

Nicene, Trinitarian, Substitutionary Atonement Christianity.  All other forms of Christianity were from now on heretical.

These changes during Constantine’s rule opened the way for the most shameful behaviour, the coming decades and centuries were marked by violent persecutions against pagans and other Christians, particularly Arians.  Emperor Theodosius I in 380 made Christianity the official religion of the empire. He was a zealous persecutor of pagans and Christians, whom he regarded as heretics. In the coming centuries Byzantine emperors passed laws which forbade any form of Christianity which was not orthodox (Nicene Trinitarian), forbade many pagan practices and harshly discriminated against Jews and Samaritans.

It is a sad fact that almost as soon as religious liberty was granted for Christians in the Roman Empire, Christian on Christian  and Christian on pagan persecution and violence began, and accelerated when Christianity became the official religion of the empire. It is greatly to the dishonour of Christians that this took place.

During the third century AD, the church changed from poor to rich, from despised to respectable, from persecuted to persecutor, from shame to honour, from the cross to the sword, from non-violence to imperial power, from the Kingdom to Christendom, from Jesus the radical, non-violent preacher to Christ triumphant – depicted as the emperor whose servants weald great power.

Thus Christendom was created, an empire where every citizen must be subservient  to a sovereign lord crowned as a Christian ruler, and where laws were created to harass, exile, torture or kill all who disagree with state orthodoxy, whether Christian heretic, pagan or Jew.

Centuries of warfare between Christians followed, initially Trinitarian against Arian.

These changes which left Christians divided and self-absorbed paved the way for the rapid advance of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. This lead to the crusades, which of course were mostly targeted at Muslims, but Roman Catholics also took the opportunity along the way to massacre Orthodox Christians and Jews. Doctrinal differences continued to the Reformation and beyond as Protestants and Roman Catholics burned each other at the stake in sixteenth century England, and fought religious wars across northern Europe. In southern Europe and Latin America the Inquisition tortured and murdered many thousands of “heretics”. Christianity had largely parted ways with the Kingdom and became firmly embedded in nation and empire.

 

Constantine – a personal viewpoint.

Constantine was  very ambitious, astute and when deemed necessary ruthless.  Without these qualities he wouldn’t have become emperor nor been able to hold on to power . He was also a very skilled and formidable general who was able to inspire great loyalty from the  troops he commanded.

There are many varying opinions about his reaction to Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. I don’t believe Constantine would have been in  favour of persecution simply because it would have led to less social stability rather than more, and why unnecessarily alienate a sizable minority when you want to become emperor? On the other hand I don’t believe that he would have opposed the persecution as some contemporary Christian writers claimed. Diocletian was  second only to his father in sponsoring him to become either Caesar or Augustus in the Tetrarchy.  So there is no way that he would have risked losing Diocletian’s favour.

He was not afraid to make radical changes when circumstances dictated, on coming to power he immediately disbanded the Praetorian Guard.  Constantine believed that they were a threat to his safety as they had been loyal to Maxentius. By this time the Praetorian Guard had become a formidable force of 15,000 troops. Disbanding the Guard was presumably made easier because many had died in the battle for Rome. Constantine formed his own personal bodyguard made up of the most loyal and able troops who had accompanied him from Britain.

Constantine was very shrewd and calculating. He had a knack of not rushing into things, but seems to have been able to bide his time and strike at the right moment.  He waited six years before invading Italy and attacking Rome to become Augustus of the west. He waited another twelve years before attacking Licinius, to fulfil his ambition of becoming the empire’s sole emperor. There are a couple of old fashioned sayings that are most apt with regard to Constantine: “never bite off more than you can chew” – he never did; and “strike while the iron’s hot” – he always seems to have done so.

Constantine’s conversion to Christianity causes problems for historians and leads to almost as many opinions as there are writers.  Up until 312 emperors had always been either hostile or indifferent to Christianity. Look at it from their point of view. How could an emperor subscribe to a religion that involved the worship of a Jewish criminal that the empire’s agents had executed by crucifixion? Emperors would also have had a huge problem in accepting that this Jewish criminal was more divine than they were. That’s why I believe church leaders played down Jesus and his teaching and emphasised Christ so as not to offend the new emperor.

From the point of view of contemporary Christians his “conversion”  must have seemed miraculous.  This is unsurprising as within two years Christians went from suffering persecution to being able to worship freely.

I’m sure Constantine had some sort of spiritual experience, possibly a dream or a vision of some kind. He interpreted this as being from the Christian God and when he defeated Maxentius the next day he truly believed that this god must be very powerful, and that he needed to placate him.

His understanding of Christianity must have been very unsophisticated, and I can’t believe that he grasped the implications of what it really meant to be a Christian, for example how its converts were required to devote themselves exclusively to Christianity. His mother, Helena, a pious Christian must have had some influence over him with regard to Christianity, particularly after he became emperor.

Along with Licinius, Constantine produced the Edict of Milan, in 313, which must rank as one of his greatest achievements.  The Edict stated that Christians should be allowed to practice their faith without persecution. It cancelled penalties for professing Christianity and  decreed that confiscated property must be returned to both the Church and individual Christians.  The Edict also protected all other religions from persecution, allowing anyone to worship whichever god they chose. This was not about human rights, but about social stability and about placating the Christian God to whom he believed he owed his success.

This however did not lead to a totally “Christian” style of rule. Some of his actions were definitely still pagan. Throughout his life he held the title of Pontifex Maximus,  a position Roman Emperors held as head of the Roman State Cult. At the time of the dedication of the Arch of Constantine, in 315, sacrifices were made to Sol Invictus, Apollo, Diana, Victoria and Hercules.  When he founded his new capitol of Constantinople, as well as building churches, Constantine erected some pagan temples and statues.

Throughout his rule, Constantine supported the Church, built basilicas such as Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. He also granted certain tax exemptions to clergy and promoted Christians to high office. Emperors had always favoured a particular cult, Constantine was different in that his favoured cult was the Christ-cult. Throughout his reign he appears to have gradually increased his favour of  the Christian cult over pagan ones.

In order to gain power and to hold on to it he had to be ruthless, this was borne out by the murder of his wife, the Empress Fausta, and the executions of his oldest son, Crispus and his defeated rival, Licinius.

He was also very ambitious and desired to be sole Emperor.  He was ambitious and ruthless enough to brand Licinius as anti-Christian in order to start a war with the aim of becoming sole emperor. Licinius seems to have been far less supportive of  Christianity than Constantine, and probably saw the church as being much more loyal to Constantine.

Constantine  was clearly very astute and foresighted. He seems to have thought that Christianity was the future for the empire, and had the foresight to move the capitol  east to Constantinople because the western part of the empire was more difficult to control, with serious threats of invasion from barbarian tribes to the north. He was proved correct as the Byzantine Empire continued in the east for more than a thousand years.

The greatest achievements of his reign must surely have been the Edict of Milan, and moving the empire’s capital east to Constantinople.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your God is too small. Your God is too male!

So, this morning at the bandstand we started to look at the metaphors we use for God and whether they limit God / us. We all acknowledge in theory that God is neither male nor female – God is Spirit and both male and female equally reflect God’s image (Genesis 1:27). We know in theory that terms used for God like ‘Father’ Lord’ ‘King’ Son’ are metaphors and not literal and we know that Jesus used female imagery for God – the woman working the yeast into the dough, the woman searching for the lost coin, the hen wanting to gather her chicks under her wings… We know that in Isaiah God uses imagery of being a mother nursing and being loyal to her children and yet, the prevailing view of God is male and pretty much exclusively our language is of Him and He is male in practice!

We live in an age where we have realised that some language we use needs to be changed. We need to be sensitised to  language we have used in the past without thought for the implications of it – think of racial terms, words used about sexual orientation, people with disabilities… So is it high time we challenged the limited terms we actually use for God to begin to match what we say we believe with our practice? Am I fair in saying that if we say we believe something but don’t do anything about it, we don’t really believe it?

So, we read some of Isaiah 40 without the male pronouns and occasionally ‘Mother’ inserted next to God too. See where the change in metaphor leads you – what new ideas / feelings come to light with that one shift:

Isaiah 40

9-11 Climb a high mountain, Zion.
You’re the preacher of good news.
Raise your voice. Make it good and loud, Jerusalem.
You’re the preacher of good news.
Speak loud and clear. Don’t be timid!
Tell the cities of Judah,
“Look! Your Mother God!”

Like a shepherd, she will care for her flock,
gathering the lambs in her arms,
Hugging them as she carries them,
leading the nursing ewes to good pasture.

12-17 Who has scooped up the ocean
in her two hands,
or measured the sky between her thumb and little finger,
Who has put all the earth’s dirt in one of her baskets,
weighed each mountain and hill?
Who could ever have told Mother GOD what to do
or taught her her business?
What expert would she have gone to for advice,
what school would she attend to learn justice?
What god do you suppose might have taught her what she knows,
showed her how things work?
Why, the nations are but a drop in a bucket,
a mere smudge on a window.
Watch her sweep up the islands
like so much dust off the floor!

All the nations add up to simply nothing before her—
less than nothing is more like it. ‘A’ minus.
18-20 So who even comes close to being like God?
To whom or what can you compare her?

21-24 Have you not been paying attention?
Have you not been listening?
Haven’t you heard these stories all your life?
Don’t you understand the foundation of all things?
Mother God sits high above the round ball of earth.
The people look like mere ants.
She stretches out the skies like a canvas—
yes, like a tent canvas to live under.

25-26 “So—who is like me?
Who holds a candle to me?” says The Holy.

27-31 Why would you ever complain, O Jacob,
or, whine, Israel, saying,
“Mother GOD has lost track of me.
She doesn’t care what happens to me”?
Don’t you know anything Haven’t you been listening?
MOTHER GOD doesn’t come and go. God lasts.
She’s Creator of all you can see or imagine.
She doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch her breath.
And she knows everything, inside and out.
She energizes those who get tired,
gives fresh strength to dropouts.
For even young people tire and drop out,
young folk in their prime stumble and fall.
But those who wait upon Mother GOD get fresh strength.
They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don’t get tired,
they walk and don’t lag behind.

We discussed our responses and read Psalm 100 & Psalm 98 in the same vein before considering the problems with metaphors for the Trinity – Father and Son so clearly male and Holy Spirit genderless in theory but ‘he’ nevertheless. The Theologian Sallie McFague suggests using Mother (relating to Creation, justice and agape love), Lover (relating to salvation, healing and eros love) and Friend (relating to eschatology, companionship and philia love). It’s hard to argue that the doctrine is unsound, so what difference might it make to bless someone in the name of the Mother, Lover and Friend? What do these metaphors open us up to of the reality of all that God is and more?

So we prayed to God our Mother for justice in the world and to God our lover for healing for those in need and to God our Friend to be companion to those we named…

We shared bread and wine with these words (bearing in mind that whilst Jesus of Nazareth was a man, the pre-existent second person of the Trinity is neither male nor female)

This is the great mystery.
God the Lover emptied herself to become human and give herself for us.
As Jesus, she/he broke bread and said ‘This is my body broken for you. Eat this in remembrance of me.
The body of Christ
In the same way, God the Lover as Jesus, took wine, and spoke of it as a new covenant sealed with blood.
The blood of Christ.

And yes – it does feel odd to use female terms – but didn’t it feel odd to change other language we have changed before we got used to it? And if we balk at using ‘herself’ doesn’t that mean we believe God to be male after all? Really?

Our homework is to practice using such terms for God in our prayers. Whenever I find myself saying ‘Father’ or ‘Lord’ I add ‘Mother’ or ‘Sister’ to redress the balance. None of these terms are wrong but none are literally true and perhaps we get a bigger God when we expand our vision of her!

Our closing blessing:

So may God our Mother inspire us to love justice and to love selflessly

may God the Lover inspire us to heal the hurting and rescue the needy

And may God the Friend inspire us to know how to welcome others to journey with us.

Amen.