All Saints Margaret Street | Second Sunday before Lent Sunday 3 February 2013

Sermon for Second Sunday before Lent Sunday 3 February 2013

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


Readings: Genesis2.4b-9,15-25; Psalm 56; Revelation 4; Luke 8.22-25


Our readings take us from the beginning of the Bible to the end; from the first book Genesis to the last, Revelation.  The canon of Scripture begins and ends with the purposes of God in and for the whole creation and humankind at the heart of that creation. The story of God’s relationship with his people and then his coming among us, his sharing of the life of his creation in Jesus Christ, is framed by the grand perspectives of the first and last books of scripture.  

But we would be naïve to pretend that these books do not present us with considerable problems. Neither is straightforward.  Our passage from Genesis follows on from the first chapter with its familiar “in the beginning” and its poetic refrain, “and God saw that it was good.”  This sounds like liturgy, the language of worship, like our psalm today or the hymn by St. Francis which we sang at the beginning (“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation”). This is probably where it had its origin; in the praise of God for creation.  Our passage is linked but different. 

In the first passage, God creates the various forms of creature and then man; in the second, it is the other way round. This should tell us that we are not dealing here with the record of scientific observation and research but with theology which uses the language of story to see the existence of the world, not as mere accident, but as the work of God. The ideology of scientism, rather than science, ignores the fact that our very understanding that our world is intelligible at all owes much to the belief that it is the product of a creative mind and will rather than mere accident. Something of that creative mind and will is imparted by God to human beings: so we see the man naming the creatures as God brings them before him.  We do not need to be a biologist, merely a watcher of the life’s work of David Attenborough to know that this process of naming, of discernment and understanding, is still going on as we discover previously unknown life forms in the heart of the tropical rain forests or the depths of the ocean.

God places man in a garden which has everything needed to sustain life but he is not to be idle; he is to “till it and keep it.”  Human life includes both work and a duty of care for the garden, the world in which it is set. It has often been argued that the biblical language of human dominion over creation has been the primary cause of the destruction of our environment. It is certainly true that some biblical fundamentalists who misread scripture to see creation not as good but bad and look forward not to its fulfilment,  but to its destruction from which the faithful will be rescued, have seen the destruction or preservation of the environment as of no concern. Such voices have had too much influence on the United States. But a strong case has been made that our short term and destructive exploitation of the garden in which God has set us is due much more to the triumph of a supposedly enlightened and scientific world view which sees man as being in charge: having eaten of the tree of knowledge being free to eat of the tree of life as if there was no tomorrow.   

Genesis sees us having a vocation to till and keep the land, permission to enjoy its fruits, but also a prohibition: we are to live according to God’s commands and failure to do that had death-dealing consequences.  Elsewhere in the Old Testament, especially in the Wisdom literature, the tree of life refers to anything which enhances human life: righteousness and a gentle tongue in Proverbs.  The tree of knowledge is not really taken anywhere else in scripture, but that has not prevented much speculation. Does it mean omniscience, sexual awareness, moral discernment?  The most likely answer is that it means moral autonomy: making decisions without reference of God. But Scripture teaches us that we are not autonomous: our well-being depends on obedience to the will of God.  So we read in Psalm 19.7-9: “The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure making wise the simple; the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever; the judgements of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.”  I’ve quoted it from the Authorised Version as Abraham Lincoln did in his Second Inaugural Speech when speaking about the consequences of slavery. You can hear Daniel Day Lewis doing it splendidly in Stephen Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.” The world in which we have been set is a moral universe as well as a material one.

If our relationship with the world in which we are set is a live issue, then the second part of our passage is equally so. The first account speaks of man and woman being created equally and simultaneously in the image of God; the second of woman being created from man.  Once again, we should take heed that we are not speaking here of scientific record. We need only to have listened to the news in the last few days to know that what is touched upon here is still a hot issue: and that’s before we get to the issue of women as bishops.

  • The foreign secretary, Mr. William Hague, has been speaking about the need to outlaw rape as a weapon of war.
  • An immensely courageous young woman from Pakistan is in hospital in Birmingham after being shot by the Taliban for speaking out for girl’s right to education.
  • On the news yesterday, we saw women in Timbuktu celebrating their liberation from the oppressive hand of Islamic jihadists who had forced them to cover everything but their eyes.
  • The gang rape of a young woman in India has provoked national outrage in a society in which for too long sexual abuse was simply taken from granted and its victims ignored or shamed.

Nor can we be complacent about the appalling levels of sexual abuse in our own country and the continuing failure of our police and judicial systems to bring its perpetrators to justice. The internet which so many of us rely on for work, communication, entertainment, also harbours a dark world of pornography, often violent and abusive.  Researchers tells us that a large proportion of young men now learn much of what they understand about sex from online pornography: so they are learning to see what should be the most intimate and precious of human relations, not in terms of loving relationship but of abuse and exploitation. Women are merely objects for their selfish gratification. This is not what the Bible means by being naked and unashamed.

The “spare rib” picture of the creation of one half of humankind, has been used as a justification for patriarchy, misogyny and the subjugation on women. But the account needs to be listened to with rather more care than we often bring to it.  The fact that woman is described in the story as being created out of man, does not imply that she is inferior to man, anymore than the fact that man is created from the dust means that man is inferior to the dust.  Man is seen as superior to the dust and we might even argue that woman is therefore superior to man, having come last in the creative process!  But let’s not get into one form of one-up-personship instead of another. It is more helpful to recognise that the Bible sees humankind as not solitary but social: “It is not good than man should be alone.”  We do not find our fulfilment in solitude but in society.

The biblical account of a man leaving his father and mother and clinging to his wife, and them becoming one flesh, of course underlies our understanding of marriage. But where does that leave those who are not married?  Are they second class citizens, as some conservative Christians would argue? Are celibates superior, as other equally traditionalist believers would say?  Or, to look at it more positively, what does the Church do to provide models of companionship and friendship for people who are alone?  In fact, a congregation like this one, has a lot of experience in that.

Now if all this were not enough, things are even more complicated. This week, the coalition government is introducing a bill to extend the right to marry to people of the same gender.  Some see this as re-defining and undermining the traditional understanding of marriage. Concern about the way the government is going about this is not the preserve of conservative religious people. I had a conversation the other day with a priest who is openly gay. He surprised me by saying that he thought the whole business was being rushed through so quickly that we were not having the time to have a proper study and debate about what we actually think marriage is.  Given the fragility of that institution even for heterosexual couples these days,that would seem to be an important discussion to have.

When I was first studying moral theology as a divinity student in Edinburgh, one of the documents we had to discuss was the Wolfenden report on homosexuality.  The report argued that our knowledge of human relationships and sexuality was now such that it was no longer possible to see homosexual relationships simply in terms of perversion, of deliberately chosen wrong, of heterosexual men behaving badly. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey supported the decriminalisation of homosexuality when it was debated in the House of Lords. . Policemen in those days would spend a great deal of time and effort locking up gay men while ignoring cases of domestic abuse, husbands who battered their wives.

When our new Archbishop takes up his duties after the confirmation of his election in St. Paul’s Cathedral tomorrow, he will find these issues waiting at the top of his in tray at Lambeth Place.  Despite his courageous record of work in Nigeria, he has already had a verbal kicking from the Archbishop of that country. What has rarely been mentioned in these often acrimonious debates has been that in an earlier period much energy was devoted by Anglican bishops to another issue to do with marriage; one very relevant in Africa.  This was polygamy. What should happen when people from polygamous cultures were converted to Christianity? Should second and third wives be put away because Christianity believed in monogamy in marriage?  But all this was recognised as being more complicated than at first sight: what would happen to those other wives and their children in a society where they might well not be able to support themselves? Would the discarded wives be condemned to prostitution in order to feed their children?   In those halcyon pre-internet days, these questions were handled in a more sensitive and pastoral way than seems possible for us.  And yet, we have to keep on trying to deal with them.

Well, I had thought of preaching a nice high church sermon on the Book of Revelation and worship as reflecting and bringing  about the right relationship between God and his creatures, but I think you’ve had more than enough to think about for one morning. So, I’ll leave that for another day: except to say that thinking about these things together is part of our worship and our worship is incomplete if we do not think about them.