Sermon for the Bellringers’ Annual Service at St Mary’s and St Nicholas’, Leatherhead, on 20th January 2018

Numbers 10:1-10; Psalm 98

When I was getting my briefing from you, Ann, about what your band is used to and what you would consider to be worthy worship for our Lord in your annual service, I learned that sometimes your service comes at the same time as the anniversary of the death on 30th January 1649 of King Charles I, celebrated by the Church of England as King and Martyr, when an ancient bequest pays for a sermon in this church. Indeed there is a fine example of a King Charles sermon by Dr John Swanson from four years ago, on the Church website.

But I’m not going to preach about King Charles. It’s not yet the right time. Although – in passing, I did just reflect that, in the context of the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, it might give us a different angle on our bell-ringing if we thought about the fact that the civil war, which broke out during – and ended – King Charles’ reign, was caused to a great extent by the conflict between rather fundamentalist Reformers, the Puritans, and the Church of England, which we describe as ‘Catholic and Reformed’. It is an early example of Boris Johnson’s cake theory – you know, ‘You can have your cake and eat it’ – in the context of the Reformation and Henry VIII. Henry would have said he was a good Catholic, but with a little local difficulty with the Pope. Catholic and Reformed.

The people he was up against, the Puritans, were not keen on music, or on bells in churches. During Henry VIII’s reign, his having it both ways included, as part of his ‘reformed’ side, the destruction of the monasteries and, often, the removal of bells from churches. So the presence – or the restoration – of a church’s bells had a significance in the tug of war between Protestants and Catholics.

Now of course, especially now we’re in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, those controversies have thankfully long gone, both regarding whether the church is small-C ‘catholic’ or ‘reformed’, with a ‘priesthood of all believers’ rather than bishops, and as a source of controversy affecting the bells.

A more modern thing is the argument that crops up from time to time about whether the chiming of church bells is ‘noise pollution’ – enter the Noise Abatement Society, stage left. On the news this morning there was an item about complaints against St Peter’s, Sandwich, in Kent, about the noise of their bells, and a campaign, called ‘Save the Chimes’, which has been formed to keep the bells at St Peter’s ringing.

Well here, in the hinterland of the Chelsea training ground, noise pollution might be caused by a couple of Lamborghinis queueing up at Waitrose’s car park in Cobham – but not by our lovely bells, here or in any of the other churches locally. I hope so, anyway.

So I’m not going to talk about King Charles. And come to think about it, I’m going to risk being a little bit controversial, and say that I’m not going to talk much about the Bible readings we have today – or indeed about the Bible at all. The reason is, that there isn’t much in the Bible about bells and bell-ringing. There’s a mention of small bells attached to the original priest of the Temple Aaron’s robe, his ephod, in Exodus 28:33-35. The bronze cymbals used in the worship in the temple were forerunners of church bells.

But there really aren’t that many references to actual bells. There’s a sort of convention instead that we can take references about ‘trumpets’ as going for bells as well. Hence our lesson today from Numbers. The silver trumpets that the Lord commanded Moses to have made were to be used for ‘summoning the congregation, and for breaking camp.’ For an assembly, and an alarm. That pretty much sums up the function of the bells in a parish church, even today. The trumpets shall be blown – I mean, the bells shall be rung – at times of celebration, festivals and holidays. I wonder when the next special peal – or half-peal, maybe – will be rung. Perhaps at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. The instructions to Moses recorded in the Book of Numbers for trumpets still pretty much sum up the point of church bells today.

Again, I’m bumping into something I’m not really going to talk about. Not King Charles, or the Puritans, or even the Bible. But I am supposed to produce an edifying address to you: you know, to ‘edify’ you is to build you up, to build you up in faith. But if I’m not really going to get back to my Bible today, where will the teaching come from?

Martin Luther, and no doubt the Puritans ranged against poor old King Charles, did indeed rely upon ‘sola Scriptura’, which is Latin for ‘scripture, the Bible, alone’. Everything you need, in order to be saved, is in this holy Book. Well I know that if Gail Partridge were here as she usually is to take this service, rather than sailing down the Nile – I’m only jealous! – she would wax eloquent about how you often can’t take everything written in the Bible as being literally true.

Earlier this week at Morning Prayers we have been reading the story of Noah and the Flood in the Book of Genesis. It begins with telling you solemnly that Noah was six hundred years old when it happened. Really? And indeed there are a number of places in the Bible where, if you take it literally, it contradicts itself or comes up with seemingly impossible stories, such as Noah being 600 years old. How do we get around the problem? How do we know what to believe, what to rely on and trust in our lives?

The Church of England has three sources of what is called ‘authority’, how we get what we believe, how we derive it; scripture, reason and tradition. If something isn’t clear in the Bible, we are allowed to use our reason to make sense of it. Big numbers in the Bible, for instance, can perhaps be explained by the way that in the ancient world, they weren’t quite so hung up on precise numbers: so in ancient Greek the same word means both 10,000 and ‘countless’. It would be a reasoned way of explaining Noah’s alleged age. Reason tells us that ‘600’, in this context, means, ‘very old’.

But what about tradition? The word literally means ‘handing on’, handing something on to the next bod. And in the Christian context, it’s all about doing our religion, as opposed to intellectualising, theorising about it. For example, how do you think infant baptism works? How can the church say that a little baby is saved, has come to Christ, before he or she can even say, ‘Daddy’? The point is that it’s the doing of the service, the baptism service, that brings salvation. It’s called ‘Baptismal Regeneration’. The blessing of God’s grace is handed on.

It’s the ‘belong and then believe’ school of Christianity, tradition. And definitely, tradition is what you bell-ringers bring. For hundreds of years, the bells have rung out in parish churches all over the British Isles, handing on the worship: inviting the faithful people to come together and be the people of God. What a noble and worthy thing for you to do. Thank you, and may God bless you, in this year of our Lord 2018 and for many years to come.

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Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 21st January 2018

John 3:16 – God so loved the world …

If you volunteer to join the transport department of Cobham Area Foodbank, as a driver of our splendid 3.5t Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, or as one of the all-important suppliers of muscle as driver’s mates, you will encounter a little Bible quiz on your first run.

As you will know, most of the churches in Cobham, Stoke D’Abernon, Oxshott, Effingham and the Horsleys have a green collecting bin for people to put donations of food in. We’ve got one at the back here in the church, and we also have another bin in St Mary’s Hall, so that the yoga ladies, who often seem to have bought too much food for their svelte figures, can generously give some to the Foodbank. It’s a productive bin!

And the van goes round on Mondays and Wednesdays, emptying the bins and bringing the food which has been given, to our warehouse, where it is sorted by date and type, and meticulously logged into our database.

Now when the van gets to St Andrew’s in Oxshott, our crew don’t usually empty their bin, because it will already have been done. The donations in Oxshott go into a sort of garden shed in the children’s playground at the back of the church. It’s all kept locked with a brass padlock. The quiz for a new driver’s mate is to guess the combination of the padlock. ‘Three digits – the most famous verse in the Bible’! Do you get it?

Well, it’s 316, John 3:16, Chapter 3, verse 16. ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life’. Our second lesson today.

It’s a ringing statement, a trenchant way to spell out the heart of our Christian faith. But it’s not really that simple. There are at least two big theological conundrums in this simple little sentence, which I’ll try to sketch out for you, so you can sort them out over your roast beef in half an hour or so.

The first is the question what it is to be God’s ‘only begotten Son’. You’ll immediately remember the words of the Nicene Creed – that’s the one we say at Holy Communion, not the simpler, Apostles’ Creed which we say at Mattins and Evensong. The Nicene Creed says, ‘I believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, … Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.’

There was a big controversy in the early church, in the fourth century, 300 and something, centred around a scholar, a theologian in Alexandria, called Arius. Arius said he couldn’t make sense of the relationship between God and his Son. If Jesus was God’s Son, he must have been in some way created by God. But if ‘begotten, not made’ … ‘before all worlds’ is to mean something, it implies that Jesus came after God, and was created, in Arius’ argument, created by God. Jesus therefore was not actually God, because God is the creator, and Jesus was created.

By the way, before your brain hurts too much with this, let me just point out as well, that, as the celebrated Oxford philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne has pointed out, logically for God to be the creator of all things must mean, creator of all things except Himself.

So, was Jesus – is Jesus – God or not? If He was God’s Son? Arius was also influenced by his knowledge of the philosophy of Plato, who thought of God as being eternal and beyond what we can know, unknowable. But we know about God from what we read in the Gospels: or rather, we know about Jesus. And of course, in John 12:45, Jesus is portrayed as saying, ‘.. he that seeth me seeth him that sent me’. This must mean that Jesus is in some sense different from the supreme God, the God who is one, one God.

The Roman emperor Constantine, the one who helped the spread of Christianity by adopting it as the official religion of the Roman Empire, tried to solve the puzzle – which had turned into a hot debate within various factions in the early church – by convening a Council of church leaders, bishops and theologians, in the city of Nicaea. Constantine himself took the chair, and he ‘fixed’ the problem by adopting the description of Jesus as ‘being of one substance’ with the Father. It was at the Council of Nicaea, which took place in 325, that the Nicene Creed was drawn up.

This problem of how to understand the nature of God, and the relation between God and Jesus, extended also to the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Holy Trinity which Together made up the Godhead, the divine nature. Again, it needed not to have been created, if it was really God. Of course in the Bible, at Pentecost, God is said to have ‘sent’ the Holy Spirit. They hit on the idea that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded’ from God. The original version of the Nicene Creed, which is the version still used by the Orthodox church, says, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father’. That version is given as an alternative in Common Worship – you’ll find it on page 140.

And that version, according to which the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded’ from the Father, lasted until 381, when St Augustine, Augustine of Hippo, added the word ‘filioque’, Latin for ‘and the Son’, so that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son. That’s the version which we use today. But the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches still omit the ‘filioque’.

That’s our first puzzle. What is God like? What is the true nature of God, and how does Jesus and the Holy Spirit fit in? Martin Luther and the Reformers in the sixteenth century went back to that question, along with all the other fundamentals of doctrine that they put under the microscope. Perhaps I’ll make that a second chapter in our look at what’s called Christology.

You’ll remember that I said that this famous little sentence, ‘God so loved the world,..’ and so on, contained at least two big conundrums. So let’s just touch on the other one, and then I’ll let you head for the roast beef.

The puzzle is, what sort of deal, what sort of bargain, is God supposed to have made when he ‘gave’ his Son, and – presumably in return – we could have eternal life? Who did He give his Son to? What sort of a deal was it?

One idea was the concept that we have in the phrase in the Comfortable Words: ‘Hear also what St John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.’ Propitiation, making up for something. Jesus ‘suffered for our sins’. It is a process which is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Jesus suffered punishment which we should have received instead.

Again, it is an idea which may not be right. Are we really saying that God is a cruel god, who would hurt his own son? That’s completely contrary to our belief in God as the God of love.

And again, to whom is God ‘giving’ Jesus? Obviously, we know that the idea is one of sacrifice, giving away the sacrificial Lamb or scapegoat. But if you think about it, it really implies that God may not be the only power: there is an anti-power: could it be the Devil, even? Again, it doesn’t square with everything else we believe. The Devil is surely just a handy metaphor, a logical construct; for every impulse there is an equal and opposite force, or something. Where are our physicists?

Well, I have a feeling that some of you may now be preparing an equal and opposite force in favour of lunch, so I’ll stop. I just want you to be a bit challenged, to reflect on what we can work out about God, his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. I’m sure that, when I share the blessing with you, it will be a real blessing: what I’m not sure, and what we can, and must, talk about, is how it works, indeed how it works so well.

A Sermon for Evensong, on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany: 14th January 2018

Isaiah 60:9-22

… they shall call thee; The city of the Lord, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel… Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise.


This is all in a long passage in the third part of the Book of Isaiah – they say that there were really three prophets, whose work was grouped together under the name Isaiah – about the new Jerusalem, the return of the exiles from Babylon and what they had to look forward to. The first Isaiah, writing much earlier, dealt with the way that Israel had broken their covenant with God and followed other gods, which brought about their conquest and slavery by the Assyrians and then in Babylon. ‘By the waters of Babylon | We sat down and wept’ [Ps 137].

Now God was going to give Israel a second chance. Jerusalem and the Promised Land, the land of Zion, would be treasured by the Lord, and its glory would shine out to all the world.

The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of my feet glorious.’


There are so many things that I could say about Jerusalem. I’ve only been once so far, so my thoughts about today’s Jerusalem are not very original or deeply grounded. Although – come to think of it – I might manage a more nuanced approach than the current President of the USA. But I want to suggest a few topics for further discussion and reflection, without in any way laying down any hard and fast dogmatic points.

I don’t particularly want to talk just about Zionism today. I’m not sure that I would be able to add a lot to what you will already know, and to what you may already believe. Obviously, at this time of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, it is fitting to mention that the nation of Israel now does have a secure home in the Promised Land. At the same time, we should be mindful that the Declaration mentioned the need not to harm the indigenous Palestinians. It actually said,

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

I can’t help feeling that President Trump hasn’t helped the cause of promoting peace between Jews and Palestinians by his unilateral declaration that Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv, will be regarded as the capital of Israel from now on.

But the passage in chapters 60-65 of the Book of Isaiah, about the New Jerusalem, has a significance in the Bible not so much as a rallying cry for Zionists today, but as a vision of what the coming of the Messiah would entail. Just before, in Isaiah 59:20 it says, ‘And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the Lord.’ And all this is what the Redeemer will do. The City of God has a spiritual, sacramental, significance, as well as being literally a city in the Middle East.

Don’t worry – I’m not about to inflict a précis of St Augustine’s solid tome called ‘City of God’ on you today. The thought that I wanted to explore was more along the lines of ‘Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott’ – a secure stronghold is our God. Home: a place of safety: a refuge.

I was thinking the other day that I have lived in Surrey for longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my 66 years. I’ve lived here, mainly in Cobham, but with a five-year excursion to Esher, for 27 years – nearly half my life. Cobham is my home. But what does that mean, especially in the context of the prophet Isaiah?

The Israelites, coming to their new home, were exiles. They would not have recognised Babylon, where they’d been, for many years, as home. It was almost as if a prisoner, serving a life sentence, had said that his home was ‘Pentonville’. I don’t think he would.

But then the next issue is a possible conflict between those whose home somewhere has always been, and others who, for whatever reason, are incomers to that place. All other things being equal, should an incomer be equally entitled to live somewhere, equally with someone who was born and brought up there?

You might say, ‘I was born here. I pay my taxes and contribute to society here’. But why does being born somewhere and paying taxes give you rights? Why should an incomer not also pay his taxes and be at home?

What happens if you become a refugee? There are often discussions about whether people are ‘genuine refugees’ or just ‘economic migrants’. I wonder, though, whether the dividing line is quite so clear. If, say, I was a doctor in Syria, but ISIS invaded my home town and I had to flee with my family, then as well as being homeless, and so needing to find another home, I would need some work. I would be an economic migrant as well.

But what about people who simply come from one country to another in order to seek better work, to make money? They are, indeed, economic migrants. But is that a bad thing? Why should where one is born and brought up determine where one ends up? What about the USA, whose wealth is derived in large part from economic migrants? For them the USA is really a place of which one could say, ‘… thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise.’

And come to think of it, Jesus and his disciples were ‘of no fixed abode’ for most of the time. Think of his sending out the twelve apostles: ‘enquire who in [the town you go into] .. is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence. … And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it… And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.’ (Matt. 10:11-14).

There isn’t a simple answer. But it might be a good idea for us sometimes to reflect on Isaiah’s prophecies, and just wonder where the City of God now is. Is it the City, or a City, of God? Is it ‘Jerusalem the golden | with milk and honey blessed’? And how long do you need to have been there, if you want to stay? Does salvation and praise come into it? Time to think.

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 7th January 2018

Isaiah 42:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=382181977

Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, hit the headlines the other day by suggesting that Americans who go to church, but who also support the policies of President Trump, are not really Christians. Or, shall we say, by supporting Trump, they are acting in a way which conflicts with true Christian belief.

He doesn’t see how you can square professing to be a Christian with supporting Donald Trump, in that Donald Trump has shown that he is a womaniser, a xenophobe, a racist and a warmonger. If Christians support Donald Trump, does that in any way compromise their Christianity? The Bishop of Liverpool clearly says, ‘Yes, it does.’

Instead of the President, look for a minute at the leader whom Isaiah was describing in our first Bible reading. This is sometimes called the Song of the Covenant. It is a proclamation, through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, putting God’s words into the mouth of the prophet, describing that chosen leader, the Messiah, leading the people bound by their agreement with God, the covenant with Abraham: ‘He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.’ He is gentle. ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’. Strangely, you might feel, there’s no mention of Twitter.

But interestingly – perhaps a bit paradoxically – this is all in a series of chapters describing God reaching an agreement, a covenant, with his chosen people – it’s not just an agreement between God and the chosen people, the Israelites. Even back in the beginning, in the Old Testament, in Isaiah it says, ‘… he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles’ and ‘I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles’. A light of the Gentiles – the Gentiles were the non-Jews. They were what we are.

So right at the beginning, at the championing of the people of Israel in God’s eyes, there was also more than a look over the shoulder at the people who were not Jewish. The Messiah was going to be a light to them too, a ‘light to the Gentiles’. This is universal. Christ is for all the world, for everyone.

The idea of a private understanding, a covenant, between God and his ‘chosen people’ may seem a bit strange to us now. But in the Methodist Church all over the world this Sunday, the first Sunday of the year, is known as Covenant Sunday, and there is a special service in which the congregation renew their commitment to follow God’s commandments, and John Wesley’s special Covenant prayer is said. I will pray that prayer for us when I lead our prayers in a few minutes.

What the Messiah was going to do had a distinctly revolutionary aspect to it. He would bring the prisoners out of prison and give light to the blind, in a society where, if you were disabled, people thought that was because you had done something wrong and were bad in some way. So in other words the people who had the deal with the Almighty, the chosen, the chosen race, the Israelites, were not chosen so that they could carry all before them and rule the world, they were to be a haven of social justice and reconciliation, where the leader was not a mighty warrior but was a gentle person who would not hurt a fly. Rather different from President Trump.

People who are politically savvy will probably glaze over a bit as I go through this because, they will say, ‘What is the relevance of what happened 2000 years ago – or even earlier, if you are talking about Isaiah?’ There are practical things that you just can’t ignore. ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I mean, in this country these days, even if in an ideal world we would like to, we just don’t have the money to do all the good things that we would like to do.’

But it is notable that in the Bible there is never any reference to what doing the right thing might cost. It’s just a question whether it’s the right thing to do or not. St Paul’s point in our second lesson from Ephesians is that, given that the Messiah has come, that Jesus has appeared, and in so doing God has renewed his covenant; so there is an effect on the faithful believers. Once they realise that God has taken an interest in them, then, the argument goes, they won’t want to do any bad things in future. It won’t matter what the practicalities are: ‘Teach us, good Lord …. to give, and not to count the cost’. That will be their guiding principle.

But whereas perhaps even in the light of this, all we can do about the godlessness of President Trump is to sigh, and say how much we disapprove, what about things nearer to home? For instance, what about the leader of Windsor borough council?

The leader of the Windsor council has written to the police and crime commissioner local to him, to ask that homeless people be cleared off the streets in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Now is there any kind of conflict between the Christianity of the wedding and the unsympathetic attitude to homeless people exhibited by the council leader? He has said that he just wanted to do something to help the wedding couple. He has said that he thought that many of the homeless people were not really homeless, because there were places where they could stay. They were begging, making themselves a nuisance.

But what would Jesus say about that? Or indeed Isaiah? The Old Testament has numerous places where the prophets tell people to look after widows and orphans, and ‘the stranger that is in your midst’. That must imply that they are homeless. And in the New Testament, in Jesus’ own words, what about the Great Judgement in Matthew 25:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I would suggest that it’s pretty clear that Jesus wouldn’t be sympathetic to the leader of Windsor borough council. I think Jesus would say that it doesn’t matter why someone is homeless, or a beggar. The Good Samaritan didn’t check to see whether the man who had been hurt had in some way been responsible for his plight, to blame for it, had somehow brought his misfortune on himself.

And indeed many of the organisations which work to care for the homeless have challenged the council leader’s reasoning. Thames Valley Police, the ones he asked to clear so-called ‘rough sleepers’ off the streets, didn’t think that would help. It would be more effective, the police said, if the causes of homelessness and destitution were addressed instead. Crisis, the charity for the homeless, said similar things. People don’t choose to be homeless, and they only beg when they are desperate. Shelter and Centrepoint, two other leading charities, have agreed.

I don’t know whether the leader of Windsor and Maidenhead Royal Borough Council goes to church at all. But I think that if he does, he ought to reflect very carefully on what the Bishop of Liverpool has said about whether it’s possible to be a Trump supporter and a Christian at the same time. It applies here on this side of the Atlantic too. If you don’t love your neighbour as yourself, never mind what it costs, you’re not a real Christian.

The Covenant Prayer of John Wesley (1703–1791)

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

Further Bible references: see http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20110203_1.htm

Sermon for Holy Communion with Baptism on the Third Sunday in Advent, 17th December 2017

Isaiah 12; Luke 1:57-66. Pink is the Colour.

Today is Rose Sunday, the pink candle one, the third Sunday in Advent. Next Sunday will be Christmas Eve – help! Still all those cards to send and presents to wrap – but, perhaps you’re not as hopeless at getting organised as I am.

The rose is a sign of rejoicing. The priest can wear pink vestments. I’m not sure whether we’ve actually got any pink ones, or whether Godfrey thought that people might get the wrong idea about him if he turned out in a fetching little pink number – so he’s been sticking to Advent purple. In Latin, in the Roman Catholic church, following the words of the antiphon for the day, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’, Rose Sunday was known as ‘Laetare’ (meaning ‘rejoice’) Sunday. At Mattins and Evensong – tonight it’s our Nine Lessons and Carols – I can wear my academic hood, which, especially as it has rather faded with age, could just about pass as pink.

From the prophet Isaiah:

Behold, God is my salvation: …

Sing unto the Lord; for he hath done excellent things:

these words are echoed in the story of the birth of John the Baptist, whom we commemorate on this third Sunday in the Advent sequence. It’s a really appropriate day for Cecily to be baptised. Baptised on this day, when we remember John the Baptist, the Baptiser.

I love naming rituals. In one of my favourite funny films, ‘Animal House’, which is about a student fraternity house in the USA, new members of the house, called ‘pledges’, are given pledge names, ‘Flounder’, ‘Otter’, and so on, to replace their more prosaic, given names.

It reminds me that in the old days, before British Airways spoiled business travel for ordinary salarymen by inventing Business Class, when, before Business Class, when one flew in the front of the plane, to the Far East, the airlines would create for you business cards in Chinese or Japanese or Arabic or Hindi characters. I always used to send the proof to our company’s agent in the country concerned, and asked them to check the accuracy of the translation in the business card. Once, my contact in Hong Kong said, ‘Oh, they’ve given you a very respectable name!’ What? I asked. You mean they didn’t just transliterate my actual name?’ No, they didn’t. They gave me a better one!

Your name will be Otter. Welcome to ΔΤΧ. (Delta-Tau-Chi).’ That’s Animal House. ‘Your name – is John. Make straight the way of the Lord’. That’s something altogether more serious. John was named ‘John’ and not ‘Zechariah’, after his father because ‘John’ or Johanan in Hebrew, means ‘Jehovah (God) has been gracious, God has shown favour’, whereas ‘Zechariah’ just means, ‘The Lord has remembered’. And your name will be – Cecily. The patron saint of music. Lovely!

God had indeed been gracious to John the Baptist’s mother Elisabeth. She had given up on trying to have children ages ago. She was described harshly as ‘barren’, and both she and Zechariah her husband were described as well on – ‘well stricken’ – in years. But still the angel Gabriel had come to Zechariah and had told him that they would after all be blessed with a child ‘filled with the Holy Ghost’ as soon as he was born. He would also be a teetotaller, for a reason that is not explained. The angel also stopped poor Zechariah from speaking, struck him totally dumb, as a demonstration of his divine power.

So when the boy was indeed born, and the poor chap was to be circumcised and named – for some reason, don’t you think that being baptised is so much nicer? – when he was being named, as part of the process, Elisabeth spoke up and said that he shouldn’t take his father’s name, as would have been traditional, but that he should be called ‘John’, ‘The Lord has been gracious’.

And the in Isaiah comes the vision of the Messiah, the ‘rod out of the stem of Jesse’ in the previous chapter.

1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

2 And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;

….

6 The wolf … shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

….

9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

As we know, John the Baptist wasn’t the Messiah, but he was preparing the way for the one who was, Jesus. After John had been named, Zechariah regained the power of speech. He then went on to prophesy, saying the words which we’ve just sung, the Benedictus, ‘Blessed’ in Latin, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. Zechariah was prophesying about his own son, John.

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;

To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins..

So what will you do on this pink Sunday? Is this all just too far-fetched? I’m rather drawn to that vision of God’s holy mountain, on which they will not hurt or destroy. I’m attracted to the ‘tender mercy of our God: whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us; to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: and to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ Light to the blind, life to the dying, the way to peace. We could use all that today.

We see so much that we don’t understand. We might as well not see at all. We are afraid of death and destruction. Nuclear weapons are being tested and their use is being threatened, even by people and nations whom we regard as our friends. There are millions of refugees, there are millions hungry, and suffering terrible diseases: they all urgently need it to come about that the way to peace is found once more.

The words of the Catholic Entrance Antiphon for Rose Sunday, which come from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, make perfect sense.

‘Gaudete in Domino … Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.

Indeed, the Lord is near’.

If you read a bit further on in Philippians, you get this.

Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.

Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

What good advice. I think that to concentrate on that would be – it would almost be better than wrapping presents! Oh well … I hope you, parents and godparents, and Cecily, your little star, have a lovely Rose Sunday

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday in Advent, 10th December 2017

1 Kings 22:1-28, Romans 15:4-13 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=379774448 for the text of the lessons

I went on Friday evening to a church meeting. ‘Tell me something new,’ you will no doubt say. ‘That’s what you do – you’re a Reader, for heaven’s sake!’ True – and moreover, the speaker at the meeting was a vicar. But it’s worth telling you about, I think. The thing which struck me, even before the speaker opened his mouth, was the crowd of people who had come to hear him.

As well as the ‘usual suspects’ that belong to the church, there were almost half as many again – I think there were about 70 people there – quite a few of whom I either didn’t recognise at all, or who I knew were people who had some background of going to church but who don’t, so far as I know, belong to any of the local churches now.

The topic was definitely to do with church. It was billed as a curry evening (originally a ‘men’s curry evening’, but I’m glad to say, it got widened out to include ladies too), with a speaker, Revd Dave Tomlinson, from St Luke’s, West Holloway [http://www.saintlukeschurch.org.uk], and his topic was ‘Everyone is Welcome’.

Dave Tomlinson – and he is ‘Dave’, (what with being a Scouser and that), does a ‘Thought for the Day’ slot on the Chris Evans breakfast show on Radio 2 called ‘Pause for Thought’, and has written some quite well-known books, for example ‘How to be a Bad Christian’ and ‘The Bad Christian’s Manifesto’ [2012, 2014, Hodder & Stoughton], and now ‘Black Sheep and Prodigals’, which has just been published. He sets himself out to be a vicar for people who don’t think of themselves as religious, people who might say they were, in the new-age phrase, ‘spiritual but not religious’.

What he says is that Christians are, in bare essentials, following a spiritual practice, what he calls ‘a way of approaching life’, based on the life and teachings of Jesus. [Tomlinson D., 2014, The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, London, Hodder & Stoughton, p.245]. What they’re not necessarily doing, though, is belonging to a particular church or following particular theologies or rituals. There shouldn’t be, he says, any barriers or ‘qualifications’ required before one can become a Christian.

It certainly seems to be an approach which gets people interested, and indeed, got them in, got them to turn out, on a cold Friday night. In a good sense, it was evangelism – although I think most of those who came would have already called themselves Christians, but not actually coming to church in a number of cases.

In a very real sense, you could say that, in another age, Dave Tomlinson could have been regarded as a prophet. You know, a prophet, meaning someone through whom God speaks. Not in the sense illustrated in our Old Testament lesson, where the king of Israel and the king of Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms of the Jewish people, when they were contemplating trying to take back from the Syrian invaders the town of Ramoth-Gilead, consulted four hundred prophets, who all said that the attack would be successful and they would capture the town.

However, Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, the southern kingdom, rather oddly asked if there was a ‘prophet of the Lord besides’, that they could ask. It implies that the 400 so-called ‘prophets’ that the story mentions, were not real prophets, speaking the words of the one true God, but were rather more in the way of magicians, soothsayers, inspired more by folk superstition than by God. So instead of them, they dug out Micaiah, who was a real prophet, and he warned the kings, correctly, that the attack they planned would end in disaster. They didn’t take any notice.

Dave Tomlinson’s approach is perhaps more in line with our second reading, from St Paul, in his letter to the Romans. He doesn’t specialise in predictions, military or otherwise: instead, he tries to impart truth, without fear or favour. It doesn’t matter what denomination you are; Paul and the disciples’ mission to spread the gospel, the good news of Christ, didn’t just go to their fellow-Jews, but also to other groups, to the ‘Gentiles’, the non-Jews – and all, both lots, would be equally welcome to follow Jesus.

It’s a very important message. Today, the second Sunday in Advent, is the day when traditionally the church remembers the prophets: like Micaiah, and Ezekiel, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and all those. But it might be good also to celebrate and listen to modern-day prophets, like Dave Tomlinson, because his approach looks to have been very productive, on Friday night’s showing: people actually did bother to turn out and listen to what he said – even people who don’t usually come to church.

The key, according to Revd Dave, is for Christians to be caring – to love their neighbours – and for them not to set much store by superficial distinctions and divisions. I think that there are lessons there for us at St Mary’s too. People have said that we’ve done a good job in moving away from a time when St Mary’s was run as a sort of club, where strangers weren’t really welcomed, to the warm, friendly place we now are. That’s good; but how are we to keep up the momentum and engage with our parish community so that we will still be around as a church to proclaim the Gospel when we relative oldies are long gone?

Dave Tomlinson says he’s not especially bothered by how well ‘qualified’ people are in relation to Jesus Christ. He gives everyone, confirmed or not, Holy Communion if they want it. He doesn’t regard every word in the Bible as literally having been dictated by the Almighty. He is willing to accept anyone, however ‘sinful’ they may have been. Famously, he conducted the gangster Reggie Cray’s funeral, for example.

But it’s plain from looking at his church’s website that he doesn’t regard any one style of worship or liturgy as being the be-all and end-all. They do sung Evensong just like us. I think that they might agree with us that there’s a lot to be said for worshipping in a way that is familiar, that we’re used to – and that we think is worthy. If you are forever tut-tutting about banal words or suboptimal rock music instead of sublime harmonies, you’re being led away from bringing yourself to the Almighty and instead getting distracted by earthly trivia.

What we do here is to build on familiar foundations. Many people come here and, even if they haven’t been to church for a long time, may well remember a hymn or some of the liturgy, from their schooldays, or university chapel, perhaps. I think that’s all good.

I think that it’s important also, where newcomers are concerned, to make sure that everyone ‘knows the drill’: when to stand up, when to sit down; is there a collection? Do you have to wear any special clothes? – and so on. (Only I have to dress up!)

This all comes from the idea of being welcoming and inclusive. Of course, Jesus didn’t actually build any churches, so in his eyes, the concept of ‘bums on seats’ in churches wouldn’t have meant much to him. But for us, it is important. If we are going to reach out to people and bring them into our church family, we need to show that we are truly open and inclusive to ‘all sorts and conditions of men’.

Revd Dave Tomlinson was one of the founders of the organisation called ‘Inclusive Church’. Although it was founded as a reaction against the sad events which led to Dr Jeffrey John first being offered to be Bishop of Reading, and then having it taken away because of his sexual orientation as a gay man, Inclusive Church now goes much wider.

Its statement of belief says: “We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

When a church joins the Inclusive Church network, it is encouraged to put up a sign outside to tell people that, inside, if they come in, they will really be welcome. For someone who feels they are in some way different, perhaps because of race, or sex, or disability, it’s very reassuring to see that there’s a clear offer of hospitality on the outside of the church.You don’t have to ‘risk it’ by going in somewhere where you might not fit in.

Well, you might be wondering about where this church meeting that I went to was; this curry session, addressed by Revd Dave Tomlinson, which attracted so many people including people who’ve drifted away from the church: where was it? It was, as you’ve probably guessed, just down the road, in our sister church, St Andrew’s, in Cobham.

When I was a member of the PCC there, there was a motion for the Church to affiliate to, to join, the Inclusive Church network. I spoke as passionately as I could in favour. Apart from the person who had proposed the motion, I was the only one. The vote was 22 to 2 against. Now that they’ve listened to Dave Tomlinson, I wonder if some of the stalwarts down the road will revisit that decision. Because, you see, I think that the message, the message of Jesus and the prophets, that God welcomes us all, that all are welcome, is still vital. What do you think? Should our PCC think about it, as part of our vision for social engagement? In all humility, I hope so.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Feast of Christ the King, 26th November 2017, at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn.

[Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24, Ephesians 1.15-23], Matthew 25.31-46

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378268013 for the readings, and https://sjparish.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Nov-26-Pentecost-25-1030am.pdf for the full service booklet.

It’s really kind of you to welcome me back to St John’s to preach again. Susan, you have been amazingly gracious. Just when you were getting nicely settled in as Rector, Bill and Hope Eakins dropped in the suggestion that you might want to risk having me, this old Brit, to preach at the church – and just after Thanksgiving as well, when you are all celebrating having got rid of us colonial throw-backs. You’re truly kind.

Obviously I have been well briefed. I must stay away from anything too controversial or political. And I can’t really do the ancient Greek orator’s trick of doing a Philippic: you know, saying loudly, ‘I’m not going to say anything about Philip’, and then going on to say what an awful person he is. So no Brexit and Trump, then. Sorry.

Instead I want to get to grips with the sheep and the goats. Are you a sheep, or a goat? It’s a rigid division. On the right side, the Elysian Fields await you; but if you’re Billy Goat Gruff, nothing so nice.

That’s the thing I want to explore, with the sheep and the goats: divisions. People divided: divided, because they disagree. They disagree about what is best to do. And then, perhaps, do they have those divisions confirmed, ratified, by the Judge eternal?

At Thanksgiving you are celebrating independence from the colonial power that we were, the young nation standing on its own feet. It was a journey started by the Pilgrim Fathers, Puritans, who found themselves different from, at odds with, divided from, the society they were leaving in England. So I want to look at that division. It stemmed at least in part from the religious ferment and turmoil of the Reformation.

Apart from those things I’m not talking about, the other thing this year that has been of special note, not in our political, but in our spiritual life, has indeed been the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, 500 years since he is said to have posted up 95 points where he was at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, on the church door at Wittenberg in Saxony, which is the event which started the Reformation.

The Reformation led to civil war and persecution: the particularly ghastly thing about it was that the favourite way of getting rid of opponents was to burn them alive at the stake. We often spend time on Good Friday, during the Three Hours, reflecting on the dreadful mechanics of death by crucifixion. Death by burning seems to me to have been equally dreadful. And the penalty was so arbitrary and undeserved.

Think of Thomas Cranmer, the great scholar and Archbishop who created the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and gave the new Church of England liturgy, forms of worship, which were for the first time in a language that could be ‘understanded of the people’, as they said, in English instead of Latin, although they were in fact based on, and continued the tradition of, services which in some cases could be traced back to the earliest Church Fathers. But even Cranmer was eventually burned to death, at the hands of the original ‘Bloody Mary’, Queen Mary, who brought back the Catholic faith for the duration of her reign.

This happened because Cranmer was a Protestant, at a time when it was no longer the right thing to be. We don’t know whether he met Martin Luther – some scholars, such as Diarmaid McCulloch, think he might well have done – but he certainly spent time in Zürich with Zwingli and Bucer.

It is fascinating to see how Cranmer reflected the new Reformation ideas, in the way in which he dealt, (in the Book of Common Prayer that he largely authored), with what was happening in the Holy Communion, at the point when the bread and the wine are shared.

The Roman church, the Catholics, believe in what they call ‘Transubstantiation’, the ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. Many of the Reformers did not believe in Transubstantiation. For them the bread and the wine were just that, bread and wine; just symbols of a greater thing.

The words in Cranmer’s Prayer Book changed, from the 1549 original, where the bread and wine are treated in the Catholic way, as actually being Christ’s body and blood, to his revision in 1552, perhaps after he met the other reformers: ‘Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving’ , which means they remain just that, bread and wine, just symbols, until, long after Cranmer’s awful death in 1556, in 1662 the final version of the Prayer Book (until the twentieth century revisions, here and in England), the 1662 Book has it all ways: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken for thee: Eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ In the first bit, the body, the actual body: but then a ‘remembrance’, a symbol: feeding, but by faith, not literally. Now, you can be anywhere on the Catholic – Protestant spectrum, and find spiritual resonance somewhere in those words, which we will still use, albeit in a slightly different order, in our service today.

But, the point is that, then, people were dying for those differences. Or feeling so alienated by them, that they opted to make a perilous voyage to a largely unknown land, and make a new life – as the Pilgrim Fathers did. It’s frankly strange – repugnant, even – to us today to think that the State could mete out the ultimate punishment, death, to a learned theologian such as Cranmer. But it did.

Belief, opinion, learned opinion, was a life-or-death affair. Now we can look back 500 years and shake our heads sagely, regretting how brutal life was then: we’re far too rational to let ourselves get into that kind of overreaction.

But I wonder. I promised not to talk about Brexit and Trump. But I will just say that it seems to be true both back home in England, over Brexit, and, dare I say, here, where Pres. Trump is concerned, that a climate has built up recently where people on each side not only feel strongly, very strongly: but they have stopped talking to each other. Certainly at home in the UK, the referendum on Brexit has divided people, divided people in a serious way. Old friends are avoiding each other; families are divided. There’s no sense of the old way of managing differences: so that we would say ‘Old so-and-so thinks such-and-such: I know he’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still the best of friends.’ That really doesn’t seem to be working any more.

Time was, even recently, when we could disagree about quite serious things, and still be friends; it really was a case of hating the sin and loving the sinner. So what did Jesus the King do? The sheep and the goats are to be separated out, they are to be divided: but not by what they have thought, but what they have done. Jesus wasn’t requiring the elect, the people who were saved, the sheep, to subscribe to any particular world view. He was looking for acts of kindness, not manifestos.

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matt.25:35-36).

Hungry; thirsty; a stranger; no clothes; ill; in prison. You can construct all sorts of scenarios, which may well broadly reflect your political outlook, to explain how a person can be in any of those situations – and we might disagree.

Hungry and thirsty because they’ve made bad ‘life choices’, perhaps; a stranger, because they live somewhere that I don’t go to – and perhaps they don’t live the way we do; no clothes, probably not literally, but scruffy, down-at-heel, when – ‘if they cared about their appearance… ‘ You know.

Or they might be refugees, from a poor country. Are they ‘genuine refugees’, or just ‘economic migrants’? That’s a question which I suspect you would answer much more sympathetically than many of us Englishmen have been doing. The USA’s prosperity is built on the labour of economic migrants – but we are now trying to keep them out.

Or what if you are sick, if you are ill? You know one of the differences between us in England and you is that, I think, we have more restrictive rules about when you can fire people. Basically, our law says that an employer has to show that he has a fair reason for terminating someone’s employment, and it is presumed that it was not fair. But a fair reason, in English law, is if you are ill, ill for too long.

That’s one where I expect there might be disagreements. You know, on the one hand, you can’t run a business if you have to pay a salary for someone who’s not there: and on the other, think what it will do to your powers of recovery if, when you are in the depths of illness, you lose your livelihood. What’s your point of view? Which side are you on?

Jesus says, when I was in hospital, you came and visited me. Dare we say, you visited me, and didn’t bring me any bad news? I hope so. Here in the home of the US insurance industry, of The Hartford and the Aetna, let me dare say it – surely long-term sickness might be covered by an employer’s insurance. Or maybe that’s too much. I was ill, and you visited me. That’s what Jesus said.

I was in prison. You came to me. I was a criminal. I didn’t deserve anything. I had done something terrible. But surely there are limits? Some criminals are just beyond the pale. At home, the man called the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, has died, and there was controversy where his remains should be buried. He killed a number of children, in appalling circumstances. Here, Charles Manson has died. Both of them I have heard called ‘evil personified’. But Jesus isn’t judging them. Jesus’ judgement, separating the sheep and the goats, is not about whether someone has been bad, been a sinner. Jesus would have visited them. He sat down and ate with sinners.

That’s the clue. That’s how it is with Jesus. Not what you’d think; perhaps not particularly reasonable. But good.

So I suspect that if we acknowledge Christ as King, and as judge eternal, as we are invited to do today, on this festival of Christ the King at the end of Thanksgiving, we may find a way to deal with our differences: even, dare I say, those real, deep differences over Brexit and Trump. Ultimately those differences may not really be that important. Instead we need to think sheep and goats. Acts of kindness, not manifestos.