Sermon for Evening Prayer on Saturday 7th March 2020 for the Prayer Book Society Guildford Branch, at the Founder’s Chapel, Charterhouse

Jeremiah 7:1-20; John 6:27-40 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=450504242)

And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

I want to speak to you not just about the bread of life, but also about baked beans and sausages. At the same time we can’t ignore that it is the end of the first week in Lent.

The baked beans and sausage, you might be a bit surprised to hear, bring into consideration two theologians, one ancient and one modern, and the bread and the Lent give us a topical Christian context for that food, which is, fasting.

And I suppose that the other ingredient which I need to work in is some reference to our beloved Book of Common Prayer, and the theological developments which Cranmer was influenced by in writing it.

The first thing to reassure you about is that there is no command to fast in the Gospels – except that Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law of Moses, but to fulfil it. So the days laid down for fasting in Leviticus, for example on the Day of Atonement, mean that it’s not strictly true that there’s no Biblical justification for fasting.

As you will know, the Reformation, which greatly influenced Cranmer, was led certainly by Martin Luther in Germany but also by Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland.

Diarmaid MacCulloch has written, ‘It was a sausage that proved to be the rallying-cry for the Swiss Reformation.’ A Zurich printer, Christoph Froschauer, with Zwingli and 12 of his followers in Zurich sat down on the first Sunday in Lent in 1522 and ate two large sausages. Zwingli followed up by preaching a sermon in which he argued that it was unnecessary to follow the church’s traditional teaching about not eating meat during Lent. It was a human command introduced by the Church, which might or might not be observed, but which ‘obscured the real laws of God in the Gospel if it was made compulsory’. [MacCulloch, D., 2003, Reformation, London, Allen Lane, p139]. Cranmer and Zwingli are supposed to have met, and the Swiss reformer is thought to have influenced the English archbishop.

So that’s the sausage. In the Reformation context, according to Zwingli, fasting is not divinely ordained. It’s up to you.

Not but what by the time of the Second Book of Homilies, published in the Church of England in Queen Elizabeth’s time, in 1563, whose author was Bishop Jewel, there was a published sermon – a Homily – called ‘Of Fasting’, Homily number 16. The Homilies were intended for the use of vicars who were not good at preaching, so they didn’t make any theological mistakes. We tend to think of a ‘homily’ as a short sermon – the sort that the vicar doesn’t get into the pulpit to deliver, but perhaps hovers invisibly on the chancel steps for; something like Thought for the Day in size and weight. Not so in 1563! ‘An Homily of Good Works and of Fasting’ is in two parts, the first being about fasting, and in the modern edition which I have, it occupies 8 ½ pages of very dense small type!

Some of the early Christian Fathers such as Irenaeus or Chrysostom or Tertullian or Gregory the Great all debated how long a fast should go on for. The possibilities included one day, as on the Jewish Day of Atonement, or 40 hours, mirroring Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, or indeed 40 days of fasting.

The ‘Annotated Book of Common Prayer’, edited by the Revd John Henry Blunt, published in 1872, which I’m very fortunate to have a copy of, says this.

The general mode of fasting seems to have been to abstain from food until after 6 o’clock in the afternoon and even then not to partake of animal food or wine. Yet it may be doubted whether such a mode of life could have been continued day after day for six weeks by those whose duties called upon them for much physical exertion… and although it may seem at first that men ought to be able to fast in the 19th century as strictly as they did in the 16th, the 12th, or the third, yet it should be remembered that the continuous labour of life was unknown to the great majority of persons in ancient days, as it is at the present time in the eastern church and in southern Europe; and that the quantity and quality of the food which now forms a full meal is only equivalent to what would have been an extremely spare one until comparatively modern days.’

The Victorians were too busy safely to fast, and their meals were cuisine minceur by comparison with the groaning boards enjoyed in olden times. Think of what we know of Henry VIII’s diet, or Sir John Falstaff’s. Having a rest from eating was probably very good for them, and there was no risk of starving. Come the industrial revolution, however, and meat and two veg in the works canteen was all you might have. If you gave that up, ‘night starvation’, as the Horlicks advert used to warn, was a real possibility unless you had some nourishment at least.

But it’s at least arguable that Jesus, in our lesson from St John’s Gospel, wasn’t talking about the ins and outs of fasting. [6:27] ‘Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you..’ This leads up to one of the great ‘I am’ sayings in St John’s Gospel, ‘I am the bread of life’. Just as the name of God as He spoke to Moses in the Old Testament was ‘I am’, so in these sayings, Jesus is using the same form of words, giving a sign of his divine nature. And we are no longer thinking about whether or not to eat a sausage. This is spiritual, divine food, ‘meat which endureth unto everlasting life’.

And that, you’ll be amazed to know, brings us to baked beans, and to our second theologian. He is Jürgen Moltmann, the great German theologian, some time Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen. (That is the same university at which Pope Benedict taught, once upon a time.) Moltmann is in his 90s now, and so it was a great honour for me to attend his lecture this week at Westminster Abbey, called ‘Theology of Hope’. This was the title of one of his famous books.

Prof. Moltmann comes originally from Hamburg. His excellent English still has the same accent that I know so well from my friends there in the shipping world. He was a boy when Hamburg was bombed, bombed by us, when there was the terrible ‘fire storm’ about which Kurt Vonnegut and others have written so eloquently. Moltmann was conscripted into the German army, and on Monday night he told us he had carefully learned two words of English, which he used when his platoon encountered the British Army for the first time. They were, ‘I surrender’. He told his audience that the abiding memory of his time as a prisoner of war was baked beans – which like all boys, he liked, and I think he still likes, very much.

So if the sausage in our baked beans and sausage is redolent of the Reformation, and the creation of the Book of Common Prayer, so the baked beans lead us to Jürgen Moltmann, and his Theology of Hope. What is this hope?

Moltmann saw, and still sees in the world today, great challenges in our life. They represent death, or even separation from God, which is another way of describing sin. Climate change, the destruction of God’s creation; nuclear war, where the use of nuclear weapons would end the world as we know it, because no-one could survive the nuclear winter. Division and separation among peoples instead of unity and co-operation; the erection or rebuilding of borders in contravention of God’s creation of all peoples as equals. The end time – what will happen when we die?

Maybe it’s not fanciful to say that this, this climate of despair, is somewhat reminiscent of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Lent is the right time for this kind of reflection.

Moltmann has argued that we should not despair or become nihilistic in the face of these challenges. Whereas we are often encouraged to have ‘faith’ when we have to confront these existential threats, Moltmann has suggested that what we really need, and what really reflects the presence of God in our lives, is hope. Hope, rather than faith.

For example, in the committal prayer at a funeral, the body is buried ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. You might think that what you need at that end time, at the end of life, is faith, a strong faith. But Moltmann says no, not faith, but hope is what we need. The fact, the great revelation, of Jesus’ life on earth gives us the grounds for hope. It is more than a bare belief, more than blind faith. If I hope for something, I reasonably expect that it will be possible. It’s more than an intellectual construct.

So there we are. Baked Beans and Sausages. Should we abstain from bread, or meat, or drink? Certainly not from the Bread of Life. But if even our spiritual bread is disappearing, overwhelmed in the apocalypse, in what looks like the end time, then what? 500 years ago Zwingli said, don’t stop enjoying your sausage – give thanks to God for his bounty. In the smoking ruins of that great city of Hamburg at the end of WW2, Moltmann discovered Baked Beans, and with them, divine hope. I hope that that will give you some food for thought this Lent.

Sermon for Evensong on the 21st Sunday after Trinity, 21st October 2018

Psalm 141: Matthew 12:1-21 – ‘Smite me Friendly’

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works with the men that work wickedness, lest I eat of such things as please them.

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

That’s from Psalm 141, which is the one set in the Lectionary for tonight.

‘Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth

and keep the door of my lips.’ Make sure that I only say the right things. But if I should inadvertently stray off-piste,

‘Let the righteous rather smite me friendly

and reprove me.’

I rather like the idea that the righteous should ‘smite me friendly’! Anyway, I have been warned.

As quite a lot of you know, I haven’t been very well. I’ll spare you the details, but I spent a week in Epsom Hospital three weeks ago, and then had a quiet week at my daughter Alice’s outside Exeter, before spending last week getting back up to speed at home in Cobham. It was very nice to hear from so many friends from St Mary’s, and to have some lovely visits too. Thank you for all your kindness!

I don’t know what it is that makes this happen, but my irregular stays in hospital have coincided with momentous events in the world outside. The last time I was in Epsom Hospital, in 1997, coincided with the death of poor Princess Di. I became quite an expert on all the various theories and odd facts surrounding that sad story. Now, just recently, and again in Epsom Hospital, I’ve been trying to keep on top of all the twists and turns in the Brexit negotiations, and particularly the ideas which our government and the European Commission have each come up with in order to avoid creating a ‘hard border’ around Northern Ireland.

Now you will realise why I adopted the ‘smite me friendly’ words from Psalm 141. I may find that you’re smiting me, but not friendly, if I’m not careful when I talk about Brexit!

Well, here’s the thing. There’s a nightmarishness about all the twists and turns of the Brexit process. If you go one way, you bump into an obstacle, perhaps something we’ve agreed beforehand or that Parliament has decided on, which rules out what you now think might be a good idea. So you turn down another entrance, and head off in another direction. You come up with something that you think will square with what the EU will accept – but your own MPs don’t like it. Nightmare. And of course, all the time there are plenty of people reminding you that they feel that nothing can compare with what we already have, as members of the European Union.

People are very passionate about it. Friendships have been broken. Families aren’t speaking to each other. And the worrying thing is, that no-one seems to agree how to decide who is right. People cling to the principle of democracy. More people voted to leave than to remain: 52% to 48%. But other people point out that 67% didn’t vote to leave. So people even disagree about what the democratic outcome was.

A factor in all this, this inability to decide who is right, is that there has been a lot of cheating and lying. There was the infamous red bus which had a banner down each side saying that, if we left the EU, there would be £350m a week more for the NHS – whereas even before Brexit day, as soon as the vote to leave was passed, the NHS has taken huge hits, from the devaluation of the £, making many drugs 20% more expensive, from doctors and nurses from the EU leaving, because they feel that the Brexit vote shows that people don’t like them – and from the 98% drop in numbers of nurses from the other EU countries applying to work here. The message on the bus was a wicked lie.

How do people know whom to believe? What is true in all this? Is it just a question of shouting louder?

Sitting in my hospital bed, and on Dr Alice, my daughter’s, couch, I started to wonder. Does it make a difference if you are a Christian? What would Jesus have done?

Today’s lesson from St Matthew shows him facing a rather similar set of conundrums to the ones that Mrs May and Dominic Raab, our MP, who’s now the Brexit minister, have to wrestle with. The question of eating on the Sabbath. Maybe what was held to be wrong extended to the act of gleaning, picking up the ears of wheat left at the edge of the field. Healing sick people, again on the Sabbath Day. Conflicting realities. Being hungry; worse, being ill: and you have the means to solve the problem. You can see where there is food freely available. Just pick it up. You have the power of healing. Just get him to stretch out his withered hand, and you can restore it to full strength. Does it matter if the Sabbath rules make it wrong to do these things?

Jesus gives a scholarly answer. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures to show that there are exceptions. King David and his men ate the bread offered on the altar in the Temple when they were hungry, which was something only the priests were allowed to do. Jesus pointed out that they had moved on from the limits of the old Temple worship. He was here. He was something else, something more. In Hosea [6:6] is a prophecy which includes these words, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’. In Hosea those words follow a prophecy about rising again from the grave on the third day. This is all about Jesus, Jesus as much more than just a teacher, a rabbi. More than ‘a priest of the order of Melchizedek’ as the letter to the Hebrews describes him. (Hebrews 5:5, 5:10)

And he goes on to give the lovely example of a shepherd rescuing one of his sheep which has fallen into a pit on the sabbath day. We always want to help if an animal is trapped or hurt. That is why I was angry the other day when our local Painshill animal rescue team were not able to be on duty because the austerity cuts had reduced their numbers, so that a cow which had fallen into a ditch locally, and was in distress, had to wait for a crew from Sussex to come. Never mind what Jesus would say about austerity – the point is that He said that the animal, the sheep, must be saved, whatever day it is.

And finally Jesus quoted from Isaiah chapter 42, a prophecy again about the Messiah. Gentle, quiet – and trusted, even by the Gentiles, the non-Jews. ‘A bruised reed he shall not break’.

What can we bring from this, from how Jesus squared the circle with the Pharisees about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath? He, Jesus, rises above any day-to-day considerations. The Temple rules don’t apply to him. But almost more important, Jesus is the servant, the gentle spirit of kindness. He expects mercy, not ritual sacrifice. It’s not about Him, but about the ones in need. The man with the withered hand, maybe a Thalidomide victim, in today’s world; the sheep which has fallen down into a hole.

So what could we learn from Jesus about the Brexit ‘conundrum’, as Godfrey [Revd Godfrey Hilliard, Rector of Stoke D’Abernon] calls it? What principles can we use as followers of Jesus, as Christians? Obviously no-one can say for sure what Jesus would have said or done. But surely it would be good if we at least thought about it.

Would Jesus have wanted the Jews, his people, to get their independence from the Romans? Was it a bad thing to belong to the great Roman empire? After all, St Paul did very well out of being able to say, ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’, Acts 22, after Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.162) – and indeed he was very proud of being able to say that. Jesus himself seems to have felt the same way: ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, is what he said. (Matt.22:21)

What about immigration? The Jewish law protected the widow, the orphan – and ‘the stranger that is within thy gate’ (Deut. 10:19, Leviticus 19:34). That stranger is in the same position as the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan. He was saved by a Samaritan, who was a foreigner, not someone Jewish people would ordinarily have wanted to have living next door. But this foreigner showed compassion and kindness. He showed that human dignity, human rights, the right to life, the right to medical treatment if you are hurt, are far more important than nationalistic considerations. Being a neighbour, a good neighbour, is far more important than what flag you fly.

But as I sat on Alice’s couch I realised that I wasn’t hearing those sort of arguments very much. There are some of our bishops who have said things along the same lines. [See, e.g., https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/1-july/news/uk/church-leaders-seek-to-unite-divided-country] But it occurred to me that we ought to try to work through it, through the Brexit conundrum, with Jesus on our shoulder. What would He think of as important? Would He ‘smite anyone friendly’ for things they said? What about that red bus? What else do the politicians know about that they aren’t telling the ordinary people? Aren’t all the doctors and nurses from other countries who work in our NHS ‘Good Samaritans’, just as Jesus would have wanted?

And we, when we argue passionately for one side or the other, do we give any thought to what our Christian faith might bring to the argument? And if not, why not? I have a feeling that things might work out rather better if we did – and if our leaders remembered Psalm 141.

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works ….

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

When I first started to train as a Reader (the Diocese likes to call us ‘licensed lay ministers’), the vicar of St Andrew’s Cobham, where I was worshipping, said to me, when he asked me to do my first sermon, that it should be eight minutes long. Eight minutes is still the target, even now. Keep an eye on your watches, but I have to warn you, there may be more. Eight minutes, right?

Jesus said to the first 12 disciples, as he sent them out,

‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, the kingdom of heaven has come near’. …

‘Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.’ (Matt. 10:5-8)

It’s practical stuff. The kingdom of heaven has come near. It isn’t a message about heaven in the sense of it being at the last judgement, after we die; this is the here and now. The kingdom of heaven is here, and what it implies is not particularly spiritual either. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers.

Most of that today would equate to being an instruction to become a doctor or a nurse. ‘Curing the sick’ is just that – become a doctor or a nurse; ‘raising the dead’ looks totally miraculous, but today there are cases where people who have been given up for dead are actually revived and brought back to life through the exercise of expert medical knowledge. ‘Cleansing the lepers’. ‘Cleansing’ meant that by curing the leprosy you removed the disfigurement from the faces of people who had been sufferers. Their faces were clean, unblemished, again. And ‘casting out demons’ is what we would understand today as psychiatry.

The Holy Land then was a land under foreign occupation. I think that suggests a way we might understand this rather odd instruction that Jesus gives, about where the disciples should concentrate on going, going to the lost sheep of the house of Israel rather than to the Gentiles or the Samaritans.

That doesn’t sit very well with our understanding of Christianity. Christ was – is – Lord of all. He was God in human form, true God, the Almighty, the creator of all there is, seen and unseen, not just of the Jews.

I think the way to understand what Jesus said, seeming to favour the Jews, is simply that the Jews were the lost sheep because of the fact that they were under the oppressive rule of the Romans. ‘Gentiles’, which means ‘nations’, is a shorthand expression for the Romans, because lots of nations became Roman citizens. So Jesus wanted his disciples at least initially to concentrate on people who needed help, on the oppressed, not on their oppressors.

Oppressed people. I think it’s time to come clean, to let you into the secret, what that’s got to do with my trying to preach for eight minutes. Time’s nearly up. Eight minutes. Not yet for this sermon, actually.

It’s how long it took for that policeman to kill George Floyd. ‘I can’t breathe’, he said. And amazingly, other policemen, who were standing around, and even bystanders, who were filming the scene on their phones, just watched and did nothing: they let him die. They let him be killed. Nobody really thought of him as a human being. He was a black man, and as such, he wasn’t counted as being, really, human.

A great movement has sprung up in reaction to this terrible crime, to point out that it is the tip of an iceberg and that black lives matter. It is because Mr Floyd was black that he was treated as subhuman. What would Jesus do? His lost sheep of Israel, I’m pretty sure, would today include plenty of black people.

This part of Surrey isn’t a very racially mixed area. Our congregation today doesn’t seem to have any black faces in it. It ought to have. I can assure you that there are black people around, and the important thing is that they are just like us. They are human beings.

Down the road from Whiteley Village and Saint James’s in Weybridge is St Mary Oatlands, where there is a very wonderful vicar called Folli Olokose. He is a French national, born and brought up in Nigeria. He is a black man. At St Andrew’s in Cobham there is a deacon, shortly to become a curate, Dr Moni Babatunde; born in Nigeria and brought up in Wimbledon, living in Cobham for the last 20 years or so. A black lady. And it’s not just black vicars. There are many other black families living around us.

In a way, it’s not right to go into the question ‘where they came from’. It ought not to make any difference. The only reason I mention African or Indian or Caribbean heritage is simply to emphasise the fact that they are black people. They are not being treated equally. Dr Babatunde told me that when her son passed his driving test, she took him on one side and quietly gave him some advice on what to do if – when – he is stopped by the police. For eight minutes.

He is a talented young man who has just achieved first class honours in philosophy at Nottingham University and is now doing the law conversion course in order to become a solicitor. But even so his mother has had to warn him how to conduct himself so as not to get arrested. Because he is black.

So there it is. Eight minutes. Time to die. Time to live. Time for the kingdom of heaven to come near. But let’s do something about it.

A reflection

John 10:1-10 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=455280521

One of my friends has started putting pictures of sheep on her Instagram page. Every day she puts up a picture of a different sheep. At first I wondered whether I wasn’t really getting the hang of the Instagram, and that there was a message about the sheep that I wasn’t seeing. Perhaps there were some words somewhere which I was not seeing on my screen. So, after about five different sheep pictures, I asked her, “What’s with all the splendid sheep on your Instagram?” She answered, “I have always loved sheep. I’m fed up with the negative news, so I just set myself a challenge to post at least one sheep each day to remind myself of the Good Shepherd.’ That really says it all. Maybe I should just stop there. Sheep are good animals. They are a Good Thing. But perhaps I should elaborate a little bit.

I have to say that I’m not a country person, so the only times that I have met sheep face-to-face have been at Bockett’s Farm with my children and my grandson, little Jim. Actually, now you come to mention it, when I was little, on holiday in North Wales, I do remember another time: stopping for a picnic on the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen, when a couple of sheep climbed into Dad’s car and tried to have the picnic that we were having. But they were very nice about it and they didn’t bite anybody; just our sandwiches.

I don’t really know what the ‘sheepfold’ is that our Gospel reading talks about. I thought sheep just roamed about in a field, and every now and again got rounded up by the shepherd and his sheep dog, to be taken off to have their coats shorn and and be put through a sheep dip.

In Jesus’s story, there isn’t a sheepdog. But there is somebody, who is called the ‘door-keeper’ or the ‘gatekeeper’. Where these sheep live, this sheepfold, it sounds a bit like an hotel. Indeed the King James version of the Bible identifies the chap who lets the sheep in and out, this gatekeeper, as the ‘porter’. I’ve got visions of one of those little Paris hotels with a porter at the reception who gives you your key, or of an Oxford college, where again, the man at the door is called the porter. But that’s maybe a bit grand – for a sheep. Maybe they did things differently, in first century Palestine.

Jesus does use sheep quite often in his parables and teaching. Think of the parable of the lost sheep, or the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or the crowds, that Jesus pities, because they are like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. Immediately after the story which we have as our lesson today, he goes on to talk about being the Good Shepherd.

These references to sheep do give you confidence that God cares for us. Jesus is God, and he is also the good Shepherd; so we can be confident that he will look after us.

Here Jesus says that he is “the gate for the sheep”. Not just the gatekeeper, but the gate itself. Before he came to be the gatekeeper, or the gate, all sorts of people got into the sheepfold, who were not proper shepherds. They may have been just rustlers and thieves.

But when Jesus became the gatekeeper, then he was properly careful about the ones he allowed in. We are reminded about the Great Judgement at the end of time in St Matthew ch 25, the sorting out of the sheep from the goats: remember, you see, the sheep are the good ones. And by the way: just as there aren’t any sheep dogs in these stories, there aren’t any black sheep either; so I don’t have to talk about exceptions that prove the rule.

The straightforward idea is that we are in his Great Congregation – because ‘congregation’ is another sheep-y word. Grex, gregis, in Latin, which is the ‘greg’ bit in the word ‘congregation’, means a herd or a flock. A flock of sheep. We are the great congregation, the great flock. We are the sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd.

And Jesus says, ‘Whoever enters the sheepfold through me will be saved; going out and coming in through me, the sheep will find somewhere good to graze’. …. ‘I am there in order ‘… that you, (the sheep), may have life, and may have it abundantly.’

You can see why lambs are something we often think about at Easter, in the springtime, when they are playing in the fields, when the flowers are coming out; because it is usually a wonderful time of regeneration, a time for having life abundantly.

But it is rather poignant today, when there is so much sadness and worry about the terrible coronavirus epidemic; against that background I think it is especially welcome that we should be able, for a few minutes this morning, to fix our minds on a nice, warm, woolly, sheep. I think Jesus would have approved. That sheep stands for all sorts of good things to come.

A Reflection at Easter, April 2020

By Hugh Bryant

‘The language around COVID-19 has sometimes felt trite and misleading. You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the Prime Minister’s colleagues’ll tell us. And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same. This is a myth which needs debunking. Those serving on the front line right now, bus drivers and shelf stackers; nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers, are disproportionately the lower-paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed. Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lock-down tougher; those in manual jobs will be unable to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health. Tonight, as France goes into recession, and the World Trade Organisation warns the pandemic could provoke the deepest economic downturn of our lifetimes, we ask what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark.’ (Emily Maitlis, introducing ‘Newsnight’, BBC Two, 8th April 2020.)

That was such a grown-up and eloquent comment on the COVID-19 plague, that my first reaction was to scratch around to see whether Emily Maitlis had been quoting some eminent philosopher or grand old man or a woman of world affairs when she introduced ‘Newsnight’ on BBC2 on Wednesday night. But my instinct was unworthy. She is a very talented journalist in her own right and those are her words.

Her words are among the most apt and most challenging words in the torrent of verbiage which the first week of lockdown has produced. I can’t really get excited by this procession of metropolitan sophisticates discovering the joys of birdsong and blue-skies-without-aeroplanes, empty roads and silence.

I’m sure there is a place for all those good things, but somehow I don’t think that, when this is all over, historians will look back and celebrate stumbling prose about the unaccustomed joys of birdsong. Instead our generation will be judged on how we dealt with this ‘health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, [or] …welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health’, as Emily Maitlis so eloquently put it.

It seems extraordinarily apt that Emily Maitlis said what she did on the eve of Maundy Thursday. For Christians, Maundy Thursday is the day when they remember Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The son of God, arguably the most important man who has ever lived, doing the same sort of thing that a care home worker does, washing the dirty bits, becoming a servant. As we have seen in this COVID-19 plague, the sort of thing that Jesus was doing can become very dangerous. So dangerous that only people who don’t matter are put in the line of risk. Only the expendable ones, although nobody spells this out. As Emily Maitlis said, the bus drivers, the shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers. The government has advertised jobs in the new Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre including receptionists at £37,500 per annum, when at the same time nurses and doctors, after years of training, start at less than £25,000.

Somebody will say that the market justifies this, that there are fewer people willing to be receptionists in the Nightingale hospital than there are willing to be doctors and nurses in that dangerous place. Therefore by the inexorable laws of supply and demand the willing, the brave, are worth less than those in short supply. Put that way, the proposition looks quite indefensible. How could the market, even if it is correct in identifying shortages in that way, be the only guide to the value of these vital people’s work?

But wait a minute. How does the market account for the fact that there is a shortage of doctors and nurses, tens of thousands of doctors and nurses? Either the market is not functioning properly, as their value is not rising to reflect their scarcity, in which case all these political statements based on “realism” and “the market” are not true, or the market as an index of value is not actually accurate. Either way there is a glaring injustice. As Emily Maitlis put it, ‘… what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark?’ How are people to be valued in future?

Christians have a number of pointers in front of them, particularly at this time in Holy Week and Easter. So much of what Jesus did and said was counterintuitive and back-to-front. Before he was born, when an angel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, what she said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour…’: this speech, this aria, this canticle, is one of the most subversive, even one of the most revolutionary, passages in the whole of literature. ‘For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’. God chose an ordinary young girl; he selected her knowing that she was one of the little people. ‘He that is mighty hath magnified me’. The omnipotent, the divine, the greatest power, has chosen me, small and insignificant, and made me great.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

This is what God is doing. This is the implication of his having chosen someone not special, just an ordinary girl; but having chosen that person to be the mother of the divine incarnation, God with us. God in human form. She wasn’t in any way rare or perfect or uniquely suited to this job. She was just an ordinary girl from a humble background. God’s choice implies a direct challenge to the value system that we have had and we have in our world today. The Magnificat shows up and challenges head-on the great divide in our society between the rich and the poor, between the great and the little people.

That was before Jesus was born. The Magnificat points to how he is going to operate. It points forward to the Sermon on the Mount, the longest sustained piece of counterintuitive argument that you are ever going to come across. The Beatitudes: ‘blessed are the – poor: blessed are the meek. Not ‘blessed are the people in large houses riding about in Lamborghinis’. (See Matt. 5,6 and 7 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=453535527)

In one sense I disagree with Emily Maitlis. She says, ‘And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same.’ I know – indeed I passionately agree with – what she means. But in one important sense, there is equality. We are all – wherever in the world we come from – we are all creatures of God, made in His image. The virus is not a leveller, as Emily Maitlis rightly says. It affects all humans – and, unfortunately, tigers too.

Where it does not level us is shown by what happens when the virus has struck someone. Then it depends where you are and how wealthy you are, either as an individual or because you belong to a rich society, whether you will get full treatment. Even so, so far we have not yet discovered a cure, so even with the best treatment in an intensive care unit in a European or American or Far Eastern teaching hospital, you may still die – but you will be made as comfortable as possible, and you will have the very best chance of survival.

If on the other hand Coronavirus strikes and you are in a refugee camp on the border of Syria, in Jordan perhaps, or if you live in the slums of Calcutta or Bombay, or in many parts of Africa, there are far fewer doctors, far fewer hospitals, and no money or National Health Service to pay for your treatment. In the USA, except in one or two enlightened states such as Massachusetts, unless you can afford to buy expensive health insurance, no-one will treat you.

But perhaps the reason why this is so wrong, and why this is a ‘health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare’, is that there is no good reason why some people should be so much better off than others – or rather, that so many people should be so much worse off than the fortunate few. Why should there be any entitlement in an accident of birth? Rich and poor, G7 or Third World, we are all susceptible to COVID-19. But if we are all liable to suffer, should we not all share the means of salvation?

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke recently about the objective of the Good Life (with a capital G and L) being, not, as theologians and philosophers from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas have argued, ‘human flourishing’ (ευδαιμονία) but rather, the objective, the objective of the Good Life, is to be safe. Safe. Safe from harm. Safe from disease. Safe from hunger.

Again, Christians can turn to the teaching of Jesus. Think of the Great Judgment in St Matthew chapter 25 (from verse 31), the division of the sheep and the goats, the saved – the ones who are safe – and those condemned to eternal damnation. Hunger. Thirst. Disease. They are at the heart of it. What did you do for them? No suggestion that some hungry people, or thirsty people, or poorly people, might deserve to be safe, to be saved, more than others. Absolutely not. Jesus says that He is in all of us, however lowly.

Again, just as God chose the humble Mary, so ‘the righteous will [say]…, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and took you home, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and come to visit you?” And the king will answer, “I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me”. (Matt. 25:37-40, NEB). (Jesus would surely have wanted to be explicitly gender-neutral if he had been saying this today, and would surely have said, ‘anything you did for one of my brothers and sisters here, however humble, you did for me.’)

So at this Easter time, when we remember Jesus’ amazing self-abasement, his humbling himself to wash the disciples’ feet, and then his enduring the most terrible torture and death – being the most important man on earth, but beaten and strung up to die with common criminals, as a common criminal, because that was actually his rank, his lowly position in society – and then rising in triumph, leaving the empty tomb: when we reflect on that extraordinary sequence of events, the Triduum, the Three Days, we can realise that there is an alternative. There is an alternative to the dominion of the market. There is an alternative to people who know the price of things but not their value. The fact that Jesus beat death – and that must be about the most counterintuitive thing he ever did – has given us hope: the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. And that is for everyone, for everyone who could possibly catch COVID, wherever they are and whatever flag they fly.

Emily Maitlis concluded, asking ‘what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark’. That is the most important thing we have to do when the medical campaign against COVID-19 has been won. It is a huge challenge: but Jesus has given us hope, hope that we can do it. The Easter message is one of hope, and of salvation, that we can make that Good Life, where all people, everywhere, are safe.

A Reflection at Easter, April 2020

By Hugh Bryant

‘The language around COVID-19 has sometimes felt trite and misleading. You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the Prime Minister’s colleagues’ll tell us. And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same. This is a myth which needs debunking. Those serving on the front line right now, bus drivers and shelf stackers; nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers, are disproportionately the lower-paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed. Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lock-down tougher; those in manual jobs will be unable to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health. Tonight, as France goes into recession, and the World Trade Organisation warns the pandemic could provoke the deepest economic downturn of our lifetimes, we ask what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark.’ (Emily Maitlis, introducing ‘Newsnight’, BBC Two, 8th April 2020.)

That was such a grown-up and eloquent comment on the COVID-19 plague, that my first reaction was to scratch around to see whether Emily Maitlis had been quoting some eminent philosopher or grand old man or a woman of world affairs when she introduced ‘Newsnight’ on BBC2 on Wednesday night. But my instinct was unworthy. She is a very talented journalist in her own right and those are her words.

Her words are among the most apt and most challenging words in the torrent of verbiage which the first week of lockdown has produced. I can’t really get excited by this procession of metropolitan sophisticates discovering the joys of birdsong and blue-skies-without-aeroplanes, empty roads and silence.

I’m sure there is a place for all those good things, but somehow I don’t think that, when this is all over, historians will look back and celebrate stumbling prose about the unaccustomed joys of birdsong. Instead our generation will be judged on how we dealt with this ‘health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, [or] …welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health’, as Emily Maitlis so eloquently put it.

It seems extraordinarily apt that Emily Maitlis said what she did on the eve of Maundy Thursday. For Christians, Maundy Thursday is the day when they remember Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The son of God, arguably the most important man who has ever lived, doing the same sort of thing that a care home worker does, washing the dirty bits, becoming a servant. As we have seen in this COVID-19 plague, the sort of thing that Jesus was doing can become very dangerous. So dangerous that only people who don’t matter are put in the line of risk. Only the expendable ones, although nobody spells this out. As Emily Maitlis said, the bus drivers, the shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers. The government has advertised jobs in the new Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre including receptionists at £37,500 per annum, when at the same time nurses and doctors, after years of training, start at less than £25,000.

Somebody will say that the market justifies this, that there are fewer people willing to be receptionists in the Nightingale hospital than there are willing to be doctors and nurses in that dangerous place. Therefore by the inexorable laws of supply and demand the willing, the brave, are worth less than those in short supply. Put that way, the proposition looks quite indefensible. How could the market, even if it is correct in identifying shortages in that way, be the only guide to the value of these vital people’s work?

But wait a minute. How does the market account for the fact that there is a shortage of doctors and nurses, tens of thousands of doctors and nurses? Either the market is not functioning properly, as their value is not rising to reflect their scarcity, in which case all these political statements based on “realism” and “the market” are not true, or the market as an index of value is not actually accurate. Either way there is a glaring injustice. As Emily Maitlis put it, ‘… what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark?’ How are people to be valued in future?

Christians have a number of pointers in front of them, particularly at this time in Holy Week and Easter. So much of what Jesus did and said was counterintuitive and back-to-front. Before he was born, when an angel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, what she said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour…’: this speech, this aria, this canticle, is one of the most subversive, even one of the most revolutionary, passages in the whole of literature. ‘For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’. God chose an ordinary young girl; he selected her knowing that she was one of the little people. ‘He that is mighty hath magnified me’. The omnipotent, the divine, the greatest power, has chosen me, small and insignificant, and made me great.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

This is what God is doing. This is the implication of his having chosen someone not special, just an ordinary girl; but having chosen that person to be the mother of the divine incarnation, God with us. God in human form. She wasn’t in any way rare or perfect or uniquely suited to this job. She was just an ordinary girl from a humble background. God’s choice implies a direct challenge to the value system that we have had and we have in our world today. The Magnificat shows up and challenges head-on the great divide in our society between the rich and the poor, between the great and the little people.

That was before Jesus was born. The Magnificat points to how he is going to operate. It points forward to the Sermon on the Mount, the longest sustained piece of counterintuitive argument that you are ever going to come across. The Beatitudes: ‘blessed are the – poor: blessed are the meek. Not ‘blessed are the people in large houses riding about in Lamborghinis’. (See Matt. 5,6 and 7 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=453535527)

In one sense I disagree with Emily Maitlis. She says, ‘And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same.’ I know – indeed I passionately agree with – what she means. But in one important sense, there is equality. We are all – wherever in the world we come from – we are all creatures of God, made in His image. The virus is not a leveller, as Emily Maitlis rightly says. It affects all humans – and, unfortunately, tigers too.

Where it does not level us is shown by what happens when the virus has struck someone. Then it depends where you are and how wealthy you are, either as an individual or because you belong to a rich society, whether you will get full treatment. Even so, so far we have not yet discovered a cure, so even with the best treatment in an intensive care unit in a European or American or Far Eastern teaching hospital, you may still die – but you will be made as comfortable as possible, and you will have the very best chance of survival.

If on the other hand Coronavirus strikes and you are in a refugee camp on the border of Syria, in Jordan perhaps, or if you live in the slums of Calcutta or Bombay, or in many parts of Africa, there are far fewer doctors, far fewer hospitals, and no money or National Health Service to pay for your treatment. In the USA, except in one or two enlightened states such as Massachusetts, unless you can afford to buy expensive health insurance, no-one will treat you.

But perhaps the reason why this is so wrong, and why this is a ‘health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare’, is that there is no good reason why some people should be so much better off than others – or rather, that so many people should be so much worse off than the fortunate few. Why should there be any entitlement in an accident of birth? Rich and poor, G7 or Third World, we are all susceptible to COVID-19. But if we are all liable to suffer, should we not all share the means of salvation?

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke recently about the objective of the Good Life (with a capital G and L) being, not, as theologians and philosophers from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas have argued, ‘human flourishing’ (ευδαιμονία) but rather, the objective, the objective of the Good Life, is to be safe. Safe. Safe from harm. Safe from disease. Safe from hunger.

Again, Christians can turn to the teaching of Jesus. Think of the Great Judgment in St Matthew chapter 25 (from verse 31), the division of the sheep and the goats, the saved – the ones who are safe – and those condemned to eternal damnation. Hunger. Thirst. Disease. They are at the heart of it. What did you do for them? No suggestion that some hungry people, or thirsty people, or poorly people, might deserve to be safe, to be saved, more than others. Absolutely not. Jesus says that He is in all of us, however lowly.

Again, just as God chose the humble Mary, so ‘the righteous will [say]…, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and took you home, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and come to visit you?” And the king will answer, “I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me”. (Matt. 25:37-40, NEB). (Jesus would surely have wanted to be explicitly gender-neutral if he had been saying this today, and would surely have said, ‘anything you did for one of my brothers and sisters here, however humble, you did for me.’)

So at this Easter time, when we remember Jesus’ amazing self-abasement, his humbling himself to wash the disciples’ feet, and then his enduring the most terrible torture and death – being the most important man on earth, but beaten and strung up to die with common criminals, as a common criminal, because that was actually his rank, his lowly position in society – and then rising in triumph, leaving the empty tomb: when we reflect on that extraordinary sequence of events, the Triduum, the Three Days, we can realise that there is an alternative. There is an alternative to the dominion of the market. There is an alternative to people who know the price of things but not their value. The fact that Jesus beat death – and that must be about the most counterintuitive thing he ever did – has given us hope: the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. And that is for everyone, for everyone who could possibly catch COVID, wherever they are and whatever flag they fly.

Emily Maitlis concluded, asking ‘what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark’. That is the most important thing we have to do when the medical campaign against COVID-19 has been won. It is a huge challenge: but Jesus has given us hope, hope that we can do it. The Easter message is one of hope, and of salvation, that we can make that Good Life, where all people, everywhere, are safe.

The reason is, that it’s irrelevant. He is trying to give effect to the result of the 2016 referendum, in a way which does least harm to our economy; at the same time he is recognizing that only another referendum can affirm or change the original Brexit referendum result. Politicians can only serve to carry out the decisions of the people when a referendum has been held.

The last three years have shown, among other things, that there is no generally-agreed interpretation of what Brexit involves In detail; that there is no achievable Brexit which does not involve economic self-harm, leaving us to a greater or lesser extent worse off, economically and in terms of international influence, than we are as members of the EU; and that there is no reliable parliamentary majority for Brexit (pace one recent vote supporting it in principle).

The Labour policy, in the light of these difficulties, is to seek to negotiate a treaty to leave the EU with as little economic self-harm as possible, and then to offer the electorate a referendum choice between that real, achievable, Brexit deal – or to recognise the benefits of what we currently have, and to remain in the EU.

It follows from the above that the party leaders’ views concerning the relative merits of the two possible outcomes are strictly irrelevant; moreover, in order for the least harmful Brexit deal to be achieved, it is necessary that our negotiators should do their best irrespective of their personal views, like the civil servants supporting them.

Nothing should prejudice the free choice of the people: but unlike in 2016, they will choose between actual, feasible Brexit or actually remaining as we are. There will no longer be future unknowns which can be called ‘Project Fear’. Perhaps once the Labour Brexit deal is on the table, and not before, leaders may declare whether they prefer it to staying in the EU – or they may not. It will not matter, as it will be the people’s choice.

Hugh Bryant

19th November 2019

Sermon for Evensong with the Prayer Book Society on Saturday 16th November 2019

Daniel 7:15-28; Revelation 9:13-21 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=440816069

Earlier this week, some of us were here in this Founder’s Chapel at Charterhouse, also under the auspices of the PBS, for the competition to select candidates to go forward to the finals of the Cranmer Awards in February next year at the Bishop’s Palace in Worcester. Thanks to Revd Chris Hancock’s excellent organising efforts and Fr Tom Pote of Holy Trinity, Guildford encouraging four good students to enter, we had a very good selection of six candidates, four juniors and two seniors, who had to read passages from the Prayer Book and from the Authorised Version of the Bible, which in the final they have to memorise and deliver by heart.

Everybody did really well and we are putting forward from the Guildford Branch two very strong candidates. Competitors in the competition can choose the passages which they use, and because the competition aims to look for people who can bring out the richness of the language in the Prayer Book and the excitement of it, it’s a good idea to find passages which are in themselves dramatic and colourful. So, for example, the conversion of St Paul (Acts 9:1-19) was one passage used and another was the reluctant wedding guests, where one who turned up improperly dressed was cast out into the outer darkness where there is ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. (Matt. 22:1-14)

We all love the Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible for many things but especially for the spiky and memorable words. I don’t know how young I was when I first registered the idea of weeping and gnashing of teeth – possibly at the time when my milk teeth were falling out, the whole idea of gnashing them was even more exciting.

Today’s lessons are cases in point. They are fanciful, metaphorical, colourful evocations of things which no one could literally experience. Prof. John Barton, in his splendid book ‘A History of the Bible’, [J. Barton, 2019, A History of the Bible, London, Allen Lane, at p 369], has pointed out that the mythical animals which you meet in Daniel chapter 7 (just before the passage which was our lesson this afternoon), a lion with eagle’s wings, and a leopard with ‘wings of a fowl’ and four heads, are not animals which anyone could meet in a zoo.

Fr Etienne Charpentier, in his commentary on Daniel ch 7, [E. Charpentier, translated by John Bowden, 1982, How to Read the Old Testament, London, SCM Press, at pp 90-91] has observed that the second half of the Book of Daniel, from chapter 6 onwards, and the whole of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine at the end of the New Testament are what is known as apocalypses; uncoverings, literally, from the Greek ὰποκαλυπτειν, ‘taking the cover off’, literally; the Latin translation of that Greek word being ‘revelare,’ taking the veil off, revealing, so, Revelation. 

We have come to use the word apocalypse to connote a catastrophic end, possibly the end of the world. But this is not the whole story. Certainly in the Bible, in Daniel and in the Book of Revelation, the intention is to give a glimpse into heaven, a glimpse of the Divine at work. But this glimpse is not in the sense of a learned work of history or a Panorama documentary, but rather a metaphor, a myth, a picture of something which we cannot see. Charpentier writes, ‘History is thought to unfold in a straight line, the end of which is hidden in God’s secret.’

Saint Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, speaks of seeing through a glass, darkly [v12], and contrasts that with the clear vision which will come with the coming of the Kingdom. We are not intended to take these things literally. We shouldn’t have nightmares about lions with wings or a beast with iron teeth. Remember that Daniel is supposed to be having his dreams and encountering the powers of evil at the time of the Persian Kings Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Darius, who cast him into the den of the lions, at the time of the exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC, whereas in fact he was writing about 165BC, at the time of the Maccabees, the great Jewish revolt against king Antiochus IV’s attempt to impose Greek religion on the Jews by force. 

The historical context when these books were written is very interesting. It gives us a clue why we should still consider them as relevant to our life today. They were written at times of danger, strife, when people were worried about the future, threatened by external forces, not sure what the right thing to do should be, and in particular how to deal with earthly powers opposed to the ways of God. 

Who are these four kings in Daniel, and who are the forces, a third of whom are wiped out in the vision in Revelation? They are mythical forces; but perhaps we can identify them down the ages with particular cases where faithful people have turned to the Bible for guidance and inspiration in their own times of trouble. As one scholar has written, ‘To uphold his people’s hope in dramatic times, God lifts the veil which hides the end, revealing the happy outcome to history as a result of God’s victory.’ This is the theology of apocalypse.

If we are looking for signs of the apocalypse today, you will not need me to add to the chorus of voices shouting the odds about our contemporary situation, with our general election, all the problems of the NHS, the need for food banks and the continuing consequences of the Brexit referendum. If we are looking for signs of an apocalypse, we might class the signs of climate change as ‘apocalyptic’ more than anything else.

What to do in the face of all this? The spiky words of the Prayer Book are very helpful. We pray the Collects; and as we use some of the wonderful prayers, ‘for all sorts and conditions of men’, the Book helps us to bring all those men – and women – before the Lord in humility. Let us reflect on how those apocalypses that we have read about, those revelations, visions of heaven, can tell us the true way to that place where true joys may be found. 

In the words of the psalmist, in today’s psalms,

‘Defend the poor and fatherless: see that such as are in need and necessity have right.

Deliver the outcast and poor; save them from the hand of the ungodly.’  [Psalm 82] or 

‘Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee: in whose heart are thy ways. 

Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well: and the pools are filled with water.

They will go from strength to strength …’ [Psalm 84]

I wish you all a blessed Advent time, not too much Election or Brexit stuff, and a very happy Christmas. ‘O how amiable are thy dwellings: thou Lord of hosts!’

Sermon for Evensong on the 19th Sunday after Trinity, 27th October 2019

Ecclesiastes 11,12; 2 Timothy 2:1-7 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=439196125)

I don’t know what reading matter you have in your downstairs loo, or, I suppose, whether that loo does contain a library: but on the assumption that you read, rather than playing video games, in there, I wanted to mention that when I looked at our Bible readings for this evening – or at least at one of them – I got a strong Reader’s Digest feeling. You know, those wholesome little paragraphs at the end of the main articles and stories in the Reader’s Digest – possibly one-liners, suggesting that it might be a good thing to ‘cast thy bread upon the waters’ or something like that.

Both the piece from the second Letter to Timothy and the two chapters from Ecclesiastes could fall into this category of old saws and ancient wisdom. But if you look a bit more closely and compare these two bits of wisdom, you’ll see straightway that the piece from Ecclesiastes is actually rather bleak and nihilistic. You find the word which perhaps everyone associates with Ecclesiastes, ‘vanity’. It is, according to the learned commentators on this passage, a Hebrew word, hebel, which is ‘conventionally translated ‘vanity’, [but] the literal sense of this term is more often used metaphorically, to suggest transience, uselessness or deceptiveness’. (Stuart Weekes in John Barton and John Muddiman, eds, (2001) The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford, OUP, p. 423).

‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity’. Whether you ‘cast your bread on the waters’, meaning if you speculate in different markets, possibly with seven different products and seven different opportunities – or perhaps even eight – you can’t know what’s going to happen. Whether it’s going to rain; whether a tree will fall in one direction rather than another, and so on. You can’t know. You’d better make hay while the sun shines.

‘Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.’

The Preacher, so-called – Ecclesiastes is a translation into Greek of a Hebrew word, Qoheleth, and it could also mean the Speaker or the Teacher – whoever he is, after these bleak beginnings, he says,

‘Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.’

That ending is rather incongruous with what has gone before, which is sceptical, cynical – with no thought of God, until all of a sudden He appears as the Judge eternal. Some scholars think that this bit was added on by a later scribe to make this ‘wisdom literature’ seem more scriptural.

But what about the God that Ecclesiastes talks about, albeit that He appears only rarely? Ecclesiastes says, ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments.’ The other day I was asked, ‘Why is it that we should fear God, if God is good and loving, as we say He is?’ It’s a good question. I’ll come back to it in a minute.

In Ecclesiastes, on the face of things it doesn’t much matter what we do, whether it will make our lives flourish or not. It is beyond our control, and the only certainty is that at the end of our lives we will come before the Judge Eternal.

The advice to Timothy, in our second reading, is rather different. God doesn’t just appear at random, on rare occasions. Everything is affected by the phenomenon of Jesus Christ, by the things that we learn about Him and receive from Him. So in the letter, Timothy needs to be strengthened by the grace, by the free gift, of Christ Jesus. He needs to be tough – ‘as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’

God himself is asked to help Timothy to understand what he ought to do. There is no ultimate hopelessness, as there is in the Ecclesiastes world; there are challenges, but at the end, Timothy can enjoy the fruits of grace:

‘The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.’

What a difference it makes to know about Jesus! The Speaker, Ecclesiastes, has such a bleak outlook. It doesn’t matter what you do in life: God doesn’t take any notice of you, except perhaps until the very end on the day of Judgement. You might as well make hay while the sun shines. God, as Ecclesiastes sees Him, really doesn’t take much notice of us. This isn’t what we are told about the God of Moses, who made a covenant, a solemn agreement, with his people, taking a very serious interest in them. ‘I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.’

For Ecclesiastes God is the ultimate creator and judge eternal: so enjoy life while you can. As well as ‘vanity of vanities, everything is vanity’, Ecclesiastes is where you find that passage which some people like to have read at funerals, ‘a time to live, a time to die. .. Everything in its season,’ and so on [3:1-9]. As Professor John Barton has pointed out, no-one usually quotes the last line of the passage, which simply asks, What’s the point of all that work? (See John Barton, 2019, A History of the Bible, London, Allen Lane, p68)

But it’s at least arguable that Ecclesiastes doesn’t reflect the way we understand how God works now. Compare and contrast how the writer of the letter to Timothy understands it. Your life is better, you are more able to withstand trials and tribulations, you will have inner strength if you are a believer, if you are ‘in Christ.’ ‘In Christ’ is actually an expression which doesn’t appear in the letters to Timothy, but it is quintessentially how St Paul puts it in many of his letters.

People who are in Christ have Christ in them; so their relationship with God is even more intimate than the covenant relationship that Moses and the prophets proclaimed. The chosen people of God are no longer just one nation on earth, but anyone, anyone can be saved, if they are open to the gospel of Jesus Christ and let Jesus into their hearts. There is no question of eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. The Christian understanding is that we no longer have that threat hanging over us. Jesus has conquered death and we have nothing to fear because we are destined for eternal life.

So why should we fear God? It’s a good question. If we are in Ecclesiastes’ world, where God is the ultimate creator, the all-powerful, the almighty, all-knowing, and our judge at the end of time but not interfering with us much before then, with power to cast us out into the eternal darkness, then perhaps the way we should approach Him is the same way we would approach anything which is overwhelmingly big, disproportionately powerful, for whom we are a mere fleabite.

Think what happens in confrontations with things which are infinitely powerful. In biblical times kings could demonstrate their power by putting people together with wild animals. Think of Daniel in the lions’ den. The strength of the lions reflected the power of the king. The king could not avoid demonstrating his power by putting Daniel in with the lions. He didn’t expect him to survive. But what do you think Daniel was feeling? Granted that he had a very strong faith, but I can’t believe that he was not afraid. Confronted with overwhelming force, he was afraid of that force.

I think that one of the wonderful things which we can take from the revelation which is the life of Jesus and his teaching, is that God is a loving God. He isn’t somebody who would throw us to the lions. He isn’t a lion himself. He might be the lion of Judah, according to the early Christians in Ethiopia, but If so he is a very kindly and well behaved lion, more like Aslan in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I think it is intelligible for us to fear God in the sense that we respect the infinite power of the divine, but now that we have had the revelation of Jesus, because, as he says in St John’s Gospel, ‘anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’, we know that the first great commandment is a commandment of love rather than of fear. We should trust in the Lord and love the Lord our God. It is precisely that love which drives out fear.

The point of the Christian revelation, the key difference from the pointlessness that Ecclesiastes laments, is that we should never despair of being able to do some good. It means that Christians must be engaged, involved in practical things – dare I say, even political things.

If you say that preachers should stay away from politics, look at today’s headlines. The Archbishop of Canterbury is reported in today’s Sunday Times as saying that the Prime Minister is ‘pouring petrol on divided Britain’. The Archbishop of York has written in today’s Observer about the poor migrants who died sealed in a refrigerated lorry. His article is headed ‘Grief is not enough. We must open our doors as well as our hearts’. And also in the Times, this time on Saturday, Revd Rosemary Durward, from our neighbours St Martin’s East Horsley, wrote an enlightened piece about under the title ‘Faith-led citizens’ forum can heal our disunited kingdom’. Christianity and politics can mix: indeed they must mix.

I think we should leave Ecclesiastes and his old saws metaphorically in an old copy of the Reader’s Digest and instead, as the writer of the letters to Timothy says, we should get out there on parade with the inner strength which comes from Jesus at the heart of our being. I’ll leave it to you to think what trials and tribulations we can confront in today’s world, but as we confront them we needn’t be cynical. It’s not vanity of vanities. It’s more ‘Soldiers of Christ arise and put your armour on’.

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 20th October 2019

Nehemiah 8:9-18, John 16:1-11 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=438415019

‘What is truth?’ You’ll remember Pontius Pilate’s famous question when Jesus was on trial in front of him, in John 18:38. In the context of our Christian faith, what is ‘truth’?

When Nehemiah had gathered all the exiles, who had returned from Babylon, together, and Ezra the scribe had started to read out all the Law of Moses to them, he made the occasion a great holiday. Nothing was more important than knowing what God had commanded – that was the ultimate truth.

It’s interesting that, as well as decreeing that everyone should take the day off and celebrate – or possibly take longer than the day off, so as to go off on a kind of summer camp and live in tents – or booths, or tabernacles – temporary houses – for a week – that also, as well as feasting themselves, they had to make sure that they sent a share of the food to anyone who couldn’t manage to provide for themselves. The two most important commandments in the Law of Moses were to love God, and also, to love your neighbour as yourself.

So there was a social truth as well as a theological one in the law of the Old Testament. Later on, when Jesus is telling his disciples what to expect when he has finally left them – and indeed, telling them that he has got finally to leave them, which they might not necessarily have expected after the huge miracle of his resurrection, (you could understand them not wanting to let him go) – he says that it is to their advantage, for their good, that he is leaving, because then what he describes as the Comforter, the Advocate, the spirit of truth, will come in his place: truth personified, not just a matter of law. Living truth, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

What Jesus is saying here, as reported in St John’s Gospel, is one of the first mentions in the Bible of the Holy Trinity. Jesus talks about his father, about his being the son, and then about this third party, the Comforter, the Advocate; somebody who, literally in Greek, shores them up, supports them, perhaps in a forensic context, in court; the Greek word, παρακλητος, sometimes actually said as the ‘Paraclete’, the Comforter, the Advocate, means a sort of barrister: that is how the third member of the Holy Trinity is described.

When I was thinking about that, and about what Jesus says about the Comforter, the Advocate, it reminded me of what I had experienced last Sunday when I went to Rome to attend the mass at St Peter’s for the ‘canonisation’ of five new saints in the Roman Catholic Church, John Henry Newman and four other saintly figures, three nuns and a Swiss seamstress, who all had various claims to ‘sainthood’, as the Roman Catholics understand it.

One of the things that comes out, that the Roman Catholics do that we don’t, is that they use saints as intermediaries between themselves and God. They pray to God through the saints, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary, the Mother of God, but also then through one of more of the various saints of the church. So a form of prayer in the Catholic Mass is that you name a particular saint, and you ask that saint to pray for you.

The idea is that the saint is almost like what Jesus is describing the Holy Spirit as, if the Holy Spirit is the Advocate. It involves the idea of somebody who speaks for you. You pray through the saint, you invoke the assistance of the saint. The process of becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church involves miracles, to show how close the saint is to God. The person to be canonised as a saint, recognised as a saint, therefore needs to have brought about miracles, miracles which have been investigated and found to be genuine by theologians of the church.

I was in Rome particularly to witness the canonisation of one of the new saints, John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, who wrote the hymns ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’, and ‘Lead, kindly Light’, for example. He started out in the Church of England and was for 20 years a fellow of my old college at Oxford, Oriel. Eventually he changed to Roman Catholicism and became a Cardinal.

Newman was a leader – perhaps the leader – of the spiritual revival in the Church of England called the Tractarians, or the Oxford Movement, in the 1830s. Newman’s great theological message – and he was a prolific author and preacher – he was the vicar of St Mary’s in the High Street in Oxford, the University Church – the heart of his message was a call to the church to abandon what we might call today ‘relativism’, in favour of what we might describe as revealed truth.

He didn’t want the church to base its beliefs and its teaching on whatever was popularly thought to be ‘a good thing’ at the time, but rather on the truth as shown in God’s word in the Bible and in the teaching of the early Christian Fathers. You can see that sort of argument still alive in the church today, in the context, for example, of things like same-sex marriage.

The story of the Tractarians is a story of exciting spiritual revival in parts of the church. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in the period between 1820 and 1840, the Senior Common Room of Oriel College contained some of the most influential theologians in England: not only Newman, but also Pusey, Keble and Hurrell Froude, who all supported this powerful revival movement in the Church of England, based on going back to what was perceived to be the message of the early fathers, stripped of any of the superstructure built up over the years by attempts to modernise the church in various ways.

Tractarianism (the name came from their series of pamphlets, called Tracts for the Times) came after the earlier Methodist revival, and in both those revivals there was a strong social message. The Tractarians were great believers in the Christian obligation to care for others, and particularly to care for those less fortunate than themselves.

This was a time when the Tractarians founded new congregations, new churches, in, for example, the East End of London and in some of the downtown slum areas of the big industrial cities. Just as Methodism had attacked the gin houses and encouraged people not to become prey to the demon drink, but rather to be able to keep and save their earnings and become more secure financially, so the Tractarians went out into places and founded churches where posh country parsons would never have dreamed of going.

Two healing miracles are attributed to John Henry Newman, one of Deacon Jack Sullivan in 2001, who was healed in a way that defied a normal medical explanation, and involved prayer invoking John Henry Newman, or rather his memory; and the second miracle involved the healing of an unstoppable haemorrhage in a pregnant American woman in 2013, where the woman, Melissa Villalobos, living near Chicago, had offered a prayer for healing, again invoking John Henry Newman to pray for her, and her bleeding suddenly stopped. These two miracles were considered, by the Roman Catholic Church, to be sufficient evidence of Newman’s sainthood.

We in the Church of England don’t reckon much to the idea of saints: Article XXII of the 39 Articles – on p.620 of your Prayer Books – says that the ‘Romish Doctrine concerning … invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented’, not Biblical and indeed contrary to the word of God.

This reflects the Reformation idea of our not needing to have priests stand between us and God, to pray for us and celebrate the mass on our behalf. By the same token we don’t need to have saints to pray for us. The idea is of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, which came from John Calvin.

But the Church of England is not a wholly Protestant church, although neither is it wholly a Catholic one. Henry VIII wanted to have the best of both worlds. He wanted to uphold all the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, except for the fact that he had some slight local difficulty with the Pope; so instead of the Pope being the head of the church on earth, he arrogated that function to the English monarch. So as it says on our coins, or on some of them, the name of the king or queen is on them and then ‘FD’, or ‘fidei defensor’, defender of the faith, signifying that the monarch is the head of the church on earth. That title started out as a compliment from the Pope for Henry VIII’s support for him against Martin Luther. But after they differed over Henry’s wives, the king kept the title nevertheless.

I have to say that, despite that background, I didn’t think any less of the wonderful service in Rome – there were reckoned to be 50,000 people attending, and we all got the bread of communion. It’s available on YouTube to watch [at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzFObwA79xo], with a gentle but helpful commentary from an American priest. The beautiful illustrated multilingual service book had 125 pages – and everyone, from the Pope and his cardinals downwards, was given one.

In a sense there was a slight flavour of a sporting event – groups of the congregation were cheering on ‘their’ saint as they were canonised – but at bottom it was just a very beautiful Holy Communion service, whose words, and the hymns and their tunes, were familiar to everyone. The music from the choir and organ was beautiful.

Of course the idea of saints performing miracles is very far-fetched to us. But when you saw all those people not going to a football match, but going to church, it was a very happy occasion, when we all felt inspired, caught up in something beyond our own little domestic concerns, something good and wholesome which made us willing to exchange the peace and try to talk to people sitting next to us – all sorts of nationalities, speaking all sorts of languages.

Smiles went a long way – and the fact that the service was in Latin actually helped, because everyone had a little knowledge of some of the words. I was going to use the ‘Kyrie’ as a for-instance – but of course, that’s Greek. But I hope you can see what I mean.

In its basic structure, the wonderful Canonisation Mass was just like our communion service every week here at St Mary’s. It had all the same bits, and only a couple of extras – the ‘Angelus’, Angelus Domini, the Angel of the Lord, the prayer commemorating the angel Gabriel’s coming to Mary, was the most obvious extra bit – but most was word-for-word the same as our service. It made you feel very special, part of a huge family, a huge, warm family. John Henry Newman was truly a saint: and I felt the presence, in that huge crowd, of great comfort; maybe it was even the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. I think it could well have been.

Sermon for Evensong on the 16th Sunday after Trinity, 6th October 2019 Nehemiah 5.1-13; John 9 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=437270702

‘By the waters of Babylon’, as we know from Psalm 137, the people of Israel were in exile and were not happy: ‘.. we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.’

But then King Cyrus of Persia captured Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their ancestral land and to rebuild the Temple. If you look at the Book of Ezra, chapter 1, you will read the text of Cyrus’ proclamation:

The LORD the God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he himself has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. To every man of his people now among you I say, God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD the God of Israel, the God whose city is Jerusalem. And every remaining Jew, wherever he may be living, may claim aid from his neighbours in that place, silver and gold, goods or pack-animals and cattle, in addition to the voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem. [Ezra 1. All Bible translations in this sermon are from the New English Bible – see, for this passage, http://www.katapi.org.uk/NEB/master.html?http://www.katapi.org.uk/NEB/IntroContents.php and mutatis mutandis for the other passages quoted]

Well, that’s the background to our Old Testament lesson, from the Book of Nehemiah. The Old Testament books 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, are all reckoned to have been written by the same person, known as the ‘Chronicler’, and in the Hebrew Bible Ezra and Nehemiah are all one book. Nehemiah was the Persian king’s ‘cup-bearer’, in other words a senior official of the royal household, a Jew, who led a group of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem with a view to rebuilding the city and the Temple. Clearly his entourage looked to the local population, under the terms of Cyrus’ edict, to supply them with the wherewithal to get the job done and get fed and watered.

Note that: ‘… every remaining Jew, wherever he may be living, may claim aid from his neighbours in that place, silver and gold, goods or pack-animals and cattle, in addition to the voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem’.

It didn’t go well initially.

THERE CAME A TIME when the common people, both men and women, raised a great outcry against their fellow-Jews. Some complained that they were giving their sons and daughters as pledges for food to keep themselves alive; others that they were mortgaging their fields, vineyards, and houses to buy corn in the famine; others again that they were borrowing money on their fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax.

You might perhaps expect at this point that Nehemiah, perhaps with an additional edict from King Cyrus, would have said that, for the greater good of the enterprise, they had to make sacrifices. ‘Blood, tears, toil and sweat’, in Churchillian terms, or something more prosaic but equally tough, like that which came out under Margaret Thatcher or George Osborne; you might expect to have heard an austerity message, but from 500 BCE. ‘Just make do and put up with less: there is no alternative.’

But no: look at the fascinating exchange which actually did come next.

‘But’, they said, ‘our bodily needs are the same as other people’s, our children are as good as theirs; yet here we are, forcing our sons and daughters to become slaves. Some of our daughters are already enslaved, and there is nothing we can do, because our fields and vineyards now belong to others.’

It’s an explicit appeal to the principles of human rights, that people have worth and enjoy rights, simply by virtue of their being human. It’s the sort of language which William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect used 150 years ago. Now Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, given direct effect in this country by the Human Rights Act 1998, prohibits slavery and forced labour.

In Nehemiah’s world, slavery was normal. Some people were free, and some people were slaves. But of course slavery is not consistent with the idea of human rights – and those rights, for Christians, Jews and Moslems at least, come from God. We believe that all of us are equal in the eyes of God: all are created in the image of God. Nehemiah understood and accepted that. This is what he wrote.

‘I was very angry when I heard their outcry and the story they told. I mastered my feelings and reasoned with the nobles and the magistrates. I said to them, ‘You are holding your fellow-Jews as pledges for debt.’ I rebuked them severely and said, ‘As far as we have been able, we have bought back our fellow-Jews who had been sold to other nations; but you are now selling your own fellow-countrymen, and they will have to be bought back by us!’ They were silent and had not a word to say. I went on, ‘What you are doing is wrong. You ought to live so much in the fear of God that you are above reproach in the eyes of the nations who are our enemies.’

And he, Nehemiah, the governor, and his entourage, gave up their right to extract tribute from the local population, and indeed, in the next bit of the story you’ll see that Nehemiah and his colleagues even gave up their salaries, so that he didn’t put a burden on the local people.

Let us give up this taking of persons as pledges for debt. Give back today to your debtors their fields and vineyards, their olive-groves and houses, as well as the income in money, and in corn, new wine, and oil.’ ‘We will give them back’, they promised, ‘and exact nothing more. We will do what you say.’ So, summoning the priests, I put the offenders on oath to do as they had promised. Then I shook out the fold of my robe and said, ‘So may God shake out from his house and from his property every man who does not fulfil this promise. May he be shaken out like this and emptied!’

Who says that our religion and our sacred texts are not political? Nehemiah was a minister in the government of the king of Persia. He was for 12 years the governor of the land of Judah, and he made very important decisions, as we saw, affecting the personal taxation of the population. He abolished slavery in Judah. In Judah under Nehemiah, people had intrinsic worth, and they were not a commodity which could be bought and sold. But the reason for this, the justification for it, in Nehemiah’s eyes, was his ‘fear of God’.

‘You ought to live so much in the fear of God that you are above reproach in the eyes of the nations who are our enemies.’

It wasn’t the case that religion was on one side, in a separate compartment, if you like, and practical matters such as politics were on the other. When I read this passage again the other day I was struck by its contemporary resonances: if some people are so poor that they are sold into slavery; if they lose their homes; have to borrow money to pay for food to eat.

‘Our bodily needs are the same as other people’s, our children are as good as theirs; yet here we are, forcing our sons and daughters to become slaves.’

That could be a criticism of quite a lot of the Anglo-Saxon world today. In the USA we read that there are 13m people living below the poverty line. In this country, as I’m sure you’ll be fed up of hearing me tell you how many people have to resort to food banks. In this really prosperous area, in the borough of Elmbridge, there are three food banks, and in the Cobham one we are distributing an average of ¾ tonne of food every week.

And yet, by contrast, here we are, blessed with lovely houses, nice clothes, enough to eat, decent cars and all the good things of life. What are we supposed to do?

I went to a very interesting breakfast lecture given by a new recruit to the Diocesan staff, who is a very interesting minister, a newly-ordained Deacon called Jens Mankel, who has come to live and work in Guildford Diocese from a church in Frankfurt. It was all about making Christian faith a living reality, a compelling reality, in today’s world, here in Surrey.

We find it easy to have mother-and-toddler groups, women’s breakfasts, men’s breakfasts, parish lunches – what used to be called Agapés – ‘faith suppers’: good fellowship, love for our fellow men and women – but, perhaps we have to be honest – only up to a point. Very few of the people who come to the mother-and-toddler group actually come into church, or do anything that is a church activity. Some do: we have had some baptisms, and confirmations, which began at ‘Mothers and Others’: we have a number of volunteers working for the Foodbank who are active members of the various churches around here. Three of the trustees of the Foodbank are from St Mary’s, for example. But they’re only a minority.

But what are we doing about refugees? We now have seven refugee families in this area, and one Kurdish couple staying with me. Until people have obtained confirmation that they have been granted asylum here, they are not allowed to work, and they receive a hand-out of £35 a week. That makes it very hard to get by.

I would suggest that we ought, as a church, to adopt some outward giving charitable targets. Maybe one domestic focus and one overseas.

What do you think? If those aren’t the sort of things we should be involved in as a church, what else could we do, if we wish to follow Jesus? Do we feel compelled, do we feel that, like Martin Luther, we ‘can do no other’, because of the very fact of God and Jesus in our lives?

Or are we still to some extent tentative? Well, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. He who is not against us is for us. Perhaps I can call this ‘Nehemiah’s Challenge’. Put yourself in Nehemiah the governor’s shoes, but here in Cobham, in Stoke D’Abernon in 2019. What would you say, what would you do, if you were the Chief Executive? Who is your king?

For Nehemiah, Cyrus was his king. But more than any earthly king, Nehemiah feared – revered, respected, even loved – his Lord. I pray that it may be so for us too.