Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Trinity, 25th June 2017
1 Samuel 24:1-17, Luke 14:12-24

When I was a graduate trainee (last year …), one day I was sitting at my desk, at lunchtime, having a sandwich and trying to complete a task which I had been set by one of the partners in the august marine insurance firm I was working in.

One of the senior partners, whom I normally never saw from day to day, appeared. Why had he left the corridor of power? I wondered. I never found out – but nevertheless, I soon had to deal with him.

‘Bryant, what are you doing?’ He asked. I said that I was trying to catch up with such-and-such a piece of work. ‘No, but what are you really doing?’ He pressed. I was at a loss. What was he on about?

‘What’s that in your hand?’ 

‘A sandwich, sir.’

‘You’re wasting the firm’s time! Get off your backside and go out: go and find a shipowner, and buy them some lunch!’

So I did. And I fear that my slightly less than streamlined shape is the result of my finding those shipowners and buying them some lunch rather regularly over the last 40 years.

Lunch – or dinner – is a powerful tool. And a nice stylish invitation just adds to how good it is. If you have a few of those nice cards on your mantelpiece, you feel all right. Well, everyone here has at least one of those, for Bishop Jo’s opening of St Mary’s Hall, followed by a hog roast, on 9th July. (If you haven’t got an invitation, please do see me after the service!)

Meals are powerful. The Alpha Course, the way in which more people have been introduced to Christianity in this country than by any other way in the last 40 years, involves sitting down together and sharing a meal. Somehow, eating and drinking together deepens the sense of fellowship and draws people in.

The Ancient Greeks, and the Romans after them, placed great store by banquets and feasts. You may remember Fellini’s wonderfully over-the-top film ‘Satyricon’, which was a dramatisation of that part of the Roman author Petronius’ satirical book which was called ‘Cena Trimalchionis’, Trimalchio’s Banquet. Trimalchio, the host, is a freed slave, and therefore almost by definition a nouveau-riche – and he has made up for lost time by making a lot of money, which he’s keen to show off to as many people as possible. It is pretty vulgar stuff – girls leaping, scantily clad, from giant pies, and so on. Not but what it’s great fun – although possibly not quite suitable for ‘Spiritual Cinema’.

We still remember – and celebrate – those ancient meals. Plato and several other Classical authors wrote descriptions of ‘Symposiums’, gatherings of men to discuss important topics over serious drinks, reclining on couches, what the Romans called ‘triclinia’. Plato’s book, called his ‘Symposium’, contains a big panel discussion about love – love between the sexes, that is. Food was taken separately: a ‘symposium’ was strictly a drinks do, whereas a ‘δειπνον’ was a meal where the discussion could continue.

But Jesus was concerned to add his distinctive twist to banquets and party invites. His banquet was not for the in-crowd, not for the glitterati. He told a parable about a posh dinner, where the intending host had sent out those nice invitation cards, but his friends were turning him down. They had various practical things to attend to: a new piece of land: ‘five yoke of oxen’, which must have had the same function in those days as one of those massive John Deere tractors that we see pulling trailers through the village today. Serious kit. And another one had just got married.

Difficult to see what the problem of being a newly-wed was, unless the banquet was a men-only do. After all, even the Reform Club only admitted women in 1980. But the other excuses were feeble. It sounded to the host as though they just didn’t want to come to his party, at any price.

So Jesus turned the whole thing on its head. He’d already indicated that he didn’t think you should invite posh people round to dinner and things, just so as you could get invited back. He had said earlier to the disciples, ‘But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.’

Bear in mind that in those days, if people were ‘poor, maimed, lame, or ‘blind’, it was looked upon as showing that they had done something wrong – they had sinned, and that had brought divine punishment upon them, which was why they were halt, and lame and blind. So Jesus was recommending that you send your party invites not just to rather unglamorous people, but also that you send them to people who were actually bad, bad, at least in the eyes of Jewish society in those days. It was another instance of Jesus being willing to make friends with anyone. Remember when he got taken to task for having a meal with ‘publicans’ (tax gatherers) and sinners.

You might just notice in passing that it’s a bit like what certain sections of the press and the media say about people who are on benefits or who have to get food from the Foodbank. They call them scroungers and imply that most of them are cheats. They’re in a bad way because they’re feckless. Perhaps some people’s attitudes haven’t changed much in 2,000 years.

So when his friends came up with excuses why they couldn’t make the party, Jesus’ bloke sent out ‘into the streets and lanes of the city, and brought in the halt and the lame, the poor and the blind – and got his man to make sure that the banquet was filled up with all these second-class citizens, and none of the proper lot who were first invited.

This is right in line with Jesus’ commandment of love, with his contrary way of doing the opposite of whatever conventional wisdom would have recommended. There were precedents for this kind of selfless generosity in Jewish history – our first lesson, the story of David sparing the life of King Saul, is a good one. But the point is that Jesus wanted to raise up the poor, the halt, the lame and the blind. Think of what we sing in the Magnificat:

‘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’.

When we think of the people burned alive in Grenfell Tower, where they spent nearly £10m making the building look nice to the posh neighbours, but didn’t spend anything on sprinklers or proper fire alarms: when we learn that the council didn’t listen to the residents’ association when they tried to warn about the fire risk – perhaps because they were only poor people, maybe immigrants or black people – not worth listening to; somehow less important, less influential, than the rich people whose mansion flats looked out on the grotty council block in their midst: when we learn of that, we should think carefully about what Jesus was saying.

Jesus didn’t tolerate a huge gap between rich and poor. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek’. He didn’t tolerate those who wanted to do the right thing, but allowed mundane practicalities to get in the way. Is it right that a nurse shouldn’t have a pay rise since 2009? Is it an answer to say that ‘there isn’t a magic money tree’? Jesus didn’t care. He wasn’t at all impressed that one of his guests had just bought a parcel of land, and another one had bought a stonking great tractor for his farm.

Jesus would have looked at our country today, and seen the rich getting tax cuts while the poor had to go to food banks and the Health Service teetered on the brink of financial collapse, and poor people being incinerated in a lethal tower block with no sprinkler system, which had been prettified at great expense – but just chiselling off the cost of fireproof cladding – and I am sure he would have been like the dinner host when his pampered guests turned him down for their own selfish reasons: ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away’. 

And by the way, as you’ll see from the hand-outs which we’re giving out today, that even here in the second richest borough in the country, second to the home of Grenfell Tower, Kensington and Chelsea, even here in Elmbridge, in the Cobham area, demand for our Foodbank has gone up so much that we’ve run out of many vital food items. We are giving out over half a metric ton of food per week now, here in Cobham, to local, Cobham people. 

You may say that this is political. I would say that it doesn’t matter which party you are in, you need to lobby your party to adopt policies, or change its policies, so that the halt (that could mean those who have long-term disabilities), the lame (that could mean those who have been hurt, or who are ill), or the poor (they could be people working, but on a zero-hours contract) – and of course the blind – so that all those second-class citizens are no longer shut out of the banquet which most of us enjoy.

Shall we start with two things? Let’s take one of the shopping lists at the back of the church and do an extra trip to the supermarket this week, and buy some of the things that the Foodbank is short of; and let’s invite the Foodbank’s customers who live in Stoke D’Abernon to join us at our hog roast with Bishop Jo on 9th July. I think Jesus would approve.

Sermon for Mattins on the First Sunday after Trinity, 18th June 2017
Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8

Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’ when he saw the crowds, because they were weak – ‘because they fainted’, and because they had no-one to guide them, no pastor. There was plenty for a pastor to do: ‘The harvest truly is plenteous’ – but there weren’t enough clergy.

 

So he sent out his 12 disciples. It’s interesting to see what the disciples were supposed to do. Jesus had been attracting big crowds. What were they attracted to?

 

We may tend to use hindsight, at least unconsciously, and think that of course people flocked to see and hear Jesus – he was the Son of God, after all. But actually I don’t think that the crowds could necessarily have reached that conclusion at this stage.

 

Maybe if they had been present at Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit appeared like a dove, and a voice was heard, saying, ‘This is my son, the beloved …’ But more likely they were unaware of this. Surely all those threads would be drawn together by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then it really was clear who He was.

 

Instead, it looks as though the drawing power of Jesus, which he wanted to pass on to his disciples, his students, was a practical ministry, of healing.

He told them, ‘And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.

 

On second thoughts, perhaps people did have an inkling who Jesus was. ‘Raise the dead’: what sort of an instruction is that? Obviously the disciples were in on the secret. ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’.

 

But there is this rather odd instruction from Jesus to stay away from the non-Jews. The disciples were to keep the good news just for Jewish believers. Evidently, things changed, even then. Look at St Paul’s letters. ‘In due time Christ died for the ungodly.’ Not for the chosen people, the Jews. Instead things were completely turned upside-down. Difficult to explain the passage in St Matthew’s gospel here. Maybe it is to emphasise the magnitude of the revolutionary step that Jesus brought in. But St Paul’s letter to the Romans was actually written earlier than the Gospels, so I am inclined to think that the pro-Jewish lines are a late addition.

 

In the passage from his Letter to the Romans, St Paul sets out his key idea, his key concept, of how God works: that we are ‘justified by faith’.

 

The idea of being ‘justified’ really means brought back into the family, the family of faith. ‘We have peace with God’. St Paul had an idea that God, or at least his senior angels, needed to be pacified. Man had fallen, in the Garden of Eden, and was no longer perfect in the sight of God.

 

But if one wanted to placate this rather angular, peevish deity, it wasn’t a good idea simply to pile up sacrifices and ignore what was going on outside. You appeased this tough God by placing your trust in him.

 

But – it’s still a bit difficult to see what Jesus was supposed to be preaching about. Absent the Resurrection, what exactly was His message? I think that we can legitimately infer that it was a social gospel. Jesus had compassion on the people he found suffering.

 

Yesterday in the Church’s calendar, we were invited to remember Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, described as ‘social reformers’. This is what one author says about them.

“Born into a Bristol manufacturing family in 1844, Samuel Barnett was educated at Wadham College, Oxford. In 1867 he was ordained to a curacy at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in Marylebone where he met, and in 1873 married, Henrietta Rowland (born 1851), the daughter of a wealthy London businessman. With a deep practical faith of her own Henrietta was working with the housing reformer Octavia Hill. Later in 1873 the Barnetts moved to London’s East End when Samuel became Vicar of St Jude’s,Whitechapel. They were both deeply affected by the squalid conditions in which their parishioners lived and became much involved in promoting social reform both locally and on the national stage. They sought to ensure that social reform was based on Christian principles and that Christians were actively involved in social reform.

Samuel lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act of 1875. He served on the Whitechapel Board of Guardians and was one of the first in England to propose universal pension provision. Henrietta was also involved in various projects of her own, mainly involving education and the welfare of children. She was also a founder of Whitechapel Art Gallery.

In 1906 Samuel was appointed a canon of Westminster and the couple moved to leafy Hampstead.The contrast with Whitechapel inspired Henrietta to create a model suburb in which decent housing, open spaces and recreational amenities would be available to people of modest income.This was the origin of Hampstead Garden Suburb, which developed after 1907.When completed the development featured special housing for the old and disabled, modern schools and new churches.
[R. Atwell, ed., 2004, Celebrating the Saints, Daily Spiritual Readings, Norwich, Canterbury Press, sub June 17th]

 

When we reflect on the terrible tragedy of the fire at the Grenfell House tower block this week, it is truly shaming that, over 100 years after Canon Barnett died, we still have areas of terrible poverty and wholly inadequate housing for poorer people. Canon Barnett lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act, the first step towards the provision of council housing, in 1875. In the 1960s the Parker-Morris standards ensured that council houses were built substantially, with adequate minimum sizes for rooms. Unfortunately, in more recent years, these standards have been swept away.

 

Recent governments have abolished security of tenure for council tenants and encouraged the idea that poor people who need council houses are somehow less deserving than people who can afford to buy their homes. It seems incredible now, but as recently as last year, the government refused to make the installation of sprinklers in buildings over a certain height mandatory. Instead, the manufacturers of sprinklers were encouraged to promote their products so as to sell more of them.
Apparently, on Grenfell House, a council block, £8.7m was spent for cosmetic ‘cladding’ partly to improve heat insulation, and partly to improve the look of the block, which is surrounded by ‘mansion blocks’ of expensive private flats. But a sprinkler system, which would have cost a fraction of the bill for cladding, was not installed. And the cladding was of a less fire-resistant type than you could have specified for an outlay of only about £5,000 extra. Not much in a total budget of £8.7m.

 

I think that the Barnetts would be shocked – partly in the way that we are shocked anyway – and partly because the reforms which they did so much to bring about in providing decent living conditions for poorer people, have now been undone.

You might wonder what this, undeniably serious and concerning as it is, has to do with us at our Mattins service. The point about Samuel and Henrietta Barnett is that they were Christians, as we are. As the vicar of Whitechapel, Samuel Barnett was ‘in Christ’, reconciled to God, in the way St Paul described. His life had been fundamentally changed.

 

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [2 Corinthians 5:17]

 

Barnett was interested in liturgy too. “‘The Worship Hour’ that he introduced, was an innovative service with readings from modern writers as well as the Bible; service leaflets printed in bright colours to ease the dreariness, clergy unrobed and the church kept rather dark so the poor and dirty would not feel conspicuous”.

It all sounds, if anything, quite the opposite of what we in St Mary’s try to preserve and the opposite of how we try to conduct worship. But what is the purpose of worship? Bringing the best of ourselves, using the most beautiful, most meaningful, words before God, and seeking his blessing. But would we countenance turning the lights down – using our state-of-the-art low-voltage LED lighting system – so as to avoid embarrassing ‘the poor and the dirty’?

The Victorian reformers, fired up by their Christian faith, were willing to experiment, and to make their churches accessible and welcoming, welcoming not just to people in nice clothes, but also to the poor people living in the slums of Whitechapel.

I don’t think that the Barnetts would have regarded the service, even said in the fine words of the Prayer Book, as the be-all and end-all. What they sought to do was to draw everyone in, however humble, and worship together. For sure, most of the time their Christian observance would have been conducted in the words of the Prayer Book – and no better way, at least so far as the words were concerned. But the important thing was the social concern that their faith had led them into. They were ‘in Christ’, where God had reconciled them. So they dimmed the lights so as to avoid showing up how scruffy some of the congregation were – not but what these poor people couldn’t help it.

When we had our ‘Vision Day’ last month, one of the major goals which we identified was social concern, practical action for our neighbours, translating our devotion in worship into practical concern, into generous, practical love. What are we all going to do about Grenfell House? Are we going to have a special collection, or maybe each of make a pledge to send some bedding, clothes or food to the Salvation Army, or to the local parish church, St Clement’s, Treadgold Street? Or perhaps by sending some money through the Evening Standard website. Godfrey and I will discuss this with the churchwardens – in the meantime, if you want to give some money now, please write ‘Grenfell House’ on one of our envelopes and put your gift in it. We’ll make sure it goes to one of the funds which have been set up.

Yesterday I said similar things in the sermon which I preached to the Prayer Book Society’s service at the Founders’ Chapel at Charterhouse. Afterwards we had a nice tea in what they call the Saunders Room.

The name of that room where we had tea sparked a thought in me. Do you remember Winnie the Pooh’s house? He ‘lived under the name of Saunders’. It had a sign over the door with the name ‘Saunders’ on it. Perhaps some of the children from Grenfell House would like a teddy bear like Pooh.

Sermon for Evensong on Trinity Sunday, 11th June 2017
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 6:5-15 
I’ve always thought that the picture of the seraphim in heaven was a bit like one of those pictures of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘ornithopter’ – one of the earliest flying machines – or rather, the earliest not-flying machines. Six wings. Two covering his face: two his feet, and two doing what wings normally do, giving aerodynamic lift: ‘with twain he did fly’. Perhaps Leonardo got the idea from the sixth chapter of Isaiah.

Do you know what a seraph is? 

‘Thus spake the seraph, 

and forthwith

appeared a shining throng

of angels praising God’

A seraph is a super-angel, a six-winged angel, supposed to be the highest in heaven under God. 

This is a truly splendid vision. I don’t know what you feel about angels. Surprisingly sane people tell me that they believe in them. ‘Do you have a guardian angel?’ they ask.

Well, no, I say hastily. Wait a minute – is that rather too hasty? What is an angel? It may be a question what a particular type of angel is, or does, such as the seraphim; but what is an angel anyway, any type of angel? An angel is, in Greek, a messenger. This story, about the calling of the prophet Isaiah, indeed does involve an angel as a messenger, of sorts. He brings a message to Isaiah. God is calling him.

Isaiah is reluctant; he is not worthy, he says. ‘Woe is me! for I am undone’. He has seen the Lord of hosts, God. The Jews believed that only a priest was allowed to see God. Only the priests went into the innermost part of the Temple, the holy of holies. Other people, if they saw God, would be consumed, burned up, because they could not co-exist with God.

Isaiah says he has ‘unclean lips.’ Dirty. Dirty both physically and metaphorically. But the seraph brings a red-hot coal from the fire, ‘and he laid it upon my mouth’: a live coal, a coal glowing red-hot. Surely Isaiah would have been horribly burned: but no, the effect is just to cleanse him morally: 

‘Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged’. Isaiah is cleaned up, fit to do the Lord’s work. ‘Whom shall I send?’ asks the Lord: and Isaiah says, ‘Here am I; send me.’

What to make of this today? We probably don’t think of God as ‘sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.’ But wait – it says, ‘and his train filled the temple’. They were in the temple. Just as we are here in church. In a sense, this is where God lives. People can say, sometimes, that you don’t have to go to church in order to encounter the divine at work, in order to meet God. To which the Churchman will answer, ‘Indeed, you’re right: but it certainly makes it easier, to go to the house of prayer.’

What was the seraph doing with his red-hot coal? Cauterising the wound, the septic sore caused by all the bad things Isaiah had been doing. That seems pretty drastic. Perhaps there’s the same sort of idea that people had when they put witches in a ducking stool. If the poor woman somehow managed to avoid drowning, she was purged of her sins.

This is very old, very ancient stuff. Isaiah – first Isaiah, as the Book of Isaiah actually contains material from three prophets – first Isaiah was written about 740 BC. Eight centuries before Christ would be born. Nearly 3,000 years ago. Can we usefully talk about having ‘unclean lips’ today? Are we fit to do things for God? It doesn’t really translate in any literal sense, but I think we can nevertheless understand the drift.

Where would we look, if we wanted to find a seraph, an angel? An angel with six wings, even: maybe a sort of drone, these days. If we look at our second reading, from St John’s gospel, Jesus is casting the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, in that role after he had gone. Not so much as a way of calling people – although arguably the most effective disciple, St Paul, was overcome by a sort of seizure at the behest of the Holy Spirit, and it resulted in him being converted, and accepted by them. 

Instead these are all aspects of the divine, of God. Today is Trinity Sunday, when we remember ‘God in three persons, blessed trinity’, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but three aspects, three personae of one. God the Creator. God with us in human form, Jesus Christ. And then when Jesus ceased to be here as a human, in his place came the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

And the Comforter – not a lovely ladies’ scarf, by the way, but the Holy Spirit – that is the way we think of God’s presence with us now. Not a seraphim, not an angel, but I would have thought that it does no harm for us to imagine the heavenly realm, and feel called as Isaiah was. ‘Here I am; send me.’ What a great message. Here we are. Send us!

(I’m grateful to Sue Woolley and Laide Sjumarken for the ideas for this sermon.)

Sermon for Evensong on Whit Sunday, 4th June 2017

 

Acts 2:14-38; Luke 24:44-53

 
‘These men are not drunk’… St Peter is answering a multiethnic crowd of Jews in Jerusalem, who have just heard the disciples – all from one district, Galilee – speaking, in such a way that each listener heard in his own language: it was like the amazing simultaneous translation service that you get if you go to watch a debate at the European Parliament. You put on some headphones, and select which language you want to listen in. The translators are very good.

But we are told by the author of the Acts of the Apostles – generally reckoned to be St Luke, who also wrote St Luke’s Gospel (both of tonight’s lessons are by St Luke) – by St Luke the doctor, that long before simultaneous translation and microphones, the disciples’ words were suddenly heard in a variety of languages, after the sound of a rushing wind and tongues of fire had come among them.

I’ve never really understood why some of the Jewish audience thought that the disciples were drunk. I know that, as a typically hopeless Englishman, that speaks French and German only to ‘O’ level, I’ve always found that my linguistic ability, such as it is, does improve with a modicum of alcohol: but it doesn’t give me miraculous powers as a sort of one-man simultaneous translation facility.

I suppose that the rude remark about their looking drunk might have been caused if the disciples were not only speaking intelligibly in several languages at once, but were showing signs of ecstatic giddiness. Perhaps they were waving their arms around or writhing on the floor.

As you know, the established Church has, since the 18th century, been suspicious of religious ‘enthusiasm’ – a word which has rather changed in meaning since 300 years ago. It meant then the sort of noisy, ecstatic worship – people ‘speaking in tongues’ and waving their arms about – that we often call ‘Pentecostal’. Be that as it may.

But for us who aren’t ‘enthusiasts’, what is Pentecost – or rather, what is this Holy Spirit, whose coming at Pentecost we celebrate today? ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’: the Holy Ghost? When Jesus met the woman of Samaria getting water from the well in John 4, he told her, ‘God is spirit, and those that worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.’ The Authorised Version says, ‘God is a spirit ..’

This isn’t a spooky tale of ghouls and ghosties. The history of Jesus, Jesus Christ, isn’t on the Harry Potter level. We are, when we talk about the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, talking about God. As we say in the Nicene Creed, (the creed we say at Communion), ‘… I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets.’

The Holy Spirit is God, one of the ‘three persons’ of God the Holy Trinity. The coming like a rushing wind, in tongues of fire, was a revelation, God declaring His presence, His concern for his creation. Jesus might not be physically present among us any more, but his Holy Spirit, the Comforter or Advocate which Jesus promised he would get the Father to send after he had gone. (See John 14-16).

A big controversy in the early church was all about whether the Spirit had come just from God the Father, (which is what the Eastern Orthodox churches believe today), or from the Father and the Son together, as our version of the Nicene Creed says. The great liberal theologian, John Macquarrie, has suggested that a better way of putting it would be that the Spirit had come from the Father ‘through the Son’, but that, either way, he said, it wasn’t fundamental to our belief, de fide, an article of faith. [Macquarrie, John, 1966, (1977), Principles of Christian Theology, London, SCM Press, p. 330]

The Pentecost story is celebrated as effectively being the Church’s beginning, the Church’s birthday. 12 apostles became 120 after the Ascension. And then, after this extraordinary miracle – simultaneous translation into many languages for an audience from many countries, coming from the mouths of a group of country bumpkins from Galilee – after Peter had told them that it was a sign, a revelation, of God at work among them, that God had come among the human race to show His love for us – after this, 3,000 people came forward to be baptised. After that, Christianity ‘went viral’ as we would say today.

Until last night, I had intended that I should link our celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit with our need for the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Comforter, on Thursday in the General Election. We seem faced by so much ‘fake news’, but yet the issues facing our country are so daunting. What are the marks of the Spirit, and can they help us?

It is surely something which I must speak about, and I will. But last night there was another terrorist incident, near to us, on and around London Bridge. More people hurt and killed – and again a suggestion that this was inspired by Islam, that it was an attack on us and our Christian culture.

These are truly testing times. Just as last week I said that attack in Manchester was not a contradiction against the need for our worldwide ‘wave of prayer’, Thy Kingdom Come, so today I say that we should learn from the earliest church as they faced indifference and persecution. The signs of the Spirit are not super power, in a fierce, military sense: instead the signs of it in those earliest times began with a dove, a peaceful dove, coming down and settling on Jesus as he was being baptised.

St Paul – who was writing decades earlier than St Luke – in his letter to the Galatians, identified the signs that the Spirit was present in a believer, chief of which is not some fierce strength, or some power to retaliate, but the warmth of love. Paul wrote, ‘… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith..’ Not fear. Not anger. Not prejudice.

When you look again at the circumstances of that first Christian Pentecost, you see that the Holy Spirit didn’t just come to an elite group, or to individuals in seclusion. The Jerusalem where it happened was full to bursting with a polyglot, multiethnic, multicultural society.

They spoke many languages. They were rich and poor – indeed the Spirit would come, according to the prophecy of Joel quoted by St Peter, to everyone, to ‘all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:
And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy…’

In fact, in the original Greek, the word is δούλος, slave, in both its masculine and feminine forms. Somehow the Authorised Version’s ‘servants’ and ‘handmaidens’ are too nice, too comfortable: ‘ …on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit’. On my male and female slaves, the lowest of the low. It was a tough life then.

So the church, on which the tongues of fire fell with a rushing wind, is for everyone. Again as St Paul said in his Letter to the Galatians, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28).

Look what happens if we don’t listen to what the Spirit is saying here. This is an account from one of the newspapers after the bombing in Manchester ten days ago.
‘Naveed Yasin, a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon – who had spent the previous two days in demanding surgery, was driving back to the Salford Royal Hospital to continue to help blast victims when a van driver pulled up beside him and hurled abuse, …
The surgeon was stuck in traffic when he saw a van veering towards him, horn blaring. The white, middle-aged driver then lowered his window and yelled obscenities at Yasin.
The van driver said: “You brown, Paki bastard. Go back to your country, you terrorist. We don’t want you people here. F*** off!”

 

The incident shocked the surgeon, who was born and brought up in Keighley, West Yorkshire and lives in Manchester with his wife and two daughters, especially after two such gruelling days at work.

 

He told the Sunday Times: “I can’t take away the hatred he had for me because of my skin colour … and the prejudices he had associated with this. Manchester is better than this. We Mancunians will rebuild, we will rebuild the fallen buildings, the broken lives and the social cohesion we once had.”’ (The Guardian, 28th May 2017 – accessed at http://tinyurl.com/yamxnfyo).

 

We must be ‘better than this’, indeed. So when the election comes on Thursday, we must vote – because otherwise we will have no stake in the result. In the EU referendum, 20% of the electorate did not vote. You might argue that, in not voting at all, they did not vote to leave the EU – which would mean that only 36% of the electorate voted to leave, which is not a majority.

 

But we don’t know which way these non-voters would have voted, and so it is said that ‘the people have spoken’, although the people who did vote, voted 52-48% only. The non-voters could have made a huge difference. If they had voted to leave, the majority would have been beyond question – and the same principle applies, possibly even more emphatically, if it was confirmed that the non-voters indeed had wanted to remain. So it’s vital that everyone should turn out and vote.

 

But the other thing which is vital to consider is what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in the churches in relation to the various parties’ policies. Is there a message of division, of individualism, devil-take-the-hindmost; of nationalism, of exclusion? How should we react to terror attacks? Should we support tightly controlled immigration and put up barriers against refugees? Or should that dove be more like it? We are all children of God.

Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost,

taught by thee, we covet most

of thy gifts at Pentecost,

holy, heavenly love.

[Christopher Wordsworth, 1807-1885]

Sermon for Evensong on Sunday after Ascension Day, 28th May 2017
At St Mary’s Church, Stoke D’Abernon

2 Samuel 23:1-5; Ephesians 1:15-23

Thy kingdom come. The Archbishop of Canterbury has proposed, for a second year running, that in the nine days between Ascension and Pentecost, Whit Sunday, everyone in all the churches should pray that bit of the Lord’s Prayer:

Thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven,

together with other short prayers, in a ‘novena’, in a nine-day cycle of prayer. You can look them up on the Church of England website – and indeed, if anyone doesn’t have a computer to download it, see me afterwards and I’ll let you have a printed copy.

In the modern-language Communion service, in one of the Eucharistic prayers, Prayer E in Common Worship, we pray this prayer:
‘Lord of all life, help us to work together for that day when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’.
For ‘that day when your kingdom comes’. That’s when, but it’s a bit confusing where all this is supposed to be happening. With the Ascension, Jesus going up to heaven, and the Holy Spirit coming down upon the apostles at Pentecost.

This is something where our words are inadequate to describe the divine realm, the workings of God. As St Paul writes, ‘… what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power,
Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places..’

It is, in St Paul’s words, a powerful description of a God who is beyond all measurements of power, and I think by the same token that God is beyond any location in time or space. So it is all right to talk of him being up in heaven, in the sense that that isn’t a literal description, so much as a mark of how important, and how beyond all human imagining, the power of God is.

But we are not now looking at a world in which justice and mercy are seen in all the earth: at least, not yet. There are still terrible wrongs being done, as we realised on Monday night when the suicide bomber struck in Manchester, at a pop concert mainly attended by teenage girls, some of them with their mothers.

There have been so many words already written and spoken about this terrible crime. It was a terrible thing, a horrible crime. Whatever twisted ideology stood behind it, nothing could justify killing and injuring innocent children and their parents.

And now, until tomorrow night, we have armed soldiers on the streets to give people a sense of protection, to reassure them that such an atrocity will not happen again. Nevertheless it does seem doubtful whether simply having armed soldiers on the streets would actually deter or stop a terrorist who is prepared to blow themselves up alongside their victims.

We can feel the despair. ‘Thy kingdom come – please, yes’, we might say, in a spirit of frustration and bewilderment. How can we say that God’s kingdom is coming, or will come, when such terrible things do happen?

I should say immediately that I’m not ignoring the way in which, whenever a terrible atrocity happens, it also brings out the most wonderful outpouring of love and service, from the emergency services, the doctors and nurses, the police, the firemen: and ordinary people, like taxi drivers offering people free rides home. There is a real sense of community and solidarity, which is something that we should celebrate and be profoundly grateful for.

But the doubt remains. How can we celebrate the love of God when such awful things happen? Is there any point in saying prayers?

A lot depends on how you ask those questions. I nearly said, how could a loving God allow, or even cause, such things to happen? But I don’t believe that God works that way. We are not robots. God is, we believe, all-powerful, omnipresent, and all-knowing. But it doesn’t mean that God makes us do something good or bad. We believe that we have free will: we can choose whether we do a good or a bad thing. Indeed, we can choose whatever we want to do. We have been created as autonomous beings.

So the first thing to say is that God did not somehow cause the bombing in Manchester on Monday night. It was a criminal act by one criminal, perhaps supported by others, also with criminal intent.

The second thing is that it doesn’t mean that there’s no point in our saying prayers.

The Archbishop’s ‘wave of prayer’ over the next nine days is actually a really good response to the evil which found its expression in Manchester on Monday night. I recommend to you the ‘Thy kingdom come’ website, where you can see short clips by various of the Christian leaders, and where there are prayers which we can say each day. See http://www.thykingdomcome.global.

At the beginning there is an inspiring short address by Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding Bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church in North America, where he emphasises that prayers are answered.

It’s not the case that, when we pray, it’s as though we are in some kind of divine restaurant and God is some kind of divine maître d’, whom we can summon and order about.

When we pray, it is more like being a client of a food bank: getting a food voucher. We present our voucher, and the food bank gives us what is good for us. We have little or no choice.

And it is good: the second reflection in the novena is from His Eminence Christoph, Cardinal Schönborn, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Vienna. He finishes in a very engaging way by pointing out that it is good to pray with a smile.

All around the world Christians are either involved in this wave of prayer, praying ‘Thy kingdom come,’ or in other big Christian gatherings, like the German ‘Kirchentag’, or church festival, in Berlin, which began on Thursday with a 90-minute dialogue between former President Obama and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, about democracy and global responsibility.

Barack Obama spoke of the need for renewal of the international order, against a background of xenophobia, nationalism, intolerance and anti-democratic trends. He said we have to push back against those trends that would violate human rights, or that would suppress democracy, or would restrict individual freedom of conscience and religion. ‘We can’t isolate ourselves. We can’t hide behind a wall’, he said. He was speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, the place where Berlin was divided between east and west, by the Berlin Wall.

In our prayers in a minute I will say the special prayer which the Bishop of Manchester has written for the people of Manchester, and that will be our first prayer. It will be our contribution to the wave of prayer today.

Prayers do work. Even our little congregation here will be heard. God will answer our prayers, in ways which we cannot anticipate or forecast. God’s kingdom will come, but in God’s time. Justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth: swords will be beaten into ploughshares: they will not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.

Amen.

A prayer from the Diocese of Manchester

A SPECIAL PRAYER

God of compassion,

you hear the cries of all who are in trouble or distress;

accept our prayers for those whose lives are affected by the bombing in Manchester;

We pray especially for those suddenly facing a future without a child, parent or loved one,

young ones who are in deep distress

those who are injured, traumatized or awaiting news

strengthen them in their hour of need,

grant them perseverance and courage to face the future

and be to them a firm foundation on which to build their lives;

this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Collect for Peace (from the Book of Common Prayer)

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord,

in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life,

whose service is perfect freedom;

defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies;

that we, surely trusting in thy defence,

may not fear the power of any adversaries;

through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Sermon for Choral Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 21st May 2017
Zechariah 8:1-13; Revelation 21:22-22:5 

Have you been reading manifestos this week? If you have, no doubt you’ve found your own pet things to like and dislike in each party’s offering. But you’ll be relieved to know that I don’t want, tonight, to compare the parties’ offers in their manifestos. There are much better people than me able to do that.

What I want to mention is what a manifesto is. What is it, what does it mean, to make something ‘manifest’? It is an uncovering, a making something plain, clear, pulling the wraps off. You could perhaps think of a manifesto as being a sort of revelation.

Another word for ‘revelation’ is ‘apocalypse’. We think of an apocalypse, the apocalypse, these days, as being a name for the end of the world, the final curtain. I suppose that came from the Book of Revelation, the spectacular vision of heaven, of the end time, the day of Judgment. But its name, in Greek αποκαλυψις, apocalypse, originally meant simply ‘making clear,’ ‘revealing’, making manifest – so, a sort of manifesto.

These apocalypses, in the Bible and other contemporary literature, are very like prophecy – and I think that in some places it’s hard to distinguish revelation, apocalypse, from prophecy. Apocalypses can of course be another word for catastrophes. But again, I’m not going down that road tonight, whatever you might think about some of the things which face this country today.

Zechariah, (our first lesson), was a prophet who was active during the captivity of the Israelites in Babylon – Psalm 137, By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept..,’ The captivity was coming to an end because King Darius of Persia had conquered the Babylonians, and the Israelites were looking forward to rebuilding their temple. Zechariah – and scholars think there were two prophets who each wrote part of the book with that name – Zechariah, or first Zech and second Zech – prophesied about that new temple.

Things had not been good, but they would get better. ‘There was no hire for man, nor hire for beast’: there was unemployment. There was civil disorder: ‘for I set all men one against his neighbour’ said God, through the mouth of the prophet Zechariah.

But it is going to be fine. There will be a temple again in Jerusalem, ‘a city of truth’. And in that city there will be people of all ages, including elderly men and women leaning on their walking-sticks, and the happy sight of children playing in the streets. God would save his people and bring them in, into a safe place. ‘… they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in truth and in righteousness.’

Zechariah actually tells us not just about how God will put things right, but he also sets out how the Exile of the Israelites began, in the chapter before our lesson. ‘The word of the LORD came to Zechariah: 9 These are the words of the LORD of Hosts: Administer true justice, show loyalty and compassion to one another, 10 do not oppress the orphan and the widow, the alien and the poor, do not contrive any evil one against another’. (7:8-10)

But they did, they did oppress the orphan and the widow, the alien and the poor – and God turned his back on them.

Well that was the Old Testament manifesto. Keep the Lord’s commandments, ‘Administer true justice, show loyalty and compassion to one another, 10 do not oppress the orphan and the widow, the alien and the poor, do not contrive any evil one against another’. (Zech. 8:13) Then the Lord will let you rebuild the Temple.

And when we get to the beautiful vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation. Actually in the new Jerusalem, the holy city, there is no actual temple. Up till then, the Temple was a building where one encountered God – and only the priests, the Levites, could be in God’s presence without being destroyed by their proximity to the Divine. They mediated between God and humans. Now here is God face to face, God present in the midst, with the Lamb of God, the one who had been sacrificed like a scapegoat. That means, Jesus.

And this is an apocalypse. We usually understand it as the apocalypse, the end of the world. The Book of Revelation could be a prophecy about how our society as a whole might turn out. It could be how individuals will fare. There are the Visions of Jesus’ Messages to the Seven Churches in chapters 2 to 14, visions of heaven, the Seven Seals, the Seven Trumpets, various dreadful battles, such as Michael against a dragon; there is the fall of Babylon. And then the New Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth.

It could be a vision of how things are going to be for us all, or just for some. It’s not, I think, meant to be taken literally. There aren’t really dragons and monsters: it’s just a picturesque way of portraying something utterly beyond our experience. But the manifesto, the prophecy, the revelation, is clear. If you are one of the chosen, if you are saved, you will be close to God, in paradise: 

‘ … there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him:
And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.
And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever’.

So that’s pretty clear, so far as the visions in the Bible, in Zechariah and in the Revelation of St John, are concerned. If you are worthy, if you are righteous, if you follow God’s commandments, there will be the City of God, Jerusalem, after you come out of exile in Babylon, and the New Jerusalem, at the end of time, at the Day of Judgment.

Does that really make any difference to us? Is it just a series of nice stories? What about the manifestos? The Israelites went into exile because they did not worship the one true God any more, and because they did not obey his commandments, to love and care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger within their gates.

Do we love and care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger within our gates? What about single parents and broken families? Over a million people got food from a food bank in the last twelve months in the UK as a whole: and here in Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke, we gave out over 44 tonnes of food to local people in need. And what about those 3,000 refugee children on their own in Calais that the government said we were going to take? It didn’t happen – and even worse, somehow it seems that, what with the influence of UKIP and the vote to leave the EU, it’s suddenly become acceptable, all right, to be prejudiced against poor refugees. They are called ‘economic migrants’ as distinct from a very small category of so-called ‘genuine’ refugees.

I suggest that that is a false distinction. It’s just an accident that we were born here, and have plenty, and they were born in a poor country, and are fleeing war, or starvation. Why is it acceptable for such people to be kept out? What do all the manifestos say? And do any of those manifestos lead to anything even vaguely heavenly? I would suggest that we should be asking that question above all others.

It’s great that we can show our love of God and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ in this beautiful church, and in the harmony of our wonderful musicians. We thank God for blessing us in it. But we do need to turn outwards as well, in the power of the Spirit. So we’re developing a St Mary’s vision, things we can do to follow Jesus’ commandments to love and serve. I hope it makes good sense with you. These are some of the things we’re thinking of doing. This is our manifesto. You can read it on our church website. It’s shown as the sermon for today at http://stmarysstokedabernon.co.uk/index.php/sermons.

We are looking to start actively to look out for and befriend elderly people who are our neighbours. Are they actually hungry, but too proud to admit it? Are they lonely? Afternoon TV isn’t as good as a nice cup of tea with a friend. 

We’re going to do more with our families and young people. Sunday School may sound a bit formal these days, but Messy Church or sports teatime might be more like it. 
We need to reach out more to involve our church in the local community. You’d be pleased to know how many people from St Mary’s are involved in volunteering for our Foodbank, and who drive people to hospital appointments through Cobham Care. 

But there’s more we can do. For instance, there are still only a couple of refugee families from Syria in the whole of Elmbridge. But there are literally millions in refugee camps. There are actually still quite a lot of refugees in the Calais area. 

In the next few weeks, we’ll put up some display boards showing the various ideas which came up in the vision day which we held a couple of Saturdays ago, and there will be sign-up sheets for you to add ideas and to volunteer to ‘do stuff’. I do hope you’ll go for it.

I know it’s vital that we all choose carefully between those manifestos, and cast our votes on June 8th: but I think that Jesus’ manifesto is going to last a lot longer; and that’s the one which we should really commit to. Vote early – and vote often – as my Irish friends say.

Sermon for Mattins on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 21st May 2017

Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21 

I really like the story of St Paul standing up on the Areopagus hill in Athens and addressing the ‘men of Athens’, the philosophers, the Epicureans and Stoics, who had been rather scornful about him – ‘… some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection…’ (Acts 17:18)

It reminds me of my undergraduate days studying philosophy, at the end of the reign of the great logical positivists like A.J. Ayer, whose book ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ still has an honoured place in my bookcase. I’m sad to say that in those days most of the great Oxford philosophers were atheists. The idea was that words only meant something, had significance, if you could contradict them. You can know what it is to be a table because you can know what it is not to be a table.

And the trouble is that statements about spiritual matters or even moral values are not so straightforward to contradict: so Wittgenstein, the father of logical positivism, famously said, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. He had nothing to say about values, good and evil, or about God – although interestingly, Wittgenstein was a churchgoer all his life.

I like to think that Wittgenstein must have been impressed with this story of St Paul talking to the Athenians. They were sceptics – not unthinking sceptics, quite the reverse, as they were steeped in knowledge of Plato and Aristotle as well as the more modern Stoics. That name came from where they gathered with their students, the στοά, or colonnade – Stoics such as Zeno or Chrysippus, who had a theory of physics, life being caused by πνεύμα, or breath – and who had a theory of nature and reason, seen as objective qualities, so that for us to think rationally is to think in ways which converge with other rational thinkers and reach the truth. 

Or there were Epicureans, who also had theories of physics involving atoms, logically reasoned from ideas of being and not-being, and from arguments about divisibility – there must be something rather than nothing, and things must be able to be divided until you reach an indivisible part – ‘uncuttable’, indivisible, which is what ‘Atom’ means. In moral philosophy the Epicureans followed a pleasure principle: ‘We say that pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily’ (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, 128). Epicurean philosophy was anathema to the early Christians, as it taught that man is mortal, the creation of the cosmos was just an accident, that there is no providential god, and the criterion of worth is pleasure. 

But the point was that these were not just shallow superstitions, and the Athenians were not just pub bores. The Areopagus was hundreds of years old, and had evolved from being a chamber of government, a democratic assembly, to being a law court. To address the members of the Areopagus was to tackle a very sophisticated audience.

But these learned people knew the limitations of their philosophy. There might well be things which their reason could not reveal. So they set up an altar to the ‘Unknown God’. And St Paul appropriated that mysterious deity. He made it his own. This Unknown God is the Creator, who created the ‘world and all things therein’, who made us all alike as humans – ‘hath made of one blood all nations for to dwell on all the face of the earth’. But He is an unusual God, not living in a temple or demanding sacrificial worship – because he has it all. He ‘giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.’

The Unknown God was very different from all the other gods which the Greeks worshipped. He didn’t live above the clouds or on Mount Olympus, or in a temple. He wasn’t far from them, ‘For in him’, said St Paul, ‘we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Indeed, ‘as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.’ St Paul was quoting a Stoic poet, Aratus (Aratus, Phaenomena, 5). Paul was clearly Greek-educated as well as being Jewish. He was well able to debate with the Greeks in their own terms.

When I thought about this story from the Acts of the Apostles, in the light of that rather sceptical Oxford Philosophy of my student time in the late sixties, it rang true against what was happening in the Church of England at the time. This was the era of Honest to God, Bishop John Robinson’s book which dared to say that God wasn’t situated anywhere in particular – he wasn’t a genial old man with a white beard sitting on top of the clouds – and indeed, later on, also of Don Cupitt’s 1984 TV series, which you can still see on YouTube [https://youtu.be/J396Lamxu9I], called ‘The Sea of Faith’, which argued from a review of the philosophical and theological developments of Galileo, Descartes, Kant and Hegel, as well as more recent figures such as, indeed, Wittgenstein, that the only possible way to understand God was in a ‘non-realist’ way. 
This is the God whom St Paul describes, ‘That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us.’

That’s not the same as saying that ‘God does not exist’. It is rather that God isn’t a thing, isn’t ‘out there’ in some way. A word which comes up in this context is ‘transcendence’. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘God is the “beyond” in the midst’, (quoted in Robinson, John, 1963 (2013 edition), Honest to God, London, SCM Press, p.32, n28). John Robinson approves of Paul Tillich’s idea of God as ‘The Ground of our Being’: indeed, the ground of our being, in whom we ‘live and move and have our being’, as St Paul put it, in almost identical words, 2,000 years earlier.

John Robinson says, ‘The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky, or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of ‘what you take seriously without any reservation’, of what for you is ultimate reality ‘ (p.33).

This ties in also with what Jesus himself tells the disciples in our second, Gospel, reading. Jesus prays that the Father will send in his place another ‘Comforter, … Even the spirit of truth’. The Martin Luther, German, translation of the word for ‘comforter’, Der Tröster – it sounds like ‘ the truster’, adds more here. Earlier in the same chapter 14 of St John’s Gospel came the famous passage, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’, many rooms, many dwelling-places; and the key was, ‘Let not your heart be troubled: yet believe in God, believe also in me.’ 

‘Believe’, or ‘trust’, depending which translation you are looking at. The Greek word (πιστεύω) means ‘have confidence in’, ‘have trust in’ something or in someone. The ‘truster’, Der Tröster, the Comforter. The word can also mean an advocate, a barrister in court, even. ‘Grant this, O Father,’ we pray, ‘for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate’. Advocate. Comforter.

I heard a sermon recently where the idea was that, if you did something less than Christian or otherwise behaved badly, it was because you did not ‘trust’ enough in Jesus. I thought at the time that I didn’t really know how that was supposed to work. I can be sure that I’m driving the best car: but that belief, by itself, won’t make me a better or a worse driver.

I think it is more like what St Paul says, for example in his letter to the Galatians, chapter 5:16. ‘I mean this: if you are guided by the Spirit you will not fulfil the desires of your lower nature.’ If the Holy Spirit is in you, then ‘the fruits of the Spirit’ will come out in you. But it isn’t deterministic: you are not a robot. Again St Paul can appreciate the problem. In his letter to the Romans, chapter 7. He knows what is right, what God has commanded: but he doesn’t do it. It’s not a question of how strong our belief in God is, but our baser instincts – ‘In my unspiritual nature, [I am] a slave to the law of sin’ (Rom. 7:25).

Back to Athens, to the Areopagus, Mars’ hill. What I think we can draw from this is that as Christians, just as St Paul was up against the Greek philosophers, so we, when we meet people who say they’re atheists – and imply that religion, the Christian gospel, is just not believable any more – we can see how those essentials which Paul identified – that for us God isn’t an idol, a mere thing, however pretty or impressive – are still true. God isn’t ‘out there’ somewhere. He wasn’t there, Yuri Gagarin said, when his space capsule broke through the stratosphere into space.

Instead we have to get in touch with the Ground of our Being. The man at our side. Footsteps in the sand. The Comforter. And then perhaps we can be that Comforter for someone else, the man who fell among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho – or maybe on the Portsmouth Road, even.

It’s great that we can show our love of God and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ in this beautiful church, and in the harmony of our wonderful musicians. We thank God for blessing us in it. But we need to turn outwards as well, in the power of the Spirit. We are therefore developing a vision, to follow Jesus’ commandments to love and serve. 

We are looking to start actively to look out for and befriend elderly people who are our neighbours. Are they actually hungry, but too proud to admit it? Are they lonely? Afternoon TV isn’t as good as a nice cup of tea with a friend. 
We’re going to do more with our families and young people. Sunday School may sound a bit formal these days, but Messy Church or sports teatime might be more like it. 

We need to reach out more to involve our church in the local community. You’d be pleased to know how many people from St Mary’s are involved in volunteering for our Foodbank, and who drive people to hospital appointments through Cobham Care. 

But there’s more we can do. There are still only a couple of refugee families from Syria in the whole of Elmbridge. But there are literally millions in refugee camps. There are actually still quite a lot of refugees in the Calais area. 

In the next few weeks, in St Mary’s Hall when you’re having coffee, you’ll see some display boards showing the various ideas which came up in the vision day which we held a couple of Saturdays ago, and there will be sign-up sheets for you to add ideas and to volunteer to ‘do stuff’. I do hope you’ll go for it.