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.

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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, 17th March 2019

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

As we woke up on Friday, to hear the news about the terrible shootings in the mosques in Christchurch in New Zealand, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mrs Ardern, made a moving statement about the fact that it seems clear that the 50 people killed were the victims of a racist, Islamophobic terrorist. Mrs Ardern said, ‘Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting will be migrants, they will be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home. They are us.’

A bit later on, a picture appeared on Twitter [reproduced above] of a man who, if I can say this, did not look like a Moslem, but rather like Andy Capp in the cartoons, in a flat cap, standing smiling outside a mosque in Manchester with a placard which said, ‘You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray.’

Terrible atrocities do sometimes seem to bring out beautiful and uplifting thoughts, like those of Mrs Ardern and of the man in the flat cap outside the mosque in Manchester.

In our Lent study groups we are going through the Beatitudes, the ‘blessed are they’ sayings which Jesus spoke at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.

The second one, perhaps the right one at a time of tragedy, is ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ This is one of those short sentences that contains impossibly dense and complicated ideas. On the face of things, for somebody to be mourning, to be sad, to be heartbroken, is not in any sense the same as to be fortunate, which is what the word translated as ‘blessed’ means.

How lucky for you that you are heartbroken; what a wonderful thing it is that you are in floods of tears. Clearly there’s something which doesn’t add up. Try telling the distraught people that were on the TV from New Zealand that they were in some way blessed or fortunate. But really it means, as it says, that those who mourn will be blessed, will be comforted in future: and that is a message of hope after all.

St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, condemns those who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Earlier in the chapter we had as our reading, he identifies the people that he condemns. He says, ‘Beware of those dogs and their malpractices. Beware of those who insist on mutilation – I will not call it ‘circumcision’’. Beware of people who tell you you have to become a Jew in order to become a true Christian.

Nevertheless, Paul was proud to tell everybody that he had been circumcised and that he was an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred, and a Pharisee [Phil. 3:5]. He’d thrown it all over, after his Road-to-Damascus experience, and in his letters, for example to the Galatians and to the Romans, he made the point that, in the kingdom of heaven, there is no difference between Greeks, (Gentiles), and Jews.

The Israelites had been the chosen people of God, and the others, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, were the great unwashed. But St Paul’s mission was to bring the good news of Jesus precisely to those Gentiles, to those who were not circumcised. He said, ‘Our citizenship is in heaven.’ Ordinary nationality doesn’t apply in heaven.

But originally, Paul – and Jesus – were Jews, sons of Abraham, descendants of Abraham. The word of the Lord came to Abraham and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars; because that’s how many your descendants will be.’ The sons of Abraham. They were Israelites, the chosen people of God.

The gunman is supposed to have said that one of his reasons for shooting Moslems was because he saw them as strangers, ‘invaders’. At the beginning of this week in morning prayers we were reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, where Moses speaks the words of the Lord, a prophecy about offering sacrifice of the first fruits of the land, the land of milk and honey, which the Israelites have been led into, the promised land. Moses tells them to say in their prayers that they are descended from ‘a wandering Aramean’, or from ‘a Syrian ready to perish’, that they have been led into Egypt and then eventually out of Egypt again, as strangers in the land. Even they, the chosen people, started out as strangers.

There are many passages in the Book of Deuteronomy, and in the Jewish Law generally, which St Paul would have been very familiar with, which impose on Jews a duty to care for a stranger that is within their gates, to care for strangers along with orphans and widows. That is the spirit that Mrs Ardern has so eloquently reminded us of. It is not a spirit of antipathy towards immigrants and refugees, not against strangers, not against people who are different from ourselves.

This is such a difficult area. There are so many apparent paradoxes. The Jews, refugees, made it to the promised land; they went to the holy city, Jerusalem, and set up the temple there. ‘Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest’.

But Jesus points out that, because that is where the council, the Sanhedrin, is based, it is only in Jerusalem that he can be condemned, and that Jerusalem is a city that kills prophets, that throws stones at people who are sent to it.

Mrs Ardern was one of those world leaders, like Mrs Merkel in Germany, who has dared to extend a welcome to refugees. She still extends that welcome. But what about us? The challenge to us today is surely not to be fixated with ‘taking back control’, with restricting immigration and upholding national identity, however important some of those things might seem to be at first.

Jesus said, ‘Strive to enter in at the strait gate. Struggle to get in through the narrow door. For I tell you that many will try to enter and not be able to. You may stand outside and knock: say, ‘Sir, let us in.’ But he will only answer, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ [Luke 13:24]

Where do we come from? You could say that Jesus makes getting into the kingdom of heaven seem like a refugee trying to come ashore in Italy, or trying to get through at the Hungarian border or even being caught up in our own Government’s ‘hostile environment’ at Heathrow today. Contrast that with what Mrs Ardern said. ‘ … They will be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home. It is their home. They are us.’

The challenge for us as Christians is to raise our sights above the earthly ghastliness which stems from narrow nationalism, and to seek what is truly heavenly. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted.’ Let us pray that, with God’s help, we can become channels of peace, so that we too can say that they are our friends, and that we will keep watch while they pray.

Sermon for Evensong for the Meeting of the Guildford Branch of the Prayer Book Society in the Founder’s Chapel, Charterhouse, on 9th March 2019

Psalms 47,48 and 49; Genesis 41:1-24; Galatians 3:15-22

At the moment I’ve got a young Turkish couple staying with me, who are really delightful people, whose only fault, so far as I’m concerned, is that the wife is for ever trying to feed me with Turkish delicacies.

On Wednesday I bumped into them when I got home at the end of the day, and after a certain amount of whispering, the husband asked, excusing himself if it was rude, but, did I know that I had a big dirty mark on my forehead? I had to explain to him – because he is a Moslem – that it was the ash from Ash Wednesday.

So it’s that time again – it seems to come round quicker and quicker as the years go by – when we are supposed to reflect, take stock, follow Jesus on his 40 days in the wilderness, and amend our lives: change our minds, repent, in the face of the momentous events of Holy Week and Easter.

Here in the Prayer Book Society we all come from different parishes, and in each parish I’m sure there are study groups and Lent activities for everyone to take part in. At St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon we are following Bishop Steven Croft’s Pilgrim course, in which we study the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,’ and so on.

We could, I’m sure, take a straw poll of the courses that each of us is following, or the Lent activities or Lent sacrifices which we are all making, in order to make this ‘40 days’ special and to bring home to us the seriousness of it.

I wonder if there is a distinctive Prayer Book approach to Lent: do we get any ideas from the Bible readings prescribed for today? I must confess that when I first read our first lesson, about Pharaoh’s dream, the seven good kine, cows, and the seven ‘ill favoured and leanfleshed’ ones, and the seven good ears of corn and seven shrivelled-up ones, I wondered whether the compilers of the Lectionary were being cruel to us and inflicting yet more worries about Brexit on us.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who occasionally wakes up in the middle of the night, frankly very worried about what seems to be happening to our country, and not knowing where it is all going to end. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who could forecast the future, or at least interpret one’s dreams, as Joseph did for Pharaoh?

But Joseph pointed out that he wasn’t being a fortune-teller in his own right, but that he was doing something prophetic, that the words were being given to him by God. He was God’s mouthpiece. Seven bad years, seven good years; famine is coming along, is what God said to Pharaoh through Joseph. And Pharaoh, with Joseph’s help, was able to organise his country to deal with the famine which was coming. God was speaking to his people through Joseph.

And then again, there is the passage from Galatians, which may be quite difficult to follow. I’m not quite sure how many of us here are lawyers, but I think it probably helps if you are or were one, as indeed I was.

So here goes. ‘Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.’ Once a contract has been signed – a ‘covenant’ is a contract – once it has been agreed, it can’t be unilaterally cancelled or added to. I definitely won’t go anywhere near the discussions in Brussels about the so-called ‘back stop’ here: but you can see the point. Having made an agreement, it is what it is. Unless both sides agree, one side can’t just unilaterally cancel it or change it, add bits to it.

‘Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made.’ What St Paul is saying is that God made contractual promises to Abraham. They made an agreement. If you worship me and keep my commandments, then I will keep you safe and you will be the founder of my chosen people. This was a promise to Abraham ‘and his seed’, as our Bible puts it: to Abraham and his descendants. Actually, not to his descendants, plural. St Paul’s point is that the word ‘seed’ is singular, so it means, ‘to Abraham and his descendant, singular’. So the beneficiary of the contract is Abraham’s descendant, singular. And that descendant is ‘thy seed, which is Christ’. This is all about a special kind of covenant, a will. God has bequeathed the benefit of his promise to Abraham’s descendant. He is ‘heir to the promise’.

St Paul goes on. ’And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul’ You have to read this upside-down. The law, which came 430 years later, can’t override the covenant. St Paul is drawing a distinction between God’s original promise to Abraham, and the law which he gave to Moses in the tablets of stone, the Ten Commandments.

St Paul is pointing out that the Jewish Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, based on the Ten Commandments, is a comprehensive system to keep people on the straight and narrow. ‘It was added because of transgressions’, because people were doing wrong, and it was put there to take care of the situation ‘till the seed should come to whom the promise was made…’ and that is the seed, ‘which is Christ.’

The Jewish Law and the basic promise to Abraham are not in conflict with each other. ‘Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid …’ But you have to understand what is of fundamental importance and what is, in effect, a temporary expedient, to make for a good society till the kingdom of God comes. Remember that Jesus himself said, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law … but to fulfil’ (Matt. 5:17) – but St Paul wouldn’t have been able to read St Matthew’s Gospel, so he might not have known exactly what Jesus had said.

This is all squarely in the ambit of Paul’s main mission, his main task, to bring the Gospel, the good news of Christ, to the Gentiles, to the non-Jews, and like all the letters, it’s like one half of a telephone conversation: you have to imagine what the other party in the conversation was saying.

Paul ticks off the Galatians – ‘O foolish Galatians’, at the beginning of chapter 3; and it becomes apparent, when you read the letter, that what he was berating the Galatians for was the fact that, whereas originally they had simply accepted the Gospel and started to follow and worship Christ, over time they had begun to believe that they couldn’t just become Christians, but they had to become Jews first.

Only the Jews could obtain salvation, and therefore, in order to be a good Christian, you also had to be a good Jew. You had to carry out all the Jewish Law and also, if you were a man, you had to be circumcised. But St Paul pointed out that this was not necessary, not right: that we are saved by faith, not by works, not by simply carrying out the dictates of the Jewish Law. Paul wrote, ‘if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.’

And then you will see, if you read on – your afternoon homework, after the match tea, might be to read the rest of the Letter to the Galatians – you’ll see how it works. And you’ll see that although you may be tempted to do bad things, what will straighten you out is not following the dictates of the Jewish Law but having the power of the Holy Spirit in you, which will bring the ‘fruits of the Spirit’. So instead of ‘fornication, impurity, and indecency; idolatry and sorcery; quarrels, a contentious temper, envy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, party intrigues, and jealousies; drinking bouts, orgies, and the like , instead of those, the fruit, the harvest, of the Spirit, as he puts it, is ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control: but he says there is no law dealing with things like this. ‘[T]hose who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the lower nature with its passions and desires. If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct our course’. It’s tempting to think that it may be that the idea of being ruled solely by gifts of the Spirit could extend to ways of worship. You know, you don’t need any rules.

It seems to me at least arguable that, if you don’t have to be circumcised, in the context that St Paul found himself in, today we must recognise that people can come to Christian faith and gain salvation through the grace of God in all sorts of different ways.

Worshipping with the help of the Prayer Book is certainly fine, and is a good example of true worship, ‘worth-ship’, bringing our best to God. But equally, we mustn’t turn it into an object of worship in itself. That would surely be idolatry.

Maybe after all, what speaks to us as Prayer Book Society members today particularly is in our psalms. Take Psalm 47:

Clap your hands together, all ye people:

O sing unto God with the voice of melody

This psalm contains the deathless line, which Miles Coverdale wrote and which has even survived almost intact into Common Worship:

God is gone up with a merry noise:

I have to say that I’ve always had, in the back of my mind, a picture of somebody letting off a balloon. I think that is how I picture going up with a merry noise. But why not? If you read all the psalms today, you will be in part uplifted, in part enlightened, and in part, chastened. Remember Psalm 49:

There be some that put their trust in their goods 

and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches.

…[T]hey think that their houses shall continue for ever 

 and that their dwelling-places shall endure from one generation to another; and call the lands after their own names.…..This is their foolishness ……They lie in the hell like sheep, death gnaweth upon them, and the righteous shall have domination over them in the morning.

These psalms, 47,48 and 49, are psalms which it would be very good to meditate on as part of your Lent observance.

But it doesn’t seem to me that there’s any reason for Lent to be relentlessly gloomy. Just thoughtful.

O sing praises, sing praises unto our God:

O sing praises, sing praises unto our King.

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday in Lent, 10th March 2019

Psalm 119:73-88; Jonah 3; Luke 18:9-14

Turning is sometimes a bit controversial. ‘The lady is not for turning’ they said about a former Prime Minister. The current Prime Minister is praised for the fact that she ploughs on and does not turn from her desired path. It’s supposed to be a very good thing to be single-minded and steadfast, and not to deviate from your objectives.

But actually, a major theme of Lent is in direct contradiction with this. Lent is, among other things, about repentance, repentance meaning changing your mind, μετανοια in Greek. There’s a good example of it in our first reading from Jonah, about the city of Nineveh, the ancient Assyrian city in upper Mesopotamia, located on the outskirts of the present-day Iraqi city of Mosul. On the banks of the River Tigris, Nineveh was at the heart of the earliest human civilisation.

God didn’t like what was going on in Nineveh. He instructed the prophet Jonah to go there and denounce them, tell them the error of their ways. Jonah didn’t want to face them, and decided to run away to sea instead; but the ship got caught in a storm, and the sailors were deciding, by casting lots, whom they should chuck overboard to lighten the ship. Poor old Jonah drew the short straw. They asked him more about himself: where he came from and what he was supposed to be doing. 

Jonah told them that he worshipped the one true God, who made both sea and land. He also told them that he was escaping from this god. ‘What shall we do with you,’ they asked, ‘to make the sea go down?’ Because the storm was getting worse and worse. Jonah said, ‘Take me and throw me overboard: and the sea will go down.’ Jonah said that he knew it was his fault that their ship had been hit by this great storm, because he, Jonah, had disobeyed God. Well, they chucked Jonah over the side, and Jonah was swallowed up and saved by being in a whale.

Then he emerged from the whale, came back and had another go. This time he did carry out what God had instructed him to do, and he went to Nineveh to tell them the error of their ways. That’s where we come in and pick up the story. When Jonah had warned them that in forty days their city would fall – impliedly, because of their evil deeds – they changed; they repented. The king of Nineveh arose from his throne and covered himself in sackcloth and ashes. He spread a decree through Nineveh, telling the population not to eat or drink, but rather to show their penitence and turn from their evil ways. 

God saw what they’d done, that they’d turned from their evil ways, and ‘God repented of the evil’, he changed his mind about it, and he decided not to destroy the city. Changing your mind, here, is a sign of magnanimity, generosity of heart. God is, by definition, omnipotent. He can do anything. He has no need to change his mind. But he did. It wasn’t a sign of weakness. And so was the way the King of Nineveh reacted to Jonah’s preaching. He didn’t dig in his heels and pretend that what they were doing was right. He was big-hearted enough to admit that they were doing wrong, and they needed to change. 

Knowing that you’re right, and the other fellow is wrong, is all part of this. In the New Testament, Jesus has this telling story about the Pharisee and the publican, the privatised tax-man. Even Margaret Thatcher – of revered memory, of course – never tried to privatise the Inland Revenue: but the ancient Romans did. It was just like Capita or any other other outsourcing people. They incentivised the private tax collectors. You got to keep a percentage of what you collected, so, the more you collected, the more you earned. 

Peter Mandelson and New Labour would have been fine with it. They’re supposed to have said, ‘We’re relaxed about people getting filthy rich’. Just imagine. What a great franchise opportunity. No wonder the people hated the ‘publicans’, the tax collectors. But this publican had an attack of conscience. Although he was working within the rules, he knew it was wrong. 

But the respectable bod, the Pharisee, paraded his virtue and charitable giving. He thanked God that he wasn’t a sinner like the publican, an extortioner, unjust – and sleeping with other men’s wives as well. A thoroughly bad lot. But he, the Pharisee, was just fine. He didn’t do any of the bad things that the publican did. But even so, Jesus reckoned that the bad old taxman was the one who was more worthy of salvation. All he said was, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’. Jesus reckoned he would get that mercy.

I think this is a lesson for us today. What do we feel about whether we should let people whom we disagree with, or worse, whom we think are doing something evil, worship with us and be part of our church community? There’s an article in this week’s Church Times by the Dean of St Paul’s, Dr David Ison [See https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2019/8-march/comment/opinion/the-looking-glass-world-of-the-judgemental]. It is focused on the question whether LGBT people can be denied Holy Communion, because allegedly they are sinners, the question whether they are ‘worthy’ to receive. But it could equally be about anyone whose beliefs don’t chime with ours. I know that, for example, I disapprove very strongly of UKIP, and what I think it stands for. I think that in many ways UKIP is actually evil. But I know there are people who come to this church who support UKIP. Dr Ison says, in effect, that when we examine our consciences, we are all to some degree ‘unworthy’. We are all like the people in Jesus’ parable. It would be wrong for me to parade my supposed virtue in contrast with the sins of those whose views I disapprove of. Like the King of Nineveh, I must change my mind, I must repent.

A few years ago I tried to persuade the PCC at Cobham to make St Andrew’s an Inclusive Church, capital I and capital C – part of the Inclusive Church network. It would involve not just being inclusive, welcoming all sorts of people: certainly LGBT, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual – or ‘intersex’, the ‘I’ in LGBTI, but also telling the outside world, putting a statement of welcome for all, in public, outside on the church notice board. 

And not just LGBTI people would be welcome: black people, foreign people, people in scruffy clothes, people who might be homeless dossers, just coming in to be warm. Anyone. If your church belongs to the Inclusive Church network, there’s a sign outside to tell people, whoever they are, that they are welcome.

Do you know how I got on with my proposal to St Andrew’s PCC? Any ideas?  I lost, 19 votes to 2. They said, ‘Of course we’re inclusive. But we mustn’t offend the bigots by making it too obvious’! We mustn’t offend the bigots. Really. That’s what they said. Now I think that Inclusive Church is right within the ambit of what Jesus was talking about with his parable of the Pharisee and the tax-man. Even though the tax-man probably wasn’t ‘worthy’, he was welcome – welcome not just in the church, but even in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

I really think that our churches should be genuinely open and welcoming, and as Dean Ison says, you can’t start to exclude people because they don’t measure up to your personal standards, however apparently scriptural those standards might be. I know from talking to people who have felt shy about coming to a church, because they are worried that they are ‘different’ in some way, that it makes a big difference if the church has a sign outside which confirms publicly that there is a welcome inside for everyone, however different, or even defective, they might appear to some people to be. 

For me, one thing that means is learning to welcome even the UKIP people. It means changing my mind: repenting. During this Lent, what do you think you might change your mind about? Are you like the Pharisee, or like the publican? Or are you like the King of Nineveh, even? I hope and pray that you are.

Amen.

Hugh Bryant

I am the Vice-chair of the local constituency Labour Party and I’m presenting the petition today.

I am also the General Manager of Cobham Area Foodbank. The Foodbank parks its van at Painshill Fire Station, which is also one of the Animal Rescue centres. Because of our regular contact with our firefighters, I believe I am well-placed to know how well-founded the public anxiety about possible cuts is.

We understand that the narrow focus of our petition – that Esher Fire Station should not be closed – may no longer be moot, as I understand that there is currently no longer a proposal to close it – although there has been no confirmation of this. I understand that a new County safety plan will be open for consultation next week, on 4th March.

Our petition is aimed wider than this. We do not think that the fire service – or the animal rescue service – in Surrey should suffer any further cuts. We acknowledge that there has been some new recruitment of fire fighters following the very critical report of HM Inspectorate [for Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services], which found that Surrey was the worst of the first 14 fire brigades they inspected.

We have very old fire engines – the one at Painshill is 13 years old – and shifts not fully manned, which prevents the fire engines from going out. The previous proposals included ideas of replacing proper fire engines with converted Transit-type vans loaded with fire extinguishers, and further closures of the animal rescue service. This would be saving money at the expense of safety and cruelty.

What if it was your daughter’s pony which had fallen into a ditch and was in distress? If, as happened recently with a cow in a local farm, you had to wait, with the animal in pain, for a Sussex animal rescue team to come out, because the Surrey teams were not sufficiently crewed? What if, when you came home from a nice supper out, it was your house which was on fire because the electrics had shorted or someone had left a pan on by mistake, and the fire engine had to come from the other end of Surrey – or worse, if it wasn’t a proper fire engine at all?

It isn’t right to deny our fire-fighters adequate staffing levels, or to deny them the proper equipment – which means up-to-date proper fire engines with full crews of firefighters. Far from further cuts, local people need the Council to prioritise the necessary extra investment in order to keep us and our animals safe.

Hugh Bryant

26th February 2019

Sermon for the Sunday called Sexagesima, or the Second Sunday before Lent, 24th February 2019 at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon

Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, Matthew 6:25-34

The week after next, on Wednesday 6th March, will be Ash Wednesday, and it will be the start of Lent. Godfrey and I are going to run a morning and an evening class, each week during Lent. Godfrey’s will be linked to the 10.30 Communion service that we hold on every Wednesday in Lent, and will be after that, at about half-past 11. The Lent course session will lead into the Lent lunch, Helen’s delicious soup and fresh bread, in St Mary’s Hall rather than the Rectory this year. I think we’re going to call it ‘Faith, Fellowship and Food’: Three ‘F’s.

On the Thursday evening, the next day each week, I will sit down with anyone who isn’t able to make it during the day, and we will try to cover the same ground that Godfrey will have done the day before. We will end by saying Compline, and these sessions will run on from each other first our Bible study and then our worship, here in church.

The programme that we will follow is what the Diocese is calling its ‘Lent Challenge’, which they describe as ‘a journey leading to becoming more prayerful and confident disciples in daily life’. It follows a movement which the whole of the Anglican connexion is trying to follow, encouraging the growth of ‘intentional discipleship’, making us better disciples of Jesus.

At the PCC meeting on Thursday night, one of you distinguished PCC members asked a very shrewd question when Godfrey was telling everyone about the Lent programme. They asked, ‘What does it really mean, to be a disciple?’

There are some theologians who have invented a verb, ‘to disciple’ somebody, which I think means to make disciples out of them but that really doesn’t get you much further in understanding what it really means. The noun ‘disciple’ comes from the Latin word ‘discipulus’, which simply means a ‘learner’ or a student (or perhaps it’s a diminutive, a ‘little learner’, really), which, interestingly, means the same, in another context, as the word ‘Taliban’ in Afghanistan. The Taliban were a student movement originally.

In the context of Christianity, the name ‘disciple’ has grown to encompass not just Shakespeare’s schoolboy with his ‘satchel and shining morning face, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school’, but something altogether more enthusiastic.

Well, each week we will seek to be inspired by reflections on Lent Bible passages by one or other of the spiritual leaders in the Diocese: Revd Sarah Hutton, the Diocesan Adviser on Spirituality, Bishops Jo and Andrew, Dean Dianna, both the Archdeacons, Paul Davies and Paul Bryer, and Revd Matt Prior, who is the Diocese’s Adult Discipleship Development Adviser, whose job is to develop what he calls a ‘culture of spiritual growth’ across our diocese.

So what are the sort of things that we, as students of Jesus, are going to study? This brings me to these two wonderful lessons which James and Ann have read for us today. Maybe as we look at them, it will give you a clue about the way we will look at various aspects of the Gospel story in our Lent course.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’

That’s almost like a secret vice. You couldn’t really take it out and show it to somebody else who’d never read the Bible before, for example. They would think that you were a complete nutcase. I know that there are people – I think mainly in America – who are called ‘creationists’, who believe that this passage in the Book of Genesis and the parallel passage a chapter or so later, where the story gets repeated slightly differently – which we heard this morning – actually do describe how the world began.

Creatio ex nihilo, creation from nothing: from Charles Darwin to Richard Dawkins, people are lining up to tell you that it’s all nonsense, that science can explain the whole thing; or rather, that if anything can explain it, science can – but that at present we just haven’t got good enough science to complete that task – but we will have. But there is definitely something in the way the Bible story is expressed which means that you can be confident that Genesis 1 is not a scientific description of how the world was created.

It’s quite instructive, in a way, to go along with these critics, and re-run the passage, but to take God out. ‘In the beginning, the heaven and the earth were created; and the earth was without form and was void. Darkness was upon the face of the deep. There needed to be light; and there was light: it was good. And light can be contrasted with darkness, day and night. Not everything is the sea. There is a firmament, a vault, dry land of some kind, as well as the sea. Up above the sea, you could call it ‘heaven’.’

And so on. To some extent, you could be describing the process of evolution. These things gradually came about. But it is missing a vital ingredient. So far as I know, biologists have not succeeded in creating a living thing, although they know how animals and human beings are made; but the process whereby an animal actually starts to live still doesn’t find a complete description in any scientific research. At the moment of an egg’s fertilisation, what is the thing which makes that egg start to live? Scientists simply record the fact that it does live.

St Paul spotted it, in 1 Corinthians 3: when he wrote, ‘I planted the seed and Apollos watered, but God gave the increase’. God made it grow. It grew. We didn’t do it. Scientists can say what would prevent the seed from living, what would kill it; but they can’t make it live. What we call ‘God’ is, among other things, the ultimate creator and sustainer of life; what, looking at the bits that science doesn’t seem to be able to explain, how things started, why they started to live, Aristotle called the ‘unmoved mover’.

But you will realise that we are tiptoeing on the edge of a number of philosophical conundrums. What is the beginning of anything? Mathematicians will tell you that, as you count down or up, there can always be another number. Or there are other infinites, such as Zeno’s paradoxes, like Achilles and the tortoise. See Aristotle, Physics, Book VI: chapter 9 for a discussion! It is extremely difficult to understand how logically there could have been an ultimate beginning – or, for that matter, an ultimate end.

But nevertheless, in our own minds we can make sense of the idea of a beginning or an end. So it may be that we understand just enough for practical purposes in our lives, just enough of something which is much greater than ourselves, which is, after all, one of the things that we say God is.

But, precisely because our understanding is so partial, we have to be very careful about being too literal in our understanding of what is written in Genesis, and in the Bible generally, for that matter. Just as it’s perfectly coherent for us to accept that the first chapter of Genesis is a lovely and colourful way of expressing what God has done, what the work of the creator has been, it’s not the same as the working blueprint of the engine of my car, for example.

Some people pull specifics out of this colourful passage – for example, ‘God created man in his own image. … Male and female created he them’. A literal interpretation of that has caused any amount of trouble. Science has told us a lot more about being male and female nowadays, but some people still use Genesis as an excuse for ignoring what we now know scientifically.

But there is a very useful side to it as well. If we are created in the image of God, then it must follow that all men are equal. It is the earliest statement of the idea of human rights. People who are opposed to immigration need to think carefully about that, if they are Christians. Why should somebody who was born in Africa or in the Middle East, in Arabia, be any less entitled to live anywhere than anyone else – as a child of God? Surely if God is the universal creator, and that all humans are his creation, created in his own image, then it follows that they all equally have rights. Maybe it’s a challenge, but there it is.

When you look at the first chapter of Genesis, are you a creationist? If not, what are you? How do you describe what God is doing? And then, if we are disciples, we will want to follow what Jesus, God-with-us, the great Teacher, taught: and that will bring us on to the Sermon on the Mount, which our Gospel reading is part of.

Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these
.

Adding ‘a cubit to our stature’ is just like the mystery of creation in Genesis. Not even Charles Atlas can do it. And what price Mr Armani’s finest, or a footballer palace on the Crown Estate? Jesus is, as always, pretty challenging. Food for thought, and, I hope, something we can discuss further during Lent. I do hope you will be able to come to one or other of the sessions. Remember the three ‘F’s – Food, faith and fellowship (or the other way round!), from 10.30 on Wednesdays, and a nice alternative to the Taliban, with me, on Thursday evenings at 7.30.

Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent, 17th February 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=417352294

I have to tell you that, when I read the Bible lessons for today, my sermon pretty much wrote itself. That’s because today we are given a sort of potted guide to several key points in our Christian religion. It’s a different angle on some of the most important things we say in the Creed. See if you agree.

Yesterday we had our Marriage Enrichment day, for everyone who is going to get married at St Mary’s this year – I don’t know whether it was Godfrey’s cunning plan, to schedule it nearly on St Valentine’s Day, or whether it just came out that way. Be that as it may, I had a sneak preview when I was helping to set up the lantern slides for it.

I was impressed by one slide which listed ‘Six Topics’ – actually with an exclamation mark, ‘Six Topics!’ in a marriage. They were Money, Time, Sex, Children, Communication and Difficult times/Conflict (which is really two topics, but never mind). But the interesting bit was that on the side of the picture, alongside the list of the six (or seven) topics, was, in big handwritten style, ‘+Faith’, you know, the word ‘Faith’ in big swirly letters, with a plus sign in front of it. Add faith.

That’s the point of lesson number one today, our Old Testament lesson. Add faith. ‘Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals … whose hearts turn away from the Lord.’ But ‘Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. … They shall be like a tree planted by water … in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.’ If people didn’t get so bogged down in everyday life, if they didn’t forget to think of God, perhaps to say their prayers a bit, and to read their Bible, things would go better. God will be with them in the difficult times.

But what is the faith which you need to add, for a successful marriage – or, following the prophet Jeremiah, for a fruitful life?

You could just say to our wedding couples – and have we got anyone here this morning who went to the course yesterday? Or was it enough to be going on with? Anyway, you could just say to them, ‘Pay attention to the words of the Creed. I believe …’ – I believe: in what? What do Christians believe in?

Incidentally, I think it’s important not to get too stuck on saying ‘I’. ‘I believe’. It may be more honest to say, ‘We believe. We.’ There may be some less important things that we struggle with, but we can say the Creed all together, if we say ‘we’, and if we mean, ‘This is what Christians as a body subscribe to – and I’m in that group.’ It need not mean that, in order to belong to the church, you have to believe in every detail. You can just be happy to belong.

So back to the question, what do we believe, as Christians? What is our faith? Our other two lessons, from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, and from St Luke chapter 6, will give us some more important pointers.

You’ll note that, although we’ve just done our marriage enrichment course, the lesson from 1 Corinthians isn’t the normal wedding one, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal’. Oh, all right, ‘… if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love’. It’s ‘love’ in a wedding, not charity. But we’re not doing that bit. We’re looking at the fifteenth chapter, about the resurrection of the dead. That, that’s a key point in Christian faith. Faith in the resurrection, in life after death. Starting with Jesus himself, and then growing into what in the funeral service we call the ‘sure and certain hope’ of eternal life. We often have 1 Corinthians 15 at funerals. We have it because St Paul really goes into this key bit of faith, faith in eternal life, in a resurrection of the dead.

St Paul’s letter reads a bit like the transcript of one side of a telephone conversation. We can’t hear exactly what the Corinthians were saying: but it’s pretty clear that some of them were poo-pooing the possibility of life after death. St Paul points out the logical implications of that. If there is no chance of resurrection, then the whole basis of our faith, our belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, would be contradicted. So one of the key points in Christian faith is a belief in life after death – and in particular a belief that Jesus was the first one to be resurrected.

It’s such an extraordinary thing, so contrary to all the laws of nature, that it is difficult to believe. So St Paul goes on, after the passage which we have read today, to tackle the question not just that the dead are raised, but how they are raised. It can be your homework today. Read the rest of chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. Even if you are a Darwinist, there’s nothing in it to upset your scientific understanding. I won’t spoil it.

So in our first two lessons we see two pillars of our Christian faith, that you need faith, if your life is going to be fruitful – that you shouldn’t try to ignore the Divine – and that our Christian faith is centred on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. It is a sign, a vital sign. We believe that the empty tomb was real. And then, we believe in what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant, in who Jesus really was, and in what he did. That Jesus is God, God with us. But note that as St Paul says, if that really is too much to stomach, then you need to know what it is you are dismissing. You can’t have Jesus without His resurrection. Without it, he’s not God.

And then in St Luke’s Gospel we go on to hear what the effect of Jesus, the effect of His coming, is, and what it still can be. Our lesson is St Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ great statement of what you must do, if you really follow His teaching. First of all he states how contrarian, how back-to-front, Christianity is. Basically in those days, just as it is today, people tended to equate material success and prosperity with virtue. You couldn’t live in such a lovely house; you couldn’t really have such a nice car, unless you were basically doing the right thing, unless you were a good person. Scruffy people must really be pretty useless, you’re tempted to think. No wonder they’re living in damp rented flats if they only bothered to get one GCSE – in some non-subject or other. Feckless.

But Jesus says that if you’re poor, or hungry, or sad, it’s not a question of blame. There’s no such thing as the deserving – or undeserving – poor. They are ‘Μακαριος’ in the Greek, blessed. That’s what the poor are, what the hungry are. Jesus turns things upside-down. This passage of ‘beatitudes’, blessings, ‘Blessed are the .. [whoever it is]’, runs into the really revolutionary bit, ‘Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, lend without expecting to be repaid.’ Don’t rush to judge someone – it could be you next. All those great, generous ideas – but the problem is that no-one really follows them. Because people say that just as resurrection can’t be real, in real life turning the other cheek is a lovely idea in theory, but it can’t be practical.

But what Jesus is advocating is a bit like what St Paul was saying about resurrection, about life after death. If you’ve got no faith in it, you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. If you make faithful-sounding noises, if you tell everyone you’ve been saved, but you still think that rich people must somehow be better people, and poor people must really be a bit useless, a bit feckless – if being saved doesn’t make any difference to what you do, to how you treat people, then Jesus is there to tell you you’re just not getting it yet.

This is a neat way for me to round off what I’m saying. Godfrey and I are going to be running a Lent Bible study course, and the theme is going to be exactly what our Gospel today was about – the Beatitudes. I do hope you will come. We’ll have a session in the daytime and a session in the evening. I hope you will feel blessed at the end of it – and that you will see that being blessed isn’t the same as being comfortably off. You will need to add faith.

Note for Leatherhead Deanery Synod, 6th February 2019

What we here at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon would like to share with our fellow congregations in Leatherhead Deanery isn’t a new alternative to Lent Groups or the Alpha Course. It isn’t a new way for lonely grannies to meet little ones without having to bounce up and down on trampolines or romp about in tanks of plastic balls.

We bring this, not because we’re the only ones who’ve got it, around here, but because we probably have more of it, and have a jolly good example of it which we’d like to share with as many of our neighbours as possible.

What I’m talking about, if you haven’t already guessed, is our sung Evensong, which we have every Sunday at 6. The only days we miss out are if Christmas or Easter are on a Sunday and if we are not the host church for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity joint service. Otherwise, every Sunday at 6 there is a full sung Evensong at St Mary’s, with a proper sermon, traditional ‘school’ hymns and, if not an anthem – and we do put on a full Choral Evensong every few weeks, with an anthem sung by our Choral Scholars – anyway there’s always a good organ voluntary played on our famous Frobenius.

We are finding that Evensong is a great way to reach out to new people. Its simple structure, and its beautiful words and music, appeal to people. Cranmer wrote most of it in 1549, and like Shakespeare it has stood the test of time. The words aren’t necessarily that easy, but they have lasting meaning. We are bringing the best of ourselves to God. As a preacher I heard once put it, we are offering ‘worth-ship’ to the Lord.

There is powerful theology in Evensong too. This is liturgy for socially concerned Christians. Read the Magnificat from Luke 1 – which is the main canticle which we sing, along with the Nunc Dimittis – and you are reading something almost revolutionary. It is right in the spirit of the Servant King or the Good Samaritan – and it’s just as disruptive, in the spirit of this age, as the Gilets Jaunes. ‘My soul hath magnified the Lord’. Fair enough. Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. But then – ‘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.’ It could be a text for our Foodbank!

This Sunday at 6 we are offering our absolute best, a full Choral Evensong with the admission of some new Choristers as well. The responses are as set by Richard Ayleward in the 17th century; the canticles, the ‘Mag and Nunc’, are by the splendid Irish 20th-century composer E. J. Moeran, and the anthem is ‘Behold the tabernacle of God’, by the Queen and Princess Margaret’s music teacher, Sir William Henry Harris.

There will be a five-part Amen set by Orlando Gibbons, Renaissance polyphony at its finest, and the organ voluntary will be the Finale from Sonata no 1 in C Minor by the Victorian organist Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger.

The music will be conducted by Prof Robert Woolley, of the Royal College of Music.

And let’s not forget the Word: Revd Godfrey Hilliard will give you a solid sermon on Colossians 3, ‘If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.’

So do come. Help us to share our riches, the beauty of the worship which we have offered in our Saxon church since time out of mind – and join us in our new service, new to us really, since it’s only been offered since 1549.

We hope we can become a kind of Sunday evening prayer resource for all the Deanery. Everyone is welcome, and maybe we will inspire some new disciples with some of that Gilet Jaune stuff – or maybe it was the Sermon on the Mount after all. Godfrey will explain. ‘If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.’ We hope you can climb up there with us at Evensong some times.