Sermon for Pentecost 2018

Acts 2:1-21

The disciples were all gathered together with the mother of Jesus and his brothers. Then all these people from places with odd names came and joined them: Phrygia, Pamphylia and Cappadocia. And then after the rushing wind and the tongues of fire that came and settled on their heads, the disciples started to talk in ways that could be understood by all the different people who were present there, who spoke a variety of languages, so that the disciples seemed to each person to be speaking to them in their own language.

Once upon a time I went to Brussels to watch a select committee of the EU Parliament at work. They were discussing something about the insurance of oil rigs and tankers. As some of you will know I used to be a marine underwriter and then a maritime lawyer, so I could appreciate the finer points. It was in a room which was a bit like a theatre, with a big table on a raised dais for the committee members to sit at, surrounded by rows of seats for the audience, each one with a small table fitted to the chair with a set of headphones and buttons to control them.

You were invited to put the headphones on and select the language in which you wanted to listen to the discussion. The MEPs were pretty good at speaking in a variety of languages; even the British ones managed pretty good French and German from time to time. But I had the headphones on, and I was listening in English. I was plugged into the simultaneous translation into English which was provided by the translators sitting in glass booths around the outside of the room. So far as I know, all the languages in the EU used by the 27 member nations – sorry, I mean 28 – were being translated, one into another, simultaneously. It’s an incredible piece of work. The translators are really good.

We are told, in the story in the Acts of the Apostles, that the disciples spoke in such a way that those who heard them could understand them without the need for translation. They spoke in everyone’s language, whatever their native language was. I have absolutely no idea how that could possibly have been done. It was miraculous.

It’s a very familiar story, although it is still a hugely remarkable one. Those events at Pentecost are said to be the birthday of the church. These apparently supernatural powers appeared, and the gospel started to spread throughout the world.

Thinking about the gospel spreading round the world, I had a rather unworthy thought that the Pentecost narrative might actually be not very British. You know that there is a very strong thread in British Christianity which likes to think that the Holy Land is somehow transposed over here. ‘And did those feet in ancient time | walk upon England’s green and pleasant land?’

Englishmen, notoriously, can’t speak other languages. It may be that our children are doing it better than we did, but there is still a feeling that, if foreigners don’t understand us, all we need to do is to speak English a little bit louder. We certainly do benefit from simultaneous translation but we are not that good at doing it. I have got away with using my O-level French and German for the last 50-odd years, but when it comes to the crunch, If there is anything serious, then I gratefully accept that my German or French colleagues speak English much better than I speak German or French.

I know that there are some people who reckon to ‘speak in tongues’. They go into some kind of trance when they attend certain types of church service. Indeed those churches are often called ‘Pentecostal’ churches. But still, in the back of my mind, I do have a little doubt whether the full Pentecostal ‘Monty’, speaking in tongues and waving your arms about, really chimes with that many people in England.

I’m tempted to say that a lot of those mass Pentecostal events, congregations in industrial warehouses shouting ‘amen’ and raising their arms in unison, reflect not so much the worship of the divine but some collective hysteria, perhaps whipped up by some Billy Graham-like figure. Who knows? But I do wonder whether it’s really British.

When I wrote that, I hadn’t watched the royal wedding, as I did yesterday. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon was wonderful – but it certainly wasn’t the ten minutes of fairly cerebral disquisition on the theology of marriage that you might have expected from a Primate in the Anglican church. Bishop Michael just went in straight to the heart of it. Princess Di’s sister had read a lesson from the Song of Solomon – ‘set a seal upon my heart.’ It was all about love, the power of love. Then the preaching started. Bishop Michael showed passion: he used repetition, repetition for emphasis: economy of style: his message was in your face. And then it was followed by a black church gospel choir. There’s nothing for it; it was truly Pentecostal, even if the royal party didn’t quite wave their arms about.

Perhaps another way of looking at this, though, is to ask what Pentecost is for. How are we supposed to react now to those events 2000 years ago, to what happened to the disciples and to the people from Phrygia and Pamphylia? What would you feel if, suddenly as we sat here, in St Mary’s, our hair caught fire and, instead of one or two select classical allusions, I was speaking to you simultaneously in Yoruba, Serbo-Croat and Welsh, of course as well as in English?

What would you make of it? What if, having seen the extraordinary firework display, the most you could say was, ‘Cor, fancy that!’, just expressing some vague astonishment? If that’s all it meant, it’s surely highly unlikely that we would still be celebrating Pentecost 2000 years later, as Christians, all around the world.

But we are still celebrating Pentecost. So why? What has given the story such long legs? When you listened to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry yesterday, (although of course his sermon was addressed to the Prince and his new Princess), he could have been giving the answers that we’re looking for here as well. Power: love: fire. Those were his key words to Harry and Meghan. And they are also the hallmarks of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Power. The force of the rushing wind. Fire. The tongues of fire. And love. Jesus’ great commandment. Love, love one another. But look what the power of the Holy Spirit did. It gave the disciples power, capability to speak so that their message could be understood by all people. How important in promoting love that was.

Look at how we notice, today, in various contexts, how people are different from us, not like us, and how that sense of difference can make life difficult. For instance, why are we so uneasy about immigrants? All the rational considerations show that they are really beneficial and useful to us. But – but they are different. They look different, perhaps, as well. Speak a different language.

The Greeks of Jesus’ time called strangers βάρβαροι, barbarians – and one version of the etymology of that word was that strangers would speak in a funny way: they sounded as though they were saying ‘ba, ba, ba,’ a sort of animal grunting. That’s it. That might be the problem with immigrants. You know, you might not want animal grunters living next door to you.

But what if you could understand them, and they could understand you, perfectly, as if both of you had grown up in the same street? You wouldn’t have any prejudices against them. They wouldn’t be barbarians, barbarians at the gate. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch even to love them. Certainly you could love them, if to love them means not to fall in love with them and get married, but simply to care for them, to look out for them and be generous to them. If you speak the same language, you’re half-way there.

If you speak the same language, literally or metaphorically, it’s much more difficult to think of other people as being different, not like us. If we’re not different, we can see all the things we have in common. We won’t want some people, (who are just like us underneath), to starve while others, who also are just like us underneath, are homeless or refugees, risking their lives in overloaded boats in the Mediterranean, say. They’re just like us. That ability, for the disciples to speak in everyone’s language, was the power of love.

So what is Pentecost about, for us, today? It is, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said, all about the power of love. I can’t resist reading you some of his words from yesterday.

He said:

‘Think and imagine a world where love is the way.

When love is the way, poverty will become history.

When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.

When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.

When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children. ‘Cos when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family.

When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.

My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.

And let me tell you something, old Solomon was right in the Old Testament: that’s fire.’  [Michael B. Curry, found at https://tinyurl.com/y96c2z6e ]

Power, love, fire. Pentecost.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after the Ascension, 13th May 2018
Isaiah 61, Luke 4:14-21

‘ … the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord…’

I love this lesson; it’s a bit of the Bible that I find really inspiring. ‘.. to preach good tidings unto the meek; … to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound’. Taking these words from the book the prophet Isaiah and seeing them again in our second lesson, where Jesus is teaching in the Temple, reading from the scroll which contained the Jewish Bible, in our terms, the Old Testament.

Jesus turned the tables completely on everybody present by saying first, ‘Well, you know all about what the great prophet Isaiah has prophesied; clearly God has spoken to him directly in some way, and he spells out what the kingdom of Heaven will involve: binding up the broken-hearted and proclaiming liberty to the captives.

Jesus then turned round to everybody that he was teaching, saying, ‘And now, I have to tell you that it is fulfilled.’ All the things that Isaiah put into the prophecies are now coming to pass.

But what was it that Isaiah prophesied and that Jesus said had now come to pass? Good tidings to the meek, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, opening the prison. You heard the lessons being read, and then perhaps somebody saying prayers after, which referred back to these lessons. You could feel the power of the Holy Spirit at work. But how did it really work in practice?

The thing about the good tidings to the meek and the binding up the brokenhearted, and especially proclaiming liberty to the captives, is that , with the possible exception of the meek, the Lord hasn’t really told us how it all works. What are the good tidings that I should give to the meek? I can understand binding up the brokenhearted, comforting them; but what about proclaiming liberty to the captives? Which captives? Obviously there’s an echo of the story of St Paul and Silas being broken out of jail by an angel [Acts 16:16-40].

In one way, this story is completely uncontroversial. Why wouldn’t you want to bind up the brokenhearted? Why wouldn’t you want to proclaim liberty to the captives? I’m not quite sure how you manage to ‘preach good tidings unto the meek’. I have this vision of a rather gloriously over-the-top actor, like Brian Blessed, jumping into the pulpit in a country church, bellowing out an invitation to Evensong.

I think that we, the faithful, may need to have a more nuanced look at this prophecy, before anyone goes blundering into the Day Centre ‘preaching good tidings to the meek’. Why is the person brokenhearted? Is it something that we can fix?

What about the captives in prison? We have any number of passages in the Bible where Jesus makes it plain that part of our duty as Christians is to go visiting people in prison. We might think that the ‘captives’, really, are not bad people; they’re not real criminals, but they’re people who have been wrongly imprisoned. Perhaps they are Christians in a country where it’s against the law to be a Christian and they have been locked up. They haven’t done anything wrong.

Or they could be like Paul and Silas in the passage in Acts 16, wrongly imprisoned for another reason. But no. If you look at the passages, I don’t think you can make that distinction. Isaiah’s prophecy is that, when the kingdom comes, all the prisoners will be released. And that includes the real criminals as well.

That seems to me to be in line with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, with turning the other cheek or going the extra mile. The thing about Jesus’ teaching is that it is based on grace. You don’t earn your place in heaven. You are a sinner. Nevertheless you can be forgiven. You can be released. ‘Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’

Or you could say it was another instance where Jesus, and our faith, has things upside-down. ‘The first shall be last’, or, as in the Magnificat, ‘He has put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek’.

The kingdom of heaven is not just for good people, or successful people. it’s for all of us, however humble – however bad.

Think of Jesus’ comparison between the Pharisee praying, thanking the Lord that he was ‘not as other men are’, that he was better, and contrasting his prayers with the publican, the tax collector, humbly saying, ‘Have mercy on me, because I am a sinner’.[Luke 18:11f] I know that I am not up to the mark. Jesus says that the kingdom is there, at home with that poor man who feels he is no good at all.

It’s a strong lesson for us. We shouldn’t be complacent and self-satisfied: we shouldn’t say, ‘Thank the Lord that I am not as other men are’. Instead we should pray, ‘May the Lord have mercy on us, because we are not perfect, and we don’t always do the right thing.’

I was going through my list of things to do yesterday, and it seemed to me never-ending. Then I just put a quick call through to find out when I was supposed to be running a particular errand that afternoon, only to be told that I’d got it wrong, and I’m not due to do it till Tuesday. What a nice feeling! All of a sudden, I had a free afternoon. I didn’t really deserve it, but there it was. In a small and mundane way, I had received grace. It was a little glimpse of heaven.

I pray that you will have little glimpses of heaven too. But you must be aware that they’re not necessarily where you might expect to find them, and you don’t necessarily deserve them.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Easter, 29th April 2018

Isaiah 60:1-14, Revelation 3:1-13

I’m not sure whether Jerusalem is a good thing. ‘Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest’: as some of you will know, always puts me in mind of my favourite biscuit when I was little: Huntley and Palmer’s Milk and Honey biscuit, which was a bit like a superior jammy dodger. No, what I have in mind now is that the idea of Jerusalem covers all sorts of things. It is a place: for sure it is a place today, which President Trump has designated as the place where the United States will have its embassy, as though it were the capital of Israel – although it isn’t. There is the place in ancient times which Isaiah, the third of the three authors who together make up the book of the prophet Isaiah, writing in the sixth century before Christ, made the more or less mythical capital of the promised land, the city of the Lord, the ‘Zion’ of the holy one of Israel. Zion is the name of the hill on which the city of David, the centre of Jerusalem, was built. It was the place for the temple and was, in a sense, where God lived.

So it goes on to have a meaning as the heavenly city, the kingdom of heaven; which is the idea in our reading from Revelation. ‘Him that overcometh’, the elect, the chosen ones, ‘him … will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, … and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God’. We still talk about people being ‘pillars’, ‘pillars of the church’. They are the stalwarts, the usual suspects, on the PCC and Deanery Synod.

That mythical new Jerusalem was adopted by William Blake, of course, in his great hymn,” And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green? … I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, until we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.’

In some ways that all sounds very admirable and harmless. The picture in Isaiah of the holy city, ‘The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense’ is a wonderful picture. You may wonder, of course, what a dromedary is. And I have to tell you that Hilaire Belloc, in his ‘Bad Child’s Book of Beasts’ gets the dromedary completely wrong. He says,

The Dromedary is a cheerful bird:

I cannot say the same about the Kurd.

Hilaire Belloc, Complete Verse, collected edition (1954), reprinted 1991, London, Pimlico, p.237 n

A Kurd, you know, people who live on the borders between Turkey and Iraq: Kurds, not animals at all! But also, dromedaries are not birds, not birds at all. They are a sort of small camel. Mind you, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts is probably not a good source of zoological information. I can’t resist reading you what Hilaire Belloc says about the tiger, just before the entry about the dromedary. It comes after his description of the lion.

The Tiger on the other hand, is kittenish and mild,

He makes a pretty playfellow for any little child;

And mothers of large families (who claim to common sense)

Will find a Tiger well repay the trouble and expense.

Oh dear. Well, Isaiah correctly thought of dromedaries as a species of camel. ‘The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah’. Everyone will come to the holy city, not only the Jews but also the Gentiles: ‘The Gentiles shall come to thy light.., the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.’

‘Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought.’

This is a clue to the problem which I want to go into now. It’s the idea of a homeland or nationality; it’s a very strong idea in many people. Scotsmen go all over the world but keep their Scottishness; they always celebrate St Andrew’s Night and Burns Night. But nationality is not an entirely benign idea. The problem seems to come when people are on the move. Obviously, as we are in church, we can think of the Jews, the people of Israel, leaving the land of Egypt and the land of Babylon –

‘By the waters of Babylon

We sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.’ Psalm 137.

They longed for the Promised Land. Then, as we know, the promised land story was effectively repeated, but without any parting of the Red Sea or anything, following the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Palestine was declared to be a national home for the Jews – and there’s been trouble ever since, between the Israelites and the people they displaced, the Palestinians.

In this country, maybe William Blake’s new Jerusalem has to some extent already been built. I noticed that an MP called Kemi Badenoch, whose parents were Nigerian, was saying on ‘Any Questions’ on Friday that she thought that Britain was a very attractive country for people to come to and settle in; and that we are a welcoming people. I have to say, having heard the awful stories of what has happened to many of the ‘Windrush people’, I thought she was being rather generous; but nevertheless, the idea is there. It seems to be a similar one to the one in Isaiah: that if we have ‘built Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land’, then not only the Israelites, but also the Gentiles will be welcome to it:

‘.. thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night’

so presumably that means that not only the people who were born here, but also other people from outside – in this context, the ‘Gentiles’ – should be able to get into the Holy City.

But then again, perhaps the Holy City is spiritual, a spiritual concept rather than a literal, physical one, so we should rather look at the sort of vision that St John the Divine shares with us in Revelation. A place for the people who prove worthy of salvation:

‘Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world..’

If you are one of the saved, then you are going to be welcome in the City of God, new Jerusalem. This new Jerusalem is in heaven, or it ‘comes down from heaven’. I think that, as soon as you see the word ‘heaven’, it’s a signal that this is a spiritual concept rather than a literal, physical one.

The Son of Man, Jesus, appearing to St John the Divine, telling him to write down his letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, is a sort of preparation for the Day of Judgement. Watch out! ‘I know thy works’. You aren’t everything that you’re cracked up to be. Be careful, if you want to go to the new Jerusalem.

So I wonder whether the idea of the new Jerusalem resonates with us at all today. Is it in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’? If so, are the Gentiles allowed in – with their camels and dromedaries, bringing their gold and silver? Who are the ‘Gentiles’ today? Are they just us, who happen not to be Jewish? or should we be like the church at Philadelphia – by the way, you know what ‘Philadelphia’ means in Greek: it means ‘brotherly love’ or ‘brotherly affection’ – and of course that includes sisters too. Αδελφός means a brother, and αδελφή a sister, so Φιλαδέλφεια means brotherly or sisterly love.

So are we going to be like the people in Philadelphia? Although they have ‘a little strength’, they’re not very strong, they have ‘kept my word’ and have not ‘denied my name’. They will be welcome in the new Jerusalem. We know what we have to do. Open the gates!

L

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday of Easter, 22nd April 2018

Exodus 16:4-15; Revelation 2:12-17

Salvation. What is it to be ‘saved’? After the glorious Easter story of Jesus’ resurrection, it seems logical to move on from celebrating his, Jesus’, triumph over death to his promise that we too will be ‘saved’, to a life after death. In the Book of Revelation, we find a vision of what that might look like. I’m often rather dismissive about heaven being a place above the clouds where you meet a kindly old man with a white beard. But actually the beginning of the Book of Revelation is one source of that quaint image of the divine. This is how the book begins.

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,

Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; ….

And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. … one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt … with a golden girdle.

His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; … out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength [Rev. 1:10-14]

But even if it comes from the Bible, that picture of heaven is just a best effort to imagine something beyond the scope of human knowledge. There are rational objections to the idea of heaven being above the clouds – not least the evidence of the early astronauts, who didn’t bump into angels or anything like that. The Book of Revelation is, I’m sure, spiritually inspired, but I don’t think we’re meant to take it literally.

But it’s a vision of heaven, of what life after death might be like, the seven churches in Asia meeting Jesus the Judge Eternal, who decides what he likes and dislikes about them.

The church in Pergamum almost gets a clean bill of health. They are steadfast. They stood up to persecution, and one them, Antipas, became a martyr for the Gospel. But

‘I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel’.

This is a reference to an episode in the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, in the Book of Numbers, chapter 22.

‘And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.

And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.

And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time.

He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:

Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land’ …

The story of the Exodus from Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land is a great one. Parting the waters of the Red Sea; annihilating the Amorites. And a constant theme is that the Israelites must keep their covenant, their contract, with God, so that He will protect them, will save them.

If you remember the story, the Israelites didn’t really appreciate where they were going. They ‘murmured’ among themselves. They hadn’t got enough to eat. Why did they leave Egypt? And Moses put their complaints in prayer to God, and God sent vast numbers of quails for them to eat. I’m not sure how they were presented, these quails. I’ve always imagined them arriving ready cooked, sort of chicken-in-the-basket. And then God sent manna, the divine bread.

What was it that the Judge Eternal thought was reprehensible about Balak and Balaam? You’ll remember that Balak, king of the Moabites, wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites, to curse Jacob, because he thought that there were too many of them, too many likely to come in as immigrants.

‘Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:

Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me’.

The Moabites didn’t want immigrants to come into their country.

‘[B]ehold, they cover the face of the earth’, they said. Keep them out. Vote for Brexit. Maybe support UKIP.

Well, remember what the Judge Eternal felt. He was quite happy with the people from the church at Pergamum, except to the extent that they followed the

‘ …doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel’.

You’ll remember the story of Balaam’s donkey, who pulled up in awkward places because she could see an angel, holding a double-edged sword, blocking her path. But it was all right for the Israelites, who were refugees, to come in, to be immigrants.

It makes a difference whose point of view you adopt. If you’re with the Israelites, you are entering the Promised Land – and you don’t want to mix with the people whom you’ll find there.

The people like the Amalekites and the Moabites, the Palestinians, are being turfed out, displaced, by the Israeli settlers. They not unnaturally don’t want the Israelites to come in and displace them.

How difficult it is to find the right answers here! Are immigrants, asylum seekers, a good thing? Are they going to overwhelm the indigenous population?

Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field.’

As they discovered with their encounter with the Amalekites, the Israelites were following a fierce, tough God. The fierce God wanted them to exterminate the Amalekites in their quest for Lebensraum in the Promised Land. So much for controlled immigration. You remember: God blamed Israel, because Israel had spared a few people, a few Amalekites. God was angry not because they had gone on a killing spree, but because they hadn’t; they hadn’t exterminated the Amalekites. [1 Samuel 15]

Nowadays surely we find that story strange, and challenging. Surely God would be merciful? But no, He is portrayed as wanting to kill every last Palestinian, or rather, Amalekite. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t look fair. But it was the Promised Land. And they were rewarded with celestial food, manna from heaven.

There’s an echo of that in the Book of Revelation. The churches who prove faithful, and don’t fall for the temptations of illicit sex and other bad behaviour, will get the ‘secret manna’. That must be “I am the bread of life’ in St John’s Gospel, chapter 6. Jesus is the bread of life. ‘Feed on Him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving’.

So what about immigrants? Are you on the side of the Israelites, or of the Moabites – or even the poor old Amalekites? Are you running away from slavery, in Egypt – or Syria – or are you upholding a policy of ‘creating a hostile environment’ for immigrants?

As the shocking cases of the ‘EMPIRE WINDRUSH migrants’ show, creating a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants is practically impossible to do in the way apparently intended here, to deter people who are not deemed to be ‘worthy’ immigrants. Unless you set up barriers which challenge all who seek to come in, it will be a lottery whether you catch the ones you want to. But if you set up that hostile barrier, you will obstruct many people who are perfectly legitimate. It also seems that the only class of people who have been consistently mistreated by the ‘hostile environment’ policy are black people.

There haven’t been any dreadful miscarriages of justice involving white people who came over from Australia, or Canada, or South Africa 50 years ago, and never bothered to keep hundreds of documents just in case, 50 or even 70 years after they arrived, got jobs, paid taxes, and raised children here, somebody challenged them to prove they were entitled to be here. There don’t seem to be any of those cases against white people.

The big irony here is that even today, the story of the Promised Land is still controversial. The Palestinians who lost their homes after the Balfour Declaration, and who have been pushed out even more by the foundation of the ‘settlements’ in modern Israel, can be excused for being negative about immigration. But people who stand up for them against the Zionists find themselves labelled as antisemitic.

What would Jesus do? Where is the salvation here? I think that to be ‘saved’ here doesn’t just mean getting up there with the Son of Man with his white robe and snowy beard. It surely means also being ‘saved’ from being deported to a country you’ve never seen; it surely means also finding a better balance between today’s Moabites in Palestine, worried about being overwhelmed by Zionist immigrants, and the people on the run from civil war in Syria, who so desperately need places of refuge.

Manna from heaven? Well, food for thought anyway.

Sermon for Mattins on the Second Sunday after Easter, 15th April 2018

Isaiah 63:7-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

I’ve been wrestling with some contrasts in the last day or two. Obviously the civil war in Syria, the apparent poison gas attack: and then the attack on Syria by the Americans, the French and our RAF. 104 missiles, apparently, of which 8 were ours.

And the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. An actor read it again on the wireless last night – although I didn’t listen to it. Perniciously, some its ghastly racism still comes back. References to black people as ‘smiling picaninnies’ and the cod classical reference to ‘the Tiber red with blood’ are still awful.

And the 70th anniversary of the voyage of the ‘WINDRUSH’ from the Caribbean, bringing people who would become postmen and nurses and drive taxis and do all the jobs which we couldn’t find people to do, whom we had advertised in the Caribbean for. Some of them have been here for most of that time, bringing up children and working hard – but now our frankly nasty Home Office is trying to throw out some of the ones who never applied for a passport, back to the Caribbean, where they haven’t lived for decades. On appeal, the Home Office’s ‘be extra beastly to immigrants’ policy has been overturned in about half the cases. What’s that about? Putting Granny on a plane to Jamaica because, as a British citizen – but a black one – she had no idea that she should keep any old documents to prove her right to be here.

The contrast was with the Easter sunshine yesterday, as lots of people came back from Easter holidays, expecting the usual murky weather back home, and found real, warm sunshine. The contrast was with our Easter happiness in our church, as we celebrated Christ’s resurrection. The story of Doubting Thomas is such a good one for us, because we sometimes feel that the miracle of that first Easter is just too much. But – ‘My Lord and my God!’ said Thomas, he, a person like us, was convinced – and we feel Jesus came back for us too.

But. But just as the Easter story is overlaid with the terrible sadness of the crucifixion, so we can’t help feeling that those simple Galilean fishermen are an awful long way away now. How can what happened so long ago, in such a different world, give us anything useful about the violence in Syria: how can the Easter story make any difference to the message of ‘Rivers of Blood’ which people like Enoch Powell, people like Nigel Farage and perhaps even Theresa May, when she was Home Office minister, gave out, any difference to the message that there is something wrong with people coming to live and work in our country, with immigration?

Actually, not just living and working here, but joining their relatives here. And where children are concerned, there are still a couple of thousand – really, not just a few – just across the Channel in France, who can’t get here. Theresa May, when she was Home Office minister, arranged a disgusting advert displayed on the back of vans, driving around advising immigrants to ‘Go home’. And she went to church faithfully all that time. Apparently, she saw nothing wrong in her deterrent vans.

What use is Easter against all that stuff? Can we learn from the early church? One thing about learning our Christianity from St Paul’s letters, is that we have to imagine what the other side of the conversation might be. So what was St Paul responding to when he wrote to the people in Corinth?

He was pointing out that, if one ignored God’s commandments, the Ten Commandments, God might not keep on forgiving them. The Old Testament is full of stories of the Chosen People, Israel, disobeying God. And it brought bad consequences on them. Plagues of snakes. And St Paul thought it was all pretty symbolic. For him, the Old Testament story of Moses in the wilderness after God had parted the Red Sea and they had escaped from Egypt, was deeply significant. Not everyone made it, because they fell away, they forgot God.

St Paul, in counselling the Corinthians, reminds them of the story of Moses and the Israelites coming out of Egypt. Even though the Israelites were God’s chosen people, it didn’t give them a complete licence to behave any way they wanted. Each breach of a commandment had a price. ‘Fornication’ brought a death sentence for 23,000 in one day.

At first sight, this doesn’t seem to square with the idea that God is our friend, that He cares for us. For if he really did, surely He wouldn’t be so fierce and judgmental towards human failings – because after all, He made us the way we are.

So why does St Paul offer these cautionary tales? It isn’t a question of ‘Be good and you’ll be welcome in heaven’ – and the converse, if you’re not virtuous. That if you’re bad, you’ll be going down.

It’s much more a question that God does love us, unconditionally; but we mustn’t fail to reciprocate. Perhaps the ‘other half’ of the dialogue between St Paul and the Corinthians was some idea that the Corinthians had, that becoming a Christian sort-of inoculated them against the consequences of bad behaviour. Once you’d been baptised and confirmed, perhaps they thought you could give full rein to your baser instincts. St Paul is pointing out that God may still take a dim view if the people who are receiving His blessing, go out immediately and do things more befitted to their old lives, before they saw the light.

St Paul’s point is, that if you are ‘saved’, you won’t want to fornicate and do all the other things, having riotous dinners and ‘putting God to the test’.

But my thought is that, if you are full of the Easter spirit, if you are a good Christian, it won’t just be a question of your avoiding fornication. There will be other signs of your being a Christian. And this is where I get back to my contrasts. How to be full of the spirit of Easter, and at the same time rushing into following Pres.Trump in attacking Syria before the United Nations weapons inspectors have even started? How to be full of the spirit of Easter, but sympathetic to Powell’s racism – as surveys have shown 70% of the British population were at the time. How does that – did that – work? Can you really be a Christian and support have a racist view of immigration? What about things that Nigel Farage has said really recently?

What about us here at St Mary’s? Why don’t we have any black people in our church? Some of us must have black neighbours; we must be more friendly to them, and see if we can get them to join us. It’s part of our vision, a vision of inclusion, of openness. As we start our befriending programme, let’s be open to inviting people who look a bit different to join us and become our friends. Let’s not just think of Easter as a quaint story 2,000 years ago, without any practical effect on us. Let’s show that Easter has made a difference to our lives.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Easter, 8th April 2018
Isaiah 26.1-9,19, Luke 24.1-12

I must confess that this week I had quite a case of writer’s block before this sermon came to me. I have been through all the Easter services: for a minister in the Church, just as for faithful members of the congregation like you, it has been a really busy time. But it all comes together in the happiness of Easter Sunday, after which point a lot of people take off for a bit of holiday.

Stoke D’Abernon and Cobham are really quiet; I went into Town a couple of times last week and I managed to park my car at the station right near to the station building, which is unheard-of normally. A lot of people are away. Now in the church we have got this period until 10th May, the Ascension, when we are in Easter time, which is the time when the church reflects on and celebrates the appearances which Jesus made after he was resurrected from the dead.

Tonight we have read about the visit of the various women going with Mary Magdalene who had been at the crucifixion and seen Jesus laid in the tomb. They had brought all the various embalming spices to prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial. Then they found that the stone had been rolled away and they met two men in shining garments – two angels.

This is St Luke’s account, which doesn’t have some of the features in the other Gospels. For example, St Peter runs to the empty tomb by himself according to St Luke, but in St John’s Gospel he’s accompanied by ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, which is presumably St John himself.

Mary Magdalene is met by two angels, whereas in another version there is a person, whom she mistakes for the gardener, who turns out to be Jesus himself. When you realise that all these Gospel accounts were written at the least 20 years and often more like 40 years after the events described, it’s not surprising that there are some minor variations in the story.

It’s all about resurrection from the dead. That Jesus died a horrible death and then somehow came alive again. When you look at the prophecy of Isaiah which is from the time approximately 750 years before Jesus, you see this picture of the land of Judah and of the city of Jerusalem as concrete expressions of God keeping his covenant, his agreement, with his chosen people. ‘We have a strong city’: I looked it up and this is not where ‘Ein’ Feste Burg’, Martin Luther’s hymn, comes from. [It’s Psalm 46].

In Martin Luther’s German it’s ‘ein fester Stadt’ here. But the idea is similar. The city of God, a protection, a bulwark, against the godless. And it’s interesting to see the prophetic vision of a fair society in the city of God. It’s almost the same train of thought as in the Magnificat. ‘… he bringeth down them that dwell on high; the lofty city, he layeth it low; he layeth it low, even to the ground; he bringeth it even to the dust.’ And then at the end of the passage that we had tonight, there is what my Bible commentary tantalisingly says is one of the only two references in the Old Testament to the idea of resurrection from the dead. ‘…. for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise.’

It’s great: it must have been a really wonderful time. It’s very inspiring to read in the Acts of the Apostles how the early Christians lived; looking after each other, holding their possessions in common and looking forward to Jesus’ second coming as though it was going to happen any day.

But is it too awful, perhaps even sacrilegious, to ask, ‘So what?’ How does that work today? How is my life and your life affected by those events of the first Easter? Granted, of course, that they were cosmic events, that the world would not be the same after them: before Jesus, people were in touch with God through the prophets, like Isaiah. And the prophecies came true, and the dead man did live; but when I look at the nuts and bolts of what I have been dealing with this week and what I have been reading about in the newspapers, I’m challenged. I find it quite difficult to see the footsteps of the resurrected Jesus in some of the things that I encountered this week.

An earnest lady came to see me this week, representing the Department of Work and Pensions, to try to persuade me that Universal Credit was going to be good for the clients of the Foodbank; I pointed out to her that, if somebody is sick or disabled, and signs on for benefits now, they will get 28% less than they used to. There are lots of other ways in which this new system is worse than what went before. 4/5 of people receiving Universal Credit are in arrears with their rent, because there is a six-week delay in paying it – and because you only have to miss two rent payments for the landlord to be able to repossess your home, they are at risk of becoming homeless.

Sir Gerry Acher was very involved with the Motability scheme, providing specially adapted cars for disabled people. Hundreds of those cars are now being returned because the poor disabled people no longer have enough in benefits to afford to run them.

Teenagers are being murdered in London; although the Metropolitan Police Commissioner says that the cuts in the police service have no effect on the murder rate, you can’t help feeling that things would be better if there was a bobby on the beat, as there used to be. But the cuts have taken them away.

So who knows? David Lammy, the widely-respected MP for Tottenham, says that a lot of this is caused by our society becoming so mean, so that single mothers have to go out to work and leave their children at home on their own. He gives an example of 12-year-olds being offered new pairs of trainers by drug dealers, and asked to run little errands – little ones to start off with – round the corner to deliver a packet. Soon they are earning more than their parents ever dreamt of, but they will have become members of gangs and they will be armed. According to Mr Lammy, the drugs that they supply end up being used by trendy middle-class people who live behind electric gates – maybe somewhere around here.

Well I can’t say this stuff, without some of you jumping up and down and saying, ‘This isn’t a sermon: it is a political speech’. But it seems to me that Jesus would be concerned. Jesus would say that so many of these things really don’t chime with the idea of a strong city, ‘for whose walls and bulwarks God will appoint salvation.’

‘Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.’ Is that a picture of an immigration policy? Somehow it doesn’t sound like it. The meanness at the heart of the idea of controlled immigration just doesn’t sound like that strong city in the land of Judah whose gates are open.

And what about the events in Palestine? 15 or 16 people have been shot by the Israeli army and 1500 people have been injured. The Israeli army has been firing bullets at people throwing stones at them. The most recent tragedy was a photojournalist called Yaser Murtaja, who was wearing a flak jacket with ‘Press’ written in big letters across the front. He was shot in the stomach by the Israeli forces. Where is the kingdom of God in any of that?

But then there were all the stories this week about Ray Wilkins, the great footballer and Cobham resident, who died this week very early, at the age of 61. There were an amazing number of stories, not only about his great goals and tremendous talent as a footballer, but also about what a good and generous man he was.

There is one I particularly like which I saw told by a homeless man, an ex-soldier, who was sitting outside West Brompton station. Ray Wilkins went over to him, sat down with him and took time to talk with him. Ray Wilkins’ phone rang, apparently, and he answered it and said that he would call the person back, because he was ‘busy’. Busy – busy talking to a homeless bloke sitting on a cardboard sheet, huddled up against the wall of the station. He gave the bloke £20, and took him across to a café to buy him a cup of tea. He suggested that the homeless man should use the money to stay in a hostel and get a hot meal. He did that, and that night, at the hostel, the old soldier met a social worker specialising in ex-soldiers. As a result, the homeless man was put on a path which brought him back to a decent life with a new job and a home.

Ray Wilkins, whom I’m sure many of us have met around the village, did what Jesus would have wanted him to do. He was a Good Samaritan – as well as a very good footballer.

So maybe things are not so bleak, and maybe the resurrection of Jesus, the Easter story, isn’t totally submerged in godless ghastliness after all.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday next before Easter, 25th March 2018

Isaiah 5:1-7, Mark 12:1-12

Two vineyards in the Bible. One is a perfectly good vineyard, nothing remarkable about it. Like Denbies, say. Actually there is something remarkable about our local vineyard. Apparently it’s the biggest single vineyard in Europe. It is, really. Not in France, or Italy, or Portugal, or Spain – but here in Surrey. And jolly good it is, too. I like ‘Surrey Gold’ just as much as Gavi di Gavi. They’re both excellent.

The other vineyard has something wrong with it. It’s suffering from noble rot, or something. Something which is interfering with the growth of the vines and the swelling of the grapes. In the vineyard in the Book of Isaiah, the distinction is between ‘grapes’ and ‘wild grapes’. I’m not sure why it’s not a good thing for the grapes to be ‘wild’. Wild strawberries are the nicest, I think. And D & T Car Wash, who, I think, are very good, advertise that they use soap with ‘wild cleaning power’. But clearly from the context here, we’re meant to take it that the wildness here – wild grapes – makes them no good.

One vineyard, in St Mark’s Gospel, is fine, and productive. But the snag is, that the people who run it are crooks. They won’t pay their rent to their landlord – they abuse, even kill, his reps, when they visit to collect the dues; and indeed, eventually they kill the landowner’s son.

The other vineyard is just hopeless, not because it is badly run, badly managed, but because it just doesn’t grow good grapes. Even despite its being ‘a vineyard in a very fruitful hill’. [Is. 5:1] But the reason, Isaiah tells us, is that this vineyard is an allegory, it is not a real vineyard, but a mythical reference to the Israelites. They, God’s chosen people, the Israelites, are the dud vineyard. ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant.’ They’re not fruitful or productive, even though they’re planted, they’re set up, absolutely fine.

But how lovely to be someone’s ‘pleasant plant’! I think that must be a prayer to say at Squires’ garden centre across the road.

So I think that Jesus was probably alluding, he was harking back, to the story of the wild grape vineyard when he told the parable of his vineyard. Or rather, he was making it clear that the story wasn’t really just about grapes and a vineyard. If the man who ‘planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and digged a plane for the winefat, and built a tower,’ was actually a symbol for God, and if, when He ‘let it out to husbandmen’, tenant farmers, it was a symbol of what God had done in creation. We, the descendants of Adam and Eve, have the care of God’s creation. Are we trustworthy managers? Or is it rather that, however well we do, God periodically throws a spanner in the works?

But one thing that Jesus says is clear, in his allegory. That is the bit about the landlord’s son being killed. It is so reminiscent of the history of Jesus. It’s tricky. The story reflects, on the face of it, pretty badly on the Jews. They were the chosen people. They, the evil husbandmen, killed the Son of the owner. When, on Good Friday, we say a litany of complaints called the Reproaches, starting with

‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow

which was brought upon me,

which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger’

and so on, there is a warning in the Service Book [Common Worship, Times and Seasons, Lent’] that the Reproaches are sometimes taken to be bigoted, to be anti-Jewish, but they mustn’t be taken that way. A better way of looking at it is to see the Reproaches – and the criticism of the Dud Vineyard – as being directed not just against the Jewish people, but also against anyone, any human being. Against us, even. Are we stealing, keeping to ourselves, what should rightfully be given to our heavenly Father? Are we taking proper care of the Father’s vineyard, and giving Him his proper dues?

Somebody was saying goodbye to me the other day. They said, ‘Have a nice Easter holiday’. I felt it sounded a bit awkward, although of course I knew what the nice, friendly person meant. But Easter, and Holy Week – this week, starting today – which leads up to it, the Easter season, isn’t just a jolly time. It’s serious.

Passiontide, the two weeks immediately before Easter, are leading up to the most important time in the Christian year. The Passion. At the time of the Passover, in the Jewish tradition. Christ lived. Christ died. Then the glorious resurrection. Christ was resurrected. He rose again from the dead. Today at the start, on Palm Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem.

In the Roman world, a general who had engaged in a successful battle, or a successful war, would parade his captives and all the booty he had plundered, through the streets of Rome. The Emperor would have given him permission to celebrate what was called a ‘Triumph’. Some generals were refused triumphs, because it might make them too big for their boots.

Rome operated devolved administration. People were trusted to do a good job for the Roman state; for ‘SPQR’ (senatus populusque Romanus), the senate, the government and the people of Rome. But if a general came back in triumph from massive conquests, he might consider himself greater than the current emperor. And then there would be a risk of revolution. It was similar in the various provinces, such, for example, as ancient Palestine. There, there was tension, as we all remember, between the Roman provincial government, headed by Pontius Pilate, and the devolved Jewish administration.

I went to a very interesting lecture – it was rather more than just a lecture – at St Paul’s Cathedral on Monday last week. It was run by the St Paul’s Institute in collaboration with the BBC, and led by Prof. Michael Sandel, of Harvard University, who calls himself ‘The Public Philosopher’, and who conducts live debates with audiences about philosophical questions, rather in the way that I imagine Socrates must have done in ancient Athens, by asking his audience questions, and challenging their preconceptions by examining the logical implications of what they thought.

The topic on Monday was ‘Democracy and the Common Good: What do we Value?’ A subtitle was, ‘What does it mean to be a citizen?’ It was recorded for BBC Radio 4, and you will be able to listen to a distilled version, 45 minutes edited down from the two hours of discussion and debate, on the wireless on Tuesday, at 9 am, repeated at 9.30 pm, under the title ’Citizens of Nowhere?’ [See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09ws5p6] I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to mention that the trailer says, ‘With the help of a live audience, [Prof. Sandel] asks whether globalisation and deepening inequality have eroded the bonds that hold communities together. He enquires if the continuing debate over Brexit reveals competing notions of political identity. Should we aspire to be citizens of the world, or is a citizen of the world a citizen of nowhere? He wonders if patriotism is a sentiment we should encourage or a prejudice we should overcome and whether, in diverse societies such as ours, a politics of the common good is even possible.’

It is a similar question to the one faced in the Roman Empire, for instance in Palestine. Was one a citizen of somewhere local, where one had grown up or where one paid taxes, or were you like St Paul, who said, ‘Civis Romanus sum’, ‘I am a Roman citizen’? (Acts 22:25f) Were you then, are you now, a citizen of the world, or a local chap? During the discussion on Monday, Prof. Sandel brought in the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, to sum up the debate. The Bishop is the one who, with all the local churches, has been very much involved in supporting the residents of Grenfell Tower following the terrible fire there.

Dr Tomlin suggested that there was a sort of tension between being local, and being universal. Prof. Sandel had opened the discussion by asking his invited audience, of students from the LSE, to imagine themselves as running a food bank in a German town. Supplies of food were getting tight, and demand was rising. Should one restrict the hand-outs of food just to German people, and not to other nationalities – or should the only criterion be hunger, be the people’s need? Dr Tomlin suggested that, if one were a Christian, the answer to such conundrums was in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Nationality – even nationality in a context of enmity between nations – was not relevant; it didn’t worry the Good Samaritan. We don’t know for sure what the nationality of the man was, who ‘fell among thieves’ on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho; but it seems most likely that he was Jewish, an Israelite – as otherwise it wouldn’t have been so striking that first a ‘priest’ and then a ‘Levite’ passed him by. Samaritans and Jews were opponents even if not actual enemies. But it didn’t matter to the Good Samaritan. So the Bishop suggested that nationality wasn’t the be-all and end-all, shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all, where Christians – where we – are concerned.

Interestingly, the audience, both the students on the stage and the several hundred people in the cathedral nave, were more open to internationalism and less inclined to nationalism or parochialism, than I think Prof. Sandel was expecting. He was periodically taking straw polls of what people thought about the moral questions he posed. Overwhelmingly, in the Cathedral, people thought that the brotherhood of all mankind was much more worthwhile than ‘taking back control’, or whatever other pro-Brexit nostrums he posited. I suppose that is to be expected from an audience of people who go to St Paul’s, whereas the average Daily Mail reader might have a less enlightened view.

So – as we begin to recall the momentous events of the first Holy Week – are we ‘citizens of nowhere’? Or are we Good Samaritans? Whose vineyard is it? Are you looking after it properly? Or is it not worth looking after, because it’s producing ‘wild’ grapes?