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 Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 7th July 2019

Genesis 29:1-20 – and following; Mark 6:7-29 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=429430740)

This week’s Bible lessons are both to some extent about marrying; marrying the wrong cousin by mistake, if you can believe that, or marrying one’s brother’s wife: some rather odd-sounding stories from up to 3,000 years ago.

First of all Jacob – you remember, Jacob had stolen his brother Esau’s birthright, or cheated him out of it, in return for a bowl of soup, a ‘mess of pottage’; well, Jacob got duped into marrying his girlfriend’s sister by mistake: then Herod, who had somehow managed to marry his brother’s wife Herodias, and Herodias had taken against John the Baptist because John had pointed out that what Herod had done was immoral if not illegal. But he did it because he could, because he was a king.

Jacob was looking for a wife, and somehow the daughters of Laban, his uncle, got mixed up and he accidentally went to bed with the wrong cousin. He had wanted to marry Rachel, but for some reason the girls’ father, Laban, brought along Leah, Rachel’s elder sister, and Jacob slept with her by mistake.

Perhaps it was an elaborate way in which Laban, the father, could force Jacob to work for him for a long time, in order finally to be able to marry the girl whom he loved, that is, Rachel.

The contrast between these stories and how we ‘do’ marriages today could not be more striking. As some of you will know, three weeks ago my younger daughter Alice was married to her beloved, Nick, in a beautiful church in Devon, just outside Axminster. So marriage and the mechanism of marriage is pretty fresh in my mind at the moment.

So far as I know, although Nick may have espied Alice across a crowded room and been attracted to her – which I think is very likely, knowing how beautiful she is – he didn’t immediately come to see me with a request that I should in some way arrange for him to consummate a marriage with Alice without in any way consulting her first. But that’s apparently what Jacob did with Laban.

In the case of Jacob, poor Leah ended up in bed with him, in such a way that it looks as though neither she nor her sister Rachel had much say in what was going on. It almost looks as though what was happening might even, in certain circumstances, if it had happened these days, have been regarded as rape.

Where Herod and Herodias were concerned, it seems that Herodias was quite happy to be married to Herod, and she resented anyone pointing out that her second marriage was, in effect, adulterous or bigamous.

Herod is portrayed as being caught on the horns of a dilemma, torn between wanting to honour his rash promise to Herodias’ daughter Salome, to give her whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom, as a reward for her wonderful dancing, the rash promise on the one side, and his own affection for, and respect for, John the Baptist on the other.

He had nothing against John the Baptist. Indeed we are told that Herod liked to listen to him; but when Herodias put Salome up to demanding John the Baptist’s head, as her reward for winning the Old Testament equivalent of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, Herod was too weak to say that that was not one of the things which he had intended when he made her the prize offer.

As a lawyer, it occurs to me that surely he could have argued that there was an implied term in his offer, namely that she could have whatever she wanted – so long as it was lawful. And surely, gratuitously killing John the Baptist was not lawful. It was murder.

Herod showed the same kind of weakness when Jesus was on trial. (See Luke 23:6-12). Pilate had found nothing wrong in what Jesus had done, but Herod was not prepared to say that the Jews were wrong. And so, in both John the Baptist and Jesus himself’s cases, partly through Herod’s weakness, good and innocent men lost their lives.

I’m not sure that either of these stories, of Jacob with Rachel and Leah, Herodias with Herod and his brother, are actually there to instruct or enlighten us in any way. They are really just background. So far as the story of Jacob is concerned, of course it goes on to show that perhaps there was a divine retribution for Jacob’s having spurned Leah, because Leah conceived and had a son, whereas Rachel was childless, (at least initially). There were some dubious manoeuvres involving slave girls, and it becomes apparent that Jacob was actually treating both sisters as his wives, and having sex with both of them. The whole thing is very wooden, very mechanical. There is a mention of love, but the love seems to be equated with whether or not children have resulted from the various couplings.

It’s a world away from the romantic love that we hope our children, and indeed that we can enjoy or have enjoyed in our marriages.

We know that Jesus’ teaching on marriage is still quite a long way away from our current practice. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says that if a man ‘looks on a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matt. 5:27-28).

In St Mark’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus was teaching about the Jewish law relating to divorce, that, according to the law of Moses, a man could just send his wife away and it was enough in order to divorce her just to give her a note of dismissal, to confirm that she was divorced. But Jesus says that marriage is for life; that when a man and a woman come together in marriage, they become ‘one flesh’. They are no longer two individuals, they are one: ‘what God has joined together, man must not separate’.

Those of course are the words that we hear in the marriage service today; but sadly of course, just as with other commandments of Jesus, as we are human beings, we find that sometimes we are just not able to keep to his commandments. Divorces do happen, with all the sadness that they bring.

But I would also suggest that perhaps one lesson that we can learn from the story of Jacob and the story of the death of John the Baptist is that, in both cases, they involve people trespassing against Jesus’ great ‘new commandment’, to love your neighbour as yourself. What did poor Leah feel like, when she was rudely dumped on Jacob – and then spurned? What did either of the girls feel when they were being treated just as things, just as child-producing machines, property, property of men, who could deal with them without any regard for their feelings or desires?

We are told that Jacob didn’t love Leah: but did Rachel love Jacob? Was she happy that Jacob chased her when he was already married to her sister? In those days it didn’t matter. Nobody bothered to ask.

Similarly with Herod and his brother, what did Herod’s brother feel about Herod taking his wife away? We are told that Herodias loved Herod: but even so, it had all the things wrong with it that any divorce caused by infidelity has.

Looking around at everyone here tonight, I can imagine, in the nicest way, that for most of us this sermon and these Bible stories are pretty much archive material in our lives. Not current, burning issues. But many of us are parents, and for many of our children keeping their marriages together and, indeed, getting married in a loving way, are real, live issues. We need to support our children.

Let us pray that whatever we and our children do, we do it not like Jacob or Herodias, because of lust or jealousy, but because of real love: the sort of love that we often have in the marriage service, from St Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 – ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love (or as the AV puts it, charity)…’

Let us remember, ‘Faith, hope and love… But the greatest of these is love.’

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 14th July 2019

Genesis 32:9-30, Mark 7:1-23 (see https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=430034390)

I could tell you a good story about Jacob and Esau and the beginnings of the nation of Israel: how Jacob cheated his brother Esau, as we heard last week; how he in turn was cheated by Laban, his relative, father of Leah and Rachel, so that eventually Jacob managed to marry both of them: how Jacob in his wandering prospered, again through some sharp practice, this time getting his own back on old Laban. He said Laban could have goats and sheep, provided they had certain markings on them, and Jacob would have the others, although quietly he was making sure that he was breeding only the sheep and the goats that had his markings on.

So Jacob became rich and prospered. Still, his brother Esau was out to get him, for taking away their father’s blessing, his birthright. So Jacob went out with a huge gathering of cattle and various other presents for his brother to appease him, and to make him forgive him.

On the night before he was due to meet his brother, (and both of them were accompanied by private armies), he met a mysterious man, with whom he wrestled all night, and who dislocated his hip for him. He wouldn’t tell Jacob his name, although the mysterious man said that Jacob’s name would not be Jacob any more, but Israel, which means ‘God strove’, or ‘God struggled’, so Jacob deduced that he had had God as his opponent. Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning, ‘the face of God’.

I could tell you all that story; Oh, and I could also mention Jacob’s dream, of the angels ascending and descending a ladder to and from heaven.

In the story there’s a real intimacy between Jacob and God. It doesn’t seem to be particularly the case that God is upholding Jacob because he is a good and moral man – which he clearly isn’t; and even after Jacob has stolen his brother’s birthright, nevertheless his father Isaac, too, seems to treat it as just one of those things. He blesses Jacob and he sends him out to start a family. I could tell you that story.

Or, I could go into the other story today in our Bible readings, about washing one’s hands before you eat, and various other Jewish rules which were not part of the law of Moses, which Jesus condemned as forms of hypocrisy.

The part about washing hands doesn’t translate very well into a modern context, but the other half of the story, where Jesus goes on to tick the Pharisees off for relying on the small print, relying on get-out clauses allowing them to avoid having to do good, to avoid having to care for their parents as it is laid down in the Law of Moses, is something we can easily understand.

Apparently a practice had grown up according to which people could get out of looking after their old Mums and Dads and devoting resources to it, if they had first set aside the bulk of their savings for a sacrifice, or sacrificial offering, to God. This is what was called ‘Corban’.

Whatever was set aside as Corban was no longer available to be used to benefit one’s family, one’s aged parents, and so you were excused from having to look after them.

I could spend a long time teasing out all the various bits of meaning in our two Bible lessons. On one level you might possibly find it edifying, even enlightening; just as you would do, if you were watching a documentary film or going to one of the Art Fund lectures at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

But then I think, an hour or so after you come out of church, you might have a moment of dismay, because those stories just don’t bear on all the important things that are going on in our lives.

What on earth has wrestling with a mystery man in the night, or seeing angels climbing up and down to heaven, got to do with our worries about naval threats in the Gulf of Hormuz, or the unpredictability of Pres.Trump and his refusal to follow the norms of statesmanlike behaviour?

What do Jacob’s wanderings and Jesus’ teaching about hypocrisy really have to say to us in today’s world? Some of it is, on its face, out of date or inappropriate. Our children really ought not to think that Jesus says it’s OK not to wash your hands. (I know it’s about ritual washing, but that’s even further away from real life).

We are worried about knife crime. The terrible murder on the train at East Horsley. It was a shock. It seemed to be something that could have happened to any of us who commute on that line, on our local line to London. What has God got to do with that?

What will happen about ‘Brexit’? Our country has already been greatly diminished in the eyes of the rest of the world and the preparations for Brexit have cost billions. Where will it end?

Austerity, over the last ten years, has not made our economy any stronger. But is has meant that the poorer people in our society are now desperately poor, and food banks are everywhere. Our own food bank will supply over 3,000 food parcels, locally, here in this area, in the next twelve months. What would Jesus say?

During the ITV debate between the two candidates for the Conservative leadership, when one was asked about his Christian faith, he said: “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.” [https://twitter.com/churchtimes/status/1149735677430390784?s=21]

Why doesn’t his faith in God define his politics? Is there anything more important? How worrying is that? I’m not concerned about who the politician was or that it was one party or another: this could have been said by almost anyone. But he was an MP, an important person, a minister. Why shouldn’t such an MP’s faith influence his politics?

In the Bible, Jacob could talk to God and lament that he had not followed God’s commandments; but nevertheless God kept faith with him. They had this regular contact. In his dream he saw the angels climbing up and down a ladder, Jacob’s Ladder, into heaven. And God met him at night to wrestle with him. Was that a dream as well? Whatever it was, Jacob felt that he had seen the face of God; he had been close to God.

But we, we don’t seem to experience anything like that. Perhaps like the Pharisees, we’ve become too regimented in our approach to God. Perhaps our prayers are too formulaic. Perhaps we are not open enough to see the face of God any more. Perhaps we’re like that politician. Like the one who said, “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.”

When Jesus told the Pharisees not just to go through the motions, not just to follow the rules for the sake of following the rules, I think he could have been talking precisely about the ‘regular Church of England folk’ that this politician said he belonged to. The Pharisees went through the motions, but they didn’t actually do anything. It didn’t ‘define their politics’.

I think what Jesus is teaching us in relation to washing one’s hands and setting aside resources that might have gone to look after your parents, is that this is sham love, and it is no good. Jesus wants us to show risky love, real love, the sort of thing he preached about in his Sermon on the Mount.

The love that Jesus was recommending, going the extra mile, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, being like the Good Samaritan, is generous love and it’s a love which is not calculating in any way. Paul wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 13. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant’. It isn’t necessarily love which you can easily afford. It could be like the widow’s mite. Not much, but it could be more than you can easily afford.

But when you do see that kind of giving, giving which does not count the cost, at work, when, (and this seems especially apt today, which is Sea Sunday), when you see the risks that Captain Carola Rackete, the young German sea captain, took in order to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean and take them to a safe port, even though it might result in her going to jail; or more mundanely and closer to home, when you see someone give their entire trolley of purchases from the supermarket to our Foodbank, all for their poor neighbours: it may not be a sensible gift: it may be really extravagant: but it is loving. It is a blessing. A real blessing, and I think we may begin to see the face of God in it.

Just as Jacob was really concerned to be blessed, to have his father’s blessing and then for God to bless him – he said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’ – we need to look out for our blessings. If we count our blessings, I am confident that we are going to find, not that we are alone, but that God really is still at work among us.

So may God bless us and keep us, and make His face to shine upon us.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Trinity, 30th June 2019

Genesis 27:1-40, Mark 6:1-6 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=428750231

‘A mess of pottage’. A mess of pottage. No, we’re not playing ‘Twenty Questions’, if that brings back any memories. It’s not ‘animal, vegetable or mineral’, but I am thinking of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac, who was himself the son of Abraham.

Isaac and his wife Rebecca had twin boys after they had been married for twenty years, when Isaac was 60 years old (Gen. 25:26). The boys were called, one, ‘Esau’, which means ‘covering’ – because he was hairy all over, and a redhead – and his twin brother, who was born immediately afterwards, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel, was called ‘Jacob’, which means, ‘he caught him by the heel’.

The story that you will have thought of, when I used the words ‘mess of pottage’, is what comes next in the Book of Genesis. We hear that the boys have grown up; that Esau had become an outdoorsman, skilful in hunting, whereas Jacob has led a sedentary life and ‘stayed among the tents,’ or, stayed at home.

Isaac preferred Esau, because he kept him supplied with his favourite venison; but Rebecca, the Mum, favoured Jacob. The famous story is that one day, Jacob had prepared a pot of soup, red lentil soup, when Esau came in from the country, tired out. He asked whether he could have some of the soup which Jacob had made. Jacob said that he wouldn’t give him any until Esau swore to sell him his rights as the first-born, his birthright. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and the lentil soup, which he ate and drank: and then, off he went. Jacob had got him to give away his birthright for a ‘mess of pottage’, which is what, in 1600, stood for a bowl of soup.

A mess of pottage. Actually, you won’t find the phrase ‘mess of pottage’ in any Bible: not even in the Authorised Version – at least, not in the text itself. But you will find it at the end of the introduction, from ‘The Translators to the Reader’, at the beginning of the Authorised Version of the Bible, (but not in every edition, just the fully annotated ones).

But that’s not the story we had in our lesson tonight. That was the second story about Jacob and Esau, about how Jacob disguised himself as Esau by putting on a furry cloak and making himself appear to be ‘an hairy man’ like his brother Esau, so duping their father, who by that stage was very old. He was 60 when they were born, so now that they were grown up, he must have been at least 85, I would have thought. Isaac had gone blind, so he couldn’t be sure, by looking, which twin was which. He relied on feeling them, knowing that one of them was hairy and the other was a smooth townie.

So Jacob ended up having Esau’s birthright, as the older child, and he got their father to give him his blessing as well. Obviously that didn’t make for the best relations between the brothers.

Well, I don’t propose to go into more and more detail about the ins and outs of the story in Genesis, but to take it instead as a cue to look at the whole idea of a birthright.

The world of the Bible into which Jesus came, 2,500 years ago, had a social order which is very alien from the one which we have today. Society was patriarchal. Men were in charge. There were free men and slaves. In families, the first-born inherited much the greater part of their father’s wealth. It was his ‘birthright’. (And it was he rather than she, because inheritance was by male heirs only).

Jesus came into that world and indeed there’s no criticism, either in the Old Testament or in the New, of that setup, on the basis that slavery, for example, is wrong, or that a male-dominated society is not fair; or that the eldest son should inherit the lion’s share of his father’s fortune.

You will remember the old system among the English aristocracy, according to which the eldest son inherited the father’s title and estates; the second son went into the army and the third son, into the Church. Never mind whether anybody was particularly suited for these rôles, or, in the case of the third son, whether he even believed in God. It was just the way things were. It depended on how you were born, on accidents of birth. Birthright.

Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. It was the younger son who took his share of the property – obviously it was an early instance of inheritance tax planning. The father made it a lifetime gift rather than making the Prodigal Son wait for his father to die off and then have him inherit his share after tax.

We aren’t told whether the younger son got as much as the older son, or would have got as much as the elder son, because the elder son didn’t take his share at that point. He was happy to wait. But that was, in general terms, the way things worked under the Roman Empire and much earlier indeed, in early Israel (Luke 15:11).

When we get to St Paul’s letters, being a Christian doesn’t seem to have made him change his attitude towards the social order of the time. So in Ephesians chapter 6, after saying that children should obey their parents, St Paul goes on to exhort slaves to ‘obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, single-mindedly as serving Christ’.

He does say that masters must treat their slaves decently as well. But there’s nothing about slavery being wrong in itself. But today we do acknowledge that slavery is wrong. We are shocked to learn that slavery still exists.

The Church of England has launched the Good Car Wash app, so you can check your favourite place, to see whether it is a place where modern slavery is taking place. Is it just too cheap? And there are various other things to look out for. I’ve tested our favourite car wash in Leatherhead against the criteria in the Good Car Wash app, and I can tell you that they emerge with flying colours.

But, apparently, hand car washes are a type of business where the poor and vulnerable can be terribly exploited; so much so, as to amount actually to slavery.

We don’t have much time for primogeniture, the birthright of the eldest son, these days. Our society has changed. I can remember when I was little that I had an uncle who, unknown to me, used to give my younger brother and me different presents at Christmas. I got five bob and my poor brother got half a crown. (That’s 25p and 12.5p, for those of you who are not familiar with real money). But I never knew, because my folks always surreptitiously opened the envelopes and evened things up.) My old-fashioned uncle still believed that there was a birthright belonging to the eldest son.

I think we would all agree that nowadays the right of primogeniture is completely passé, and nobody would support it any more in a civilised society. On the face of things, the idea of primogeniture isn’t compatible with the ideas that we are made in the image of God and that we should love our neighbours as ourselves; in other words, we don’t love ourselves in different ways, unequally, so we should love our neighbours equally.

So actually, in the Jewish-Christian tradition, there are already the reasons why primogeniture is not consistent with our religious belief. But I want to suggest to you, for discussion at least, that although we would all agree that the right of the first-born, that Esau was diddled out of twice, effectively, by Jacob, is no real right, and shouldn’t stand, because we are all equal in the sight of God, another way of looking at Esau’s birthright – or anyone’s birthright – is that it is an accident of birth. Esau had his birthright, by virtue of the fact that he was the first-born. It was a complete accident from his point of view. He just happened to be the elder son, by a few minutes – indeed, in the process of being born, he dragged his brother out after him, as they were twins.

But look – although quaint stories about Jacob and Esau and ‘messes of pottage’ are really just that, these days, quaint stories, accidents of birth actually seem to be capable of doing a lot of mischief.

Just because I was born in England in 1951, that puts me in a much better position than somebody who was born in Syria in, say, 1987. Or, the comparison could be with someone who was born in Afghanistan five years ago;

Or someone who was born 23 months ago, in El Salvador: who ended up drowned on the banks of the Rio Grande, with her father, trying to cross into the United States.

What is the difference between someone on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and someone on the Texan side? What difference should it make where you are born?

In one sense it is enormously important if you were born in Syria, or Afghanistan, and people were threatening to ‘blow your house up’ unless you signed up with Daesh or the Taliban: you will take enormous risks in order to find a safe place. But does that make you worth any less, in the eyes of God, than somebody who was born in Cobham?

Why are we inclined to think of people who have escaped such terrible suffering as ‘migrants’, immigrants, economic refugees, rather than our neighbours; poor people, who need us to be Good Samaritans. I wonder if, just as primogeniture has fallen out of favour, eventually the nationalism and racism in our society, which have grown so much since the Brexit vote, will wither away in the face of our Christian belief, once we have properly focussed.

We may see the truth about our birthright, or lack of it, ‘through a glass, darkly’. But let us pray that it will be very soon in plain sight, and that we will recognise our neighbours, and love them, wherever they were born.

For Marcus Walker

I see that Revd Marcus Walker, vicar of Great St Bartholomew in the City of London, has written in the ‘Spectator’ about the way that people can be estranged from the church if the Lord’s Prayer is said using unfamiliar modern words, rather than the traditional words which ‘everyone knows’. If you suddenly find that you don’t even know the Lord’s Prayer, you might feel, as one of his friends did, that the church didn’t want you any more. [https://twitter.com/walkermarcus/status/1142118213012140032?s=21]

I had a similar feeling of being made strange this morning, when 1 Kings 19 was the Old Testament lesson, about how God made himself known to the prophet Elijah. This is the passage, in the words which I am familiar with.

‘And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:

12And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

13And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?’ [AV]

A ‘still small voice’. A ‘still, small voice of calm’, even, as John Greenleaf Whittier’s great hymn, ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, has it:

‘Breathe through the heats of our desire

Thy coolness and Thy balm;

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;

Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,

O still, small voice of calm.’

But I didn’t hear the ‘still small voice’ in the lesson as it was read today. In the modern translation used, it became this:

‘Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.’ [NRSV]

A ‘sound of sheer silence’. Why? That is a contradiction in terms. I know there is a song by Simon and Garfunkel, ‘The Sound of Silence’, but that’s not the image that the words ‘still, small voice’ evoke.

Another, better, modern translation puts it this way.

‘For the LORD was passing by: a great and strong wind came rending mountains and shattering rocks before him, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a low murmuring sound.’ [NEB]

A ‘low murmuring sound’. That’s closer to the ‘still small voice’ logically, if not poetically. There can’t be both silence and a voice at the same time. It’s not meant to connote an intrusion of the one into the other.

Marcus Walker’s point about the Lord’s Prayer, however, which I think this passage also illustrates, is that there is value in familiar words. They are homely, comforting, inviting. It’s part of our DNA as Englishmen that Elijah heard God in a ‘still, small voice’. It wasn’t the nonsense of ‘sheer silence’ – else why would he have been able to hear it? And it wasn’t a ‘murmuring sound’. How likely would we be to remember those words hundreds of years later – as we do, when they are a still, small voice, and not some banal modernity?

Does it matter? Against my instinct is the fact that this isn’t actually in the ‘DNA of us Englishmen’ any more, if it ever was. Children who have learned only ‘worship songs’ don’t know about the still small voice. And of course it’s not just Englishmen that speak, or sing, or read, from this passage in the English language. Whittier was an American. And if the ‘medium is the message’ (or ‘massage’, v.l.,) perhaps in the abbreviated language of text messages these niceties will just disappear. We will be left with sheer silence. And, no doubt, move on.

Hugh Bryant

1st Sunday after Trinity, 23rd June 2019

Sermon for Choral Evensong on Whit Sunday 2019

Exodus 33:7-20; 2 Corinthians 3:4-18 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=427016797

‘O King of Heaven, thou the comforter and spirit of truth,

Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection,

Treasury of goodness and life-giver,

Come and dwell in us, cleanse us from all our sins,

And save us, O Lord.’

This is the prayer, originally from the Orthodox church, one of the so-called ‘trisagion’ prayers, ‘thrice-holy’ prayers, which Godfrey uses as a vestry prayer before all our services at St Mary’s. It is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to come; it is in effect a restatement of that great line of the Lord’s Prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, which has been the subject of the ‘wave of prayer’ from Ascension Day until Pentecost. The prayer movement called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ was originally started by our Archbishops, Justin and John, in 2016, and has spread out all over the world.

Even now, at the same time as we are worshipping at St Mary’s, there is a big outdoor service taking place on Stag Hill outside the Cathedral in Guildford, bringing to an end the nine days of prayer and celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, the tongues of fire on their heads and the ability, all of a sudden, to speak in a variety of languages; so that each person who heard them thought they were speaking in his or her own native language. It was described in Acts 2, one of the lessons this morning.

It is a time to celebrate; a time to be close to God. Being close to God, in the Old Testament, at the time of Moses, meant not being allowed to see Him, so great was the splendour of the Almighty. He led the Israelites, concealed in a pillar of cloud: and he showed himself to Moses in the burning bush; but the splendour, the glory of the Lord, was so great that Moses’ face reflected the glory of the Lord so brightly that nobody could look straight at him. He had to cover himself up, be veiled, when he came out of the tabernacle when he had been meeting the Lord. As we heard in our first lesson from the book of Exodus, no-one apart from Moses could look on the face of God and survive.

But now, as St Paul says, in our second lesson from his second Letter to the Corinthians, the veil has fallen away, because of the presence of Jesus. It’s no longer the case that no-one can look at God and survive; because God is with us, God is in us. St Paul has this great idea of our being ‘in Christ’, which is a sort of upside-down way of saying that we have Christ in us – and the Christ that is in us is the Holy Spirit.

We pray, ‘Come and dwell in us; cleanse us from all our sins, and save us, O Lord.’ Thy Kingdom come. That Kingdom really has two sides to it. There is the Holy Spirit coming and dwelling in us, so that we are in Christ, which is a personal salvation for us as individuals: and there is the coming of the Kingdom which we pray for in the Holy Communion service, when we pray for that day ‘when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’ [Common Worship: Holy Communion Order One, Eucharistic Prayer E – p 197]: where we pray for a public salvation, we could say. Being in Christ is private salvation, and when ‘justice and mercy rule in all the earth’, that is public salvation.

The Holy Spirit is everywhere, public and private. ‘Thou who art everywhere and bringeth all things to perfection’. Christians receive the Holy Spirit in various ways. We here are cool Northerners, I don’t mean ‘North of Watford’, but Northern Europeans. Singing a Moody and Sankey hymn, and responding ‘Amen’ with feeling after a rousing sermon, is as hot as it gets for us.

But not far away there are ‘house churches’, Pentecostal churches, where they invite the Spirit to come, literally to inspire the worshippers, to get them to speak in tongues and reach heights of ecstasy. Gerald Coates and the Cobham Fellowship, which evolved into the Pioneer People and the Pioneer churches, had its origins around here, and Pioneer still attracts many people to worship in this charismatic way.

But still, we in the Church of England are cool customers. Just as Martin Luther wasn’t keen on what he called ‘madness’ or ‘Schwärmerei’ in other parts of the Reformed church, so in the 18th century in England, during the evangelical revival, at the time of the start of Methodism – which was, after all, originally an Anglican movement – Sermon 32 of the 44 collected sermons of John Wesley, (which all Methodist preachers have to familiarise themselves with during their training) is called ‘The Nature of Enthusiasm’, and is a sermon on that line in the Acts of the Apostles, 26:24, when Festus, the Roman governor, was questioning Paul, after Paul had explained the Gospel to him and explained how he had been converted to Christianity, Festus ‘said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself’; that is, you are mad.

John Wesley says, “… if you aim at the religion of the heart, if you talk of ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’, then it will not be long before your sentence is passed, ‘Thou art beside thyself.’” People will think that you are mad. [Revd John Wesley, A.M., 1944, ‘Sermons on Several Occasions’, Peterborough, The Epworth Press: Sermon 32, Paragraph 1]

The term ‘enthusiasm’, in this context, is supposed to come from Greek origins, but John Wesley pours cold water on this supposed etymology. He sums up by saying, ‘Perhaps it is a fictitious word, invented from the noise which some of those made who were so affected.’[Paragraph 6].

If he was being too sniffy about this, and ‘enthusiasm’ was in fact derived from the Greek εν θεω, ‘in God’, and so, metonymically, ‘in Christ’, the word was perhaps coined to distinguish a sort of religious ‘madness’, as opposed to being completely bonkers. People could be perfectly normal and rational in the rest of their lives, but behave irrationally when it came to religion: in this they were being ‘enthusiasts’.

This was, of course, the time of Reason, the time of the Enlightenment, the time of John Locke and David Hume, of Descartes; a time of great challenge to Christianity as well as a time of evangelical revival. Today, as we look back on the Novena of prayer, nine days of prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost, today, if you have been following in the online app [https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/thy-kingdom-come/id1377639052?mt=8, or website https://www.thykingdomcome.global] which the Church of England has provided, you will have been enjoying some lovely short videos of various church leaders talking about the implications of the prayer ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

One of these videos is one of our two Archbishops, who between them dreamed up the idea of praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ in order to fill up the emptiness after the Ascension with a ‘wave of prayer’. That great wave is breaking now, on Whit Sunday.

There’s a video by John Sentamu, our Archbishop of York. [See https://www.thykingdomcome.global/resources/day-6-prayfor-archbishop-sentamu-prayed-five-people-last-year-and-was-astounded-result]

He recommends that you should write down the names of five friends, five friends who are not churchgoers, and whom you pray for, ‘Thy Kingdom come’, so that they come to ‘know Christ’, as Archbishop John says. I suspect that Archbishop John is a little bit ‘enthusiastic’, in John Wesley’s terms. I would say, as a cool Northern European, that I can’t ‘know’ Christ in the same way that I know any one of you. But I can know about Christ, and I can be open to perceive the operation of the Holy Spirit in my fellow-Christians and in our church.

Indeed, we often do say that we can see the Holy Spirit at work in our church. Why did Revd John Waterson stick out for the really beautiful and grand Frobenius organ, when the Diocesan Advisory Committee sanctioned only something far more modest? It was to the greater glory of God, and this wonderful organ has enabled us to make more music, more beautiful music, ever since. Again, it was the Holy Spirit at work in this and the other churches in this area in the Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott meeting, which led to the creation of the Foodbank. Who knew? Who knew that, under our noses, there are dozens of people who have to face the choice between paying the rent and buying some food. Right here in Stoke, in Cobham and Oxshott, in the Horsleys, Effingham and Downside. In all these prosperous areas – who knew? The Holy Spirit knew, and inspired us to do something about it. Where will the Spirit lead us next? We must watch and pray. We must pray, ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Ascension Day, 2nd June 2019

Psalm 68; Isaiah 44:1-8, Ephesians 4:7-16 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=426327011

‘I believe in God’ – we believe in God – ‘the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord, who was: …. conceived …. born … crucified … buried …. descended …. rose again … ascended,… and sitteth on the right hand of God the father almighty’.

On Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day. At the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, when the disciples were all together and Jesus appeared to them, after he had been resurrected from the dead, he said to them, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you’. When he had said this, ‘as they watched, he was lifted up and a cloud removed him from their sight’. (Acts 1:9)

The first bit points to what we’re going to remember and celebrate next Sunday, that is, the coming of the Holy Spirit, Whit Sunday, Pentecost. But this is the Sunday after the Ascension, and we are still thinking about Jesus’ Ascension: up, down, ascending, descending – disappearing.

It’s quite interesting that the Ascension is only described twice in the Bible, in Acts and in Luke chapter 24, which some scholars think may be a late addition. So possibly it is only the second book of Luke’s gospel, the book of Acts, that tells you anything about the Ascension.

Prof. John Barton, in his new and very good book, A History of the Bible, [2019, London, Allen Lane], makes the point that our creeds date from the second and third centuries AD and reflect the concerns of the church at that time. (Barton pp 326-330). The things that they thought were important then, creation, the Virgin Birth, suffering under Pontius Pilate, being crucified, dead and buried, being resurrected from the dead, ascending into heaven and then sitting in judgement at the end of time, have been emphasised and at the same time have cut out Jesus’ healing miracles and his teaching – there’s nothing in the creeds about them. Raising Jairus’ daughter, bringing Lazarus back to life, turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000: nothing: turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, the Sermon on the Mount: not mentioned. Not even Jesus’ New Commandment, that ye love one another, even as He has loved you: not mentioned.

This sifting out of what the church considered to be important, what Prof Barton calls its ‘rule of faith’, is quite challenging for us. It’s not obvious to us why the Ascension should be given such prominence, should be in the creeds, whereas loving one’s enemies and being a Good Samaritan aren’t.

I think that we would all say quite categorically that, although we believe the things in the Creed, we also believe in the other things as being very important in our Christian witness. Those important things should include trying to carry out the teaching of Jesus, trying to love our neighbours as ourselves.

It’s very clear that, when we try to understand the divine, to understand how God works, what God is, that we can only grasp things in a very partial way. It may be that, although the Ascension doesn’t get mentioned very much in the Bible, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be a key belief. Our lessons today and our psalm emphasise the power and might of God – and the Ascension is one aspect of that power, an illustration of it.

There is a children’s hymn which has always made me smile, ‘Our God is a great big God’. I suppose it makes me smile partly because that sort of language, a great big God, encourages you to think of a mighty figure high above the clouds, up to whom you would go, and up to him, as his father, Jesus went.

In our Psalm, 68, we see this ‘great big God’: there are some wonderful images in Psalm 68, which I commend to you. We only sang the first six verses, but if you’d like to get your little blue Prayer Books out again and turn to page 426, you can follow it again. [Page numbering from the Cambridge edition]

‘O sing unto God, and sing praises unto his Name 

 magnify him that rideth upon the heavens, as it were upon an horse; praise him in his Name JAH, and rejoice before him.

  He is a Father of the fatherless, and defendeth the cause of the widows 

 even God in his holy habitation.

  He is the God that maketh men to be of one mind in an house’ – he makes people agree together – ‘and bringeth the prisoners out of captivity’… And then there’s a splendid line, ‘…  but [God] letteth the runagates continue in scarceness.’

I wondered what ‘runagates’ were. If you just turn that word over in your mind, listening to it, you suddenly realise that it is the same word as ‘renegades’. And indeed the dictionary confirms that. Renegades, the bad people, ‘continue in scarceness’. They have short commons.

It’s the same kind of god that Isaiah, as well, is proclaiming in our first lesson.

‘I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring’.

This is the God of creation, but also the God who sustains as well as creates. Pouring spirit upon seed; only God can make things live. Think of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians chapter 15, where he talks about how resurrection to eternal life works, with a seed, being fertilised again.

St Paul again, in his Letter to the Ephesians, has this wonderful sentence, quoting Psalm 68,

‘When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.’

It has two examples of what I’m sure you will all immediately identify as a Cognate Accusative – the example in the textbooks is usually to ‘die the death’. Here we have, to ‘capture captivity’, which is what it literally says in the Greek, and to ‘give gifts’. It’s a figure of rhetoric where the object in the sentence is the substantive of the verb. It’s sometimes called a ‘cognate object’. ‘Cognate’ means ‘known by’. He captured captivity, he led captivity captive – and he gave gifts.

There is a nod to the ‘man upstairs’: ‘He ascended up on high’. And that of course makes Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, tackle the logical implications of that. ‘Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?’ A number of preachers down the ages have taken this literally, and explored whether, in this period before the Ascension, Jesus went down into Hades, into Hell.

But just a minute! I don’t think I can get much further in this sermon without someone calling me out for talking arrant nonsense. The fact is that these days, or at least since Bishop John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’ in 1960, we just don’t think of God as being anywhere in particular, located anywhere either up or down. If we talk about heaven, sitting at the right hand of God, ascending up on high and so on, we must of necessity be talking figuratively. Because the minute you allow God to be defined in time and space, he can no longer be the ultimate creator. In order to be omnipotent, to be the ultimate creator, God must be outside the confines of space and time. Therefore he isn’t up there or down there or out there, or anywhere in particular.

But there would be something terribly bleak about worshipping a god whom you could not visualise. I suppose the opposite of that is the Jewish way in which no one can speak the name of God. We see this again in Psalm 68 in verse four. God is called JAH. There are no vowels in Hebrew, so JAH represents ‘Jehovah’, the name of God. We need pictures. We need images: the picture is a picture of heaven.

There are some wonderful pictures in Psalm 68, which I commend to you. We only sang the first six verses, but if you’d like to get your little blue Prayer Books out again and turn to page 426, you can follow it again.

‘The earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God’

‘Thou, O God, sentest a gracious rain upon thine inheritance 

 and refreshedst it when it was weary.’

You can just see these people plodding through the desert. ‘Lone and dreary, faint and weary, through the desert thou didst go’ [Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us – James Edmeston, 1791-1867 – Common Worship hymn 496, v2].

Again in Psalm 68:

‘Kings with their armies did flee, and were discomfited’

‘Though ye have lien among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove’.

The modern translations actually duck this. What is having a lien among the pots? I think it means, having a lien is being tied up, tied up with household chores. Having a lien among the pots – but you will have the wings of a dove! A dove with silver wings and feathers like gold.

Then there are these hills. God’s hill. You remember the second chapter of the book of Isaiah:

‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

That’s what happens on the mountain of the Lord. And here in Psalm 68,

‘Why hop ye so, ye high hills? this is God’s hill, in the which it pleaseth him to dwell.’

Again, modern translations don’t try to translate the hopping business. I have a feeling that the translators of the King James Bible have introduced a glorious and rather touching image of people in a crowd, towards the back of the crowd, jumping up and down, hopping, in order to try to see over taller people in front, to see what is going on. ‘Why hop ye so, ye high hills?’ However high you are, God’s hill is higher.

And then,

‘Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men’.

The wording which St Paul quotes from this in his letter to the Ephesians is ‘he gave gifts to men’ (ἔδωκεν δόματα τοῖς ἀνθρώποις). I think it’s one of those reverse meanings, ‘that’ll learn you’ rather than ‘that’ll teach you’. You have given gifts, is the right sense, I think, rather than ‘received’ them.

What a wonderful picture of God this all is! But where does it leave us? We have this wonderful picture of God, which we have to admit is pretty fanciful. Have we just invented God, in fact, ourselves? That takes us back to the bare bones of our belief in the Creed. Those startling statements about Jesus, that he was born of a virgin, died, rose again from the dead, and ascended into heaven.

It’s not facetious to say, ‘You couldn’t make it up!’ But whereas it is completely beyond our human capabilities to understand the nature of the divine, God, and we have to resort to figurative language about being in heaven ‘up there’, ascending and descending, even so, we can grasp what happened to Jesus, in a much more straightforward way. We know what it was for him to be born and to die. We can understand what the resurrection looked like, through the eyes of Doubting Thomas.This is God among us. But to say that Jesus ‘ascended into heaven’ brings us back to the figurative, to the divine realm which is beyond our comprehension. But we can see enough to realise that it is perfectly coherent to say that the fact, the history, of Jesus, invites us to have faith in God, in the divine nature. We didn’t make it up. And then we can progress in faith so as to become the body of Christ, not ascended, but here on earth, just as St Paul so elegantly puts it:

‘Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.’

Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 26th May 2019

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Matthew 28:1-10, 16-20 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=425693885) – But what about the Bigots?

‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.’

You can tell, even without reading the whole book, that this passage at the end of the book of the prophet Zephaniah turns things around. The first two chapters of the book are not joyful; they are more like lamentations. The kingdom of Israel, the people who made the exodus from Egypt, who had David and Solomon as kings, had split into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom called Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah, in which was Jerusalem.

In 721 BC the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. Zephaniah was prophesying some time after that, probably about 100 years later, in Jerusalem. The sub-heading in one of my Bibles on this passage is, ‘Doom on Judah and her neighbours’; so the first part of the book is all about how the kingdom of Israel, which has become the province of Judah, has gone to pot.

The great day of the Lord is near, …

That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, …. And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord: (Zephaniah 1)

Why is the Lord cross with his people? Zephaniah says,

“Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!

She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God.’ (Zephaniah 3:1-2)

This was all nearly 3000 years ago, but there are definite resonances with things that are happening here today. I wrote this sermon originally on Friday, and I didn’t think we would know the outcome of the EU election until after 8 o’clock tonight, as we have to wait until all polling stations in all EU member states are closed – and most of the countries are having their vote today.

I suspect that it will turn out to have been a strange business, and whatever the outcome, we will all continue to have a more or less uneasy feeling that something is wrong with our society, and with our country, at the moment.

Whether it goes as far as the sort of thing that Zephaniah was prophesying about is obviously a moot point, but it seems to me that it’s not controversial to say that, wherever you are in relation to modern politics, whatever you believe in, this is a time to be concerned and worried.

The idea that comes from Zephaniah in the part which was our first lesson today, ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion’, … ‘be glad and rejoice’, is something which I think we would all respond very well to. We would love to feel that everything was right with the world, and that we could relax and be joyful.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. I don’t think that it’s going to help very much for me to try to spell out to what extent any of the competing parties and interest groups – ‘interest groups’, because the Brexit Party isn’t a political party, it’s actually a limited company – it isn’t going to be easy or productive at this stage to try to relate aspects of each of these people to the eternal verities which we are trying to understand and to carry out in our Christian witness.

It’s no good trying to say whether one or other party or interest group is better or worse at trying to bring the various parts of society back together, so as to finish the various arguments which have so divided people. It isn’t even worth it at this stage to try to express a view on what is going to help people materially, or perhaps more realistically, to hurt them least, in the various proposals advanced by the various parties. People are not listening to rational arguments.

What would Jesus say? I really don’t know. But I think it’s worth reminding everyone that it’s a good question. If we sit down quietly and try to work through the various propositions which have been put to us, from the time of the referendum three years ago until now, it might be a very good exercise to look at each one in the light of that question.

What would Jesus have done? What would Jesus have thought about these various things?

I went on Thursday night to our friends at St Martin’s in East Horsley for a talk which they had organised, by the long-serving former MP, Chris Mullin, who is well known for his many books, including ‘A very British Coup’, which was made into a TV series. After he had given his talk, from the audience a lady stood up and, I think, rather shocked everybody. I should tell you that the audience was about 30 people, and they could easily have been from here. Normal bods, tending towards the middle-aged if not slightly elderly; middle-class, middle-aged, respectable people. When this lady stood up, asked her question and made her point, she looked exactly the same as everyone else. But she wasn’t.

She told us that although she had grown up in this country, had lived here for many years and had worked as a solicitor for a City firm, she was not English. She was German, and her father had been head of the UK division of the great German engineering company Siemens, which has a number of factories here, and has had for many years. She is married to an Englishman. After the referendum result, her husband had said that he thought that it was not going to very nice for their family to carry on living in England – meaning, not very nice for his wife, for his German wife. So they now live in Spain. There they have recently bought a new car. One of their neighbours, she said, wondered whether it was going to be a Range Rover, and said he hoped that it wasn’t – because they didn’t want to see anyone buying anything British for the time being.

And I, as I think some of you will already have heard, had a similar experience shortly after the Brexit referendum when I went to Hamburg, and some of my German friends, several of whom have been friends for 30 or more years, all said more or less the same thing to me, the same simple sentence: they said, ‘But we thought that you were our friends’. Imagine how I felt.

No more comments on that. We all have strong views. But what would Jesus say about it? I wonder.

Let’s move on to our second Bible lesson, from St Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the resurrection story, the empty tomb, which we have read about in St John’s and St Mark’s Gospels already, during this Easter time.

For some reason the compilers of the Lectionary have missed a bit out. You’ll notice that, in St Matthew chapter 28, tonight we have heard verses 1 to 10 and then 16 to 20. The missing bit is a story, which appears only in St Matthew’s Gospel, about the chief priests bribing the Roman soldiers who had been set to guard the tomb – and again, we read about these guards only in this Gospel – bribing these soldiers to spread a story that Jesus’ disciples had come in the dead of night and taken Jesus’ body away. The passage ends, ‘This story is still told among the Jews to this day’. Perhaps that’s why it’s left out now in our lessons, as it could be taken as a a point against Judaism.

That’s one bit which is unique to St Matthew, not too crucial. But the other unique bit is far better known. It is the Great Commission, as it is called.

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.

It is the great call to Evangelism, to spreading the Good News, the ‘Evangelia’,(Ευαγγελία) the Greek word for good news. Jesus assured us that He is still with us: he said, ‘... lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’

I began this sermon with a rather gloomy recital of the prophet Zephaniah’s words of lamentation about the godless state of the people of Israel in Jerusalem, and I invited comparisons with the state of our nation today. I invited you to think what Jesus might have to say about it. That is a really tough question.

But what about the Great Commission? How are we doing on that one? Our British reserve tends to make us rather coy about announcing our Christianity to people in public. But increasingly, people are growing up without having read the Bible or been to Sunday School. It’s important, therefore, that we have our family services at St Mary’s and that our PCC is beginning to think about having a youth worker. We invited Esther Holley, the children and young people’s minister from St Andrew’s in Cobham, to come and talk to us about her work, and we all found her account inspiring. As a result of Esther’s work, St Andrew’s has a solid group of children and some teenagers. But nothing stands still. Esther has been accepted for ordination training, so they will be looking for her successor soon. Maybe we should start making moves in this direction too.

And finally, on the question how we are carrying out Jesus’ commission to ‘teach all nations’, I think that it is vitally important that we maintain the warmest welcome, here at St Mary’s, to our services, to our church family, and to our other activities based around St Mary’s Hall, the best church hall for miles around.

I personally would like us to look at joining an organization called ‘Inclusive Church’, which encourages churches not just to be welcoming to all, but to advertise that they are. It’s the old story of the two milkmen competing for business (you can tell it’s an old story, because competition on the same milk round disappeared years ago), and one milkman put a big banner on his milk float saying, ‘We deliver milk every day’. Of course his competitor did the same thing, but they didn’t advertise it. The milkman with the banner doubled his sales!

The same reasoning, I think, would work for us. If I have moved into this area and I’m looking for a church to go to: if I’m going through a tough time in my life and I’d like to find somewhere to say prayers: if I want my kids to learn what’s in the Bible: what will St Mary’s be like inside? Now if there’s a big sign outside saying that everyone is welcome – and I’ve put a picture of an Inclusive Church sign from another church with my sermon on the website [see above] – then people can feel confident, and they will dare to open our door and come in.

I know that not everyone agrees with this idea. Some people say we are already a really welcoming church. No need to join organisations or advertise – although I would gently say that it’s noticeable that we have no black people in our congregation. Somebody once even said to me, in this context, ‘But what about the bigots? We mustn’t upset the bigots!’

Well that perhaps takes me full circle, to the outcome of the European election. What about the bigots? What would Jesus say? I think he would say, ‘Look who I have lunch with already. People get shirty that I sit down with tax gatherers and sinners. But they are welcome!’