Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Lent, 24th February 2013
Jeremiah 22:13 – Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.

A friend of mine asked me the other day whether I have any difficulty thinking up things to preach sermons about. I explained to him that I usually use as a starting point for my sermons the Bible lessons which we read at the service. Those lessons are from a ‘lectionary’ published by an ecumenical group of liturgists representing all the English-speaking churches in the world. It is called the Revised Common Lectionary and was most recently published in 1992.

It’s quite exciting that, in the English-speaking churches round the world, Catholic and Protestant, if they use the common lectionary – and most of them do – wherever you go, you will find people using the same Bible readings each Sunday. The general idea is to read through the whole of the Bible, over a period, relating the readings to the Christian year.

So today there are lessons laid down for a ‘principal service’, in the morning, which is a piece from Genesis, Psalm 27, an epistle reading from Philippians chapter 3, and finally a gospel, Luke chapter 13. The ‘second service’, which, in Lectionary terms, is what Evensong is, has the lessons from Jeremiah and Luke which we have heard tonight, and our Psalm, 135.

So we’ve joined in with English-speaking Christians all over the world in using those Bible readings. I find that quite compelling, and so I usually base my sermon on one or other of the Bible readings for the day. There is of course the alternative that my preaching should be related first and foremost to our life today, relating to it the teaching of Jesus Christ. Rather than taking those teachings first, in the form of Bible readings, instead I could look at what’s been happening, and then try to discern what the will of God in relation to those events would be.

That’s sometimes known as ‘preaching from the newspaper’, as opposed to preaching from the lectionary. When I did read the lessons for today, I decided indeed to preach from the newspaper. I came across these words in Jeremiah, ‘Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages’, and I was tempted not to give you a detailed exposition of the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, and history of the people of Israel, and in particular of the exile in Babylon, the fall of Jerusalem in the late C6 BC, which is the background to our OT lesson today.

Instead I thought that it was very striking that the prophet was writing about a bad king – in this case, King Zedekiah of Judah, and this passage is really a prophecy directed at the whole house of David, saying what a good ruler should do. What struck me about this passage was the way in which it reminded me of a number of the debates which I have listened to recently, concerning what the government should be doing today, here in the UK. For example, on Question Time there was a lively debate between Canon Giles Fraser and the MP Dianne Abbott on the one side, and Michael Heseltine the Conservative grandee on the other. They were arguing about the government’s austerity programme, and in particular whether the burden of the various government cuts is falling disproportionately on poor people.

When I read the lesson in Jeremiah, I immediately thought about the government programme to try to get people back to work, where apparently, young people are being compelled to work in menial jobs for no pay in order, so the government says, to gain ‘work experience’.

Now I’m not going to debate the rights and wrongs of the government workfare programme, although ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ has always struck me as a good start in this area. The point I’d like to make is that, in all the debates in which this came up, for example on Question Time, even when Giles Fraser was there, nobody mentioned God.

I should say that this was perhaps even more strange, because the programme was being broadcast from St Paul’s Cathedral. There were a couple of delightful things – one was in the credits, where the ‘set designer’ was listed as Sir Christopher Wren, and the other was when Michael Heseltine’s mobile phone rang, and it was his wife, no doubt wondering when he was going to be home for his tea. But there they were, in God’s house, and no-one mentioned God.

Nobody said, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And that was a big contrast, so far as I was concerned, to some of the other things that I encountered this week. I’ve had rather a cultural week. I started off by going to the Young Vic (which you might smile about!) to see a wonderful play called ‘Feast’ about the Yoruba people from Nigeria, and their diaspora from Nigeria to the UK, to Cuba, to Venezuela and to Brazil, which of course had a lot to do with the slave trade.

Wherever they went, the Yorubas took their distinctive culture with them, including their old gods, the Orishas, even though Nigerians are mostly Christians and Moslems nowadays. The Orishas are the emissaries – I suppose they are a bit like angels – of one supreme god. It is true that Yoruba people, even today, see the Orishas at work in all sorts of everyday circumstances. One Orisha is a an Orisha of motherhood and child-bearing, another one of beauty and love, another one is a warrior, and ‘Esu is a trickster and a shape-shifter. He is the Orisha of crossroads, the threshold, chaos and fertility, the divine middle-man’ [Programme for Feast, 2013, London, The Young Vic, p11].

So everywhere that a Yoruba goes, even today – and I was accompanied by a dear friend from St Andrew’s who is a Yoruba – she was saying that they still know about these ancient angels. They are aware of God’s presence all the time.

Then on Friday I went to the Coliseum to see the very wonderful production of Charpentier’s ‘Medea’, a 17th century opera based on the ancient Greek myth of Medea the witch, daughter of gods, who married Jason, Jason of the Argonauts. Jason was unfaithful to her. She ended up killing their children. A real tragedy, from Euripides.

Again it was very noticeable that whatever happened in the play, all the actors would refer to God – or in the Greek context, the gods. ‘Did something represent the will of the gods?’, they always asked themselves.

Earlier in the week we had our first sessions of the Lent course. This year we are looking at the Beatitudes, the ‘Blessed are they’ sayings of Jesus at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. [Matt.5 and Luke 6]. In the first session we were looking at the saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. We were reflecting, among other things, on the way in which, when these sayings are repeated in St Luke’s gospel, there is no mention of the ‘in spirit’ bit, but it’s simply, ‘Blessed are you who are poor’.

So back to Jeremiah and to the warning to the kings of the house of David. Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages, who says, I will build myself a spacious house, with large upper rooms…’ This is uncomfortably close to home. A footballer’s house, perhaps.

And what do we think about the masses of people who are out of work, who are being forced to work for nothing in menial jobs? Whatever we do think, do you think we should at least consult our Bibles? Think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard in St Matthew’s gospel chapter 20. Even though the vineyard owner paid a flat rate of a day’s pay, a denarius, irrespective whether the worker worked for one hour or eight hours, there was no question of working for nothing.

My point is this: that in this time of Lent we should look again at our lives, in the light of the gospel. We say, ‘The Lord is here. His spirit is with us’: and then we forget about him. I’m sure that at least some of you are going to tackle me on the door afterwards and explain how important it is that young people should get work experience, and that it doesn’t matter that they work for nothing, provided, of course, all the usual safeguards are in place.

You may be right. My point is not that: my point is, that in all the discussions about the rights and wrongs of it, nobody mentions God, nobody mentions what Jesus would do. Remember what the epistle of James says, in chapter 5. ‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. … Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of The Lord of hosts’.

The Bible is absolutely clear: it’s not a good thing not to pay people for their work. Funny that nobody mentions it.

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