Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday of Lent, 19th March 2017
Joshua 1:1-9, Ephesians 6:10-20 

In Lent we remember Jesus being tempted by the Devil for 40 days in the wilderness. Today we have a reading from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians recommending that the Ephesians should metaphorically arm themselves to withstand ‘the wiles of the devil’, the devil, defined as ‘principalities, …[and] powers, … the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’

What is the devil, these days? Leave aside those pictures of Jesus with a horned figure on his shoulder in the desert. Principalities, and powers: it could be about Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin, Gert Wilders, Marine Le Pen – and in some instances, even the ‘Brexiteers’. What is the ‘spiritual wickedness’ that we, the descendants of those rather sophisticated Ephesians, have to contend with? If we go through the kit which St Paul recommends that his Christian soldiers should put on, we may be able to identify the types of incoming fire that each bit of armour is designed to contend with.

Have ‘your loins girt about with truth’ is the first one. Truth is the first casualty in war, they say. But what about ‘alternative facts’, or the ‘post-truth environment’? What about powerful men saying things in public that are completely and demonstrably untrue? That President Obama got GCHQ to bug Trump Tower during the recent presidential election, for which no evidence has been offered? Or that a vote to leave the EU would immediately save £350m a week, which would be given to the NHS instead. Was that true?

The next one is the ‘breastplate of righteousness’. The word for ‘righteousness’ in the Bible means literally ‘justice’ in the sense of winning a court case. The Rule of Law: ‘be you ever so high, the law is above you’, as Lord Denning said. Human rights, fairness, the brotherhood of man. The Germany of Angela Merkel has spent €22bn on taking in, housing and looking after up to 1 million refugees. We, the UK, have baulked at taking more than 350 children from among those now roaming homeless in the Pas de Calais. The poor countries of Europe, Greece and Southern Italy, have mounted huge rescue operations and brought ashore to safety hundreds of thousands. Who is righteous? 

But we find that our Supreme Court judges, the successor to the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, are called ‘Enemies of the People’ by some newspapers: and in the United States of America, a Federal Court judge who found that President Trump’s anti-immigration policy conflicted with the constitution and quashed it, found himself being referred to by the President as a ‘so-called judge’. Righteousness, justification, justice. All at peril in our new unenlightened world of Trump and Brexit.

I had tea and spent a happy evening earlier this week with my friends Bill and Hope from Hartford, Conn. They are retired clergy – and indeed I have on a couple of occasions preached in their churches in the USA. ‘What have you given up for Lent?’ we asked each other. Bill has had a wonderful idea. He has given up mentioning Donald Trump – at all – during Lent. Bill is already feeling the benefits. He’s calmer, happier, and can rely on words having their normal, natural meaning.

But I can’t stop thinking about it. Is there a common factor in these evils? Do they, taken together, add up to being the devil incarnate? Ingredients in the mix would include the current, increasing, nationalist, sometimes racist, impetus: hostility to facts and verifiable data: hostility towards supranational concepts of justice. Xenophobia and insularity channelling into inhospitable treatment of refugees and others in need. 

There is a common thread in all this – some commentators call it ‘populism’. This is a bleak philosophy, a mean-spirited outlook. I think it could simply be renamed ‘meanness’. ‘Unto him who hath it shall be added: but from him who hath not it shall be taken away – even what he hath.’ (Matt. 13:12). The meanest line in the Bible!

People are being blamed for being poor, and blamed for relying on benefits or food banks. They must be scroungers or cheats, say some of the newspapers. Someone recently complained to me that it was wrong that our food bank was asking people to donate cat food. I asked them how they would feel if they had fallen on hard times, but they had a pet. Would they let their cat or dog starve? 

‘Oh, I see’, they said: for the first time they realised that ‘poor people’ are not rubbish, but they are human beings just like them. All that the Good Samaritan saw, on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, was a man who had been hurt. He didn’t stop to think whether the injured man was someone who was entitled to be helped. The fact that he was a fellow human being was enough.

That is how it should be for food banks, and hospitals, and refugees. The Samaritan didn’t check whether he was overdrawn at the bank before paying the injured man’s hotel bill. He didn’t calculate whether it would stretch his resources to help the man. All that mattered was that he was hurt, that he was a fellow human being who needed help. 

We are the fifth richest country in the world. It is seriously evil to say, to people whose homes have been bombed, whose loved ones killed, who have literally nothing, that we ‘can’t afford’ to take them and care for them. That really is the devil at work. 

Just because it is written in elegant prose in a broadsheet newspaper, the Daily Telegraph or the Times – or at least in a middle-class tabloid, like the Daily Mail – it doesn’t make it any less evil. When these siren voices from comfortable warm offices, sounding so reasonable, encourage people to be mean towards those less fortunate than themselves, to put up barriers to keep the have-nots out, are they not the ‘rulers of darkness of this world’, are they not showing ‘spiritual wickedness in high places’?

The Jarrow marchers didn’t blame their hunger on other people, on ‘immigrants’. Something has changed in our world. What is wrong in going to another country to seek your fortune? Is it all right if you’re a Scotsman, or an Irishman, and you go to Dubai – but not if you’re a Romanian or a Pole coming to Lincolnshire? 

This is not right. St Paul asked that your ‘feet should be shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace’. St Paul said you should dare to stand up against this tide of prejudice and illiberality. You might need to take a bit of protection, because now populism has made it OK to be chauvinistic and racist, and the racists and xenophobes will try to bully people who stand out against them. Which is what we must do. Take the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit: you are a proper Christian, and you must not mind taking a hit or two for the truth.

Look at St Paul’s own position. He was writing this brave message, even though he himself was in prison. He was an ‘ambassador in bonds’. The least we can do, from our comfortable homes in Surrey, is to make our voices heard. If, for instance, Brexit means turning away people who need sanctuary and people who are willing to work hard to make a better living than they could at home, it is as false as Trump. Like St Paul, we may speak boldly: like St Paul, we ‘ought to speak’.

Amen. Let it be so.

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