Sermon for Evensong on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, 15th October 2017

Proverbs 3:1-18; 1 John 3:1-15 – for the readings please see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375096631
Psalm 139 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375096854

What do you feel about being on camera all the time? You know, anywhere on the M25; and actually, when you get out of your car, more or less all the places that you walk these days, in built-up areas, seem to be under surveillance by cameras of one kind or another as well.

Do you have an iPhone? Because, if you do, you can almost stalk your favourite people, with the ‘Find Friends’ app. I have both my daughters in my phone’s Find Friends application, so I can see at a glance where they are and not disturb them if they are working in the hospital. I also have my lodger, a young man who works at rather odd hours, so quite often he’s out when I am in, and he’s awake when I’m asleep: using the app I can keep tabs on whether he’s in or out and about. He is very welcome in my house, especially as he’s very good at feeding my cats, so I don’t want to lock him out by mistake.

But although all this stuff is very common, I expect that most of us would say that we were not too thrilled about the fact that all our comings and goings are under surveillance somewhere. Big Brother is, indeed, watching us, and we don’t much like it. We like to think that we have privacy; that it’s not the case that everybody knows what we’re doing. ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, we say.

Now part of the attraction of being a private person must surely be that it saves you from being caught out in some misdemeanour and getting into trouble. So long as people don’t know what you’re doing, within reason you are free to do more or less anything, and there’ll be no consequences.

You can do that, when you’re a grown-up: obviously when you were a child, you didn’t have that freedom. Your parents and your teachers kept an eye on you and made very sure that you didn’t stray from the path of righteousness. When you grow up, you find that things change. You have to take responsibility for your life and it’s your choice whether you do good things or bad things, or whether in fact you just keep quiet, keep very private and try not to bother anybody. You pursue a style of life which may not be particularly good or particularly bad.

And then along comes Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me:’ ‘Thou … spiest out all my ways.’ ‘Spiest’. God is the ultimate surveillance camera. There is no hiding-place from God.

I first came across Psalm 139 properly when I went to the Cathedral to make a confession to the last Dean, Victor Stock. He used to hear confessions and I had never done it before. Indeed I had been brought up to have a vague suspicion of confession as being a dastardly Roman Catholic device.

Then I realised that the Catholics were not dastardly, and that indeed you can say confessions in the Church of England as well. So I went along and Dean Victor got me to kneel down next to him and say the words on a card to introduce my confession. He said, ‘Take your time, and think about what you want to confess to the Lord’; and I did, and the Dean blessed me, pronounced absolution and gave me a task to do, a sort of penance. You know, in the Catholic Church, and in all the literature and on the TV in things like Father Ted, the penance is often to say so many Hail Mary’s.

Dean Victor gave me a different sort of penance. He said that I should go away and read Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me.’ Of course I went and read the psalm and thought about it carefully. Over the years since, I have gone back and thought about Psalm 139, asking myself, why did Dean Victor recommend that I should read that particular psalm after I had made my confession to him?

Now tonight we have only sung the first nine verses of Psalm 139, but there are in fact 24 verses – it’s not a very long psalm – and it is well worth getting your Prayer Book out at home (or borrowing one from here if you haven’t got one at home) and reading it again, this time the whole way through. Why do you think that the Dean prescribed Psalm 139 for me to read? It got me thinking about the whole philosophy of crime and punishment. The criminal justice system only works if criminals get caught. There is no deterrent preventing them from committing crimes unless they believe that there is a chance that they will be found out.

‘Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit: or whither shall I go then from thy presence?
If I climb up into heaven, thou art there: if I go down to hell, thou art there also.
If I take the wings of the morning: and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there also shall thy hand lead me …’

This psalm is all about God knowing all about everything we do, good and bad. So maybe that knowledge, that awareness on my part, if I am going to do something naughty – that awareness that God knows about it, will serve as a great deterrent. Our lessons today go in the same direction. In Proverbs the passage might look at first almost like a ‘prosperity gospel’:

‘Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the first fruits of all thine increase’:


That could mean, make sure that you keep up with your planned giving:

‘So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine.’

Speculate, charitably, in order to accumulate.

There’s also this sense of keeping us in order, by chastisement if necessary.

‘For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth’.

The Lord is like a good parent, not letting the children get away with anything.

‘[E]ven as a father the son in whom he

This leads not just to riches, but to the riches of wisdom and understanding, which is worth more than silver and gold and precious stones.

When this idea is translated into the world of the New Testament, as in John’s first letter, (which we had as our second lesson today), God has shown his love to us, and called us the sons of God, in that we are like his son Jesus. It’s quite tricky to understand. St John says, ‘Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.’

We have no image of God that is particularly plausible, except our knowledge of Jesus Christ, and he was a man just like us. And again the lesson from this is that, if we are to be like Jesus and therefore to be sons of God, we must behave ourselves.

‘And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.’

There was no sin in Jesus, and if we hope to be like him we must try to avoid sin ourselves. If we are to be children of God, we must uphold God’s law as best we can. Of course, most importantly, that means that we must love one another.

‘For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.’

But it can go further than that.

To show you what I mean, I’ll finish by telling you a little story about when I was training to become a Reader. My training coincided with my elder daughter Emma starting to read Medicine at Bristol University. One day I went to visit her to see that she was safely installed in her hall of residence and that she was getting to grips with university life. Indeed she was doing fine.

The following Sunday I was having coffee after the morning service at St Andrew’s in Cobham, with some other members of the congregation, and the conversation turned to my recent visit to Bristol.

‘How was it?’

‘Very nice thank you. Mind you,’ I said, ‘I think that I may have had a very expensive journey.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, just as I was turning off the M4 on to the M32, to go into the centre of Bristol, I passed under a bridge – and I realised too late that the bridge was bristling with things that must have been speed cameras.’

‘But surely, you were only doing 70 mph? So no problem.’

‘Agh! Well, I managed to get it below 100 …’

Whereupon some of the party giggled; but one of them took me by the hand and earnestly counselled me. What she said was, ‘Now that you are going to be a minister in the church, you have to change your ways. No more breaking the law by speeding – and definitely no more crowing about it!’

Oh dear; but she was right. I did learn a lesson. Fortunately there was no nasty speeding ticket in the post, so the camera must have not had any film in it on that occasion. I have tried to slow down since. I suppose that’s one way that one can ‘purify oneself’. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me.’ I hope that I’m all the better for it, for that friendly scrutiny.

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