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Sermon for Evensong on the 9th Sunday after Trinity, 13th August 2017

Acts 14:8-20 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=369736259

 

I love the adventure stories in the Acts of the Apostles. They’ve got elements of a road movie – Paul and his companions make various journeys to exotic places, dangerously, and have exciting encounters on the way. The good guys are our hero Paul and his team. Their task, their mission, is to spread the word about Jesus.

The bad guys – hmm, who are the bad guys in this? If you say, simply, ‘The Jews’, it might well lead you into antisemitism or Nazism. It’s more complicated. Paul was a Jew – a leading Jew, a Pharisee. And the first disciples were all Jews. Indeed Jesus himself was a Jew. But Paul saw his mission as being the apostle, the man sent out as a messenger, to what the Bible calls the ‘nations’, to the non-Jews. Paul remembers the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 42:6-8:

 

I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles;…. I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.

 

At one and the same time the Jews are God’s chosen people, the ones who received the prophecies, but also the prophecy is that the Lord will make his chosen Messiah ‘a light of the Gentiles’. (There is also a wonderful message of liberation and social justice in Isaiah 42, but that’s for another day.)

 

In the previous chapter in Acts, before our lesson tonight, in chapter 13, Paul preaches in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, rehearsing the story of the Jews and linking it with the story of Jesus, his baptism by John, his death and resurrection.

 

Let me read you a bit of what Paul said: [13:32-39, NEB] He told them that, after Jesus had suffered, been crucified and then resurrected from the dead, appearing to the disciples over a lengthy period, ‘They [the disciples] are now his witnesses before our nation; and we are here to give you the good news that God, who made the promise to the fathers, has fulfilled it for the children by raising Jesus from the dead, as indeed it stands written, in the second Psalm: “You are my son; this day have I begotten you.” Again, that he raised him from the dead, never again to revert to corruption, he declares in these words: “I will give you the blessings promised to David, holy and sure.” This is borne out by another passage: “Thou wilt not let thy loyal servant suffer corruption.” As for David, when he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, he died, and was gathered to his fathers, and suffered corruption; but the one whom God raised up did not suffer corruption; and you must understand, my brothers, that it is through him that forgiveness of sins is now being proclaimed to you. It is through him that everyone who has faith is acquitted of everything for which there was no acquittal under the Law of Moses.’

 

Listening to him was a mixed congregation, of Jews and ‘Gentiles’, non-Jews; we can identify with them, because we – or most of us – are not Jews. In this context, we are Gentiles. As the passage continues, we learn that the Gentiles ‘got’ it, and ‘those who were marked out for eternal life became believers’ (13:48).

 

But the Jews weren’t convinced: they ‘stirred up feeling among the women of standing who were worshippers, and among the leading men of the city’. The women were not the Christian women, but worshippers in the synagogue. Interesting that they were thought important enough, in this patriarchal world, to be canvassed by the anti-Christian Jews. So the two Apostles beat a hasty retreat and moved on, to Iconium and then to Lystra (this is all in what is now modern Turkey), where, in Lystra, not only did they preach, but Paul healed a crippled man, lame from birth, who had never walked in his life beforehand.

 

And that brought out an extraordinary reaction from the Lycaonian people, the people of Lystra, who, we are told, spoke a local Lycaonian language. I wonder if this is an echo of the Greek historian Herodotus, who distinguished Greeks and βάρβαροι, people who spoke in languages that sounded like grunts, ‘bar-bar’ – barbarians. If so, we are meant to think of these people in Lystra as being really rustic, really uncivilised.

 

But I wonder if that is right: because what the Lycaonians did was to hail Paul and Barnabas as gods, Greek gods. Interestingly, they said that not Paul, but Barnabas was the father of the Greek Gods, Zeus, or Jupiter in Latin, and Paul was Hermes, Mercury, the messenger of the gods, because he was ‘the bringer of the word’.

 

You’ll remember that Paul falls foul of Greek gods again, in Ephesus, where there is a cult of the goddess Diana, or Artemis in Greek, the huntress. ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’ they shouted, against Paul and his companions.

 

In Lystra, when the locals hailed Paul and Barnabas as gods, and especially when the priest of the local temple of Jupiter appeared with garlands and some oxen which he was about to sacrifice, they ran into the crowd and made a big fuss. ‘We are just human, who feel the same feelings as you do. We want you to turn away from ‘these follies’ (NEB), or ‘these vanities’ (AV) to ‘the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein’.

 

It was the same contrast as you get in the Old Testament, between gods who are just idols, just statues or other man-made objects, and the One True God, creator of heaven and earth. Psalm 135 (page 522 in your Prayer Books) has a picturesque way of putting it: it says

 

As for the images of the heathen, they are but silver and gold
the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, and speak not
eyes have they, but they see not.
They have ears, and yet they hear not
neither is there any breath in their mouths.
They that make them are like unto them
and so are all they that put their trust in them.

 

The point is that the Greek gods, according to the Jewish understanding of them, are not real. They are just images, statues, idols. They can’t do anything. There is no reality standing behind them.

 

But I wonder whether we ought not to think again about the Greek gods, and perhaps not be quite so ready to dismiss them. What were the people who worshipped those gods doing, when they built temples and made sacrifices to those gods?

 

If it were really the case that they were just empty images which couldn’t do anything, would these sophisticated people – who were not just Bar-Bars – have built all those temples and made all those sacrifices? There were of course creation stories before Judaism – the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example. So god, or gods collectively, as a force for creation, and as being immortal, and as all-knowing – ‘immortal, invisible, God only wise’, would square with the Greeks’ understanding of their gods, just as much as it does with the Jewish ‘One true God’.

 

The only difference is that in the Greek heaven, the Pantheon, literally the ‘Every God Place’, on Mount Olympus, there was not one God but several gods, who all had different ‘portfolios’. We’re quite fierce on saying that the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is one, a single God: but I think there could be a sense in which the Greek pantheistic idea, of departmental gods, if you like, is reminiscent of the Trinity.

 

Our worship, our services, and our idea of sacraments, the ‘outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace’, are surely similar to what the Greeks – and in earlier civilisations before them, in the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates, modern Iraq – modern Mosul, sadly – practised. What is the Eucharist, if not a symbolic sacrifice, in one sense?

 

Nowadays, would we be as definite as Paul and Barnabas? Would we, if someone got hold of Professor André Simon and his team at Harefield Hospital just after he had saved someone’s life, someone impossibly ill, as my brother was, and said, ‘You are medical gods, you are Asclepius and Hippocrates’, would we say, ‘Oh no, that doesn’t square with what we know about God.’ Those guys, André Simon and co, they’re just ordinary men.

 

Well, think about it. What do we know about God? It’s interesting that Paul, when he wanted to describe, and give evidence of, the One True God, said this:

 

The living God, … made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In past ages he allowed all nations to go their own way; and yet he has not left you without some clue to his nature, in the kindness he shows: he sends you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons, and gives you food and good cheer in plenty.’ (Acts 14:15-17)

 

He didn’t mention Jesus – except of course that Jesus was the absolute heart, the centre, of Paul’s message. But in this instance it was almost like one of those debates you might have with a New Atheist, a Richard Dawkins, say. You can still attest to the existence of a creator, an ‘unmoved mover’ such as Aristotle posited in his Metaphysics (Λ 7, 1072a21-26)[τοινυν έστι τι ό ού κινουμενον κινεί ,…]. You can point to creation, and to the apparent benevolence – at least in part – of the creator: he ‘he sends you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons, and gives you food and good cheer in plenty.’

 

But, as Bishop John Robinson said in his great little book ‘Honest to God’, these days we generally believe that God isn’t ‘a supreme Being, the grand Architect, who exists somewhere out beyond the world – like a rich aunt in Australia – who started it all going, periodically intervenes in its running, and generally gives evidence of his benevolent interest in it.’ [Robinson, J., 1963 (50th Anniversary edition, 2013), ‘Honest to God’, London, SCM Press, p.15].

 

I think we’re pretty sure that God is more than that. If we are Christians, our picture of God depends much more on our perception of Jesus. ‘He that seeth me seeth him that sent me’, John 12:45. But I daresay that if I put you all on the spot, and said, ‘OK, I’ll give you ten minutes to think about it, and then please tell me all about ‘your God’, your idea of God,’ you would understandably feel rather challenged – although of course I’m checking for theologians and philosophers in tonight’s congregation, because you never know who might have come in tonight!

 

But these days, in certain circumstances, not to be able precisely to describe God might be quite dangerous. What if a Moslem or a Jew challenged us, on their ‘home turf’? What if they got the idea that you had changed, changed religion, away from what they see as the ‘true faith’? Well, it might not happen to us, but what if you were a person who had become a Christian in Pakistan, or Iran?

 

We sometimes say that Christians, Jews and Moslems are all ‘people of the Book’, that book being the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, which all three religions use. But sometimes that’s not accepted – for instance, when Christians are accused of blasphemy or apostasy. Do you think we should bone up on some more theology? What would you have said if you had been one of the well-meaning Lycaonians?

 

 

Sermon for Evensong on 30th July 2017, Seventh Sunday after Trinity

1 Kings 6:11-14, 23-28; Acts 12:1-17 – ‘To thee Cherubin and Seraphin: continually do cry’

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=368280207 for the readings

Tomorrow, whatever the Brexit people may say, the people of England will start to turn to Europe. August is not just the time when Paris, and Rome, and Bologna are deserted, and those delicious little cafés in the back streets have the shutters up and a small card in the window telling you of the ‘fermeture annuelle’, that the family will be back at the beginning of September: now something rather similar affects our own City of London and the great commercial centres of Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, among others.

It's holiday time! There are hardy perennial indications, of course. Where have the great and good gone on holiday? Ah, there’s Theresa May and her hedge-fund husband, looking relaxed in dark glasses and what her office assures us is a Marks and Spencer knockoff of a nice designer top, striding forth into the pedestrian zone in Como in search of the perfect cappuccino.

And perhaps – especially since she’s a churchgoer, (at least at home), Mrs May might step into one of those lovely Italian churches. Perhaps she will be tracing the work of Piero Della Francesca.

And what she could be seeing, I feel sure, (from my intimate knowledge of such people on holiday, of course) is cherubs. Putti, cherubim and seraphim. ‘To thee Cherubin and Seraphin: continually do cry’. (The Book of Common Prayer, Morning Prayer, Te Deum Laudamus – We praise thee, O God)

Actually in my mind’s eye there’s a range of possibilities, where cherubs are concerned. On the one hand I do think of putti, those little stone carved babies that you find decorating churches and holding up the vaulting in cathedrals. Definitely babies, not grown-up angels – ‘cherubic’ is an adjective that you wouldn't use for a grown-up, except perhaps for a smile.

The other angels are seraphs, of course.

‘Thus spake the seraph, and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng ..’

[Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, carol, ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’, music by Georg F. Händel]

Again, what the seraphs look like is hard to say, except again that the adjective derived from their name, ‘seraphic’, is usually applied to a smile. So whatever they look like in general, seraphs are, typically, smiling.

All this angel-stuff is all very well if you are happy with a vision of heaven which is like a special palace, a paradise above the clouds, where God lives surrounded by his holy saints and angels. Of course it's what the artists and sculptors whose masterpieces fill those Italian churches – and to some extent also our own churches and cathedrals – depict. Any decent picture of the Ascension has Jesus being helped to lift off by angels, and indeed, by cherubim, by cherubs, little angels.

So understandably, when Solomon wanted to build a house on earth, a temple, for the One True God, in Jerusalem, which his father David had conquered, he built something like his idea of heaven, including cherubs. But these cherubs were statues representing rather major architectural structures, not angelic babies. The two cherubs here are ten cubits high. A cubit was the length of a forearm, 18 inches: so they were about 15 feet high. And their wings – they're definitely angels, because they've got wings – were ten cubits wingspan: ‘from the uttermost part of one wing unto the uttermost part of the other’. 15ft wingspan. Bigger than humans.

St Peter certainly had good reason to thank an angel, who rescued him when he had been put in prison by King Herod – not the Herod who condemned Jesus, but Herod Agrippa I, a grandson. This Herod is reported to have had a shaky relationship with the Jews over whom he reigned, as client king, for the Romans. This may explain his persecution of the Christians, so as to curry favour with his Jewish subjects.

There are apparent parallels between this story of Peter’s imprisonment and the actual Passion of Jesus. Both stories took place at the time of the festival of Unleavened Bread, the Passover. Also, Herod intended to ‘bring Jesus out to the people’ after the festival, much in the way that Jesus was brought out for the people to choose between him and Barabbas to be pardoned.

But this ‘angel’ is called an ‘angel of the Lord’, αγγελος κυρίου – which also, and perhaps more naturally, means a ‘messenger of the lord’; yes, a messenger. The business with wings and heading upwards to heaven is perhaps something extra which we could get, infer, from the Old Testament story: but perhaps these days we should be a bit cautious about doing that.

What we have in 1 Kings is a description of Solomon’s Temple, the first Jewish temple. In it we have a description of two statues or structures in the sanctuary: ‘within the oracle he made two cherubims of olive tree’. It wasn't whatever the cherubs were supposed to resemble or stand for which was being described, but rather the representations, the statues.

So the question arises how reliable any of the pictures of cherubs really is. Are we to think of Superman, or at least Robin to Jesus’ Batman? Or is an ‘angel’ just a messenger?

‘Just a messenger’ probably won't do, as an explanation. What sort of a messenger? The angel might say, ’I bring a message from God.’ Can you visualise that, in your mind’s eye? How would you react? Here’s St Peter’s prison escape story again.

‘All at once an angel of the Lord stood there, and the cell was ablaze with light. He tapped Peter on the shoulder and woke him. 'Quick! Get up', he said, and the chains fell away from his wrists.

 
The angel then said to him, 'Do up your belt and put your sandals on.' He did so. 'Now wrap your cloak round you and follow me.'
 
He followed him out, with no idea that the angel's intervention was real: he thought it was just a vision.’ (Acts 12:7-9, NEB)

That was the exciting bit of our New Testament lesson. On the face of things it was a bit more than a simple courier service that St Peter benefitted from.

I worry a bit about the Richard Dawkins faction here. On the face of things, if one really thinks of St Peter as being rescued by some divine Batman or Superman, I think it might lay us open to scientific scorn. The Dawkinses might say, with some justification, ‘But that’s not how things work!’ They know how flesh and blood operate, and that we can be sure that Superman & Co couldn't do some of their more spectacular stunts except in computer-generated images in the cinema – or with obvious technical assistance such as one of Yves Rossy’s jet-packs. I slightly worry that such people’s simple faith is vulnerable to a scientific challenge – that, if God is understood as everything we believe in but don't understand, as we get to learn more and more, so God becomes less and less.

But even so, there are many people, even today, who do say they have been helped by angels, who either don't worry about the luxury residence above the clouds – for them it doesn't have to be literally true – or who have an idea of God which allows for cherubic or seraphic interventions. This is how I think they do it.

Just as we may understand God’s Holy Spirit as being in us, in the way that St Paul did, as he put it in Romans 8:9, ‘You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you’, so if God is in us, we could argue that God’s messengers, his angels, are likely to be round about us too, personified by our friends and fellow-Christians. You might have an angel in you, and you be that angel’s eyes and ears.

So when we say to someone like me (when I have done my annual washing-up duty,) ‘You are an angel’, there might just be a bit more to it. We can all play host to an angel. Some of us are, of course, more cherubic than others.

Sermon for Evensong on 23rd July 2017, Sixth after Trinity
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:16-28

I'm always a bit nonplussed about the Wisdom of Solomon. Faced with two harlots and a baby, and a pretty awful story about a dead baby as well, and an allegation that a baby had been switched in the maternity ward, he has to decide whose baby is the live one.

It's why when you're in hospital they always give you a tag. But in Solomon’s day they didn't have plastic tags and bar-codes. Instead they had – swords! If in doubt, Excalibur to the rescue. If you read the chapter in 1 Kings that comes before our lesson, Solomon was busy establishing his authority after he had succeeded his father David, the great King David, as king of Israel. He had a challenge from his brother Adonijah, who wanted to marry Abishag, the most beautiful woman in Israel, who had been found and brought to King David in his old age ‘to lie with him and warm him up’, because he was getting old and felt the cold – stay with me on this – but there was no hanky-panky: as the Authorised Version puts it, so decorously:

3So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag a Shunammite, and brought her to the king.
4And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not. [1 Kings 1]

You must read the story – Solomon’s elder brother Adonijah, who had previously started to act as though he was the crown prince, due to inherit the kingdom, who had been disinherited by King David just before he died, craftily asked his mother Bathsheba to ask Solomon for permission for him to marry Abishag – which Solomon took as a challenge, because Abishag was the king’s widow.

Solomon used the sword again – he had his brother killed, and indeed there is quite a trail of carnage at the beginning of the First Book of Kings. Chopping the baby in half was part of Wise Solomon’s standard procedure, which had a lot in common with George W. Bush’s ‘shock and awe’ strategy in Iraq.

You might object that I'm being rather unfair to Solomon, not giving him full credit for finding a very clever solution to a very tricky dilemma. His use of ultra-violence as a method of governing, I suppose strictly speaking, could be said to be irrelevant to the question whether he was really wise or not.

Or maybe not: imagine the Judgment of Solomon in a world without capital punishment, where ‘thou shalt not kill’ certainly means something where babies at least are concerned – a world like ours. What would Solomon have had to threaten, in order for the real mother to give herself away, to reveal her mother’s love rather than have the baby harmed? It might not have worked, today.

How should a wise leader behave? How should a judge decide? Look at the dilemma that the Sadducees, and then Annas and Caiaphas, the people that the Bible calls their ‘rulers, the elders, and scribes’, the leaders of Israel in Jesus’ time, look at the dilemma which they faced as a result of the Apostles Peter and John, who had healed a man who had been crippled from birth, preaching the gospel of Christ’s resurrection and attracting a crowd of 5,000 listeners – which must have been a huge phenomenon in those days – and generally getting the ordinary people very excited.

The Jewish leaders’ dilemma was what to do about the Apostles. On one level, they posed a threat to public order: they were challenging one of the Sadducees’ beliefs, that there cannot be a resurrection from the dead. The Apostles’ teaching was a message of hope – hope which the Sadducees and scribes didn't have. On the one hand the leaders could not deny that a miracle of healing had just taken place: but on the other hand, at the same time, the Apostles’ preaching was not like the old traditional Jewish teaching, but it was something new and radical – and they sensed that their authority as High Priests and scribes was being called into question.

Fortunately they had moved on from Solomon's favoured solution. No sword-play. They just threw the Apostles into prison overnight, to keep them off the street. And they didn't get far in trying to shut the Apostles up. Why would they, why should the Apostles, have listened? Here’s the story, from Acts 4.

18And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.
19But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.
20For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.
21So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them, because of the people: for all men glorified God for that which was done.

Put yourself in the position of those Sadducees. What would you have done in their shoes? They weren't bad people – they weren't, say, evil people claiming to do things for religious reasons, like Islamic State, Daesh. The Jewish Law that they upheld told them – the Ten Commandments told them – to love God and love their neighbour, just in the same way, on the face of things, that the Christians, the Apostles Peter and John, were teaching. But the problem was one of authority and authenticity. By performing miracles of healing, the Apostles were, in effect, saying that they were more in touch with God than the High Priest.

We have a similar problem today. If you are a leader, an MP or a government minister, or a local councillor, how do you decide what is good to do? If you are a judge – say, the judge hearing the terribly difficult case of little Charlie Gard, or Sir Martin Moore-Bick enquiring into the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower – what principles will you apply?

So far as the judges are concerned, obviously the simple answer is that they will apply the law, the law of the land. We have ‘the rule of law’ – ‘Be you ever so high, the law is above you,’ was Lord Denning’s version.

But as the residents of Grenfell who survived have so forcefully said, it's not so simple. And indeed so far as little Charlie Gard is concerned, there may be a fundamental difference between what the parents think should be the principle to be applied, namely that they, the parents, should have the final say, and what the law says, which is that what is judged by the court to be in the best interests of the child should be the determining principle.

Who is right? How to decide ‘who is the baby’s real mother’, to put it in Solomon’s terms, in these cases? These are not just – or maybe not even really at all – questions of law. And anyway, the law comes from somewhere. What principles are the basis, the foundation, for our laws? For instance, a lot of law is said to be derived from the principles of ‘human rights’. But where are those rights derived from?

As Christians, we have a position to take in this. Just as Peter and John refused to be silenced by the authorities, we should not shut up if we see something which is wrong, which is against God’s holy law, for fear of being accused of being ‘political’. Some of you have said to me sometimes how relieved you have been when you think that my sermon hasn't been ‘political’. I must, gently – but definitely – disagree with you about that. A Christian preacher must be political. Let me explain why.

Our leaders, our political leaders, try, I'm sure, always to do the right thing. Good leaders always try to have in mind principles which they can point to, recognised principles that the majority of people – in a democracy – can agree with. So here in England we would all agree with the principle of freedom of speech, for example. But in addition we, as Christians, base our morality on Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ of love, that we love each other as He has loved us.

So what about foreign aid? Is it better, from a moral point of view, to give £1m to a project in Africa or £1m to a similar project in England? What principles should our leaders use in order to decide? Are English people somehow more deserving than African ones? If so, why?

What if it isn't overseas aid, but refugees and migrants? Is an African or Syrian refugee more or less entitled to a roof over their head here than someone who was born here? Again, why? What principle would you use to justify your answer?

And when you've assessed that, what do you think that would Jesus say, what would He say about your conclusion and your reasons?

I think that it is a perfectly legitimate exercise – and indeed that it's an exercise that we in the church ought to do all the time – to look at the policies of our rulers and try to subject them to the light of Christ. Doing that means that we really do have something valuable to say.

As I've been saying now for a couple of Sundays, and I'll go on saying, one of this church’s vision objectives, adopted by our PCC, is for us to get out and become more involved in the community. It's not enough for us to gather together here every Sunday and offer beautiful worship – although of course we should do this – but we must love our neighbours. We need to find good causes to support: we're already behind the Foodbank, but what else should we do?

As a church, I suggest we should also consider having a fund for outward giving, a tithe (it's typically 10% of a church’s income); then we need to adopt projects to support, maybe, say, one on our doorstep and one overseas. Then we need people in the congregation to become ‘champions’ of those projects, to bring us news of how they're doing and how we are involved, what our people are doing. Ideally we need representatives of the projects to come and talk to us, perhaps by giving us a sermon or having a ‘pulpit dialogue’ as they used to have in City churches sometimes.

If any of this sparks off an idea in you, do please come and tell me, either after service now, or give me a call. Remember those wonderful but challenging lines from St Matthew chapter 25:

31When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
32And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed
thee?
39Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I do hope we realise that that beautiful passage is, truly, ‘political’: it has a social, political message, just as much as it is at the very heart of individual morality. One thing is certain, though: these days you couldn't do it all with swords, like Solomon. Society has made some progress. Now we at St Mary's need to do our bit too.

Sermon for Mattins on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 16th July 2017
Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Last Sunday we had a wonderful time with Bishop Jo when she came to lead our celebration Eucharist and officially to open St Mary’s Hall. When she first saw this pulpit – this splendid Jacobean pulpit – she said, ‘Wow! What a pulpit! If I’d known how splendid it is – not six feet, but at least twelve feet above contradiction – I would have added a lot more to my sermon!’

Well, what Bishop Jo actually did preach seemed pretty good to me, and I’m sure if you were there, you’ll agree. She based her message on the Collect for last Sunday, and its distinction between things that were ‘temporal’, like buildings, and things that are ‘spiritual’. One was a vertical plane, looking up to heaven, and the other, even if it was pretty splendid, like our St Mary’s Hall, was earth-bound.

Now today we are invited by St Paul to go into this spiritual/temporal thing more deeply. This great chapter 8 of his Letter to the Romans is the chapter, we often read from at funerals: it goes –

35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

……..

37Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

38For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

39Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Before this passage, in chapter 7 is the bit of St Paul’s teaching which I find rather reassuring, about how, although he knows what the right thing to do is, he gets led astray and doesn’t do it: in other words, he may be a good man, trying to do the right thing, but he is only human. Being human means, at least partly, being open to temptation, being sinful. It reflects the story of the Fall, of Adam and Eve.

But then Paul contrasts that imperfect, earth-bound state with the spiritual plane, with being ‘in the spirit’, as he calls it. 

5For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.

Or, as the New English Bible translates it, 

Those who live on the level of our lower nature have their outlook formed by it, and that spells death; but those who live on the level of the spirit have the spiritual outlook, and that is life and peace.

This is similar to that other great Pauline funeral passage, from 1 Corinthians 15:

42So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:

43It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:

44It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.

A spiritual body. St Paul was familiar with Greek philosophy, with Plato and Aristotle. Four hundred years before him, they had made a distinction between souls and bodies – the body was ‘temporal’, earth-bound, mortal: the soul was the essence of the person, it is what makes you, you: and there was a lot of discussion whether the essence of a person, (what it is that makes you, you), whether this essence, their soul, was immortal, could survive death just by itself.

Paul in effect rejected the idea of disembodied souls, at the end of that great passage in 1 Corinthians 15, that we know also from Handel’s ‘Messiah’:

51Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,

52In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

So the spiritual life is not disembodied, not some ethereal idea in the mind of an abstruse philosopher. We know from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, what the ‘fruit of the spirit’ is, in contrast with the ‘works of the flesh’:

‘… the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance …’

When you look at that list, most of it is what you would expect from a list of ‘spiritual’ virtues: joy, peace, meekness, for example. However a couple of the items seem to me to be more practical things, things that involve actually doing things with other human beings: in particular ‘love’ and ‘long-suffering’ spring to mind. 

And that seems to me to link St Paul’s teaching with that of our Lord Jesus Christ. I don’t think that Jesus actually thought in the same terms as St Paul. He didn’t think in terms of a flesh and spirit dichotomy: instead he tended to talk about the devil, on the one side, and the kingdom of God on the other. Jesus was more of a doer than a thinker, at least as the gospel writers describe him. He healed the sick; he turned water into wine; he taught in the synagogue, he turned the money-changers out of the Temple, he fed the 5,000.

But most noticeably, Jesus was a servant. He upended his divine status, he humbled himself, he washed the disciples’ feet. In all that benevolent, dynamic activity, Jesus never lorded it above people, even though he was higher than anyone, 

‘He humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that the name of Jesus every knee should bow..’

That’s in St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians [2:9-10]. So he wasn’t Plato’s ‘philosopher king’. On the one hand he was ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, the words of Mrs C. F. Alexander, that we sang in Sunday School: but on the other, he was a really brave man, a hero, willing to face any challenge, even death.

Does that take us anywhere nearer to finding out what it is to be ‘in the spirit’, to be spiritual?

Let’s assume that St Paul’s antithesis, of the flesh as against being of the spirit, and Jesus’, as the kingdom of God against the wiles of the devil, are two perspectives on something similar.

The lists of ‘works of the flesh’ and ‘works of the spirit’ in Galatians look very like what in other places in the Bible would be called sins, on the one hand, and good works on the other.

So being spiritual looks more and more like a prescription for action, for good works. You might say that we don’t earn salvation, by doing good works: instead God has saved us through his free gift of grace. All we have to do is believe. You don’t actually have to do anything.

But that’s not right either. Think what the Epistle of St James says. 

14What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?

15If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

16And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

17Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead.. [James 2:14-17]

So what would Bishop Jo have said, if she’d realised what a splendid pulpit we have at St Mary’s – what would she add to her careful balancing of the spiritual with the temporal? Granted that the new Hall is not spiritual, but it’s a temporal, earthly benefit: what must we do to ensure that the spiritual side is upheld too in our church?

I would suggest that this spirituality would, or rather should, manifest itself not just in contemplation, but in action: not in meekness or peace, (or rather not only in meekness or peace), but also in action, in love of our neighbour, active love, Good Samaritan love.

In our Parish Profile, published on the Diocesan website the other day, we describe our Christian tradition, here at St Mary’s, as ‘liberal catholic’. What that means is that we are Anglicans who are in the catholic tradition, tracing our church back to the Apostles, catholic, a word meaning ‘universal’, a church for all, inclusive and traditional. It is a type of Anglicanism which was started in the 1830s in the Senior Common Room of Oriel College, Oxford, and was preached from the pulpit of the University Church, St Mary the Virgin, just opposite Oriel on the High Street. It was called Tractarianism or the Oxford Movement, and it started with a sermon, the ‘Assize Sermon’, preached 184 years ago last Friday, on 14th July 1833, by John Keble, which he titled ‘On National Apostasy’.

John Keble preached: ‘What are the symptoms by which one may judge most fairly, whether or not a nation is becoming alienated from God and Christ? … How may a man best reconcile his allegiance to God and his Church with his duty to his country, that country which now by the supposition is fast becoming hostile to the Church, and cannot therefore long be the friend of God?’ 

John Keble was followed by John Henry Newman, Pusey, Froude and other notable theologians. Newman would eventually convert to Roman Catholicism. But the Anglo-Catholic, Tractarian, movement within the Church of England became a major spiritual revival. And you must note that at its heart, this revival, although it was chiefly spiritual, could also be political. Where the state was perceived not to be operating in a Christian way, the Tractarians were prepared to challenge the politicians, as Keble had done in his Assize Sermon. The established Church and the State can’t avoid each other. They mustn’t. I believe that is still true today.

A real hallmark of the new Anglo-Catholic churches was their social concern. Just as I have tried to show how being ‘in the spirit’ really involves action, loving care, and service: being a servant like the Servant King, not just passive piety, so the Anglo-Catholics became great social workers. They founded missions among the poor in the East End of London, where they did not just look after the spiritual needs of the people, but also their temporal hunger. They started schools and libraries: they started the forerunners of our food banks.

So if we seek to be in the tradition of the Anglo-Catholics – and I believe that, for example, Revd John Waterson, the legendary Rector here for over 30 years till the 1970s, would have said that he was one – I think that as we follow Bishop Jo in her quest for spiritual gifts as well as temporal blessings, like the Hall, we need to start on the action items which our Vision Day identified, and in particular we need to start to look seriously at our care for our neighbours, our love for our neighbours. 

We already support the Foodbank. Putting on my Foodbank manager’s hat for a moment, I can thank St Mary’s for all sorts of valuable support. As well as generous food and money donations, three of the four Foodbank trustees, and several more of our volunteer staff, come from this church. 

But what else ought we to get involved in? What about welcoming refugees? Should we support Elmbridge CAN, our local refugee support group? There will soon be three Syrian refugee families living in the borough. They will need support in all sorts of practical ways.

Or should we take a leaf out of the Anglo-Catholic history book, and find a parish in a deprived area with whom we could make a partnership, so some of our wealth and abundance could be shared?

These are some of the ideas which I think we must start looking seriously at, if we are to take on the vision which we developed with Revd Steve Cox when he visited us. I think that we’ll be trying to assemble a new committee – of course, you can’t do anything in church without a committee – to become a kind of ‘delivery group’ for the ideas for community involvement from the Vision Day. If you’d be interested in getting involved, please do let me know. 

I do hope Bishop Jo, and the spirit of John Keble, would both approve!

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 2nd July 2017
1 Samuel 28:3-19, Luke 17:20-37

Like a lot of military leaders in history, before his big battle with the Philistines, King Saul, first king of Israel, wanted to consult a seer, someone who could discern what God’s will would be in the battle to come. Was he destined to win or lose?

Saul wanted to ask God, through a priest or, perhaps more controversially, through a medium, a witch, a ‘woman that hath a familiar spirit’, who would be able to discern the will of God, that is, she would be able to discern what would happen. And he was taken to see the Witch of Endor.

What do you think a ‘familiar spirit’ might be? Perhaps it’s a ‘witch’s familiar’ – usually a black cat. But I think it sounds a bit too high-falutin’: another modern translation suggests that the whole expression is simply a synonym for what we would now call a ‘medium’.

Anyway, divination, foretelling the future by casting lots, or examining the entrails of an animal which had been sacrificed, was common in the ancient world – although even then, there was a feeling that this might be some kind of magic trick, just superstition.

Saul persuaded the Witch of Endor to bring back the spirit of the great judge and prophet Samuel from the dead. The ghostly Samuel duly appeared, and forecast that Saul and the Israelites would be defeated. It was a shock to Saul to hear what was going to happen.

The Witch linked Saul’s imminent defeat to the fact that he hadn’t obeyed the voice of the Lord, and hadn’t ‘executed his fierce wrath against Amalek’, so God would foresake the Israelites.

And then you heard the story, in St Luke’s Gospel in the New Testament, of the Pharisees wanting Jesus to forecast the future: what day will the Kingdom of God – or perhaps the end of the world – come? Jesus firmly told them that you couldn’t tell the answer by ‘observation’ – a translation from a Greek word which has a connotation of close observation in a superstitious sense – ‘reading the runes’ or some sort of divination, like going to see the Witch of Endor.

Jesus said, in effect, that you could not discern the will of God by reading tea-leaves or ghastly rituals with the innards of dead animals. The kingdom of God wasn’t ‘out there’ to be observed or divinated for. ‘For behold, the kingdom of God is within you,’ he said.

We could just pause at that point, and reflect on the whole business of fortune-telling and divination. I think that it is open to a logical, philosophical challenge.

If you go back to Saul calling up the spirit of Samuel from the dead – and any of those military examples, somehow asking God how the battle would go the next day – the logical problem is that, unless you believe that we have no free will – unless you think we are rigidly programmed, so that whoever discovers the programme can predict what we’ll do in a given set of circumstances – then at least in theory, you can always react to the prediction, to the prophecy, so as to avoid the outcome predicted.

I’ve always thought it was rather a weak bit of that film ‘Gone with the Wind’ when Scarlett O’Hara tells her father not to chase after someone on his horse, because if he does, he’ll fall off and kill himself: so he chases after the man, falls off, and kills himself. He could have avoided that, I’ve always thought.

So Saul could have decided not to fight the Philistines. But he didn’t, in fact; he didn’t take avoiding action, and so the prophecy actually came true. There was perhaps an extra factor, in that God’s will had resulted from his anger at what Saul had been doing, so arguably it wouldn’t have made much difference if he’d decided to pick another quarrel.

This is about how we discern the will of God. What does God want of us? According to the prophet Micah, ‘He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ [Micah 7:8]

It isn’t a question of going to Mystic Meg or reading the horoscopes at the back of the News Chronicle. When will the kingdom of God come in? For those Pharisees addressing Jesus, of course, the kingdom meant victory over the occupying power, over the Romans, kicking them out of Palestine. But Jesus offered another vision, that the kingdom had come really, when someone accepted him into their hearts, when they were converted. ‘The kingdom of God is within you!’

How do we encounter the kingdom of God? Should we look out for mediums and diviners? I think not. Who is like a prophet today? Surely we should look to our spiritual shepherds, who look over us as a flock – our ministers in our churches. Of course it’s not the case that only through a priest that we can approach God: since the Reformation we have had the idea of the Priesthood of all Believers too.

This is an especially apt weekend to think about who our prophets and pastors, our shepherds, are. It is the time known in the Church as Petertide, after the feast day of SS Peter and Paul on Thursday. It is traditionally the time when priests and deacons in the Church of England are ordained. In Guildford Cathedral today and yesterday, yesterday morning was a service for the ordination of priests, and today there were two services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for the ordination of deacons. You will remember that when people are ordained, they are first ordained Deacon, which is a sort of L plate ministry – you can’t celebrate Holy Communion or marry people – and a year later you are ‘priested’, you are made a priest, fully ordained and fully able to celebrate the sacraments.

Why the link with St Peter? It’s because of what is called the ‘apostolic succession’, the originally Catholic idea that Christian ministry is derived from the earliest apostles, chief among whom was St Peter. The idea is that πρεσβύτεροι, elders, presbyters, ministers, are appointed by laying on of hands by the Pope – who is said to derive his authority under God from his direct line of succession from St Peter – and so they are all in a line of ministry which comes down from St Peter.

The authority of priests in the Church of England is said by Roman Catholics not to be in the line of apostolic succession, because of Henry VIII. It is the fact that Henry refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope, but instead made himself ‘fidei defensor’, ‘defender of the faith,’ which is what FD means on coins, after the Pope, rather prematurely, had given him this title), rather than that the C of E is a Protestant church. Our theology is said to be ‘catholic but reformed’. But despite what the Roman Catholics might say, in the C of E, we also think that our bishops and priests have been ordained in a due apostolic succession from St Peter.

Now, this week, this Petertide, there’s been a happy new development in relation to apostolic succession.

John Wesley – who was an Anglican vicar all his life – found that there were no bishops to ordain ministers for service in the new American colonies, when he visited in 1738, and so he eventually decided to ordain some ministers himself. This led to his ‘Methodist’ societies becoming a separate denomination in the church, although they had started as something rather like bible study groups, home groups, within Anglican parishes. You would go to the parish church in the morning, and to the Methodist ‘class’ in the afternoon.

There have been various efforts to bring Methodism and Anglicanism back together. The two churches believe the same things, and some theological colleges teach Anglicans and Methodists alongside each other – for example The Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. There was an attempt to join the two churches in 1972, which was turned down by the Anglican General Synod, and in the early 2000s there were Anglican-Methodist Covenant meetings, aimed at paving the way for unity – not losing each church’s separate identity, but recognising the validity of each other’s ministry and teaching. A stumbling-block was the question of apostolic succession. Except in the USA, the Methodist Church does not have bishops. There are ‘circuit superintendents’ in Methodism, who function much like bishops. The former Methodist minister in Cobham and Leatherhead, Rev. Ian Howarth, is the Chair of the District of the Methodist Church in Birmingham – effectively, he is the Methodist Bishop of Birmingham, in all respects except for the fact that he has not been ordained by the laying on of hands by a bishop.

Now this week a new report has been published by the ‘Faith and Order’ bodies of both churches, called ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’. It is a set of proposals to make each church’s ministers fully equivalent. [See https://www.churchofengland.org/media/4002173/ministry-and-mission-in-covenant-revised-final-draft-formatted.pdf%5D

The churches have agreed to recommend to their governing bodies – to General Synod for us and to the Methodist Conference for them – that there will be Methodist bishops, originally ordained by three C of E bishops, and then, as more and more Methodist bishops are ordained, eventually the apostolic succession will extend to both churches. In time there will be Methodist ministers serving as vicars in parish churches, and C of E priests leading Methodist congregations.

I’m very pleased. Both my grandfathers, and one great-grandfather, were Methodist ministers, and I was brought up a Methodist. My last Methodist ‘class ticket’, as the membership card is called, is dated 1997. We used to have an evening service every third Sunday which alternated between Cobham Methodist Church and St Andrew’s. For various reasons, eventually I decided to become an Anglican: I’m not alone in Cobham. There are at least two Methodist Local Preachers, which is their name for Readers, at St Andrew’s.

We had a very friendly Anglican-Methodist Covenant discussion group: I hope we do it again. It will be a joyful way to show how ‘these Christians do love each other’.

So let us remember that God will not show himself to us through Mystic Meg: that the kingdom of God is ‘within us’, and that means at least partly here in our churches. And the great news is that at least two of the churches are moving closer together in love and fellowship. What a splendid witness that will be.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Trinity, 25th June 2017
1 Samuel 24:1-17, Luke 14:12-24

When I was a graduate trainee (last year …), one day I was sitting at my desk, at lunchtime, having a sandwich and trying to complete a task which I had been set by one of the partners in the august marine insurance firm I was working in.

One of the senior partners, whom I normally never saw from day to day, appeared. Why had he left the corridor of power? I wondered. I never found out – but nevertheless, I soon had to deal with him.

‘Bryant, what are you doing?’ He asked. I said that I was trying to catch up with such-and-such a piece of work. ‘No, but what are you really doing?’ He pressed. I was at a loss. What was he on about?

‘What’s that in your hand?’ 

‘A sandwich, sir.’

‘You’re wasting the firm’s time! Get off your backside and go out: go and find a shipowner, and buy them some lunch!’

So I did. And I fear that my slightly less than streamlined shape is the result of my finding those shipowners and buying them some lunch rather regularly over the last 40 years.

Lunch – or dinner – is a powerful tool. And a nice stylish invitation just adds to how good it is. If you have a few of those nice cards on your mantelpiece, you feel all right. Well, everyone here has at least one of those, for Bishop Jo’s opening of St Mary’s Hall, followed by a hog roast, on 9th July. (If you haven’t got an invitation, please do see me after the service!)

Meals are powerful. The Alpha Course, the way in which more people have been introduced to Christianity in this country than by any other way in the last 40 years, involves sitting down together and sharing a meal. Somehow, eating and drinking together deepens the sense of fellowship and draws people in.

The Ancient Greeks, and the Romans after them, placed great store by banquets and feasts. You may remember Fellini’s wonderfully over-the-top film ‘Satyricon’, which was a dramatisation of that part of the Roman author Petronius’ satirical book which was called ‘Cena Trimalchionis’, Trimalchio’s Banquet. Trimalchio, the host, is a freed slave, and therefore almost by definition a nouveau-riche – and he has made up for lost time by making a lot of money, which he’s keen to show off to as many people as possible. It is pretty vulgar stuff – girls leaping, scantily clad, from giant pies, and so on. Not but what it’s great fun – although possibly not quite suitable for ‘Spiritual Cinema’.

We still remember – and celebrate – those ancient meals. Plato and several other Classical authors wrote descriptions of ‘Symposiums’, gatherings of men to discuss important topics over serious drinks, reclining on couches, what the Romans called ‘triclinia’. Plato’s book, called his ‘Symposium’, contains a big panel discussion about love – love between the sexes, that is. Food was taken separately: a ‘symposium’ was strictly a drinks do, whereas a ‘δειπνον’ was a meal where the discussion could continue.

But Jesus was concerned to add his distinctive twist to banquets and party invites. His banquet was not for the in-crowd, not for the glitterati. He told a parable about a posh dinner, where the intending host had sent out those nice invitation cards, but his friends were turning him down. They had various practical things to attend to: a new piece of land: ‘five yoke of oxen’, which must have had the same function in those days as one of those massive John Deere tractors that we see pulling trailers through the village today. Serious kit. And another one had just got married.

Difficult to see what the problem of being a newly-wed was, unless the banquet was a men-only do. After all, even the Reform Club only admitted women in 1980. But the other excuses were feeble. It sounded to the host as though they just didn’t want to come to his party, at any price.

So Jesus turned the whole thing on its head. He’d already indicated that he didn’t think you should invite posh people round to dinner and things, just so as you could get invited back. He had said earlier to the disciples, ‘But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.’

Bear in mind that in those days, if people were ‘poor, maimed, lame, or ‘blind’, it was looked upon as showing that they had done something wrong – they had sinned, and that had brought divine punishment upon them, which was why they were halt, and lame and blind. So Jesus was recommending that you send your party invites not just to rather unglamorous people, but also that you send them to people who were actually bad, bad, at least in the eyes of Jewish society in those days. It was another instance of Jesus being willing to make friends with anyone. Remember when he got taken to task for having a meal with ‘publicans’ (tax gatherers) and sinners.

You might just notice in passing that it’s a bit like what certain sections of the press and the media say about people who are on benefits or who have to get food from the Foodbank. They call them scroungers and imply that most of them are cheats. They’re in a bad way because they’re feckless. Perhaps some people’s attitudes haven’t changed much in 2,000 years.

So when his friends came up with excuses why they couldn’t make the party, Jesus’ bloke sent out ‘into the streets and lanes of the city, and brought in the halt and the lame, the poor and the blind – and got his man to make sure that the banquet was filled up with all these second-class citizens, and none of the proper lot who were first invited.

This is right in line with Jesus’ commandment of love, with his contrary way of doing the opposite of whatever conventional wisdom would have recommended. There were precedents for this kind of selfless generosity in Jewish history – our first lesson, the story of David sparing the life of King Saul, is a good one. But the point is that Jesus wanted to raise up the poor, the halt, the lame and the blind. Think of what we sing in the Magnificat:

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away’.

When we think of the people burned alive in Grenfell Tower, where they spent nearly £10m making the building look nice to the posh neighbours, but didn’t spend anything on sprinklers or proper fire alarms: when we learn that the council didn’t listen to the residents’ association when they tried to warn about the fire risk – perhaps because they were only poor people, maybe immigrants or black people – not worth listening to; somehow less important, less influential, than the rich people whose mansion flats looked out on the grotty council block in their midst: when we learn of that, we should think carefully about what Jesus was saying.

Jesus didn’t tolerate a huge gap between rich and poor. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek’. He didn’t tolerate those who wanted to do the right thing, but allowed mundane practicalities to get in the way. Is it right that a nurse shouldn’t have a pay rise since 2009? Is it an answer to say that ‘there isn’t a magic money tree’? Jesus didn’t care. He wasn’t at all impressed that one of his guests had just bought a parcel of land, and another one had bought a stonking great tractor for his farm.

Jesus would have looked at our country today, and seen the rich getting tax cuts while the poor had to go to food banks and the Health Service teetered on the brink of financial collapse, and poor people being incinerated in a lethal tower block with no sprinkler system, which had been prettified at great expense – but just chiselling off the cost of fireproof cladding – and I am sure he would have been like the dinner host when his pampered guests turned him down for their own selfish reasons: ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away’. 

And by the way, as you’ll see from the hand-outs which we’re giving out today, that even here in the second richest borough in the country, second to the home of Grenfell Tower, Kensington and Chelsea, even here in Elmbridge, in the Cobham area, demand for our Foodbank has gone up so much that we’ve run out of many vital food items. We are giving out over half a metric ton of food per week now, here in Cobham, to local, Cobham people. 

You may say that this is political. I would say that it doesn’t matter which party you are in, you need to lobby your party to adopt policies, or change its policies, so that the halt (that could mean those who have long-term disabilities), the lame (that could mean those who have been hurt, or who are ill), or the poor (they could be people working, but on a zero-hours contract) – and of course the blind – so that all those second-class citizens are no longer shut out of the banquet which most of us enjoy.

Shall we start with two things? Let’s take one of the shopping lists at the back of the church and do an extra trip to the supermarket this week, and buy some of the things that the Foodbank is short of; and let’s invite the Foodbank’s customers who live in Stoke D’Abernon to join us at our hog roast with Bishop Jo on 9th July. I think Jesus would approve.

Sermon for Mattins on the First Sunday after Trinity, 18th June 2017
Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8

Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’ when he saw the crowds, because they were weak – ‘because they fainted’, and because they had no-one to guide them, no pastor. There was plenty for a pastor to do: ‘The harvest truly is plenteous’ – but there weren’t enough clergy.

 

So he sent out his 12 disciples. It’s interesting to see what the disciples were supposed to do. Jesus had been attracting big crowds. What were they attracted to?

 

We may tend to use hindsight, at least unconsciously, and think that of course people flocked to see and hear Jesus – he was the Son of God, after all. But actually I don’t think that the crowds could necessarily have reached that conclusion at this stage.

 

Maybe if they had been present at Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit appeared like a dove, and a voice was heard, saying, ‘This is my son, the beloved …’ But more likely they were unaware of this. Surely all those threads would be drawn together by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then it really was clear who He was.

 

Instead, it looks as though the drawing power of Jesus, which he wanted to pass on to his disciples, his students, was a practical ministry, of healing.

He told them, ‘And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.

 

On second thoughts, perhaps people did have an inkling who Jesus was. ‘Raise the dead’: what sort of an instruction is that? Obviously the disciples were in on the secret. ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’.

 

But there is this rather odd instruction from Jesus to stay away from the non-Jews. The disciples were to keep the good news just for Jewish believers. Evidently, things changed, even then. Look at St Paul’s letters. ‘In due time Christ died for the ungodly.’ Not for the chosen people, the Jews. Instead things were completely turned upside-down. Difficult to explain the passage in St Matthew’s gospel here. Maybe it is to emphasise the magnitude of the revolutionary step that Jesus brought in. But St Paul’s letter to the Romans was actually written earlier than the Gospels, so I am inclined to think that the pro-Jewish lines are a late addition.

 

In the passage from his Letter to the Romans, St Paul sets out his key idea, his key concept, of how God works: that we are ‘justified by faith’.

 

The idea of being ‘justified’ really means brought back into the family, the family of faith. ‘We have peace with God’. St Paul had an idea that God, or at least his senior angels, needed to be pacified. Man had fallen, in the Garden of Eden, and was no longer perfect in the sight of God.

 

But if one wanted to placate this rather angular, peevish deity, it wasn’t a good idea simply to pile up sacrifices and ignore what was going on outside. You appeased this tough God by placing your trust in him.

 

But – it’s still a bit difficult to see what Jesus was supposed to be preaching about. Absent the Resurrection, what exactly was His message? I think that we can legitimately infer that it was a social gospel. Jesus had compassion on the people he found suffering.

 

Yesterday in the Church’s calendar, we were invited to remember Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, described as ‘social reformers’. This is what one author says about them.

“Born into a Bristol manufacturing family in 1844, Samuel Barnett was educated at Wadham College, Oxford. In 1867 he was ordained to a curacy at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in Marylebone where he met, and in 1873 married, Henrietta Rowland (born 1851), the daughter of a wealthy London businessman. With a deep practical faith of her own Henrietta was working with the housing reformer Octavia Hill. Later in 1873 the Barnetts moved to London’s East End when Samuel became Vicar of St Jude’s,Whitechapel. They were both deeply affected by the squalid conditions in which their parishioners lived and became much involved in promoting social reform both locally and on the national stage. They sought to ensure that social reform was based on Christian principles and that Christians were actively involved in social reform.

Samuel lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act of 1875. He served on the Whitechapel Board of Guardians and was one of the first in England to propose universal pension provision. Henrietta was also involved in various projects of her own, mainly involving education and the welfare of children. She was also a founder of Whitechapel Art Gallery.

In 1906 Samuel was appointed a canon of Westminster and the couple moved to leafy Hampstead.The contrast with Whitechapel inspired Henrietta to create a model suburb in which decent housing, open spaces and recreational amenities would be available to people of modest income.This was the origin of Hampstead Garden Suburb, which developed after 1907.When completed the development featured special housing for the old and disabled, modern schools and new churches.
[R. Atwell, ed., 2004, Celebrating the Saints, Daily Spiritual Readings, Norwich, Canterbury Press, sub June 17th]

 

When we reflect on the terrible tragedy of the fire at the Grenfell House tower block this week, it is truly shaming that, over 100 years after Canon Barnett died, we still have areas of terrible poverty and wholly inadequate housing for poorer people. Canon Barnett lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act, the first step towards the provision of council housing, in 1875. In the 1960s the Parker-Morris standards ensured that council houses were built substantially, with adequate minimum sizes for rooms. Unfortunately, in more recent years, these standards have been swept away.

 

Recent governments have abolished security of tenure for council tenants and encouraged the idea that poor people who need council houses are somehow less deserving than people who can afford to buy their homes. It seems incredible now, but as recently as last year, the government refused to make the installation of sprinklers in buildings over a certain height mandatory. Instead, the manufacturers of sprinklers were encouraged to promote their products so as to sell more of them.
Apparently, on Grenfell House, a council block, £8.7m was spent for cosmetic ‘cladding’ partly to improve heat insulation, and partly to improve the look of the block, which is surrounded by ‘mansion blocks’ of expensive private flats. But a sprinkler system, which would have cost a fraction of the bill for cladding, was not installed. And the cladding was of a less fire-resistant type than you could have specified for an outlay of only about £5,000 extra. Not much in a total budget of £8.7m.

 

I think that the Barnetts would be shocked – partly in the way that we are shocked anyway – and partly because the reforms which they did so much to bring about in providing decent living conditions for poorer people, have now been undone.

You might wonder what this, undeniably serious and concerning as it is, has to do with us at our Mattins service. The point about Samuel and Henrietta Barnett is that they were Christians, as we are. As the vicar of Whitechapel, Samuel Barnett was ‘in Christ’, reconciled to God, in the way St Paul described. His life had been fundamentally changed.

 

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [2 Corinthians 5:17]

 

Barnett was interested in liturgy too. “‘The Worship Hour’ that he introduced, was an innovative service with readings from modern writers as well as the Bible; service leaflets printed in bright colours to ease the dreariness, clergy unrobed and the church kept rather dark so the poor and dirty would not feel conspicuous”.

It all sounds, if anything, quite the opposite of what we in St Mary’s try to preserve and the opposite of how we try to conduct worship. But what is the purpose of worship? Bringing the best of ourselves, using the most beautiful, most meaningful, words before God, and seeking his blessing. But would we countenance turning the lights down – using our state-of-the-art low-voltage LED lighting system – so as to avoid embarrassing ‘the poor and the dirty’?

The Victorian reformers, fired up by their Christian faith, were willing to experiment, and to make their churches accessible and welcoming, welcoming not just to people in nice clothes, but also to the poor people living in the slums of Whitechapel.

I don’t think that the Barnetts would have regarded the service, even said in the fine words of the Prayer Book, as the be-all and end-all. What they sought to do was to draw everyone in, however humble, and worship together. For sure, most of the time their Christian observance would have been conducted in the words of the Prayer Book – and no better way, at least so far as the words were concerned. But the important thing was the social concern that their faith had led them into. They were ‘in Christ’, where God had reconciled them. So they dimmed the lights so as to avoid showing up how scruffy some of the congregation were – not but what these poor people couldn’t help it.

When we had our ‘Vision Day’ last month, one of the major goals which we identified was social concern, practical action for our neighbours, translating our devotion in worship into practical concern, into generous, practical love. What are we all going to do about Grenfell House? Are we going to have a special collection, or maybe each of make a pledge to send some bedding, clothes or food to the Salvation Army, or to the local parish church, St Clement’s, Treadgold Street? Or perhaps by sending some money through the Evening Standard website. Godfrey and I will discuss this with the churchwardens – in the meantime, if you want to give some money now, please write ‘Grenfell House’ on one of our envelopes and put your gift in it. We’ll make sure it goes to one of the funds which have been set up.

Yesterday I said similar things in the sermon which I preached to the Prayer Book Society’s service at the Founders’ Chapel at Charterhouse. Afterwards we had a nice tea in what they call the Saunders Room.

The name of that room where we had tea sparked a thought in me. Do you remember Winnie the Pooh’s house? He ‘lived under the name of Saunders’. It had a sign over the door with the name ‘Saunders’ on it. Perhaps some of the children from Grenfell House would like a teddy bear like Pooh.