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Sermon for Quinquagesima, Sunday next before Lent, 11th February 2018

1 Kings 19:1-16; 2 Peter 1:16-21

We pray, somewhat vaguely, I’m afraid, for Christians who are being persecuted for their faith. And we listen to the pronouncements of religious leaders like the Archbishop of Canterbury or his counterpart, Archbishop John in York, without necessarily changing our outlook as a result.

I won’t labour those points – I’m sure you will prove me wrong in particular instances, and that some of you have been definitely involved in supporting persecuted Christians, and others have taken to heart Archbishop Justin’s call for new ways of providing finance for poor people, to replace the payday loan companies.

But my point is that, if we read about Elijah, on the run from Queen Jezebel after he had slain the 400 prophets of Baal ‘with the sword’, and after she had sworn to do to him what he had done to the prophets, to spiflicate them utterly; and if we read the Second Letter of St Peter, which reads effectively like a ‘hellfire and damnation’ sermon, are we really very much affected? Do we immediately link the prophet Elijah, on the run from Jezebel, with, say, the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Syria? Or do we think about what it might mean to be a prophet today, as the writer of 2 Peter thought he was being? ‘We have … a more sure word of prophecy’, he wrote.

You will have noticed that I didn’t say ‘St Peter’ wrote a hellfire and damnation sermon. That’s a bit of a snag. Because most scholars agree that 2 Peter wasn’t written by St Peter. It looks to have been written pretty late, possibly in the second century, well after St Peter had died.

So what are we to make of it, when it says, pretending to be St Peter, ‘[We] .. were eyewitnesses of his majesty’, and they were with him at the Transfiguration up on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, and they heard the voice of God say, about Jesus, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’? If it’s not St Peter talking – or rather, writing – doesn’t it rather lose impact?

In these latest times, when we are covered with stories of ‘fake news’ and apparently respectable politicians saying that we ‘should not trust experts’, where do prophets come in, and stories of revelation – God speaking to Elijah, after a hurricane and an earthquake, in ‘a still small voice’, and appearing to Jesus and some of the disciples – albeit probably not to the writer of the Second Letter of Peter – as a disembodied voice, identifying Jesus as being divine as well as human? Where do these stories fit in? Are they just that, stories, or are they something more serious? We can perhaps overlook the real authorship of 2 Peter, because of course the story of the Transfiguration appears also in the Gospels. This morning we had the version in St Mark [9:2-9].

I suppose one can’t deny that a lot of the Bible has rather lost its power to rule our lives. If you look at the Jewish Law, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch – take the Ten Commandments as its basic heart – do we abide by them, all of them, literally? Well, you’re doing pretty well if you do. And what about Jesus’ commandments? What if ‘love your neighbour’ meant giving up half your garden for a council house to be built there? That was a dilemma canvassed at the Deanery Synod this week.

But if you read on beyond our passage in 2 Peter, the people who don’t obey God’s Commandments, either those from Elijah and Moses’ time or the more modern versions, those faithless people will be condemned eternally. Rather colourfully the Bible says about the unbelievers, ‘It is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire’.

Just as I don’t see an easy way of persuading a lot of people that their support for Brexit is a massive mistake – perhaps because they believe that there is an alternative set of facts which would lead to wonderful opportunities – so I’m not very optimistic that we would even recognise a prophet today, let alone follow their prophecies. There’s a problem, overshadowing all the other issues, which is, as Pontius Pilate said, ‘What is truth?’

The trouble is, that a lot of the biggest issues today involve looking into the future. It would really help if some of us could go up on that mountain, and get a fresh word from God.

But in another sense, this is a good time to look again, to reflect, and see if we can in fact hear that ‘still, small voice’. Wednesday will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’, the minister will say, Godfrey here at 10.30 in the morning and Peter Vickers at St Andrew’s at 8 in the evening.

It begins that period of reflection leading up to the tumultuous events of Holy Week and Easter. Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus, defines us as Christians. Some people use the symbol of the cross to stand for the meaning of Easter. I personally find it rather difficult to see beyond the cross’ awful function as a means of cruel killing. I know that Jesus’ glorious resurrection could not have happened unless he were dead – and so to that extent one can say that the cross was an essential part of Easter – just as it was essential that Judas Iscariot was a disciple. The good things could not have happened without there having been bad things beforehand. But I still find it difficult to like the cross.

The idea at Lent is for us to take time to reflect, to take ourselves away from our busy daily routines, to listen for that ‘still, small voice’ calling us; calling us to change our lives, to get closer to God – which is what the call to repent of our sins really means.

It sounds good: but how many people will really do something life-changing in Lent? I started out being rather pessimistic. Does anyone today really care if God spoke to Elijah? Was Jesus really ‘transfigured’ with Moses and Elijah on a mountain top, and did a divine voice say that Jesus was his son?

I think that, if it remains just something you read about, Lent won’t be likely to bring you closer to God, and you may well not hear a still small voice. But if you do something, preferably with other Christian believers, I think there’s a much better chance.

I think it’s like the relationship between going to church and the strength of one’s faith. Going to church is like keeping a log burning. If it’s in a proper fireplace, with other logs burning alongside it, it’s likely to burn brighter and longer than if you just stuck it on the pavement by itself and lit it. You are the log, the fireplace is our church, and being left to burn by oneself on the pavement is like being ‘spiritual but not religious’.

That’s why we often have Lent study groups – as we are doing again this year. It’s not too late to sign up – the sheet is at the back – and it looks as though there will be groups during the day and in the evening every weekday from 19th February, Monday week, for five weeks, exploring the idea of being ‘Better Together’ – which is not meant to be anything to do with the Brexit business, but rather with our various relationships, with our families, our churches, with strangers, with people with whom our relationship has broken down, and finally, our relationship with God. Talk to me after the service if you want to know more.

Or, another thing you could do is to follow the Bishop of Guildford’s Lent Challenge, which is a programme of things to do over the five weeks. It’s more doable than giving something up, I think, as it gets you doing something different, in addition to your normal routine. You are encouraged to give as well. The gifts will be split half and half between the Bishop of Guildford’s Foundation and the Anglican Church Tanzania Appeal. As some of you know, I’m the lay vice-chair of the BGF, the Bishop of Guildford’s Foundation, so I do hope you consider supporting the Bishop’s Lent Challenge. There are some really good little prospectuses for you to take on your way out. They explain what BGF does. It provides grants for social projects associated with churches anywhere in Guildford Diocese – things like street angels, food banks (and BGF gave the start-up capital for our food bank), school breakfast clubs, drop-in centres for lonely or needy people, social support workers, holiday outings for poorer and more elderly people, and so on.

Now I’m a great believer in ‘belong and then believe’ as a way into the family of God. I think that if you do any of these Lent things, following the stages in the Bishop’s Lent Challenge or going to some sessions in the Lent study course – which is being organised by Churches Together, so you’ll meet people from the other churches as well – if you do get a bit involved, I would be very surprised if you don’t find that your faith grows. You may indeed hear the ‘still small voice’ of God. You just have to try.

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Sermon for Evensong at Sexagesima, 4th February 2018

Genesis 2:4-25; Luke 8:22-35

I really liked our churchwarden Ray’s article in the parish magazine about his tour of North and South Carolina and the Churches he saw there [See http://www.standrewscobham.org.uk/churchbuilder/get-doc.php?docid=199&page=Together+Feb+2018.pdf]. Ray said they particularly liked one called the ‘No Nonsense Church’, which he said was ‘not affiliated to any particular denomination’ as far as he could see on its sign. ‘It raised a few questions’ in Ray’s mind ‘as to who decided what was nonsense and what was not’. ‘…. A bit further along the road was the “Freedom Church”, which perhaps provided a haven for any backsliders from No Nonsense. If neither suited, then maybe the “First Assembly of God” would provide for someone who wanted to go back to basics.’

I thought the idea of the ‘No Nonsense Church’ and Ray’s entirely justified reservation concerning what was nonsense and what wasn’t, was very thought-provoking. Look at what is on the agenda tonight.

The creation story in Genesis and particularly the creation of woman from Adam’s rib; the delightful Psalm 65: ‘Thou shalt shew us wonderful things in thy righteousness, O God of our salvation:… Who in his strength setteth fast the mountains: and is girded about with power. Who stilleth the raging of the sea ..’ And then indeed we had the stories in St Luke’s Gospel where Jesus stilled the storm, and called the multiple devils, the ‘legion’ of devils, out of the man who was driven mad by them, and let them migrate into the Gadarene swine, ‘and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the lake, and were choked.’

Now if we were in the No Nonsense Church, how much of that would get past the Nonsense-Meister, the arbiter of truth for that congregation, presumably the pastor, the minister of that church? And how would he decide what was authentic and what wasn’t? I think this question of what is true, what is authentic, what is reliable, what can we believe in, is terribly important. This morning on the wireless, for instance, I heard Revd Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, saying what I would imagine they would expect in the No Nonsense Church. He could be my idea of a Nonsense-Meister. All he would look at would be the literal words of the Bible, however unsatisfactory this might be. What did he think of same-sex partnerships? ‘The Bible says it is wrong’. And he would not look at anything else. Genuine love between the partners? ‘The Bible says it is wrong’. I’m not going to argue this out now. I just wanted to show that there are still people who go by the literal words of the Bible.

Just suppose that the story of Adam and Adam’s rib, of the Garden of Eden, the demonstration of control over the weather, God and Jesus stilling the storm; and Jesus also somehow getting mental illness to migrate from humans to pigs – just suppose all those stories hadn’t actually been in the Bible: that there wasn’t such a thing as the Bible, and you’d come across them in some other context, let’s say in an ancient history book, an obscure bit of Herodotus perhaps; or in Tacitus’ Annals. After all, that Roman historian mentioned the early Christians, as did Suetonius, but he had them down as cannibals.

Just suppose that we hadn’t come across the stories in the Bible: in fact, that we didn’t know about the Bible at all: they were just stories written in other literature. It could indeed be serious literature, like Herodotus or Tacitus or Suetonius. What do you think we would think about them? Would we be, in Ray’s terms, ‘backsliders from No Nonsense’ or would we perhaps have to go back to basics in the First Assembly of God? Or would we just dismiss them as being totally implausible? There must be something which comes from their being in the Bible.

Sometimes when I meet people who say that they are atheists, I’m not really sure what they mean. I try to get them to be a bit more specific, by asking what it is that they don’t believe in.

Actually this question of authenticity, of suitability of things to be believed in, to be trusted in, relied on, in a literal or in a spiritual sense, probably goes a bit wider than simply a question, ‘Did it happen, or not?’

When we think about the story of the creation of woman from Adams’s rib, our poor old atheist will probably say not only that he thinks that the story is not a factual description, but also that it is a creation myth, perhaps intended to be spiritually authentic, without being literally true; but it is still objectionable, because it casts women in a subordinate role. Of course it reflected the way in which society worked 2,500 years ago; but sexism is still a live issue today. After all, later this week will be the 100th anniversary of votes for women in this country. Only the 100th anniversary, which is surely not long against the whole span of human history.

The other thing that I came across this week, in addition to Ray’s fine travel story, was the story of the Manchester City Art Gallery taking down one of their best known and best loved pictures, the Victorian painter John William Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’. [See https://www.artble.com/imgs/9/9/4/87801/hylas_and_the_nymphs.jpg]

The picture shows one of Jason’s Argonauts, Hylas, on the edge of a lily pond, in which there are a number of naked girls trying to attract Hylas into joining them in the water: not for a spa experience, unfortunately, but with the intention of drowning him. A curator at the Manchester City Art Gallery decided to take the painting down – even though it is one of the most popular paintings in the Gallery – and leave a blank space in which they invited visitors to express their reactions to the fact that the painting had been taken away, by writing comments on Post-It notes and sticking them up where the painting had been. Before you get terribly excited about it, I can tell you that, following an absolute torrent of criticism, the painting has now been hung back up again – and the Post-It notes have presumably been dealt with appropriately.

But who’s right? What is the No Nonsense Church view of Hylas and the Nymphs? Are we allowed to go to a respectable municipal art gallery and look at topless women in mildly erotic poses? Are we not treating women as objects? (And, by the way, what I am saying about men looking at women surely goes equally the other way round, for women looking at men.)

Another complication in the controversy concerning Hylas and the Nymphs is that, if there is sex in it, it’s quite complicated, because Hylas is supposed to have been the homosexual lover of Hercules: so it’s a bit odd that he seems to be rather susceptible to the charms of the water nymphs as well. Perhaps he was amphibious…

But look: that was all about a painting created in 1896. Is what was once regarded as harmless, now immoral?

Even if we look at it through the eyes of the No Nonsense Church, I think that we would say that there was a great deal of nonsense in the story of what the Manchester City Art Gallery has been doing with Hylas and the Nymphs. Perhaps Franklin Graham would disagree, though.

And I think that we might say that the story of the Creation, Adam’s rib, and so on, is nonsensical in roughly the same way. It just doesn’t conform with our current scientific ideas of how things come into being. Just as a mildly erotic Victorian painting doesn’t square with what we think of as being pornographic or unacceptable, so with the Creation: in both cases our reaction, our assessment, is quite spontaneous, and comes from our own judgment, not depending on someone else to judge.

We don’t say what we think about Hylas because Andrew Graham-Dixon or some other authority doesn’t like the painting (and actually, I don’t know what he feels about it); we feel we can make up our own minds. We like the painting. We don’t want it to be taken away.

So who decides these questions? Whom do we believe? Who is authoritative? When we go to meet our friends in the other churches, in the Lent course, one of the really interesting things that will come up will probably be that quite often we will find that our friends in the other churches actually look at some of the Bible stories in rather different ways. I suggested a minute ago that we might reflect what our feelings might be concerning the various stories that we have read about in our lessons today, if they hadn’t been taken from the Bible. The fact that they do come from the Bible, the Book, the ‘word of God’, may be enough for some people. They might be creationists, who believe that the book of Genesis is a true account of how the world came into being.

How do we answer them? What answers do we have that the No Nonsense Church or Franklin Graham cannot offer? How do we cope with things in the Bible that really look very unlikely to be literally true? The Anglican answer is that we use the ideas that the theologian Richard Hooker, who was active in the 16th century, put forward. Hooker came up with the idea of a ‘tripod’ of belief, according to which the test for authenticity is three things – Scripture, Reason and Tradition.

So for an Anglican it’s not just what we find in the Bible, when we reflect how the human race began. We are allowed to use our common sense – that’s reason – and to reflect on how others have looked at the same problem – that’s tradition. So today, in the light of scientific knowledge, we might reason, about the man possessed by ‘devils’, the ‘legion’ of devils, that an explanation might well be that he had a mental illness. It doesn’t explain what happened to the Gadarene swine, though.

But Revd Franklin Graham, and perhaps the No Nonsense Church, might go on to chapter 5 in the Book of Genesis, and say that all the complexity of relations between the sexes, and the fact that some people have both male and female characteristics, is summed up in the words, ‘Male and female created he them’. It doesn’t seem to worry the Franklin Graham people, incidentally, that if you read on in chapter 5 of the Book of Genesis, it says that Adam was 130 years old when he fathered a son, Seth, after which he lived a further 800 years; and he was 930 years old when he died! Do they really believe every word? I wonder.

But some of the words of the Creation story still do ring true, not in a scientific way, but rather in a metaphysical, spiritual sense. The idea, the concept, of the beginning of a perfect new family, is beautifully expressed. ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.’ One flesh. It’s an ideal state. Of course it doesn’t always work, and some children never leave home. But we would all recognise it as a picture of an ideal family. We want to believe in it.

So when we meet our friends from the other churches and take part in the Lent discussion groups, or indeed if we get involved in a debate with someone who says they don’t believe in God, it may be rather useful to have in mind Ray’s picture of all the many churches in Charleston. Are we in a No Nonsense church – or are we backsliders in the Freedom Church, I wonder?

Sermon for Candlemas, 28th January 2018

[Hebrews 2:14-end]; Luke 2:22-40 Nunc dimittis

Nunc Dimittis. ‘Cav’: ‘Cav and Pag’? No, ‘Mag and Nunc’. Do those words ring a bell? ‘Cav and Pag’ is the rather basic way that opera fans refer to two operas, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (The Players), operas which are always performed together, and which the Royal Opera House’s website calls ‘Italian opera’s most famous double act’.

‘Mag and Nunc’ is a similar irreverent abbreviation, this time for the two great canticles, or sacred songs from Scripture, that form the heart of the Evensong service all over the world in the Anglican Church. The second one, ‘Nunc’, Nunc Dimittis, which, if you would like to come back here at 6, you will hear sung by our Choral Scholars, in a beautiful setting by Henry Purcell, is our Gospel reading this morning,

‘… now you are dismissing your servant..’ That’s what the Latin words, nunc dimittis, mean. In the Evensong service, in a better translation, Simeon says,

‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation;

Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people;

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.’

The old man Simeon. He had seen the one who was going to save, to be the Saviour. Both to save the Gentiles, the non-Jews, to be a ‘light’ to them, and to be ‘the glory’ of God’s chosen people, the Jews. So, to be the saviour of all of us.

And just in case you’re wondering, the other great canticle, the other half of the great Evensong vehicle’s chassis, its frame, is ‘Mag’, Magnificat, Latin for ‘magnifies’. ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.’ It’s the Blessed Virgin Mary’s song.

The service is built up on the frame, on the chassis, of these two Canticles. Around them there are hymns, three set prayers called collects, (with the first one unique to each day), Bible readings, according to the Lectionary, so that in three years you will have read your way all through the Bible; a Psalm, which is usually sung to an old plainsong chant, the Creed; a sermon, and some intercessory prayers, prayers asking God for things.

And as I hinted earlier, it’s very beautiful. You can pretty well sit it out in the congregation and just watch and listen to it. But it’s a mistake to think that it’s just a form of entertainment. Indeed, you might not especially like the music in Evensong. Purcell, or Victoria, or other Baroque masters like Vivaldi, might leave you cold, craving for worship songs and rousing guitars. Actually you can have modern Evensong settings too. The point is that it’s not a concert. It is worship. It is an encounter with God. The music is one way how we try to bring the best we have to God in worship. Whatever you consider best – that’s what you must offer.

Mag and Nunc are the bones of the service, the backbone of it, precisely because they are the testimony of witnesses. Simeon says, ‘Mine eyes have seen: … Mine eyes have seen: thy salvation.’ He is a witness, a witness to the presence of the Lord. And Mag is even more striking, not only as witness evidence, but as evidence of the revolutionary impact of the Messiah.

‘He hath regarded’: he has looked at, he hasn’t averted his gaze, from ‘the lowliness of his hand-maiden’. Even though He is God, He hasn’t looked down on and dismissed as too humble, this hand-maiden, this ordinary girl, the ‘lowliness of his hand-maiden’.

Then the purple passage, which Revd Dr Giles Fraser has called one of the most revolutionary texts in all literature.

‘He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

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

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

It’s all witness evidence. Mary the mother of Jesus has witnessed this. But this is worship, not a show, not a documentary. In coming to God in prayer and praise, as worshippers we sing the hymns, we chant the familiar psalms – ‘O sing unto the Lord a new song’; we recite the Creed, we hear Scripture explained and related to our lives in the sermon: but maybe we’re still a bit detached, a bit sealed off, still just in a beautiful concert space, hearing beautiful music and resonant words.

But then, when you add in the Mag and Nunc, we’re confronted, confronted by witnesses. Strange witnesses. A young girl without any educational or philosophical achievement. An old man who went to all the services; he didn’t say much, but there he was, regular as clockwork.

Nunc dimittis. How did he know? How did Simeon know that this little baby, born a week or so before, was so vitally important? ‘Mine eyes have seen’, he said. Simeon was a witness.

But not any normal kind of witness. He had ‘seen thy salvation’. Not seen a feat of athleticism, not a sudden burst of erudition, from the week-old baby. What was this ‘salvation’ that Simeon saw in the baby Jesus? How did he know that he’d seen it all, he could take his leave of life, secure in the knowledge that the Messiah had come?

Because, however he justified it in his own mind, it was true. When the whole Gospel story became known, everyone realised that Simeon’s vision was staggering, cataclysmic in importance for all the world. Barely three sentences. God is here. With salvation for all of us, Jews and Christians – or rather, Jews and non-Jews; really for us.

Again, there’s humility. Just some little old man. A teenage girl barely able to read a road sign. But still, chosen by God.

You can let it all wash over you. The Evensong service has been going on, in exactly these words, since 1549. If you don’t pay attention, it’s not going to stop. But what is it that keeps this old form of worship going? Perhaps God is pleased with it. Of course we do hope, that God does think, that it is worthy. Who knows? But if He doesn’t approve, surely it would have died years ago. Instead of which, Evensong is the fastest growing service in the C of E. Why?

Of course I can’t explain it. But I just wonder whether it’s the sheer genuineness of the service, its simple straightness. And at its heart, there are these two great bits of testimony, these live confrontations between two very ordinary people, Mary and Simeon, and the divine. They could have been any one of us. No special qualifications. But Mary and Simeon got it, got the whole thing. Just think about what that means, what that means for all of us.

Cav and Pag. Mag and Nunc. Where we came in. Not two jolly operas with a picture of Italian country village life, but the two great canticles at the heart of one of the church’s oldest services. But maybe they’re not so separate in concept, after all, these operas and our evening service. Cav – Cavalleria Rusticana, ‘rustic chivalry’ in a humble Italian village – and these two simple, humble people, picked out to tell us their story, how they met the Lord himself, in the form of a little baby. Mag, Mary, magnifying, magnifying the humble and meek: and Nunc, the faithful old man, signing off. They could be scenes from opera too.

Now that we’ve celebrated the Nunc Dimittis, which is the last of the baby stories of Jesus, we can put our crib scenes away for another year. We can bless our candles, as a symbol of Jesus, the light shining in the darkness. Because it’s Candlemas. ‘Mag and Nunc’. Nunc Dimittis Day. Come and hear it again tonight. Let Simeon speak to you

Sermon for the Bellringers’ Annual Service at St Mary’s and St Nicholas’, Leatherhead, on 20th January 2018

Numbers 10:1-10; Psalm 98

When I was getting my briefing from you, Ann, about what your band is used to and what you would consider to be worthy worship for our Lord in your annual service, I learned that sometimes your service comes at the same time as the anniversary of the death on 30th January 1649 of King Charles I, celebrated by the Church of England as King and Martyr, when an ancient bequest pays for a sermon in this church. Indeed there is a fine example of a King Charles sermon by Dr John Swanson from four years ago, on the Church website.

But I’m not going to preach about King Charles. It’s not yet the right time. Although – in passing, I did just reflect that, in the context of the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, it might give us a different angle on our bell-ringing if we thought about the fact that the civil war, which broke out during – and ended – King Charles’ reign, was caused to a great extent by the conflict between rather fundamentalist Reformers, the Puritans, and the Church of England, which we describe as ‘Catholic and Reformed’. It is an early example of Boris Johnson’s cake theory – you know, ‘You can have your cake and eat it’ – in the context of the Reformation and Henry VIII. Henry would have said he was a good Catholic, but with a little local difficulty with the Pope. Catholic and Reformed.

The people he was up against, the Puritans, were not keen on music, or on bells in churches. During Henry VIII’s reign, his having it both ways included, as part of his ‘reformed’ side, the destruction of the monasteries and, often, the removal of bells from churches. So the presence – or the restoration – of a church’s bells had a significance in the tug of war between Protestants and Catholics.

Now of course, especially now we’re in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, those controversies have thankfully long gone, both regarding whether the church is small-C ‘catholic’ or ‘reformed’, with a ‘priesthood of all believers’ rather than bishops, and as a source of controversy affecting the bells.

A more modern thing is the argument that crops up from time to time about whether the chiming of church bells is ‘noise pollution’ – enter the Noise Abatement Society, stage left. On the news this morning there was an item about complaints against St Peter’s, Sandwich, in Kent, about the noise of their bells, and a campaign, called ‘Save the Chimes’, which has been formed to keep the bells at St Peter’s ringing.

Well here, in the hinterland of the Chelsea training ground, noise pollution might be caused by a couple of Lamborghinis queueing up at Waitrose’s car park in Cobham – but not by our lovely bells, here or in any of the other churches locally. I hope so, anyway.

So I’m not going to talk about King Charles. And come to think about it, I’m going to risk being a little bit controversial, and say that I’m not going to talk much about the Bible readings we have today – or indeed about the Bible at all. The reason is, that there isn’t much in the Bible about bells and bell-ringing. There’s a mention of small bells attached to the original priest of the Temple Aaron’s robe, his ephod, in Exodus 28:33-35. The bronze cymbals used in the worship in the temple were forerunners of church bells.

But there really aren’t that many references to actual bells. There’s a sort of convention instead that we can take references about ‘trumpets’ as going for bells as well. Hence our lesson today from Numbers. The silver trumpets that the Lord commanded Moses to have made were to be used for ‘summoning the congregation, and for breaking camp.’ For an assembly, and an alarm. That pretty much sums up the function of the bells in a parish church, even today. The trumpets shall be blown – I mean, the bells shall be rung – at times of celebration, festivals and holidays. I wonder when the next special peal – or half-peal, maybe – will be rung. Perhaps at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. The instructions to Moses recorded in the Book of Numbers for trumpets still pretty much sum up the point of church bells today.

Again, I’m bumping into something I’m not really going to talk about. Not King Charles, or the Puritans, or even the Bible. But I am supposed to produce an edifying address to you: you know, to ‘edify’ you is to build you up, to build you up in faith. But if I’m not really going to get back to my Bible today, where will the teaching come from?

Martin Luther, and no doubt the Puritans ranged against poor old King Charles, did indeed rely upon ‘sola Scriptura’, which is Latin for ‘scripture, the Bible, alone’. Everything you need, in order to be saved, is in this holy Book. Well I know that if Gail Partridge were here as she usually is to take this service, rather than sailing down the Nile – I’m only jealous! – she would wax eloquent about how you often can’t take everything written in the Bible as being literally true.

Earlier this week at Morning Prayers we have been reading the story of Noah and the Flood in the Book of Genesis. It begins with telling you solemnly that Noah was six hundred years old when it happened. Really? And indeed there are a number of places in the Bible where, if you take it literally, it contradicts itself or comes up with seemingly impossible stories, such as Noah being 600 years old. How do we get around the problem? How do we know what to believe, what to rely on and trust in our lives?

The Church of England has three sources of what is called ‘authority’, how we get what we believe, how we derive it; scripture, reason and tradition. If something isn’t clear in the Bible, we are allowed to use our reason to make sense of it. Big numbers in the Bible, for instance, can perhaps be explained by the way that in the ancient world, they weren’t quite so hung up on precise numbers: so in ancient Greek the same word means both 10,000 and ‘countless’. It would be a reasoned way of explaining Noah’s alleged age. Reason tells us that ‘600’, in this context, means, ‘very old’.

But what about tradition? The word literally means ‘handing on’, handing something on to the next bod. And in the Christian context, it’s all about doing our religion, as opposed to intellectualising, theorising about it. For example, how do you think infant baptism works? How can the church say that a little baby is saved, has come to Christ, before he or she can even say, ‘Daddy’? The point is that it’s the doing of the service, the baptism service, that brings salvation. It’s called ‘Baptismal Regeneration’. The blessing of God’s grace is handed on.

It’s the ‘belong and then believe’ school of Christianity, tradition. And definitely, tradition is what you bell-ringers bring. For hundreds of years, the bells have rung out in parish churches all over the British Isles, handing on the worship: inviting the faithful people to come together and be the people of God. What a noble and worthy thing for you to do. Thank you, and may God bless you, in this year of our Lord 2018 and for many years to come.

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 21st January 2018

John 3:16 – God so loved the world …

If you volunteer to join the transport department of Cobham Area Foodbank, as a driver of our splendid 3.5t Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, or as one of the all-important suppliers of muscle as driver’s mates, you will encounter a little Bible quiz on your first run.

As you will know, most of the churches in Cobham, Stoke D’Abernon, Oxshott, Effingham and the Horsleys have a green collecting bin for people to put donations of food in. We’ve got one at the back here in the church, and we also have another bin in St Mary’s Hall, so that the yoga ladies, who often seem to have bought too much food for their svelte figures, can generously give some to the Foodbank. It’s a productive bin!

And the van goes round on Mondays and Wednesdays, emptying the bins and bringing the food which has been given, to our warehouse, where it is sorted by date and type, and meticulously logged into our database.

Now when the van gets to St Andrew’s in Oxshott, our crew don’t usually empty their bin, because it will already have been done. The donations in Oxshott go into a sort of garden shed in the children’s playground at the back of the church. It’s all kept locked with a brass padlock. The quiz for a new driver’s mate is to guess the combination of the padlock. ‘Three digits – the most famous verse in the Bible’! Do you get it?

Well, it’s 316, John 3:16, Chapter 3, verse 16. ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life’. Our second lesson today.

It’s a ringing statement, a trenchant way to spell out the heart of our Christian faith. But it’s not really that simple. There are at least two big theological conundrums in this simple little sentence, which I’ll try to sketch out for you, so you can sort them out over your roast beef in half an hour or so.

The first is the question what it is to be God’s ‘only begotten Son’. You’ll immediately remember the words of the Nicene Creed – that’s the one we say at Holy Communion, not the simpler, Apostles’ Creed which we say at Mattins and Evensong. The Nicene Creed says, ‘I believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of his Father before all worlds, … Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.’

There was a big controversy in the early church, in the fourth century, 300 and something, centred around a scholar, a theologian in Alexandria, called Arius. Arius said he couldn’t make sense of the relationship between God and his Son. If Jesus was God’s Son, he must have been in some way created by God. But if ‘begotten, not made’ … ‘before all worlds’ is to mean something, it implies that Jesus came after God, and was created, in Arius’ argument, created by God. Jesus therefore was not actually God, because God is the creator, and Jesus was created.

By the way, before your brain hurts too much with this, let me just point out as well, that, as the celebrated Oxford philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne has pointed out, logically for God to be the creator of all things must mean, creator of all things except Himself.

So, was Jesus – is Jesus – God or not? If He was God’s Son? Arius was also influenced by his knowledge of the philosophy of Plato, who thought of God as being eternal and beyond what we can know, unknowable. But we know about God from what we read in the Gospels: or rather, we know about Jesus. And of course, in John 12:45, Jesus is portrayed as saying, ‘.. he that seeth me seeth him that sent me’. This must mean that Jesus is in some sense different from the supreme God, the God who is one, one God.

The Roman emperor Constantine, the one who helped the spread of Christianity by adopting it as the official religion of the Roman Empire, tried to solve the puzzle – which had turned into a hot debate within various factions in the early church – by convening a Council of church leaders, bishops and theologians, in the city of Nicaea. Constantine himself took the chair, and he ‘fixed’ the problem by adopting the description of Jesus as ‘being of one substance’ with the Father. It was at the Council of Nicaea, which took place in 325, that the Nicene Creed was drawn up.

This problem of how to understand the nature of God, and the relation between God and Jesus, extended also to the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Holy Trinity which Together made up the Godhead, the divine nature. Again, it needed not to have been created, if it was really God. Of course in the Bible, at Pentecost, God is said to have ‘sent’ the Holy Spirit. They hit on the idea that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded’ from God. The original version of the Nicene Creed, which is the version still used by the Orthodox church, says, ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father’. That version is given as an alternative in Common Worship – you’ll find it on page 140.

And that version, according to which the Holy Spirit ‘proceeded’ from the Father, lasted until 381, when St Augustine, Augustine of Hippo, added the word ‘filioque’, Latin for ‘and the Son’, so that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son. That’s the version which we use today. But the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches still omit the ‘filioque’.

That’s our first puzzle. What is God like? What is the true nature of God, and how does Jesus and the Holy Spirit fit in? Martin Luther and the Reformers in the sixteenth century went back to that question, along with all the other fundamentals of doctrine that they put under the microscope. Perhaps I’ll make that a second chapter in our look at what’s called Christology.

You’ll remember that I said that this famous little sentence, ‘God so loved the world,..’ and so on, contained at least two big conundrums. So let’s just touch on the other one, and then I’ll let you head for the roast beef.

The puzzle is, what sort of deal, what sort of bargain, is God supposed to have made when he ‘gave’ his Son, and – presumably in return – we could have eternal life? Who did He give his Son to? What sort of a deal was it?

One idea was the concept that we have in the phrase in the Comfortable Words: ‘Hear also what St John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.’ Propitiation, making up for something. Jesus ‘suffered for our sins’. It is a process which is called ‘substitutionary atonement’. Jesus suffered punishment which we should have received instead.

Again, it is an idea which may not be right. Are we really saying that God is a cruel god, who would hurt his own son? That’s completely contrary to our belief in God as the God of love.

And again, to whom is God ‘giving’ Jesus? Obviously, we know that the idea is one of sacrifice, giving away the sacrificial Lamb or scapegoat. But if you think about it, it really implies that God may not be the only power: there is an anti-power: could it be the Devil, even? Again, it doesn’t square with everything else we believe. The Devil is surely just a handy metaphor, a logical construct; for every impulse there is an equal and opposite force, or something. Where are our physicists?

Well, I have a feeling that some of you may now be preparing an equal and opposite force in favour of lunch, so I’ll stop. I just want you to be a bit challenged, to reflect on what we can work out about God, his Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. I’m sure that, when I share the blessing with you, it will be a real blessing: what I’m not sure, and what we can, and must, talk about, is how it works, indeed how it works so well.

A Sermon for Evensong, on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany: 14th January 2018

Isaiah 60:9-22

… they shall call thee; The city of the Lord, The Zion of the Holy One of Israel… Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise.


This is all in a long passage in the third part of the Book of Isaiah – they say that there were really three prophets, whose work was grouped together under the name Isaiah – about the new Jerusalem, the return of the exiles from Babylon and what they had to look forward to. The first Isaiah, writing much earlier, dealt with the way that Israel had broken their covenant with God and followed other gods, which brought about their conquest and slavery by the Assyrians and then in Babylon. ‘By the waters of Babylon | We sat down and wept’ [Ps 137].

Now God was going to give Israel a second chance. Jerusalem and the Promised Land, the land of Zion, would be treasured by the Lord, and its glory would shine out to all the world.

The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of my feet glorious.’


There are so many things that I could say about Jerusalem. I’ve only been once so far, so my thoughts about today’s Jerusalem are not very original or deeply grounded. Although – come to think of it – I might manage a more nuanced approach than the current President of the USA. But I want to suggest a few topics for further discussion and reflection, without in any way laying down any hard and fast dogmatic points.

I don’t particularly want to talk just about Zionism today. I’m not sure that I would be able to add a lot to what you will already know, and to what you may already believe. Obviously, at this time of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, it is fitting to mention that the nation of Israel now does have a secure home in the Promised Land. At the same time, we should be mindful that the Declaration mentioned the need not to harm the indigenous Palestinians. It actually said,

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

I can’t help feeling that President Trump hasn’t helped the cause of promoting peace between Jews and Palestinians by his unilateral declaration that Jerusalem, rather than Tel Aviv, will be regarded as the capital of Israel from now on.

But the passage in chapters 60-65 of the Book of Isaiah, about the New Jerusalem, has a significance in the Bible not so much as a rallying cry for Zionists today, but as a vision of what the coming of the Messiah would entail. Just before, in Isaiah 59:20 it says, ‘And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the Lord.’ And all this is what the Redeemer will do. The City of God has a spiritual, sacramental, significance, as well as being literally a city in the Middle East.

Don’t worry – I’m not about to inflict a précis of St Augustine’s solid tome called ‘City of God’ on you today. The thought that I wanted to explore was more along the lines of ‘Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott’ – a secure stronghold is our God. Home: a place of safety: a refuge.

I was thinking the other day that I have lived in Surrey for longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my 66 years. I’ve lived here, mainly in Cobham, but with a five-year excursion to Esher, for 27 years – nearly half my life. Cobham is my home. But what does that mean, especially in the context of the prophet Isaiah?

The Israelites, coming to their new home, were exiles. They would not have recognised Babylon, where they’d been, for many years, as home. It was almost as if a prisoner, serving a life sentence, had said that his home was ‘Pentonville’. I don’t think he would.

But then the next issue is a possible conflict between those whose home somewhere has always been, and others who, for whatever reason, are incomers to that place. All other things being equal, should an incomer be equally entitled to live somewhere, equally with someone who was born and brought up there?

You might say, ‘I was born here. I pay my taxes and contribute to society here’. But why does being born somewhere and paying taxes give you rights? Why should an incomer not also pay his taxes and be at home?

What happens if you become a refugee? There are often discussions about whether people are ‘genuine refugees’ or just ‘economic migrants’. I wonder, though, whether the dividing line is quite so clear. If, say, I was a doctor in Syria, but ISIS invaded my home town and I had to flee with my family, then as well as being homeless, and so needing to find another home, I would need some work. I would be an economic migrant as well.

But what about people who simply come from one country to another in order to seek better work, to make money? They are, indeed, economic migrants. But is that a bad thing? Why should where one is born and brought up determine where one ends up? What about the USA, whose wealth is derived in large part from economic migrants? For them the USA is really a place of which one could say, ‘… thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise.’

And come to think of it, Jesus and his disciples were ‘of no fixed abode’ for most of the time. Think of his sending out the twelve apostles: ‘enquire who in [the town you go into] .. is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence. … And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it… And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.’ (Matt. 10:11-14).

There isn’t a simple answer. But it might be a good idea for us sometimes to reflect on Isaiah’s prophecies, and just wonder where the City of God now is. Is it the City, or a City, of God? Is it ‘Jerusalem the golden | with milk and honey blessed’? And how long do you need to have been there, if you want to stay? Does salvation and praise come into it? Time to think.

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 7th January 2018

Isaiah 42:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=382181977

Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, hit the headlines the other day by suggesting that Americans who go to church, but who also support the policies of President Trump, are not really Christians. Or, shall we say, by supporting Trump, they are acting in a way which conflicts with true Christian belief.

He doesn’t see how you can square professing to be a Christian with supporting Donald Trump, in that Donald Trump has shown that he is a womaniser, a xenophobe, a racist and a warmonger. If Christians support Donald Trump, does that in any way compromise their Christianity? The Bishop of Liverpool clearly says, ‘Yes, it does.’

Instead of the President, look for a minute at the leader whom Isaiah was describing in our first Bible reading. This is sometimes called the Song of the Covenant. It is a proclamation, through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, putting God’s words into the mouth of the prophet, describing that chosen leader, the Messiah, leading the people bound by their agreement with God, the covenant with Abraham: ‘He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.’ He is gentle. ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’. Strangely, you might feel, there’s no mention of Twitter.

But interestingly – perhaps a bit paradoxically – this is all in a series of chapters describing God reaching an agreement, a covenant, with his chosen people – it’s not just an agreement between God and the chosen people, the Israelites. Even back in the beginning, in the Old Testament, in Isaiah it says, ‘… he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles’ and ‘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’. A light of the Gentiles – the Gentiles were the non-Jews. They were what we are.

So right at the beginning, at the championing of the people of Israel in God’s eyes, there was also more than a look over the shoulder at the people who were not Jewish. The Messiah was going to be a light to them too, a ‘light to the Gentiles’. This is universal. Christ is for all the world, for everyone.

The idea of a private understanding, a covenant, between God and his ‘chosen people’ may seem a bit strange to us now. But in the Methodist Church all over the world this Sunday, the first Sunday of the year, is known as Covenant Sunday, and there is a special service in which the congregation renew their commitment to follow God’s commandments, and John Wesley’s special Covenant prayer is said. I will pray that prayer for us when I lead our prayers in a few minutes.

What the Messiah was going to do had a distinctly revolutionary aspect to it. He would bring the prisoners out of prison and give light to the blind, in a society where, if you were disabled, people thought that was because you had done something wrong and were bad in some way. So in other words the people who had the deal with the Almighty, the chosen, the chosen race, the Israelites, were not chosen so that they could carry all before them and rule the world, they were to be a haven of social justice and reconciliation, where the leader was not a mighty warrior but was a gentle person who would not hurt a fly. Rather different from President Trump.

People who are politically savvy will probably glaze over a bit as I go through this because, they will say, ‘What is the relevance of what happened 2000 years ago – or even earlier, if you are talking about Isaiah?’ There are practical things that you just can’t ignore. ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I mean, in this country these days, even if in an ideal world we would like to, we just don’t have the money to do all the good things that we would like to do.’

But it is notable that in the Bible there is never any reference to what doing the right thing might cost. It’s just a question whether it’s the right thing to do or not. St Paul’s point in our second lesson from Ephesians is that, given that the Messiah has come, that Jesus has appeared, and in so doing God has renewed his covenant; so there is an effect on the faithful believers. Once they realise that God has taken an interest in them, then, the argument goes, they won’t want to do any bad things in future. It won’t matter what the practicalities are: ‘Teach us, good Lord …. to give, and not to count the cost’. That will be their guiding principle.

But whereas perhaps even in the light of this, all we can do about the godlessness of President Trump is to sigh, and say how much we disapprove, what about things nearer to home? For instance, what about the leader of Windsor borough council?

The leader of the Windsor council has written to the police and crime commissioner local to him, to ask that homeless people be cleared off the streets in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Now is there any kind of conflict between the Christianity of the wedding and the unsympathetic attitude to homeless people exhibited by the council leader? He has said that he just wanted to do something to help the wedding couple. He has said that he thought that many of the homeless people were not really homeless, because there were places where they could stay. They were begging, making themselves a nuisance.

But what would Jesus say about that? Or indeed Isaiah? The Old Testament has numerous places where the prophets tell people to look after widows and orphans, and ‘the stranger that is in your midst’. That must imply that they are homeless. And in the New Testament, in Jesus’ own words, what about the Great Judgement in Matthew 25:

Then 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:
For 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:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And 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 would suggest that it’s pretty clear that Jesus wouldn’t be sympathetic to the leader of Windsor borough council. I think Jesus would say that it doesn’t matter why someone is homeless, or a beggar. The Good Samaritan didn’t check to see whether the man who had been hurt had in some way been responsible for his plight, to blame for it, had somehow brought his misfortune on himself.

And indeed many of the organisations which work to care for the homeless have challenged the council leader’s reasoning. Thames Valley Police, the ones he asked to clear so-called ‘rough sleepers’ off the streets, didn’t think that would help. It would be more effective, the police said, if the causes of homelessness and destitution were addressed instead. Crisis, the charity for the homeless, said similar things. People don’t choose to be homeless, and they only beg when they are desperate. Shelter and Centrepoint, two other leading charities, have agreed.

I don’t know whether the leader of Windsor and Maidenhead Royal Borough Council goes to church at all. But I think that if he does, he ought to reflect very carefully on what the Bishop of Liverpool has said about whether it’s possible to be a Trump supporter and a Christian at the same time. It applies here on this side of the Atlantic too. If you don’t love your neighbour as yourself, never mind what it costs, you’re not a real Christian.

The Covenant Prayer of John Wesley (1703–1791)

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

Further Bible references: see http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20110203_1.htm