Sermon for Evensong on the 16th Sunday after Trinity, 6th October 2019 Nehemiah 5.1-13; John 9 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=437270702

‘By the waters of Babylon’, as we know from Psalm 137, the people of Israel were in exile and were not happy: ‘.. we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.’

But then King Cyrus of Persia captured Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to their ancestral land and to rebuild the Temple. If you look at the Book of Ezra, chapter 1, you will read the text of Cyrus’ proclamation:

The LORD the God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he himself has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. To every man of his people now among you I say, God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD the God of Israel, the God whose city is Jerusalem. And every remaining Jew, wherever he may be living, may claim aid from his neighbours in that place, silver and gold, goods or pack-animals and cattle, in addition to the voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem. [Ezra 1. All Bible translations in this sermon are from the New English Bible – see, for this passage, http://www.katapi.org.uk/NEB/master.html?http://www.katapi.org.uk/NEB/IntroContents.php and mutatis mutandis for the other passages quoted]

Well, that’s the background to our Old Testament lesson, from the Book of Nehemiah. The Old Testament books 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, are all reckoned to have been written by the same person, known as the ‘Chronicler’, and in the Hebrew Bible Ezra and Nehemiah are all one book. Nehemiah was the Persian king’s ‘cup-bearer’, in other words a senior official of the royal household, a Jew, who led a group of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem with a view to rebuilding the city and the Temple. Clearly his entourage looked to the local population, under the terms of Cyrus’ edict, to supply them with the wherewithal to get the job done and get fed and watered.

Note that: ‘… every remaining Jew, wherever he may be living, may claim aid from his neighbours in that place, silver and gold, goods or pack-animals and cattle, in addition to the voluntary offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem’.

It didn’t go well initially.

THERE CAME A TIME when the common people, both men and women, raised a great outcry against their fellow-Jews. Some complained that they were giving their sons and daughters as pledges for food to keep themselves alive; others that they were mortgaging their fields, vineyards, and houses to buy corn in the famine; others again that they were borrowing money on their fields and vineyards to pay the king’s tax.

You might perhaps expect at this point that Nehemiah, perhaps with an additional edict from King Cyrus, would have said that, for the greater good of the enterprise, they had to make sacrifices. ‘Blood, tears, toil and sweat’, in Churchillian terms, or something more prosaic but equally tough, like that which came out under Margaret Thatcher or George Osborne; you might expect to have heard an austerity message, but from 500 BCE. ‘Just make do and put up with less: there is no alternative.’

But no: look at the fascinating exchange which actually did come next.

‘But’, they said, ‘our bodily needs are the same as other people’s, our children are as good as theirs; yet here we are, forcing our sons and daughters to become slaves. Some of our daughters are already enslaved, and there is nothing we can do, because our fields and vineyards now belong to others.’

It’s an explicit appeal to the principles of human rights, that people have worth and enjoy rights, simply by virtue of their being human. It’s the sort of language which William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect used 150 years ago. Now Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, given direct effect in this country by the Human Rights Act 1998, prohibits slavery and forced labour.

In Nehemiah’s world, slavery was normal. Some people were free, and some people were slaves. But of course slavery is not consistent with the idea of human rights – and those rights, for Christians, Jews and Moslems at least, come from God. We believe that all of us are equal in the eyes of God: all are created in the image of God. Nehemiah understood and accepted that. This is what he wrote.

‘I was very angry when I heard their outcry and the story they told. I mastered my feelings and reasoned with the nobles and the magistrates. I said to them, ‘You are holding your fellow-Jews as pledges for debt.’ I rebuked them severely and said, ‘As far as we have been able, we have bought back our fellow-Jews who had been sold to other nations; but you are now selling your own fellow-countrymen, and they will have to be bought back by us!’ They were silent and had not a word to say. I went on, ‘What you are doing is wrong. You ought to live so much in the fear of God that you are above reproach in the eyes of the nations who are our enemies.’

And he, Nehemiah, the governor, and his entourage, gave up their right to extract tribute from the local population, and indeed, in the next bit of the story you’ll see that Nehemiah and his colleagues even gave up their salaries, so that he didn’t put a burden on the local people.

Let us give up this taking of persons as pledges for debt. Give back today to your debtors their fields and vineyards, their olive-groves and houses, as well as the income in money, and in corn, new wine, and oil.’ ‘We will give them back’, they promised, ‘and exact nothing more. We will do what you say.’ So, summoning the priests, I put the offenders on oath to do as they had promised. Then I shook out the fold of my robe and said, ‘So may God shake out from his house and from his property every man who does not fulfil this promise. May he be shaken out like this and emptied!’

Who says that our religion and our sacred texts are not political? Nehemiah was a minister in the government of the king of Persia. He was for 12 years the governor of the land of Judah, and he made very important decisions, as we saw, affecting the personal taxation of the population. He abolished slavery in Judah. In Judah under Nehemiah, people had intrinsic worth, and they were not a commodity which could be bought and sold. But the reason for this, the justification for it, in Nehemiah’s eyes, was his ‘fear of God’.

‘You ought to live so much in the fear of God that you are above reproach in the eyes of the nations who are our enemies.’

It wasn’t the case that religion was on one side, in a separate compartment, if you like, and practical matters such as politics were on the other. When I read this passage again the other day I was struck by its contemporary resonances: if some people are so poor that they are sold into slavery; if they lose their homes; have to borrow money to pay for food to eat.

‘Our bodily needs are the same as other people’s, our children are as good as theirs; yet here we are, forcing our sons and daughters to become slaves.’

That could be a criticism of quite a lot of the Anglo-Saxon world today. In the USA we read that there are 13m people living below the poverty line. In this country, as I’m sure you’ll be fed up of hearing me tell you how many people have to resort to food banks. In this really prosperous area, in the borough of Elmbridge, there are three food banks, and in the Cobham one we are distributing an average of ¾ tonne of food every week.

And yet, by contrast, here we are, blessed with lovely houses, nice clothes, enough to eat, decent cars and all the good things of life. What are we supposed to do?

I went to a very interesting breakfast lecture given by a new recruit to the Diocesan staff, who is a very interesting minister, a newly-ordained Deacon called Jens Mankel, who has come to live and work in Guildford Diocese from a church in Frankfurt. It was all about making Christian faith a living reality, a compelling reality, in today’s world, here in Surrey.

We find it easy to have mother-and-toddler groups, women’s breakfasts, men’s breakfasts, parish lunches – what used to be called Agapés – ‘faith suppers’: good fellowship, love for our fellow men and women – but, perhaps we have to be honest – only up to a point. Very few of the people who come to the mother-and-toddler group actually come into church, or do anything that is a church activity. Some do: we have had some baptisms, and confirmations, which began at ‘Mothers and Others’: we have a number of volunteers working for the Foodbank who are active members of the various churches around here. Three of the trustees of the Foodbank are from St Mary’s, for example. But they’re only a minority.

But what are we doing about refugees? We now have seven refugee families in this area, and one Kurdish couple staying with me. Until people have obtained confirmation that they have been granted asylum here, they are not allowed to work, and they receive a hand-out of £35 a week. That makes it very hard to get by.

I would suggest that we ought, as a church, to adopt some outward giving charitable targets. Maybe one domestic focus and one overseas.

What do you think? If those aren’t the sort of things we should be involved in as a church, what else could we do, if we wish to follow Jesus? Do we feel compelled, do we feel that, like Martin Luther, we ‘can do no other’, because of the very fact of God and Jesus in our lives?

Or are we still to some extent tentative? Well, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. He who is not against us is for us. Perhaps I can call this ‘Nehemiah’s Challenge’. Put yourself in Nehemiah the governor’s shoes, but here in Cobham, in Stoke D’Abernon in 2019. What would you say, what would you do, if you were the Chief Executive? Who is your king?

For Nehemiah, Cyrus was his king. But more than any earthly king, Nehemiah feared – revered, respected, even loved – his Lord. I pray that it may be so for us too.

Michaelmas

Lessons at Mattins: Daniel 12.1-4, Acts 12.1-11, Psalm 150

Lessons at Evensong: Daniel 10.4-21, Revelation 5, Psalm 148

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=436417887

Against the background of the continuing wrangling over ‘Brexit’, I expect you might feel that it’s rather good that we are, today with all the Western church, celebrating the feast of St Michael and All Angels. Where are those angels, when we surely do need them?

First, let’ s define our terms. “Michael, Gabriel and Raphael are the three named biblical angels, depicted as the beloved messengers of God.” Αγγελος, in Greek, means, a messenger. “Michael, which means ‘who is like God?’, is described as protector of Israel and leader of the armies of God and is perhaps best known for his victory over the dragon, which is told in the Revelation to John.” [Rev. 12 – quotation from Brother Tristram SSF and Simon Kershaw, eds, (2007), Exciting Holiness, Norwich, Canterbury Press, p. 412].

Angels I – sermon delivered at Mattins

This morning I want to look at ‘angels’ in the Biblical context, and this evening I want to spend more time looking at the theology behind the idea of angels. Both this morning and tonight I will look at how angels could be relevant to our lives today.

Both this morning and this evening the lessons include passages from the Book of Daniel, which is almost as spectacularly weird a book as the Book of Revelation; indeed tonight, if you like apocalyptic stuff, you will get a double treat, because you will get passage from Daniel and a passage from Revelation. Definitely you are in the heavenly realm. As you read both of those passages, I think that merely earthly concerns will tend to fall away. Come tonight as well, and I’ll tell you about a very special guardian angel.

This morning we have heard a little passage from the twelfth chapter of the Book of Daniel. Daniel purports to be all about the people of Israel in exile in Babylon and then under the Persians, Syrians and Greeks, in such a way that Daniel, who was supposed to be along for the ride at all stages, would have had to have been alive for more than 400 years.

Scholars believe that the book wasn’t written at the time of the exile in Babylon, but 400 years later, about 200 BCE, after the Seleucid overthrow of the Ptolemies in Syria: the Syrians, the ‘Chaldeans’, and the resistance of the Jews led by the Maccabees. In this little vignette from Daniel’s visions we have actually what is the only explicit mention in the Old Testament of life after death. ‘Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awake.’ We know that the Pharisees did believe in life after death, but this is the only place in the Old Testament that you’ll actually see it spelt out. It’s pretty vague. The only thing to observe is that, if you read on beyond our passage, not everyone rises from the dead, but only the virtuous believers, the good and pious.

And the one who will lead the people of Israel against the evil Persian king in Daniel’s vision is Michael, ‘the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people.’ Michael, whose name means, ‘Who is like God’.

And then we come to the adventures of the Acts of the Apostles: this one not one of St Paul’s adventures, but involving St Peter himself, being put in prison and being guarded by four ‘quaternions’ of soldiers.

If you look up what a ‘quaternion’ is, the most common usage today connotes a complicated piece of mathematics. But under ‘rare’ meanings, the dictionary lists the meaning we would expect, which is that a quaternion is a group of four, so we have 16 soldiers guarding Peter in prison. Nevertheless, when everybody was asleep, somebody came along and let him out. He thought he was dreaming, but he went through the city gates – which opened by themselves – and then found that he was on his own, that the man had disappeared – or rather, the angel had disappeared. St Peter woke up and said that it had been a messenger from God. It had been an angel.

The ‘Herod’ who had put him in prison was the grandson of Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa I. Of course there is another miraculous escape from prison that Paul and Silas went through, in chapter 16 of the Acts. There they didn’t in fact run away, though there had been an earthquake and the doors of the gaol had been opened; ‘We are all here’, they said, and the grateful gaoler became baptised and was converted.

What are we to make of these angels? Later on in the chapter in Acts, St Peter went, after he’d been freed by the angel, to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many had gathered and were praying. Initially he couldn’t get in. The maid, Rhoda, didn’t open the gate to let him in, but instead she went inside to tell everyone that Peter was outside, standing at the gate. They said to her, ‘You are nuts; you’re out of your mind’, but she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel’, meaning that it wasn’t really him.The idea was that a person’s spirit – their ghost – could somehow separate itself from their body and roam around on its own. It could be mistaken for that person. They did let him in eventually.

There’s that lovely passage in the letter to the Hebrews: ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’.

There is Michael, who is like God: so maybe in some senses an angel is God. In various places in the Bible there are hierarchies in heaven; in the Letter to the Hebrews, Psalm 8 is quoted:

‘What are human beings, that you are mindful of them?

You have made them little lower than the angels.’

Messengers of God. Maybe in future people will not really understand what a messenger was. The idea of having ‘brought the news from Ghent to Aix’, or that image from all those war films of the dusty dispatch rider on his Matchless 500 miraculously getting through a bombardment in order to give the news to the colonel in charge, just won’t make sense in an era of instant communication. Why do you need a messenger when you can use Skype?

When Peter was released from prison by the angel and went to the house where the faithful were praying for him, on the face of things we could say that their prayers had been answered. They were praying for him to be released, for sure. But perhaps we should be a little bit cautious about this. If we always pray for a guardian angel to come along and save us, or fix our problems, it’s like any other prayer. We can’t boss God about, even if we want to. We’re not addressing God as some kind of superhero boss, you know; ‘Please will you send your superman down to fix things for us.’ The most we can do is to pray, ‘Thy will be done’, and that God will do whatever is in accordance with his divine will.

I think we can infer from all this that what angels do, above all, their function in the divine economy, if you like, is that they are part of God’s revelation. They are one way that God makes Himself known to us. So if indeed something good happens, and an angel seems to be involved, then perhaps we can infer that we have had a glimpse of what God really intends. And given that it does look from time to time that there are guardian angels at work, that things happen, that things turn out, better than we could reasonably expect, for no apparent good reason, then we are tempted to say that it must be a guardian angel looking out for us. Why not? Why not let us give thanks to God for showing His love for us through an angel?

So let us in all humility give thanks to God for saints and angels, and for all the company of heaven.

Angels II – sermon delivered at Evensong

Tonight’s lessons are visions of heaven, or at least of heavenly beings. Daniel’s vision was of the ‘man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz’, and all the other amazing jewellery and other finery, whom no-one except Daniel could see, who told him about being ‘sent to him’, but being delayed, by being caught up in a battle involving ‘one of the chief princes, Michael’, against ‘the prince of Persia’.

It looks as though the angel, the messenger from God, is the man clothed in linen, rather than Michael, who is a leader of the Jewish army. But as I pointed out this morning, the Book of Daniel purports to cover a 400-year swathe of history, personally witnessed throughout by Daniel himself. Of course it isn’t that: scholars agree that it is a book written about 200 BCE, in the context of the people of Israel’s subjection to the Greeks – Alexander having conquered the Persians, who previously ruled Judah – and the history that Daniel claims to have witnessed from the exile in Babylon and Babylon’s conquest by Syria, and so on, is not accurate at all.

The book falls into two halves, the first six chapters being this quasi-history, or rather a series of stories, like the fiery furnace and the escape of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from it in the face of the anger of king Nebuchadnezzar; King Belshazzar’s feast, the writing on the wall, and the interpretation of it by Daniel; and Daniel’s escape from the lions in their den, having been saved by the Lord – and by his angel. That’s what it says.

The second part consists in Daniel’s visions. The one we have here, of the spectacular man in linen clothing, comes in a dream where Daniel hears from Gabriel – described as ‘the man Gabriel, whom I had already seen in the vision’ – because indeed, when he had a vision of a ram being attacked by a flying he-goat, he heard a human voice asking someone ‘with the semblance of a man’ standing in front of him by the river Ulai, ‘Gabriel, explain the vision to this man.’ The name Gabriel, we are told, means ‘the strength of God’. He appears in other parts of the Bible where he is clearly identified as an angel – most famously in the Annunciation to Mary, that she will become the mother of the Messiah.

Then we have the chapter from Revelation, where there is a ‘strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice’, asking who is worthy to open the Book of Life with its seven seals, the answer being the Lamb, the Lamb that was slain, the embodiment of the humility, and at the same time the power, of God.

These visions of ‘saints and angels, and the whole company of heaven’ are clearly not meant to be literally interpreted. ‘Heaven’ isn’t a place; it isn’t, as indeed Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, is supposed to have reported, a glittering mountain above the clouds. It’s more of an idea, a concept. God and the realm of God is beyond our comprehension – indeed the idea of a ‘realm’, in the sense of a particular place, also doesn’t make sense. God is, more or less by definition, everywhere.

In most of the angel stories in the Bible, the angel appears to someone in a dream. For instance you will recall the stories of Jacob’s Ladder; of Jacob seeing a vision, in a dream, of angels ascending and descending into heaven; and the warning to Mary and Joseph in a dream not to take the baby Jesus back home to Nazareth, which saved him from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents; and so on.

I think that angels are more personal, more targeted in their message towards a particular individual than the prophets. Prophets, on the other hand, proclaim to the world at large the word which they receive from God.

But why do people believe in, or at least feel so positive towards, the idea of angels? Why do people talk about having ‘guardian angels’? I myself talked that way last autumn, almost exactly a year ago. I’ll tell you the story.

I had gone to bed as usual at about 11 o’clock, and after reading three lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, I was sleeping the sleep of the just. But at about 3am I suddenly woke up, shivering violently in a way I had never experienced before. It was very worrying. I decided that I needed a Beecham’s Powder. I took one, and the shivering gradually subsided. Then I realised that I was feverish, and that my right ankle and shin were sore and swollen.

I went back to bed, thinking that I’d caught some fluey bug – the sort of thing that some people call ‘man flu’ (which is a misconception, of course) – and that if I stayed in bed for a day or so, took more Beecham’s Powders and possibly had a snort or two of Scotch, I would be fine. At 9 o’clock I woke up again, phoned all the people that I was going to see that day, and cancelled my appointments. I relaxed, took another Beecham’s Powder, and went back to bed.

About an hour later, my daughter Emma rang me, completely out of the blue. She is a head-and-neck surgeon, and last year she was a surgical registrar in a hospital in Bristol. She was between operations on her morning list. In the post that morning, her new iPhone X had arrived. In between operations, she was trying it out.

‘I know’, she said to herself, ‘I’ll ring Dad and see how he is’. And that’s what she did. I told her how I was. She said she didn’t like the sound of it, and would come and see me. I told her not to worry. I’d taken the Beecham’s Powders and I would be absolutely fine in the morning.

Actually, in the morning, I wasn’t fine. My leg had really swollen up, and I felt pretty ghastly. But before I had had time to worry much about it, Emma was there. She’d scooped up my little grandson Jim, who’s now nearly three, and driven from Bristol first thing. An hour later I was admitted to Epsom Hospital with what she had correctly diagnosed, over the phone, as sepsis.

Those of you who follow the Archers will know that sepsis will see you off in 48 hours, or at the very least cause you to have limbs amputated, if it’s not treated very quickly. I had about 24 hours to live when I was admitted. Emma had saved her Dad’s life.

Emma had no good reason to ring me. It wasn’t a regular phone call spot. We didn’t have any special news to tell each other – or rather, she didn’t have any special news to tell me. What gave her the idea to call me? We’ll never know – but I know that she saved me, and that it felt as though she was really my guardian angel.

Who knows whether that makes coherent theological sense? All I do know, is that I did feel very blessed. God had cared for me, and had sent Emma as His angel. How wonderful thou art!

I don’t know whether it is more than just a nice heartening story. A sceptic would surely say that. Even comparing it with the Biblical angel stories, Emma certainly didn’t remember any dreams, with angels telling her to ring home in them.

We like to experience visions, or to use our imagination to create worlds. Think of the popularity of those epic TV sagas like Game of Thrones – or indeed the upstairs-downstairs world of Downton Abbey. For most people that world, that world of the landed aristocracy in a bygone age, could be just as much a figment of the imagination as Game of Thrones. Maybe indeed the visions in Daniel and in the Book of Revelation, the pictures in glorious Technicolor of the heavenly realms, the images of God on his throne surrounded by his angels and with the Lamb at his right hand, sitting on golden thrones; maybe those visions are just that, dream sequences, myths which our own minds have produced.

We are attracted – perhaps in the way that we feel a pull to look over the edge of a precipice – to the idea of the end time, to the Apocalypse, the great revealing, the great Revelation, and the final judgement, the separation of the sheep from the goats.

Poor old goats – they’re always the baddies. Just as in Daniel’s vision of the Lamb and the he-goat, and again at the end of time. The Jews had their idea of the Scapegoat, another poor goat on to whose horns all the sins were metaphorically, sacramentally tied in a red cloth by the priests, who drove the poor animal out to starve in the desert. He died for their sins. He took upon himself the burden of their sin. Just as we say Jesus did for us.

The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt (1854-1856)

Liberal theologians like John Robinson, in Honest to God, and Don Cupitt, in The Sea of Faith, or Paul Tillich,have argued that God isn’t a thing, defined in time and space, but rather is the heart of our being, or that God goes beyond, transcends, all existence; so perhaps in a similar way angels, angels appearing to us in dreams, may not exist in the same way that tables and chairs exist: but it is perfectly in order for us to fantasise about them, to make pictures in our minds of them, in our semi-conscious moments. And I still think that my daughter Emma has an angel behind her. I hope and pray that you, when you are in need, are as fortunate as I was. I really think that God sent me an angel.

Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 25th August 2019 – Prophetic and Theological Considerations in the Brexit Debate

Isaiah 30:8-21; [2 Corinthians 9] – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433650150

The first part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, sometimes known as ‘First Isaiah’, (because scholars think that there were three prophets whose work is collectively known as the Book of the Prophet Isaiah), ‘the first book of Isaiah’, was written in the 8th century BCE. It’s been pointed out that that century was one of the pivotal points in the history of modern civilisation.

It was the time when the Homeric legends, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were first being recited by travelling bards; in the British Isles, Celts, refugees from mainland Europe, were pouring into Cornwall; Egypt was where the most sophisticated culture was, and Assyria (Syria, roughly) was the most powerful imperial power. It was a time of religious stirrings. Zoroaster was born in Persia in about 650BCE. The Upanishads were written in India probably between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE. It was the time of Confucius and Tao in China.

E. H. Robertson has written, ‘Over the whole world the spirit of God stirred the spirit of man. In Judah and Israel, four men spoke in the name of the living God, …’ [ Robertson, E. H., Introduction to J.B. Phillips, 1963, ‘Four Prophets’, London, Geoffrey Bles, p. xxv] These were the four prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. Just as in the middle of the 19th century it was a time of revolutions, and the end of the 20th century it was the beginning of the digital age, this, in the 8th century BCE, was another turning point in human history.

The spiritual narrative of this historic period was supplied, in Israel and Judah, by the four prophets.The great historical event in this period was the fall of Samaria in 732BCE, when the whole of the Northern Kingdom, Syria and Israel was depopulated and turned into Assyrian provinces. It was a great shock to the people of Israel left in the Southern Kingdom, Judah. Her prophets, particularly Isaiah, were finally listened to. ‘The general line taken by the prophets was, trust in God and keep out of foreign alliances.’ [Robertson, p.xxvi]

Our lesson tonight from chapter 30 of First Isaiah is exactly on this point. The prophet is saying that God has told him to tell the Israelites not to make an alliance with the Egyptians. But he complains that they are not taking any notice. How does God communicate with us?

I heard on the radio an absolutely fascinating programme about the fire in York Minster [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007pws]. This year, of course, we have had the terrible fire in Notre Dame in Paris, but in July 1984 there was a terrible fire in York Minster, which destroyed the roof of the south transept and caused extensive damage to the magnificent mediaeval Rose window.

Just before the fire, a new Bishop of Durham had been consecrated, David Jenkins. He was an academic theologian in the liberal theological tradition; in other words, he did not hold with a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible. Indeed, he went as far as saying that he didn’t think that the Virgin Birth necessarily literally took place.

When he was consecrated as Bishop of Durham, in York Minster, there was an outcry from some parts of the church; today no doubt it would have been a ‘Twitter storm’, protesting that Bishop Jenkins, Prof. Jenkins, was flying in the face of the traditional beliefs of the church over the previous 2,000 years. Some people went as far as to say that the fire in the Cathedral, in the Minster, which was attributed, by the surveyors who came to examine the wreckage, most probably to a lightning strike, that it was an ‘act of God’, literally, in that God had struck the Minster with lightning and set fire to it, as a way of showing His disapproval of the preferment of David Jenkins to the bishopric of Durham.

Isaiah was prophesying to the Israelites in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, against their making an alliance with Egypt. Judah heeded the prophecy, and did not make an alliance with Egypt. The Israelites were able to build the Temple and live in peace for nearly 100 years.

Now we are perhaps at another pivotal time in history – well, certainly in the history of this country; and perhaps if one includes as a key element in this current historical perspective the rise of populism, this pivotal time affects not only our country, but also the USA and Italy at least. We are noticing changes in our society as a result; there have been increases in nationalism and xenophobia, (with an unhealthy interest in where people have come from), leading to opposition to immigration, which also involves a ground-swell of racism.

In the British manifestation of this wave of populism, in the Brexit debate, there is also an emphasis on sovereignty – ‘take back control’, they say – as well as all the other features of populist politics. So in relation to all this, is there an Isaiah out there speaking to us? A prophetic voice, guiding us in relation to this turbulent time? And if there is, are we listening?

We look at some of the prophetic utterances in the Bible, and wonder if they might also be talking about our present age. Last week’s Gospel reading for instance, in which Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father. ..’ [Luke 12:51f.]

Dare I say that Brexit has had very much the same effect? Friends have stopped speaking to each other. Families are divided. Literally billions have been spent on preparing for something which there is no agreement about, either within our population, our Parliament or with our European neighbours; at the same time our hospitals are desperate for resources, our schools, similarly, have often not got enough money for books, and our local authorities can’t afford to fill the potholes – and that’s not saying anything about the need for housing or the closures of our fire stations.

Is this another time when a prophet might say that God is punishing us, or that He may punish us? Revd Dr Jonathan Draper, the General Secretary of Modern Church (which used to be called the Modern Churchmen’s Union), who was the Dean of Exeter, in his conference speech in July, has tried to identify the theological aspects of the Brexit debate. I’ll put a link to his paper on the website with the text of this sermon. [Published written version: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5ees6m98pb25bh9/theology%20after%20brexit%20-%20final.docx?dl=0 – version as delivered: https://www.modernchurch.org.uk/2019/july-2019/1494-how-theology-has-failed-over-brexit]

He says, ‘Our national so-called ‘debate’ on Brexit has exposed deep, damaging, and shocking divisions: divisions that cut across families and friends, divisions that have exposed the raw experience of some of being entirely left out and ignored by the political and ecclesiastical ‘elite’, divisions that pit one part of the nation against others. Without even leaving, a deep and disturbing vein of xenophobia and racism has been exposed and even normalized in our public life.’

He goes on. ’Dr Adrian Hilton wrote ‘A Christian Case for Brexit’ on the website christiansinpolitics.org.uk. … His …. reasons for why Christians should want to be out of the EU [are], he writes, ‘about liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’.’ As Dr Draper points out, these are not theological reasons. There is nothing in the Bible to support these reasons.

In relation to the various things we have identified in the Brexit debate, it seems doubtful whether the ‘Christian case’ would in fact elevate ‘liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’ over such things as loving one’s neighbour – who, as the Good Samaritan found, might not be of the same nationality – and that anyway there is ‘no such thing as Jew and Greek’ in the Kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28) [https://biblehub.com/kjv/galatians/3.htm]- that nationality is not something which mattered to our Lord; and that political power, democratic or otherwise, wasn’t very important either, in the context of the Kingdom. More important to love (and therefore obey) the Lord your God. ‘Render unto Caesar’, indeed; but in those days democracy was practically non-existent.

Another theologian, Dr Anthony Reddie, has pointed out ‘a rising tide of white English nationalism’ and ‘the incipient sense of White entitlement’; that participants in the Brexit debate seem to have emphasised White English interests to the exclusion of other races and nationalities. Dr Reddie feels that the churches should be speaking out against this. He asks why the churches have not ‘measured Brexit against the standards of justice and equality’, loving God and loving neighbour. Dr Reddie also argues that churches ought to consider ‘not just the rights and wrongs of Brexit, but what it has done to us’. [Quoted in Dr Draper’s written text]

Dr Draper goes on to consider the theology of incarnation, of being the body of Christ, Christ incorporated in His church. It isn’t an individualistic thing. He quotes John Donne’s poem, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’:

Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

He also says this.

‘This is not an argument for saying that we ought to stay in the EU. It is an argument for saying that a Christian theology of the Kingdom of God, being all one in Christ, drives us away from things that divide us and towards things that bring us together. … The impulse to unity ought to be strong for Christians. Walls, barriers that divide, theologies that exclude, have no part of the Christian vision.’

Where do we as a church stand in relation to the concept of human rights, for example? Our own MP, who is now the Foreign Secretary, has recently campaigned to abolish the Human Rights Act. This is something which our country adopted by signing up to a European convention – a convention which was actually drafted by English lawyers. Although the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution, it is seen, mistakenly, by some Brexit supporters as interference in our country’s sovereignty by the EU. What do we as Christians have to say about this? Surely, at this pivotal point in our national life, it is too important for us to stay silent. How does Brexit square with Jesus’ great human rights challenge at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel? Dr Draper, [in the version of his paper that he delivered], quoted it in this way.

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. [Matt. 25: 37-40]”

He went on.

‘And let’s not spiritualise this either. To feed the hungry is a political act; to welcome the stranger is a political act: enacting, embodying the Christian faith is a political act. And sometimes that means not just praying for everyone but taking sides.’

That’s what Dr Draper said to the Modern Church conference. I don’t think Isaiah would have kept quiet either: but would we have heard him?

‘How is the food bank doing?’ Everyone asks me. The short answer, of course, is, ‘Much better, since Daisy Bates took over from me as manager’!

Seriously though, you have to give a rather different answer about how a food bank is ‘doing’ than you would if you were being asked about your hedge fund, or your property company, or whatever else you work for: because in one sense you might say that a food bank was successful when it’s no longer needed, and so it’s closing – but, whichever party wins the next election, I think that, sadly, nothing much is likely to change, at least so far as the people who haven’t enough to buy food are concerned.

What would really help our clients – and might indeed probably put us out of business – would be legislation to raise the minimum wage to the ‘Living Wage’: to stamp out the ways that people get round paying people properly, like zero-hours contracts and the use of employment contractors in Eastern Europe. And of course, if there was a proper council house building programme and the bedroom tax was abolished until it was completed. That would all help.

But as things are, we have found out that, even in the second most prosperous borough in England, Elmbridge – which is where Cobham is – there are significant numbers of people who need to obtain vouchers for the food bank.

We’ve also found out that the Trussell Trust standard model, of food to cover emergencies, lasting at most three or four weeks, is not really adequate for a number of our clients. We keep full statistics of all the reasons for needing a food voucher, and by far the biggest causes of hunger here are low income and unemployment, 49.8% and 23.3% of all the people fed since we started. Although we hear that unemployment has gone down, our figures suggest that unfortunately some of the new jobs don’t pay enough for people to live on. As I said earlier, whichever party or parties form the next government, it would be good if they raised the minimum wage. Changes in the State benefit system and delays in paying benefits were relatively minor causes of need – 5.2% and 5.8% respectively.

People just not earning enough to live on is a cause of food poverty which isn’t capable of being fixed in three or four weeks. We therefore have some clients who have come to the Foodbank over a longer period. The procedure in such cases is that the Foodbank manager checks with the agency which issues the vouchers in question, to verify that there is a genuine continuing urgent need. It has been very unusual – only a couple of cases since we started – for me to find a case where I believe that someone is exploiting the Foodbank wrongly.

To go back briefly to the beginning, I should report that the Foodbank was set up by a working group from Churches Together. Most of the working group then became trustees. I want to thank my fellow trustees for all their hard work and support in setting up and administering the Foodbank.

We took two key strategic decisions at the outset, to become affiliated to the biggest network of food banks, the Trussell Trust network, and to establish the Foodbank as an independent charity, registered as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation. St Andrew’s Church, here, lent us the £1,500 joining fee for our Trussell Trust subscription, which gave us a comprehensive operating manual – in detail, how to run your food bank – computer software and their national data system, training for our volunteers, and important publicity materials and support.

We leased a 400 sq.ft. warehouse at Brook Willow Farm just outside Leatherhead, and Waitrose kindly fitted it out with shelving. We use Waitrose crates too – they haven’t charged us for any of the shelving or the crates. The crates cost about £4 each, and at any one time we have about 200 of them.

The Methodist Church offered the use of their hall in Cedar Road as a distribution centre, from which we hand out food in exchange for vouchers on Friday lunchtimes from midday to 1.30. The Methodist Church gave us exclusive use of a walk-in cupboard at the hall, which Sainsbury’s kindly fitted out for us without charge. Sainsbury’s have also been great supporters. They allow us to get food up to a certain value each month, to fill gaps in what we have been given.

Trussell Trust provides special training for anyone who is going to work at the sharp end, dealing with clients in the distribution centre. It can be very tough for some people to be brave enough to go to the Foodbank, and those of you who work in the ‘DC’, as we call it, have created a really welcoming and non-judgmental atmosphere. Well done and thanks for that.

Cargill’s generosity enabled us to lease the best van in the world, a Mercedes Sprinter, and we were able to have it wrapped in its distinctive green livery through generous donations.

We have been wonderfully supported financially. We have had major support from Cargill (both as a company and from staff collections), from the Community Foundation for Surrey (who awarded grants from funds contributed by various local organisations); from Cobham Combined Charities, Tearfund, Elmbridge Borough Council, this church St Andrew’s in Cobham, and from St Mary’s, and from many individuals.

We now need to encourage as many people as possible to give us a modest amount regularly, with a Gift Aid declaration if possible. There are forms here for you to fill in!

We have 132 volunteers on the books – it’s great to see so many of you here today. Some of you are DC specialists, some work in the warehouse, receiving, logging and storing the food donated each week; and some work with the van, as drivers or driver’s mates. We need more drivers and mates. The van can be driven by anyone who has a clean car licence. I will give you a little training run, which you will find pretty easy. She has a manual gearbox – 6 speeds – and she doesn’t have parking sensors, I’m afraid. But as the van dealers said when I collected her, ‘She does have a step!’ Just remember that if you park behind our van in future.

Every week, the congregations of our seven churches fill their green Foodbank bins and we collect it all up in the van. We’ve had generous helpful so from several of our schools – Parkside, St Matthew’s, ACS, Notre Dame, Feltonfleet and Danes Hill. We have bins in Waitrose, Starbucks and Sainsbury’s Metro on the High Street.

As well as their generous financial help, Cargill have provided volunteers to tackle busy periods in the warehouse, typically after we’ve had a collection day outside Waitrose or the big Sainsbury’s; those collections produce a van-ful of food, usually around one metric ton. It fills about 100 supermarket crates, the contents of which all have to be unloaded, weighed and tallied.

We have signed up over 20 voucher issuers – various agencies and people who are in a position to verify that a person is in genuine need, such as the CAB, Jobcentre, Oasis Childcare Trust, various arms of Elmbridge Borough Council such as the Housing Benefit department and Cobham Centre for the Community, and all the ministers of religion. The voucher system means that there is never any awkwardness at the ‘point of sale’ – anyone who presents a voucher is entitled to get some food: no ifs, no buts. They are entitled.

Finally in the roll of honour of supporters, I should mention the press, especially the Surrey Advertiser, who have given us really good coverage, and our MP, Dominic Raab, who came and officially opened the Foodbank in December 2013.

So, largely thanks to you, we are up and running. We are the fourth food bank in the borough of Elmbridge, and one of over 400 in the Trussell Trust network. I originally offered to be the manager for one year, and so I was very pleased when Daisy offered to take over. You have been finding out – and fixing – all the various things I hadn’t quite got round to, and already I think the Foodbank is looking more dynamic and go-ahead. I hope you’ll all follow us on Twitter – that’s where you’ll see all the news about the Foodbank, and especially, what we’re short of, every week.

I can honestly say that my year as Foodbank manager has been really fulfilling, and I hope that, with all your help, we’ve laid good foundations for long service for needy people in Cobham. I am planning to move nearer my family in Bristol later this year. Meanwhile I will be very happy to continue to work as a trustee, and my special area will be transport, looking after our lovely van!

Hugh Bryant

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 11th August 2019 – Foreboding and Consolation

Isaiah 11:10 – 12:6; 2 Corinthians 1:1-22 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=432463430)

This morning Godfrey told us, in his sermon, how he had a feeling of foreboding; that he felt that many things were not going well in the world. There is already too much suffering in the world, and he is afraid that things are going to get much worse. Climate change. Wars, and millions of refugees. Inequality. Desperate poverty in the midst of riches. And yes, Brexit too. How can we be consoled? What is God’s plan? Is there any hope?

Let’s start with some old stuff. About 500 years before the coming of Jesus Christ, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, were in exile, in captivity in Babylon, or spread out, a diaspora throughout the ancient Middle East. But Isaiah prophesied that salvation would come.

‘On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.

He will raise a signal for the nations,

   and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,

and gather the dispersed of Judah

   from the four corners of the earth.’

This is a reference to the early history of Israel. Following the death of King Solomon in 933BCE, the kingdom broke into two, the south, that of Judah of which is the capital was Jerusalem, and the north, called Israel, of which the capital was Samaria. 200 years later, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, and, just over a century later, the Babylonians seized Judah, and deported the people to Babylon. ‘By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept’ (Psalm 137).

In fact, the exile in Babylon only lasted 50 years, because in 538BCE King Cyrus of Persia liberated the Jews.

Some scholars have suggested that this section in the first part of Isaiah’s prophecy looks forward to the coming of the Messiah; and indeed our lesson is just after a famous passage which is usually taken to be a prophecy about the Messiah.

‘…[T]here shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, … with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth … and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.

And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; … They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’ (Isaiah 11:1-9)

There are aspects of the history of Israel which I think we have to be careful about. That one people, one racial group, can be regarded as uniquely chosen by God, as clearly was the understanding in Old Testament times and indeed much later, is now an idea which is perhaps somewhat problematical. Now we think of God as a universal god, as loving everyone in His creation; that God has no favourites.

But let us take it for now that this prophecy is not nationalistic, but it is a vision of God’s Kingdom, a vision of the ideal world. Just as Moses had led the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, so there would be a second gathering, to bring them together out of subjection. Maybe indeed it isn’t partial; maybe Isaiah does not exclude the non-Jewish people from his vision of the Kingdom of God. He says,

‘And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.’ (Isaiah 11:12)

An ‘ensign for the nations’, a sign for the nations. ‘Nations’ are the non-Jewish people, the ‘Gentiles’. The Messiah would come, the rod of Jesse. He would bring salvation, and bring the exiles home.

But as well as that ancient prophecy, which brought consolation and hope for the people of Israel in their exile, I want to talk about St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, to the people living in the important city that joins Achaia, the mainland of Greece which has Athens in it and extends up to Salonica, and the Peloponnese, the bit with the three prongs on the map, that stick down from the southern part of the mainland of Greece. They were living in the time when Isaiah’s prophesies had been fulfilled. The Kingdom, the Messiah, had arrived.

When St Paul was visiting Corinth, Corinth was the administrative centre of the Roman province of Achaia. It is interesting, as it always is with St Paul’s letters, to try to work out what he was in effect answering: what the other side of the picture was. What were the Corinthians doing – the Corinthian Christians, that is – that prompted St Paul to write to them and give them his advice on how to be better Christians? We don’t know. But the advice, which St Paul gave in this first part of his letter, was about sympathy, about consolation in times of distress. It was a message which is very relevant today.

Sympathy is saying, ’I feel your pain’, and it might extend, to some extent, to vicarious suffering; volunteering to accept punishment or suffer pain which would otherwise be inflicted on someone else. Paul’s argument is that God comforts us in all our troubles. In following God in Jesus Christ and being comforted ourselves, we in turn are able to comfort other people in their troubles.

If we have to endure suffering, we are like Christ in that suffering. ‘As the sufferings of Christ abound in us’, said St Paul – but even so, we are consoled, we are comforted, by the way that Jesus triumphed over suffering and death, in his Resurrection. The idea is that that resurrection power, that resurrection consolation, is shared with us as Christians, and so we are able to deal with and withstand any suffering we may undergo.

On the face of it, St Paul has laid out a very neat logical scheme, to show how Christianity ‘works’ to the good of all who believe. Think of Mrs C.F. Alexander’s Christmas carol, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.

For he is our childhood’s pattern

Day by day like us he grew

He was little, weak and helpless

Tears and smiles like us he knew.

And he feeleth for our sadness

And he shareth in our gladness.’

‘And he feeleth for our sadness; And he shareth in our gladness.’ We sometimes say, about somebody, that we ‘feel for them’; or you might say to somebody, ‘I share your pain’. But in a real sense we don’t.

We can’t literally feel what another person feels. We can’t even be sure that what the other person’s senses perceive is the same as what we perceive. On a rather basic level, we sometimes can’t even agree what colour something is. Some people see yellows as greens, or greens as yellows, for example.

One of the most intriguing questions, that always challenges us, is ‘What does it feel like?’ What does it feel like to fly on Concorde? What does it feel like to drive a Ferrari?

The thing is that somebody who’d done those things could tell you all about them; but really you still wouldn’t know what it felt like. And again, in relation to the idea of suffering in somebody else’s place, that somehow or other you can transfer the suffering, there can’t be a literal way of doing that; but where diseases are concerned, there is of course the mechanism of infection; so to some extent that kind of suffering can be transferred – but that’s not what we are thinking about here.

What if we are on the wrong end of some of the things that the ‘Rod of Jesse’ puts right: if we are poor, if we are humble, if we suffer from someone’s wickedness; if the rich and powerful exploit their position to become richer and more powerful, and make us weaker and poorer. Is there some mechanism for passing on, taking away, those things – those ‘tribulations’?

Suppose somebody sidled up to you and said, ‘Look: you’re poor, and I am rich. Let’s swap places.’ That might be what St Paul had in mind. It’s a bit far-fetched. But let’s explore the idea nevertheless.

It might well help my understanding, my sympathy, to swap places with one of the Foodbank’s clients for a period. They might enjoy living in my nice house and driving my nice car – and of course, feeding my nice cats. Is that what St Paul, effectively, is talking about? That we should be willing to do what Jesus did, to humble ourselves and become servants? I don’t feel your pain. I can’t feel your pain. But is there anything which I can do, to take some of that pain away? I can still ‘put myself in your place’, at least figuratively.

Still thinking about the food bank clients, what types of food do food bank clients eat? Pasta? Or baked beans? But put yourself in their position. What would you like to eat? Surely not just pasta and beans. Actually, poor people like to eat the same stuff that you and I like.

That’s our challenge. I think that’s what St Paul is saying. To the extent that Jesus took upon himself, in some way, the sins of the world, and symbolically, sacramentally, accepted punishment for them, so we should take contemporary ills upon ourselves: the shortages, the injustices, the things that make people hungry.

We should reach out to people who are suffering, and try to take some of that suffering away from them. We can put it alongside what we know of Christ’s suffering, and by sharing it in that way, ‘A trouble shared …’ is at least a trouble halved.

Sermon for Evensong on the ninth Sunday after Trinity, 18th August 2019

Isaiah 28:9-22, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433037279 – Not Just a Crown Jewel

Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. (Isaiah 28:9)

Sometimes I expect you are slightly puzzled by our Bible readings at Evensong. Even the language of Shakespeare might need a little bit of explanation. This is how the New English Bible renders it.

Who is it that the prophet hopes to teach,

to whom will what they hear make sense?

Are they babes newly weaned, just taken from the breast?

It could be a taunt thrown back by the drunken prophets of Judah at Isaiah. J.B. Phillips has translated it as, ‘Are we just weaned … Do we have to learn that The-law-is-the-law-is-the-law, The rule-is-the-rule-is-the-rule…?’. [Quoted by Derek Kidner in The New Bible Commentary, 4th edition 1994, reprinted 2007, Nottingham, Inter-Varsity Press, p 650.]

The background to this prophecy in Isaiah is the situation in Jerusalem between 740 and 700 BCE the two kingdoms of the Israelites, the North, Samaria, and the South, Judah, were being threatened by Assyria – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, if you remember Byron’s poem. In 734 the kings of Damascus and Samaria tried to force Jerusalem to join a coalition against Assyria. This ‘Syro-Ephraimite’ war is the background to the main prophecies of Isaiah. So our passage is prophecy addressed to the rulers in Jerusalem.

14 Listen then to the word of the LORD, you arrogant men

who rule this people in Jerusalem.

15 You say, ‘We have made a treaty with Death

and signed a pact with Sheol:

so that, when the raging flood sweeps by, it shall not touch us;

for we have taken refuge in lies

and sheltered behind falsehood.’

16 These then are the words of the Lord GOD:

Look, I am laying a stone in Zion, a block of granite,

a precious corner-stone for a firm foundation;

he who has faith shall not waver.

17 I will use justice as a plumb-line

and righteousness as a plummet;

hail shall sweep away your refuge of lies,

and flood-waters carry away your shelter.’ (Isaiah 28:14-17, NEB)

Godfrey, in some of his sermons recently, has been introducing a ‘that was then: this is now’ angle on what he is preaching about. It’s perhaps a bit tempting, to compare Isaiah’s criticism of the rulers of Judah, whom he criticised as being ‘liars’, and indeed earlier on as ‘complete drunkards’, tempting to compare them with some contemporary politicians today.

What is our prophetic duty at this time? What would Jesus say? What would Isaiah say if he were around today? One thing seems pretty clear, that God wants nothing to do with lies and deception. It’s perhaps sobering to realise that, in 721, the Assyrians did conquer Samaria, the Northern Kingdom, shortly after Isaiah had prophesied; and just over a century later, the Southern Kingdom also fell and the people were largely deported to Babylon. So these ‘scoffers’, whom Isaiah railed against, didn’t end well.

As has been said very well by Godfrey, this is a time of great anxiety, for just about all of us. Nobody knows what is going to happen with our way of life, with our country, and with our relationships with the rest of the world. We don’t like the signs of xenophobia, racism and extreme nationalism that the populist politicians in this country and abroad seem to have encouraged.

These are not just questions of taste. People are getting hurt; refugees are being abandoned on the high seas by populist politicians who seem to have completely forgotten the milk of human kindness, let alone the law of the sea. On the Mexican border with the USA, our closest allies are separating young children from their parents and putting them in cages without any sanitation.

Where should our church fit in, how should we deal with all this? Our second lesson tonight, from 2 Corinthians, is, in effect, about planned giving to the church. I’m sure everybody will be groaning away at that: but even 2,000 years ago, when St Paul was writing to the congregation in Corinth, he was telling them all about the generosity of other new Christian churches in Macedonia. There’s a wonderful piece of Greek which is really untranslatable in the second verse of our lesson, saying that the Macedonians have excelled in generosity although they are poor – the words mean ‘rich from poverty’ – εἰς τὸ πλοῦτος τῆς ἀπλότητος αὐτῶν· It’s the same idea as in Jesus’ story of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4).

Not that they gave nothing; but that they gave much more than, as poor people, they might be expected to give. Stephen Chater is speaking to as many of us as possible, encouraging everybody to ‘Count ourselves in’. Count me in, so far as supporting our church’s financial position is concerned.

But I suspect that we ought to consider something a bit wider as well. And if we do consider something wider, it will surely lead us on to the sort of sacrificial giving which St Paul praises here.

On September 8th we will open the church at the beginning of the ‘Crown Jewels of Cobham’ scheme organised by Cobham Heritage. We will encourage people to come and look at our beautiful church, along with the other places locally which have been called ‘crown jewels’, (about which you’ll find a nice booklet on your way out if you haven’t already got one).

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m sure it’ll be very enjoyable and everybody will have a wonderful time working out whether our brass knights in front of the altar are the real thing or some very clever reproduction. If you haven’t made up your own mind which it is, and you’d like to come and look close up, do come after the service and have a look in the sanctuary. The Sir Johns, D’Abernon, Senior and Junior, are ready to welcome you!

But the thing is that, as a parish church, we surely have a place in the community. We aren’t just a monument to be admired. We have indeed affirmed that in our PCC and at our parish ‘awayday’ a little while ago now.

What we come to church to do is not just to love God, but it is also to love our neighbour as ourself. And at present we haven’t got any settled outward-social-concern or giving projects. They might not just be questions of money – although it usually does involve some money – but there is also the question of a ‘warm embrace’ for our neighbours, as that wonderful local Christian figure Derek Williams, who has sadly just died, used to put it.

At St Mary’s we do a lot of good already in supporting the Foodbank, for example, not only with money but also by providing three of the five trustees who manage it.

There are other important local charities that do a lot of good in this area, that we might want to involve ourselves more closely with as well.

Oasis – sometimes called Oasis Children’s Charity – exists to put families back together and restore the self-confidence of family members who have suffered from break-ups, in particular involving domestic violence. That’s a terrible scourge, which unfortunately is very prevalent in Surrey. Surrey has, if not the highest level of domestic violence in the country, something very close to it, according to those who work in this field. The local authority delegates some important social work functions to Oasis – but at the same time they have cut their funding. Could we help?

We have now, in and around Cobham, Oxshott, Stoke D’Abernon and the immediate vicinity (meaning the areas that the Foodbank covers), I think there are nine of them, Syrian refugee families, who are being helped in various highly practical ways by the local refugee welcome charity called Elmbridge CAN. Maybe we could get involved there.

I was excited to hear that one of our ‘Mums’ has discovered that some local children, some no more than 11 years old, are being left at home on their own in the holidays because Mum and Dad are both out at work. What about a ‘holiday club’ in St Mary’s Hall, with some interesting things to do with friends around – maybe the odd outing, to Bockett’s Farm perhaps – and all with some responsible adults to supervise? If you’re interested, talk to Kelly McConville or Emma Tomalin. The objective is to have the holiday club ready for the Christmas holiday.

And last on my list of local charitable initiatives, there is the Safe Places scheme, which I mentioned last week. The idea is that there will be a network of places to which somebody feeling vulnerable or in a crisis, who wants to find a quiet, safe place for an hour or so, can go to, directed by an app on their phone and social media publicity. It’s an initiative started by Elmbridge Borough Council in response to a national movement; and the churches have been invited to be at the heart of it. After all, churches have been places of refuge since the beginnings of Christianity.

So far, I’m sad to say, people have reacted rather negatively to the idea of St Mary’s becoming a place of refuge, to the effect that ‘We don’t have many people passing by this church, just to drop in: so really, it isn’t worth the effort’.

The point about not being on the beaten track seems to me to be a misapprehension. The whole point is that we should make our church a beacon, a beacon of hope, to which people are attracted. We can use modern technology and social media to help with this. I hope we can think more about becoming a Safe Space.

And then there are all the things abroad that we could consider getting involved in.

In view of the refugee crisis, perhaps we should look at the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, or one of the great Christian overseas charities, Christian Aid (not just for Christian Aid Week, but year-round), or World Vision or Oxfam or Save the Children, for example.

I would like to get us talking about this. These things won’t happen overnight, but, as a growing church, we should have some of them on our agenda. The wonderful thing is that, if we look outside ourselves, we will grow, and God will give us the strength. It’s like that wonderful film ‘Field of Dreams’ and the man who dreamed about bringing the legendary Babe Ruth to life again – ‘If you build it, he will come’. And in a more mundane way, in the church, many people come to faith by ‘doing stuff’ – belonging and then believing.

Remember what Isaiah said:

‘Now therefore be ye not mockers, lest your bands be made strong’

‘Lest your bands be made strong’ – lest all those things you’re worried about overwhelm you.

Instead we must love God – and not forget to love our neighbour – if our church is indeed to become a ‘cornerstone in Zion’, a precious corner-stone, a sure foundation, at this worrying time of uncertainty. I pray that with God’s grace, it will happen. And do let’s talk about it.

Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 4th August 2019

1 Corinthians 14:1-19 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=431776062)

I was going to say that what St Paul says in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, about ‘speaking in tongues’ and prophesying, isn’t very British. You know, I don’t think you very often do get people ‘speaking in tongues’ in your average parish church.

When we were doing our theological training I once had to ask Christian friends in my own and other churches that I knew of, whether they knew of anybody who spoke in tongues. I was surprised to hear that several did.

But do we know what ‘speaking in tongues’ really is? In the New English Bible they talk about ‘using the language of ecstasy’; and of course in the chapter before our reading tonight, there is that very famous passage that you often hear at weddings, which begins, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels …’ Or the hymn,

‘Angel voices, ever singing,

Round the throne of light’…

How lovely. But ‘.. if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me’. (1 Corinthians 14:11).

‘Barbarian’ is an onomatopoeic word. The Greeks thought that somebody who was speaking unintelligibly made a noise like ‘bar, bar, bar’, and maybe it was a sort of animal grunt, a sub-human noise.

In other words it’s a mark of humanity that the language that you talk is an intelligible language. But of course it may still not be understood, because the person to whom you are talking may not understand your language. If somebody spoke Mandarin to me, I regret to say that I would not understand, and I imagine that a Mandarin speaker might have the same difficulty in understanding somebody speaking in Glaswegian English.

From this passage in chapter 14 and what follows it in 1 Corinthians we get an idea what the early church was like, that is, a bit of a glimpse of what happened in the early church services.

26How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

27If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.

28But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

29Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.

30If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.

31For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.

St Paul is very keen on the idea of prophesying. You’ll recall, in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul identifies all the various talents that you find in the ‘body of Christ’, that is, in the church.

27Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.

28And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

So the body of Christ is made up of all these different limbs, if you like, each one doing something different to build up the church. That’s another key word in these passages. Building up, edifying, is key. To edify, in Latin, means to make a building, and so it has grown to mean simply to build up something. What goes on in the meeting, in the teaching in church, exchanging spiritual gifts, doesn’t necessarily educate, but rather it edifies, it builds up our faith.

You’d think that this was all pretty much self-evident, and you couldn’t really imagine churches growing up where St Paul’s advice about communicating in a mutually intelligible way was not going to be followed.

Even if you are a Pentecostal church, where people do speak in tongues, nevertheless for the majority of the time people are speaking, among themselves in church and addressing God, in a language which they all understand.

But think of one of the great steps in the Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century. It was actually revolutionary for the Bible to be in a language which was ‘understanded of the people’ as Article XXIV of the 39 Articles puts it. It was a big step also for the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book to be used by all the people, to be written in English. You can get another take on what I’m talking about tonight, indeed, by reading Art XXIV of the 39 Articles. It’s on page 621 of your little Blue Prayer Books.

When the services were all in Latin, only the priest, and perhaps one of two well-educated members of the congregation, would be able to understand what was going on, in any detail. At the time of Henry VIII the words of institution in the Mass, in Holy Communion, the words ‘This is my body’, which in Latin is ‘hoc est corpus meum’, became known colloquially as ‘hocus pocus’. Divine service was not something which people took particularly seriously, because it was ‘hocus pocus’; it wasn’t able to be understood.

If they had paid more attention to what St Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 14, they would perhaps not have made that mistake. At the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, on the Day of Pentecost, when the tongues of fire came down on the heads of the disciples, they all spoke in tongues on that occasion. It wasn’t a question of babbling in animal grunts, but they spoke all the various languages which the people, who were visiting Jerusalem as pilgrims from all over the Roman empire, understood, each in their own native language. That’s properly a miracle, but it points to a less miraculous but still vitally important thing, which is the art of translation.

The Bible was originally written in languages which most people don’t understand any more: Hebrew for the Old Testament (and some Aramaic and some Greek) and Greek for the New Testament; so the Bibles that we use, and the service books, are largely translations. Services are based on services which were originally in Latin, and the Bible, as I said earlier, in Hebrew and Greek.

What is a ‘good translation’? What is good language for worship? There’s one school of thought which says that it’s appropriate that you use a rather special language, a rather special version of English (or whatever it is that you normally speak), when you are engaged in worship. You address God in a special ‘God-language’. So, until recently, for example, we used to use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ when we addressed God. As recently as the New English Bible you’ll find ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ where there are prayers to God or God is otherwise directly involved. And that’s as recent as 1970. Now, in Common Worship since the millennium, we are more down to earth and we talk to God as ‘you’.

But there are theological challenges associated with giving up ‘God language’. If you talk to God as ‘you’, as though God was the man next-door – the ‘man upstairs’, perhaps – there’s a danger, some people would say, of being excessively familiar, and not recognising the awesome nature of the Divine; and I think its important that people are free to choose the best way, as they see things, to bring themselves to God in worship.

So we use, at Evensong (and at Mattins), the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible, language which, in the Prayer Book’s case, is from 1662, (although it can be traced back to 1549), and so far as the Bible is concerned, the Authorised Version, the King James Bible, dates from 1611. In effect, we use the language of Shakespeare.

Well, does that offend against what St Paul is enjoining on us? I think that we have to be careful. If we are using this beautiful language just simply because the language is beautiful, and we are just simply enjoying it aesthetically, that might not be particularly good for worship.

If on the other hand we are saying, ‘This is the best language we can think of’, the most beautiful, that we are in effect bringing some of ourselves, the best bits, to God in worship – because after all, the language of Shakespeare is at least arguably the best English you can possibly think of – then it doesn’t matter, I think, that this is language which is up to 600 years old. It is the best we have.

There’s some evidence that, when the Prayer Book came out in 1549, it already contained some archaisms, consciously so. The man in the street didn’t speak exactly the language in the Prayer Book.

At the back of the church as you go out, you will find – and please do take one – a little card bookmark which comes from the Prayer Book Society. It’s a glossary of words which you’ll find in the Prayer Book which perhaps have fallen out of use and might not be very clear to you. If, when you say your confession, you ask for God to have mercy on you as a ‘miserable offender’, it doesn’t mean that you’re sad about it. It means that you are to be pitied. ‘Miserable’ at that time meant, ‘to be pitied’. It’s yet another word which has come from Latin. And there are other words where the meaning has changed since the 1500s. It’s not only our Prime Minister who loves Latin and Greek, you know.

There is another side of this. If we use the language of the Prayer Book and the King James Bible from time to time, in order to bring the best of ourselves to God, we should also guard against bringing something substandard before Him at other times.

I confess that I am sometimes a little exercised by the banality of some modern liturgy, by the often rather dull words of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, ‘Anglicised edition’, and by some of the liturgy in Common Worship. If I begin to find something banal, then it’s not good enough. What would Jesus think? Just as we say, ‘What would Jesus do?’, we can also ask, ‘What would He think?’

If somebody wants to address Him as ‘Jesus, my mate’, my boon companion, I wonder how Jesus would feel. Perhaps in fact, following the pattern of spontaneity which Paul identified in the early church, he would, actually, be very comfortable with informality, and the only question would be whether He understands the words, or whether they are addressed to Him in tongues, or even in ‘barbarian’.

So I pray that we can continue to talk to each other and to make our worship in a way that can be understood; we must avoid hocus-pocus – and at all costs, let us not be barbarians – except, of course, in Rugby.

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 7th July 2019

Genesis 29:1-20 – and following; Mark 6:7-29 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=429430740)

This week’s Bible lessons are both to some extent about marrying; marrying the wrong cousin by mistake, if you can believe that, or marrying one’s brother’s wife: some rather odd-sounding stories from up to 3,000 years ago.

First of all Jacob – you remember, Jacob had stolen his brother Esau’s birthright, or cheated him out of it, in return for a bowl of soup, a ‘mess of pottage’; well, Jacob got duped into marrying his girlfriend’s sister by mistake: then Herod, who had somehow managed to marry his brother’s wife Herodias, and Herodias had taken against John the Baptist because John had pointed out that what Herod had done was immoral if not illegal. But he did it because he could, because he was a king.

Jacob was looking for a wife, and somehow the daughters of Laban, his uncle, got mixed up and he accidentally went to bed with the wrong cousin. He had wanted to marry Rachel, but for some reason the girls’ father, Laban, brought along Leah, Rachel’s elder sister, and Jacob slept with her by mistake.

Perhaps it was an elaborate way in which Laban, the father, could force Jacob to work for him for a long time, in order finally to be able to marry the girl whom he loved, that is, Rachel.

The contrast between these stories and how we ‘do’ marriages today could not be more striking. As some of you will know, three weeks ago my younger daughter Alice was married to her beloved, Nick, in a beautiful church in Devon, just outside Axminster. So marriage and the mechanism of marriage is pretty fresh in my mind at the moment.

So far as I know, although Nick may have espied Alice across a crowded room and been attracted to her – which I think is very likely, knowing how beautiful she is – he didn’t immediately come to see me with a request that I should in some way arrange for him to consummate a marriage with Alice without in any way consulting her first. But that’s apparently what Jacob did with Laban.

In the case of Jacob, poor Leah ended up in bed with him, in such a way that it looks as though neither she nor her sister Rachel had much say in what was going on. It almost looks as though what was happening might even, in certain circumstances, if it had happened these days, have been regarded as rape.

Where Herod and Herodias were concerned, it seems that Herodias was quite happy to be married to Herod, and she resented anyone pointing out that her second marriage was, in effect, adulterous or bigamous.

Herod is portrayed as being caught on the horns of a dilemma, torn between wanting to honour his rash promise to Herodias’ daughter Salome, to give her whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom, as a reward for her wonderful dancing, the rash promise on the one side, and his own affection for, and respect for, John the Baptist on the other.

He had nothing against John the Baptist. Indeed we are told that Herod liked to listen to him; but when Herodias put Salome up to demanding John the Baptist’s head, as her reward for winning the Old Testament equivalent of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, Herod was too weak to say that that was not one of the things which he had intended when he made her the prize offer.

As a lawyer, it occurs to me that surely he could have argued that there was an implied term in his offer, namely that she could have whatever she wanted – so long as it was lawful. And surely, gratuitously killing John the Baptist was not lawful. It was murder.

Herod showed the same kind of weakness when Jesus was on trial. (See Luke 23:6-12). Pilate had found nothing wrong in what Jesus had done, but Herod was not prepared to say that the Jews were wrong. And so, in both John the Baptist and Jesus himself’s cases, partly through Herod’s weakness, good and innocent men lost their lives.

I’m not sure that either of these stories, of Jacob with Rachel and Leah, Herodias with Herod and his brother, are actually there to instruct or enlighten us in any way. They are really just background. So far as the story of Jacob is concerned, of course it goes on to show that perhaps there was a divine retribution for Jacob’s having spurned Leah, because Leah conceived and had a son, whereas Rachel was childless, (at least initially). There were some dubious manoeuvres involving slave girls, and it becomes apparent that Jacob was actually treating both sisters as his wives, and having sex with both of them. The whole thing is very wooden, very mechanical. There is a mention of love, but the love seems to be equated with whether or not children have resulted from the various couplings.

It’s a world away from the romantic love that we hope our children, and indeed that we can enjoy or have enjoyed in our marriages.

We know that Jesus’ teaching on marriage is still quite a long way away from our current practice. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says that if a man ‘looks on a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matt. 5:27-28).

In St Mark’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus was teaching about the Jewish law relating to divorce, that, according to the law of Moses, a man could just send his wife away and it was enough in order to divorce her just to give her a note of dismissal, to confirm that she was divorced. But Jesus says that marriage is for life; that when a man and a woman come together in marriage, they become ‘one flesh’. They are no longer two individuals, they are one: ‘what God has joined together, man must not separate’.

Those of course are the words that we hear in the marriage service today; but sadly of course, just as with other commandments of Jesus, as we are human beings, we find that sometimes we are just not able to keep to his commandments. Divorces do happen, with all the sadness that they bring.

But I would also suggest that perhaps one lesson that we can learn from the story of Jacob and the story of the death of John the Baptist is that, in both cases, they involve people trespassing against Jesus’ great ‘new commandment’, to love your neighbour as yourself. What did poor Leah feel like, when she was rudely dumped on Jacob – and then spurned? What did either of the girls feel when they were being treated just as things, just as child-producing machines, property, property of men, who could deal with them without any regard for their feelings or desires?

We are told that Jacob didn’t love Leah: but did Rachel love Jacob? Was she happy that Jacob chased her when he was already married to her sister? In those days it didn’t matter. Nobody bothered to ask.

Similarly with Herod and his brother, what did Herod’s brother feel about Herod taking his wife away? We are told that Herodias loved Herod: but even so, it had all the things wrong with it that any divorce caused by infidelity has.

Looking around at everyone here tonight, I can imagine, in the nicest way, that for most of us this sermon and these Bible stories are pretty much archive material in our lives. Not current, burning issues. But many of us are parents, and for many of our children keeping their marriages together and, indeed, getting married in a loving way, are real, live issues. We need to support our children.

Let us pray that whatever we and our children do, we do it not like Jacob or Herodias, because of lust or jealousy, but because of real love: the sort of love that we often have in the marriage service, from St Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 – ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love (or as the AV puts it, charity)…’

Let us remember, ‘Faith, hope and love… But the greatest of these is love.’

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 14th July 2019

Genesis 32:9-30, Mark 7:1-23 (see https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=430034390)

I could tell you a good story about Jacob and Esau and the beginnings of the nation of Israel: how Jacob cheated his brother Esau, as we heard last week; how he in turn was cheated by Laban, his relative, father of Leah and Rachel, so that eventually Jacob managed to marry both of them: how Jacob in his wandering prospered, again through some sharp practice, this time getting his own back on old Laban. He said Laban could have goats and sheep, provided they had certain markings on them, and Jacob would have the others, although quietly he was making sure that he was breeding only the sheep and the goats that had his markings on.

So Jacob became rich and prospered. Still, his brother Esau was out to get him, for taking away their father’s blessing, his birthright. So Jacob went out with a huge gathering of cattle and various other presents for his brother to appease him, and to make him forgive him.

On the night before he was due to meet his brother, (and both of them were accompanied by private armies), he met a mysterious man, with whom he wrestled all night, and who dislocated his hip for him. He wouldn’t tell Jacob his name, although the mysterious man said that Jacob’s name would not be Jacob any more, but Israel, which means ‘God strove’, or ‘God struggled’, so Jacob deduced that he had had God as his opponent. Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning, ‘the face of God’.

I could tell you all that story; Oh, and I could also mention Jacob’s dream, of the angels ascending and descending a ladder to and from heaven.

In the story there’s a real intimacy between Jacob and God. It doesn’t seem to be particularly the case that God is upholding Jacob because he is a good and moral man – which he clearly isn’t; and even after Jacob has stolen his brother’s birthright, nevertheless his father Isaac, too, seems to treat it as just one of those things. He blesses Jacob and he sends him out to start a family. I could tell you that story.

Or, I could go into the other story today in our Bible readings, about washing one’s hands before you eat, and various other Jewish rules which were not part of the law of Moses, which Jesus condemned as forms of hypocrisy.

The part about washing hands doesn’t translate very well into a modern context, but the other half of the story, where Jesus goes on to tick the Pharisees off for relying on the small print, relying on get-out clauses allowing them to avoid having to do good, to avoid having to care for their parents as it is laid down in the Law of Moses, is something we can easily understand.

Apparently a practice had grown up according to which people could get out of looking after their old Mums and Dads and devoting resources to it, if they had first set aside the bulk of their savings for a sacrifice, or sacrificial offering, to God. This is what was called ‘Corban’.

Whatever was set aside as Corban was no longer available to be used to benefit one’s family, one’s aged parents, and so you were excused from having to look after them.

I could spend a long time teasing out all the various bits of meaning in our two Bible lessons. On one level you might possibly find it edifying, even enlightening; just as you would do, if you were watching a documentary film or going to one of the Art Fund lectures at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

But then I think, an hour or so after you come out of church, you might have a moment of dismay, because those stories just don’t bear on all the important things that are going on in our lives.

What on earth has wrestling with a mystery man in the night, or seeing angels climbing up and down to heaven, got to do with our worries about naval threats in the Gulf of Hormuz, or the unpredictability of Pres.Trump and his refusal to follow the norms of statesmanlike behaviour?

What do Jacob’s wanderings and Jesus’ teaching about hypocrisy really have to say to us in today’s world? Some of it is, on its face, out of date or inappropriate. Our children really ought not to think that Jesus says it’s OK not to wash your hands. (I know it’s about ritual washing, but that’s even further away from real life).

We are worried about knife crime. The terrible murder on the train at East Horsley. It was a shock. It seemed to be something that could have happened to any of us who commute on that line, on our local line to London. What has God got to do with that?

What will happen about ‘Brexit’? Our country has already been greatly diminished in the eyes of the rest of the world and the preparations for Brexit have cost billions. Where will it end?

Austerity, over the last ten years, has not made our economy any stronger. But is has meant that the poorer people in our society are now desperately poor, and food banks are everywhere. Our own food bank will supply over 3,000 food parcels, locally, here in this area, in the next twelve months. What would Jesus say?

During the ITV debate between the two candidates for the Conservative leadership, when one was asked about his Christian faith, he said: “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.” [https://twitter.com/churchtimes/status/1149735677430390784?s=21]

Why doesn’t his faith in God define his politics? Is there anything more important? How worrying is that? I’m not concerned about who the politician was or that it was one party or another: this could have been said by almost anyone. But he was an MP, an important person, a minister. Why shouldn’t such an MP’s faith influence his politics?

In the Bible, Jacob could talk to God and lament that he had not followed God’s commandments; but nevertheless God kept faith with him. They had this regular contact. In his dream he saw the angels climbing up and down a ladder, Jacob’s Ladder, into heaven. And God met him at night to wrestle with him. Was that a dream as well? Whatever it was, Jacob felt that he had seen the face of God; he had been close to God.

But we, we don’t seem to experience anything like that. Perhaps like the Pharisees, we’ve become too regimented in our approach to God. Perhaps our prayers are too formulaic. Perhaps we are not open enough to see the face of God any more. Perhaps we’re like that politician. Like the one who said, “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.”

When Jesus told the Pharisees not just to go through the motions, not just to follow the rules for the sake of following the rules, I think he could have been talking precisely about the ‘regular Church of England folk’ that this politician said he belonged to. The Pharisees went through the motions, but they didn’t actually do anything. It didn’t ‘define their politics’.

I think what Jesus is teaching us in relation to washing one’s hands and setting aside resources that might have gone to look after your parents, is that this is sham love, and it is no good. Jesus wants us to show risky love, real love, the sort of thing he preached about in his Sermon on the Mount.

The love that Jesus was recommending, going the extra mile, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, being like the Good Samaritan, is generous love and it’s a love which is not calculating in any way. Paul wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 13. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant’. It isn’t necessarily love which you can easily afford. It could be like the widow’s mite. Not much, but it could be more than you can easily afford.

But when you do see that kind of giving, giving which does not count the cost, at work, when, (and this seems especially apt today, which is Sea Sunday), when you see the risks that Captain Carola Rackete, the young German sea captain, took in order to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean and take them to a safe port, even though it might result in her going to jail; or more mundanely and closer to home, when you see someone give their entire trolley of purchases from the supermarket to our Foodbank, all for their poor neighbours: it may not be a sensible gift: it may be really extravagant: but it is loving. It is a blessing. A real blessing, and I think we may begin to see the face of God in it.

Just as Jacob was really concerned to be blessed, to have his father’s blessing and then for God to bless him – he said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’ – we need to look out for our blessings. If we count our blessings, I am confident that we are going to find, not that we are alone, but that God really is still at work among us.

So may God bless us and keep us, and make His face to shine upon us.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Trinity, 30th June 2019

Genesis 27:1-40, Mark 6:1-6 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=428750231

‘A mess of pottage’. A mess of pottage. No, we’re not playing ‘Twenty Questions’, if that brings back any memories. It’s not ‘animal, vegetable or mineral’, but I am thinking of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac, who was himself the son of Abraham.

Isaac and his wife Rebecca had twin boys after they had been married for twenty years, when Isaac was 60 years old (Gen. 25:26). The boys were called, one, ‘Esau’, which means ‘covering’ – because he was hairy all over, and a redhead – and his twin brother, who was born immediately afterwards, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel, was called ‘Jacob’, which means, ‘he caught him by the heel’.

The story that you will have thought of, when I used the words ‘mess of pottage’, is what comes next in the Book of Genesis. We hear that the boys have grown up; that Esau had become an outdoorsman, skilful in hunting, whereas Jacob has led a sedentary life and ‘stayed among the tents,’ or, stayed at home.

Isaac preferred Esau, because he kept him supplied with his favourite venison; but Rebecca, the Mum, favoured Jacob. The famous story is that one day, Jacob had prepared a pot of soup, red lentil soup, when Esau came in from the country, tired out. He asked whether he could have some of the soup which Jacob had made. Jacob said that he wouldn’t give him any until Esau swore to sell him his rights as the first-born, his birthright. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and the lentil soup, which he ate and drank: and then, off he went. Jacob had got him to give away his birthright for a ‘mess of pottage’, which is what, in 1600, stood for a bowl of soup.

A mess of pottage. Actually, you won’t find the phrase ‘mess of pottage’ in any Bible: not even in the Authorised Version – at least, not in the text itself. But you will find it at the end of the introduction, from ‘The Translators to the Reader’, at the beginning of the Authorised Version of the Bible, (but not in every edition, just the fully annotated ones).

But that’s not the story we had in our lesson tonight. That was the second story about Jacob and Esau, about how Jacob disguised himself as Esau by putting on a furry cloak and making himself appear to be ‘an hairy man’ like his brother Esau, so duping their father, who by that stage was very old. He was 60 when they were born, so now that they were grown up, he must have been at least 85, I would have thought. Isaac had gone blind, so he couldn’t be sure, by looking, which twin was which. He relied on feeling them, knowing that one of them was hairy and the other was a smooth townie.

So Jacob ended up having Esau’s birthright, as the older child, and he got their father to give him his blessing as well. Obviously that didn’t make for the best relations between the brothers.

Well, I don’t propose to go into more and more detail about the ins and outs of the story in Genesis, but to take it instead as a cue to look at the whole idea of a birthright.

The world of the Bible into which Jesus came, 2,500 years ago, had a social order which is very alien from the one which we have today. Society was patriarchal. Men were in charge. There were free men and slaves. In families, the first-born inherited much the greater part of their father’s wealth. It was his ‘birthright’. (And it was he rather than she, because inheritance was by male heirs only).

Jesus came into that world and indeed there’s no criticism, either in the Old Testament or in the New, of that setup, on the basis that slavery, for example, is wrong, or that a male-dominated society is not fair; or that the eldest son should inherit the lion’s share of his father’s fortune.

You will remember the old system among the English aristocracy, according to which the eldest son inherited the father’s title and estates; the second son went into the army and the third son, into the Church. Never mind whether anybody was particularly suited for these rôles, or, in the case of the third son, whether he even believed in God. It was just the way things were. It depended on how you were born, on accidents of birth. Birthright.

Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son. It was the younger son who took his share of the property – obviously it was an early instance of inheritance tax planning. The father made it a lifetime gift rather than making the Prodigal Son wait for his father to die off and then have him inherit his share after tax.

We aren’t told whether the younger son got as much as the older son, or would have got as much as the elder son, because the elder son didn’t take his share at that point. He was happy to wait. But that was, in general terms, the way things worked under the Roman Empire and much earlier indeed, in early Israel (Luke 15:11).

When we get to St Paul’s letters, being a Christian doesn’t seem to have made him change his attitude towards the social order of the time. So in Ephesians chapter 6, after saying that children should obey their parents, St Paul goes on to exhort slaves to ‘obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, single-mindedly as serving Christ’.

He does say that masters must treat their slaves decently as well. But there’s nothing about slavery being wrong in itself. But today we do acknowledge that slavery is wrong. We are shocked to learn that slavery still exists.

The Church of England has launched the Good Car Wash app, so you can check your favourite place, to see whether it is a place where modern slavery is taking place. Is it just too cheap? And there are various other things to look out for. I’ve tested our favourite car wash in Leatherhead against the criteria in the Good Car Wash app, and I can tell you that they emerge with flying colours.

But, apparently, hand car washes are a type of business where the poor and vulnerable can be terribly exploited; so much so, as to amount actually to slavery.

We don’t have much time for primogeniture, the birthright of the eldest son, these days. Our society has changed. I can remember when I was little that I had an uncle who, unknown to me, used to give my younger brother and me different presents at Christmas. I got five bob and my poor brother got half a crown. (That’s 25p and 12.5p, for those of you who are not familiar with real money). But I never knew, because my folks always surreptitiously opened the envelopes and evened things up.) My old-fashioned uncle still believed that there was a birthright belonging to the eldest son.

I think we would all agree that nowadays the right of primogeniture is completely passé, and nobody would support it any more in a civilised society. On the face of things, the idea of primogeniture isn’t compatible with the ideas that we are made in the image of God and that we should love our neighbours as ourselves; in other words, we don’t love ourselves in different ways, unequally, so we should love our neighbours equally.

So actually, in the Jewish-Christian tradition, there are already the reasons why primogeniture is not consistent with our religious belief. But I want to suggest to you, for discussion at least, that although we would all agree that the right of the first-born, that Esau was diddled out of twice, effectively, by Jacob, is no real right, and shouldn’t stand, because we are all equal in the sight of God, another way of looking at Esau’s birthright – or anyone’s birthright – is that it is an accident of birth. Esau had his birthright, by virtue of the fact that he was the first-born. It was a complete accident from his point of view. He just happened to be the elder son, by a few minutes – indeed, in the process of being born, he dragged his brother out after him, as they were twins.

But look – although quaint stories about Jacob and Esau and ‘messes of pottage’ are really just that, these days, quaint stories, accidents of birth actually seem to be capable of doing a lot of mischief.

Just because I was born in England in 1951, that puts me in a much better position than somebody who was born in Syria in, say, 1987. Or, the comparison could be with someone who was born in Afghanistan five years ago;

Or someone who was born 23 months ago, in El Salvador: who ended up drowned on the banks of the Rio Grande, with her father, trying to cross into the United States.

What is the difference between someone on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande and someone on the Texan side? What difference should it make where you are born?

In one sense it is enormously important if you were born in Syria, or Afghanistan, and people were threatening to ‘blow your house up’ unless you signed up with Daesh or the Taliban: you will take enormous risks in order to find a safe place. But does that make you worth any less, in the eyes of God, than somebody who was born in Cobham?

Why are we inclined to think of people who have escaped such terrible suffering as ‘migrants’, immigrants, economic refugees, rather than our neighbours; poor people, who need us to be Good Samaritans. I wonder if, just as primogeniture has fallen out of favour, eventually the nationalism and racism in our society, which have grown so much since the Brexit vote, will wither away in the face of our Christian belief, once we have properly focussed.

We may see the truth about our birthright, or lack of it, ‘through a glass, darkly’. But let us pray that it will be very soon in plain sight, and that we will recognise our neighbours, and love them, wherever they were born.