Sermon for the third Sunday in Lent, 4th March 2018

Exodus 5:1-6:1, Philippians 3:4-14

In the last week or so, Canon Dr Giles Fraser, who is described as a ‘priest and polemicist’ by Michael Buerk, when he is a panellist on the ‘Moral Maze’ on BBC Radio 4, has been very exercised both in print and, indeed, on the Moral Maze, about the law which Iceland is said to be passing, or is about to pass, forbidding infant circumcision. Giles Fraser says that it is, in effect, an attack on the Jewish people in Iceland, because if you are a male Jew, being circumcised is part of your Jewishness. To deny you the possibility of being circumcised on the eighth day after your birth is to deny you an essential part of your Jewish identity, says Dr Fraser.

Today we had a lesson from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians where St Paul proudly affirms his Jewish heritage: he writes that he was himself circumcised after eight days, and he sets out all his own personal Jewish history. But you should contrast that with the salvation which St Paul said he had gained through coming to faith in Christ. He had gone beyond the Jewish law, and his relationship with God was no longer a matter of a covenant between God and Moses, and his membership of God’s chosen people under that covenant, but rather St Paul had become reconciled to God, saved, simply by his faith, his faith in Jesus Christ.

It’s a consistent theme throughout the New Testament, this apparent conflict between Christianity and the provisions of the Jewish law as, for example, put forward by the Pharisees in relation to Jesus’ teaching: is it lawful for Jesus to heal someone on the Sabbath, for example?

Jesus’s ‘new commandment’, so called, that you should love one another even as he has loved us, has big implications. St Paul’s assertion that he was going beyond the law and that Jesus’s message of salvation was not just for Jews but also was for the Gentiles, for what the Bible calls ‘the nations’, which means the non-Jews, had the effect of turning Christianity from being just a Jewish sect into a worldwide religion; and that implied that the idea of the Jews being God’s chosen people, that God had some kind of favouritism of the Jews over against all other nations, that that idea had had its day.

Jesus himself said that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it [Matthew 5:17]. He affirmed the most important part of the law, the so-called Shema Israel, the first of the Ten Commandments, that there is one God, and that thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and strength – and made it the first of His new commandments; and his second commandment was that they should love their neighbours as themselves. ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ [Matt.22:40]. In a sense, the ‘new commandments’ are actually restatements of old ones. ‘Love your neighbour’ is actually part of the Jewish Law too – it’s in Leviticus (19:18).

So Jesus is not abandoning his Jewish heritage. He is not saying that the Jewish law is made worthless by his coming among us as the son of God, as God incarnate. But we can be reconciled with God, be saved and have eternal life, by faith in Jesus, rather than by carrying out the mechanical requirements of the complicated code which had grown up based on the 10 Commandments in Judaism.

The Torah, the Jewish law, includes for Jews not just the provisions of the first five books of the old Testament, but also the Talmud and the Mishnah, the various teachings and interpretations of the rabbis over the years. It is like the common law in England where law is not just contained in the statutes, the acts of parliament, but also is contained in the decisions of the judges in the courts. In the Jewish law, in the Jewish tradition, (and that is what the Talmud and the Mishnah record), your relationship with God depends on carrying out the Jewish law, so the argument runs.

I think that might be why the compilers of the Lectionary, the people who choose which Bible readings we use each Sunday, have given us this reading from the book of Exodus, showing the various sufferings of the Jewish people under Pharaoh in Egypt, before they were led out of Egypt by Moses, God having answered his prayers and divided the Red Sea so that the Israelites could go through it. That is part of the national history of the Israelites, part of what forms their Jewishness. Against that, in the Lectionary they chose the part of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, setting out St Paul’s willingness to include the Gentiles, the non-Jews, as well as the Jews in Christianity.

This tension, between nationalism or cultural identity, rather than just narrow nationalism, being Jewish in this instance, and universalism, being a child of God simply by virtue of being a member of the human race, a race of all types, sizes and nationalities, is still very much alive today. A number of commentators have suggested that it is one explanation for Trump and Brexit, and indeed for the sharp divisions that both of those instances seem to have caused, or rather perhaps, brought out, in the people of the United States in the election of President Trump, and in this country over Brexit.

In this country there is tension between people who are more in favour of supranational unification, for going beyond the politics of individual nations towards world government, and those who want to affirm separate national identity and regain self-determination through a wish to ‘take back control’, as they say, by making it the case that only the courts of this country shall decide, and that there will be no pan-European jurisdiction. In the United States the same sort of instincts have championed ‘America first’ policies and protectionism, a wall on the Mexican border, and so on.

So what is a Christian to do? I think it would be unwise for me to come down on one side or another in relation to Brexit or President Trump, at least if I tried to invoke Biblical authority for one or other view. But I think that it is legitimate to point out where, in the Bible, this argument seems to be played out.

On the one hand, you have all the Old Testament tradition and the Jewish law, with no obvious downside to it; no one can seriously say that the 10 Commandments are a bad thing, or that they are not relevant still today – and Jewish identity still exists. You can see the force of what Giles Fraser is objecting to about the proposed law in Iceland against infant circumcision.

But on the other hand, Jesus has added a huge new dimension, which St Paul made it his mission to preach about, to build on that Jewish tradition and to take it out of the realm of legalistic interpretation and into a living faith – love God and love neighbour; loving God including, of course, loving Jesus and loving neighbour, loving the children of God, all the children of God.

So of course it’s okay to heal on the Sabbath. The same with Brexit and Trump: do we concentrate on narrow nationalistic concerns or, if that’s not a fair way of putting it, on love of country, patriotism in a good and noble sense on the one hand or on the brotherhood of man, universal human rights, and compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves, on the other?

Jesus’ challenging statement, that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it, might give us a clue towards squaring that circle. In following Jesus we are pressing on towards a goal, which is not in an earthly country but a heavenly one. However serious the awfulness of Trump or the possibility of Brexit turning into a catastrophe might seem, we should focus on something much more important: salvation, eternal life; what St Paul calls pressing on towards ‘the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus’. [Phil. 3:14]

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Sermon for Mattins on the First Sunday in Lent, 18th February 2018

Exodus 34:1-10, Romans 10:8-13

I confess that sometimes I don’t read things that people give me – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, I don’t read some things properly. You know, all that stuff that keeps on coming. Letters addressed to ‘The Householder’ or worse, to ‘Dear Sir or Madam’. Leaflets; free magazines. And sometimes, I regret to say, things I get given in church.

As some of you will know, I am rather keenly interested in the Bishop’s Lent Challenge 2018: because, I am the lay vice-chair of one of the two charities which the Bishop has chosen to invite us to support this Lent, the Bishop of Guildford’s Foundation.

And I did a good deed for the Foundation a few days ago when I delivered the pamphlets about the Lent Challenge to most of the 12 Deaneries in the Guildford Diocese. It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear, and I drove altogether about 150 miles round the Surrey Hills, up to Ottershaw and Egham and down almost to Farnham.

I was delivering these well-produced pamphlets, telling you all about the Bishop’s chosen charities, and giving you a programme of things to do in order to ‘grow and deepen our faith, and to encourage the faith of our family and others around us.’ That’s what Bishop Andrew has written on the flyleaf.

But, apart from quickly flipping through the pages to see roughly what it’s about, I confess that I really hadn’t read the booklet properly. Now I don’t know whether I’m being very rude and underestimating how faithful and dedicated you all are – I bet I am – but I would venture a guess that at least some of you haven’t really read Bishop Andrew’s booklet either.

And I thought that, at least on the first Sunday in Lent, we could look at Bishop Andrew’s suggestions for Lent together, especially as – at the time I was putting this together last night, at least – I still don’t know when the Lent study groups will be taking place this week. I’m sure all will be revealed soon.

What Bishop Andrew is promoting is that we should look at what he calls the ‘Rhythms of Life’, which he says is what is sometimes called a ‘Rule of Life’. He sums up the rhythms in six words, corresponding with the six weeks, including Holy Week, before Easter Day on 1st April. These are, ‘Read, Learn, Pray, Tell, Serve, Give’. I don’t know about you, but that already sounds a bit intense for me. ‘Rules’ of life put me in mind of monastic vows of silence, sackcloth and ashes and stuff. I’ve never been very good at silent reflection or retreats. When I went on the last St Andrew’s one, to Ladywell Convent outside Godalming, I sneaked in a transistor radio and headphones, because I knew we would all have to retire to our rather uncomfortable and narrow beds at 9pm, ready for hours of silence. But then, I devised a plan of escape. After lights-out at 9, I silently snuck out, hopped into my car, and drove home!

My cats were pleased to see me. I listened to Jazz Record Requests and slept the sleep of the brave. I had set the alarm for an early start, at 6. Imagine my consternation when, after an excellent night’s kip, I awoke and looked out of the window to see – dense fog! Maybe it was divine retribution. Nothing for it – I had to drive very slowly and carefully back to Godalming in the fog. I arrived all right and, after a brief pause in my unused monastic cell – I mean bedroom – I pottered down nonchalantly to breakfast – and no-one was the wiser. Naughty me. I’m just no good at too much silence.

So anyway, let’s look at what Bishop Andrew suggests for Week One of Lent, this week. Strictly speaking, the weeks run Wednesday to Wednesday, as Lent started on Ash Wednesday.

Somewhat oddly, the Bishop says, about each of his six key words for Lent – ‘Read, Learn, Pray, Tell, Serve, Give’, that each one is a ‘rhythm’ of life. This is obviously something that you have to be a bishop to understand. They look like common verbs to me – but what do I know?

The first one is ‘read’. Bishop Andrew says, ‘There is nothing more exciting than watching children open up as they learn to read – sounding out the letters to recognise a word: ‘m-at mat’, ‘d-og dog’ and so on. The opportunities are endless once you can read; and so many doors are closed if you can’t.

‘Reading scripture is about much more than simply being able to turn the squiggles into sounds. It’s about interpreting, taking to heart, understanding, and allowing what we have read to transform our lives. We may be able to read the words of scripture easily enough – but understanding them, and putting them into practice, is a lifetime’s work.’

That leads into being given a Bible passage to read, and think about, in this case not the lessons for today – at least not the ones we had – but the story in the Acts of the Apostles about the apostle Philip meeting the Ethiopian eunuch – the senior Ethiopian government official – on the desert road to Gaza, who was reading the book of the prophet Isaiah – called Esaias in the King James Bible. Philip asked him, ‘Understandest thou what thou readest?’ And he replied, ‘How can I, except some man should guide me?’

That’s obviously a reference to reading, and how just reading by itself may not be particularly enlightening. And then Bishop Andrew puts in a throw-away line. ‘The eunuch may be particularly excited by this book because of the promises to foreigners and eunuchs in Isaiah 56:3-8.’

OK – a quick scramble to look up Isaiah chapter 53. In passing, it’s rather impressive that the poor old eunuch, ploughing through 66 chapters of the Book of Isaiah, had to get to chapter 56 until he found the ‘good bit’ which he could feel had him in mind. Here it is:

‘Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.’ In Isaiah, the key thing is that the eunuchs and strangers who are welcome in the house of the Lord ‘keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant’. They play by our rules.

As a mere man, of course I don’t really want to dwell on why eunuchs seem to feature so much in the Bible – I counted 26 references to eunuchs in my Concordance – at least, how on earth did they know they were eunuchs? It must be something like the penchant for castrati in Handel’s day, Senesino and the others. Those of you who aren’t opera lovers may not realise that when you hear the counter-tenor – male – voice, singing at least as high as a mezzo-soprano, you might look for a little weedy figure, but instead, the likes of James Bowman or Michael Chance or Lawrence Zazzo are all big blokes whom you wouldn’t want to bump into on a dark night!

In fact it seems that whatever the state of his undercarriage, the point about the Ethiopian was that he was a leading figure, a man of culture. It isn’t explained why, if he didn’t really understand Isaiah, he ‘had come to Jerusalem for to worship’; but no matter. The key thing was that he was reading about the ‘man of sorrows’ in Isaiah chapter 53. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities’. It is a prophecy about the Messiah. Indeed, you can hear in your head that other ‘Messiah’, Handel’s Messiah: the ‘man of sorrows’ is followed by ‘All we like sheep’, a deliciously mischievous chorus.

But back to the reading, to the Bible: the passage in Isaiah about the man of sorrows leads neatly, in Philip the apostle’s expert hands, to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection; that he, Jesus, had been the scapegoat, he had taken on himself the burden of the sins of mankind –

All we like sheep

have turned astray …

But this one in Isaiah was ‘led as a sheep to the slaughter’. It was to be Jesus. Reading this, and having it explained to him, the Ethiopian eunuch suddenly got it. He needed to be baptised, to become a Christian.

So this is the first ‘rhythm’ of Bishop Andrew’s Lent sequence, the first theme, to ‘read’. He suggests that we should read over and over again the passage about the ‘man of sorrows’, Isaiah 53:1-7. He says,

Each day this week, read a verse from Isaiah 53:1-7 slowly. Read it over slowly several times and let the words sink in. Don’t try to work out what they mean. Listen ‘with the ears of your heart’. Is there a word or phrase which stands out? Let this lead you into prayer.’

The ‘ear of your heart’ is a poetic thought. Where does it come from? It is part of the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict. It says, “Listen carefully… to God’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

Maybe there is something in this idea of a Rule of life after all. I certainly do like the idea of listening with ‘the ear of your heart’. That’s reading, by the way. According to Bishop Andrew, anyway.

So, in our reading, in the ‘ear of our heart’, let this be, for us all a blessed Lent.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Lent, 25th February 2018

Genesis 12:1-9, Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16

‘Faith is being sure about what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’. That’s how one modern translation of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. ‘… the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen’, as we read it. Richard Robinson, the Oxford philosopher, wrote in 1964, ‘This is obviously unintelligible.’ [Robinson, R., 1964, An Atheist’s Values, Oxford, OUP, p118f.]

He was shooting at Christianity. His challenge was similar to what other Oxford philosophers of the time, in the early 1960s – such as what Sir Alfred Ayer, in his book, ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ was writing. Namely that religious words like ‘God’ can’t be understood in the same way as other words. The word ‘God’ doesn’t stand for anything tangible in the way that the word ‘table’ does. And therefore, they argued, that kind of reasoning, religious belief, wasn’t proper reasoning at all.

Those philosophers would say the word ‘god’ does not have meaning in the same way as the word ‘table’: you can’t say that the word ‘god’ means that there is something, a thing, out there which you can see and touch, just as you can touch a table. Arguably, not. You can’t touch God in the same way you could touch a table.

These philosophers argued that, because the word ‘God’ doesn’t have the same kind of meaning as ‘table’ or ‘chair’ – in particular because you can’t say what God isn’t, in the same way you could, with a mundane non-theological statement: ‘That is a black cat’, say. You can understand what it would mean not to be a black cat: but not, what it would mean not to be God. At least, not in the same way. And that means, they said, that god-statements, religious propositions, are meaningless. They are unintelligible.

But that doesn’t sound very convincing these days. If you recite this wonderful passage from chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews (almost certainly it wasn’t a letter by St Paul, and also not really a letter so much as a sermon, or string of sermons, but that doesn’t matter) if you recite this litany of legends about men – and women – of faith, this isn’t a lot of fairy stories. This is people, in history, as Moses and Abraham and the others mentioned were historic figures, doing momentous things because they had a ‘sure and certain hope’, as we put it in the funeral service. They had faith.

‘By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.
By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise:
…. Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.
Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them…’

By contrast, according to the atheists like Richard Robinson, faith is just a leap, a leap in the dark, to a conclusion which you can’t prove, which you can’t logically reach. But faith, in the Bible, in Christianity, isn’t just some kind of second-rate form of knowledge. The Greek word, πιστις, means faith in, trust, belief in something, or belief that something is the case.

So it’s not the case that a Christian believer has ‘faith’ only in a weak sense, where they can’t prove something.

The letter to the Hebrews harks back to the story in Genesis about the Lord appearing to Abram (Abram, who became Abraham later), when ‘the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land ..’ [Genesis 12:7].

In Hebrews this is remembered: ‘By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive as an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went’. [Hebrews 11:8]

And Hebrews celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, trusting, having faith, that it would turn out for the best, and that God had power to raise up the dead: ‘Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead’. That’sverse 19, just after our lesson tonight.Indeed, Abraham couldn’t prove that. But he relied on it. He trusted, he pinned his faith on it. He was sure it was true.

Actually, there are lots of leaps of faith that we make, even in the ordinary course of life. How do you know that you will wake up in the morning? You don’t. But you don’t think that it’s peculiar for someone to expect to wake up in the morning. The expectation that it will happen isn’t unreasonable. So faith in things, faith that certain things happen, isn’t automatically counterintuitive.

I believe, I have faith, that the sun will rise tomorrow. But also ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth …’ Two articles of faith. They are different: but maybe not that much different.

The atheists think of faith as a sort of mental fall-back, when actual knowledge is not possible, for one reason or another. When you can’t know for certain. Then, you can believe. For them, it’s a sort of second-rate knowledge, mere faith.

That’s much more tentative than the tone of the letter to the Hebrews. You wouldn’t organise a mass exodus and resettlement in another country, as Abraham did, just because, on a balance of probabilities, you reasonably expected it to turn out all right. You certainly wouldn’t risk killing your own son with a knife, if you thought it was 50-50 whether he’d make it; if you thought that it was just a matter of luck that he’d be saved if you knifed him. Abraham wasn’t a homicidal monster. He trusted God to make things turn out all right.

Of course we should be a bit discerning. It would give faith a bad name if we said we had faith in blue moons or green beer or ‘somewhere over the rainbow.’ If something isn’t even vaguely likely, or if indeed it’s logically impossible, then we ought not to have faith in it. That’s not what faith is all about. Our faith is, or should be, more like the early Christians, who weren’t there when Jesus came back from the dead and appeared to the apostles, but who nevertheless saw how they had been affected. Something had happened, something momentous. Think of Doubting Thomas. ‘Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ [John 20:29]

Where does that leave us? In this time of reflection in Lent, how strongly do we believe? The challenge is, that the stronger our belief, the more sure and certain our hope, our faith, the more we can do. Jesus said, we can move mountains. [Matt.17:20]

I would like to think that we can do more about poverty, war and disease. I would like to think that, starting in our own country, we would stop talking about how much money things cost, and started to think what it would be to follow Jesus’ command, to love our neighbours as ourselves.

So, just as I have a roof over my head, there should not be a homeless man dying on the steps of parliament. Just as I live in a house with a proper fire alarm, other people shouldn’t have to live 20 floors up in a block with no sprinkler system and only one stairway to get out. And because we are all made in the image of God, wherever we are born, just as I have a passport and am able to go more or less anywhere, so a Syrian who has no home, no relatives left alive and no means of sustenance, should not be turned away at our border, in case he tries to get a job here. And if he ought not to be turned away, how much less ought his children to be kept out? There are 2,000 children fending for themselves in France, who all have relatives or friends here. Why?

We have faith. We believe. We believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth: and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. So let us show that we have that faith, that faith which can move mountains. Let us do something to show it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Evensong at Sexagesima, 4th February 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Candlemas, 28th January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbers 10:1-10; Psalm 98

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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