Sermon for Holy Communion with Baptism on the Third Sunday in Advent, 17th December 2017

Isaiah 12; Luke 1:57-66. Pink is the Colour.

Today is Rose Sunday, the pink candle one, the third Sunday in Advent. Next Sunday will be Christmas Eve – help! Still all those cards to send and presents to wrap – but, perhaps you’re not as hopeless at getting organised as I am.

The rose is a sign of rejoicing. The priest can wear pink vestments. I’m not sure whether we’ve actually got any pink ones, or whether Godfrey thought that people might get the wrong idea about him if he turned out in a fetching little pink number – so he’s been sticking to Advent purple. In Latin, in the Roman Catholic church, following the words of the antiphon for the day, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’, Rose Sunday was known as ‘Laetare’ (meaning ‘rejoice’) Sunday. At Mattins and Evensong – tonight it’s our Nine Lessons and Carols – I can wear my academic hood, which, especially as it has rather faded with age, could just about pass as pink.

From the prophet Isaiah:

Behold, God is my salvation: …

Sing unto the Lord; for he hath done excellent things:

these words are echoed in the story of the birth of John the Baptist, whom we commemorate on this third Sunday in the Advent sequence. It’s a really appropriate day for Cecily to be baptised. Baptised on this day, when we remember John the Baptist, the Baptiser.

I love naming rituals. In one of my favourite funny films, ‘Animal House’, which is about a student fraternity house in the USA, new members of the house, called ‘pledges’, are given pledge names, ‘Flounder’, ‘Otter’, and so on, to replace their more prosaic, given names.

It reminds me that in the old days, before British Airways spoiled business travel for ordinary salarymen by inventing Business Class, when, before Business Class, when one flew in the front of the plane, to the Far East, the airlines would create for you business cards in Chinese or Japanese or Arabic or Hindi characters. I always used to send the proof to our company’s agent in the country concerned, and asked them to check the accuracy of the translation in the business card. Once, my contact in Hong Kong said, ‘Oh, they’ve given you a very respectable name!’ What? I asked. You mean they didn’t just transliterate my actual name?’ No, they didn’t. They gave me a better one!

Your name will be Otter. Welcome to ΔΤΧ. (Delta-Tau-Chi).’ That’s Animal House. ‘Your name – is John. Make straight the way of the Lord’. That’s something altogether more serious. John was named ‘John’ and not ‘Zechariah’, after his father because ‘John’ or Johanan in Hebrew, means ‘Jehovah (God) has been gracious, God has shown favour’, whereas ‘Zechariah’ just means, ‘The Lord has remembered’. And your name will be – Cecily. The patron saint of music. Lovely!

God had indeed been gracious to John the Baptist’s mother Elisabeth. She had given up on trying to have children ages ago. She was described harshly as ‘barren’, and both she and Zechariah her husband were described as well on – ‘well stricken’ – in years. But still the angel Gabriel had come to Zechariah and had told him that they would after all be blessed with a child ‘filled with the Holy Ghost’ as soon as he was born. He would also be a teetotaller, for a reason that is not explained. The angel also stopped poor Zechariah from speaking, struck him totally dumb, as a demonstration of his divine power.

So when the boy was indeed born, and the poor chap was to be circumcised and named – for some reason, don’t you think that being baptised is so much nicer? – when he was being named, as part of the process, Elisabeth spoke up and said that he shouldn’t take his father’s name, as would have been traditional, but that he should be called ‘John’, ‘The Lord has been gracious’.

And the in Isaiah comes the vision of the Messiah, the ‘rod out of the stem of Jesse’ in the previous chapter.

1 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:

2 And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;

….

6 The wolf … shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

….

9 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.

As we know, John the Baptist wasn’t the Messiah, but he was preparing the way for the one who was, Jesus. After John had been named, Zechariah regained the power of speech. He then went on to prophesy, saying the words which we’ve just sung, the Benedictus, ‘Blessed’ in Latin, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. Zechariah was prophesying about his own son, John.

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;

To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins..

So what will you do on this pink Sunday? Is this all just too far-fetched? I’m rather drawn to that vision of God’s holy mountain, on which they will not hurt or destroy. I’m attracted to the ‘tender mercy of our God: whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us; to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: and to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ Light to the blind, life to the dying, the way to peace. We could use all that today.

We see so much that we don’t understand. We might as well not see at all. We are afraid of death and destruction. Nuclear weapons are being tested and their use is being threatened, even by people and nations whom we regard as our friends. There are millions of refugees, there are millions hungry, and suffering terrible diseases: they all urgently need it to come about that the way to peace is found once more.

The words of the Catholic Entrance Antiphon for Rose Sunday, which come from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, make perfect sense.

‘Gaudete in Domino … Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.

Indeed, the Lord is near’.

If you read a bit further on in Philippians, you get this.

Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.

Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

What good advice. I think that to concentrate on that would be – it would almost be better than wrapping presents! Oh well … I hope you, parents and godparents, and Cecily, your little star, have a lovely Rose Sunday

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Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday in Advent, 10th December 2017

1 Kings 22:1-28, Romans 15:4-13 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=379774448 for the text of the lessons

I went on Friday evening to a church meeting. ‘Tell me something new,’ you will no doubt say. ‘That’s what you do – you’re a Reader, for heaven’s sake!’ True – and moreover, the speaker at the meeting was a vicar. But it’s worth telling you about, I think. The thing which struck me, even before the speaker opened his mouth, was the crowd of people who had come to hear him.

As well as the ‘usual suspects’ that belong to the church, there were almost half as many again – I think there were about 70 people there – quite a few of whom I either didn’t recognise at all, or who I knew were people who had some background of going to church but who don’t, so far as I know, belong to any of the local churches now.

The topic was definitely to do with church. It was billed as a curry evening (originally a ‘men’s curry evening’, but I’m glad to say, it got widened out to include ladies too), with a speaker, Revd Dave Tomlinson, from St Luke’s, West Holloway [http://www.saintlukeschurch.org.uk], and his topic was ‘Everyone is Welcome’.

Dave Tomlinson – and he is ‘Dave’, (what with being a Scouser and that), does a ‘Thought for the Day’ slot on the Chris Evans breakfast show on Radio 2 called ‘Pause for Thought’, and has written some quite well-known books, for example ‘How to be a Bad Christian’ and ‘The Bad Christian’s Manifesto’ [2012, 2014, Hodder & Stoughton], and now ‘Black Sheep and Prodigals’, which has just been published. He sets himself out to be a vicar for people who don’t think of themselves as religious, people who might say they were, in the new-age phrase, ‘spiritual but not religious’.

What he says is that Christians are, in bare essentials, following a spiritual practice, what he calls ‘a way of approaching life’, based on the life and teachings of Jesus. [Tomlinson D., 2014, The Bad Christian’s Manifesto, London, Hodder & Stoughton, p.245]. What they’re not necessarily doing, though, is belonging to a particular church or following particular theologies or rituals. There shouldn’t be, he says, any barriers or ‘qualifications’ required before one can become a Christian.

It certainly seems to be an approach which gets people interested, and indeed, got them in, got them to turn out, on a cold Friday night. In a good sense, it was evangelism – although I think most of those who came would have already called themselves Christians, but not actually coming to church in a number of cases.

In a very real sense, you could say that, in another age, Dave Tomlinson could have been regarded as a prophet. You know, a prophet, meaning someone through whom God speaks. Not in the sense illustrated in our Old Testament lesson, where the king of Israel and the king of Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms of the Jewish people, when they were contemplating trying to take back from the Syrian invaders the town of Ramoth-Gilead, consulted four hundred prophets, who all said that the attack would be successful and they would capture the town.

However, Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, the southern kingdom, rather oddly asked if there was a ‘prophet of the Lord besides’, that they could ask. It implies that the 400 so-called ‘prophets’ that the story mentions, were not real prophets, speaking the words of the one true God, but were rather more in the way of magicians, soothsayers, inspired more by folk superstition than by God. So instead of them, they dug out Micaiah, who was a real prophet, and he warned the kings, correctly, that the attack they planned would end in disaster. They didn’t take any notice.

Dave Tomlinson’s approach is perhaps more in line with our second reading, from St Paul, in his letter to the Romans. He doesn’t specialise in predictions, military or otherwise: instead, he tries to impart truth, without fear or favour. It doesn’t matter what denomination you are; Paul and the disciples’ mission to spread the gospel, the good news of Christ, didn’t just go to their fellow-Jews, but also to other groups, to the ‘Gentiles’, the non-Jews – and all, both lots, would be equally welcome to follow Jesus.

It’s a very important message. Today, the second Sunday in Advent, is the day when traditionally the church remembers the prophets: like Micaiah, and Ezekiel, Isaiah, Hosea, Amos and all those. But it might be good also to celebrate and listen to modern-day prophets, like Dave Tomlinson, because his approach looks to have been very productive, on Friday night’s showing: people actually did bother to turn out and listen to what he said – even people who don’t usually come to church.

The key, according to Revd Dave, is for Christians to be caring – to love their neighbours – and for them not to set much store by superficial distinctions and divisions. I think that there are lessons there for us at St Mary’s too. People have said that we’ve done a good job in moving away from a time when St Mary’s was run as a sort of club, where strangers weren’t really welcomed, to the warm, friendly place we now are. That’s good; but how are we to keep up the momentum and engage with our parish community so that we will still be around as a church to proclaim the Gospel when we relative oldies are long gone?

Dave Tomlinson says he’s not especially bothered by how well ‘qualified’ people are in relation to Jesus Christ. He gives everyone, confirmed or not, Holy Communion if they want it. He doesn’t regard every word in the Bible as literally having been dictated by the Almighty. He is willing to accept anyone, however ‘sinful’ they may have been. Famously, he conducted the gangster Reggie Cray’s funeral, for example.

But it’s plain from looking at his church’s website that he doesn’t regard any one style of worship or liturgy as being the be-all and end-all. They do sung Evensong just like us. I think that they might agree with us that there’s a lot to be said for worshipping in a way that is familiar, that we’re used to – and that we think is worthy. If you are forever tut-tutting about banal words or suboptimal rock music instead of sublime harmonies, you’re being led away from bringing yourself to the Almighty and instead getting distracted by earthly trivia.

What we do here is to build on familiar foundations. Many people come here and, even if they haven’t been to church for a long time, may well remember a hymn or some of the liturgy, from their schooldays, or university chapel, perhaps. I think that’s all good.

I think that it’s important also, where newcomers are concerned, to make sure that everyone ‘knows the drill’: when to stand up, when to sit down; is there a collection? Do you have to wear any special clothes? – and so on. (Only I have to dress up!)

This all comes from the idea of being welcoming and inclusive. Of course, Jesus didn’t actually build any churches, so in his eyes, the concept of ‘bums on seats’ in churches wouldn’t have meant much to him. But for us, it is important. If we are going to reach out to people and bring them into our church family, we need to show that we are truly open and inclusive to ‘all sorts and conditions of men’.

Revd Dave Tomlinson was one of the founders of the organisation called ‘Inclusive Church’. Although it was founded as a reaction against the sad events which led to Dr Jeffrey John first being offered to be Bishop of Reading, and then having it taken away because of his sexual orientation as a gay man, Inclusive Church now goes much wider.

Its statement of belief says: “We believe in inclusive Church – church which does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality. We believe in Church which welcomes and serves all people in the name of Jesus Christ; which is scripturally faithful; which seeks to proclaim the Gospel afresh for each generation; and which, in the power of the Holy Spirit, allows all people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Jesus Christ.”

When a church joins the Inclusive Church network, it is encouraged to put up a sign outside to tell people that, inside, if they come in, they will really be welcome. For someone who feels they are in some way different, perhaps because of race, or sex, or disability, it’s very reassuring to see that there’s a clear offer of hospitality on the outside of the church.You don’t have to ‘risk it’ by going in somewhere where you might not fit in.

Well, you might be wondering about where this church meeting that I went to was; this curry session, addressed by Revd Dave Tomlinson, which attracted so many people including people who’ve drifted away from the church: where was it? It was, as you’ve probably guessed, just down the road, in our sister church, St Andrew’s, in Cobham.

When I was a member of the PCC there, there was a motion for the Church to affiliate to, to join, the Inclusive Church network. I spoke as passionately as I could in favour. Apart from the person who had proposed the motion, I was the only one. The vote was 22 to 2 against. Now that they’ve listened to Dave Tomlinson, I wonder if some of the stalwarts down the road will revisit that decision. Because, you see, I think that the message, the message of Jesus and the prophets, that God welcomes us all, that all are welcome, is still vital. What do you think? Should our PCC think about it, as part of our vision for social engagement? In all humility, I hope so.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Feast of Christ the King, 26th November 2017, at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn.

[Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24, Ephesians 1.15-23], Matthew 25.31-46

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378268013 for the readings, and https://sjparish.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Nov-26-Pentecost-25-1030am.pdf for the full service booklet.

It’s really kind of you to welcome me back to St John’s to preach again. Susan, you have been amazingly gracious. Just when you were getting nicely settled in as Rector, Bill and Hope Eakins dropped in the suggestion that you might want to risk having me, this old Brit, to preach at the church – and just after Thanksgiving as well, when you are all celebrating having got rid of us colonial throw-backs. You’re truly kind.

Obviously I have been well briefed. I must stay away from anything too controversial or political. And I can’t really do the ancient Greek orator’s trick of doing a Philippic: you know, saying loudly, ‘I’m not going to say anything about Philip’, and then going on to say what an awful person he is. So no Brexit and Trump, then. Sorry.

Instead I want to get to grips with the sheep and the goats. Are you a sheep, or a goat? It’s a rigid division. On the right side, the Elysian Fields await you; but if you’re Billy Goat Gruff, nothing so nice.

That’s the thing I want to explore, with the sheep and the goats: divisions. People divided: divided, because they disagree. They disagree about what is best to do. And then, perhaps, do they have those divisions confirmed, ratified, by the Judge eternal?

At Thanksgiving you are celebrating independence from the colonial power that we were, the young nation standing on its own feet. It was a journey started by the Pilgrim Fathers, Puritans, who found themselves different from, at odds with, divided from, the society they were leaving in England. So I want to look at that division. It stemmed at least in part from the religious ferment and turmoil of the Reformation.

Apart from those things I’m not talking about, the other thing this year that has been of special note, not in our political, but in our spiritual life, has indeed been the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, 500 years since he is said to have posted up 95 points where he was at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, on the church door at Wittenberg in Saxony, which is the event which started the Reformation.

The Reformation led to civil war and persecution: the particularly ghastly thing about it was that the favourite way of getting rid of opponents was to burn them alive at the stake. We often spend time on Good Friday, during the Three Hours, reflecting on the dreadful mechanics of death by crucifixion. Death by burning seems to me to have been equally dreadful. And the penalty was so arbitrary and undeserved.

Think of Thomas Cranmer, the great scholar and Archbishop who created the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and gave the new Church of England liturgy, forms of worship, which were for the first time in a language that could be ‘understanded of the people’, as they said, in English instead of Latin, although they were in fact based on, and continued the tradition of, services which in some cases could be traced back to the earliest Church Fathers. But even Cranmer was eventually burned to death, at the hands of the original ‘Bloody Mary’, Queen Mary, who brought back the Catholic faith for the duration of her reign.

This happened because Cranmer was a Protestant, at a time when it was no longer the right thing to be. We don’t know whether he met Martin Luther – some scholars, such as Diarmaid McCulloch, think he might well have done – but he certainly spent time in Zürich with Zwingli and Bucer.

It is fascinating to see how Cranmer reflected the new Reformation ideas, in the way in which he dealt, (in the Book of Common Prayer that he largely authored), with what was happening in the Holy Communion, at the point when the bread and the wine are shared.

The Roman church, the Catholics, believe in what they call ‘Transubstantiation’, the ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. Many of the Reformers did not believe in Transubstantiation. For them the bread and the wine were just that, bread and wine; just symbols of a greater thing.

The words in Cranmer’s Prayer Book changed, from the 1549 original, where the bread and wine are treated in the Catholic way, as actually being Christ’s body and blood, to his revision in 1552, perhaps after he met the other reformers: ‘Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving’ , which means they remain just that, bread and wine, just symbols, until, long after Cranmer’s awful death in 1556, in 1662 the final version of the Prayer Book (until the twentieth century revisions, here and in England), the 1662 Book has it all ways: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken for thee: Eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ In the first bit, the body, the actual body: but then a ‘remembrance’, a symbol: feeding, but by faith, not literally. Now, you can be anywhere on the Catholic – Protestant spectrum, and find spiritual resonance somewhere in those words, which we will still use, albeit in a slightly different order, in our service today.

But, the point is that, then, people were dying for those differences. Or feeling so alienated by them, that they opted to make a perilous voyage to a largely unknown land, and make a new life – as the Pilgrim Fathers did. It’s frankly strange – repugnant, even – to us today to think that the State could mete out the ultimate punishment, death, to a learned theologian such as Cranmer. But it did.

Belief, opinion, learned opinion, was a life-or-death affair. Now we can look back 500 years and shake our heads sagely, regretting how brutal life was then: we’re far too rational to let ourselves get into that kind of overreaction.

But I wonder. I promised not to talk about Brexit and Trump. But I will just say that it seems to be true both back home in England, over Brexit, and, dare I say, here, where Pres. Trump is concerned, that a climate has built up recently where people on each side not only feel strongly, very strongly: but they have stopped talking to each other. Certainly at home in the UK, the referendum on Brexit has divided people, divided people in a serious way. Old friends are avoiding each other; families are divided. There’s no sense of the old way of managing differences: so that we would say ‘Old so-and-so thinks such-and-such: I know he’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still the best of friends.’ That really doesn’t seem to be working any more.

Time was, even recently, when we could disagree about quite serious things, and still be friends; it really was a case of hating the sin and loving the sinner. So what did Jesus the King do? The sheep and the goats are to be separated out, they are to be divided: but not by what they have thought, but what they have done. Jesus wasn’t requiring the elect, the people who were saved, the sheep, to subscribe to any particular world view. He was looking for acts of kindness, not manifestos.

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matt.25:35-36).

Hungry; thirsty; a stranger; no clothes; ill; in prison. You can construct all sorts of scenarios, which may well broadly reflect your political outlook, to explain how a person can be in any of those situations – and we might disagree.

Hungry and thirsty because they’ve made bad ‘life choices’, perhaps; a stranger, because they live somewhere that I don’t go to – and perhaps they don’t live the way we do; no clothes, probably not literally, but scruffy, down-at-heel, when – ‘if they cared about their appearance… ‘ You know.

Or they might be refugees, from a poor country. Are they ‘genuine refugees’, or just ‘economic migrants’? That’s a question which I suspect you would answer much more sympathetically than many of us Englishmen have been doing. The USA’s prosperity is built on the labour of economic migrants – but we are now trying to keep them out.

Or what if you are sick, if you are ill? You know one of the differences between us in England and you is that, I think, we have more restrictive rules about when you can fire people. Basically, our law says that an employer has to show that he has a fair reason for terminating someone’s employment, and it is presumed that it was not fair. But a fair reason, in English law, is if you are ill, ill for too long.

That’s one where I expect there might be disagreements. You know, on the one hand, you can’t run a business if you have to pay a salary for someone who’s not there: and on the other, think what it will do to your powers of recovery if, when you are in the depths of illness, you lose your livelihood. What’s your point of view? Which side are you on?

Jesus says, when I was in hospital, you came and visited me. Dare we say, you visited me, and didn’t bring me any bad news? I hope so. Here in the home of the US insurance industry, of The Hartford and the Aetna, let me dare say it – surely long-term sickness might be covered by an employer’s insurance. Or maybe that’s too much. I was ill, and you visited me. That’s what Jesus said.

I was in prison. You came to me. I was a criminal. I didn’t deserve anything. I had done something terrible. But surely there are limits? Some criminals are just beyond the pale. At home, the man called the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, has died, and there was controversy where his remains should be buried. He killed a number of children, in appalling circumstances. Here, Charles Manson has died. Both of them I have heard called ‘evil personified’. But Jesus isn’t judging them. Jesus’ judgement, separating the sheep and the goats, is not about whether someone has been bad, been a sinner. Jesus would have visited them. He sat down and ate with sinners.

That’s the clue. That’s how it is with Jesus. Not what you’d think; perhaps not particularly reasonable. But good.

So I suspect that if we acknowledge Christ as King, and as judge eternal, as we are invited to do today, on this festival of Christ the King at the end of Thanksgiving, we may find a way to deal with our differences: even, dare I say, those real, deep differences over Brexit and Trump. Ultimately those differences may not really be that important. Instead we need to think sheep and goats. Acts of kindness, not manifestos.

Sermon for Evensong on the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, 19th November 2017

1 Kings 1:15-40, Revelation 1:4-18: see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378029702

One of you asked me recently how the Bible readings get chosen for each service. I explained that there’s a rather wonderful piece of international and inter-denominational Christian co-operation called the Consultation on Common Texts, who are a group of scholars in the USA and Canada who produce what is called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a three year cycle of readings from the Bible, designed to follow the church’s year: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost – and Ordinary Time in between. The idea of a lectionary, a set schedule of readings to match the church year, dates from the fourth century. Churches all over the world will be using the same readings each Sunday – and during the week – if they follow the Lectionary: and churches of many denominations all over the world use it. It is close to the Roman Catholic Lectionary for Mass 1969, so although the Revised Common Lectionary is a Protestant document, it is almost the same as its Catholic counterpart.

So much for the background. However, the thing is, sometimes the Lectionary throws up some weird combinations. Today is a case in point. This morning – and don’t worry, I’m not using this as a smokescreen for recycling my sermon from Mattins today – this morning, we also had a lesson from the Book of Revelation, preceded by a passage from the Book of Daniel, where Daniel meets a figure very similar to the one among the seven candlesticks which John the Divine, the narrator of Revelation, meets in the passage we heard tonight.

Then there was a vision of heaven from the Book of Revelation; the throne of God, surrounded by elders, and mythical beasts, with lamps burning, lightning flashing, thunder and voices crying out. Tonight we heard the beginning of the Book, where John is first ‘in the spirit’ and has his vision of heaven.

But whereas this morning I felt that both those lessons were ultimately about visions of the future, or of the ultimate future, the ‘end time’, tonight the lesson from the Revelation to John was preceded by this glimpse into the inner workings of King David’s palace in the first Book of Kings, where he sees off a challenge to succeed him, as he was getting old, by one of his older sons, Adonijah, so as to keep his promise to his favourite wife, Bathsheba, that their son Solomon would succeed him. You will remember that the story of King David and Bathsheba didn’t reflect well on David.

He had somehow seen her having a bath – in Jewish and Islamic versions of the story, there are elaborations involving, for example, David going up on the roof to shoot pigeons, and accidentally looking down into Bathsheba’s bathroom, in order to make the circumstances more innocent; but the thing one can’t get away from is that David was very taken with Bathsheba, even though she was married already to a soldier called Uriah. And David contrived to have Uriah sent into battle in the very front line, where indeed he met his death. And so David was able to marry his widow.

But God saw through all this and punished David. He sent the prophet Nathan to remonstrate with him. Nathan told David the heart-breaking story of the rich man who took the poor man’s little pet lamb. 2 Samuel 12:

There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.

The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:

But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.

And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die:

And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.

And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.

So David repented and was very contrite; but nevertheless when he and Bathsheba had their first son, he was stricken with illness and died. The story of David has a constant undertone of punishment for the way he had taken Bathsheba away from Uriah.

But what is the theme? Why have the Lectionary compilers linked these passages tonight? I wonder if it is to compare and contrast the goings on in an earthly ruler’s palace, King David sorting out his succession in a way that favours his wife Bathsheba – and perhaps also, again, making up for the disgraceful way in which he had made her his wife in the first place – contrasting that with the majesty of heaven, with the company of heaven in all their glory. No shady goings on there.

I’d have to confess that it’s pure speculation on my part. When it comes down to it, does it matter very much what shenanigans went on 3,000 years ago in the King of Israel’s entourage?

But then I couldn’t help thinking how topical it was after all, as the situation in Zimbabwe involving the end of Robert Mugabe’s reign has been developing. It does seem that he too has been trying to secure the succession, in his case for his much-younger wife.

But, Revelation suggests, (although maybe the precise details of how it works are beyond us, and the pictures in Revelation a bit too fanciful), that there is a solid message, that God is there, the judge eternal. ‘Be you ever so high, the law is above you’, said Lord Denning. He could also have said that God is the great and ultimate law-maker.

Well, having said I wouldn’t recycle any thoughts from my words this morning, I will just touch on the thought, which I think does go for both sets of readings, both scenarios, this morning and tonight, that ultimately we don’t know in any detail what heaven, what our futures, will be like. The prophets, and the Book of Revelation, paint wonderful pictures – but somehow I think we are meant not to dwell too literally on those pictures of heaven and hell.

Maybe the crucial difference in each pair of readings is that, whereas in the Old Testament, God’s chosen people have to keep to their covenant with the Lord, and they get punished if they fail; in the New Testament context, God has demonstrated his love and acceptance of us, even though we’re definitely not good people, by sending Jesus and showing, by his willingness to eat with publicans and sinners, that God’s love is for all, not just for the good ones.

And then again, next week – when you’ll be spared having to listen to me spouting, as I’ll be preaching in the USA – we come to the feast of Christ the King, just before the beginning of Advent. ‘Are you a king?’ asked Pontius Pilate. ‘You say so’, answered Jesus. And the gospel lesson is the great sorting out of the sheep from the goats. Who is saved – and why? It’s in Matthew 25 – and it would be good if you could read it in preparation.

‘… he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”’

Now that is really so much more important than shenanigans that went on 3,000 years ago in the King of Israel’s entourage. As a church, at St Mary’s we are embarking on a whole new chapter of engagement with our community. Let us find the hungry and give them food, welcome the strangers – the refugees coming to live here – give clothing to people shivering in the cold. Maybe indeed at some stage we will then have a glimpse of heaven, of the Son of Man in all his glory, with seven stars in his hands and a double-edged sword in his mouth: and I believe that he will welcome us, as we have welcomed him.

Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon on the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, 19th November 2017

Daniel 10:19-21, Revelation 4 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378002013

Today’s lessons, (Bible readings), are about visions of the future. In the lead up to our first lesson from the Book of Daniel, the prophet Daniel has met a strange and magnificent man standing on the river bank:

(Dan.10.5) ‘Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and behold a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz:

His body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude.’

I don’t know what sort of image it evokes in you. It’s a very visual passage. I wondered whether perhaps we would think of a superhero in a Marvel comic.

And this superhero – an angel, I think – says what he is going to do to challenge the Persians, the Chaldeans so-called, who have driven the people of Israel into exile in Babylon. And then he is going to go after the Greeks.

The background is the big Old Testament theme of the children of Israel and their relationship with God. When they obeyed the Shema Israel, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and shalt have no other gods but me,’ they were obeying their covenant, their contract, with God, according to which if they gave their exclusive allegiance to the one true God, and worshipped only Him, then God would support them as His chosen people, and let them occupy a Promised Land.

But they hadn’t done this; they’d intermarried with the Chaldeans, the people of the land they had gone into, and they’d started to hedge their bets so far as worshipping gods was concerned, and started to worship the Chaldeans’ gods, the Baals. And so they had been enslaved by the Babylonians.

By the rivers of Babylon

We sat down and wept – Psalm 137.

The superhero in golden armour was going to lay out for Daniel what the future would hold.

And our second lesson, from the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, is all about the future: specifically, what happens at the ‘end time’, the end of the world – or perhaps the end of each of our lives. What happens after we die.

I think I’m on fairly safe ground in thinking that we wouldn’t seriously expect to meet men in golden armour, standing on a river bank – the river Mole, say , just outside here, on that pretty part in front of Parkside – or to have a glimpse into heaven, like this:

(Rev. 4:2) ‘And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.

3And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.’

I didn’t know what a ‘sardine stone’ was. The Greek is σαρδιον, from Sardis, and it’s a red stone. A good modern translation, the NEB, translates this bit as

‘… and on the throne sat one whose appearance was like the gleam of jasper and cornelian; and round the throne was a rainbow, bright as an emerald.’

It’s reminiscent of Daniel’s superhero, whose ‘… body also was like the beryl,’ a shining jewel. Shining. Resplendent.

But I repeat: we wouldn’t, I think, think in these sort of terms today. We’re not seriously expecting to encounter Captain America or Superman or the Silver Surfer: and not expecting to ‘be in the spirit’ and have a glimpse of Heaven, with another shining, jewel-like figure on a throne.

That may be cultural. I have African friends who are very comfortable with the idea that there are angels, who do look after them; and perhaps my rather rational, humanistic approach comes from my conditioning in the Protestant tradition. If Martin Luther, Bucer, Calvin, Cranmer, Tyndale and the other Reformers were influenced by the rationalist, so-called humanist approach of Erasmus, we see the difference now in the contrast between those places where the Roman Catholic tradition has prevailed – southern Italy, Spain and Portugal, for instance – where people regularly claim to have seen visions and experience miracles, and Protestant Northern Europe (which we’re a part of, despite the best efforts of the Brexit people), where we would tend to stick only to what scientific observation could show us.

But still, this looking into the future is very compelling. It would be nice to know what’s round the corner. There are, of course, different levels of ambition, where futurology is concerned. Looking round a corner can be very important in a battle. Mali, the brave Army dog who has just been given the PDSA’s Dickin Medal, the VC for animals, went ahead of the troops into a building where they thought that the enemy might still be hiding. What was round that corner? Poor old Mali got hurt by two grenades which were thrown at him. Fortunately he has made a full recovery, and is still at work for the Army. Mali foretold the future, in that soldiers could reasonably infer that, if Mali didn’t find someone hiding, they would be able to enter that space safely.

That’s a reasonably understandable type of future prediction. The number of possible things which could affect the outcome is limited. Is there anyone in the building? Are they hostile? If the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively, then it will be safe for our soldiers to enter the building.

But what about much less defined futures? What about the end of my life, or your life? What will happen after that? Immediately we realise that the question is much more complicated. First question, what will happen to whom? To me, or to someone or something else?

Will there be a ‘me’ which can be recognised, after I have died? Let us remember what Plato wrote about the death of Socrates. (Plato is held to be the great philosopher; but arguably he was great only in that he wrote up a comprehensive account of the sayings of his great teacher and mentor, Socrates). Socrates held that there was such a thing as a soul, the essence of a person’s being and identity: and that the soul was immortal. As Christians, we believe something similar, following, for instance, St Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 15 about plants dying and seeds coming up, new life after the old has died off.

‘35But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come?

36Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die:

37And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain:

38But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.

39All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.

40There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial..’

But we don’t know, in the way that, for example, a soldier can know what was round that corner, what will happen at the end, or at our end. By and large, with the possible exception of some celebrated near-death experiences, no-one can tell us what awaits us. No doubt an angel would be very handy here.

Maybe so: but maybe not, in fact. If, just let’s suppose, an angel did tell us what to expect, in the way that Daniel was told, then in theory at least, it must be possible for you to avoid what has been predicted. If that happens, then as a matter of logic, the prophecy won’t have been accurate. What was said to be the future, wasn’t what happened.

Or suppose that the angel tells you what is going to happen, because it is necessarily a true statement, there is nothing you can do to change it. But if that’s the case, what about our having free will? One way of explaining why God seems to allow bad things to happen, even to good people, is that we have free will; we can know what is right, but still make bad choices, as St Paul, again, set out in Romans 7.

‘18For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: …

19For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.’

For us to be capable of moral choices, we must be capable of choosing good or bad. But if the angel has shown us what will happen, and the angel saying it necessarily entails the outcome that the angel predicts, then if I know what the angel has predicted, but can’t do anything about it, I am not a free agent any more.

So maybe after all it’s not such a bad thing that we don’t tend to see shining figures with diamonds in their eyes – except in Superman comics, of course.

Let’s not be impatient. Everything will turn out as God has planned it, in God’s good time.

Many thanks to you and your daughter. Do have a look at our website, cobhamarea.foodbank.org.uk, which tells you a lot about how we operate.

We collect the food, which people kindly donate, from our green bins, placed in all the churches in Cobham, Oxshott, Stoke D’Abernon and the Horsleys, and from bins in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s Local (the little one on the High St).

Our van does the rounds collecting three times a week. You can drop off food at one of the collecting points on any date.

Please follow us on Twitter @CobhamFoodbank, where you’ll find our ‘shopping lists’ from time to time.

What to give: non-perishable food, toiletries and pet food. Must be at least six months in date, unopened packages. Imagine you suddenly ran out of money: what would you like to receive? (Hint – not pasta and beans!)

Have you seen the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’? If not, I really recommend it.

We give out on average 500kgs (1/2 tonne) of food etc every week to needy people in this immediate, Cobham and surrounding, area.

BTW, please ask your daughter not to wrap the food she collects, or put it in boxes. Bags are fine, and welcome: anything else is just discarded by our warehouse team.

Look out for our van!

Best regards

Hugh

Manager, Cobham Area Foodbank

Registered Charity No 1154217

Phone 01932-450282

Sermon for Evensong on the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 12th November 2017 at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon

Judges 7:2-22; John 15:9-17 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=377554049

This morning we held our Remembrance Day Services. Godfrey, in his sermon, said that, when he had first been ordained, in the 1970s, people had not expected remembrance services to carry on being held after the year 2000. There would be no-one still alive who had served in either of the World Wars. So the memory, the ‘remembrance’, would just be an impersonal one, a collective celebration of something we had learned about from history. It would be like our celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation, or Guy Fawkes Night, perhaps.

But as Godfrey pointed out, since the end of WW2, there has been only one year during which members of the British armed forces have not been engaged in conflict, somewhere in the world. So there is still a reason to be thankful for their bravery, to remember them, and to pray that, through our bringing to mind their sacrifice, we will gradually and finally turn away from war and strife.

Now in this evening service, as we turn towards the ending of this day of remembrance, I want to reflect on some of the many things that challenge us – or which, I suggest, ought to challenge us, as we enter the 100th year after the promise was made that the First World War was the ‘war to end all wars’. Because, 99 years later, very sadly, that still isn’t true. Wars haven’t ended.

So I want to reflect, to look carefully at some of the things we have said and done in relation to war, and see if perhaps we can discern any factors which might help towards bringing peace in future. You may not agree that I am asking the right questions: but I hope that what I say may start you thinking critically and, I hope, constructively. I very much doubt whether there are any automatically right answers here, at least so far as mortal men and women are concerned, but I think we ought to try.

Love one another. On Remembrance Sunday. Lest we forget. And, to pick up both our lessons tonight, you don’t need a big army to win a battle against overwhelming odds, if God is on your side.

How to make sense of all this. This morning we stood in silence by the war memorial and tried to commemorate all those who, in one sense, had not loved one another. They had killed each other. We honoured those who fell. We do honour, usually, those who fell fighting, fighting for our side. We don’t usually pray for the people who were the enemy, although there have been good exceptions, like the prayers at the service in Westminster Abbey after the Falklands War, for example, when the then Archbishop of Canterbury insisted that there should be prayers for the Argentines too.

After all, Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,’ (Matt. 5:44). But we – and mankind generally – never have. Indeed, we love to rake up, in a rather triumphal way, the history of the First and Second World Wars. We thank our ancestors for being brave and standing up against the enemy – Germany in both cases – and keeping us independent.


The enemy’ wasn’t just Germany, in fact: it also included Turkey, Japan, Austria, and Italy as well, at various times. Most of those countries have been friends and allies for far longer than they were enemies in one or other of the World Wars. The same countries, at different times, have been both allies and enemies.

It’s difficult to generalise about countries, whether they are always going to be friends or foes. But what we can say about most wars is, that in most cases, it wasn’t personal. Even in the terrible trench warfare of WW1, people weren’t fighting people whom they knew, and whom they’d fallen out with.

That should perhaps be something we could think about, when we’re tempted to think of the Germans as baddies, or someone makes a joke about them not having a sense of humour or wanting to extend their territory round a swimming pool on holiday. People were not fighting people they hated personally, but fighting for ideas, or for their country’s sovereignty. Our soldiers fought because our leaders thought that otherwise, we would be overrun by Germany – sovereignty; and, in WW2, to avoid being turned into Nazis, a question of ideas. Remember the Christmas Day truce in 1914, when the soldiers got out of their trenches and played football, exchanged cigarettes and gifts. They had nothing personal against each other.

Again, I think that, as we reflect on the sad fact that no amount of ‘Remembrance’ has stopped wars from breaking out, we might try to identify some of the ideas which seem to have led to war. Sovereignty, for instance: not wanting someone else, foreigners, to dictate our laws. But think about this. A pooling, a watering down, of sovereignty, to some extent, in the European Union, has brought about the longest ever unbroken period of peace in Europe. And every treaty between countries, for any purpose, involves the parties giving up a little of their individual autonomy in order to agree together.

And allied to that, perhaps we should reflect on what it is that makes us British, or French, or Chinese, or whatever nationality we are. In the majority of cases, it is an accident of birth. There is no special distinction, it confers no special entitlement by itself, just to be born. You certainly might say that the miracle of life itself, of being brought to birth, is itself hugely valuable. But whether you’re born in poverty in a Calcutta slum or in a mansion on St George’s Hill, that fact of itself doesn’t entitle you to do better or worse than another human being.

We are all children of God, equally. So aggressively putting up barriers to keep people out of ‘our’ country – and I’ve put the word ‘our’ in inverted commas, because although people use that expression, ‘our’ country, I’m not sure what it really should mean – aggressively keeping others out may not be a good, or a right, thing to do. But millions of people have died, effectively to uphold that principle.

We sense that there must be some reasonable limit, some reasonable extent of nationalism. In WW2, we would not have wanted our government to be in Berlin, or to have had to speak German instead of being able to speak English, (loudly if necessary, if people don’t understand us), to everyone we meet, wherever we happen to be. So where is the right balance?

The bravery and sacrifices made in the World Wars kept us free, and we are thankful. But if today the same instincts for independence result in our driving out from our midst people who have come to live and work here, and who provide such valuable contributions to our health service, to our farmers, in our hotels and restaurants and so on, if those people feel we no longer welcome them and accept them, this is not the ‘love’ that Jesus was talking about. It was αγάπη [agape], brotherly love, charity and kindness that he meant.

‘Greater love hath no man .. Jesus’ next sentence in St John’s Gospel, after the great command that we should love one another, is ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ As Canon Giles Fraser pointed out on the radio on Friday, some war memorials don’t say ‘lay down his life for his friends’, but ‘for his country’ instead. But really, the context in the Bible is, of course, that Jesus is looking forward to his own death, to the crucifixion. ‘As I have loved you, so you must love each other.’

That is a sacrificial kind of love. Making sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice, for someone you love. There are all those stories of heroism and sacrifice in war.

Jack Cornwell, the under-age naval hero who stayed at his post during the Battle of Jutland, severely wounded himself, even though everyone around him had been killed or wounded, quietly waiting for orders.

My own relative, Dr John Fisher, who won the MC at Arnhem as a medic, by going into a minefield to treat wounded soldiers, laying a tape behind him so that the stretcher bearers could safely get through the minefield to the casualties and bring them to safety. Every step could have been his last, if he had trodden on a mine. But he was willing to risk death, in order to save others. He survived, fortunately.

Or other heroes, who weren’t soldiers. ‘Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz, on August 14, 1941. When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: My wife! My children! I will never see them again! At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. His request was granted’. [ http://auschwitz.dk/kolbe.htm]

We should try always to remember them, and to be grateful for their sacrifice. And as well, we should realise that Jesus wasn’t just talking about supreme, life and death, sacrifices. Love means giving things up for your friends, small sacrifices as well as big ones.

And what about Gideon, and his battle against the Midianites? Why did he go through this bizarre process of whittling his army down to 300 champions only, instead of the thousands he had at his disposal? God didn’t want the Israelites to be so powerful that they could boast that their own strength had brought them victory. To show the power of God, they had to be seen to win against impossible odds.

But the puzzling thing is the thought that, as so often in war, it is said that both sides are praying to God, to the same God, that their side will prevail. Will God support one side against the other? And if so, why? It is a version of the theological conundrum called ‘theodicy’ (θεοδικη), the question why a good God would allow bad things to happen. The answer in this story from the Old Testament is that God favours his chosen people, the people who worship him rather than any other, false gods.

There is also the story of the Roman emperor Constantine at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in the fourth century, who had a dream about Jesus Christ and decided to paint his soldiers’ shields with a symbol of the cross. They won the battle, and Constantine, in gratitude, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire – which was a major factor in making Christianity spread throughout the world.

But – but there’s something uneasy about this rather crude, almost superstitious approach to God. Having God as a kind of nuclear weapon, the ultimate ‘game changer’, seems wrong. Granted that we believe that God cares for us, knows all of our names, and so on: but why would He almost justify a war, by determining its outcome? Or to put it another way, why would the good God become involved in the evil that is warfare? The hymn says, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’ Not, ‘Whose side is the Lord on?’

Enough for one Sunday evening, I think. Lest we forget. Let us love one another, as Jesus has loved us.