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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Bryant

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

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

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

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

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

He will raise a signal for the nations,

   and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,

and gather the dispersed of Judah

   from the four corners of the earth.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For he is our childhood’s pattern

Day by day like us he grew

He was little, weak and helpless

Tears and smiles like us he knew.

And he feeleth for our sadness

And he shareth in our gladness.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is it that the prophet hopes to teach,

to whom will what they hear make sense?

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

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

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

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

who rule this people in Jerusalem.

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

and signed a pact with Sheol:

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

for we have taken refuge in lies

and sheltered behind falsehood.’

16 These then are the words of the Lord GOD:

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

a precious corner-stone for a firm foundation;

he who has faith shall not waver.

17 I will use justice as a plumb-line

and righteousness as a plummet;

hail shall sweep away your refuge of lies,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember what Isaiah said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Angel voices, ever singing,

Round the throne of light’…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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