Sermon for Evensong on Trinity Sunday, 11th June 2017
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 6:5-15 
I’ve always thought that the picture of the seraphim in heaven was a bit like one of those pictures of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘ornithopter’ – one of the earliest flying machines – or rather, the earliest not-flying machines. Six wings. Two covering his face: two his feet, and two doing what wings normally do, giving aerodynamic lift: ‘with twain he did fly’. Perhaps Leonardo got the idea from the sixth chapter of Isaiah.

Do you know what a seraph is? 

‘Thus spake the seraph, 

and forthwith

appeared a shining throng

of angels praising God’

A seraph is a super-angel, a six-winged angel, supposed to be the highest in heaven under God. 

This is a truly splendid vision. I don’t know what you feel about angels. Surprisingly sane people tell me that they believe in them. ‘Do you have a guardian angel?’ they ask.

Well, no, I say hastily. Wait a minute – is that rather too hasty? What is an angel? It may be a question what a particular type of angel is, or does, such as the seraphim; but what is an angel anyway, any type of angel? An angel is, in Greek, a messenger. This story, about the calling of the prophet Isaiah, indeed does involve an angel as a messenger, of sorts. He brings a message to Isaiah. God is calling him.

Isaiah is reluctant; he is not worthy, he says. ‘Woe is me! for I am undone’. He has seen the Lord of hosts, God. The Jews believed that only a priest was allowed to see God. Only the priests went into the innermost part of the Temple, the holy of holies. Other people, if they saw God, would be consumed, burned up, because they could not co-exist with God.

Isaiah says he has ‘unclean lips.’ Dirty. Dirty both physically and metaphorically. But the seraph brings a red-hot coal from the fire, ‘and he laid it upon my mouth’: a live coal, a coal glowing red-hot. Surely Isaiah would have been horribly burned: but no, the effect is just to cleanse him morally: 

‘Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged’. Isaiah is cleaned up, fit to do the Lord’s work. ‘Whom shall I send?’ asks the Lord: and Isaiah says, ‘Here am I; send me.’

What to make of this today? We probably don’t think of God as ‘sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.’ But wait – it says, ‘and his train filled the temple’. They were in the temple. Just as we are here in church. In a sense, this is where God lives. People can say, sometimes, that you don’t have to go to church in order to encounter the divine at work, in order to meet God. To which the Churchman will answer, ‘Indeed, you’re right: but it certainly makes it easier, to go to the house of prayer.’

What was the seraph doing with his red-hot coal? Cauterising the wound, the septic sore caused by all the bad things Isaiah had been doing. That seems pretty drastic. Perhaps there’s the same sort of idea that people had when they put witches in a ducking stool. If the poor woman somehow managed to avoid drowning, she was purged of her sins.

This is very old, very ancient stuff. Isaiah – first Isaiah, as the Book of Isaiah actually contains material from three prophets – first Isaiah was written about 740 BC. Eight centuries before Christ would be born. Nearly 3,000 years ago. Can we usefully talk about having ‘unclean lips’ today? Are we fit to do things for God? It doesn’t really translate in any literal sense, but I think we can nevertheless understand the drift.

Where would we look, if we wanted to find a seraph, an angel? An angel with six wings, even: maybe a sort of drone, these days. If we look at our second reading, from St John’s gospel, Jesus is casting the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, in that role after he had gone. Not so much as a way of calling people – although arguably the most effective disciple, St Paul, was overcome by a sort of seizure at the behest of the Holy Spirit, and it resulted in him being converted, and accepted by them. 

Instead these are all aspects of the divine, of God. Today is Trinity Sunday, when we remember ‘God in three persons, blessed trinity’, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but three aspects, three personae of one. God the Creator. God with us in human form, Jesus Christ. And then when Jesus ceased to be here as a human, in his place came the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

And the Comforter – not a lovely ladies’ scarf, by the way, but the Holy Spirit – that is the way we think of God’s presence with us now. Not a seraphim, not an angel, but I would have thought that it does no harm for us to imagine the heavenly realm, and feel called as Isaiah was. ‘Here I am; send me.’ What a great message. Here we are. Send us!

(I’m grateful to Sue Woolley and Laide Sjumarken for the ideas for this sermon.)

Sermon for Evensong on Whit Sunday, 4th June 2017

 

Acts 2:14-38; Luke 24:44-53

 
‘These men are not drunk’… St Peter is answering a multiethnic crowd of Jews in Jerusalem, who have just heard the disciples – all from one district, Galilee – speaking, in such a way that each listener heard in his own language: it was like the amazing simultaneous translation service that you get if you go to watch a debate at the European Parliament. You put on some headphones, and select which language you want to listen in. The translators are very good.

But we are told by the author of the Acts of the Apostles – generally reckoned to be St Luke, who also wrote St Luke’s Gospel (both of tonight’s lessons are by St Luke) – by St Luke the doctor, that long before simultaneous translation and microphones, the disciples’ words were suddenly heard in a variety of languages, after the sound of a rushing wind and tongues of fire had come among them.

I’ve never really understood why some of the Jewish audience thought that the disciples were drunk. I know that, as a typically hopeless Englishman, that speaks French and German only to ‘O’ level, I’ve always found that my linguistic ability, such as it is, does improve with a modicum of alcohol: but it doesn’t give me miraculous powers as a sort of one-man simultaneous translation facility.

I suppose that the rude remark about their looking drunk might have been caused if the disciples were not only speaking intelligibly in several languages at once, but were showing signs of ecstatic giddiness. Perhaps they were waving their arms around or writhing on the floor.

As you know, the established Church has, since the 18th century, been suspicious of religious ‘enthusiasm’ – a word which has rather changed in meaning since 300 years ago. It meant then the sort of noisy, ecstatic worship – people ‘speaking in tongues’ and waving their arms about – that we often call ‘Pentecostal’. Be that as it may.

But for us who aren’t ‘enthusiasts’, what is Pentecost – or rather, what is this Holy Spirit, whose coming at Pentecost we celebrate today? ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’: the Holy Ghost? When Jesus met the woman of Samaria getting water from the well in John 4, he told her, ‘God is spirit, and those that worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.’ The Authorised Version says, ‘God is a spirit ..’

This isn’t a spooky tale of ghouls and ghosties. The history of Jesus, Jesus Christ, isn’t on the Harry Potter level. We are, when we talk about the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, talking about God. As we say in the Nicene Creed, (the creed we say at Communion), ‘… I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets.’

The Holy Spirit is God, one of the ‘three persons’ of God the Holy Trinity. The coming like a rushing wind, in tongues of fire, was a revelation, God declaring His presence, His concern for his creation. Jesus might not be physically present among us any more, but his Holy Spirit, the Comforter or Advocate which Jesus promised he would get the Father to send after he had gone. (See John 14-16).

A big controversy in the early church was all about whether the Spirit had come just from God the Father, (which is what the Eastern Orthodox churches believe today), or from the Father and the Son together, as our version of the Nicene Creed says. The great liberal theologian, John Macquarrie, has suggested that a better way of putting it would be that the Spirit had come from the Father ‘through the Son’, but that, either way, he said, it wasn’t fundamental to our belief, de fide, an article of faith. [Macquarrie, John, 1966, (1977), Principles of Christian Theology, London, SCM Press, p. 330]

The Pentecost story is celebrated as effectively being the Church’s beginning, the Church’s birthday. 12 apostles became 120 after the Ascension. And then, after this extraordinary miracle – simultaneous translation into many languages for an audience from many countries, coming from the mouths of a group of country bumpkins from Galilee – after Peter had told them that it was a sign, a revelation, of God at work among them, that God had come among the human race to show His love for us – after this, 3,000 people came forward to be baptised. After that, Christianity ‘went viral’ as we would say today.

Until last night, I had intended that I should link our celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit with our need for the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Comforter, on Thursday in the General Election. We seem faced by so much ‘fake news’, but yet the issues facing our country are so daunting. What are the marks of the Spirit, and can they help us?

It is surely something which I must speak about, and I will. But last night there was another terrorist incident, near to us, on and around London Bridge. More people hurt and killed – and again a suggestion that this was inspired by Islam, that it was an attack on us and our Christian culture.

These are truly testing times. Just as last week I said that attack in Manchester was not a contradiction against the need for our worldwide ‘wave of prayer’, Thy Kingdom Come, so today I say that we should learn from the earliest church as they faced indifference and persecution. The signs of the Spirit are not super power, in a fierce, military sense: instead the signs of it in those earliest times began with a dove, a peaceful dove, coming down and settling on Jesus as he was being baptised.

St Paul – who was writing decades earlier than St Luke – in his letter to the Galatians, identified the signs that the Spirit was present in a believer, chief of which is not some fierce strength, or some power to retaliate, but the warmth of love. Paul wrote, ‘… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith..’ Not fear. Not anger. Not prejudice.

When you look again at the circumstances of that first Christian Pentecost, you see that the Holy Spirit didn’t just come to an elite group, or to individuals in seclusion. The Jerusalem where it happened was full to bursting with a polyglot, multiethnic, multicultural society.

They spoke many languages. They were rich and poor – indeed the Spirit would come, according to the prophecy of Joel quoted by St Peter, to everyone, to ‘all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:
And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy…’

In fact, in the original Greek, the word is δούλος, slave, in both its masculine and feminine forms. Somehow the Authorised Version’s ‘servants’ and ‘handmaidens’ are too nice, too comfortable: ‘ …on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit’. On my male and female slaves, the lowest of the low. It was a tough life then.

So the church, on which the tongues of fire fell with a rushing wind, is for everyone. Again as St Paul said in his Letter to the Galatians, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28).

Look what happens if we don’t listen to what the Spirit is saying here. This is an account from one of the newspapers after the bombing in Manchester ten days ago.
‘Naveed Yasin, a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon – who had spent the previous two days in demanding surgery, was driving back to the Salford Royal Hospital to continue to help blast victims when a van driver pulled up beside him and hurled abuse, …
The surgeon was stuck in traffic when he saw a van veering towards him, horn blaring. The white, middle-aged driver then lowered his window and yelled obscenities at Yasin.
The van driver said: “You brown, Paki bastard. Go back to your country, you terrorist. We don’t want you people here. F*** off!”

 

The incident shocked the surgeon, who was born and brought up in Keighley, West Yorkshire and lives in Manchester with his wife and two daughters, especially after two such gruelling days at work.

 

He told the Sunday Times: “I can’t take away the hatred he had for me because of my skin colour … and the prejudices he had associated with this. Manchester is better than this. We Mancunians will rebuild, we will rebuild the fallen buildings, the broken lives and the social cohesion we once had.”’ (The Guardian, 28th May 2017 – accessed at http://tinyurl.com/yamxnfyo).

 

We must be ‘better than this’, indeed. So when the election comes on Thursday, we must vote – because otherwise we will have no stake in the result. In the EU referendum, 20% of the electorate did not vote. You might argue that, in not voting at all, they did not vote to leave the EU – which would mean that only 36% of the electorate voted to leave, which is not a majority.

 

But we don’t know which way these non-voters would have voted, and so it is said that ‘the people have spoken’, although the people who did vote, voted 52-48% only. The non-voters could have made a huge difference. If they had voted to leave, the majority would have been beyond question – and the same principle applies, possibly even more emphatically, if it was confirmed that the non-voters indeed had wanted to remain. So it’s vital that everyone should turn out and vote.

 

But the other thing which is vital to consider is what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in the churches in relation to the various parties’ policies. Is there a message of division, of individualism, devil-take-the-hindmost; of nationalism, of exclusion? How should we react to terror attacks? Should we support tightly controlled immigration and put up barriers against refugees? Or should that dove be more like it? We are all children of God.

Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost,

taught by thee, we covet most

of thy gifts at Pentecost,

holy, heavenly love.

[Christopher Wordsworth, 1807-1885]

Sermon for Evensong on Sunday after Ascension Day, 28th May 2017
At St Mary’s Church, Stoke D’Abernon

2 Samuel 23:1-5; Ephesians 1:15-23

Thy kingdom come. The Archbishop of Canterbury has proposed, for a second year running, that in the nine days between Ascension and Pentecost, Whit Sunday, everyone in all the churches should pray that bit of the Lord’s Prayer:

Thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven,

together with other short prayers, in a ‘novena’, in a nine-day cycle of prayer. You can look them up on the Church of England website – and indeed, if anyone doesn’t have a computer to download it, see me afterwards and I’ll let you have a printed copy.

In the modern-language Communion service, in one of the Eucharistic prayers, Prayer E in Common Worship, we pray this prayer:
‘Lord of all life, help us to work together for that day when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’.
For ‘that day when your kingdom comes’. That’s when, but it’s a bit confusing where all this is supposed to be happening. With the Ascension, Jesus going up to heaven, and the Holy Spirit coming down upon the apostles at Pentecost.

This is something where our words are inadequate to describe the divine realm, the workings of God. As St Paul writes, ‘… what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power,
Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places..’

It is, in St Paul’s words, a powerful description of a God who is beyond all measurements of power, and I think by the same token that God is beyond any location in time or space. So it is all right to talk of him being up in heaven, in the sense that that isn’t a literal description, so much as a mark of how important, and how beyond all human imagining, the power of God is.

But we are not now looking at a world in which justice and mercy are seen in all the earth: at least, not yet. There are still terrible wrongs being done, as we realised on Monday night when the suicide bomber struck in Manchester, at a pop concert mainly attended by teenage girls, some of them with their mothers.

There have been so many words already written and spoken about this terrible crime. It was a terrible thing, a horrible crime. Whatever twisted ideology stood behind it, nothing could justify killing and injuring innocent children and their parents.

And now, until tomorrow night, we have armed soldiers on the streets to give people a sense of protection, to reassure them that such an atrocity will not happen again. Nevertheless it does seem doubtful whether simply having armed soldiers on the streets would actually deter or stop a terrorist who is prepared to blow themselves up alongside their victims.

We can feel the despair. ‘Thy kingdom come – please, yes’, we might say, in a spirit of frustration and bewilderment. How can we say that God’s kingdom is coming, or will come, when such terrible things do happen?

I should say immediately that I’m not ignoring the way in which, whenever a terrible atrocity happens, it also brings out the most wonderful outpouring of love and service, from the emergency services, the doctors and nurses, the police, the firemen: and ordinary people, like taxi drivers offering people free rides home. There is a real sense of community and solidarity, which is something that we should celebrate and be profoundly grateful for.

But the doubt remains. How can we celebrate the love of God when such awful things happen? Is there any point in saying prayers?

A lot depends on how you ask those questions. I nearly said, how could a loving God allow, or even cause, such things to happen? But I don’t believe that God works that way. We are not robots. God is, we believe, all-powerful, omnipresent, and all-knowing. But it doesn’t mean that God makes us do something good or bad. We believe that we have free will: we can choose whether we do a good or a bad thing. Indeed, we can choose whatever we want to do. We have been created as autonomous beings.

So the first thing to say is that God did not somehow cause the bombing in Manchester on Monday night. It was a criminal act by one criminal, perhaps supported by others, also with criminal intent.

The second thing is that it doesn’t mean that there’s no point in our saying prayers.

The Archbishop’s ‘wave of prayer’ over the next nine days is actually a really good response to the evil which found its expression in Manchester on Monday night. I recommend to you the ‘Thy kingdom come’ website, where you can see short clips by various of the Christian leaders, and where there are prayers which we can say each day. See http://www.thykingdomcome.global.

At the beginning there is an inspiring short address by Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding Bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church in North America, where he emphasises that prayers are answered.

It’s not the case that, when we pray, it’s as though we are in some kind of divine restaurant and God is some kind of divine maître d’, whom we can summon and order about.

When we pray, it is more like being a client of a food bank: getting a food voucher. We present our voucher, and the food bank gives us what is good for us. We have little or no choice.

And it is good: the second reflection in the novena is from His Eminence Christoph, Cardinal Schönborn, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Vienna. He finishes in a very engaging way by pointing out that it is good to pray with a smile.

All around the world Christians are either involved in this wave of prayer, praying ‘Thy kingdom come,’ or in other big Christian gatherings, like the German ‘Kirchentag’, or church festival, in Berlin, which began on Thursday with a 90-minute dialogue between former President Obama and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, about democracy and global responsibility.

Barack Obama spoke of the need for renewal of the international order, against a background of xenophobia, nationalism, intolerance and anti-democratic trends. He said we have to push back against those trends that would violate human rights, or that would suppress democracy, or would restrict individual freedom of conscience and religion. ‘We can’t isolate ourselves. We can’t hide behind a wall’, he said. He was speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, the place where Berlin was divided between east and west, by the Berlin Wall.

In our prayers in a minute I will say the special prayer which the Bishop of Manchester has written for the people of Manchester, and that will be our first prayer. It will be our contribution to the wave of prayer today.

Prayers do work. Even our little congregation here will be heard. God will answer our prayers, in ways which we cannot anticipate or forecast. God’s kingdom will come, but in God’s time. Justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth: swords will be beaten into ploughshares: they will not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.

Amen.

A prayer from the Diocese of Manchester

A SPECIAL PRAYER

God of compassion,

you hear the cries of all who are in trouble or distress;

accept our prayers for those whose lives are affected by the bombing in Manchester;

We pray especially for those suddenly facing a future without a child, parent or loved one,

young ones who are in deep distress

those who are injured, traumatized or awaiting news

strengthen them in their hour of need,

grant them perseverance and courage to face the future

and be to them a firm foundation on which to build their lives;

this we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Collect for Peace (from the Book of Common Prayer)

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord,

in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life,

whose service is perfect freedom;

defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies;

that we, surely trusting in thy defence,

may not fear the power of any adversaries;

through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Sermon for Choral Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 21st May 2017
Zechariah 8:1-13; Revelation 21:22-22:5 

Have you been reading manifestos this week? If you have, no doubt you’ve found your own pet things to like and dislike in each party’s offering. But you’ll be relieved to know that I don’t want, tonight, to compare the parties’ offers in their manifestos. There are much better people than me able to do that.

What I want to mention is what a manifesto is. What is it, what does it mean, to make something ‘manifest’? It is an uncovering, a making something plain, clear, pulling the wraps off. You could perhaps think of a manifesto as being a sort of revelation.

Another word for ‘revelation’ is ‘apocalypse’. We think of an apocalypse, the apocalypse, these days, as being a name for the end of the world, the final curtain. I suppose that came from the Book of Revelation, the spectacular vision of heaven, of the end time, the day of Judgment. But its name, in Greek αποκαλυψις, apocalypse, originally meant simply ‘making clear,’ ‘revealing’, making manifest – so, a sort of manifesto.

These apocalypses, in the Bible and other contemporary literature, are very like prophecy – and I think that in some places it’s hard to distinguish revelation, apocalypse, from prophecy. Apocalypses can of course be another word for catastrophes. But again, I’m not going down that road tonight, whatever you might think about some of the things which face this country today.

Zechariah, (our first lesson), was a prophet who was active during the captivity of the Israelites in Babylon – Psalm 137, By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept..,’ The captivity was coming to an end because King Darius of Persia had conquered the Babylonians, and the Israelites were looking forward to rebuilding their temple. Zechariah – and scholars think there were two prophets who each wrote part of the book with that name – Zechariah, or first Zech and second Zech – prophesied about that new temple.

Things had not been good, but they would get better. ‘There was no hire for man, nor hire for beast’: there was unemployment. There was civil disorder: ‘for I set all men one against his neighbour’ said God, through the mouth of the prophet Zechariah.

But it is going to be fine. There will be a temple again in Jerusalem, ‘a city of truth’. And in that city there will be people of all ages, including elderly men and women leaning on their walking-sticks, and the happy sight of children playing in the streets. God would save his people and bring them in, into a safe place. ‘… they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in truth and in righteousness.’

Zechariah actually tells us not just about how God will put things right, but he also sets out how the Exile of the Israelites began, in the chapter before our lesson. ‘The word of the LORD came to Zechariah: 9 These are the words of the LORD of Hosts: Administer true justice, show loyalty and compassion to one another, 10 do not oppress the orphan and the widow, the alien and the poor, do not contrive any evil one against another’. (7:8-10)

But they did, they did oppress the orphan and the widow, the alien and the poor – and God turned his back on them.

Well that was the Old Testament manifesto. Keep the Lord’s commandments, ‘Administer true justice, show loyalty and compassion to one another, 10 do not oppress the orphan and the widow, the alien and the poor, do not contrive any evil one against another’. (Zech. 8:13) Then the Lord will let you rebuild the Temple.

And when we get to the beautiful vision of heaven in the Book of Revelation. Actually in the new Jerusalem, the holy city, there is no actual temple. Up till then, the Temple was a building where one encountered God – and only the priests, the Levites, could be in God’s presence without being destroyed by their proximity to the Divine. They mediated between God and humans. Now here is God face to face, God present in the midst, with the Lamb of God, the one who had been sacrificed like a scapegoat. That means, Jesus.

And this is an apocalypse. We usually understand it as the apocalypse, the end of the world. The Book of Revelation could be a prophecy about how our society as a whole might turn out. It could be how individuals will fare. There are the Visions of Jesus’ Messages to the Seven Churches in chapters 2 to 14, visions of heaven, the Seven Seals, the Seven Trumpets, various dreadful battles, such as Michael against a dragon; there is the fall of Babylon. And then the New Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth.

It could be a vision of how things are going to be for us all, or just for some. It’s not, I think, meant to be taken literally. There aren’t really dragons and monsters: it’s just a picturesque way of portraying something utterly beyond our experience. But the manifesto, the prophecy, the revelation, is clear. If you are one of the chosen, if you are saved, you will be close to God, in paradise: 

‘ … there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him:
And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads.
And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever’.

So that’s pretty clear, so far as the visions in the Bible, in Zechariah and in the Revelation of St John, are concerned. If you are worthy, if you are righteous, if you follow God’s commandments, there will be the City of God, Jerusalem, after you come out of exile in Babylon, and the New Jerusalem, at the end of time, at the Day of Judgment.

Does that really make any difference to us? Is it just a series of nice stories? What about the manifestos? The Israelites went into exile because they did not worship the one true God any more, and because they did not obey his commandments, to love and care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger within their gates.

Do we love and care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger within our gates? What about single parents and broken families? Over a million people got food from a food bank in the last twelve months in the UK as a whole: and here in Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke, we gave out over 44 tonnes of food to local people in need. And what about those 3,000 refugee children on their own in Calais that the government said we were going to take? It didn’t happen – and even worse, somehow it seems that, what with the influence of UKIP and the vote to leave the EU, it’s suddenly become acceptable, all right, to be prejudiced against poor refugees. They are called ‘economic migrants’ as distinct from a very small category of so-called ‘genuine’ refugees.

I suggest that that is a false distinction. It’s just an accident that we were born here, and have plenty, and they were born in a poor country, and are fleeing war, or starvation. Why is it acceptable for such people to be kept out? What do all the manifestos say? And do any of those manifestos lead to anything even vaguely heavenly? I would suggest that we should be asking that question above all others.

It’s great that we can show our love of God and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ in this beautiful church, and in the harmony of our wonderful musicians. We thank God for blessing us in it. But we do need to turn outwards as well, in the power of the Spirit. So we’re developing a St Mary’s vision, things we can do to follow Jesus’ commandments to love and serve. I hope it makes good sense with you. These are some of the things we’re thinking of doing. This is our manifesto. You can read it on our church website. It’s shown as the sermon for today at http://stmarysstokedabernon.co.uk/index.php/sermons.

We are looking to start actively to look out for and befriend elderly people who are our neighbours. Are they actually hungry, but too proud to admit it? Are they lonely? Afternoon TV isn’t as good as a nice cup of tea with a friend. 

We’re going to do more with our families and young people. Sunday School may sound a bit formal these days, but Messy Church or sports teatime might be more like it. 
We need to reach out more to involve our church in the local community. You’d be pleased to know how many people from St Mary’s are involved in volunteering for our Foodbank, and who drive people to hospital appointments through Cobham Care. 

But there’s more we can do. For instance, there are still only a couple of refugee families from Syria in the whole of Elmbridge. But there are literally millions in refugee camps. There are actually still quite a lot of refugees in the Calais area. 

In the next few weeks, we’ll put up some display boards showing the various ideas which came up in the vision day which we held a couple of Saturdays ago, and there will be sign-up sheets for you to add ideas and to volunteer to ‘do stuff’. I do hope you’ll go for it.

I know it’s vital that we all choose carefully between those manifestos, and cast our votes on June 8th: but I think that Jesus’ manifesto is going to last a lot longer; and that’s the one which we should really commit to. Vote early – and vote often – as my Irish friends say.

Sermon for Mattins on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 21st May 2017

Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21 

I really like the story of St Paul standing up on the Areopagus hill in Athens and addressing the ‘men of Athens’, the philosophers, the Epicureans and Stoics, who had been rather scornful about him – ‘… some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection…’ (Acts 17:18)

It reminds me of my undergraduate days studying philosophy, at the end of the reign of the great logical positivists like A.J. Ayer, whose book ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ still has an honoured place in my bookcase. I’m sad to say that in those days most of the great Oxford philosophers were atheists. The idea was that words only meant something, had significance, if you could contradict them. You can know what it is to be a table because you can know what it is not to be a table.

And the trouble is that statements about spiritual matters or even moral values are not so straightforward to contradict: so Wittgenstein, the father of logical positivism, famously said, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. He had nothing to say about values, good and evil, or about God – although interestingly, Wittgenstein was a churchgoer all his life.

I like to think that Wittgenstein must have been impressed with this story of St Paul talking to the Athenians. They were sceptics – not unthinking sceptics, quite the reverse, as they were steeped in knowledge of Plato and Aristotle as well as the more modern Stoics. That name came from where they gathered with their students, the στοά, or colonnade – Stoics such as Zeno or Chrysippus, who had a theory of physics, life being caused by πνεύμα, or breath – and who had a theory of nature and reason, seen as objective qualities, so that for us to think rationally is to think in ways which converge with other rational thinkers and reach the truth. 

Or there were Epicureans, who also had theories of physics involving atoms, logically reasoned from ideas of being and not-being, and from arguments about divisibility – there must be something rather than nothing, and things must be able to be divided until you reach an indivisible part – ‘uncuttable’, indivisible, which is what ‘Atom’ means. In moral philosophy the Epicureans followed a pleasure principle: ‘We say that pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily’ (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, 128). Epicurean philosophy was anathema to the early Christians, as it taught that man is mortal, the creation of the cosmos was just an accident, that there is no providential god, and the criterion of worth is pleasure. 

But the point was that these were not just shallow superstitions, and the Athenians were not just pub bores. The Areopagus was hundreds of years old, and had evolved from being a chamber of government, a democratic assembly, to being a law court. To address the members of the Areopagus was to tackle a very sophisticated audience.

But these learned people knew the limitations of their philosophy. There might well be things which their reason could not reveal. So they set up an altar to the ‘Unknown God’. And St Paul appropriated that mysterious deity. He made it his own. This Unknown God is the Creator, who created the ‘world and all things therein’, who made us all alike as humans – ‘hath made of one blood all nations for to dwell on all the face of the earth’. But He is an unusual God, not living in a temple or demanding sacrificial worship – because he has it all. He ‘giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.’

The Unknown God was very different from all the other gods which the Greeks worshipped. He didn’t live above the clouds or on Mount Olympus, or in a temple. He wasn’t far from them, ‘For in him’, said St Paul, ‘we live, and move, and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). Indeed, ‘as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.’ St Paul was quoting a Stoic poet, Aratus (Aratus, Phaenomena, 5). Paul was clearly Greek-educated as well as being Jewish. He was well able to debate with the Greeks in their own terms.

When I thought about this story from the Acts of the Apostles, in the light of that rather sceptical Oxford Philosophy of my student time in the late sixties, it rang true against what was happening in the Church of England at the time. This was the era of Honest to God, Bishop John Robinson’s book which dared to say that God wasn’t situated anywhere in particular – he wasn’t a genial old man with a white beard sitting on top of the clouds – and indeed, later on, also of Don Cupitt’s 1984 TV series, which you can still see on YouTube [https://youtu.be/J396Lamxu9I], called ‘The Sea of Faith’, which argued from a review of the philosophical and theological developments of Galileo, Descartes, Kant and Hegel, as well as more recent figures such as, indeed, Wittgenstein, that the only possible way to understand God was in a ‘non-realist’ way. 
This is the God whom St Paul describes, ‘That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us.’

That’s not the same as saying that ‘God does not exist’. It is rather that God isn’t a thing, isn’t ‘out there’ in some way. A word which comes up in this context is ‘transcendence’. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘God is the “beyond” in the midst’, (quoted in Robinson, John, 1963 (2013 edition), Honest to God, London, SCM Press, p.32, n28). John Robinson approves of Paul Tillich’s idea of God as ‘The Ground of our Being’: indeed, the ground of our being, in whom we ‘live and move and have our being’, as St Paul put it, in almost identical words, 2,000 years earlier.

John Robinson says, ‘The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion, not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky, or anywhere else. Belief in God is a matter of ‘what you take seriously without any reservation’, of what for you is ultimate reality ‘ (p.33).

This ties in also with what Jesus himself tells the disciples in our second, Gospel, reading. Jesus prays that the Father will send in his place another ‘Comforter, … Even the spirit of truth’. The Martin Luther, German, translation of the word for ‘comforter’, Der Tröster – it sounds like ‘ the truster’, adds more here. Earlier in the same chapter 14 of St John’s Gospel came the famous passage, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’, many rooms, many dwelling-places; and the key was, ‘Let not your heart be troubled: yet believe in God, believe also in me.’ 

‘Believe’, or ‘trust’, depending which translation you are looking at. The Greek word (πιστεύω) means ‘have confidence in’, ‘have trust in’ something or in someone. The ‘truster’, Der Tröster, the Comforter. The word can also mean an advocate, a barrister in court, even. ‘Grant this, O Father,’ we pray, ‘for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate’. Advocate. Comforter.

I heard a sermon recently where the idea was that, if you did something less than Christian or otherwise behaved badly, it was because you did not ‘trust’ enough in Jesus. I thought at the time that I didn’t really know how that was supposed to work. I can be sure that I’m driving the best car: but that belief, by itself, won’t make me a better or a worse driver.

I think it is more like what St Paul says, for example in his letter to the Galatians, chapter 5:16. ‘I mean this: if you are guided by the Spirit you will not fulfil the desires of your lower nature.’ If the Holy Spirit is in you, then ‘the fruits of the Spirit’ will come out in you. But it isn’t deterministic: you are not a robot. Again St Paul can appreciate the problem. In his letter to the Romans, chapter 7. He knows what is right, what God has commanded: but he doesn’t do it. It’s not a question of how strong our belief in God is, but our baser instincts – ‘In my unspiritual nature, [I am] a slave to the law of sin’ (Rom. 7:25).

Back to Athens, to the Areopagus, Mars’ hill. What I think we can draw from this is that as Christians, just as St Paul was up against the Greek philosophers, so we, when we meet people who say they’re atheists – and imply that religion, the Christian gospel, is just not believable any more – we can see how those essentials which Paul identified – that for us God isn’t an idol, a mere thing, however pretty or impressive – are still true. God isn’t ‘out there’ somewhere. He wasn’t there, Yuri Gagarin said, when his space capsule broke through the stratosphere into space.

Instead we have to get in touch with the Ground of our Being. The man at our side. Footsteps in the sand. The Comforter. And then perhaps we can be that Comforter for someone else, the man who fell among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho – or maybe on the Portsmouth Road, even.

It’s great that we can show our love of God and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ in this beautiful church, and in the harmony of our wonderful musicians. We thank God for blessing us in it. But we need to turn outwards as well, in the power of the Spirit. We are therefore developing a vision, to follow Jesus’ commandments to love and serve. 

We are looking to start actively to look out for and befriend elderly people who are our neighbours. Are they actually hungry, but too proud to admit it? Are they lonely? Afternoon TV isn’t as good as a nice cup of tea with a friend. 
We’re going to do more with our families and young people. Sunday School may sound a bit formal these days, but Messy Church or sports teatime might be more like it. 

We need to reach out more to involve our church in the local community. You’d be pleased to know how many people from St Mary’s are involved in volunteering for our Foodbank, and who drive people to hospital appointments through Cobham Care. 

But there’s more we can do. There are still only a couple of refugee families from Syria in the whole of Elmbridge. But there are literally millions in refugee camps. There are actually still quite a lot of refugees in the Calais area. 

In the next few weeks, in St Mary’s Hall when you’re having coffee, you’ll see some display boards showing the various ideas which came up in the vision day which we held a couple of Saturdays ago, and there will be sign-up sheets for you to add ideas and to volunteer to ‘do stuff’. I do hope you’ll go for it.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 7th May 2017
Acts 2:42-47 

You have listened to our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, telling how the early Christians lived in a sort of hippy commune, ‘They met constantly to hear the apostles teach and the share the common life, to break bread and to pray. …. All whose faith had drawn them together held everything in common: they would sell their property and possessions and make a general distribution as the need of each required.’ [Acts 2:42,44-45, NEB]

These lines from the Acts of the Apostles seem to imply that the earliest Christians were effectively Communists. ‘From each according to his ability: to each according to his need’. Those words are not only in the Acts of the Apostles, but also in Karl Marx [Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875 – accessed at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/From_each_according_to_his_ability,_to_each_according_to_his_needs%5D.

Oh, come on, you’ll say. We didn’t come to church to have even more politics thrown at us. That poor lady on YouTube, saying how fed up she was at yet another election, is probably ringing a bell with quite a lot of us.

There are lots of things in the Bible where, when you read them, you think, ‘How could that fit with what we’re supposed to believe about God?’ or you worry about stuff in the Bible which says to you that God is telling you to live in a certain way – but it’s completely impractical. 

I think that today’s lesson from the Acts is open to that kind of critique. It’s just like the story of Jesus and the ‘rich young ruler’ in St Luke’s Gospel, 18:18-30. It’s all very well saying that, if you come to faith and become a Christian, you should give everything up; but we are full of practical objections. It’s all very well, you might say, you giving everything up, but I wouldn’t want to deprive my family.

Or we could have Margaret Thatcher’s objection that the good Samaritan was only able to help the man who had fallen among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho because he, the Good Samaritan, had plenty of money. 

What I’m driving at is that one of the vital things about Jesus – and it comes out in the Sermon on the Mount as well as here – is that Jesus asks us or challenges us to do what look, on the face of it, to be impossible things. He is challenging us to have a new value system. It is not appropriate to look at somebody in terms of what they’ve got – So-and-so must be a successful man because he has – some wonderful thing, whatever it is he has: a Bentley, say.

Just as Jesus himself said to the rich young ruler who asked, ‘What must I do in order to be saved?’ ‘Give up everything that you have; give to the poor’, and the bloke went away very troubled, because he had a Mercedes in the drive, fees at Danes Hill to pay and a £3000 bill from American Express. You know, it’s just not practical to stop the roundabout and get off.

Last week, I went and had a look at one of the new houses that have been built next to the library in Cobham. Originally there were going to be 14 houses, but now there are 13. One reason for this is that, if there had been 14, they would have had to build so-called ‘affordable housing’ for some of it. The 13 houses range in price from £850,000 to just over £1 million each. If there had been an affordable house, it would have cost about £600,000. I leave you to judge whether that would have been affordable to a young couple starting out in life. But actually those houses will all get bought, and the so-called affordable houses that are on other developments will also get bought; and it may well be that some of the young people who get started on the housing ladder are helped by the ‘bank of Mum and Dad’.

But not everybody can write a cheque to one or other of their children for £50,000 to give them the deposit on their new house. It’s pretty well a question of luck; where you were born, who your folks were, what are you were able to do at school and university, (if you went there), and how your career has been since: whether it’s been a moneymaking career or whether it’s been a career with real social worth but limited pay horizons, like teaching or being a hospital doctor. 

A junior doctor, like my two daughters, starts at £23,000 a year. A teacher starts around the same level. If you remember the old rules of thumb that we used to use for mortgages when we bought our first houses, three times the main breadwinner’s income and half the second income: so for a married couple of junior doctors, £69,000 plus half of £23,000, £11,500, making a total mortgage available of £80,500, not a lot in the context of an affordable house costing £600,000. Is this acceptable? Ought not government do something to change it?

And in the Cobham area, since we opened 3 1/2 years ago, our Cobham Area Foodbank has handed out over 44 metric tons of food to people, living here on our doorstep, who not only couldn’t afford an affordable house, but they can’t even afford to buy food.

So where am I going? I am going to make an observation at least in part about our modern society, and that of necessity means that I am making a political point. But, you say, the church shouldn’t do that. The Church should be very neutral and not get involved in day-to-day politics. 

Pete Broadbent, the acting Bishop of London, put out a circular on Friday about the impending general election which referred to the former Archbishop William Temple’s book, Christianity and Social Order, published in 1942, and this is what he quoted: 

‘… we are obliged to ask, concerning every field of human activity, what is the purpose of God for it. If we find this purpose, it will be the true and proper nature of that activity, and the relation of the various activities to one another in the divine purpose will be the ‘Natural Order’ of those activities. To bring them into that Order, if they have in fact departed from it, must be one part of the task of the Church as the Body of Christ. If what has true value as a means to an end beyond itself is in fact being sought as an end in itself, the Church must rebuke this dislocation of the structure of life and if possible point out the way of recovery. It is bound to ‘interfere’ because it is by vocation the agent of God’s purpose, outside the scope of which no human interest or activity can fall.” [Temple, W., 1942, Christianity and Social Order, London, Penguin Books: reprinted by Shepheard-Welwyn, London, 1987: p.38]

The church must always look for God’s purpose in our everyday lives – and that includes our political world. And it must get actively involved: as Archbishop Temple said, even in the stress of the first half of WW2, ‘It is bound to ‘interfere’ because it is by vocation the agent of God’s purpose’.

So we Christians must approach the current elections with that in mind. What would Jesus do? Where is God’s purpose?

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have just issued a ‘pastoral letter’ to all the churches in this country about the impending General Election.

The Archbishops say:
“This election is being contested against the backdrop of deep and profound questions of identity.

“Opportunities to renew and reimagine our shared values as a country and a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only come around every few generations.

“We are in such a time.

“Our Christian heritage, our current choices and our obligations to future generations and to God’s world will all play a shaping role.

“If our shared British values are to carry the weight of where we now stand and the challenges ahead of us, they must have at their core cohesion, courage and stability.”

The Archbishops highlight major concerns over poverty, housing and the dangers of “crushing” debt among other issues.

They call for a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants but also warn against being “deaf to the legitimate concerns” about the scale of migration into some communities.

They also single out the importance of standing up for those suffering persecution on grounds of faith around the world.

Faith, they argue, has a unique role to play in preventing extremism and religiously motivated violence.

“Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief.

“The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives.

“Parishes and Chaplaincies of the Church of England serve people of all faiths and none.

“Their contribution and that of other denominations and faiths to the well-being of the nation is immense – schools, food banks, social support, childcare among many others – and is freely offered. 

But the role of faith in society is not just measured in terms of service delivery.

“The new Parliament, if it is to take religious freedom seriously, must treat as an essential task the improvement of religious literacy.”

They add: “Political responses to the problems of religiously-motivated violence and extremism, at home and overseas, must also recognise that solutions will not be found simply in further secularisation of the public realm.” [You can look up the full text at http://tinyurl.com/l4pg7xm%5D

So say our Archbishops, and we ought to consider carefully their advice. What do we think God’s will is in relation to the great issues at stake?

Is it more important to be British – and is it more important to be a United Kingdom – than to be part of the great European Union? Surely ‘they’, the 27 other EU nations, are our friends – or they were. How to preserve and deepen that friendship? Because after all, ‘friendship’ is a species of love, and Jesus taught that we should love one another.

What is the proper role of the state? Is it there to provide the best health treatment for all, paid for out of taxation, or should the NHS be allowed to fail and be privatised? Is it there to pay for our armed forces, and to provide them with every kind of weapon, including nuclear arms which, it has been argued, we could never use? Should state schools generally have to accept reduced budgets, but some schools, grammar and free schools, get more? Is it a good idea in general to shrink the cost of the public sector to 35% of GDP, compared with a European average around 48%? And so on. ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to their needs’. That’s the Biblical principle.

Plenty to think about. In closing let me congratulate all those who were elected in the local elections on Thursday – especially our own Mary Lewis, from this congregation – and let us turn our minds soberly and prayerfully to the choices offered to us in the General Election in a month’s time. Can we invoke the spirit of those earliest disciples? As the last real President said, ‘Yes, we can’. Yes, we can.

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after Easter

Daniel 6:1-23 – in the Lion Pit; Mark 15:46-16:8

I went to London Zoo last week, for the first time since I was a teenager. With my elder daughter Emma, I was taking my five-month-old grandson James. The Zoo had a special exhibition to celebrate that lovely children’s book ‘Dear Zoo’, by Rod Campbell. 

Emma told me that James, or Jim, as I call him, was specially keen to see the tigers and lions. We managed to arrive at the tiger enclosure just at feeding time, and we saw Mum and Dad tiger, Jae Jae and Melati by name, with their two rather large cubs, Achilles and Karis, enjoying some large steaks. On the way out of Tiger Territory we saw a sign with a picture indeed showing a nice steak, with a caption which said, ‘This is what you look like to a tiger’: that is, lunch.

Then we entered a splendid replica of the Gir Forest, in Gujarat, India, complete with a ruined Hindu temple, a garishly-painted lorry and a tuk-tuk, and a railway halt with a fine upper-quadrant home signal from Indian Railways. A sign said, ‘Detrain here for Gir Forest – Famous for its Lions’. You can tell it was really Indian because they said you should ‘detrain’ rather than ‘alight’. It’s wonderful that Railway English comes in regional dialects!

The lorry was the real thing. I could tell that because Indian lorries always have a large message on their rear ends, inviting you to hoot at them – ‘Horn please!’ or, as this one said, ‘Horn okay please’. I suppose that this conforms with the rules of Railway English too. In the proper old days of steam, certain carriages were designated as ‘Smoking’ – not ‘No smoking’. The default was ‘no smoking’. It was like what someone once said about the rule of law in Switzerland: things are normally prohibited, unless there is a notice which gives you permission to do them.

The Gir Forest in Regent’s Park was home to some rather sleepy lions, who had obviously eaten well. I knew that they too saw us humans as walking steaks.

I can’t imagine – well, perhaps I can imagine it, but I would rather not – what the lion pit which King Darius had must have seemed like, when Daniel was thrown into it. Our lesson, from the Book of Daniel, ends at verse 23, with Daniel having spent the night among the lions, without having come to grief. However, the chapter has a final line, verse 24, which says, 

‘By order of the king, Daniel’s accusers were brought and thrown into the lions’ pit with their wives and children, and before they reached the floor of the pit the lions were upon them and crunched them up, bones and all.’ 

Crunched them up, bones and all. That’s what big cats do. Although we like to anthropomorphise our cats, make little people out of them – you know, on Twitter you can follow all the various cats in Downing Street as well as Larry the No 10 cat – certainly when you get to lions, their usual mode of interaction with the human race doesn’t usually end well: at least not well for the humans.

There was of course the shining exception of the lion who rejoiced in the name of Christian, who was bought as a cub from the pet department of Harrod’s in the late Sixties by two trendy Chelsea types called Ace Bourke and John Rendall, and who was kept in a flat in the King’s Road and taken for walks on a lead – until he got rather big and showed signs of being tempted to bite people. His owners then took him to Africa, to Kenya, and with the help of Joy Adamson’s Born Free Foundation, prepared him for his eventual release back into the wild. 

There was a wonderful sequel. Several years later, Christian’s erstwhile owners decided to visit Kenya and see if they could find out how Christian was getting on. They met up – and there is an extraordinary film of this massive male lion bounding out of the bush and charging towards John Rendall. Was he going to be lunch? But no – mirabile dictu – marvellous to relate – Christian the lion jumped up, put his massive paws on Rendall’s shoulders and embraced him. There is a wonderful film about it, called A Lion called Christian. [See http://www.alioncalledchristian.com.au%5D

Perhaps Daniel had, unknown to his fellow satraps, (provincial governors), made friends with King Darius’ lions, at some time before he was thrown into their den, and so they left him unmolested. Somehow I think it’s not very likely. It was a proper miracle that he wasn’t devoured in the usual lion way.

Talking of being devoured in the ‘usual lion way’, I’m glad that my grandson Jim is only five months old, so when he went to the Zoo he hadn’t read Hilaire Belloc’s poem about his namesake and a lion. But do you remember it?

There was a Boy whose name was Jim; 

His friends were very good to him. 

They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam, 

And slices of delicious Ham,

And Chocolate with pink inside, 

And little Tricycles to ride,

And read him stories through and through, 

And even took him to the zoo-

But there it was the dreadful Fate 

Befell him, which I now relate.

You know – at least you ought to know, 

For I have often told you so-

That Children never are allowed

To leave their Nurses in a Crowd; 

Now this was Jim’s especial Foible, 

He ran away when he was able, 

And on this inauspicious day

He slipped his hand and ran away! 

He hadn’t gone a yard when – Bang! 

With open jaws a Lion sprang, 

And hungrily began to eat

The Boy: beginning at his feet.

Now just imagine how it feels 

When first your toes and then your heels, 

And then by gradual degrees, 

Your shins and ankles, calves and knees, 

Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.

No wonder Jim detested it!

No wonder that he shouted “Hi!”

The honest keeper heard his cry, 

Though very fat he almost ran

To help the little gentleman. 

“Ponto!” he ordered as he came

(For Ponto was the Lion‟s name), 

“Ponto!” he cried, with angry Frown. 

“Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!”

The Lion made a sudden Stop, 

He let the Dainty Morsel drop, 

And slunk reluctant to his cage, 

Snarling with Disappointed Rage. 

But when he bent him over Jim 

The Honest Keeper’s Eyes were dim. 

The Lion having reached his head, 

The Miserable Boy was dead.

  

When Nurse informed his parents, they 

Were more Concerned than I can say:- 

His Mother, as she dried her eyes, 

Said, “Well – it gives me no surprise, 

He would not do as he was told!” 

His Father, who was self-controlled, 

Bade all the children round attend 

To James’ miserable end,

And always keep a hold of Nurse 

For fear of finding something worse.

[Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales]

Without miracles, that’s what lions do, I’m afraid. Well, this morning I talked about the Easter miracle, that this evening we heard about as it’s told in St Mark’s Gospel, with its ‘shorter ending’, ‘for they were afraid’, which in the Greek looks like it stopped in mid-sentence. The Easter miracle was that God raised Jesus up: here God saved Daniel from the lions. 

What I have in mind tonight stays with the catty, albeit big-catty, theme of my words earlier tonight. It came to me when I thought of Larry, the No 10 Downing St cat. Incidentally, Larry is reputed not to be very fierce – indeed, he’s not supposed to be any good at catching mice. Also, allegedly, Mrs May, the Prime Minister, doesn’t get on with Larry as well as her predecessor did. I nearly said, ‘Mrs May, our unelected Prime Minister’: but of course this week she has set about trying to change that.

Are there any miracles around to help today? Mrs May said that she is trying to get the country to unite in supporting her. She said that she thought that people outside Parliament were all supporting her, but unfortunately those pesky opposition parties and the strangely unbiddable House of Lords hadn’t got the message yet. So she thinks that a quick general election will sweep her to an overwhelming majority so that the doubters and nay-sayers can be swept aside by the ‘will of the people’.

We know that Mrs May and Mr Farron go to church; we think that Mr Corbyn is rather more private in his religious observance. I suspect that he goes to the chapel rather than the parish church on the hill. But May and Corbyn both mentioned, and emphasised, the Christian Easter message in their broadcasts last Sunday. 

Some of you will now be getting a bit worried that I might start to say something political from the pulpit. Surely not! That’s not to say that ministers can’t say what they honestly believe to be right, in any given situation. The guiding principle is, ‘What would Jesus do?’

I do think that it will be a very good idea, in the weeks leading up to the election, for all of us to look at each of the parties’ manifestoes, and try to measure each party’s proposals against Jesus’ teaching. Don’t just follow your tribe: try to follow Jesus. I doubt whether we could necessarily always agree what the conclusions would be, but I think it will help us to judge whether one or other of the parties will govern in a more of less Christian way. 

So some of the questions might be: Brexit, or remain? Austerity, cuts, or more money for the NHS, schools and the welfare state? Lower taxes, or the ‘triple lock’ on old-age pensions? Overseas aid or more defence spending? Portuguese nurses and Egyptian surgeons – remember our most distinguished heart surgeon, Sir Magdi Yacoub, came from Egypt, and his successor at the Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospitals, André Simon, who saved my brother’s life, came from Germany – German surgeons, Polish plumbers and Transylvanian care home workers – or would you rather have immigration limited, limited to tens of thousands only? 

What would Jesus say? Pontius Pilate asked, ‘What is truth?’ Well, we have to try to find out. Our children’s future, and the peace of the world, depend on it.