Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Easter, 8th April 2018
Isaiah 26.1-9,19, Luke 24.1-12

I must confess that this week I had quite a case of writer’s block before this sermon came to me. I have been through all the Easter services: for a minister in the Church, just as for faithful members of the congregation like you, it has been a really busy time. But it all comes together in the happiness of Easter Sunday, after which point a lot of people take off for a bit of holiday.

Stoke D’Abernon and Cobham are really quiet; I went into Town a couple of times last week and I managed to park my car at the station right near to the station building, which is unheard-of normally. A lot of people are away. Now in the church we have got this period until 10th May, the Ascension, when we are in Easter time, which is the time when the church reflects on and celebrates the appearances which Jesus made after he was resurrected from the dead.

Tonight we have read about the visit of the various women going with Mary Magdalene who had been at the crucifixion and seen Jesus laid in the tomb. They had brought all the various embalming spices to prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial. Then they found that the stone had been rolled away and they met two men in shining garments – two angels.

This is St Luke’s account, which doesn’t have some of the features in the other Gospels. For example, St Peter runs to the empty tomb by himself according to St Luke, but in St John’s Gospel he’s accompanied by ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, which is presumably St John himself.

Mary Magdalene is met by two angels, whereas in another version there is a person, whom she mistakes for the gardener, who turns out to be Jesus himself. When you realise that all these Gospel accounts were written at the least 20 years and often more like 40 years after the events described, it’s not surprising that there are some minor variations in the story.

It’s all about resurrection from the dead. That Jesus died a horrible death and then somehow came alive again. When you look at the prophecy of Isaiah which is from the time approximately 750 years before Jesus, you see this picture of the land of Judah and of the city of Jerusalem as concrete expressions of God keeping his covenant, his agreement, with his chosen people. ‘We have a strong city’: I looked it up and this is not where ‘Ein’ Feste Burg’, Martin Luther’s hymn, comes from. [It’s Psalm 46].

In Martin Luther’s German it’s ‘ein fester Stadt’ here. But the idea is similar. The city of God, a protection, a bulwark, against the godless. And it’s interesting to see the prophetic vision of a fair society in the city of God. It’s almost the same train of thought as in the Magnificat. ‘… he bringeth down them that dwell on high; the lofty city, he layeth it low; he layeth it low, even to the ground; he bringeth it even to the dust.’ And then at the end of the passage that we had tonight, there is what my Bible commentary tantalisingly says is one of the only two references in the Old Testament to the idea of resurrection from the dead. ‘…. for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise.’

It’s great: it must have been a really wonderful time. It’s very inspiring to read in the Acts of the Apostles how the early Christians lived; looking after each other, holding their possessions in common and looking forward to Jesus’ second coming as though it was going to happen any day.

But is it too awful, perhaps even sacrilegious, to ask, ‘So what?’ How does that work today? How is my life and your life affected by those events of the first Easter? Granted, of course, that they were cosmic events, that the world would not be the same after them: before Jesus, people were in touch with God through the prophets, like Isaiah. And the prophecies came true, and the dead man did live; but when I look at the nuts and bolts of what I have been dealing with this week and what I have been reading about in the newspapers, I’m challenged. I find it quite difficult to see the footsteps of the resurrected Jesus in some of the things that I encountered this week.

An earnest lady came to see me this week, representing the Department of Work and Pensions, to try to persuade me that Universal Credit was going to be good for the clients of the Foodbank; I pointed out to her that, if somebody is sick or disabled, and signs on for benefits now, they will get 28% less than they used to. There are lots of other ways in which this new system is worse than what went before. 4/5 of people receiving Universal Credit are in arrears with their rent, because there is a six-week delay in paying it – and because you only have to miss two rent payments for the landlord to be able to repossess your home, they are at risk of becoming homeless.

Sir Gerry Acher was very involved with the Motability scheme, providing specially adapted cars for disabled people. Hundreds of those cars are now being returned because the poor disabled people no longer have enough in benefits to afford to run them.

Teenagers are being murdered in London; although the Metropolitan Police Commissioner says that the cuts in the police service have no effect on the murder rate, you can’t help feeling that things would be better if there was a bobby on the beat, as there used to be. But the cuts have taken them away.

So who knows? David Lammy, the widely-respected MP for Tottenham, says that a lot of this is caused by our society becoming so mean, so that single mothers have to go out to work and leave their children at home on their own. He gives an example of 12-year-olds being offered new pairs of trainers by drug dealers, and asked to run little errands – little ones to start off with – round the corner to deliver a packet. Soon they are earning more than their parents ever dreamt of, but they will have become members of gangs and they will be armed. According to Mr Lammy, the drugs that they supply end up being used by trendy middle-class people who live behind electric gates – maybe somewhere around here.

Well I can’t say this stuff, without some of you jumping up and down and saying, ‘This isn’t a sermon: it is a political speech’. But it seems to me that Jesus would be concerned. Jesus would say that so many of these things really don’t chime with the idea of a strong city, ‘for whose walls and bulwarks God will appoint salvation.’

‘Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.’ Is that a picture of an immigration policy? Somehow it doesn’t sound like it. The meanness at the heart of the idea of controlled immigration just doesn’t sound like that strong city in the land of Judah whose gates are open.

And what about the events in Palestine? 15 or 16 people have been shot by the Israeli army and 1500 people have been injured. The Israeli army has been firing bullets at people throwing stones at them. The most recent tragedy was a photojournalist called Yaser Murtaja, who was wearing a flak jacket with ‘Press’ written in big letters across the front. He was shot in the stomach by the Israeli forces. Where is the kingdom of God in any of that?

But then there were all the stories this week about Ray Wilkins, the great footballer and Cobham resident, who died this week very early, at the age of 61. There were an amazing number of stories, not only about his great goals and tremendous talent as a footballer, but also about what a good and generous man he was.

There is one I particularly like which I saw told by a homeless man, an ex-soldier, who was sitting outside West Brompton station. Ray Wilkins went over to him, sat down with him and took time to talk with him. Ray Wilkins’ phone rang, apparently, and he answered it and said that he would call the person back, because he was ‘busy’. Busy – busy talking to a homeless bloke sitting on a cardboard sheet, huddled up against the wall of the station. He gave the bloke £20, and took him across to a café to buy him a cup of tea. He suggested that the homeless man should use the money to stay in a hostel and get a hot meal. He did that, and that night, at the hostel, the old soldier met a social worker specialising in ex-soldiers. As a result, the homeless man was put on a path which brought him back to a decent life with a new job and a home.

Ray Wilkins, whom I’m sure many of us have met around the village, did what Jesus would have wanted him to do. He was a Good Samaritan – as well as a very good footballer.

So maybe things are not so bleak, and maybe the resurrection of Jesus, the Easter story, isn’t totally submerged in godless ghastliness after all.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday next before Easter, 25th March 2018

Isaiah 5:1-7, Mark 12:1-12

Two vineyards in the Bible. One is a perfectly good vineyard, nothing remarkable about it. Like Denbies, say. Actually there is something remarkable about our local vineyard. Apparently it’s the biggest single vineyard in Europe. It is, really. Not in France, or Italy, or Portugal, or Spain – but here in Surrey. And jolly good it is, too. I like ‘Surrey Gold’ just as much as Gavi di Gavi. They’re both excellent.

The other vineyard has something wrong with it. It’s suffering from noble rot, or something. Something which is interfering with the growth of the vines and the swelling of the grapes. In the vineyard in the Book of Isaiah, the distinction is between ‘grapes’ and ‘wild grapes’. I’m not sure why it’s not a good thing for the grapes to be ‘wild’. Wild strawberries are the nicest, I think. And D & T Car Wash, who, I think, are very good, advertise that they use soap with ‘wild cleaning power’. But clearly from the context here, we’re meant to take it that the wildness here – wild grapes – makes them no good.

One vineyard, in St Mark’s Gospel, is fine, and productive. But the snag is, that the people who run it are crooks. They won’t pay their rent to their landlord – they abuse, even kill, his reps, when they visit to collect the dues; and indeed, eventually they kill the landowner’s son.

The other vineyard is just hopeless, not because it is badly run, badly managed, but because it just doesn’t grow good grapes. Even despite its being ‘a vineyard in a very fruitful hill’. [Is. 5:1] But the reason, Isaiah tells us, is that this vineyard is an allegory, it is not a real vineyard, but a mythical reference to the Israelites. They, God’s chosen people, the Israelites, are the dud vineyard. ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant.’ They’re not fruitful or productive, even though they’re planted, they’re set up, absolutely fine.

But how lovely to be someone’s ‘pleasant plant’! I think that must be a prayer to say at Squires’ garden centre across the road.

So I think that Jesus was probably alluding, he was harking back, to the story of the wild grape vineyard when he told the parable of his vineyard. Or rather, he was making it clear that the story wasn’t really just about grapes and a vineyard. If the man who ‘planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and digged a plane for the winefat, and built a tower,’ was actually a symbol for God, and if, when He ‘let it out to husbandmen’, tenant farmers, it was a symbol of what God had done in creation. We, the descendants of Adam and Eve, have the care of God’s creation. Are we trustworthy managers? Or is it rather that, however well we do, God periodically throws a spanner in the works?

But one thing that Jesus says is clear, in his allegory. That is the bit about the landlord’s son being killed. It is so reminiscent of the history of Jesus. It’s tricky. The story reflects, on the face of it, pretty badly on the Jews. They were the chosen people. They, the evil husbandmen, killed the Son of the owner. When, on Good Friday, we say a litany of complaints called the Reproaches, starting with

‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow

which was brought upon me,

which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger’

and so on, there is a warning in the Service Book [Common Worship, Times and Seasons, Lent’] that the Reproaches are sometimes taken to be bigoted, to be anti-Jewish, but they mustn’t be taken that way. A better way of looking at it is to see the Reproaches – and the criticism of the Dud Vineyard – as being directed not just against the Jewish people, but also against anyone, any human being. Against us, even. Are we stealing, keeping to ourselves, what should rightfully be given to our heavenly Father? Are we taking proper care of the Father’s vineyard, and giving Him his proper dues?

Somebody was saying goodbye to me the other day. They said, ‘Have a nice Easter holiday’. I felt it sounded a bit awkward, although of course I knew what the nice, friendly person meant. But Easter, and Holy Week – this week, starting today – which leads up to it, the Easter season, isn’t just a jolly time. It’s serious.

Passiontide, the two weeks immediately before Easter, are leading up to the most important time in the Christian year. The Passion. At the time of the Passover, in the Jewish tradition. Christ lived. Christ died. Then the glorious resurrection. Christ was resurrected. He rose again from the dead. Today at the start, on Palm Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem.

In the Roman world, a general who had engaged in a successful battle, or a successful war, would parade his captives and all the booty he had plundered, through the streets of Rome. The Emperor would have given him permission to celebrate what was called a ‘Triumph’. Some generals were refused triumphs, because it might make them too big for their boots.

Rome operated devolved administration. People were trusted to do a good job for the Roman state; for ‘SPQR’ (senatus populusque Romanus), the senate, the government and the people of Rome. But if a general came back in triumph from massive conquests, he might consider himself greater than the current emperor. And then there would be a risk of revolution. It was similar in the various provinces, such, for example, as ancient Palestine. There, there was tension, as we all remember, between the Roman provincial government, headed by Pontius Pilate, and the devolved Jewish administration.

I went to a very interesting lecture – it was rather more than just a lecture – at St Paul’s Cathedral on Monday last week. It was run by the St Paul’s Institute in collaboration with the BBC, and led by Prof. Michael Sandel, of Harvard University, who calls himself ‘The Public Philosopher’, and who conducts live debates with audiences about philosophical questions, rather in the way that I imagine Socrates must have done in ancient Athens, by asking his audience questions, and challenging their preconceptions by examining the logical implications of what they thought.

The topic on Monday was ‘Democracy and the Common Good: What do we Value?’ A subtitle was, ‘What does it mean to be a citizen?’ It was recorded for BBC Radio 4, and you will be able to listen to a distilled version, 45 minutes edited down from the two hours of discussion and debate, on the wireless on Tuesday, at 9 am, repeated at 9.30 pm, under the title ’Citizens of Nowhere?’ [See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09ws5p6] I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice to mention that the trailer says, ‘With the help of a live audience, [Prof. Sandel] asks whether globalisation and deepening inequality have eroded the bonds that hold communities together. He enquires if the continuing debate over Brexit reveals competing notions of political identity. Should we aspire to be citizens of the world, or is a citizen of the world a citizen of nowhere? He wonders if patriotism is a sentiment we should encourage or a prejudice we should overcome and whether, in diverse societies such as ours, a politics of the common good is even possible.’

It is a similar question to the one faced in the Roman Empire, for instance in Palestine. Was one a citizen of somewhere local, where one had grown up or where one paid taxes, or were you like St Paul, who said, ‘Civis Romanus sum’, ‘I am a Roman citizen’? (Acts 22:25f) Were you then, are you now, a citizen of the world, or a local chap? During the discussion on Monday, Prof. Sandel brought in the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, to sum up the debate. The Bishop is the one who, with all the local churches, has been very much involved in supporting the residents of Grenfell Tower following the terrible fire there.

Dr Tomlin suggested that there was a sort of tension between being local, and being universal. Prof. Sandel had opened the discussion by asking his invited audience, of students from the LSE, to imagine themselves as running a food bank in a German town. Supplies of food were getting tight, and demand was rising. Should one restrict the hand-outs of food just to German people, and not to other nationalities – or should the only criterion be hunger, be the people’s need? Dr Tomlin suggested that, if one were a Christian, the answer to such conundrums was in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Nationality – even nationality in a context of enmity between nations – was not relevant; it didn’t worry the Good Samaritan. We don’t know for sure what the nationality of the man was, who ‘fell among thieves’ on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho; but it seems most likely that he was Jewish, an Israelite – as otherwise it wouldn’t have been so striking that first a ‘priest’ and then a ‘Levite’ passed him by. Samaritans and Jews were opponents even if not actual enemies. But it didn’t matter to the Good Samaritan. So the Bishop suggested that nationality wasn’t the be-all and end-all, shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all, where Christians – where we – are concerned.

Interestingly, the audience, both the students on the stage and the several hundred people in the cathedral nave, were more open to internationalism and less inclined to nationalism or parochialism, than I think Prof. Sandel was expecting. He was periodically taking straw polls of what people thought about the moral questions he posed. Overwhelmingly, in the Cathedral, people thought that the brotherhood of all mankind was much more worthwhile than ‘taking back control’, or whatever other pro-Brexit nostrums he posited. I suppose that is to be expected from an audience of people who go to St Paul’s, whereas the average Daily Mail reader might have a less enlightened view.

So – as we begin to recall the momentous events of the first Holy Week – are we ‘citizens of nowhere’? Or are we Good Samaritans? Whose vineyard is it? Are you looking after it properly? Or is it not worth looking after, because it’s producing ‘wild’ grapes?

Sermon for Mattins on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, 18th March 2018
Exodus 24:3-8, Hebrews 12:18-29

‘Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ‘judgments’. A little bit of Bible study to begin with. Our lessons today are one of those ‘that was then: this is how it is now’ contrasts. Moses had received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai from God, and they were the basis, the terms and conditions, of the covenant, the contract, the solemn agreement, between God and his chosen people.

Do these things, and I will protect you. So, [Exodus 20.3] Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. … for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. And so on.

But then there are the ‘judgments’. If you think of a contract – one of those things that you pretend to read when you get something on the Net from Apple or Microsoft, or when you rent a car – then maybe the way to look at the ‘judgments’ in the Book of Exodus is, if the 10 Commandments are the terms, the Judgments, sometimes called the Ordinances, are the conditions, the small print.

They are fascinating reading. You’ll find them in the chapters after the 10 Commandments, so in Exodus 21, 22 and 23. There are all sorts of practical rules for civilised life. Try this from Exodus 22:

25 If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.
26 If thou at all take thy neighbour’s raiment to pledge, thou shalt deliver it unto him by that the sun goeth down:
27 For that is his covering only, it is his raiment for his skin: wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear; for I am gracious.

Don’t charge extortionate interest on loans – just like Archbishop Justin said against payday lenders, Wonga et al. If you take someone’s coat as surety for a loan, give it back at the end of the day, because it is his clothing. He needs it to keep warm. Practical stuff. It’s where ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ comes, in the previous chapter, Exodus 21. You remember, only an eye, for an eye – retribution, punishment, must be proportionate. The punishment must fit the crime.

All that came from a conversation between God and Moses, God speaking to Moses after there had been a commotion on the top of the mountain:

18 And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.
19 And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.
20 And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not.
21 And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.

In the Old Testament, mere mortals, except for the priests, or rather the prophets like Moses and Elijah, couldn’t see God, couldn’t be in the presence of God, and survive.

That was then. And then, Jesus came. The picture of heaven, of God’s kingdom, changed. It’s still true that, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, ‘ …our God is a consuming fire’. But in general it is a positive, glorious vision. The original covenant has been carried out, has been performed, and the heavenly kingdom awaits. Jesus said [Matt.5:17] ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.’

In the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is ‘the mediator of a new covenant, whose sprinkled blood has better things to tell than the blood of Abel.’ [Hebrews 12:24, NEB] Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve, had a tragic history. Abel was killed by his brother, who was jealous of him. He denied it – ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ in Genesis 4. Abel’s blood was shed pointlessly. The contrast is with Jesus’ death, his blood shed on the cross, and the idea that by suffering in this way, Jesus had brought the human race back into a right relationship with God. We say, ‘he died for our sins’ – but it’s not obvious what that really means.

The writer to the Hebrews puts it in terms of our receiving an eternal, imperishable benefit, a ‘kingdom which cannot be moved’, as against ‘blackness, and darkness, and tempest’ which Moses found on Mount Sinai. Now, the faithful have come not to Mount Sinai, but to [Hebrews 12:22]
‘ …mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,
23 To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect..’

OK. So that’s a little discussion of how our Bible readings work today. The context, the church context, is that we are nearly at the end of the period of reflection and humble thought about our lives, and about our relationship with God, that we have in Lent. If we have been attending the Churches Together Lent course, this week we explored how relationships can, sadly, break down. Divorce, abuse, warfare: all involve broken relationships: sometimes broken covenants, broken agreements. That can be the case with divorce, for example. Or, where international treaties are broken, war can result.

That is a bit reflective of the world of Moses, of ‘an eye for an eye’. Fair, practical agreements. Reasonable dealings. No rip-offs, like Wonga. Good, so far as it goes. But – but if there is a breakdown, then, in the time of Moses, God is merciless.

I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.… [Exodus 20:5; NRSV]

In the Lent course, the Christian alternative, the example of healing love to bind up the broken relationships, was, it was suggested, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s wonderful response to the end of apartheid in South Africa, his Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That was surely inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5]:

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And –

43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

This is practical wisdom. To be able to forgive, means you will be able to forget. You can’t forgive unless you can let it go, forget. Of course there are practical constraints. You need to have contrition, repentance, a sense that what one has done is wrong, and must not be done again. You can’t just forgive people willy-nilly. But the consequences, consequences of breaches of contract, of breakdowns in relationships, need not be simple tit-for-tats.

It’s difficult to draw a line, sometimes, particularly where a criminal is dangerous to society. What is the right thing to do about the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia? So far no-one has confessed to poisoning them, and no-one has been convicted in a court of law – or even arrested. So the ‘truth’ part of Truth and Reconciliation hasn’t been established yet. But if it had been, would we get to Reconciliation? What would happen in ‘ …mount Sion, … the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,’ in the presence of ‘an innumerable company of angels’?

Or what will happen in Syria, eventually? Will the refugees ever be able to go home? I think that the story of South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, Truth and Reconciliation, is a real cause for hope. And that story came from people who pray, who are inspired by the Bible. We know that no-one reads his Bible better or more frequently than Archbishop Tutu. He takes time every day to sit in his study, to read the Bible and say prayers. We should try to follow his example; then perhaps we too will start to feel that we are entering the heavenly Jerusalem.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 11th March 2018

Exodus 6:2-13, Romans 5:1-11 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=387774983

We are getting towards the most important week in the Christian year, Holy Week and Easter. Two weeks to go and then Easter begins. It occurred to me that in the Easter story, there are almost transactional elements, you know, dealings, between us and God, at least in the way that the Bible puts it.

In the lesson from Exodus today, there is a sort of discussion; it is almost like a fly on the wall between two heads of state: maybe not Kim Jong Un and and Donald Trump or any combination involving Boris Johnson, but nevertheless you can see what I mean. Moses is the Jewish plenipotentiary talking to the most important man in the world – or rather, the most important man not in the world.

The trouble is that the Israelites just keep on doing the wrong thing. It’s the other way up from today. It isn’t the rogue leaders going off at a tangent, making nuclear weapons and declaring trade wars, but the people, knowing what the good thing to do is, and then persistently not doing it. Oh, I realise that actually there is a similarity today, but you wouldn’t want me to dwell on the Brexit thing yet again.

I’d better just pause at this point and apologise for the fact that this isn’t really a Mothering Sunday sermon. It is more a fourth Sunday in Lent sermon. I hope that if you are blessed still to have your Mum with you or if you are a Mum yourself, you will have been to our 10 o’clock service today as well, so that the whole family could be together and give thanks to God for the blessings of family life. I hope that my Mum is with us in spirit nevertheless and I hope that she knows that my brother and I still think about her fondly very often.

And of course the thing that we’re talking about at the heart of the Easter story is Jesus as a son. The transaction, the relationship that we concentrate on, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son….’ [John 3:16], doesn’t mention his mother. But of course although Mary, the mother of God, may not be mentioned today, still certainly she has a huge part to play in the events of Easter. So there is some ‘mothering’ in our reflections tonight.

But what about what Paul is talking about it in his letter to the Romans, dying for somebody, having so much love for somebody that you are prepared to die for them, die in their place, take upon them the burden of condemnation for somebody else?

We can imagine what that looks like by reference to stories of bravery and self-sacrifice: Father Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz volunteering to be punished by the Nazis when they were decimating the prisoners: you know, selecting at random one in 10 of the prisoners to receive punishment. When a particular man had been selected to be put to death in a brutal way, he cried out that he would never see his family again. Father Kolbe offered to take his place, and indeed did.

There are some amazing stories, often from wars, of self-sacrifice of this type. People are indeed capable of the most amazing generosity and bravery.

However, I don’t think that really answers the question what is going on in the Easter story. Jesus, we say, died for our sins. We would otherwise have been punished for being sinful, but instead he took our place, rather like Father Kolbe, and we avoided punishment.

That’s what we say, for example, in the Creed, but what does it really mean? Who would be doing the punishing, and why? Do we really believe in hellfire and damnation? Dare I say that most of us don’t actually come down on whether they do or do not believe in it, but we just would rather not think about it too much?

The idea of a sacrifice, a propitiation, making up for misdemeanour by giving someone something, making up for it, is a very old one. In the Old Testament there is the Jewish idea of the scapegoat (Leviticus chapter 16), where on the Day of Atonement the sins of the people were symbolically loaded on to the back of a poor goat, which was driven over a steep slope so that it fell down and died in the fall.

There is a similar idea in the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. This starts with the same Jewish Passover sacrifice, although the goat has become a lamb. Αμνός θεού, Agnus Dei in Latin, it appears at John 1:29, where John the Baptist sees Jesus and exclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” It’s interesting that there isn’t much difference, in the traditional Jewish mind, between sheep and goats here – when Jesus talks in Matt. 25 about the Last Judgement, the great division into sheep, who are saved, going to eternal life, and the goats, the damned, condemned to eternal damnation, clearly there’s a preference for sheep. Here, they seem to be equally – unfortunately – expendable.

Jesus’ Passion and death happened on the day before the Jewish Passover festival. So there’s clearly a kind of cultural carryover going on. If, as the first Christians were, you are Jewish, the sacramental significance of Jesus’ death, of his being put to death, much in the way the poor goat, or lamb, was slaughtered, would perhaps be more understandable.

There is also the story of God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis chapter 22. The ending, and the point of the story, seem to be different from the story of Jesus. Isaac isn’t killed. God was just testing Abraham’s loyalty. Not ‘God so loved the world’, but Abraham so loved God, that he was willing to sacrifice his own son.

But what can we take from this? Surely the idea of a wrathful God who has to be placated, placated even by a human sacrifice, is something we surely can’t accept. God, a loving God, surely would not want to hurt a perfectly innocent person – leaving aside the question whether in Jesus, his ‘son’, God has before him someone He has created, or whether we are right to see Jesus as just being another side of God – and our language is inadequate to express their relationship one with another, ‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity.’ [Reginald Heber, 1783-1826, hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty] They aren’t brothers, so they must be father and son. But really, words aren’t adequate to describe this.‘He gave his only Son’ might even have a circularity about it. In a sense, that God sacrificed Himself for us.

Perhaps we should approach it another way. We don’t really have the Jewish cultural heritage against which to appreciate what happened as a sacramental act.

Look, what are the essentials of why you are a Christian? I would expect that the miracle of the Resurrection has a part in it.

Something extraordinary happened, in 33AD, in 33CE. A man died a horrible death: and he somehow came back to life. You may baulk at that rather stark way of putting it. Plenty of people do, in a way. ‘I don’t believe in it’. It was a ‘conjuring trick with bones’, they say.

(You’ll remember the fuss about the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins. As reported by Andrew Brown in the Guardian, he ‘… said that the resurrection “was not just a conjuring trick with bones”. This was reported, …. as “comparing the resurrection to a conjuring trick with bones”’ [See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/06/david-jenkins-bishop-durham-biblical-facts-fire-york-minster?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other].)

Not just a conjuring trick. The point that the then Bishop of Durham was trying to make was that the Bible isn’t a photograph album, or a video. David Jenkins’s successor as Bishop of Durham actually did say that, if they had had video cameras at the time of Christ, it would have been straightforward to get a film of the risen Christ. I don’t think many of us would really go along with that.

Putting that contrast surely makes where I’m going with this rather clearer. The stories, about Moses talking to God, about Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, about the scapegoat, or the Agnus Dei, are better understood as not being literal statements of fact, but stories, myths. Just as watching a Shakespeare play or a Verdi opera opens your eyes – and ears – to a new level of insight and understanding, so the central miracle-stories work better, make better sense, if you don’t take them literally, but rather metaphorically.

That metaphorical understanding is nevertheless authentic, true. It rings true. Jesus rose from the dead. We have no idea, literally, how that happened. But we believe that his followers were convinced that he had really come back from the dead. How, and in what sense, we can’t now tell. Jesus’ encounter with Doubting Thomas fills in some gaps. He isn’t a ghost. ‘Touch me, feel me’, he says. Something happened. What it was, is something that has kept theologians busy – and faithful people coming back to church – for 2,000 years. Let’s really think about it. Let’s not just put it out of our minds

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 11th March 2018

Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,’ [John 3:14]. What on earth is that all about? We will of course get on to ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish…’, but what is all this ‘lifting up’? The story of the serpent is a reference to the Book of Numbers, chapter 21 in the Old Testament. The Israelites had come out of Egypt and complained that there was nothing to eat in the promised land.

Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

In Jewish tradition being ‘lifted up’ was usually shameful. The ultimate kind of being ‘lifted up’ was of course crucifixion on a cross, but also it could apply to being hanged. It had connotations of disgrace and it was the lowest form of death, of the death penalty. The fiery serpent seemed to be bad – it was lifted up on a pole – but it had healing power. So would Jesus, being lifted up, crucified, but yet having power to heal and save.

We are two weeks away from Easter now. Holy Week is the week after next. We are beginning to concentrate our thoughts on the momentous events which are summed up in this most famous line in the whole Bible, ‘For God so loved the world…’ in our Gospel reading today.

But I am not going to spend time this morning exploring the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. I’m using a neutral term, ‘death’ on the cross, neutral in the sense that I’m not talking about a ‘sacrifice’ or ‘atonement.’ Those are the terms which we will have to explore in much more detail, and I will certainly be doing that in other sermons around Easter, starting tonight at Evensong.

But I am interested this morning in the next verse in our Gospel, ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Talking about whether He ‘condemns the world’ makes this, in a way, another version of the story of the Last Judgement.

During the week, if you have been to one or other of the Churches Together Lent course [D. Gamble and J. Young et al (2004) ‘Better Together’, York, York Courses] meetings, this week you will have had a session about ‘strangers.’ The course is all about relationships, relationships with different kinds of people, family, church, strangers. How we meet, how we deal with, how we welcome, and indeed how we don’t welcome, different kinds of people, including strangers.

One of the lessons which was read this week was the story of the great judgement, the division between the sheep and goats, in St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 25, where Jesus says, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in…’ And the righteous asked, ‘When did we see you, a stranger, and took you in?’ And as you will remember, the King answered and said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, as much as you have done it to one of the least of these brothers, you have done it to me’. Well, I suggest that this lesson in St John’s Gospel is another version of the same thing. Think what it says.

Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. [John 3:18-19] ‘Condemned; judgement’: they are words from the End Time, from the Last Judgement.

At the Lent course it was pointed out that, in deciding how to separate the sheep from the goats, the question, whether you were going to be a sheep or a goat, didn’t depend on whether you were a good person or not, whether you had done good things or not. The criterion was whether you had followed our Lord’s commands, and in particular whether you had followed the command to love: to love your neighbour. So indeed they could be real sinners, bad people, criminals; but they had repented, and shown love to their fellow man or woman; and, even despite their terrible crimes in the past, they could still be chosen out as sheep, and be saved.

This came as news to some of the people in the group. Indeed when we started talking about strangers, there were one or two people who turned the conversation straight on to immigrants and refugees and who suggested that the government had ‘not been tough enough’ in keeping these people out: that what was needed was stronger government. I was a little bit tempted to enquire whether they were looking for the trains to run on time too. But I resisted the temptation.

But this is rather important. If you are one of those people who want to restrict immigration, I think you have to be very careful, if you are also professing to be a Christian, to examine your reasons for wanting to do that: make sure that you are not in fact disobeying Jesus’ commandment, to love your neighbour as yourself. Because your neighbour, your neighbour could well be an immigrant – even, you know, an economic migrant – or a person with a different faith, a Muslim or a Hindu, and they might not even speak very good English.

Nevertheless, there they are, they are strangers in our midst. They are our neighbours, and Jesus’ commandment is absolutely clear: you are to love them, love them as though they were you. No ifs, no buts, no question whether it costs too much; if you worry about the cost of doing the right thing, then indeed, look again at this famous verse, 3-16 in St John’s Gospel.

‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…’ That must be the most costly gift that anyone could possibly give. God is prepared to spend without counting the cost. What does that mean for us?

Jesus’ teaching, as reported in St John’s Gospel, is that salvation comes through being in the light, and the light showing that what you do is good. At first blush it looks a bit as though this contradicts what Jesus said in the sheep and goats passage. There, it depended on whether you had shown love, whether you have been a good neighbour; but here it looks as though it depends on whether you have done good deeds. Actually this is not the case. The right way to look at it is that if you have seen the light, then you will naturally want to do good things.

And in our first lesson, St Paul writes, in the letter to the Ephesians, ‘… by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works….’ [Ephesians 2:8-9] The idea is that you do not get to heaven by doing good deeds, but rather by your faith, by your trust in Jesus. If you have faith, then you will naturally do good things. ‘…you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works.’

Of course it works in reverse as well. If you don’t have faith, if you are, as St Paul put it in his letter to the Ephesians, ‘…dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air … in the passions of [your] flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses..’, if you behave in that way, your sins will find you out. If you act as though you do not believe, then it is reasonable to infer that you don’t. Although good deeds will not get you into heaven by themselves, doing bad things in a way which suggests that you do not care about other people and have no love to share is a sign that you do not have faith, that you do not believe.

So frankly, my reading of what Jesus, as reported by Matthew, John and St Paul, what Jesus taught is, that you can’t be a true Christian and not want to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the asylum seeker – even the economic migrant – if he is in our midst. It really doesn’t matter how he got there. Give him your coat. Open your door. Welcome him in.

Because, he could just be Jesus himself.

Amen.

Hugh Bryant

[After I preached this, I learned about a vote in Parliament on 15th March on a Bill to allow parents to join refugee children who are already in the UK on their own. See https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/mar/30/ministers-urged-to-end-cruel-policy-on-child-refugees-family-members and https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2017-19/refugeesfamilyreunionno2.html. Perhaps we should write to our MP Dominic Raab, to ask him to support the Bill.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All we like sheep

have turned astray …

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

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

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

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

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

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