Archives for posts with tag: Afghanistan

Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 12th August 2018

Job 30:1-40:4, Hebrews 12:1-17, Psalm 91

Through the great kindness and generosity of one of my St Mary’s friends, I spent a wonderful day yesterday at Lords watching the Test Match between England and India. As you will know, there was a lot to celebrate, at least if you were an English fan. But what must have poor old Sharma, the Indian fast bowler, have been feeling? More than anybody else in the team, except the other pace bowler, Shami, he was running vast distances to bowl at over 80 miles an hour, spot on target, over and over again – but it wasn’t working. He only got one wicket.

Once Bairstow and Woakes were in, there didn’t seem to be anything that he could do. I can imagine that, when he got to the end of the day, over his biryani, Ishant Sharma would have felt a little bit like Job. ‘Why me, Lord? Why is everything going so badly? I’m doing all the right things, but nevertheless I keep getting hit all over the ground.’ That’s what I want to look at tonight: how things can go wrong for us, whether God has anything to do with it, and how we can come to terms with it.

I’m not quite sure how far I can pursue the cricketing metaphor, but of course God goes on to answer Job, by giving lots of illustrations of divine power: all the things that God can make animals do, interestingly including unicorns (at least in the King James version of the Bible which we had tonight). Unfortunately in all the more modern, mundane versions of the Bible, the unicorns have turned into some special kind of ox or heifer; the unicorns have disappeared. Nevertheless, it’s God that makes them do whatever they do, not man.

Similarly at Lord’s today, and on Friday, God made the rain come down. That really changed the way the game was going. It wasn’t anything that either of the teams did which changed the course of the game, when it rained: it was the rain.

There is only so far that I can go with this cricketing analogy with the book of Job, but the point about the passage which Len have been reading tonight is that with divinity comes omnipotence. There is no limit to God’s power. Let’s leave aside for a minute the question who is talking in the book of Job – the question who is God in this context. How realistic is it that someone can write a book saying that so-and-so so had a dialogue with God, in the way that is portrayed in this book in the Bible?

Let’s leave that on one side for minute and just say that, however it came to be written, the book gives a perfectly plausible illustration of the workings of the divine. God is omnipotent, God can do anything. God can make all the animals in the world do what those animals do; and the corollary is that God may not regard the needs of a particular human being as being very high up the list of priorities, so that human being may lose out if it fits God’s cosmic programme for him to lose out.

Job has to accept his position and not rail against it – however unreasonable that might seem, particularly if you’re Job. There are connotations of zero-sums in this as well. Just as in a cricket game, somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose, (unless, of course, it’s a draw), so in the world of nature, for all the sunny days, some rain has to fall at some time.

I think the implication is also that, as between God and man, God and Job, between the Indians and the weather forecast, there is nothing personal. The suffering that is caused, the suffering that is a spin-off of the operation of creation, of the natural order, is not in any way intended, directed against anyone – although that was Job’s beef: he thought God had got it in for him, and he didn’t feel that he deserved it.

But I think that the message of the Book of Job is that there is nothing personal. God has not got it in for Job. This is just the way that God makes nature work. But then contrast the situation in the book of Hebrews. There is, if you like, a different sort of engagement with the divine, ‘seeing we have such a great cloud of witnesses’. Everyone is looking at us. Poor old Sharma: everyone is looking at him. Things may be tough for us. In order for us to achieve the goals which we have set ourselves or to do justice to the calling we feel to follow the example of Jesus, say, as Christians, it’s not easy. We have to persevere to the end.

The metaphor in Hebrews is an athletic one; running a tough race. But this is where it gets complicated. In Job’s case the tough stuff, the suffering, is nothing personal, as between Job and God, as Job has really done nothing wrong, and God is not punishing Job. It’s just that, in the wider compass of things, things have to go badly as well as well, there has to be black as well as white.

But there is also a sense where difficulties are to some extent intended. This is where there is a training purpose involved. The Letter to the Hebrews suggests that God sometimes is – and should be – like a father who follows the old idea about ‘sparing the rod and spoiling the child’. It’s supposed to be a sign of parental love if the father whacks the children by way of punishment. Thank goodness, we don’t do that any more. I think that now we know that simply hurting people when they won’t stop doing something doesn’t in any sense train them not to do whatever it is. In a sense, indeed, it may be, in a microcosm, like the beginnings of wars.

A war often starts with a ultimatum: If you invade Poland, we will declare war on you. What it means is, if we can’t persuade you by argument, we will compel you by force. If you throw golf balls at Mr Jones’ greenhouse, I will smack your bottom. The problem is, that whereas possibly in the case of Mr Jones’ greenhouse, the threat to smack bottoms may be effective in stopping you doing it, in the case of modern warfare, it’s arguable that all you do by waging war is add to death and destruction, and perhaps store up resentments and enmity for the future.

Think of the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles, which brought about the end of the First World War. It was so hard, it exacted such a harsh penalty in reparations on Germany, that Germany was reduced to its knees economically, and the seeds of Nazism were sown. The war did not achieve its peaceful or practical objective. Think of the wars in Afghanistan, since the time of British India, when it was the ‘North-West Frontier.’ The British Army in Victorian times couldn’t defeat the Afghans. The Russians couldn’t do it. And we and the Americans haven’t done it more recently either.

So we might query the efficacy of the ideas behind this passage in Hebrews. ‘Spare the rod, and spoil the child’, is not what we believe in today: but we can understand the idea, the theory. If we, who are supposed to have seen the light, who are supposed to be believers, to be Christians, behave badly – if ‘…there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright, ..’ if we are sinful, God will punish us, will give us a hard time, says Hebrews.

Maybe that’s a point to ponder. Would a loving God hurt his chosen people? However naughty they were? And what if they repented, if they sought forgiveness? I have a feeling that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews – who wasn’t St Paul, according to a number of scholars – may have been wrong here. Surely a loving God would not hurt people. So perhaps, actually, the Job model, that suffering doesn’t necessarily result from bad behaviour, from sin, is more apt, even in the light of Christ. Bad things just happen. It doesn’t mean that God is angry with us. So do run the race, do go into training for the race to run the good life. But don’t give up if rain stops play. God doesn’t have it in for you and your team.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 6th March 2016
Isaiah 40:27-41:13; 2 Timothy 4:1-18.

Among the dreaming spires of Oxford – in the ivory towers – there has been an almighty row between a student movement and my old college, Oriel, which in turn has excited the unwelcome attentions of the Daily Telegraph and some former students, who are so cross that they have stopped giving money to the College – at least that’s what the leak from the Senior Common Room published in the Telegraph said, so it must be true.

It’s all about Cecil Rhodes. There’s a statue of him high up on the bit of Oriel College which faces on to the High Street. The statue is so high up, in fact, that most of us who were there for three or four years in the 1960s can’t say we ever really registered the fact that it was there. Rhodes was an Oriel man, and he left a substantial benefaction to the College in his will, which was used to build the building which has his statue on it. Rhodes also founded the Rhodes Scholarships, which have brought all sorts of scholars from the Commonwealth and the USA to study at Oxford. It’s well documented, incidentally, that among the earliest Rhodes scholars was a black American, and the terms of Rhodes’ gift expressly ruled out discrimination on the grounds of race in awarding the scholarships. [Nigel Biggar (2016): Rhodes, Race and the Abuse of History, http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/6388/full%5D

But, the protesters say, Rhodes was a bad man, who was involved in the worst aspects of colonial oppression. He was almost guilty of slavery, and, they say, he was a racist.

So there has been a great argument about whether Oriel should take down the statue. Although it hasn’t been put this way exactly, the point seems to be that people are arguing that if, according to today’s standards, our benefactor was a bad man, that taints his gifts, even though at the time he gave them, he was not judged to be a particularly bad man according to the moral standards then. A bad man can’t give a good gift, they say, even though at the time he gave it, he wasn’t regarded as a bad man.

The argument rages on. I was thinking about it when I saw the Bible lessons for this service. A Christian minister – for instance Timothy, the young man to whom two epistles are addressed – must uphold authentic doctrine and good teaching, and not be led astray by fads and crazes: ‘For the time will come when they will not stand wholesome teaching, but will follow their own fancy and gather a crowd of teachers to tickle their ears.’ (2 Timothy 4:3, NEB)

The young minister must be steadfast, and stand up to hardships in support of his ministry. He will be strengthened in his calling by the Lord. The prophet Isaiah says, ‘But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’ (Isaiah 40:31) The Epistle echoes this. ‘Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.’ (2 Timothy 4:17)

So the young minister, the young evangelist, will be strengthened in his calling, supported by God in his work. Or her work, indeed. This Lent we are being encouraged to consider a calling to ministry in our church. The Diocesan newspaper, The Wey, which you can pick up on your way out tonight, has as its main headline on the front page, ‘Who me …..? A vicar?’ [http://www.cofeguildford.org.uk/about/communications/the-wey/details/the-wey—march-april-2016]

St Paul’s two letters to Timothy and his letter to Titus, called the Pastoral Epistles (‘epistle’ means ‘letter’ – from the Latin epistola) are chiefly concerned with the character which a Christian minister needs to have. As well as being of good character – ‘blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, …. not greedy of filthy lucre’ [1 Timothy 3:2-3] – a minister must stick to sound doctrine. But how to know what is sound doctrine?

St Paul’s letters are full of controversies, reflecting the various arguments which must have sprung up among the early Christians. Think of all his arguments about whether Christians needed to be circumcised; whether, once baptised, a Christian need not worry about living a morally upright life – because they were already ‘saved’. Could one earn salvation by doing good works? They argued about all these.

What was the right answer? At the time of the Reformation, a thousand years later, the Reformers liked verse 16 of 2 Timothy chapter 3: ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’.

‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God.’

So that means, if it’s in the Bible, it must be right. The Bible is the Word of God. But wait: these fine sentiments, in what says it is ‘St Paul’s’ Letter to Timothy, are reckoned by scholars not in fact to have been written by St Paul from his prison cell in Rome at all. These were what are called ‘pseudonymous’ letters, letters written after the style of St Paul, and in order to be more persuasive, claiming to have been written by him, but in fact not. The language, and references to things which the earliest church didn’t have, such as bishops, have led the academic commentators to say that these Pastoral Epistles aren’t really by St Paul.

So what is true? Does the truth – or what is right and good – change over time? Is there merit in the argument put forward by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, that what may have been good once upon a time, need not still be so? We have to acknowledge, for example, that the Church of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw nothing wrong in slavery. The grand buildings at the heart of Bristol and Liverpool were built with profits from the slave trade, and the traders were church-goers. John Newton, who wrote the great hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, was originally the captain of a slave ship.

Then gradually people’s understanding – Christian people’s understanding – changed. William Wilberforce and the members of the Clapham Sect, who worshipped at Holy Trinity, Clapham Common, began to understand that their Christian belief would lead them to recognise that all are made in the image of God, that we are all – equally – God’s creatures.

I wonder what people will say about us in 100 years. Adam Gopnik, in his recent radio talk, ‘A Point of View’ [http://bbc.in/1QwPjC9], has suggested that in years to come, our generation will be criticised for extreme cruelty to animals, the animals that we eat, like chickens, cows and sheep.

I wonder whether our inclination towards nationalism, not just in opposition to the EU, but also in relation to migration, might be criticised as being like the Victorians’ attitude to slavery – or at least their attitude towards their colonial subjects. Why are we any more entitled to live in wealth and comfort, just because we have been born in England, than someone who was born in Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan? Are we really?

I wonder. I wonder what St Paul – or, dare one say, what Jesus Himself – would say. Have you got itchy ears?

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on 17th November 2013, Second Sunday before Advent
Daniel 6 – Biblical Big Cats

In the 1960s, if you had gone shopping at Harrod’s, you would have found that they had an Exotic Animals Department. You may remember the wonderful story of the lion cub who was sold in Harrod’s and who became known as Christian the Lion. He lived in Chelsea with two young men who owned a trendy furniture shop, for a year before he got too big and was taken to Kenya to be released into the wild. There is a very sweet story about him meeting up with his former owners several years later, and fondly remembering them.

We tend to be rather soppy about cats – and that includes the rather daft idea that lions and tigers and leopards, big cats, are just that, big cats. If only they got to know us properly, we think, they would be just like big pet cats, with sweet, gentle dispositions, keen on sleeping and climbing under counterpanes on the spare bed when no-one is looking: happy to be stroked and to have their tummies tickled.

You will remember the famous zoo owner and gambler, John Aspinall, who kept tigers and encouraged his keepers to go into their enclosures with them, to play with them as pets. Unfortunately, those tigers didn’t know what Mr Aspinall expected of them, and on several occasions, they devoured their keepers.

The truth is that even domestic cats do not have entirely reliable tempers. My two Bengals are very good at rolling on their backs, purring and generally appearing very friendly, inviting you to tickle their tummies: but you should be aware that the height of ecstasy for both of them is then to grip your hand in their paws and give you a good bite! Nothing personal, of course. It’s just what cats like doing.

Which brings us to the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. There were several Persian kings called Darius, but most scholars agree that this was Darius I, who died in 486BC. He set up a complicated administration structure for the Persian empire. According to the Book of Daniel he divided Persia into 120 administrative zones, although the contemporary account in Herodotus’ Histories suggests that Darius only set up 20 regions, called satrapies, and his descendant, King Xerxes, increased the number of satrapies, perhaps indeed to 120.

It is possible that the Book of Daniel was written not just in order to tell historical stories – and indeed it may be that the history is a little bit shaky in places – but rather for prophetic teaching purposes, to demonstrate the power of God. So Daniel going into the lions’ den illustrates this. It is an escape story, just as in the earlier chapter, chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three other Jewish exiles in Persia, in Babylon along with Daniel, were cast into a fiery furnace because they refused to worship a golden image which Nebuchadnezzar, the king before Darius, had made. And again, God saved them and they were unhurt, even though the fiery furnace was so hot that the people who were throwing them into it were themselves consumed by fire.

Daniel portrays Darius as a benevolent king, who was tricked into signing into law an edict, that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from him, the king, for thirty days – and according to the commentators, ‘prays’ should better be translated as ‘makes a request’ either of gods or of humans – that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from the king, should be punished by being thrown into a den of lions.

Interestingly, none of the historians can find any evidence that the Persians had dens of lions, or that they used them to deal with criminals as a way of execution. The Romans certainly did. They had a special expression for it, damnatio ad bestia, condemnation to the beasts. The main reason why the early Christians were martyred by being thrown to wild beasts was because they refused to worship the emperor; similar circumstances to those in which Daniel found himself.

There are a couple of other interesting things which we should note in the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. One is the way in which King Darius refused to contradict the law which he had made, the edict. The laws of the Medes and the Persians could not be changed. Indeed that expression, ‘The laws of the Medes and the Persians’, became synonymous with the idea of immutability, unchangeability in the law.

I think also that we are meant to understand that it was not one of those cases where the Israelites on the one hand were God’s chosen people, and on the other hand there were their oppressors, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, people who didn’t believe in God and who were vastly inferior to them. In this case, the Medes and the Persians were decent people, who treated the Jews in exile fairly and well. One defining characteristic of the Medes and the Persians was that they recognised the rule of law.

As Lord Denning famously said, ‘Be you never so high, the law is above you.’ He was quoting Dr Thomas Fuller, who said this first in 1733. This is a hallmark of civilisation. This is something we look for today as a desirable feature in all countries. When we talk about ‘failed states’ – Somalia, perhaps Iraq, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, the rule of law is said to have broken down.

So here Darius felt that, whatever he personally may have wanted to do in order to be compassionate to Daniel, he was not allowed to do, because there was a higher principle, the rule of law. And so he very reluctantly sealed the lions’ den with Daniel in it, with his own signet ring.

This is a terrible story. So often in ancient literature we don’t get the gory details. The King simply decrees that somebody should be done in, and he is: witness Herod with John the Baptist. But here, King Darius personally supervises his good friend and trusted minister Daniel being fed to the lions.

Clearly those lions were very fierce, because when Daniel’s story has had a happy ending, and Daniel has survived a night in the den without being eaten, King Darius makes sure that all the people that tricked him into making the law and putting Daniel in mortal danger by it, are themselves thrown into the den, with their children and their wives; ‘Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.’ So it’s not the case that the lions’ den had been filled with special soft lions like Christian the Lion. These were normal cats, and for Daniel to survive a night with them really was a tremendous miracle.

This is one of the great Bible stories, which I’m sure we all remember from Sunday School, from our earliest days. It’s right up there with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. But are there any lessons which we can learn from it as grown-ups today? What about the laws of the Medes and the Persians? Are there laws today which result in cruelty? Is there anyone like Daniel, who, despite being innocent, is being thrown to the lions? Can we by prayer, by relying on God like Daniel did, in fact negate the effects of these immutable laws?

I will leave you to ponder on that. There are 38 shopping days left until Christmas. It’s a fortnight until the beginning of Advent. Christian the Lion and his descendants are no longer available in Harrod’s. Perhaps in Advent there is another lion that we should remember. What about Aslan, the lion in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’? Now there was a Christian lion!