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Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 1st June 2014
2 Sam 23:1-5, Eph.1:15-23

First we heard the last words of King David, and then St Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Ephesus. The context is the Ascension, which the church celebrated on Thursday. Leave-taking. The end of the party. I wonder who did the washing-up. When the disciples – and certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus as well as his brothers, when they were all together after Jesus had left them and a cloud had taken Him out of their sight, when it was over, when the ‘farewell tour’, Jesus Christ Superstar, had come to the end of its run: what do you think they all did?

They went back to the upstairs room and said prayers. And maybe they got busy doing the washing up. Because they must have been feeling very flat. We know that when Jesus had been crucified, if we think of the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, they were very sad then, when they thought that Jesus had been taken away from them.

So I think we can reasonably expect that they were also feeling very flat and very sad when Jesus had been taken away from them the second time, when He had ascended into heaven. Whitsuntide, Pentecost, had not yet come, although Jesus had assured them, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). But that hadn’t happened yet.

It must have been very difficult, after all the momentous things that had happened. After the roller-coaster ride of following Jesus, suddenly He wasn’t there any more. In the church, we have commemorated that roller-coaster ride, through the Easter season, though the time of Jesus’ passion, and suffering, Good Friday; and then the glorious Resurrection on Easter Sunday; and then His risen appearances, the road to Emmaus, doubting Thomas: all the wonderful stories of the risen Christ.

It is a revelation to us, a sure and certain hope that we have, because of God’s presence with us, His gift of His only Son and His Resurrection from the dead. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that God will give them ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they come to know Him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance among the saints.'(Eph.1:17)

If you are a Christian, if you go to church, this is a wonderful time of year: the Easter season. It is a time of hope and joy. But in the world outside, there is a sense of challenge. Not everyone is a Christian. Not everyone is aware of, let alone believes in, the wonderful story of Jesus. The Boko Haram people who have kidnapped 200 children, 200 girls, in Nigeria, are actively opposed to the Christian message. They want forcibly to convert people to Islam – forgetting perhaps that the god of Islam is very like the God of Israel and the God of the Christians – and certainly forgetting that God is a god of love.

Also in the world outside, we had an election. Some of you may have heard of my huge success in the Cobham Fairmile Ward election. It was a massive success, honestly: despite representing the Labour Party, I managed to poll in double figures! St Mary’s has much more successful politicians – congratulations to James Vickers!

After the elections, the press and the BBC are talking about the phenomenon of UKIP and what they stand for. It seems that a major part of UKIP’s message is that they are opposed to large-scale immigration and they are opposed to our membership of the EU, perhaps because they see the EU as being a major cause of the immigration which they don’t like.

And then there’s the controversy which has grown up concerning the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, called ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, which is all about the widening gap between the rich and the poor worldwide. Prof Piketty offers, at the end of his 573-page tome, some suggested alternatives to the economic policies which are being pursued in all the leading economies. But a Financial Times journalist, Chris Giles, has argued that Prof Piketty’s figures are wrong. If you put more than one economist in a room, they will inevitably disagree! I see that Ed Miliband confessed that he’d only just started reading Thomas Piketty. I have got to page 51.

It does all seem quite a long way away from the world of Easter, from the Resurrection and the Ascension: from the hopeful question from the disciples to Jesus just before He was taken from them, ‘Lord, is this the time when you are to establish again the sovereignty of Israel?’ (Acts 1:6 – NEB), a long way from all that, to the rather gloomy fact that only a minority of people cared enough about the way they are governed, even to cast a vote.

There does seem to be a big gap at the moment, between our church lives and the world outside. It’s all very well St Paul saying in his Letter to the Galatians that ‘the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control’. (Gal. 5:22f), but how is that relevant to UKIP and to the world of macroeconomic theory?

What we are not hearing, in all this ferment of debate, is a Christian voice. What about immigrants? A politician says he couldn’t hear any English spoken in his carriage on the Tube. An election flyer says that there is some impossible number of East Europeans just waiting to come to the UK, take our jobs and claim all our benefits. Someone else points out, against this, that the NHS would collapse without doctors and nurses from abroad. Another expert points out that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and that fees from foreign students are vital to the survival of our universities.

But – and perhaps I haven’t been reading the right paper or listening to the right station on the wireless – I don’t recall anyone bringing the Bible into it, which they could have done. In the Old Testament, it’s a fundamental point of the Jewish Law that you must look after strangers, aliens, foreigners – in Deut. 10:19, Moses says that God ‘loves the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt.’ In Jesus’ staggering picture of the Last Judgment in Matt. 25, He says that the righteous shall ‘enter and possess the kingdom’ because ‘… when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home …’ When the righteous didn’t get it, and queried when they had done this, Jesus said, ‘I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.’

Jesus didn’t blame people for being poor. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a refugee. His ancestors, the Jewish people, had all been refugees. He didn’t talk about benefit cheats and scroungers. He didn’t talk about corporate tax avoidance – although he did say, ‘Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’. Maybe that is a good message for Starbucks, Vodafone and Google.

What about the widening gap between rich and poor, which Thomas Piketty has written about? Are the only things, which can be said, ‘It’s the market’, and ‘There is no alternative?’ If the government gives a tax cut to the highest earners, (which one commentator said was enough for them to go out and buy a Porsche with), at the same time as over 1 million people have had to go to a food bank to avoid starvation – and by the way, that includes 307 people in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon who have used the Foodbank since we opened five months ago – if there is that seeming bias towards the rich, what is the Christian way to look at it?

Perhaps the answer is in the Magnificat, the song of Mary, the mother of God:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
And hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
And the rich he hath sent empty away. [Luke 1:46-55]

You might also remember what Jesus said about camels and the eye of a needle. [Matt.19:24]

But Jesus has been taken away from us. He has disappeared behind a cloud. Disappeared behind a cloud, a cloud of modern stuff. But, you might say, things were much more simple in Jesus’ day. There weren’t any benefit cheats. There weren’t any Romanians using the EU as a way to come and steal our jobs. You just can’t compare how it was then with the situation these days.

I think we should think carefully about it. I know that, in this week in the church’s year, you might argue that Jesus has ascended, and the Holy Spirit is coming – Jesus told his disciples to expect it, in Acts chapter 1 – but it doesn’t arrive till next Sunday. If it looks as though our world is rather godless, that fits with Jesus having left us, with the Ascension time.

But in this world, in our day to day lives, of course the Holy Spirit is here. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. So why does it look as though we are we ignoring Him? Is it OK not to want strangers? Is it OK that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?

As Christians, what do we think? Have I chosen my Bible references too selectively? Or is it more a question that the world today is more complicated than it was in Jesus’ time, and that some of Jesus’ sayings are out of date these days?

Or have we Christians really got something very distinctive to say, which doesn’t necessarily fit in with conventional wisdom? I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are.

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Sermon for Evensong after the AGM of the Guildford Branch of the Prayer Book Society, 15th June 2013
Psalm 78: Judges 7: Luke 14:25-end. Human ‘flourishing’: ‘that peace which the world cannot give’

On Wednesday I went to a very interesting panel discussion in St Paul’s Cathedral, chaired by Stephanie Flanders, the BBC economics correspondent, in a series called ‘The City and the Common Good – what kind of City do we want?’ under the auspices of St Paul’s Institute, which, even if it may not actually have been set up in response to the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s, certainly has raised its profile since.

The title of the session was ‘Good Banks’, and the panel was led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who gave the keynote presentation. As you can imagine, it was a fascinating evening. Archbishop Justin is a leading member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, so he definitely knows what he is talking about in the banking area as well, of course, as being the temporal head of the Church of England.

Archbishop Justin talked about what it was for a bank to be good. The ultimate objective, Archbishop Justin said, was that a bank should contribute to the common good; and the common good he explained as ‘human flourishing’. ‘Flourishing’. I’ll come back to that.

The panel all, in various ways, talked about what it was for a bank to be ‘good’, or what ‘good’ things a bank could do – or what bad things a bank could do. Although they were sitting under the dome of St Paul’s, even the Archbishop of Canterbury didn’t spend very much time on what it was that made things good or bad. He just said that the key objective was to promote ‘human flourishing’.

I think ‘human flourishing’ is one of those almost circular terms dreamed up by philosophers and theologians to get away from terms like ‘rich’ or ‘successful’ or ‘happy’, which might invite objections of one kind or another, if they were put forward as ingredients of ‘goodness’. ‘Flourishing’ has perhaps some connotation of St Irenaeus’ famous saying, that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. A human being who has realised his or her potential, who is fulfilled in that: not just successful – not necessarily successful at all. Antony Jenkins of Barclays, another panel member, recalled that, when he was being questioned by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, he was ticked off by Archbishop Justin for forgetting that Barclays was originally a Quaker company. Their values were derived from their Quaker Christian faith.

It’s just not the case that everyone will automatically agree on what is good and bad. There’s a famous instance in Herodotus’ Histories, written right back in the 5th century BC, [Book III.38.3f], where the Persian king Darius asks some Greeks how much he would need to pay them in order to persuade them to eat their fathers’ corpses when they died. They replied that would never do that, not at any price. After that, Darius summoned some Indians of a tribe called Callatiae, who did eat their fathers’ corpses, and asked them how much money it would take to persuade them to cremate their fathers’ corpses. They, the Callatiae, cried out in horror and told him not to say such awful things. Our perception of what it is to be good or bad has always been heavily influenced by our surroundings and our culture, what it is that we agree on to be a good thing.

However, these days we don’t very often go very deeply into what it is that makes something good or bad, what it is that makes us generally agree that something is good or bad: what the quality in the thing which is held out to be good or bad, what quality in that thing will make us decide that it is good or bad morally. But if we do think about it, it is that as Christians, just like the founders of Barclays Bank, we derive our justification, our perception that something or other is good or bad, from our Christian faith: from the 10 Commandments, from Jesus’ sayings in the New Testament.

There is of course a spectrum of opinion within Christianity concerning whether you can simply refer to what the Bible says, as being the Word of God, the literal Word of God, as being decisive in all moral questions, or whether you have to understand the Bible in the light of experience and scholarship.

For instance if we take another current moral conundrum, what to do about Syria, it seems fairly clear that, certainly in the Old Testament, in our Psalm and in our lesson from Job today, the use of force was regarded as being a perfectly legitimate way of settling differences between nations.

It seems odd, in the light of this, that the 10 Commandments quite clearly include the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’. What has happened is that over time, scholars such as St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas have developed the doctrine of the ‘just war’. You not only need what’s in the Bible, but also scholarly interpretation in the light of experience.

Now we are here to worship at the time of our meeting, as members of the Prayer Book Society. We are celebrating and supporting the use of the Book of Common Prayer. How is it that the orders of service and words for worship which were composed by Cranmer, evolved in the century beginning after 1549 and turned into this little book, the Book of Common Prayer – how is it that these are still valid for use today, in the face of these contemporary moral issues?

What are we doing in worship? We are coming to God in prayer, to ask forgiveness for our sins, to thank God for the blessings which we have received, to praise God – just a minute: we are coming ‘ … to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.’ I think that those words, in the Prayer Book, really can’t be bettered as a neat and comprehensive statement of what we are doing in our services of daily prayer.

In this little Evensong service, expressed in the most beautiful words, we are bringing ourselves before God in the best way we know how. Cranmer’s words are full of meaning; they give us the widest scope in prayer. If we say or sing Mattins and Evensong each day, if we use the psalms and the lessons prescribed in the Prayer Book, we will read the whole Bible from end to end, and we will have before us each day powerful examples, in the Prayer Book, of Jesus’ teaching and the meaning of the divine revelation.

Look at Mary’s song, Magnificat, which is all about Jesus’ almost revolutionary message. ‘He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden … He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

What a strong message for the G8 Summit on Monday and Tuesday! Who is this message for? In the Magnificat, ‘He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel’, but in Nunc Dimittis also, ‘Thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.’
Christianity is for everyone.

Back to those moral questions, for the good bank and for those who want to stop the killing in Syria, or who want the G8 nations to deal with world hunger and poverty. Where does goodness come from? What is the standard that we can rely on? As Christians, it comes from revelation, from the revelation that is the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.

‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty …’ Again, it’s there in the Prayer Book. That is the mystery in which we believe. That is what Christian morality is rooted in. God is not just an unmoved mover, the great creator, but He has revealed Himself personally to us in Jesus.

We can’t stay silent in the face of that great and wonderful truth. So we pray. We pray in the Prayer Book, in the way that Jesus taught us: ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, …’ In the Lord’s Prayer we glorify God; we pray for His kingdom; we pray for our physical needs – ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ we pray for forgiveness for our sins and we pray for grace to forgive people who do things against us. We pray not to be put to the test, and we pray to be good – ‘deliver us from evil’.

In the set prayers, the collects, the state prayers for the Queen and for the Royal Family, the prayer for the clergy and people, all wrapped up together in the great prayer of St Chrysostom, the Prayer Book encompasses and puts into words all the other things that we will want to lay before God. These prayers are very inclusive. Anyone can say these prayers, and mean them. You don’t have to believe in particular types of theology in order to use the Prayer Book. An evangelical, charismatic, waving their arms about and chanting worship songs, can still use these words just as effectively as a learned chaplain in an Oxford college or a canon in one of the great cathedrals. This is truly common prayer.

It is liturgy. It is the ‘work of the people’, which is what liturgy, λειτουργία, means in Greek. The Prayer Book is still a practical guide, a powerful tool which gives us the best words to bring ourselves before God. ‘Give us that peace which the world cannot give’. That peace – that flourishing, even, as Archbishop Justin would put it.