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Sermon for Evensong on the 21st Sunday after Trinity, 21st October 2018

Psalm 141: Matthew 12:1-21 – ‘Smite me Friendly’

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works with the men that work wickedness, lest I eat of such things as please them.

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

That’s from Psalm 141, which is the one set in the Lectionary for tonight.

‘Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth

and keep the door of my lips.’ Make sure that I only say the right things. But if I should inadvertently stray off-piste,

‘Let the righteous rather smite me friendly

and reprove me.’

I rather like the idea that the righteous should ‘smite me friendly’! Anyway, I have been warned.

As quite a lot of you know, I haven’t been very well. I’ll spare you the details, but I spent a week in Epsom Hospital three weeks ago, and then had a quiet week at my daughter Alice’s outside Exeter, before spending last week getting back up to speed at home in Cobham. It was very nice to hear from so many friends from St Mary’s, and to have some lovely visits too. Thank you for all your kindness!

I don’t know what it is that makes this happen, but my irregular stays in hospital have coincided with momentous events in the world outside. The last time I was in Epsom Hospital, in 1997, coincided with the death of poor Princess Di. I became quite an expert on all the various theories and odd facts surrounding that sad story. Now, just recently, and again in Epsom Hospital, I’ve been trying to keep on top of all the twists and turns in the Brexit negotiations, and particularly the ideas which our government and the European Commission have each come up with in order to avoid creating a ‘hard border’ around Northern Ireland.

Now you will realise why I adopted the ‘smite me friendly’ words from Psalm 141. I may find that you’re smiting me, but not friendly, if I’m not careful when I talk about Brexit!

Well, here’s the thing. There’s a nightmarishness about all the twists and turns of the Brexit process. If you go one way, you bump into an obstacle, perhaps something we’ve agreed beforehand or that Parliament has decided on, which rules out what you now think might be a good idea. So you turn down another entrance, and head off in another direction. You come up with something that you think will square with what the EU will accept – but your own MPs don’t like it. Nightmare. And of course, all the time there are plenty of people reminding you that they feel that nothing can compare with what we already have, as members of the European Union.

People are very passionate about it. Friendships have been broken. Families aren’t speaking to each other. And the worrying thing is, that no-one seems to agree how to decide who is right. People cling to the principle of democracy. More people voted to leave than to remain: 52% to 48%. But other people point out that 67% didn’t vote to leave. So people even disagree about what the democratic outcome was.

A factor in all this, this inability to decide who is right, is that there has been a lot of cheating and lying. There was the infamous red bus which had a banner down each side saying that, if we left the EU, there would be £350m a week more for the NHS – whereas even before Brexit day, as soon as the vote to leave was passed, the NHS has taken huge hits, from the devaluation of the £, making many drugs 20% more expensive, from doctors and nurses from the EU leaving, because they feel that the Brexit vote shows that people don’t like them – and from the 98% drop in numbers of nurses from the other EU countries applying to work here. The message on the bus was a wicked lie.

How do people know whom to believe? What is true in all this? Is it just a question of shouting louder?

Sitting in my hospital bed, and on Dr Alice, my daughter’s, couch, I started to wonder. Does it make a difference if you are a Christian? What would Jesus have done?

Today’s lesson from St Matthew shows him facing a rather similar set of conundrums to the ones that Mrs May and Dominic Raab, our MP, who’s now the Brexit minister, have to wrestle with. The question of eating on the Sabbath. Maybe what was held to be wrong extended to the act of gleaning, picking up the ears of wheat left at the edge of the field. Healing sick people, again on the Sabbath Day. Conflicting realities. Being hungry; worse, being ill: and you have the means to solve the problem. You can see where there is food freely available. Just pick it up. You have the power of healing. Just get him to stretch out his withered hand, and you can restore it to full strength. Does it matter if the Sabbath rules make it wrong to do these things?

Jesus gives a scholarly answer. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures to show that there are exceptions. King David and his men ate the bread offered on the altar in the Temple when they were hungry, which was something only the priests were allowed to do. Jesus pointed out that they had moved on from the limits of the old Temple worship. He was here. He was something else, something more. In Hosea [6:6] is a prophecy which includes these words, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’. In Hosea those words follow a prophecy about rising again from the grave on the third day. This is all about Jesus, Jesus as much more than just a teacher, a rabbi. More than ‘a priest of the order of Melchizedek’ as the letter to the Hebrews describes him. (Hebrews 5:5, 5:10)

And he goes on to give the lovely example of a shepherd rescuing one of his sheep which has fallen into a pit on the sabbath day. We always want to help if an animal is trapped or hurt. That is why I was angry the other day when our local Painshill animal rescue team were not able to be on duty because the austerity cuts had reduced their numbers, so that a cow which had fallen into a ditch locally, and was in distress, had to wait for a crew from Sussex to come. Never mind what Jesus would say about austerity – the point is that He said that the animal, the sheep, must be saved, whatever day it is.

And finally Jesus quoted from Isaiah chapter 42, a prophecy again about the Messiah. Gentle, quiet – and trusted, even by the Gentiles, the non-Jews. ‘A bruised reed he shall not break’.

What can we bring from this, from how Jesus squared the circle with the Pharisees about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath? He, Jesus, rises above any day-to-day considerations. The Temple rules don’t apply to him. But almost more important, Jesus is the servant, the gentle spirit of kindness. He expects mercy, not ritual sacrifice. It’s not about Him, but about the ones in need. The man with the withered hand, maybe a Thalidomide victim, in today’s world; the sheep which has fallen down into a hole.

So what could we learn from Jesus about the Brexit ‘conundrum’, as Godfrey [Revd Godfrey Hilliard, Rector of Stoke D’Abernon] calls it? What principles can we use as followers of Jesus, as Christians? Obviously no-one can say for sure what Jesus would have said or done. But surely it would be good if we at least thought about it.

Would Jesus have wanted the Jews, his people, to get their independence from the Romans? Was it a bad thing to belong to the great Roman empire? After all, St Paul did very well out of being able to say, ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’, Acts 22, after Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.162) – and indeed he was very proud of being able to say that. Jesus himself seems to have felt the same way: ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, is what he said. (Matt.22:21)

What about immigration? The Jewish law protected the widow, the orphan – and ‘the stranger that is within thy gate’ (Deut. 10:19, Leviticus 19:34). That stranger is in the same position as the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan. He was saved by a Samaritan, who was a foreigner, not someone Jewish people would ordinarily have wanted to have living next door. But this foreigner showed compassion and kindness. He showed that human dignity, human rights, the right to life, the right to medical treatment if you are hurt, are far more important than nationalistic considerations. Being a neighbour, a good neighbour, is far more important than what flag you fly.

But as I sat on Alice’s couch I realised that I wasn’t hearing those sort of arguments very much. There are some of our bishops who have said things along the same lines. [See, e.g., https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/1-july/news/uk/church-leaders-seek-to-unite-divided-country] But it occurred to me that we ought to try to work through it, through the Brexit conundrum, with Jesus on our shoulder. What would He think of as important? Would He ‘smite anyone friendly’ for things they said? What about that red bus? What else do the politicians know about that they aren’t telling the ordinary people? Aren’t all the doctors and nurses from other countries who work in our NHS ‘Good Samaritans’, just as Jesus would have wanted?

And we, when we argue passionately for one side or the other, do we give any thought to what our Christian faith might bring to the argument? And if not, why not? I have a feeling that things might work out rather better if we did – and if our leaders remembered Psalm 141.

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works ….

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 3rd May 2015
Isaiah 60:1-14

‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. … The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.’ [Isa. 60:1 and 6]

This is a vision of the City of God, the new Jerusalem, ‘Jerusalem the golden’, that we just sang about in our second hymn. What is the City of God? Is it stretching things to think of Jerusalem, City of God, as being in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’? Is it even more risky to have that kind of vision four days before a General Election? Let’s consider it.

I’m not sure what the ‘multitude of camels’ would be, in today’s ‘new Jerusalem’ – let alone the ‘dromedaries of Midian and Ephah’. Perhaps in today’s world the camels, the ships of the desert, would be super-yachts, and the dromedaries, the ‘road-runners’, Ferraris and Porsches. But they are all signs of riches, surely. We have an echo of the entry of the Queen of Sheba in the back of our heads, of course, as soon as we hear it – perhaps accompanied in our mind’s eye by a picture of a beautiful diva, say Danielle De Niese or Joyce Di Donato, singing Handel’s oratorio Solomon, where that lovely music comes from.

What splendour could rival the entry of the Queen of Sheba today? Do you think that the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is the sort of thing that we would put up against it? Or, now we have a royal baby, a royal christening? Maybe so. We certainly can do grand spectacles and grand ceremony here in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’.

But, you might say, surely this is the time of austerity. There’s no money, no money for showy ceremonies! I don’t suppose that you have room in your minds for any more politicians, each one claiming to be leaner and more fiscally correct than the next: everything is costed; nobody will have to pay any more tax; miraculously, important services will be preserved, even though we will spend less money on them. Our arts, our great opera houses, our concert halls, will continue to lead the world – running on air. Our National Health Service has been promised £8bn by one party – but only after £20bn of ‘efficiency savings’. That’s really £12bn of cuts.

Both the leading parties want to ‘cut the deficit’, and offer to do it at different speeds, but both do promise to make cuts in public expenditure. It’s interesting that at least one Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, has written recently under the title ‘The Austerity Delusion: the case for cuts was a lie. Why does Britain still believe it?’ We are, after all, the sixth-richest nation on earth. [http://www.theguardian.com/business/ng-interactive/2015/apr/29/the-austerity-delusion]

I’m sure it would be quite wrong for me to say anything political from the pulpit. But our bishops have written a pastoral letter – which is still well worth reading: you’ll find a hard copy at the back on your way out, if you want to pinch one – it’s called ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ Archbishop John Sentamu has also assembled a very interesting collection of essays, designed to inform Christian voters, called ‘On Rock or Sand?’ and every newspaper has contributed its six-penn’orth of economic and political analysis. You don’t really need me to add to the Babel chorus.

I think also that one has to be realistic in our own local context. We inhabit a ‘safe seat’; so safe that the retiring MP didn’t feel it was necessary actually to turn up at the hustings which Churches Together arranged up at St Andrew’s in Oxshott on Thursday. Which was a pity, because all the other candidates made a very good effort to explain their positions and to answer questions.

I’m going to assume that St Mary’s will follow the national statistic, as I understand it, which is that 55% of the faithful in the Church of England vote Conservative – and I might risk a guess that here, the percentage might be even higher! So I wouldn’t dare try to persuade you out of your ancient loyalties; but I do hope that all the excitement and debate which the election has caused in the last few weeks will at least have stirred up in you renewed interest in what it is to be the City of God, what the good society, the Common Good, as the Archbishops call it, should be.

St Augustine’s great work was called that, City of God, De Civitate Dei. Anyone who thinks that the church shouldn’t become involved in politics should remember that they have to contend with Archbishops John and Justin, both of whom passionately disagree with that proposition. The Archbishops passionately believe that the church should be engaged in modern society, and that that engagement necessarily involves contributing to the political debate.

That tradition goes right back to St Augustine, if not earlier. The City of God was written in the fifth century AD, right at the end of the Roman Empire, after the Goths had sacked Rome. There is of course also a lot of Biblical authority for the idea of the city of God: the hymn, Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion City of our God, is based on Psalm 87. Citizenship was pretty important to St Paul. In Acts 22:25 he raised the matter of his being a Roman citizen – perhaps he quoted Cicero, ‘Civis Romanus sum’ – ‘I am a Roman citizen’ (Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.162), in order to stop the authorities imprisoning him without charge. ‘Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman and uncondemned?’ he said to the centurion.

And of course, Jesus himself said, ‘Render unto Caesar’. [Mark 12:17, or Luke 20:25] That wasn’t a command not to engage in human society, but rather positively to do one’s duty both to God and to mankind.

So whichever way you vote on Thursday – and of course I do think that you should vote rather than not vote – even if the result in Esher and Walton, our constituency, is rather a foregone conclusion, I do think that we all ought to keep alive in our minds the vision of the City of God. In our new Jerusalem, will we be covered by camels, will God smile on us in our abundance – or will we forget who our neighbours are? Let us pray that even those MPs who don’t have to make much of an effort to be elected, will still bear in mind what Jesus said about neighbours.

Think about what Jesus said about the last judgment in Matthew 25: ‘I was hungry, and you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home, when naked, you clothed me; when I was ill you came to my help, when in prison you visited me.’ You remember the story. The righteous people asked when they had done these good deeds, and Jesus replied, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ (Matt. 25:40)

So following this, Jesus’ explanation of who was his neighbour, and following the bishops’ letter, does our government policy on refugees, especially those risking their lives in the Mediterranean, square up? Our MP wrote to me recently that the Mediterranean refugees should be the concern just of the states with Mediterranean coastlines, like Italy, France, Greece or Spain. I wonder whether his parents, who were Czech refugees from Nazism in 1938, would have made it to safety here if we had had such a narrow policy then.

‘I was hungry,’ said Jesus. Would He have thought that it was acceptable that over a million people turned to food banks last year? 1,300 food parcels were given out in Cobham alone between April 2014 and March 2015.

‘When I was ill,’ He said. I think that the answer today is not just to buy private health insurance, and stand idly by while the NHS is steadily and stealthily run down, but to look out for each other: everyone in their hour of need deserves help. That help, in the NHS, depends on proper funding. That massive enterprise, the National Health Service, was founded when the national debt was several times the current size.

As the bishops have said, we should be good neighbours internationally as well. Would our Lord have approved cuts in overseas aid, or threats to withdraw from the EU? He wanted us to care for those poorer than ourselves, and to look out for others who might need our skills. I think He would have praised the EU for giving 70 years of peace in Europe.

I could go on, but you know the areas where the bishops have focussed. Civil rights and freedoms should be balanced by obligations, human rights. British lawyers drafted the European Human Rights Convention on which the Human Rights Act is based. Is it really right to want to get rid of it?

Think of the multitude of camels. Whatever government we end up with, whoever is our MP, after Thursday, we must press them, we must speak up for the City of God. We must try to ensure that our leaders work to create a fairer, more neighbourly society. Or else, as Isaiah said at the end of our first lesson, ‘For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted.’

[The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ is at https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2015/02/house-of-bishops%27-pastoral-letter-on-the-2015-general-election.aspx%5D