Archives for posts with tag: Cobham Surrey

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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Many thanks to you and your daughter. Do have a look at our website, cobhamarea.foodbank.org.uk, which tells you a lot about how we operate.

We collect the food, which people kindly donate, from our green bins, placed in all the churches in Cobham, Oxshott, Stoke D’Abernon and the Horsleys, and from bins in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s Local (the little one on the High St).

Our van does the rounds collecting three times a week. You can drop off food at one of the collecting points on any date.

Please follow us on Twitter @CobhamFoodbank, where you’ll find our ‘shopping lists’ from time to time.

What to give: non-perishable food, toiletries and pet food. Must be at least six months in date, unopened packages. Imagine you suddenly ran out of money: what would you like to receive? (Hint – not pasta and beans!)

Have you seen the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’? If not, I really recommend it.

We give out on average 500kgs (1/2 tonne) of food etc every week to needy people in this immediate, Cobham and surrounding, area.

BTW, please ask your daughter not to wrap the food she collects, or put it in boxes. Bags are fine, and welcome: anything else is just discarded by our warehouse team.

Look out for our van!

Best regards

Hugh

Manager, Cobham Area Foodbank

Registered Charity No 1154217

Phone 01932-450282

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, 29th November 2015 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Luke 21:25-36 There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations …

It’s Advent. We’re about to embark on that happy progress up to Christmas. We will get together with our families. We will give presents. We will send cards. We will be happy, and friendly, and full of the ‘season of goodwill’.

So why such a doom-laden Bible reading? Surely it’s all fun in the run up to Christmas?

Advent is looking forward to the coming of God on earth, Emmanuel. Today we are looking forward to the revelation of God. Quite a lot of the Bible readings in Advent are about watching and waiting, looking for the coming of the Kingdom of God. When the baby Jesus appears, that is the revelation of God. God isn’t some impossible hugeness, some grand master in the sky: He is a baby.

This is a time for deep reflection, spiritually, in the light of that astonishing Revelation. There are some important challenges for Christians out there. To start you off on your Advent reflection, here are some things that I have encountered.

I went, earlier this week, to a presentation by the Walton Charity, the Walton-on-Thames charity, the very old-established (its origins are 800 years old) and influential body who are behind all sorts of good works locally. They had commissioned a report from an economic think-tank, the New Economics Foundation, under the title ‘Inequality in Elmbridge’.

Some of you may have been at the reception too: I must confess that I have given up using the Rugby skills that I once had, in order to get to the prawn sandwiches. So I’m sorry if I didn’t greet you. It was heaving with people.

It looked like everyone was there. All the local great and good. A county councillor or two. Senior people from Elmbridge Borough Council and Surrey County Council. Social workers. Foodbank people. Businessmen.

Our borough, Elmbridge, was being looked at, from an economic standpoint. How were the lowest paid fixed? What was affecting the middle class people? What about the commuters?

It comes as a surprise that there are any poor people in Elmbridge. It’s supposed to be the second richest borough, in the sense that the average income is second only to Kensington and Chelsea. But – as I know from my work as manager of the Cobham Foodbank – there are substantial pockets of deprivation and poverty.

For instance, our area has one of the highest levels of domestic violence in the country. This means that there are single parents – usually women, with children – trying to put their lives together, sometimes after years of abuse. They aren’t in a fit state to work. They lack self-esteem. There’s a wonderful charity in Cobham, Oasis Childcare, which provides all sorts of courses and support for them, even taking their clients on holiday in the summer. This year they took 70 families to Weymouth for a week.

Oasis’ clients are our clients too, at the Foodbank. We provide food for around 30 people each week: 1,500 not very exciting, but nutritionally balanced, parcels of non-perishable food a year. In Cobham, Stoke and Oxshott. Yes really. There really are a number of people who sometimes find that they haven’t got enough money even to buy some food. We were a bit quiet on Friday – we provided food for 17 adults and 4 children, the day before yesterday.

In the next chapter of the report, it looked at middle income earners. The middle income people have different needs, compared with the very poor people. They aren’t hungry – they have good jobs – but they want more. They admire their neighbours’ new kitchens and curved-screen TVs: they stretch themselves financially in order to keep up with the Joneses. They spend a bit more than they actually earn – and they worry. Will it all come to an end? Their lives aren’t secure.

And finally the report looked at some wealthy ones, who are commuters – couples, who both get the 7.56 to Waterloo, and don’t get home much before 8 most evenings. They don’t really know anyone in the village, and they don’t really participate in local life. They have lots of money – but once you’ve put that island in your kitchen, what else can you do with it? And as every German motorway – Autobahn – driver knows, however fast you are going in your beautiful bolide, there is always a Porsche, a faster car, coming up to overtake you.

Remember what our Gospel today said. ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.’ (Luke 21:34-35)

There’s a spiritual emptiness in our world. What is really worth something? What will have lasting value? The posh kitchen and the Bentley in the drive won’t do it.

The thing that struck me was that none of the great and good, who were gathered to mark the publication of the report, were saying anything much about it. What do the grandees and the local councillors feel? How much of the poverty, the poverty in the middle of riches, is down to ‘austerity’ and cuts in benefits?

How do we feel about the huge gaps between rich and poor, and between the rich and the richer? Should we – dare I say this? – pay more taxes?

Would it help if people came to church and said their prayers a bit more often?

Oh, and another thing. We’re going to be singing about peace in all those Advent and Christmas hymns. Take hymn 56, [Common Praise] for instance:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
‘Peace on earth, good will to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King!’ …

‘Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song that they bring:..’

Are we really going to be bombing Syria at Christmas? I have to say that, although of course we all sympathise completely with the poor people in Paris who suffered from the terrorist atrocity, and with the Russian families who lost relatives and friends in the plane which IS bombed, nevertheless it’s not clear to me what the objective of dropping even more bombs in Syria would be. The Americans have been dropping huge numbers of bombs already, and there is no sign that IS is going away. On the other hand, just as when they bombed a Médecins sans Frontières hospital by mistake, or when they killed an IS leader with a drone strike (and killed four others, nameless in the same car), there are always innocent bystanders who are killed and maimed as well.

Let’s use this time of prayerful anticipation in the lead up to Christmas, let’s use Advent, use it as a time to reflect and think again what Jesus’ true message for us today would be.

Back to the carol:
‘Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.’

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Sermon at St Andrew’s, Oxshott on 5th July 2015
Mark 6:1-13

When I was little – maybe 8 or 9 – my terrifying Aunt Pegs came to stay. Peggy was my father’s sister, and she was a history lecturer at the Institute of Education in Malet Street. She was a Girton Girl, and she had never married..

She lived in one of those tall, up-and-down houses on the north side of Clapham Common, facing Holy Trinity Church, where she was one of the pillars of the congregation, and a constant source of terror to curates.

On that morning it just so happened that she and I coincided at the doors of our respective bedrooms, just about to go downstairs for our breakfast. Aunt Pegs looked into my bedroom, the door of which I had not managed to shut quickly enough, and she noticed that my bed was not made.

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Hugh, I think you should make your bed, before you come down to breakfast’, she said.
Outrage! I felt. Who was she, to tell me that?
Only my Mum could tell me to make my bed. And anyway, the rules, as I understood them, were that the time for making one’s bed was much later: when you got round to it naturally – or possibly, when Mum had done it for you anyway.

But Aunt Pegs was challenging all that. I had to abandon the rules: think again, and take in the awful prospect of bed-making before breakfast.

It’s quite reminiscent of the story from our reading from St Mark’s Gospel. Who was this chap who was making such a splash? Wasn’t he just the carpenter’s son from Nazareth? And who were the chaps with him? Weren’t they just ordinary fishermen, that you’d seen around the place: nothing special?

How on earth could people like that be at all qualified to talk about things of cosmological significance, the beginning and end of time, questions of divine wisdom – surely not some bloke from a joinery workshop down the road, who’d never had anything special about him before. But the things he was doing: they were truly remarkable.

The thing that really stuck in their gullet was that he told them to change their outlook on life, turn over a new leaf, even to change the rules. Just as Aunt Pegs upset my convenient little routine, so Jesus was upsetting the orthodoxy of the Jewish leaders, who thought they’d worked it out and had everything down to a T.

So Jesus sent his followers away, sent them off, two by two, to spread the good news about him, to encourage all the people they met to repent, to change their ways.

As I was re-reading this Gospel passage, I came across something I must’ve read hundreds of times, but never really taken in. And that’s the sandals. Nowadays sandals are a sort of a fashion statement – certainly for people of my generation. There are the sandals that we remember our fathers wearing on holiday, usually with long socks, probably rather highly polished as well: basically the sandals were just like the shoes that they wore to work, but they had holes in, to let the summer in.

Or alternatively, of course, there were the sandals that left-wing intellectuals were supposed to wear. CND marchers in the 60s: the leaders would be striding forth – and they would be wearing sandals. Probably without socks.

Now that we’ve got a heatwave I reviewed this bit of my sermon, because I was going to say that in Cobham and Oxshott most of the people you would see wearing sandals would be wearing them on the beach in somewhere warm and sunny like Portofino or Cannes or somewhere like that. But in view of this lovely weather, I expect if I took a straw poll of everybody’s footwear today, there will even be a few sandals here in church. If so, you can take comfort in the thought that you are wearing the footwear that Jesus recommended.

But you may hastily murmur, ‘But that doesn’t make me some kind of lefty!’ Of course. Well, as some of you know, I am some kind of lefty, and so the usual disclaimers apply. You will catch yourselves saying, I bet, after I get into my stride this morning – I will catch little murmurs, one to the other, saying, ‘Who does he think he is? He’s just that old bloke that used to catch the 7.31 from Oxshott. What does he know?’

And if I start to suggest that some of our hallowed ideas might not necessarily be right, again, you will say, ‘Why on earth should I change my mind? I know how it all works.’

Well, let me try you with the Foodbank. Surely we don’t need a food bank round here, you might well say. As many of you will know, Cobham Area Foodbank was founded partly by this very church. The Foodbank is a creation of Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott, Downside and Surrounding Areas, to give it its full title.

The representatives of the seven churches in Churches Together started discussing the creation of a food bank in this area just over two years ago, and it is now a registered charity, independent of Churches Together. I was its first manager.

In the first clear year of operation, we provided approximately 1500 food parcels. Just under half the people were hungry not because of changes in state benefits or because of unemployment. The biggest category were people who are working, who are employed, but who don’t earn enough money to pay the rent and buy food as well.

Of course the various Government changes have made life more difficult for people at the poorer end of our society. If you are unlucky enough to be made redundant, and you were working in a low-paid job, so you weren’t able to build up any savings, you will find that you don’t get any unemployment benefit for at least two weeks, and in fact, often longer.

If you receive housing benefit, to enable you to afford to pay the rent, because there are very few council houses left – for practical purposes, none in Elmbridge – you will find that the Council has to apply the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. They assess how many bedrooms you’ve got, and if your children have grown up and moved away, you will find that they will say that, according to the rules for Housing Benefit, you should be occupying a smaller house: they will only provide the benefit for a house which is ‘appropriate’ for your needs, so a one-bedroom house or flat if you’re by yourself – but even if you wanted to move, there aren’t any available.

Whereas in the old days with council houses, rents were controlled and went up very slowly, now the market dictates the rent, and landlords can raise the rent of their properties to whatever level the market will bear.

So the tenants are squeezed. They have to pay more rent, and they get less benefit to set against it. If they are in a low-paid job, perhaps on the minimum wage and perhaps on a zero-hours contract, paid by the hour worked, but without a guarantee that they will actually get any work to do, they will soon run out of money.

They have to take a hard decision about whether to pay the rent or go and buy food for themselves and their families. In the old days, again, with a council house, the council was pretty understanding about rent arrears when people were in financial difficulty. Nowadays the majority of so-called social housing is let on an ‘Assured Shorthold Tenancy’, which gives the landlord very sweeping powers to evict tenants if they miss a couple of rent payments. So people regard paying the rent as being the top priority, and then find that they haven’t got enough money left to buy any food.

A very common reaction, when I tell people that we have a food bank here in Cobham and Oxshott, is to say, ‘That’s a good thing – but surely we don’t need it here.’ There really are people who are hungry, but don’t have enough to buy food, right here in Oxshott. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have given out those 1,500 food parcels.

The Foodbank opens once a week in the Methodist Church hall, just down the road from the new library in Cobham, in Cedar Road; it opens for an hour-and-a-half at lunchtime on Fridays. People who need food go to one of a number of organisations whom we have authorised to be voucher issuers, professionals qualified to assess the genuineness of each person’s need, and they get a pink food voucher.

The food voucher tells us how many people there are to feed in the family and it identifies the reason why the people have found themselves short of food. There are a number of categories specified. The most common one around here, as I said, is simply ‘not having enough money’. There are other categories, such as the various benefit changes, unemployment, illness and disability and so on.

We belong to a network of food banks created by the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity which is based in Salisbury in Wiltshire. The Foodbank pays an annual subscription and gets the right to use Trussell’s food bank operations manuals and their computer systems.

Every ounce of food given to the Foodbank and every ounce given out, is weighed and recorded. All the vouchers are noted down and recorded so that, nationally and locally, there are robust statistics to say how many people are using the Foodbank, and why.

Trussell Trust also provides training programmes for our volunteers. We have four departments: the distribution centre, the warehouse, the van – and the management team. We have a 400sq ft warehouse in a small industrial park on the outskirts of Leatherhead. We run a van which many of you will have seen, which has so far been financed by Cargill, that very generous and successful food company.

We have eight drivers including two ladies, and ten driver’s mates. The van does a pick-up round every Monday, from all the seven churches, from Waitrose, Sainsbury’s on the High Street, Starbuck’s and from any schools who might have had a special collection. During the week there may be other collections and deliveries, and on Friday the van delivers from the warehouse to the Methodist Church hall, ready for the clients to come and collect their food.

Our Foodbank – your Foodbank – is supported by around 130 volunteers. At the distribution centre, at each session there will be five or six volunteers, who are all specially trained, two people to receive clients and take their vouchers, two people to get out bags of food and somebody to make them a cup of tea and point them in the direction of a big collection of what we call ‘signposts’ to try to help people improve their lot: for example, Christians Against Poverty, which can help people who have got into debt. It’s able to intercede for them with creditors and negotiate staged payments which they can afford, to keep them out of the hands of loan sharks.

Volunteers also deliver food to people who are housebound, or who have suddenly found themselves in urgent need for whatever reason, and can’t wait till the Friday distribution session, perhaps as a result of injury.

Those home deliveries are always done in a car rather than in the Foodbank van, in order not to embarrass people. Indeed we try very hard to recognise that for many people it’s very embarrassing to have to come and effectively beg for food. Having a voucher is a great way to take a lot of the sting out of it, because the original request is made one-to-one to one of the voucher issuers, who are professionals qualified to assess the genuineness of each person’s need. That’s a private conversation.

As soon as somebody comes to the Foodbank with their pink voucher, then they have rights. We will give them food without question. But still they need to be treated tactfully. So they get the food in a supermarket bag, so there’s nothing to show that they’ve actually got food from the Foodbank.

The exact mix of food that they get is planned by a nutritionist employed by Trussell Trust. Each food parcel is supposed to last a minimum of three days.

We are very blessed by having a lot of very generous people in this area. We are definitely not short of food. Some sorts of food are in surplus – if our clients could live just on pasta and baked beans, we could probably feed them until this time next century!

If you’re thinking, what shall I give to the Foodbank, think that poorer people who are hungry actually like to eat the same things that you like too.

The one thing that I haven’t mentioned so far is that, although we get lots and lots of food, which is great, we are struggling to get enough money to run the Foodbank.

We had a lot of generous grants to start the thing up – the Bishop of Guildford’s Foundation gave us £5,000, the churches chipped in substantial sums, Elmbridge Borough Council gave £2,000, and even the government, despite their rude remarks about food banks, gave us £2,000 through the Cinnamon Trust. Cargill very generously met the leasing cost of our van.

But – there is still rent to pay on our warehouse, there are bills for fuel, insurance and repairs to be paid for; and we do sometimes have to go out and buy food. Because we’ve got a ton of pasta and baked beans, we haven’t necessarily got enough of certain other foods which we need in order to offer a balanced diet.

In round numbers, it costs £19,000 a year to run Cobham Area Foodbank, and we have funding at the moment which will take us just about up to October. Thereafter, we will have to see if there’s a food bank for food banks!

So we would be very grateful if you would put anything you can spare into a gift aid envelope. Or you can go on our website and sign up either for a single gift or a regular donation. Gift Aid forms are on the website as well.

It couldn’t happen here, could it? It may be a bit uncomfortable for you to hear me telling you that unfortunately it can, and it does. The only thing I can say is what the disciples were told by Jesus, ‘Tell everybody to repent’.

‘Repent’ in Greek is a word which means ‘change your mind’ (μετανοιειτε). In the Foodbank context, I don’t think you need to repent in the sense of changing your evil ways, but perhaps you might need to adjust your preconceptions a bit. And of course, occasionally, don’t forget to wear your sandals.

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on Bible Sunday, 19th Sunday after Trinity, 26th October 2014
Isaiah 55:1-11, Luke 4:14-30

It’s been a challenging week to be a Christian. The other night I was listening to The Moral Maze on the radio, when a panel of people, including the Reverend Giles Fraser and Melanie Phillips, who is Jewish, were discussing the footballer Ched Evans, and the question whether he should be allowed to rejoin his former club and play football again. Had he paid his debt to society and therefore was he entitled to be rehabilitated into society and continue his normal life, or was he in some way disqualified from his previous career because of the nature of the crime that he had committed?

I heard stories about the terrible virus Ebola in Africa. This week we were worried by a couple of instances where people appear to have caught the virus and come to areas which have not so far been affected, in Europe and also in the United States.

We had a report from the new chief executive of the National Health
Service, on what the health service in this country is going to need if it is to survive and continue to give the wonderful service which we expect.

There was a very sad story, here in Cobham, of a 21-year-old boy who was in the middle of a glittering career at university, with great prospects ahead of him, from a wonderful family, who suddenly dropped dead with a heart attack.

I listened to the debate on The Moral Maze about Ched Evans the footballer – and one of the things that rather surprised me was that neither Canon Giles Fraser not Melanie Phillips, the two expressly religious people on the panel, mentioned the Bible. Neither of them tried to relate what had happened and the punishment process which Ched Evans had been through to any passages in the Bible or anything which Jesus or the prophets had said.

In relation to the Ebola virus I have been struck by how it is very much a story about third world countries and poor people. Up to now none of the big drug companies had decided to put any money behind trying to find a cure or trying to develop a vaccine – I hope I’m not offending any of those companies by saying this – until it looked like becoming a threat to the developed part of the world. All of a sudden we now have the hopeful development that GlaxoSmithKline is claiming to have to developed a cure and a vaccine and that they will very fortunately be ready for use very shortly after Christmas; but the observation remains that it does look as though it matters more if you are a rich person in the northern hemisphere rather than a poor person in Africa, if there is going to be an epidemic.

Nearer to home, of course there is the whole question of the future of the National Health Service. The great thing that we all love about it is that it is free at the point of need: in other words it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor; it’s just a question whether you are a human being and whether you are sick as to whether or not you are going to get treatment under our health service.

And finally, the poor chap who died just at the beginning of an adult life, which which probably was going to be very successful and very happy, clearly prompts the question, how could a loving God allow something like this to happen?

To add to those general challenges to Christians, I personally had an interesting thing happen to me this week, which was that I went to attend the inaugural lecture of the new Regius Professor of History in Oxford, Professor Lyndal Roper, an Australian scholar whose speciality is Martin Luther. Her lecture was all about Martin Luther’s dreams. I never knew that Martin Luther had dreams.

I hope it’s not a reflection on the quality of teaching in the diocesan ministry course, but the only revelatory experience involving Martin Luther which I could remember having been taught about was what was called the ‘Turmerlebnis’, the ‘Tower Experience’, when Martin Luther, who apparently was said to suffer dreadfully from constipation, had had to go to the loo in the tower in the monastery where he was, and was said to have experienced spiritual and physical release at the same moment.

Funnily enough, Prof. Roper didn’t mention the Turmerlebnis. It obviously didn’t count as a dream. He had apparently had five other experiences which she counted as dreams, including a vision of a giant quill pen, writing on the door of the church in Wittenburg, where his 95 Theses were subsequently pinned up, and another dream about a cat in a bag, which fortunately did not come to a bad end, but was not simply a question of letting the cat out of the bag.

If we were addressing the task, which Giles Fraser and Melanie Phillips addressed on The Moral Maze, as Christians here at St Mary’s, surely we would have gone to our Bibles. ‘Judge not, lest ye yourselves be judged’: ‘The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons’: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’; and what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, on the question of adultery.

If we looked at Ebola and at the National Health Service as Christians we might remember what it says in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘From each according to his ability and to each according to his need’. We would worry about the huge gap between the rich and poor, the verse which we no longer sing in ‘All things bright and beautiful’, ‘… the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate’.

The fact that we are so keen on the NHS and we think it is so special is surely all to do with the fact that it does not distinguish between the rich and poor. It’s not perhaps so much a question that we don’t approve of the gap between the rich and the poor, but we certainly do approve of something where there is no distinction between rich and poor.

What would Jesus do? Remember what he said to the rich young ruler, that he should give away everything that he had to the poor and follow Him – and indeed he then went on to make the famous remark about it being harder for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven then for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

Shall we quote to the parents of the poor chap who has died, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ [Romans 8:35]. Will that hit the spot with them? Will they listen to that? Will it mean something properly to them? Does it sound realistic to them that that is what God is like?

Well perhaps the first thing to say in relation to all these challenges for a Christian is that in each case I am coming up with a quotation from the Bible. I am going to my Bible first, in order to try to find out what Jesus would do, what God feels about this particular situation.

The difficulty, of course, is that the Bible does not give you straightforward answers; it’s not a textbook in that sense or an instruction manual for life. It’s not a guidebook to the divine. It’s not a description of God and how he works.

We believe that God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent: the creator and sustainer of everything we now about, of our entire life. But we can’t be said to know much about God, in the same way as I know for example how many people there are here in church.

That’s deeply frustrating, because we could easily say that the most important things that we could possibly know would be the things that we can find out about God: but he is the one thing that we can probably know least about! What we can say is that what we do know, what we can infer, starts off with what we read in the Bible. Holy Scripture is the beginning of our experience of God and as such there is nothing more important than what we can learn from Holy Scripture.

There are so many questions – starting with, of course, what is Holy Scripture? What is the criterion by which we decide which books are in the Bible and which books from the same era are out, are apocryphal, or just not part of the canon of accepted books?

Right from the very earliest times Christians have debated what the Bible, the gospels and the various letters of St Paul and the Acts of the Apostles all really mean. What did Jesus say and what did he mean by it? What would Jesus do in particular circumstances? Who was Jesus really? Was He the son of God, and if so, is that the same thing as being God, in some way?

Terribly important questions, because, depending on the answers to them, we are talking about the most important things that we can possibly have in our lives today: that’s why I was particularly fascinated to go to the lecture about Martin Luther.

The Reformation may have happened in the 16th century – and we’re now in the 21st century – but all the various questions, which are relevant to the problems that I was looking at earlier, were around in Martin Luther’s time and he tried to understand better the message of the gospels in order to deal with them.

Was God ‘judge eternal’, inclined to condemn us, stern and unbending, or is he a loving God who forgives us despite our imperfections and our sins? Can we earn his forgiveness by the way we act? What happens to people who don’t know about Jesus and God and are good nevertheless? Are they saved or are they condemned because they are in ignorance?

We all know the story of Martin Luther pinning up his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, mainly aimed at the Pope and his sale of so-called ‘indulgences’: that you could in fact buy yourself a shorter time in Purgatory, which was supposed to be the kind of antechamber to heaven, where you had a chance to make amends for all those dreadful things that you had done, all the sins you had committed in your life, so as to have a sort of second chance to get into heaven.

The Pope was selling the right to shorten your time in Purgatory by making charitable gifts to the church. It all sounds very far-fetched, if not slightly corrupt, now and we’re not really surprised that Martin Luther was against it.

We should perhaps not be too hasty to condemn the Pope because the background to the sale of indulgences was the need to raise money for Saint Peter’s in Rome. It was in fact a parish fundraising campaign by another name.

Who was right? Was Luther right or the Pope right? Was Henry VIII right? Was Cranmer right? Who has the authoritative statement of what Jesus would do in all these various circumstances?

Who has an authoritative view on what the correct interpretation of the Bible in relation to any given instance is? Because you can find contradictory things in the Bible.

Professor Roper had a thesis behind her lecture that in fact whereas John Calvin, the other great reformer, would say that his inspiration was ‘sola scriptura’, only Scripture, only Holy Scripture alone, and whereas the Pope would point to his apostolic succession from St Peter and the tradition of the holy Fathers, Luther could point to revelation, revelation from God, in the various dreams which he had had.

I have to say that I rushed to my copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s great book ‘Reformation’, and couldn’t find any reference to Luther’s great dreams – although the lavatorial experience, the Turmerlebnis, was quite well covered!

The point is, on this Bible Sunday, that whatever view you take and however you fit in with church history and the various strands of theology that have grown up over the ages in dealing with this incredibly important but terribly difficult topic, the important thing is that everything starts with the Bible: nothing is more authoritative.

It may not be the be-all and end-all, and it may not be literally the result of God dictating to somebody, but it is the word of God in the sense that it is the best source we have for our knowledge of God and Jesus; so let us never stop reading our Bibles; never stop wrestling with the words in them and trying to understand them.