Archives for posts with tag: Education Sunday

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday before Lent, Septuagesima
Ephesians 5:1-17

Today is actually Education Sunday, which is an ecumenical fixture promoted across all the churches in the UK. It is sponsored locally by Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke. This morning I preached a sermon at Mattins about Christian education, and I raised a few queries about what’s going on in our schools today, contrasting the church schools with the newer Free School in Cobham, which appears not to have any religious assemblies.

But this evening I want to come nearer to home and, if you like, to run a bit of a trailer for the study course which I hope as many of you as possible will try out during Lent. This year is one of the years when we will be organising the Lent course ecumenically under Churches Together again, and the groups will be organised on the basis that you will meet people from the other churches in Cobham as well as from St Mary’s.

I know that there is a sign-up sheet at the back of the church, and that Sue Woolley is the point-person whom you need to see if you haven’t signed up yet. There will be sessions during the evening and during the day most days.

What we will be studying is St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, from which our second lesson this evening came. Ephesians is not a long letter. It has just six chapters and in my Bible it runs over three and a half pages. It is nevertheless what the great Bible scholar C.H. Dodd regarded as ‘the crown of Paulinism’, Paul’s finest letter.

In its six short chapters Ephesians covers just about everything you need to know about Christianity. First, of course, about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then about grace, about God’s generosity to us and the effect of it on us Christians.

The title of the course is, ‘Be Reconciled’. Reconciliation is a major topic in Ephesians. In the context of the early church, the people who needed to be reconciled were the Jews and the Gentiles – and St Paul was known as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Christianity would never have become the worldwide religion that it is, if it had remained as a Jewish sect.

The letter goes on to look at the wider context of reconciliation, reconciliation with God. Sin is understood as separation from, exclusion from, God’s love.

Other themes include St Paul’s perspective on the church, the body of Christ – not the churches as they are today, in lots of denominations, but as the way, the channel, through which the Holy Spirit works on earth.

I find it really fascinating to read and study anything which tells us about the life of the early church. Sometimes I think one forgets what cataclysmic events Jesus’ life, death and resurrection must have been for the people who were close in history to them. It wasn’t just something that you read about, but you could see the vital consequences, the living controversy.

Religion was very important to the Ephesians. They were people who revered the Greek gods: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’ you will remember they chanted in the story in Acts (Acts 19:28). It was a powerful city with sophisticated people. It’s interesting to see how St Paul and the other early Christians coped with this strong, confident civilisation which believed in different gods.

I think there can be messages for us to learn today. People may not say, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, but there are other things which seem to be worshipped like pagan gods. There was a staggering letter in yesterday’s FT: the latest instalment in a correspondence which started with somebody saying that, for someone on £200,000 a year, a rise in tax back to 50% would cost about £7 a day, and the letter said, ‘What’s the odd £7 a day more or less, between friends?’ Someone who was that well paid wouldn’t miss it.

Then there were some other letters saying that no one had mentioned the point of paying taxes, that is, to support the community at large; but yesterday there was a letter from a lady in Evercreech, Somerset, whose judgement may of course have been slightly skewed because perhaps she had been flooded, but what she wrote was this.

‘The pursuit of success provides a satisfying goal in itself, resulting in financial rewards if it succeeds making the attendant sacrifices worthwhile. It is therefore galling to have this endeavour viewed by the public as a source of envy and by politicians as an asset to be plundered. Only when success is assured and large amounts of wealth have been amassed do the incentives change. Only a few will follow … [the] noble values of gaining satisfaction from a willingness to contribute to community. In the main, it becomes a game, with the driving motivation to outwit the Inland Revenue … The only way to reverse this trend is to shoot their fox by lowering taxes significantly and moving the goalposts again, in order for recognised philanthropy to become the new order of priority as a source of satisfaction and status.’ (Letter from Miss Sierra Hutton-Wilson in the Financial Times, February 15-16 2014)

I wonder what Jesus would have said about that. There is really nothing about anyone other than the self in what this lady writes. The main objective which she supports is ‘the pursuit of success’. First, become successful (meaning, become rich). Lower taxes will help you to achieve your objective. There is no room for philanthropy until and unless you have achieved your objective. Then, and only then, philanthropy can become ‘a source of satisfaction and status’.

Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan’s motives were not a desire to feel better (satisfaction) or the be more highly regarded (status). Instead, as we read in St Luke’s gospel (10:33), when he saw the man who had fallen among thieves, ‘he had compassion on him’ – the Greek word literally means, ‘his innards were churned up’ by what he saw. It wasn’t, as somebody once said, only possible for the Samaritan to be generous because he himself was well-off; it was because he cared about the other man, the injured man.

After all, Jesus told the parable to illustrate what it was to be someone’s neighbour. There’s nothing in Jesus’ teaching about ‘satisfaction and status’. But yesterday, the Financial Times could print this letter under the heading ‘Philanthropy – the new status symbol’ without batting an eyelid.

As Christians, we have to be on our guard against these seductive ideas which encourage us to be selfish and not to love our neighbours. The idea that you get wealthy first, and then do some philanthropy not because it helps other people, but because it makes you look good, is superficially pretty attractive, and it has been endorsed by famous people. The person who said that the Good Samaritan had to be rich, before he could have done anything to help the injured man, was – who do you think? It was Margaret Thatcher.

So you wouldn’t be blamed for adopting that selfish theory – only be generous if you are rich enough, and if it makes you look good or feel better. The best people agree with you. That was exactly the challenge that St Paul and the early Christians faced. His letters, including his letter to the Ephesians, set out how he countered these seductive arguments. His arguments are still good value today. To follow self is to cut yourself off from God. Separation from God is what ‘sin’ means. So when Paul says, ‘Be reconciled’, he means, be reconciled with God, be saved. (See Ephesians 2:16.)

This is still so relevant today. Come and study Ephesians this Lent. I guarantee it will be very worthwhile.

Sermon for Education Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, 27th January 2013
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21 – Supererogatory Goods

For over 100 years the churches in England have recognised the ninth Sunday before Easter, which is what today is, as ‘Education Sunday’. It’s a Sunday in which we celebrate the work of all the various educational establishments, and of course in particular, the teaching that comes from our church, either directly here in church, in Bible study or sermons, and in our church schools. Here in Cobham we have St Andrew’s School, who are coming to lead our service at 10 o’clock.

The lessons, that we have set for today, have been chosen with Education Sunday in mind. In Nehemiah and in our gospel reading from St Luke, we have a picture of someone in the synagogue taking down the scroll on which the Hebrew Bible was written, unfurling it and reading from it. Both in the Old Testament lesson from Nehemiah and in the gospel, after the Bible has been read, then there’s a session of teaching.

Indeed on one level, on Education Sunday, we can just celebrate the fact that there are teachers, and that education is a great good. We can reflect that it is a very good thing that the churches are very deeply involved in the whole process of educating children and young people.

Indeed it would be perfectly sensible to have services once a year on Education Sunday that just simply give thanks to God for the fact that God has given all the various talents, all the various complementary skills which St Paul picturesquely describes in our lesson from his first letter to the Corinthians, about the different parts of the body and the fact that each of the bits and each of the body’s faculties – the hand, the foot, the hearing, the sense of smell – have their real purpose in the way in which they relate to each other in the one body. It’s an allegory for the church. The church depends on people with all sorts of different skills and aptitudes and gifts to give. Among those talents there surely is the talent of teaching.

It is, however, worth pausing at this point just to review certain things about the educational landscape as it confronts our children, and ourselves as parents, today. There is some controversy about so-called ‘faith schools’. The argument, the controversy, is whether there should be a stripe running through the whole of a church school, a colour of Christianity. Wouldn’t it be better, some people say, if schools were all completely secular – even so, perhaps children could be taught about religion, or the various religions, as an academic subject, but not as a rule of life. They argue, what about children who come from unbelieving homes, or homes where people actually believe in a different religion?

Obviously there are standard answers to that, given by the church, that in fact there is no undue bias towards churchgoers in allocating places in church schools, that there is always provision made for those who declare themselves to be either unbelievers or believers in a different faith, in the form of separate assemblies or just being able to skip going to Christian worship and attending lessons where Christianity is taught.

Anyway, the churches have a good story to tell about their openness and their inclusiveness in the church schools, and the controversy, if there is really one, is all about the fact that church schools on the whole are very good schools, and obviously more people want their children to attend them than they actually have places for. So although the church has set them up and sustains them in many important ways, non-believers resent this and demand that they should have equal access for their children.

That brings me on to the second dimension in our lessons today, in particular in the gospel. What should a good school teach? I don’t want to get into sterile discussions about the various politicians’ ideas about what the so-called ‘core curriculum’ should contain. I’m more interested today in what Jesus was doing when he was teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth as indeed, according to the gospel, he regularly did, all over the place. Was he doing the sort of job that Ezra and the Levites were doing in the story from Nehemiah?

What Ezra was reading, and then going on to teach about, was ‘the book of the law of Moses’, the Pentateuch, the first five books in the Old Testament. At the heart of the Jewish law are the Ten Commandments. You will remember all the various Ten Commandments, and you could, if you were one of these non-believing parents, point out that, in a school today, you could certainly teach, in a General Studies lesson, say, the benefits to society as a whole if everyone followed the Ten Commandments.

You would say, as an unbeliever, that the benefits of most of the Ten Commandments would inure, quite irrespective of whether they were the commandments of God as opposed to being just good common sense, necessary for peace and harmony in society.

Obviously the first commandment, ‘Thou shalt worship The Lord thy God,’ doesn’t fit with that; and moreover, if you introduce the Ten Commandments with the story of how Moses came by them, it’s quite clear that the particular context of the Ten Commandments is a context of divine revelation, but it is possible to get most of the moral benefits without needing to know anything about God.

But there are little hints of what’s different, when the teaching is actually about the divine. In Nehemiah, there’s this intriguing last thing that Ezra preaches, that people should eat, drink and be merry: but that they should send a share of their food to people who haven’t got any: those ‘for whom nothing is prepared,’ as the passage says. And that that should be something done on the Lord’s day: ‘send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, because this day is holy to our Lord’. So that suggests that the reason for sending the food parcels to the poor people is because it’s something associated with God: you do it on the Sabbath, on the Lord’s day.

Similarly in St Luke’s gospel Jesus takes as his text the passage from Isaiah chapter 61 which actually describes the coming Messiah, the chosen one of God. Again, the point about that is that Christian teaching is not just about what is good to do – although of course there is strong Christian teaching about it – but at its heart is the question where that teaching comes from, and who Jesus was, in order to do that teaching.

You can see the people of Nazareth resisted stoutly the idea that Jesus was anything special – but that is the difference. A secular set of ethics would come up with something very like the Ten Commandments (albeit minus the first one). Essentially such secular ethics would be based on the so-called ‘golden rule’, do as you would be done by; do to your neighbour, and so on; but where the teaching really comes from God, in the mouth of a prophet like Ezra, and in the mouth of Jesus himself, as in St Luke’s gospel, the difference is that the teaching is not only to do as you would be done by, in the various specifics laid down in the Ten Commandments, but it is also to pursue so-called supererogatory goods, things which go beyond what you are obliged to do. So this is sending food parcels to people who are hungry in the Old Testament, and in Jesus’ teaching, the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile: these are all supererogatory goods, doing more than you strictly have to do in order simply to keep the fabric of society together.

They are the mark of a very special kind of teacher. As Jesus himself says, Isaiah’s prophecy, in Isaiah chapter 61, setting out what the Messiah, the chosen one of God, would look like, now is fulfilled. Jesus is the Messiah. He is the son of God. He is divine.

That brings me back to what we should be doing with church schools. If all we’re doing – and that’s not to belittle it – if all that we’re doing is teach children things that they could learn anywhere, church school or not, then it’s almost as though Jesus had never come. But if on the other hand, the important thing about a church school is that it’s run by people who recognise the difference between what Ezra was doing, what the OT prophets were doing, what Moses was doing when he collected the tablets with the Ten Commandments: who recognise what the difference is between them and Jesus himself, teaching in the synagogue and actually saying that the world has changed, that Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled and the Ten Commandments are no longer the whole story. Jesus’ teaching is a whole big command of love, which enjoins people to do supererogatory goods, doing more than they are asked to do, going the extra mile.

And they are doing that, because it is God who is asking them. Isn’t that just the most important thing that you could possibly teach about, in your church school? I think it is, and I’m sure that Andrew Tulloch, the headmaster, and his teachers, at our church school, are very well aware of that, and they never forget it. Long may it continue.