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Sermon for Evensong on the ninth Sunday after Trinity, 18th August 2019

Isaiah 28:9-22, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433037279 – Not Just a Crown Jewel

Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. (Isaiah 28:9)

Sometimes I expect you are slightly puzzled by our Bible readings at Evensong. Even the language of Shakespeare might need a little bit of explanation. This is how the New English Bible renders it.

Who is it that the prophet hopes to teach,

to whom will what they hear make sense?

Are they babes newly weaned, just taken from the breast?

It could be a taunt thrown back by the drunken prophets of Judah at Isaiah. J.B. Phillips has translated it as, ‘Are we just weaned … Do we have to learn that The-law-is-the-law-is-the-law, The rule-is-the-rule-is-the-rule…?’. [Quoted by Derek Kidner in The New Bible Commentary, 4th edition 1994, reprinted 2007, Nottingham, Inter-Varsity Press, p 650.]

The background to this prophecy in Isaiah is the situation in Jerusalem between 740 and 700 BCE the two kingdoms of the Israelites, the North, Samaria, and the South, Judah, were being threatened by Assyria – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, if you remember Byron’s poem. In 734 the kings of Damascus and Samaria tried to force Jerusalem to join a coalition against Assyria. This ‘Syro-Ephraimite’ war is the background to the main prophecies of Isaiah. So our passage is prophecy addressed to the rulers in Jerusalem.

14 Listen then to the word of the LORD, you arrogant men

who rule this people in Jerusalem.

15 You say, ‘We have made a treaty with Death

and signed a pact with Sheol:

so that, when the raging flood sweeps by, it shall not touch us;

for we have taken refuge in lies

and sheltered behind falsehood.’

16 These then are the words of the Lord GOD:

Look, I am laying a stone in Zion, a block of granite,

a precious corner-stone for a firm foundation;

he who has faith shall not waver.

17 I will use justice as a plumb-line

and righteousness as a plummet;

hail shall sweep away your refuge of lies,

and flood-waters carry away your shelter.’ (Isaiah 28:14-17, NEB)

Godfrey, in some of his sermons recently, has been introducing a ‘that was then: this is now’ angle on what he is preaching about. It’s perhaps a bit tempting, to compare Isaiah’s criticism of the rulers of Judah, whom he criticised as being ‘liars’, and indeed earlier on as ‘complete drunkards’, tempting to compare them with some contemporary politicians today.

What is our prophetic duty at this time? What would Jesus say? What would Isaiah say if he were around today? One thing seems pretty clear, that God wants nothing to do with lies and deception. It’s perhaps sobering to realise that, in 721, the Assyrians did conquer Samaria, the Northern Kingdom, shortly after Isaiah had prophesied; and just over a century later, the Southern Kingdom also fell and the people were largely deported to Babylon. So these ‘scoffers’, whom Isaiah railed against, didn’t end well.

As has been said very well by Godfrey, this is a time of great anxiety, for just about all of us. Nobody knows what is going to happen with our way of life, with our country, and with our relationships with the rest of the world. We don’t like the signs of xenophobia, racism and extreme nationalism that the populist politicians in this country and abroad seem to have encouraged.

These are not just questions of taste. People are getting hurt; refugees are being abandoned on the high seas by populist politicians who seem to have completely forgotten the milk of human kindness, let alone the law of the sea. On the Mexican border with the USA, our closest allies are separating young children from their parents and putting them in cages without any sanitation.

Where should our church fit in, how should we deal with all this? Our second lesson tonight, from 2 Corinthians, is, in effect, about planned giving to the church. I’m sure everybody will be groaning away at that: but even 2,000 years ago, when St Paul was writing to the congregation in Corinth, he was telling them all about the generosity of other new Christian churches in Macedonia. There’s a wonderful piece of Greek which is really untranslatable in the second verse of our lesson, saying that the Macedonians have excelled in generosity although they are poor – the words mean ‘rich from poverty’ – εἰς τὸ πλοῦτος τῆς ἀπλότητος αὐτῶν· It’s the same idea as in Jesus’ story of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4).

Not that they gave nothing; but that they gave much more than, as poor people, they might be expected to give. Stephen Chater is speaking to as many of us as possible, encouraging everybody to ‘Count ourselves in’. Count me in, so far as supporting our church’s financial position is concerned.

But I suspect that we ought to consider something a bit wider as well. And if we do consider something wider, it will surely lead us on to the sort of sacrificial giving which St Paul praises here.

On September 8th we will open the church at the beginning of the ‘Crown Jewels of Cobham’ scheme organised by Cobham Heritage. We will encourage people to come and look at our beautiful church, along with the other places locally which have been called ‘crown jewels’, (about which you’ll find a nice booklet on your way out if you haven’t already got one).

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m sure it’ll be very enjoyable and everybody will have a wonderful time working out whether our brass knights in front of the altar are the real thing or some very clever reproduction. If you haven’t made up your own mind which it is, and you’d like to come and look close up, do come after the service and have a look in the sanctuary. The Sir Johns, D’Abernon, Senior and Junior, are ready to welcome you!

But the thing is that, as a parish church, we surely have a place in the community. We aren’t just a monument to be admired. We have indeed affirmed that in our PCC and at our parish ‘awayday’ a little while ago now.

What we come to church to do is not just to love God, but it is also to love our neighbour as ourself. And at present we haven’t got any settled outward-social-concern or giving projects. They might not just be questions of money – although it usually does involve some money – but there is also the question of a ‘warm embrace’ for our neighbours, as that wonderful local Christian figure Derek Williams, who has sadly just died, used to put it.

At St Mary’s we do a lot of good already in supporting the Foodbank, for example, not only with money but also by providing three of the five trustees who manage it.

There are other important local charities that do a lot of good in this area, that we might want to involve ourselves more closely with as well.

Oasis – sometimes called Oasis Children’s Charity – exists to put families back together and restore the self-confidence of family members who have suffered from break-ups, in particular involving domestic violence. That’s a terrible scourge, which unfortunately is very prevalent in Surrey. Surrey has, if not the highest level of domestic violence in the country, something very close to it, according to those who work in this field. The local authority delegates some important social work functions to Oasis – but at the same time they have cut their funding. Could we help?

We have now, in and around Cobham, Oxshott, Stoke D’Abernon and the immediate vicinity (meaning the areas that the Foodbank covers), I think there are nine of them, Syrian refugee families, who are being helped in various highly practical ways by the local refugee welcome charity called Elmbridge CAN. Maybe we could get involved there.

I was excited to hear that one of our ‘Mums’ has discovered that some local children, some no more than 11 years old, are being left at home on their own in the holidays because Mum and Dad are both out at work. What about a ‘holiday club’ in St Mary’s Hall, with some interesting things to do with friends around – maybe the odd outing, to Bockett’s Farm perhaps – and all with some responsible adults to supervise? If you’re interested, talk to Kelly McConville or Emma Tomalin. The objective is to have the holiday club ready for the Christmas holiday.

And last on my list of local charitable initiatives, there is the Safe Places scheme, which I mentioned last week. The idea is that there will be a network of places to which somebody feeling vulnerable or in a crisis, who wants to find a quiet, safe place for an hour or so, can go to, directed by an app on their phone and social media publicity. It’s an initiative started by Elmbridge Borough Council in response to a national movement; and the churches have been invited to be at the heart of it. After all, churches have been places of refuge since the beginnings of Christianity.

So far, I’m sad to say, people have reacted rather negatively to the idea of St Mary’s becoming a place of refuge, to the effect that ‘We don’t have many people passing by this church, just to drop in: so really, it isn’t worth the effort’.

The point about not being on the beaten track seems to me to be a misapprehension. The whole point is that we should make our church a beacon, a beacon of hope, to which people are attracted. We can use modern technology and social media to help with this. I hope we can think more about becoming a Safe Space.

And then there are all the things abroad that we could consider getting involved in.

In view of the refugee crisis, perhaps we should look at the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, or one of the great Christian overseas charities, Christian Aid (not just for Christian Aid Week, but year-round), or World Vision or Oxfam or Save the Children, for example.

I would like to get us talking about this. These things won’t happen overnight, but, as a growing church, we should have some of them on our agenda. The wonderful thing is that, if we look outside ourselves, we will grow, and God will give us the strength. It’s like that wonderful film ‘Field of Dreams’ and the man who dreamed about bringing the legendary Babe Ruth to life again – ‘If you build it, he will come’. And in a more mundane way, in the church, many people come to faith by ‘doing stuff’ – belonging and then believing.

Remember what Isaiah said:

‘Now therefore be ye not mockers, lest your bands be made strong’

‘Lest your bands be made strong’ – lest all those things you’re worried about overwhelm you.

Instead we must love God – and not forget to love our neighbour – if our church is indeed to become a ‘cornerstone in Zion’, a precious corner-stone, a sure foundation, at this worrying time of uncertainty. I pray that with God’s grace, it will happen. And do let’s talk about it.

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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.