Archives for posts with tag: food bank

Sermon for Evensong on the fourth Sunday before Lent, 5th February 2017, at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon
Amos 2: 4 -16, Ephesians 4:17–32

Beloved. That’s how Bishop Richard Chartres, who is just retiring as Bishop of London after 21 years, starts his sermons. I have just been to a marvellous Eucharist for Candlemas this Thursday evening at St Paul’s Cathedral, when the cathedral was completely full, with several thousand people inside and a ‘pop-up cathedral’ with many more, outside in Paternoster Square.

At this service of Holy Communion, Bishop Richard celebrated and preached his last sermon as Bishop. Anyone who tells you that the Church of England is declining and falling apart should just have been at that wonderful service, which was full of spirituality, vitality, beautiful music and inspiration. Signs of decline? Not there! Not at St Paul’s this Candlemas!

It was a wonderful antidote to the constant chorus of gloomy news about President Trump and Brexit. Bishop Richard cuts a most imposing figure and when, in his beautiful red robes, with his mitre and crozier, he brought up the rear of the long procession of clergy and dignitaries, other bishops and representatives of all the other churches, I did think that there, there indeed was a real bishop, a bishop-and-a-half, you might say.

Before I went to Bishop Richard’s Candlemas Eucharist, I was a bit afraid that tonight I was going to have to do rather a gloomy sermon about the tough message that the prophet Amos was giving to Israel about 730 BC about all the things that they had done wrong:

‘… they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor,’ – the last bit of which is rather opaque, but which I think means that they grind the faces of the poor into the dust – ‘and turn aside the way of the meek’. It sounds a bit like our consumer society today, where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, and some of the newspapers are always very scathing about poor people. Fortunately, however scornful they are, they don’t stop hungry people from coming to our food bank.

But actually I got diverted by what Bishop Richard preached about the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’; it was a very appropriate text, as this was Bishop Richard’s last sermon as Bishop: he is departing in peace. ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Bishop Richard preferred those traditional words to the more modern translation, ‘Now you are letting your servant depart’, which, he said, he thought sounded like a ‘divine sacking’ (http://bishopoflondon.org/sermons/master-now-you-are-dismissing-your-servant/), whereas, he said, he was still looking forward, looking forward to great things in future, ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’.

Bishop Richard has been a very successful Bishop of London. Numbers of people belonging to the various churches in the diocese have increased considerably – by nearly 50%, and he has succeeded in keeping together in the diocese a wide variety of different styles and types of churches, all belonging to the Church of England, from Anglo-Catholics to charismatic evangelicals. In effect he has managed to accommodate a diocese-within-a-diocese, in the form of the Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha ministries, with their extensive church planting activities. He told us that one of his last tasks would be to license a Chinese minister to lead a new congregation of Chinese people at St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City. He has the knack of being at home in all sorts of contexts, but he never stops being the Bishop.

In the Christian tradition, before the bishops came the apostles, among them the apostle for the Gentiles, the apostle for us, St Paul. St Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote his Letter to the Ephesians, that cosmopolitan city where he had met with opposition from Demetrius the silversmith who made statues of the Greek god Artemis, Diana: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, they had shouted.

Paul didn’t want the Ephesians to descend to the depths of depravity which the prophets had decried in the Israelites of old. He used this famous figure of speech, about how Christians should ‘put on the new man’, as though being a Christian was like putting a best suit on. If you wore that white suit, you should:
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. [Eph. 4:31f]

In the Letter to the Ephesians there’s also a sort of version of the Ten Commandments, where Paul takes the place of the prophet. What is the message of all this for us? Does it still work to put on the Christian suit?

I started out, in this sermon, with a sly nod towards all the news and controversy, which the election of Mr Trump in the USA, and the Brexit stuff here, has been creating. What should a Christian think and say about these issues in our life today?

When the President of the USA comes out with ‘executive orders’, seemingly without any checks and balances, one of which arbitrarily bans entry to Moslems from some, but not all, Moslem countries: or when our government seems to have adopted a view of life outside the EU which places more weight on cutting immigration than preserving our access to the single market; as a country, we are terribly divided and confused. What would Jesus have done?

I think that he might well have agreed with St Paul – and Bishop Richard – that we must go forward, putting on the ‘new man’. For St Paul’s idea is that God, in Christ, has created a completely new social order.

In Galatians [3:27-28] he wrote,

‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.’
There it is again – the Christian suit. Put it on.
‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’

 

You are all one.

 

‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. There have been a lot of departures, recently. Not only Bishop Richard, but also our own Rector, Robert Jenkins, going, and soon Folli Olokose will have to go off to another parish – we hope, as their vicar. And the vacancies for Bishop of Dorking and Vicar of Oxshott have only just been filled.

Soon a team will have to set to in order to draft a ‘Parish Profile’ for St Andrew’s. It should really have a section in it about St Mary’s – and it probably will have one, because we are a ‘united benefice’ – but really the job is at St Andrew’s. What will our fellow church in the benefice be like, with its new vicar? What will we at St Mary’s be like, alongside them?

This is where the people in each church need to have a look at what St Paul is saying in his Letter to the Ephesians: because this letter, more than any other part of the Bible, deals with the building up of a church. Fundamental to that is the abolition of boundaries and divisions. There is room for everyone.

Bishop Richard ended his sermon by adapting the Te Deum, from Mattins. He said, ‘May God bless each and every one of you; the glorious company of my fellow priests; the goodly fellowship of Churchwardens, Readers, Lay Workers, Youth Ministers, Faithful Worshippers, and the noble army of Pioneers in Paternoster Square’.

I think that is a wonderful image. There’s room in the church for a glorious company, for a goodly fellowship, indeed for a noble army; room for all those different people; and they will all do their jobs differently: and so each church is a bit different too, as we all feel that different things are important in bringing the best of ourselves in worship to God. But at bottom, we are all one.

And Trump? So, yes, also in the world outside the church, and by the same token: Trump’s immigration ban is wrong, and Brexit, if it is anti-immigrant, is wrong. ‘For [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.’ All one. Beloved.

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Sermon for Evensong on the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 23rd October 2016
Ecclesiastes 11,12, 2 Timothy 2:1-7 Falling off the High Wire

Cast your bread on the waters. Take a risk. Buy a ticket in the lottery, perhaps. ‘Have a portion in seven, or in eight’. What on earth does all this mean? 

In Hebrew Qoheleth, the ‘preacher’, or ‘teacher’, or ‘the speaker’ – whatever the Latin word ‘ecclesiastes’ means – has a rather cynical outlook. You don’t know how a baby takes shape in the mother’s womb. You don’t know how God decides that one baby should spring to life and another not. If you are a young person with all the grace and beauty and energy of youth, make the most of it. Because it won’t last. 

But this wonderful asset, of being young, is ultimately useless, is ultimately ‘vanity’. We will all have to meet our maker at some stage and account for what we have done in our lives. There is nothing for it; the only thing you can do is to obey God’s commandments and do your best.

It’s rather an odd set of sentiments to find in the Bible. Usually we read about how God cares for us; that if we follow God’s commandments, or turn away from bad things that we have been doing, we will be ‘saved’. What sort of salvation is it? Perhaps we shall be saved, in the sense that the Good Samaritan saved the man who had fallen among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho: saved, taken to hospital, picked up in a lifeboat – saved in an earthly sense. Or alternatively, there is the vision of heaven, the vision of eternal life. Being saved in the sense of having eternal life. 

I gave a birthday present to the lady who is my personal trainer at David Lloyd’s gym the other day. I should say that, as you can see, I am not her model student, apparently because of the things I like eating and drinking rather than because I’m doing the wrong exercises. But even Charles Atlas couldn’t do a better job on me than Liz Ferrari.

Anyway, I decided to give her a book, a book that she would enjoy; and I found a lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced travel book. But it was a travel book with a twist. The idea was that, in each of the exciting or beautiful places around the world, there was an activity which you could do. You could run up mountains or cross bottomless gorges on rickety rope bridges. You know, all those rather extreme sports. She likes that sort of thing.

Liz was pleased with the book. But it got us talking about risky activities. I confessed that I don’t really like going to the circus. I know that unfortunately the lion tamer and the elephant man or the beautiful girl choreographing sea lions in evening dress are not what they seem, and circuses don’t have them any more. Unfortunately there was a lot of cruelty involved in training those animals. We know better now.

But what about the Cirque du Soleil, those circuses that have no animals, but just have acrobats, trapeze artists and people on high wires? I can’t bear to look. I can’t bear to look because it seems to me that the risk of falling is terrible. Is there a safety net? If there is a safety net, thank goodness, because if they fall, we can hope that they will not be badly hurt.

But why is it often somehow more exciting, a bigger box-office draw, if the artist on the high wire does it without a safety net? Why do people pay more to see something like that? Something really dangerous. When Philippe Petit walked on the tight-rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, 107 storeys up, why was that to be celebrated? If he had fallen, like the people who jumped out of the windows of the burning towers on 9/11, he would likely have been dead, we understand, before he hit the ground. 

I can’t bear to watch it. I don’t want these people to risk being maimed or killed just for the sake of giving spectators a thrill. I’m not even sure what that thrill is, really. We don’t have wild beast shows like the ancient Romans – and that’s good. The Romans who went to the arena to watch these shows – gladiators and Christians against each other, and against lions – and, I suppose, people who go to bullfights or boxing matches – all go because they want to see somebody surviving even through there is a terrible risk, and some people get hurt. 

They want to see Cassius Clay; but they’re not so fussed about Joe Frazier or Sonny Liston or George Foreman. I don’t think people really want to go to see people or animals being hurt, but I really wonder how the thrill works. Because it could happen. The man could fall off the high wire. The girl might not catch the hands of her partner hanging down from the trapeze. It’s a risk. 

And somehow people say that it is a good thing to have an ‘appetite for risk’. It’s supposed to be good for the character of children to do risky things. Of course there has to be a ‘risk assessment’ to make sure that the risk is not too great.

I’m sorry, but I think this is all nonsense. ‘They shall not hurt or kill on my holy mountain,’ says God, through the prophet Isaiah. ‘The lion shall lie down with the lamb, and the little child shall play on the hole of the asp’. There will be salvation. But how? Ecclesiastes points out how in individual cases it may not work. ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.’ 

I just went to see probably one of the most disturbing and terrifying films that I’ve ever seen. It didn’t involve dinosaurs; mountains didn’t explode like they do in James Bond films; Bruce Willis didn’t slaughter half the world. There was no terrifying car chase, and there was no love interest.

But nevertheless, it’s a film which will live on in my mind’s eye for a very long time. It was about what happens when you fall. Why do you fall? Why could you fall? Was it because you were a bad acrobat, if you somehow deserved to fall? When you are lying, maimed, on the ground, can you reasonably expect that there will be somebody to care for you and put you back together again? 

I won’t spoil the plot for you. All I would say to you is that you should go and see ‘I, Daniel Blake’ before very long. 

Ecclesiastes doesn’t really offer any answers, for all his pretty words. ‘A time to laugh: a time to cry. … For everything there is a season.’ That’s Ecclesiastes. Vanity. Is that what we believe? Where are the seeds of salvation, and what is salvation? On God’s holy mountain, there. And there, ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’.

But where is that mountain? It’s not a place for extreme sports. Is it all right that in the trapeze artistry of life, some people don’t make it? They fall. But as Ecclesiastes says, we don’t know which ones they will be. Then we see the refugees in their dangerous boats, or the young ones in Calais, who, whatever the newspapers may say, are young – but look old. They look old because of the risks that they take every night, trying to jump on trains and into lorries to get through the tunnel.

They are risk-takers. But they’re not risk takers for someone else’s enjoyment. They have no alternative. Their houses are destroyed. Their relatives are gone. They are unable to work – although they’d like to. Why them, and why not us?

What is it about the fact that we happen to live here, where they want to be? For them to be in England represents salvation. In Ecclesiastes, there is no salvation. It’s just the luck of the draw. Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity. What a bleak vision. It must look like that when the bulldozers come, and the gendarmes escort you to a bus, to take you heaven knows where. Where they definitely don’t speak English. 

But Jesus says, ‘Love your neighbour’ – love that young man, who is, you know, just an economic migrant. Think about it. Of course he’s an economic migrant. He is hungry. He has no money. He has no money and he is hungry, because he is a refugee, because he has been driven out of his home. 

How would we feel, if we were driven out from our home? Just imagine if London had been invaded by IS/Daesh. Just imagine if large parts of greater London, including Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, had been flattened in the fight. If our brave boys had had to become guerrillas and fight house to house. In the eyes of the enemy, we had become combatants. And we had to leave. We had to get away from our dangerous place. Everybody who could had to pack up their cars and get away. But where would we go?

Could we get on a ferry, or through the Tunnel? And find a new life in safety, in Europe? Would they welcome us? Would we be able to speak the language? That must be what it feels like to be a refugee. There are hundreds of thousands of them – millions, even – and about 12,000 of them on our doorstep. About 1,000 of them are children. Is it vanity? Is it emptiness, just a spectator sport?

Although some people do like watching people on the high wire, I do hope that, in this area, we won’t: I hope that we realise, as a society, and for those in power as a government, that there are some risks that should not be taken. There should always be a safety net. Not as in Ecclesiastes, for whom, however awful things are, it’s just too bad: everything is vanity. 

Instead, we Christians should feel very confident that we have a better example, the example of the man who said that we should love our neighbour.

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday before Lent, Septuagesima Sunday, also Education Sunday, 16th February 2014
1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matt. 5:21-37

The Corinthians said, ‘I am of Paul; … I of Apollos ..’ I went to St Paul’s school; I went to Apollos’. Are you a grammar-school boy, like me? Or are you a Cranleighan, a Rugbeian, or a Carthusian, or a Wykehamist? Or did you go to Crouch End Primary, like Tony Hancock? And what difference does it make?

This Sunday is Education Sunday, in churches of all denominations. Today we offer prayer and thanksgiving for everyone in the world of education. In our lessons today, there are two examples of teaching: and teaching is surely a vital part of education, if not the vital part.

In St Matthew’s Gospel, we heard part of the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest sermon there has ever been. In the context of Education Sunday, we should focus on what Jesus said, what his message, his teaching, was. It was to show that, in the kingdom of heaven, simple utilitarianism, do-as-you-would-be-done-by, isn’t enough. If you are a Christian, you must go the extra mile, turn the other cheek. People often say that you don’t need to be a Christian in order to be a moral person, and Jesus wouldn’t disagree. He said he wasn’t there to destroy the law. The point is that he went further. Go the extra mile.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul was concerned to stop the early Christians in Corinth squabbling and turning into factions among themselves. One of the dividing lines seems to have been about teaching, not about the content, the syllabus, but about who had been the better teacher, who had taught them Christianity better. Was it St Paul or was it his colleague Apollos?

The argument was a more or less tribal one, and you can see echoes of it today where people identify themselves partly by where they went to school. The idea is that you can recognise particular character traits, strengths and weaknesses, partly at least by knowing which school somebody went to. It clearly does make a difference which school you went to. More prime ministers have been to Eton than to any other school.

Church schools are perceived to be, on the whole, good schools, and there’s often competition for places at the local church school. There’s a very funny episode of the TV comedy ‘Rev’, about the trials and tribulations of a young vicar in an inner-city parish, where the majority of the congregation seems to be there only because they want the vicar to sign a letter to the school, a church school, saying that they are regular attenders. Indeed I gather that our Rector still writes letters to the head teachers of the various church schools locally, to confirm that certain parents are regular church-goers.

To some extent, church schools are controversial. The suggestion is that children are being indoctrinated by going to a Christian school, a school which has an avowedly Christian ethos. What if, the argument goes, the child comes from parents who are not Christians, but are, say, Moslems or Hindus? The answer is that there are provisions for parents belonging to another religion to opt out of Christian assembly or RE.

More recently we have seen the creation of academies and free schools: both are types of state school, which are not answerable to the local education authority. In Cobham, a free school has started, and there is competition between that free school and the existing church-based primary schools.

Now the Free School is bidding to expand into becoming a secondary school as well, and there is a big debate about the proposed site of the school off Portsmouth Road, where alongside the school itself a developer wants to build 500 houses – in return for which it will fund the land purchase and the cost of building the new school.

‘I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.’ What St Paul is saying is that it doesn’t really matter who the teachers were, however excellent they were: the question is, did the lesson take root in the pupils? Did God make that seed grow? Did God make that seed grow? You can have the best teachers, and no doubt the best premises, but you need something more. God must give ‘the increase’.

Of course if we look from a different angle at the support for church schools, you can’t deny that many of the parents, who seek out a church school for their children, are not actually churchgoers themselves. It may be these sort of parents who have been attracted to the new ‘free schools’, which claim to offer good teaching and effective education just like the church schools, but often without any religious affiliation.

I offered the other day to address an assembly at the Cobham Free School, to tell them something about the Foodbank. The teacher whom I spoke to said that, in fact, they don’t have a religious assembly at all. Once a month they do have a gathering which they call ‘worship’, but apparently God is not mentioned there.

I hope they know what they’re doing; because on the face of things it looks as though they are breaking the law, if nothing else. But quite apart from whether or not it’s illegal, is it right, right that children should be brought up in schools which no longer teach them anything about God? The law is very clear that schools must reflect the fact that ‘religious traditions in the country are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions’. That’s a quote from a circular from the Dept for Education, number 1/94, which makes it clear that all state schools must have a religious act of worship every day.

Perhaps I misunderstood the teacher from the Free School – in a way I hope it did – but it looks to me on the face of things as though, if they’re not actually breaking the law, they’re certainly not keeping to the spirit of it.

I suppose one could have an argument concerning whether or not schools should offer teaching about religion, along the same lines as the debate about the merits or otherwise of infant baptism.

The dividing line between indoctrination and education may be at times rather fine, but I do think that it is at least arguable that English schoolchildren should get to know a bit about what goes on in their parish church, and in the Church as a whole.

Of course, as they mature, children can then decide to what extent they accept the Gospel message and come to belief in their own right. They would then be making the transition which St Paul refers to between eating spiritual baby food and being weaned off it. My worry is that there are too many children in our community who are not even getting spiritual rusks.

Sermon for Holy Communion for Thanksgiving at St John’s, West Hartford, 28th November 2013
Deut. 8:1-3, 6-10 (17-20), James 1:17-18, 21-27, Matthew 6:25-33

Carved on the inside of the pulpit at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge – I should say, ‘Cambridge, England’ – carved by the great preacher Charles Simeon, were the words, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ (John 12:21). In other words, the preacher’s job is not to leave you with an impression of the preacher, but to try to leave you with an impression of Jesus.

That having been said, I think I ought to tell you a little about myself, so that you can decide whether indeed I am qualified to be addressing you today. The bad news is, of course, that if you come to an unfavourable conclusion, I am standing here, six feet above contradiction …

In your notices for today, your Rector, Hope, kindly introduces me as a ‘maritime lawyer in England, a lay Reader from St Andrew’s in Cobham, Surrey’, who went to the same college as your Assistant Rector, and ‘who has charge over the chaplains at Guildford Cathedral.’ I have to admit that my legal practice ceased seven years ago now, so I’m a very bad guide to the ins and outs of the DEEPWATER HORIZON oil spill or the COSTA CONCORDIA tragedy; not only that, but it have also recently stopped organising chaplains at the Cathedral.

The reason for that is that I am now heading a team which is setting up, and will on 13th December launch, a food bank in Cobham, Surrey – from where I bring you greetings from the congregations at St Andrew’s in Cobham and St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon, which are the two parishes where I minister as a Reader. I’ll come back to the food bank in a minute.

The elephant in the room is that I am an Englishman, which probably disqualifies me from preaching to you Americans on one of your two greatest holidays, which are quintessentially American. We do eat turkey, but only at Christmas. Self-destructive urges are referred to as ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’. Christmas. Do your turkeys vote for Thanksgiving? Maybe they do. There is a Presidential pardon, I hear, so there must be votes in it somewhere.

So having said all that, which I suppose amounts to a rather laboured disclaimer, let’s turn our minds to the Word of God for today.

We are here to give thanks to God for His bountiful gifts. Although Moses in Deuteronomy speaks to the Israelites looking forward to the Promised Land, we’re already there: we have reached the Promised Land. You certainly have. Part of your history certainly involved a great journey from England to reach your Promised Land, and now here you are enjoying it. It is indeed a good land, where you will ‘eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing’, so obviously you shall ‘… bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.’

But here’s the bit which I want to talk about this morning. Moses said, ‘Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth”, but remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth.’ In the Letter of James, ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above; coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.’ We have just sung the wonderful hymn based on that passage, ‘Great is thy faithfulness, … there is no shadow of turning with Thee’.

In St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. …. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.’

The question is whether it is us who are the authors of our own success or failure. Moses in Deuteronomy says very clearly that it was not because of the Israelites’ excellence or hard work, or whatever it was, that they had been saved from Egypt; it was because God had blessed them.

When I was in Hartford last, Hope and Bill asked me whether I had seen a film about Margaret Thatcher, called ‘The Iron Lady’. They said it was a very good film, and that Meryl Streep had done a wonderful acting job.

Now one of the things that I’ve noticed in my travels is that our friends in different countries very rarely see each other’s leaders in the same light as they are seen domestically.

Actually, perhaps we would all agree about President Kennedy. And yes, I can remember where I was when the news came through. Even at the tender age of 12, I remember the feeling of shock and disappointment which those events in Houston 50 years ago caused. I think that we probably would all agree that he was a great man, cut down in his prime, and that he had not been in office long enough to realise all the things he promised.

But when Hope and Bill told me what a wonderful film ‘The Iron Lady’ was, I had a different reaction. They, like all my friends outside the UK, thought Lady Thatcher was someone who should surely be celebrated, and that the film had done a good job of celebrating her. But I surprised them: I said I had no intention of seeing the film, however excellent it might be. Far from celebrating Lady Thatcher, I really thought she did a great deal of harm.

That is perhaps rather a harsh thing to say from a pulpit, but I stand by it. I can expatiate for a long time on the reasons. In essence, Margaret Thatcher believed that everyone had the seeds of their own success or failure within them: it was up to you whether you prospered or starved. She did not care for people who were not able to be active in the market, perhaps because they were old, or ill, or disabled, or not intelligent enough, or just poor. She even said to a journalist once, ‘There is no such thing as society’. She ruthlessly suppressed the powers of the labour unions, greatly reducing the protection available for ordinary employees. Thousands were put out of work. Industry was decimated.

One of her ministers suggested that, if one was out of work, one should ‘get on one’s bicycle’ and go where there was work. This was highly offensive, because the people who were out of work – at least metaphorically speaking – had no bicycles, and there was no work for them, anywhere.

According to Mrs Thatcher, it was up to you if you succeeded. According to Moses, and indeed according to Jesus, it isn’t. As we heard from Deuteronomy, Moses said, ‘Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth”, but remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth.’ Jesus said, ‘Look at the birds of the air’.

And that brings me to the food bank. When I was preparing to come here, Hope sent me an advance copy of your notices for today, which I’ve referred to already. In it, I see that last Sunday you an interfaith Thanksgiving service, joining with the Congregation Beth Israel from down the road. The offering suggested was an offering of non-perishable food for the West Hartford Food Pantry.

It might surprise you to know that, in the UK today, there are over 400 food banks. In the Borough of Elmbridge, where my home, Cobham, is, (which is said to be the second most prosperous borough in the country after Kensington and Chelsea), our food bank in Cobham will be the third food bank in that rich borough.

In England we used to have a ‘welfare state’. We had a safety net, and we prided ourselves on it. Nobody would starve if they were out of work, or disabled, or old, or suffering from anything else which prevented you from being able to have enough money, from your own efforts, to buy food. The state would provide a safety net. You would never starve. ‘Consider the lilies of the field’. It made sense.

That has gone. The present British government has so reduced the scope and effectiveness of our welfare state that there are large numbers of people who need to go to food banks for emergency non-perishable food: in other words, they are starving. There are people starving in Britain. I hope you find that as shocking as I do.

So we are following your good example, and setting up food banks. It is a very Biblical thing to do. In his letter, James says, ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this; to care for orphans and widows in their distress’. Earlier on in the same passage, ‘Be doers of the Word, and not merely hearers.’

So after all, I think that, where I come from, we’re not that different from you. Christian people are trying to be ‘Doers of the Word’, we are trying to look after the orphans and the widows in their distress. And I pray that God will bless us – and you – in this work. At this wonderful time of Thanksgiving, with God’s help, let us all continue to ‘do the Word.’

Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s on the Second Sunday before Advent, 17th November 2013
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19 – Famines and Pestilences

‘Then he said unto them, Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.’ [Luke 21]

It might make sense for me to preach about this picture of the end of the world which Jesus paints for the disciples. You might think that I would go on to talk about the damage which Hurricane Haiyan has done in the Philippines, and all the other various natural disasters which suddenly seem to be happening. Is it a sign that the world is coming to an end, perhaps as a result of man’s careless use of the earth’s resources, so producing global warming?

I don’t think that I can be that definite. I think there’s a very high probability that, whatever I might try to say in relation to whether or not Jesus’ words here in St Luke’s Gospel actually do refer to disasters such as the one which has struck the Philippines, I think there’s a very high likelihood that I will turn out to be wrong. We are indeed horrified by what has happened in the Philippines, but it seems to me that Jesus’ message in relation to it is not that this is in some way evidence of the end of the world coming about, but rather that we must treat the people affected with as much compassion as we can muster, both through our governments and as individuals.

Both here in St Mary’s and at St Andrew’s today, there are collections for the Disasters Emergency Committee, and I do hope that you will give generously. There is a basket at the back as you go out.

But honestly, I don’t think there’s very much which I can usefully say about the end of the world, at least based on this passage in St Luke’s Gospel. From the earliest times, Christians thought that the end of the world was just round the corner. St Paul himself even counselled against getting married, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (7:8), if people could possibly avoid it, because everything was about to come to an end. But it didn’t, and it hasn’t. We still have a working planet, which sustains more and more people all the time, and which provides enough riches to feed everyone, even today, if only food were fairly distributed.

No, what I’m interested in this morning are indeed some of St Paul’s words, in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, which was our first lesson. ‘For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.’ If you don’t work, you don’t eat. Is St Paul saying something here which is relevant today in the context of the Welfare State? I hope you won’t groan inwardly, but I am going to say a few words about our new Cobham Area Foodbank.

The Foodbank will indeed, in some instances, feed people who are not working. As a matter of trite reality, people who are out of work may well not have enough money with which to buy food, as well as paying for rent, heat and all the other incidentals of life, on the £150-odd a week, or £600 a month, that unemployment benefit provides.

I am one of the team who have come together under the auspices of Churches Together to create a food bank in this area. Although it is now an independent charity in its own right, Cobham Area Foodbank was created by the local churches. It is affiliated to the network created by an organisation callee the Trussell Trust, which is a Christian foundation in Salisbury, which has been setting up food banks for the last 15 years.

In the last three years, there has been a vast increase in the number of food banks which are operating. There are over 400 food banks in the UK today. In the year from April 2012, 370,000 people in the UK came to food banks for food, which was 170% increase on the previous year.

Since then, since April this year so far, 355,000 people have come to food banks, including 40-odd thousand who have been fed in the prosperous south-east. In other words, the numbers needing to turn to a food bank have doubled again. We don’t expect that Cobham is going to be any different. The Oasis Childcare Trust is already, among its other good works, providing a hot meal once a week for fifteen families, and they tell us that in fact they could do this for double that number if they had the resources.

In the area behind the fire station in Cobham there is very high unemployment among the 18-30 year olds. I recall that the Envisage project found levels of unemployment around 25%. In our area there is a huge gap between those who are well-off, who are on the whole very well-off, and those who are not, who are in some cases destitute. We are in the Borough of Elmbridge, which, on some criteria, is supposed to be the second richest borough in the country, after Kensington and Chelsea.

Cobham Area Foodbank will be the third food bank in the Borough of Elmbridge, when it opens on 13th December. Instead of relying on St Paul’s rather fierce statement to the Thessalonians – which I think was really aimed at those in the church community, perhaps in particular the ministry team – I would prefer that we looked for our Bible text in relation to people who have to use the Foodbank in the sentences which precede the offertory in the Communion service: ‘Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him: how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ (From the first letter of John, chapter 3.)

The fact is that there are needy people, even here in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, for whom there is now often a choice between paying the rent and having something to eat. The Foodbank network has established that, in Britain today, there are 13m people who are living below the official poverty line. The reasons why people have used a food bank – which are known, because everyone who gets food from a food bank has to provide some information – included the following:

Delay in paying benefits – 30% of the people;
Low income – by itself, just not earning enough to be able to afford to live – nearly 20%;
Changes in the benefit system – 11.5%;
Getting into debt – 9%;
Unemployment is actually only 5.5%.
Being homeless – just under 5%;
Being refused a crisis loan – 3.5%;
Domestic violence – 2.7%.
Sickness – 2.2%. How come somebody who is ill does not have enough to eat?
Delayed wages; wages paid late – just under 1%.

Note how low the figure is for unemployment. Even if we accepted what St Paul said, in fact there are very few people coming to the food banks and asking for food, because they are unemployed.

The system is tough. The food bank system set up by the Trussell Trust, which we will operate, is designed to provide emergency relief only, for three days at a time. The food provided will be non-perishables, effectively the sort of thing which we give at Harvest Festival time. In Cobham we are very fortunate in that Sainsbury’s Local on the High Street have agreed to provide bread, which will be freely available to the clients of the Foodbank.

But basically the system is designed to provide only three food parcels to last three days at a time in any period of six months. It is not designed to provide long-term sustenance, because the Welfare State is supposed to provide a safety net. We will know whether that is still true once we start operations in the middle of December.

However, I can tell you that, here at St Mary’s, you have been the most pro-active of all the congregations in Churches Together locally, because you have already started to collect food, and indeed Arnie Gabbott, who is your representative on the Foodbank organising team, has provided, at the back by the font, the prototype of a very smart green bin, which will be in all the churches soon, for people to put their food contributions in.

From this week, food will be collected each week by the Foodbank van and taken to a warehouse on the outskirts of Leatherhead: please do keep on putting food in the church bin here.

People must obtain a voucher in order to get food for the Foodbank. They can’t just turn up and demand food. Vouchers will be available from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, from Oasis Childcare, from the Cobham Children’s Centre, from the schools in the area, from the doctors’ surgeries, from all the ministers in the churches and from the social services and housing benefit offices – and, we hope, from the Jobcentre.

The Foodbank will open initially once a week, on Fridays, at Friday lunchtime, and we aim to extend to a second day of opening, probably on a Monday, once everything is working. The recent meeting which we had for volunteers who want to work in the Foodbank brought in over 50 people, and there has been wonderful generosity shown in giving money for the launch and sustaining of the Foodbank operation. So I am confident that we will be able to provide an effective service.

But it will need continuing support. As well as giving out food, there will be members of the team at the distribution centre – which will be at the Methodist Church in Cedar Rd – who will be trained to listen to the clients carefully and sympathetically, and then to provide ‘signposts’ to possible ways to make their situation better. And last, in the Foodbank there will always be somebody who will be willing to pray with a client who felt that they needed to bring their situation to God in prayer.

I know when you read the newspaper today, you very often read that if people are poor, it is because they are in some way feckless. But I have to say that, the nearer we get to the sharp end, trying to alleviate poverty on our doorstep, the less I believe in that. The churches nationally have done research into the causes of poverty today, and found that less than 2% of people are out of work for more than a year. It is natural for people to want to work, and they do. The problem is that there are too many jobs which pay the minimum wage, or possibly even less – which is the situation with so-called zero-hours contracts, where somebody is contracted to work for a particular employer – can’t work for anybody else – but that employer does not commit to give him a set number of hours of work – and they are paid by the hour. So they could be unable to claim benefit (because they are employed), but not earning any money.

The people of the Philippines, and the poor people of Cobham, both need your prayers – and your gifts. Please be generous.

Rowan Williams has said in a BBC radio talk, ‘If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write Our Lord’s Prayer.’ [http://tinyurl.com/pdsoosq]

Jesus told the disciples to pray ‘Our Father’, which reflects the Aramaic word ‘Abba’ or ‘Dad’. Even if it doesn’t justify our thinking of God as our boon companion rather than a figure of infinite mystery and awe, it does imply that Jesus was inviting his followers, which includes us, to join with him in addressing prayers to God. We aren’t praying to Jesus, but with Jesus.

‘Our Father – in heaven’. Actually if you were listening carefully to today’s Gospel reading from St Luke, it didn’t say ‘Our Father in heaven’; it just went straight from ‘Father’ to ‘hallowed be your name’. The location of God as ‘ο εν τοις ουρανοις, Greek for ‘the one in the heavens’, raises the question whether Jesus really did think of God as being a benign old man sitting up above the clouds – which surely no-one can seriously believe these days. The words about heaven come in the other version of the Lord’s Prayer, in St Matthew’s gospel chapter 6, towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount. There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, according to St Matthew and according to St Luke.

I think we can accept that the heavens are not literally where God is, in a sense that he is at 65,000 feet or wherever. Plato and Aristotle both used ‘heavens’ as a word for the cosmos, the universe – and other classical authors used it as meaning simply the place where the gods lived. We can say that in a sense God is somewhere altogether other, altogether separate from the material world.

‘Hallowed be your name’. ‘Hallowed’ means ‘sanctified’, made holy or saintly. Remember that the Jews couldn’t say the Lord’s name; it was too holy, too awesome. In a sense also, to say that someone’s name is awesome is to say that that person is awesome. So this is a way to say that we totally respect God.

Christians have debated constantly about ‘your kingdom come’. Does it mean that Jesus was looking forward to the end of the world, to his Second Coming and the Last Judgment, or was he thinking more of ‘that day when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’, (beautiful words which we pray in Eucharistic Prayer E in Common Worship)? You may want to pray for heaven on earth, or ‘God be at my end, and at my departing.’ Jesus has given you the words for either.

Daily bread is a very apt thing to pray for today, when so many people are physically hungry. There may well be other metaphysical connotations – maybe the prayer for daily bread is looking forward to the Eucharist, to the sharing in a memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper. But today we do need to pray for the relief of hunger in the world – and on our doorstep.

What about ‘sins’? Leaving aside for a minute whether Jesus said ‘debts’ or ‘trespasses’ instead of ‘sins’, are we bargaining with God here? Are we asking Him to forgive us, provided that we forgive others? Or are we saying that we do forgive – honestly we do! We can be confident in asking God to forgive us.

This prayer is so full of good things. In St Matthew, Jesus even thoughtfully puts some doubters’ minds to rest with his introduction: no need for wordy and elaborate prayers, because ‘your Father knows what you need before you ask him’ (Matt. 6:8). Why then should we bother to pray at all? Surely God can’t notice our puny little intercessions? Jesus says that He does. It is worth praying. There’s no possible way to prove this – and anyway we can’t boss God around. This, prayer, is prayer, not magic. It isn’t a question of saying the right words and cooking up a spell in order to bless or curse someone, like the witches in Macbeth. But those of us who do pray, do believe, do believe that, very often, our prayers are answered.

When we have prayed, what are we going to do? First, let’s say three cheers for Archbishop Justin! Yes, three cheers, not only because he has spoken out against the pay-day lenders like Wonga, who charge astonishing rates of interest – over 5,000 per cent – to the poorest people in this country, but also three cheers for him being honest and straightforward in response to John Humphrys on the Today programme, when it was pointed out that the Church of England pension fund had invested a very small amount of money in a hedge fund which had been one of the major investors in Wonga.

Actually, the amount invested by the Church of England in the hedge fund was just £75,000, out of a total invested by the C of E of £5.5 billion. But even this tiny amount was a mistake, and Archbishop Justin openly admitted it. It was so refreshing.

Wonga, its urbane spokesmen say, only lends very small amounts for very short periods, so in effect, the percentage charged is meaningless. They are, after all, lending to people who can give them no security for repayment. What is the harm in that?

Wonga could argue that an interest rate is like an insurance premium: the greater the risk of default, the higher the interest rate. It seems to me that any interest rate over 100% has gone beyond the function of an interest rate as a sort of insurance premium, because in fact, if you’re charging 100% interest, you are saying in effect that it isn’t a question of risk, but it is a certainty, that there will be a default. 5,000% interest presumably means that Wonga is charging 50 times more than it needs to charge, if all it is trying to do is to cover the possibility of a bad debt. 50 times more.

The banks are just as bad, in a different way. Wonga lends at an extortionate price. The banks often don’t lend at all. In both cases, you can see that the interest rate mechanism, the market price mechanism, doesn’t work. Banks have become so defensive and so averse to risk that they won’t lend at any price. Wonga, on the other hand, will lend, but at a price which bears no relation to risk and ruthlessly exploits the weakness of its borrowers.

Both are wrong. The banks who won’t lend to young people looking for their first house or to people setting up small businesses are quite plainly not doing what they are supposed to do. A functional economy needs banks as a source of capital, and that capital has to be really available, has to be used.

Equally, there should be protection for the weaker members against ruthless market players like Wonga, whose loans will tend to make borrowers even worse off than they were to start off with.

What principles is Archbishop Justin relying on? ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another’ (John 13:34). Or from the sentences of scripture before Communion in the Prayer Book, on pages 243 and 244, ‘Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him: how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ Or how about, ‘He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord. And look; what he layeth out, it shall be paid him again.’ Love God, and love your neighbour: the two great commandments of Jesus (Matt.22:40). They mean that we mustn’t simply use the market as the sole index of distribution or risk or fairness – or indeed, of value.

But since the time of Margaret Thatcher, all British governments seem to have agreed that the ultimate measure of value, of worth, in our society, is the market, is what people will pay for things. That is what has led us to Wonga. The rich have got massively richer, without any care for the poor. The people who are paid enormous salaries and bonuses refer to their ‘market value’. They are worth, they say, what somebody is prepared to pay. No other criteria are worth bothering with. Just the market: just money.

The poor people don’t have the skills or anything else to make themselves expensive in the marketplace. Governments have made it difficult for them to stand up for themselves and to organise, because most of the powers of the trades unions have been taken away.

And so there are many people in our society today – and they are here on our doorstep in Cobham and Stoke as well – who don’t have enough to eat. The politicians shrug their shoulders. They say, ‘there is no alternative’ to austerity. They talk about government debt being unsustainable – ‘There is no more money’, they say. Never mind that in ‘quantitative easing’, they are manufacturing more money, and that our level of national debt is less than half what it was in 1945.

Against this, up pops Archbishop Justin, challenging the system of pay-day loans, and against this, up popped Archbishop John in York, challenging the fact that the minimum wage is not enough to live on, and suggesting that the government should force everyone to pay the ‘living wage’, which is a couple of pounds more per hour.

I won’t go into the detailed economics of these propositions, but suffice to say that the two Archbishops are not looking at the market as their index of value.

Just think: there was nothing in it; no money to be made, by the Good Samaritan. But nevertheless I am sure that the value of what the Good Samaritan did easily outweighs any price in money. So what Archbishop Justin is saying is that he wants to take on the pay-day lenders and put them out of business by offering, from the Christian churches,
something better and fairer.

He wants to build on the credit union network, and offer church premises as places from which credit unions can operate; and I think he wants church people, who have the right skills, to come forward and help to operate credit unions. Here, locally, we do have a credit union, called Surrey Save – http://www.surreysave.co.uk/ . It’s excellent to hear that it will be one of the first tenants in the new Hub in Cobham, where the Library is going to be. Also on the premises will be Oasis Childcare Centre; and of course the Food Bank will be just opposite, in the Methodist Church.

So if you agree with me that, as Christians here in Cobham, we need to follow Archbishop Justin’s – and indeed Jesus’ – injunctions, to care for our neighbours in need, then please do consider seriously letting Godfrey or me know whether you would be willing to help with the Food Bank or with the credit union. They are going to be major focuses of Christian activity here in this village. St Paul says: ‘We are free to do anything’, you say. Yes, but does everything help the building of the community? (1 Cor. 10:23 – NEB). Archbishop Justin has got it dead right.