Archives for posts with tag: Giles Fraser

‘But I thought you were our friends’, said a German friend when I was in Hamburg soon after the Brexit referendum in June 2016. ‘So did I – and you are’, I answered, churning with embarrassment.

Since then I have been puzzled and disappointed by the fact that not everyone, whom I would have expected to be, is solidly opposed to Brexit, which fact, in my view, flies in the face of the EU’s worth, as the most successful movement for peace, security and comity between peoples ever in Europe. 

I believe that the European Union has brought 70 years of peace in Europe; that it has brought about a consensus, which has become law in all member states, that human rights (defined by a British-drafted convention) shall be upheld and the exploitation of workers outlawed; introduced limits on working hours and requirements for the active provision of safe places in which to work and play. It is an area where students can study freely in any member country, and academics are free to work in whatever nationality of university they choose. The vision of Europe United seems to me to be profoundly Christian, in that it espouses the idea of a brotherhood of mankind, that all humans are children of God and dear to Him, irrespective where they come from. This is the ‘human values’ side of EU membership, if I can put it like that.

There are economic benefits of membership in the EU, based on free trade and the absence of customs duties for movement of goods between EU countries, as well as freedom of movement and common standards for food and various types of hardware: the ‘four freedoms’ – movement of goods, capital, services and labour – guaranteed by the Single European Act of 1993. The ‘single market’ this has created has become one of the biggest trading blocs in the world.  None of the proposed forms of Brexit would avoid major harm to the UK economy when compared with the status quo.  This is the economic side of EU membership. We are better off remaining where we are. It is true that the nations who are members have given up some of their individual sovereignty, but this is in return for being part of a much greater collective whole, and therefore they are actually more powerful as such than they would be on their own.

But yet there are people who, one would think, would agree with all this and be enthusiastic about it, but who favour Brexit. One such is Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, and another (probably) is Jeremy Corbyn. There has recently been a podcast discussion between Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, Dr Maurice Glasman, the founder of the so-called ‘Blue Labour’ movement (listen at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/confessions-with-giles-fraser-unherd/id1445038441?mt=2&i=1000426741962) in which they both ‘confessed’ – or rather, celebrated – that they were both in favour of Brexit, despite both being generally in favour of the ‘human values’ side of the EU. Both are Labour Party members, and both practise their religious faiths.

This was – is – because they both see the EU as a powerful instrument of neoliberal economics, under which the rich get richer and the poor poorer, big corporations have unfettered power to harm our lives, and the values of the market trump all others. They both see value in nationhood and patriotism, and they believe that the rules of the Single Market would prevent a future Labour government from giving state aid including borrowing to invest in the steps necessary to rectify the effects of the current Conservative government’s austerity programme. They distance themselves from the overtones of racism and xenophobia which often seem to arise in the context of Brexit.

Fraser is, otherwise, a caring social liberal. His most recent article for the ‘UnHerd’ website created by the founder of ‘Conservative Home’, Tim Montgomerie, is ‘Why Brexit Britain should welcome more Refugees’ [https://unherd.com/2019/01/why-brexit-britain-should-welcome-more-refugees/]. 

As an aside, I am rather unsure whether I like ‘UnHerd’. Apart from Giles Fraser, its contributors all seem to be right-wing. In the body of Fraser’s article are suggestions for further reading. I show these links above. One gets an uneasy feeling that this is not really an enlightened, liberal publication in the way that Dr Fraser’s previous home, the Guardian, is. Some of the images used are quite disturbing. ‘Economic rationalists … immigration’ is alongside a picture of our leading black – British – politician, Diane Abbott. ‘How bigoted is Brexit?’ appears alongside a picture of orthodox Jews playing what looks like a playground game. In both cases, one asks why these images were used, if there is not some appeal to unenlightened instincts.

Pace what the Brexit faction alleges, the EU is democratic, and upholds democracy. There is an elected European Parliament and an elected Council of Ministers, which bodies are sovereign. The European Commission is the civil service, the administrative arm, of the EU. Its powers are analogous with those of our British civil service as between themselves and the elected bodies. We currently enjoy considerable influence on the policy-making of the EU. Brexit would deny us any representation or control of EU policy in future. In ‘taking back control’, Britain would risk being governed by people who are not so committed to human rights, for example. One recalls that when he was a justice minister, Dominic Raab wanted to abolish the Human Rights Act.

It seems to me that we would have more chance of being able to put right the cruel excesses of austerity if we are inside the EU and able to benefit from its collective strength. If Jeremy Corbyn feels that, if he were Prime Minister, he would be able to negotiate more favourable Brexit terms than those obtained by Theresa May, then surely he ought to be confident that, among his many socialist colleagues in European parties, if we remained in the EU, he would be able to build a consensus away from neoliberalism.  After all, just as neoliberalism has failed in the UK, it has clearly not succeeded in several parts of the EU: certainly in Greece, and probably also in Italy, Spain and Portugal, the case for a change to Keynsian economics is strong. Note, incidentally, that the leading economist and former Finance Minister of Greece, Prof. Yanis Varoufakis, does not think that either his own country, Greece, or the UK, where he teaches, should leave the EU. Reform from within is the better route.

The argument that EU rules on state aid would frustrate Labour policy on rebuilding a fair and humane welfare state has been demolished by the leading competition lawyer, George Peretz QC. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/27/four-reasons-jeremy-corbyn-wrong-eu-state-aid. 

Now, with weeks to go before the date recklessly set by the government for Britain to leave the EU, I do hope that those respected thinkers on the Left such as Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, as well as the Labour leadership, will come round to a similar view to that held by Yanis Varoufakis, that reform from within is possible, that the EU need not necessarily always be in thrall to neoliberalism, and that Brexit is ‘a disaster for Britain’ – see https://www.yanisvaroufakis.eu/2018/12/22/talking-brexit-bernie-and-left-internationalism-with-yanis-varoufakis-vice/. Then the Labour Party can solidly oppose Brexit and ensure that the Article 50 clock is stopped in order to allow a further referendum to take place, in which the people can decide whether they really want to make our country catastrophically poorer and less influential in the world, by leaving the EU (either under the current May ‘deal’ or without a deal), or whether, now that they can see what Brexit actually involves, they would prefer to remain in the EU.  Then I can hope to greet my friend in Hamburg and be recognised again as his true friend.

Hugh Bryant

5th January 2019 

Sermon for the third Sunday before Lent, 12 February 2017

1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

‘I am for Paul, … I am for Apollos.’ Sometimes people ‘cast nasturtiums’ (as somebody once said) in the direction of Christians who have a different theology, a different way of ‘doing words about God’, literally. Sometimes I think I have heard those ‘nasturtiums’ aimed at those who call themselves Evangelicals. 

This morning I want to try to give you an example of how these debates can arise, so that perhaps you can think a bit about the principles involved so that, as St Paul says, whoever you think Apollos and Paul are, in our debates, they are simply God’s agents in bringing us to faith. 

You will notice that Paul does not say that Apollos or Paul are right or wrong; that one is right and one is wrong; he simply says that both are working for the same objective. He gives a picturesque example of two gardeners, one planting the seed and the other watering it, but nothing happening until God makes the flowers grow. (I’m not sure whether those flowers were nasturtiums …)

Of course so much of what we say about God has of necessity to be rather tentative. As St Paul himself puts it, we see ‘as through a glass, darkly’ [1 Corinthians 13]. We have our limitations in understanding the greatness, the ineffability, of God: but that does not make him in any way less real.

That said, I’m not going to say very much about the other great piece of teaching which we have heard in the Bible lessons today, that is, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: partly because everyone here more or less knows it by heart, and partly because the lesson that I want to draw from it today is a simple one. That is, that the Sermon on the Mount has, and indeed a lot of Jesus’ teaching has, a contrarian flavour. 

One commentator has described it as ‘a whole new way of looking at human behaviour, …. which is totally at odds with what is normally thought reasonable.’ (Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church today – quoted in ‘The Measure of Perfection’, by Bridget Nichols, Church Times, 10th February 2017, p.17). 

Totally at odds with what is normally thought reasonable. In other words, if you had been around with the disciples or in the crowds listening to Jesus, you might well have thought that what he was saying was not really very sensible. Turning the other cheek, and going the extra mile, loving your enemy and, in this part of the Sermon, the so-called ‘St Matthew’s exception’ to the rules of divorce. Jesus apparently said that it is all right for a man to divorce his wife for reasons of – the Greek word is πορνεια – the same word which we still have, ‘porn’, sometimes translated as unchastity or adultery.

Certainly today we would have a lot of difficulty literally carrying out what Jesus appears to be teaching. In any case it is teaching which is couched in the society of 2000 years ago; very male dominated; only the man has the right to start divorce proceedings, for example; only the woman can be guilty of adultery. But there are no references to the principles which we bring to bear in dealing with marriage breakdown. Sometimes there is more hurt involved in keeping people together than allowing them to separate. Jesus does not say anything at all about what happens to the children in a divorce. We might go as far as to say that what Jesus says is, in the commentator’s words, ‘at odds with what is normally thought to be reasonable’. 

Well I don’t actually want to go into that today except to point out the fact that what Jesus teaches often may not look very practical, but it is all brought into focus in his great commandments of love, to love God and love your neighbour. 

Sometimes, however, these things end up in a way which we would never expect – and frankly in a not very good way, so that I think it is quite fair for us, when we are doing theology, when we are doing our ‘God talk’, to go back and look critically at some of the principles which we may have thought were correct in understanding God, because after all they seem to lead to consequences which ultimately don’t reflect those commandments of love. 

‘Okay, my brain hurts!’ you might say. ‘This is all rather too theoretical’. Let’s look at something specific, to illustrate what I am going on about. I think most of us will have been rather moved, and perhaps saddened, by what Bishop Andrew has had to say about having suffered abuse at the hands of an ostensibly Christian leader at a summer camp he attended when he was a teenager. The Archbishop of Canterbury has also talked about these same camps, although he did not suffer any abuse. Poor Bishop Andrew has told us that he was beaten, caned, by one of the leaders, a man called John Smyth, who is currently living in South Africa. 

Apparently the summer camps involved a lot of beatings in a garden shed. And indeed the camps were set up by a man whose nickname was ‘Bash’. They seem to have been inspired by the idea of so-called ‘muscular Christianity’, which seems to have arisen in Victorian times, possibly as a reaction against the rather romantic and perhaps somewhat effete ideas of the Anglo-Catholic revival, the Tractarians, the so-called Oxford Movement: John Henry Newman, Pusey, Keble, Froude and the others, mostly gathered in the senior common room at Oriel College Oxford. 

We all used to laugh at Billy Bunter – ‘six of the best’ were always administered at some stage or another all in all the stories. ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ painted a picture of Rugby School where there was an awful lot of ‘six of the best’. Underpinning all this was the idea that it was conducive to spiritual improvement to undergo physical suffering, especially vicarious suffering, instead of or on behalf of somebody else. 

This was regarded as having a religious significance. It is bound up with the idea of sacrifice. People pointed to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac his son: to the suffering in Isaiah chapter 53, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities… and with his stripes we are healed.’ Think of the aria in Handel’s Messiah, 

‘He was despised and rejected of men, 

A man of sorrow and acquainted with grief..’

The word ‘stripes’ in this means ‘beatings’, lashes. Of course there are all these references in the epistles in the New Testament – 1 Corinthians 15, for example, ‘Christ died for our sins’: Hebrews chapter 5, ‘Even though Jesus was God’s son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered’: Hebrews chapter 9, ‘Christ died once for all as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the people’. 1 Peter chapter 2, ‘By his wounds you are healed.’

The idea is what is called ‘substitutionary atonement’, or ‘penal substitution’. It is one of the things that distinguishes the theology of the Evangelicals in Christianity. You might have thought, from some of the things that have been affectionately said in the past, that these dreaded Evangelicals were distinguished by their colourful behaviour in church, waving their arms around, and by their ability to conjure up guitars in inappropriate places in the service: but really a much more important difference is their belief in this idea of substitutionary atonement. ‘Greater love hath no man…’, and so on. 

The idea is that, through Jesus’ suffering, we are made right with God, justified: that we have been brought back like a lost sheep, and this has been made possible because one of the other sheep has been hurt, even though it did not deserve to be. It was the Lamb of God, the scapegoat. It is a very old Jewish idea, from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 16, celebrated even today in the Day of Atonement in Judaism.  

As Giles Fraser has pointed out in a recent article [http://tinyurl.com/jrncff8], the muscular Christians of the Victorian age, and indeed more recently in ‘Bash’s’ camps and in the public schools until very recently, the idea was that regular beatings were character-forming. 

It may be that some of you have suffered this, and your determination not to show weakness, to be brave in the face of what is, frankly, bestial behaviour and cruelty, you might say has made you a better person. 

But I think, although we admire the bravery of people who have suffered, we know better. I think that it is at least arguable that it is a very odd picture of God, that he would countenance the causing of terrible hurt and pain intentionally. Not only that, but that he would intentionally inflict that pain and suffering on his own son. 

This is surely not the picture of a loving God. Liberal theologians, like the great John Macquarrie, once upon a time Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, for example, reject the idea of substitutionary atonement, because, when you follow the idea to its logical conclusion, the pain would seem to be the product of a God of hate rather than of a God of love. [See John Macquarrie, 1966, Principles of Christian Theology, revised 1977, 5th impression 1984: London, SCM Press, p.315]

In so many ways we realise that God is not a god of hate or a God who wishes to cause hurt – ‘They shall not hurt and destroy on God’s holy mountain’, a vision of heaven, in Isaiah again. We have to have a better understanding of God than ‘six of the best’ for Billy Bunter; except that it is not a laughing matter, as poor Bishop Andrew so bravely pointed out.

Sermon for Evening Prayer with the Prayer Book Society, Guildford Branch, on Saturday 26th November 2016 in the Founders’ Chapel, Charterhouse

Isaiah 24; Matthew 11:20-30 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=347292826 for the text

‘Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down.’ This is First Isaiah – first of the three writers who contributed to the Book of Isaiah – gloomy, doomy; Isaiah at his gloomiest.

And then ‘Woe unto thee, Chorazin!’ Jesus berates all those places where they have ignored his teaching and have failed to mend their ways.

It’s tough stuff. I don’t know whether it’s just because I’m a preacher but, when the lessons are read out in a service, I immediately start to imagine what points the preacher will draw out from the passages in the Bible which have been set for that day.

How does the Bible speak to that congregation, I wonder. What will their minister make of that lesson? And my thinking is coloured also by what has been going on in the world. Has anything happened in the world outside which will test our faith? Are there any situations about which we need God’s guidance and help, where we depend on His grace?

What would I expect today? The lessons are full of doom and gloom. The world has turned upside down. God punishes those who have broken his covenant. Jesus says it will be ‘more tolerable for the land of Sodom, than for [Capernaum]’. Indeed, Capernaum ‘shalt be brought down to hell’.

Is there a message for us today?

Is this something which could apply to the vote for Trump, or for the USA under Trump? Or is it reminiscent of Britain, divided in the face of the Brexit referendum? Is the race hatred that has arisen in both countries, the blaming of minorities and outsiders, the move away from openness and internationalism towards a narrower nationalistic approach, the sort of thing which the prophet, and which Jesus himself, was alluding to, all those years ago?

But just a minute, you might say. There’s a time and place for everything – and this is the Prayer Book Society service immediately before Advent. We are looking forward to the joy of Christmas. Let us just take refuge in the beauty of the holiness that is the Book of Common Prayer. Never mind all that Last Judgement stuff. Look, our New Testament lesson ends with those Comfortable Words, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

And also, we are a rather varied congregation. We come from all sorts of churches, with all sorts of theological emphases. Some of us come from churches where the BCP isn’t much used, and where there is a modern, evangelical approach, emphasising the Bible as the Word of God. And some members might even rely on some of the wording in the BCP to justify not having women priests, and not accepting gay marriage.

Others of us come from churches where the BCP is used regularly, but the theology is decidedly liberal. Less influenced by John Stott or David Bracewell than by David Jenkins or the John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ – or lately, of Victor Stock. We love the language of the BCP and treasure its theological riches – but we allow that it is of its time, and it has to be read, and used, in a nuanced, undogmatic way.

Phew! That’s all right then, you might think. Nothing controversial this afternoon. Roll on the splendid ‘match tea’ in the Saunders Room. No need to worry about the awful things going on in the world this afternoon, at least. This is our Prayer Book Society meeting, and we can just enjoy renewing our friendships and celebrating how lovely the Prayer Book is.

We’re on the brink of Advent, too. Let’s not spoil it with politics. After all, the other thing that’s happened this week has been that happy holiday, Thanksgiving, in the USA. I have had the splendid experience of preaching, in Hartford, Conn., on Thanksgiving Day. Then, again, I faced a dilemma whether to link the Bible lessons for that day with some of the things going on in the world for which one would be strongly inclined not to give thanks: poverty in the midst of plenty, homelessness, wars and refugees.

I don’t think that in church we should ever shy away from political and social engagement. I agree with both our current archbishops, that Christians ought to engage with the problems of secular society. ‘Faith in the City’, [https://www.churchofengland.org/media/55076/faithinthecity.pdf] the Church of England report into spiritual and economic decline in various inner city areas in 1985, criticised Thatcherism and was itself heavily criticised at the time – but it bears re-reading now. The nonconformist churches produced a comprehensive report three years ago called ‘The Lies we tell Ourselves: ending comfortable Myths about Poverty'[http://www.methodist.org.uk/news-and-events/news-archive-2013/lies-about-poverty-shattering-the-myths]: and the House of Bishops sent an open letter entitled ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ to the ‘people and parishes of the Church of England’ before the 2015 General Election [https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2170230/whoismyneighbour-pages.pdf].

But again, being engaged doesn’t necessarily mean following a particular political doctrine. There are Christians in all the major parties, even including UKIP, in this country. Even Revd Dr Giles Fraser supported Brexit. Donald Trump in the USA gained support from the ‘Bible Belt’ of conservative evangelical Christians there.

So as I deliver my sermon to you, I can expect that, when you listened to the scarifying words of Isaiah chapter 24, and Jesus’ condemnation of the places who had ignored his teaching, I can expect that you will have brought a variety of things into mind. Does the rise in hate crimes, xenophobia and racism both here in the U.K. and in the USA have anything to do with the populist politics of the so-called ‘alt-right’, Trump and the Brexiteers? The man who murdered Jo Cox MP was shouting white supremacist slogans as he killed her. Was he encouraged to do so by the nationalist tone of some politicians?

Or would you take a different view? Would you, for instance, link the apocalyptic visions in our lessons today to the sort of things that GAFCON has made a lot of – the many clergymen in our church who are openly gay, whom GAFCON have listed publicly? Is that the sort of sin (if it is a sin) which would break God’s covenant?

Well, this isn’t Question Time, and, until the Match Tea in a few minutes, you can’t answer back, so I don’t know what links you will make in your mind. But it is important that you do try to make those links, and to reflect on what God’s Word is telling us about our lives, and our countries’ lives, today.

At least I am confident that, when I challenge you gently in this way, you won’t react like one of the congregation at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn., did after my Thanksgiving sermon there [https://hughdbryant.co.uk/2013/11/29/a-turkey/]. I had preached about food banks and poverty. This gentleman shook my hand warmly as he went out, and said, ‘I enjoyed your sermon very much. But mind you, I entirely disagreed with it. Indeed, if I were a younger man, I would have had to shoot you!’

Now Hartford is the home of the Colt Manufacturing Company, makers of the famous Colt 45. Quite a thought. I do hope you all checked your weapons in at the door!

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 20th December 2015

Luke 1:39-55

Not long ago there was a feature running in our parish magazine ‘Together’ about favourite hymns. Today I want to talk about another hymn, which wasn’t mentioned: perhaps the favourite hymn in all of Christianity. This is far bigger than ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ or ‘Love Divine’.

In the Gospel, that I have just read, we heard it. It’s the Song of Mary, which is often referred to by its old Latin name, Magnificat. ‘Magnificat’ means ‘magnifies’, ‘makes bigger’.

Every evening, about 6 o’clock, in every cathedral in this country, a really good choir (because all our cathedrals have super choirs) will sing this beautiful song, using the words from the Book of Common Prayer – words which were written half-way through the sixteenth century, as a translation from the Latin of St Jerome, which was itself a translation from the Greek that St Luke the doctor actually wrote his Gospel in.

And every Sunday at Evensong, at six o’clock at our sister church, St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon, there too, we sing the Magnificat. It could be the number one hymn in the Church of England – and versions of it are sung by churches all over the world. Magnificat might even be the most-loved hymn in Christianity.

Evensong in cathedrals – which is broadcast as Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons – it’s on this afternoon at 3, if you want to listen, this time from Chester Cathedral [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06rwy7p%5D – is reported to be the service where the congregations have grown most in the Church of England in recent years: not, actually, a modern service, but a service which can trace its origins back to the fourth century, and which was first set out, in the form we use today, in 1549.

The music which they sing is really beautiful. Choral Evensong, in every cathedral, every night, with a wonderful choir in every one, is a secret gem. More and more people are discovering it.

These are the words of the Magnificat that they sing:

My soul doth magnify the Lord :
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded :
the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth :
all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me :
and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him :
throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

OK, some words we ought to explain a bit. ‘He … hath holpen his servant Israel’. ‘Holpen’ means helped.

He has ‘regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’: he has looked favourably on her, he has held her in high regard, we might say.

And presumably you all know what a handmaiden is. Mary was a ‘lowly handmaiden’. She wasn’t one of the great and good.

‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’. There’s that ‘magnifies’ word again. This time it’s not Mary ‘magnifying’ God, but her saying how God has magnified her.

And then the ‘purple passage’.
‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

Can you, really, see Mary, a teenager, a simple country girl, singing this song? Are they the sort of words which would just come tripping off the tongue of a teenager?

Not for the first time our Bible doesn’t really put this – even in a modern translation, like we used for the lessons – in the sort of language we would use today. ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’, in Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn which we’ve just sung, isn’t actually a very good translation either – although Bishop Timothy got it from my favourite modern Bible, the New English Bible.

The meaning is really better expressed by what a teenager today might say: ‘Deep in my heart, I big up the Lord’. I big Him up: that’s exactly right. Mary isn’t saying that she is somehow making God bigger – because God is bigger than anything – but she is bigging Him up, she is telling out His greatness.

Giles Fraser, who often does Thought for the Day on the Today programme, who was at one time philosophy tutor at Wadham College, Oxford and Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, who got fired for trying to make friends with the Occupy protesters camped out on the Cathedral doorstep, he, Giles Fraser, reckons that the Magnificat is one of the most powerful revolutionary texts. In September, he Tweeted, ‘BTW I don’t think [that] the Red Flag [is] anywhere near as revolutionary as the Magnificat’. [https://twitter.com/giles_fraser/status/643049147919110144]

Remember what Mary said. It could indeed be rather revolutionary.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

In these short lines, Giles Fraser thinks there is a revolutionary blueprint. There are some shades of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man. Jesus turns everything on its head. The last shall be first and the first shall be last [Matt. 20:16].

I said earlier that perhaps Mary didn’t think up her famous song all by herself. As a regular worshipper in the synagogue, she would have remembered the song that Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, sang, thanking God for his birth. You can read it in the first Book of Samuel, chapter 2. ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord,’ she sings. ‘The Lord makes a man poor, he makes him rich, he brings down and he raises up. He lifts the weak out of the dust, and raises the poor … to give them a place among the great, …’

It’s very like the Magnificat. There is the difference that Mary uses a past tense: God did these things, he put down the mighty from their seat, and so on, whereas Hannah uses the present tense, he does these things. God is capable of bringing the rich and powerful down, and he is capable of building up the poor and meek. Hannah’s emphasis is more on what God can do, rather than on what he has done. Mary on the other hand says what He has done.

Both songs are songs, hymns, of praise for God. They are hymns of gratitude: ‘Now thank we all our God.’ And given that Mary undoubtedly started on one of the bottom rungs of society, it’s not surprising that from her point of view, she emphasised how God has humbled the rich and powerful from time to time.

So – do sample Choral Evensong, either on the wireless or – better – by going along in person, on Sunday evening to St Mary’s, or indeed on any weeknight to Guildford Cathedral. And when you hear, indeed when you sing, the Magnificat, do spare a thought for the handmaidens, spare a thought for the people who have to come to the Foodbank. You could be surprised at what might happen.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 9th August 2015

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Just as I don’t see God in terms of His being a benign old gentleman living at 45,000 feet with a white, flowing beard, so equally I’ve been rather sceptical about His hornèd counterpart, the Devil.

In St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he is going through all the things that a good Christian convert ought to do – and ought not to do – he talks about anger, in a context where he is saying, if you are angry, for whatever reason, you mustn’t let your anger drag on too long. Delightfully he says, ‘Don’t let the sun go down’ on your anger. Never be angry for more than one day at a time.

But also St Paul says, ‘Don’t be angry so that it becomes a sin: that it exposes you to the Devil. Don’t make space for the Devil.’

You will have read that the Church of England is now offering new words for the baptism service, which no longer require the parents and godparents to say that they turn away from sin and the Devil. (Of course, if parents would like to keep the traditional words, then they are still available to be used).

‘If you are angry, do not let your anger lead you into sin. Do not let sunset still find you nursing it. Leave no loophole for the Devil.’ [Eph. 4:26, NEB]

This week, rather mischievously, that wonderful programme on BBC Radio 4, The Moral Maze, celebrated its 666th edition. 666 in the Book of Revelation (13:18) is said to be ‘the number of the beast’, the Devil’s number. The programme was dedicated to finding out more about the nature of evil. Evil personified, I suppose, is what the Devil is.

What does it mean when we talk about the Devil? Are we doing anything more than just using a picturesque metaphor for badness, evil: is there a force for evil – the other side of a force for good?

The problem, which philosophers and theologians have wrestled with for centuries, is this. If God is omnipotent, He can do anything; and if He is goodness personified, pure good, why does He not prevent bad things, evil things, from happening? Why does God not prevent disasters, terrible crimes, illness and injustice from taking place?

Surely, if God were all-powerful, and at the same time perfectly good, then these bad things would not happen. He would prevent them from happening. Put it another way. If there is such a thing as evil – perhaps even personified in the Devil – so there is a force for evil, and God is the creator and sustainer of everything there is, then God must have created and sustained evil as well as good. But if that’s the case, then God can’t be perfectly good.

There are a number of possible ways to look at this problem. The first is, that perhaps it shows that there is in fact no such thing as evil, as a thing: rather, there are only evil deeds. It doesn’t make sense to talk about a force for evil, or a Devil, but it does make sense to talk about somebody having done something evil.

The Catholic Church has always been influenced by a saying of St Augustine (Letter 211, c424AD), cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, which translates roughly as ‘with love for mankind and hatred of sins’. More recently this idea has been re-expressed as ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’. So in Catholic moral theology there is always the possibility of redemption for a penitent sinner, however awful the sin itself.
But although that seems to be perfectly aligned with Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness, it doesn’t really solve the problem. Even if the sinner can escape blame, God must still have created the sin.

Another way round relies on the idea of free will. This goes back to the Garden of Eden. We were all made to be good; we were created in the image of God, even. But we, the human race, took it on ourselves to do bad things. That decision didn’t involve God, as it was the humans taking control for themselves. On this view, evil doesn’t in fact originate with God, but just with mankind. The problem with free will as a way round the Problem of Evil is that, although the evil act may come from inside us, where did we get it from? To put it another way, if we attribute moral responsibility to people, are they really completely free to decide what they will do? Or are they in some sense determined, pre-programmed – and if so, by God?

On The Moral Maze, Canon Dr Giles Fraser suggested a third way. This was that, as he understands God, in Jesus Christ, God is not in fact omnipotent. Indeed, God, in the form of Jesus Christ on the cross, is weak, very weak. Giles Fraser said, ‘The God that I believe in, in Jesus, is not omnipotent. He died on the cross in a way that is powerless’. Jesus in his divine nature is mighty, mighty and strong. But as a man, He is weak: He isn’t able to fix all our problems – Jesus, as being fully human, is limited in power, as we all are.

None of those three possible explanations relies on the Devil. There is certainly a sense in which evil can be personified as a kind of ‘gothic presence,’ influencing people, tempting them to do evil things. But it is really difficult to see how this can be more than a colourful idea, a metaphor. If there really were an actual being, The Devil, then God would certainly not be like the God that we now believe in, the God who manifested Himself in Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to contemplate our doing bad deeds, evil acts. It is one way of understanding what ‘sin’ is. Sin is what separates us from the love of God. So indeed, if we do things that a loving God would not want us to do – perhaps by breaking one of the Ten Commandments – then we have sinned, we have put a barrier between ourselves and God.

That brings us back to what St Paul was writing to the Ephesians. In Christ God has reconciled us to Himself: we must not drive a wedge between us. We really must follow the Commandments of love, if we are to avoid falling into sin, which is separation from God. But to believe in the Devil is strictly optional.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 12th July 2015
Job 4:1; 5:6-27

Why do bad things happen? Has it got anything to do with God? Sadly, we’ve had several cases in point in the last couple of weeks. This week we remembered the ‘7/7’ bombings. Last week there was the dreadful shooting of tourists in Tunisia. Before then, more shootings of innocent people, in a church in the United States.

Poor old Job had a similar experience. He was a rich and successful livestock farmer. He had a large and happy family.

‘There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.
And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters.
His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of the east.’

Then various disasters struck, and he lost everything; even his family were killed in a hurricane which destroyed the house they were staying in. The story in the first chapter of the Book of Job puts it all down to Satan, who had challenged the Lord God: strike down Job, he tempted, and he will curse you. The Lord didn’t exactly fall for the temptation, but

‘… the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.’

So according to the story, Job came to grief not at the hand of God, but of Satan – or perhaps more relevantly, he came to grief not as a result of anything he himself had done. Job is portrayed as a wholly good man. But nevertheless something, some external force, has brought disaster on him.

That’s quite an important step. There is an idea in parts of the Bible called technically ‘eudaimonism’, according to which, if you become ill or suffer misfortune, it is because you have done something wrong, you have sinned against God: and God has punished you. For example in St Matthew chapter 9:

And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’, not, ‘Here’s some medicine for your palsy.’ In this theory, illness is caused by, is a punishment for, sin.

Here, in Job’s case, it’s made quite clear that Job isn’t the author of his own misfortune. But I would just pause there, and say that eudaimonism isn’t an attractive idea anyway. Would a God of love make people ill? How would it be if, when you met someone who was poorly, your first thought was not, ‘I hope you get better soon’, but, ‘What did you do wrong, in order to bring your suffering upon yourself?’

And at first Job doesn’t blame anyone. He worships God and accepts his terrible lot. Then along come his three friends, the original Job’s Comforters.

In tonight’s lesson we hear from the first one, Eliphaz. His explanation for Job’s trouble is that troubles are just part of being human. There’s no-one specific to blame. Just put your trust in God, God

‘Which doeth great things and unsearchable; marvellous things without number:
Who giveth rain upon the earth, and sendeth waters upon the fields:
To set up on high those that be low; that those which mourn may be exalted to safety.’

It reminds me of the Magnificat: ‘Who hath exalted the humble and meek, but the rich he hath sent empty away.’

That doesn’t seem to me to offer Job much real comfort. If God has the power to right wrongs, to impose justice – then why has He allowed suffering to take place at all? If God is so capable, why has He allowed Job to get into trouble? This is something which still troubles us today. Even people with the strongest faith can find that it is tested to destruction. There was a moving dramatic recreation, on the TV this week, of the story of Rev. Julie Nicholson, whose daughter was caught up in one of the bombings on 7/7, and was killed. This terrible loss effectively destroyed the mother’s faith, and her ministry in the church. She just couldn’t square the idea of a loving God with what had happened.

Eliphaz goes on with a fine piece of Job’s Comfort:

‘Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty:’

I have never understood why people receiving punishment are supposed to be grateful for it. There are all those school stories involving corporal punishment, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays onwards. It is nonsense – and in a rather sinister way, getting the victim of brutality to thank the perpetrator, must be intended somehow to amount to consent – so that ‘volenti non fit injuria’.

This is the legal principle that ‘to a willing man, it does not turn into a hurt’, it does not become the cause of legal action. This is why rugby matches do not usually end up in the High Court, even when people are seriously injured. It is surely nonsense in this context. Hurting someone by way of punishment is not something which can or should be consented to by the person being punished.

But to go back to Eliphaz. He has introduced the idea that God may punish. He may punish, may do harm – but it’s all right, because He will heal the wounds afterwards.

‘For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole.’

I suppose this is a refinement of the earlier idea that God is good, God only does good things – which clearly seems not to be true.

But God does everything. God is the creator and sustainer of all – so He must make or do bad things as well as good. The created world needs light and shade, black and white, good and bad.

But if in a given instance, in your bit of creation, you encounter the bad side, you may still, quite naturally, want to protest, to cry out against God in pain. ‘Why me?’ you will ask.

Eliphaz accepts this, and says that although there may be pain and suffering, God will heal and comfort. That’s the first part of what he says. But then he says that God ‘reproves’, ‘correcteth’. Although Job may think himself to be blameless, perhaps he isn’t.

Eliphaz’ first scenario is where the person who suffers is innocent: the second is where they are somehow at fault. But God still puts things right –

‘He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee.’

There is an echo here of the Jewish idea of the Sabbath, the seventh day, the seventh year, the jubilee, the day of the Lord’s favour. It is described in Isaiah 61, which Jesus quoted in Luke 4:18-19 –

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Just in passing, I’m uneasy about the way that the restrictions on Sunday trading have been relaxed in this week’s Budget. Of course, we Christians have changed the original sabbath from Saturday to Sunday – it happened when the Romans adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, in the fourth century. Some people have said that one reason for changing from Saturday to Sunday was to get away from the Jewish idea of jubilee, of relief from debt and time off for recreation.

Canon Giles Fraser indeed commented this week that Sunday has become a day of worship – of shopping, not of God.[http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2015/jul/10/money-is-the-only-god-the-tories-want-us-to-worship-on-a-sunday] The thing which worries me is that for many people, Sunday will become just another working day.

The Jewish idea of the Sabbath, when, on the seventh day, the Lord of creation rested from his labours, is still vitally important today. Perhaps it is right that the weekly day of rest should not automatically be Sunday: perhaps it is better that the business of life (or the life of business) should not stop only on Sundays. But I do hope that the government realises that there must be a right for people to have a day off each week. I hope they – and the other European governments – remember about debt relief in the Greek context too.

Things do come right for Job. He gets his family back, and his sheep, and oxen, and camels, even more than he lost before. At the end, the Lord acknowledges that, unlike his friends, Job hasn’t tried to explain away how God works, and somehow thereby put himself above God. He hasn’t tried to be clever. He has just accepted that God is more than he can see or understand, and that God has infinite power.

There are things which we can’t understand. Awful things. But God has assured us, revealed Himself to us. In the Old Testament, He appeared through the prophets: for us, He has appeared in Jesus Christ. We have to acknowledge that this will not of itself take away our pain. But we can believe that God is there, God cares for us. He has told us what to do with pain and suffering. The answer is in Matt.25:35-40.

‘For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’

We have the power to feed the hungry: we have the power to heal the sick: we have the power to house the homeless: we can accept the refugees. We ought to do something about it. And then, just as Job found out, the Kingdom of heaven will be ours.

‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.’ [Rev. 21:4-5]

Sermon for Mattins on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity, 16th November 2015, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Daniel 10:19-21, Revelation 4

At the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to His disciples, ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’

People are always telling us that we’re doing rather a bad job of making disciples of all the world. Because in the UK at least, the churches are declining in numbers. According to statistics that I was reading, the Church of England is losing 1% of its members each year at present.

But Canon Giles Fraser in an article yesterday [‘Loose Canon’, The Guardian, 15th November 2014, http://gu.com/p/43bvq%5D pointed out that about a million people go to a Church of England church every week. That compares pretty well with quite a lot of other important organisations.

Compared with the total membership of the Conservative Party, which is 134,000, with the Labour Party, 190,000, and the LibDems at 44,000, as Giles Fraser says, if you add all the political parties together and even throw in UKIP, you still don’t have half the number of people who go to church. He adds, ‘More people go to church on a Sunday than go to Premier League stadiums on a Saturday.’

I bore that all in mind as I went to the St Andrew’s PCC ‘away-day’ yesterday. This was set to consider a Church of England statistical study called ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, [The Church Commissioners for England, 2014, http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk ] which had identified all the various things which made for growing churches rather than declining ones.

Incidentally, you’ll be very pleased to know that as far as I can see, St Mary’s does have ingredients identified in the study for being a successful church. There’s a emphasis on having young people and children (we’ve just had a great family service with nearly half those attending being kids or young parents); on having a clear mission and purpose; and on having strong leadership. I think that St Mary’s does meet the criteria identified.

I was intrigued because this week, now at Mattins and tonight at Evensong, there are lessons from the Book of Revelation which offer a counterpoint to the Church statistical study.

This morning there’s the vision of heaven – ‘a voice which said to me, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.’ This was a vision of a throne in heaven, and a figure on the throne surrounded by 24 elders – a vision of God.

And this evening, going backwards, the lesson is from the beginning of the Book of Revelation, introducing John’s vision, John’s ‘apocalypse’, as it’s called. Αποκάλυψις, ‘Apocalyse’, is the Greek word for ‘revelation’ – lifting the veil, revealing what is hidden underneath.

I don’t think that the Book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally, but it does contain a lot of powerful metaphorical images, covering a world which is way beyond our comprehension. We can’t know what, in Revelation, is in any sense ‘true’, but I think we can agree that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be as good a description as any other, more prosaic, description of a heavenly world there might be.

Revelation Chapters 2 and 3 – your homework before lunch today – contain the passage which I think is directly relevant to the question what makes a good, effective church. John reports that Christ appeared to him and instructed him to write letters to seven early churches. In each letter Christ, though John, identifies particular characteristics which marks out that church, and which distinguishes it in good and bad ways. It is a sort of early Ofsted report.

So the church at Ephesus is noted for its love; the church at Smyrna for being long-suffering; at Pergamum for not denying their faith; at Thyatira, there is love, faithfulness, good service and fortitude; at Philadelphia, he writes, ‘Your strength, I know, is small, yet you have observed my commands and have not disowned my name.’

He lists their faults as well. He writes to the church at Sardis, ‘though you have a name for being alive, you are dead. Wake up, and put some strength into what is left,..’; and to the church at Laodicea he writes, ‘I know all your ways; you are neither hot nor cold. How I wish that you were either hot or cold!’

Those early churches, which had been started by St Paul or by others of the Apostles, were being assessed by Jesus Christ, through the mystic seer John, for various aspects of their faith. Were they keeping fast to the true faith, or were they in error?

There’s not much about falling numbers – except perhaps the call to wake up at Sardis. There’s not much organisation theory: what the proportion of young people in the congregation is, whether they are open to new ideas and new types of worship, whether they give new people responsibility for church activities. None of those techniques seem to have worried the earliest churches.

In the church research document ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, the work is prefaced by St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:6, ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’. God made it grow. I can’t help feeling that, certainly in the early history of the church, whether the church prospered or not had nothing much to do with the management skills of the early ministers.

The biggest break that the early church had, of course, was in the fourth century, when on the eve of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision of Christ telling him to paint the sign of the cross on his soldiers’ shields, and he would win the battle: and they did, and they won the victory. It doesn’t sound a very Christian story; but there it is.

As a result, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. All of a sudden, Christianity stopped being more or less a secret sect of small cell churches subject to persecution, and became the Catholic Church, the church throughout the world.

Huge growth; but nothing to do with management skills or growth strategies. If we look at where the church is growing in the world today – and Christianity is the fastest-growing religion of them all, today – in Africa, in South America, in China, in Russia – there is still huge growth: and I wonder what it is that is bringing that growth, at the same time as the Church of England is gently and gradually declining.

I think that a clue may be in today’s lessons. You may say that the pictures of heaven and the pictures of the Almighty which are in the Book of Revelation are too far-fetched to be anything other than picturesque stories. ‘Immediately I was in the spirit, and behold a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.’

And in the first chapter of Revelation, ‘I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lamp-stands, and in the midst of the lamp-stands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; ..’

‘Look, he is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him … “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’.

Now we may well not believe that God is a man with a big white beard in heaven, (which is above the clouds). We may well decide that that is just a picturesque metaphor: but I think we do still find great significance in ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending’.

The point about an ‘apocalypse’, a revelation, an unveiling of ultimate truth, is that we are confronted by God. Perhaps the reason that our church here at home is not growing as fast as in the other places in the world is precisely because people’s eyes are closed to God: they are not seeing the revelation; they don’t see what its immediate importance could be.

Many people, I think, would agree that there is a God, in the sense that there is somebody or something which made the world, a creator. But a lot of people, I think, today, don’t give it much more thought than that. Perhaps people no longer really worry about the story of Jesus Christ. They rule out the possibility of His resurrection from the dead.

People in England are conveniently blind to the way in which, in many other places in the world, the Good News of Jesus, the story of His life, death and resurrection, still has legs, still has huge power, because it is an indication that the God which Revelation portrays, the God, the Lamb on the throne of heaven, (however picturesque these images are) still has power, has significance, today.

These revelations are revelations that God does care for us. The fact of Jesus, the fact of His time with us, is in itself a revelation, it is an uncovering of the deepest truth.

Perhaps these days you need to be ‘strangely warmed’, like John Wesley, or to be ‘born again’ at a Billy Graham meeting. Perhaps not: but once you have ‘got it’, once you have realised what the revelation of Jesus Christ is, then your life will be changed, and there will be no danger that you will drift away from the church.

Let us pray that we will all be given that revelation: that in the church, those of us who are tasked with preaching and evangelism – as John in Revelation puts it, those of us who are ‘in the Spirit’ – surrounded by the Holy Spirit – let us pray that we will be able to bring a vision of heaven, a vision of the Son of Man, the Son of Man who was at the same time the Son of God, into our lives, so that we can no longer just take Him or leave Him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Lent, 24th February 2013
Jeremiah 22:13 – Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.

A friend of mine asked me the other day whether I have any difficulty thinking up things to preach sermons about. I explained to him that I usually use as a starting point for my sermons the Bible lessons which we read at the service. Those lessons are from a ‘lectionary’ published by an ecumenical group of liturgists representing all the English-speaking churches in the world. It is called the Revised Common Lectionary and was most recently published in 1992.

It’s quite exciting that, in the English-speaking churches round the world, Catholic and Protestant, if they use the common lectionary – and most of them do – wherever you go, you will find people using the same Bible readings each Sunday. The general idea is to read through the whole of the Bible, over a period, relating the readings to the Christian year.

So today there are lessons laid down for a ‘principal service’, in the morning, which is a piece from Genesis, Psalm 27, an epistle reading from Philippians chapter 3, and finally a gospel, Luke chapter 13. The ‘second service’, which, in Lectionary terms, is what Evensong is, has the lessons from Jeremiah and Luke which we have heard tonight, and our Psalm, 135.

So we’ve joined in with English-speaking Christians all over the world in using those Bible readings. I find that quite compelling, and so I usually base my sermon on one or other of the Bible readings for the day. There is of course the alternative that my preaching should be related first and foremost to our life today, relating to it the teaching of Jesus Christ. Rather than taking those teachings first, in the form of Bible readings, instead I could look at what’s been happening, and then try to discern what the will of God in relation to those events would be.

That’s sometimes known as ‘preaching from the newspaper’, as opposed to preaching from the lectionary. When I did read the lessons for today, I decided indeed to preach from the newspaper. I came across these words in Jeremiah, ‘Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages’, and I was tempted not to give you a detailed exposition of the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, and history of the people of Israel, and in particular of the exile in Babylon, the fall of Jerusalem in the late C6 BC, which is the background to our OT lesson today.

Instead I thought that it was very striking that the prophet was writing about a bad king – in this case, King Zedekiah of Judah, and this passage is really a prophecy directed at the whole house of David, saying what a good ruler should do. What struck me about this passage was the way in which it reminded me of a number of the debates which I have listened to recently, concerning what the government should be doing today, here in the UK. For example, on Question Time there was a lively debate between Canon Giles Fraser and the MP Dianne Abbott on the one side, and Michael Heseltine the Conservative grandee on the other. They were arguing about the government’s austerity programme, and in particular whether the burden of the various government cuts is falling disproportionately on poor people.

When I read the lesson in Jeremiah, I immediately thought about the government programme to try to get people back to work, where apparently, young people are being compelled to work in menial jobs for no pay in order, so the government says, to gain ‘work experience’.

Now I’m not going to debate the rights and wrongs of the government workfare programme, although ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ has always struck me as a good start in this area. The point I’d like to make is that, in all the debates in which this came up, for example on Question Time, even when Giles Fraser was there, nobody mentioned God.

I should say that this was perhaps even more strange, because the programme was being broadcast from St Paul’s Cathedral. There were a couple of delightful things – one was in the credits, where the ‘set designer’ was listed as Sir Christopher Wren, and the other was when Michael Heseltine’s mobile phone rang, and it was his wife, no doubt wondering when he was going to be home for his tea. But there they were, in God’s house, and no-one mentioned God.

Nobody said, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And that was a big contrast, so far as I was concerned, to some of the other things that I encountered this week. I’ve had rather a cultural week. I started off by going to the Young Vic (which you might smile about!) to see a wonderful play called ‘Feast’ about the Yoruba people from Nigeria, and their diaspora from Nigeria to the UK, to Cuba, to Venezuela and to Brazil, which of course had a lot to do with the slave trade.

Wherever they went, the Yorubas took their distinctive culture with them, including their old gods, the Orishas, even though Nigerians are mostly Christians and Moslems nowadays. The Orishas are the emissaries – I suppose they are a bit like angels – of one supreme god. It is true that Yoruba people, even today, see the Orishas at work in all sorts of everyday circumstances. One Orisha is a an Orisha of motherhood and child-bearing, another one of beauty and love, another one is a warrior, and ‘Esu is a trickster and a shape-shifter. He is the Orisha of crossroads, the threshold, chaos and fertility, the divine middle-man’ [Programme for Feast, 2013, London, The Young Vic, p11].

So everywhere that a Yoruba goes, even today – and I was accompanied by a dear friend from St Andrew’s who is a Yoruba – she was saying that they still know about these ancient angels. They are aware of God’s presence all the time.

Then on Friday I went to the Coliseum to see the very wonderful production of Charpentier’s ‘Medea’, a 17th century opera based on the ancient Greek myth of Medea the witch, daughter of gods, who married Jason, Jason of the Argonauts. Jason was unfaithful to her. She ended up killing their children. A real tragedy, from Euripides.

Again it was very noticeable that whatever happened in the play, all the actors would refer to God – or in the Greek context, the gods. ‘Did something represent the will of the gods?’, they always asked themselves.

Earlier in the week we had our first sessions of the Lent course. This year we are looking at the Beatitudes, the ‘Blessed are they’ sayings of Jesus at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. [Matt.5 and Luke 6]. In the first session we were looking at the saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. We were reflecting, among other things, on the way in which, when these sayings are repeated in St Luke’s gospel, there is no mention of the ‘in spirit’ bit, but it’s simply, ‘Blessed are you who are poor’.

So back to Jeremiah and to the warning to the kings of the house of David. Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages, who says, I will build myself a spacious house, with large upper rooms…’ This is uncomfortably close to home. A footballer’s house, perhaps.

And what do we think about the masses of people who are out of work, who are being forced to work for nothing in menial jobs? Whatever we do think, do you think we should at least consult our Bibles? Think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard in St Matthew’s gospel chapter 20. Even though the vineyard owner paid a flat rate of a day’s pay, a denarius, irrespective whether the worker worked for one hour or eight hours, there was no question of working for nothing.

My point is this: that in this time of Lent we should look again at our lives, in the light of the gospel. We say, ‘The Lord is here. His spirit is with us’: and then we forget about him. I’m sure that at least some of you are going to tackle me on the door afterwards and explain how important it is that young people should get work experience, and that it doesn’t matter that they work for nothing, provided, of course, all the usual safeguards are in place.

You may be right. My point is not that: my point is, that in all the discussions about the rights and wrongs of it, nobody mentions God, nobody mentions what Jesus would do. Remember what the epistle of James says, in chapter 5. ‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. … Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of The Lord of hosts’.

The Bible is absolutely clear: it’s not a good thing not to pay people for their work. Funny that nobody mentions it.