Archives for posts with tag: God

Sermon for Mattins on the First Sunday after Trinity, 18th June 2017
Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35-10:8

Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’ when he saw the crowds, because they were weak – ‘because they fainted’, and because they had no-one to guide them, no pastor. There was plenty for a pastor to do: ‘The harvest truly is plenteous’ – but there weren’t enough clergy.

 

So he sent out his 12 disciples. It’s interesting to see what the disciples were supposed to do. Jesus had been attracting big crowds. What were they attracted to?

 

We may tend to use hindsight, at least unconsciously, and think that of course people flocked to see and hear Jesus – he was the Son of God, after all. But actually I don’t think that the crowds could necessarily have reached that conclusion at this stage.

 

Maybe if they had been present at Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit appeared like a dove, and a voice was heard, saying, ‘This is my son, the beloved …’ But more likely they were unaware of this. Surely all those threads would be drawn together by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then it really was clear who He was.

 

Instead, it looks as though the drawing power of Jesus, which he wanted to pass on to his disciples, his students, was a practical ministry, of healing.

He told them, ‘And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.

 

On second thoughts, perhaps people did have an inkling who Jesus was. ‘Raise the dead’: what sort of an instruction is that? Obviously the disciples were in on the secret. ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’.

 

But there is this rather odd instruction from Jesus to stay away from the non-Jews. The disciples were to keep the good news just for Jewish believers. Evidently, things changed, even then. Look at St Paul’s letters. ‘In due time Christ died for the ungodly.’ Not for the chosen people, the Jews. Instead things were completely turned upside-down. Difficult to explain the passage in St Matthew’s gospel here. Maybe it is to emphasise the magnitude of the revolutionary step that Jesus brought in. But St Paul’s letter to the Romans was actually written earlier than the Gospels, so I am inclined to think that the pro-Jewish lines are a late addition.

 

In the passage from his Letter to the Romans, St Paul sets out his key idea, his key concept, of how God works: that we are ‘justified by faith’.

 

The idea of being ‘justified’ really means brought back into the family, the family of faith. ‘We have peace with God’. St Paul had an idea that God, or at least his senior angels, needed to be pacified. Man had fallen, in the Garden of Eden, and was no longer perfect in the sight of God.

 

But if one wanted to placate this rather angular, peevish deity, it wasn’t a good idea simply to pile up sacrifices and ignore what was going on outside. You appeased this tough God by placing your trust in him.

 

But – it’s still a bit difficult to see what Jesus was supposed to be preaching about. Absent the Resurrection, what exactly was His message? I think that we can legitimately infer that it was a social gospel. Jesus had compassion on the people he found suffering.

 

Yesterday in the Church’s calendar, we were invited to remember Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, described as ‘social reformers’. This is what one author says about them.

“Born into a Bristol manufacturing family in 1844, Samuel Barnett was educated at Wadham College, Oxford. In 1867 he was ordained to a curacy at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in Marylebone where he met, and in 1873 married, Henrietta Rowland (born 1851), the daughter of a wealthy London businessman. With a deep practical faith of her own Henrietta was working with the housing reformer Octavia Hill. Later in 1873 the Barnetts moved to London’s East End when Samuel became Vicar of St Jude’s,Whitechapel. They were both deeply affected by the squalid conditions in which their parishioners lived and became much involved in promoting social reform both locally and on the national stage. They sought to ensure that social reform was based on Christian principles and that Christians were actively involved in social reform.

Samuel lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act of 1875. He served on the Whitechapel Board of Guardians and was one of the first in England to propose universal pension provision. Henrietta was also involved in various projects of her own, mainly involving education and the welfare of children. She was also a founder of Whitechapel Art Gallery.

In 1906 Samuel was appointed a canon of Westminster and the couple moved to leafy Hampstead.The contrast with Whitechapel inspired Henrietta to create a model suburb in which decent housing, open spaces and recreational amenities would be available to people of modest income.This was the origin of Hampstead Garden Suburb, which developed after 1907.When completed the development featured special housing for the old and disabled, modern schools and new churches.
[R. Atwell, ed., 2004, Celebrating the Saints, Daily Spiritual Readings, Norwich, Canterbury Press, sub June 17th]

 

When we reflect on the terrible tragedy of the fire at the Grenfell House tower block this week, it is truly shaming that, over 100 years after Canon Barnett died, we still have areas of terrible poverty and wholly inadequate housing for poorer people. Canon Barnett lobbied for the Artisans’ Dwellings Act, the first step towards the provision of council housing, in 1875. In the 1960s the Parker-Morris standards ensured that council houses were built substantially, with adequate minimum sizes for rooms. Unfortunately, in more recent years, these standards have been swept away.

 

Recent governments have abolished security of tenure for council tenants and encouraged the idea that poor people who need council houses are somehow less deserving than people who can afford to buy their homes. It seems incredible now, but as recently as last year, the government refused to make the installation of sprinklers in buildings over a certain height mandatory. Instead, the manufacturers of sprinklers were encouraged to promote their products so as to sell more of them.
Apparently, on Grenfell House, a council block, £8.7m was spent for cosmetic ‘cladding’ partly to improve heat insulation, and partly to improve the look of the block, which is surrounded by ‘mansion blocks’ of expensive private flats. But a sprinkler system, which would have cost a fraction of the bill for cladding, was not installed. And the cladding was of a less fire-resistant type than you could have specified for an outlay of only about £5,000 extra. Not much in a total budget of £8.7m.

 

I think that the Barnetts would be shocked – partly in the way that we are shocked anyway – and partly because the reforms which they did so much to bring about in providing decent living conditions for poorer people, have now been undone.

You might wonder what this, undeniably serious and concerning as it is, has to do with us at our Mattins service. The point about Samuel and Henrietta Barnett is that they were Christians, as we are. As the vicar of Whitechapel, Samuel Barnett was ‘in Christ’, reconciled to God, in the way St Paul described. His life had been fundamentally changed.

 

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. [2 Corinthians 5:17]

 

Barnett was interested in liturgy too. “‘The Worship Hour’ that he introduced, was an innovative service with readings from modern writers as well as the Bible; service leaflets printed in bright colours to ease the dreariness, clergy unrobed and the church kept rather dark so the poor and dirty would not feel conspicuous”.

It all sounds, if anything, quite the opposite of what we in St Mary’s try to preserve and the opposite of how we try to conduct worship. But what is the purpose of worship? Bringing the best of ourselves, using the most beautiful, most meaningful, words before God, and seeking his blessing. But would we countenance turning the lights down – using our state-of-the-art low-voltage LED lighting system – so as to avoid embarrassing ‘the poor and the dirty’?

The Victorian reformers, fired up by their Christian faith, were willing to experiment, and to make their churches accessible and welcoming, welcoming not just to people in nice clothes, but also to the poor people living in the slums of Whitechapel.

I don’t think that the Barnetts would have regarded the service, even said in the fine words of the Prayer Book, as the be-all and end-all. What they sought to do was to draw everyone in, however humble, and worship together. For sure, most of the time their Christian observance would have been conducted in the words of the Prayer Book – and no better way, at least so far as the words were concerned. But the important thing was the social concern that their faith had led them into. They were ‘in Christ’, where God had reconciled them. So they dimmed the lights so as to avoid showing up how scruffy some of the congregation were – not but what these poor people couldn’t help it.

When we had our ‘Vision Day’ last month, one of the major goals which we identified was social concern, practical action for our neighbours, translating our devotion in worship into practical concern, into generous, practical love. What are we all going to do about Grenfell House? Are we going to have a special collection, or maybe each of make a pledge to send some bedding, clothes or food to the Salvation Army, or to the local parish church, St Clement’s, Treadgold Street? Or perhaps by sending some money through the Evening Standard website. Godfrey and I will discuss this with the churchwardens – in the meantime, if you want to give some money now, please write ‘Grenfell House’ on one of our envelopes and put your gift in it. We’ll make sure it goes to one of the funds which have been set up.

Yesterday I said similar things in the sermon which I preached to the Prayer Book Society’s service at the Founders’ Chapel at Charterhouse. Afterwards we had a nice tea in what they call the Saunders Room.

The name of that room where we had tea sparked a thought in me. Do you remember Winnie the Pooh’s house? He ‘lived under the name of Saunders’. It had a sign over the door with the name ‘Saunders’ on it. Perhaps some of the children from Grenfell House would like a teddy bear like Pooh.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent, 4th December 2016

1 Kings 18:17-39, John 1:19-28

‘John Vavassour de Quentin Jones
Was very fond of throwing stones
At Horses, People, Passing Trains,
But ‘specially at Window-panes.

Like many of the Upper Class
He liked the Sound of Broken Glass.

It bucked him up and made him gay:
It was his favourite form of Play.’ (Hilaire Belloc, 1930)

Those of you, who have watched, perhaps with consternation, the referendum and its aftermath in this country and the election of the seemingly appalling Trump in the USA, might like to pause and reflect on these words by Hilaire Belloc. John Vavassour de Quentin Jones. In the first half of the last century, ‘like many of the Upper Class, …he liked the sound of broken glass.’

People sometimes rebel in a very irrational way. John Vavassour de Quentin Jones lost his inheritance because a stone which he threw hit his rich uncle by mistake, and he cut him out of his will. John Vavassour just wanted to break things: he clearly had no idea what his actions would lead to.

I think one is tempted to say, that neither did many of those, who voted for Brexit or who voted for Donald Trump, know what they were voting for either. These were votes against things rather than votes for anything in particular.

They were expressions of alienation. When Michael Gove – who used to write leaders for The Times, and so presumably is an educated man – encouraged his supporters to have nothing to do with experts, he pandered to this sense of alienation. It has been said that this populist backlash is a rejection of the elite, of the intelligentsia, of metropolitan liberal sentiment.

In this climate, we Christians are somewhat on the back foot, in the face of a rising tide of secularism. It might seem rather far-fetched, to imagine a scenario today like that described in our first lesson: a sort of bake-off of sacrifices, in which the prophet Elijah is bringing King Ahab back into the fold after he had lost his faith in the One True God and started to worship the Baals.

Elijah organised a ‘spectacular’. ‘You call on your God and I will call on mine, and let’s see whose god can cook the beef on the altar’. And if we are to believe the story in the Bible in 1 Kings, God responded to Elijah’s prayers and roasted Elijah’s ox in a spectacular way. Whereas of course Baal, being just a figment of the heathen imagination, did nothing – or rather, wasn’t even there at all.

So not surprisingly, Elijah was listened to. He was the greatest of the prophets. He was in direct touch with God. He was God’s mouthpiece on earth. But we can’t imagine anything happening even remotely like Elijah’s spectacular today.

In St John’s Gospel, the introduction to the Good News, to the story of Jesus himself, is the story of John the Baptist, ‘preparing the way of the Lord’. Again, it’s really difficult to imagine a modern scenario which is anything like this. Just as, by and large, people don’t become influential or command an audience by doing miracles, as Elijah did, so if you take another step back and try to imagine the scenario involving John the Baptist, it is very, very different from our experience today.

What John was doing is mentioned almost just in passing: he was baptising people. The account in St John’s Gospel concentrates much more on the significance of what he was doing. ‘Why baptizest thou them, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?’ Today, if you talk about baptism, it is synonymous with christening, with Christian initiation of a little child; and it’s also how the little child gets his or her name. Naming, not repentance.

There is no equivalent of what was by all accounts a mass movement, something that people naturally did, to go and wash ritually in the river Jordan: to wash away their sins and iniquities, as well as becoming physically clean.

You will recall that passage in St Mark chapter 7, where the Pharisees pull Jesus up for eating without washing his hands first. I’ve always felt that if you came across that passage for the first time today, you might protest that, from a public health point of view, anyone following Jesus’s advice might well catch some disease or other! They even saw things like washing completely differently.

If we try to tell people about the true meaning of Christmas, and the Gospel story, I think we should be a bit cautious about the fact that quite a lot of the story reflects a world which is totally different from our world. I think that there is a danger that people listening to Christians talking about the Gospel and the true meaning of Christmas may be put off, may even be alienated.

There was somebody in the audience on the BBC Question Time programme on Thursday night, which came from Wakefield in Yorkshire, a very assertive and gruff person, who, despite the fact that he was shaven-headed and dressed as a football hooligan, was said to be some kind of teacher.

He loudly asserted on several occasions during the programme that everyone who had voted to leave the EU had been voting to leave the Single Market. He said things like, ‘Everybody knew that a vote to leave meant a vote to leave the Single Market’. Now leaving aside the point that, as a matter of fact what that man said can be challenged on a number of levels, starting with the fact that the question put to the referendum was just a simple choice between leaving or remaining in the EU, and nothing else, the striking thing was that he was impervious to reason.

I’m not sure what subject he was a teacher of, but one hopes, for his pupils’ sake, that it was woodwork or PE: because although several people on the panel gave him very clear and well argued responses, which if true, completely contradicted his proposition that, if you voted one way in the referendum, that automatically meant that you were in favour of something else, he was completely deaf to all argument. But maybe that’s being rude to woodwork and PE teachers. This alleged teacher wasn’t interested in argument, or reasoning, or experts, and he certainly discounted all the posh people on the panel. They were obviously not gritty or Yorkshire enough for him to take them at all seriously. Sadly, almost the whole audience was with him.

So what would a prophet today have to do or say in order to carry conviction? What is the good news, or the call to obedience, if we follow Elijah, that a prophet today should be crying in the wilderness? What is the equivalent of baptism in the river Jordan for today’s people? How would a preacher get through to the man on Question Time?

I’m not making a political point. I’m not saying whether Brexit is good or bad, or Trump is good or bad, but just that, in those cases, people seem to have ignored reasoned argument and voted as a sort of knee-jerk reaction, voted for something negative, something which they perceive as not coming from the ivory tower of the elite liberal establishment.

People have in effect been throwing stones. And they’re in very good company. John Quentin de Vavassour Jones came out of the top drawer of society ‘.., like many of the Upper Class,… he liked the sound of broken glass’. This man in Wakefield, who asserted his non sequitur so positively, that something unsaid was the unanimous will of the people, this man was voting for something which would almost certainly harm him: it would very likely harm a lot of his fellow citizens. But he didn’t care. He was throwing stones.

How do we Christians deal with this? How do we deal with somebody who is impervious to reason, and is convinced that Christianity is wrong, or does not have anything relevant to say, or is going to disappear anyway? Because if you do follow that rather bleak outlook, and believe that there is no God, would you necessarily think that it is wrong to be xenophobic, or racist?

Unless you believe that it was God who created all people equal in his sight, how would you justify the concept of human rights? How would you avoid being led astray by seemingly reasonable voices, like a friendly man in the pub telling you that he’s not a racist, but that we just have too many immigrants – even though there is ample evidence that immigration is really good for this country and that it fulfils a number of really important needs?

Even though there is considerable evidence that the National Health Service will be in even greater trouble if it loses its doctors and nurses from abroad, both from the EU and from outside, although there is plenty of evidence that immigrants as a whole contribute over 30% more in taxes than they receive in benefits – even though there is this positive evidence, there are still people in numbers who will parrot sentiments which are not rational. If they’re not racist, they are very similar to it.

The other irrational thing is that the anti-immigration sentiment seems to be strongest where there aren’t actually any – or where there are very few – immigrants. The audience in Wakefield the other night cheered every xenophobic, little-England statement to the rafters. But I believe there are hardly any immigrants from the EU in Wakefield.

This is very strange. Clearly people were not operating rationally. They were not listening to the experts, and they were not bothering to think about where our moral imperatives come from. If you are a Christian, you will believe that we are all children of God. If you are a Christian, and indeed if you are a Jew or a Moslem, you will believe that God has told us how to behave, in His Ten Commandments.

‘Blah, blah, blah’. Yes, blah, blah, blah. For some people, what I’m saying is just meaningless noise. I wonder if that scares you as much as it does me. Let us pray that God will make himself known, not in some cosmic bake-off, but in everything that we say and do, and that we will not be dismissed as people with nothing relevant to say.

Sermon for Evensong on the second Sunday of Easter, 3rd April 2016
Wisdom 9:1-12

It’s one of those classic ways of passing time or getting off to sleep, if you’ve woken up in the middle of the night. You are the heir to the throne: you’re going to be king. God appears to you in a dream, and says, ‘What would you like? You can have anything you like.’

Of course, being a good Bible student, you will immediately be reminded of the story of Solomon and his dream in 1 Kings 3 or 2 Chron. 1. What did Solomon ask for? Solomon asked for wisdom. He might have used the words which were in our lesson today, from the book called ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’. He said, ‘God of my fathers, and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things with thy word,
And ordained man through thy wisdom, that he should have dominion over the creatures which thou hast made, …
Give me wisdom, ..’

Solomon did not ask for riches, or power, or any of the other kingly trappings – although God was so pleased with his choice, with his asking for wisdom, that he did give him all the other good things as well.

These days we don’t really think much about wisdom, or in those sort of terms. We don’t talk about people being ‘wise’ men. ‘Wise’ tends to be more of a cynical pejorative – he is just a ‘wise guy’. But wisdom, on proper reflection, is not just knowledge, but discernment and the ability to choose the right thing to do in circumstances where it is very difficult to know what is the right thing to do. Perhaps, indeed, we ought to look at wisdom again.

When you watch the pictures on the news showing the government minister meeting the steelworkers at Port Talbot, and you hear the ministers saying that they will do everything that they can do, lots of questions come crowding into one’s mind. If you thought along the lines of the author of the book of Wisdom, you could imagine the government ministers praying that Wisdom would come and help them out.

We don’t think that it was actually Solomon who wrote the book, but it was someone much later, writing in his honour: a Greek, most likely in Alexandria, who could have been writing about the same time as Jesus Christ. The Book of Wisdom was very much influenced not just by Jewish history, but also by Greek philosophy, especially by Plato and the Stoics. There is the Platonic idea of the essences of things being real as well as their manifestations. So we understand what it is for something to be a table, because we have an idea, a concept, an essence, of tables, in our minds.

So similarly Wisdom, the idea of Wisdom, to put it in Plato’s terms, almost has an independent existence all of its own – or rather of her own. If you are called Sophie or Sophia, you are named after the Greek word for wisdom. In the wisdom literature in the Bible, the books like the Wisdom of Solomon or Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, wisdom is personified; wisdom is a being in her own right, who can guide you into the correct path in order to follow the will of God.

So a government minister looking at the crisis in the steel industry would no doubt be very pleased to have a guiding figure, a Mrs Wisdom, at his or her side. What is the right thing to do? What are the principles which should inform one’s decision? Is it right that the only thing that matters is the law of the market, and, moreover, the law of the market worldwide? If so, it is tough, but it should just be a question whether our steel plant can make steel cheaper than anyone else. That wouldn’t give much hope to the people in Port Talbot.

But what if the market is modified, by tariffs, for example? Should we protect our steel producers by erecting a tariff barrier? There are arguments for and against. Does the fact that thousands of people will lose their jobs, does that outweigh in importance all the other considerations? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a gentle feminine voice in one’s ear saying, ‘Choose this; avoid that. This is the way that the problem will be solved.’

But how do you know whether you have got it right? Solomon, of course, demonstrated wisdom right at the beginning, when the two women came, both claiming to be the mother of a particular baby. How to tell which was the right mother? So he proposed to chop the baby in half and give each mother half a baby. It soon became clear which was the real mother. Wouldn’t it be nice if all wisdom calls were so simple? [1 Kings 3:16-28]

I’m sure that the ministers would indeed be really delighted if it was really possible to invoke the assistance of some goddess-like creature who would hold their hands and point them in the right direction.

The Wisdom of Solomon was a book which the early Christians liked, because they thought that it pointed forward to Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The lesson says, ‘Who ever learnt to know thy purposes, unless thou hadst given him wisdom and sent thy holy spirit down from heaven on high?’ (Wisdom 9:17) Wisdom is bound up with the Holy Spirit.

The Book of Wisdom is not a canonical book. Not every Bible has it in. It’s in the Apocrypha. If you look in the Articles of Religion in the back of your prayer book, Article 6, on page 613, you will see the list of canonical books which were the books which were supposed to contain everything necessary for salvation, and the other books which ‘the church doth read for example of life and instruction in manners’, include the Book of Wisdom. St Paul considered Christ to be the wisdom of God. There is something very closely connected, between the idea of Wisdom and the idea of the Holy Spirit, the essence of God at work.

Just before Christmas in the early Roman church at Vespers (which became part of our Evensong), before the Magnificat they sang an Antiphon, an ‘O’ Antiphon: O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David: and the first Antiphon was ‘O Sapientia’, ‘O Wisdom’, in Latin.

‘O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things;
come and teach us the way of prudence.’

That is ‘O Sapientia.’

We can get something out of the idea of wisdom personified, of O Sapientia, even today. Wisdom, for a government minister, ought not to be just a question of making sure they take all the right theories, the right political dogmas, into consideration. True wisdom means they should consider in the round, from all angles, whether that dogma is right, whether it is kind enough to the people whose lives it affects.

The spirit of wisdom is surely the Holy Spirit. So to consider Wisdom, we must consider the Spirit as well. What would Jesus do? What is the will of God? Where is the Holy Spirit leading? In the chapels in the Welsh valleys tonight, their prayers will be rising. Let us pray with them, and let us pray in particular that the true spirit of Wisdom will come among those who have the power, either to save those communities or to turn their backs on them. They do it in our name. Let us hope that they, in their power and good fortune, will appreciate how those strong men in their Welsh valleys really do need them to have, not just clever theories, but true wisdom.

Sermon for Evensong on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016
Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 20:9-19

Did you see the Shetland pony this morning? The children made a beautiful tableau and there was a Shetland pony pretending to be a donkey for them to ride on, to make a procession, to remember Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem for the last week. It’s really a bittersweet message. For that lovely hour or two, Jesus led a procession of people who believed that he was God’s chosen saviour, God’s chosen saviour in a triumphal sense, like a Roman general returning in triumph from conquests overseas, leading a procession into the capital.

But the sad thing is that that was then, but the mood darkened very quickly thereafter. The clouds started to gather and Jesus started to challenge Jerusalem. This parable, the parable of the vineyard, some of which, on one level, was simply a retelling of the story from the prophet Isaiah, sets the tone.

Holy Week is about divine judgement; for God, against God. For man, against man: ‘Judge eternal, throned in splendour’. Isaiah made a prophecy of the kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah – the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is Israel, and the men of Judah are the plant he cherished – ‘He looked for righteousness but found it denied, for righteousness but heard cries of distress.’ [Is. 5:7, NEB] Jesus put out this story as a challenge. You are the chosen people, Israel. You have all the advantages. God has done everything he can to make the vineyard a good one.

Then he let it, to professional winemakers, tenants. Those tenants are the human race. The human race rejected God’s son and eventually killed him. What will God do? What will the landlord of the vineyard do? If we, who are tenants in his vineyard, have a lease on life in this world? What will God do if we have killed his son? It is a truly terrifying prospect.

Even so, we don’t really appreciate its force these days. This morning I said my theme was that we know what comes next. There was a sort of spoiler alert. We know that after the Passion, after Jesus’ terrible suffering, after Jesus dies, after God is killed, God rises again in glory on Easter morning.

Maybe we can’t really help knowing what comes next, but still, we ought to appreciate the force of the Passion story. We ought to appreciate that we are still like the tenants in the vineyard. If we have no care for God, if we do the things which killed Jesus, if we have no love for him and no love for each other, if we pursue false gods, then we are like those hard-hearted people who figured that it was to their advantage to free Barabbas and crucify the son of God.

Whatever we have been doing by way of Lenten reflection, in prayer and abstinence in the last four weeks, in this week of all weeks we should remember that we are tenants in God’s vineyard.

Maybe, just as with a new story, if we know what happens, we should keep it to ourselves – spoiler alert! – we should actually be cautious about saying we know what happens next. What will the owner of the vineyard do? We’re very cavalier. We just carry on. We live our lives as we’ve always done. We don’t receive the stranger, and take him in: we don’t give him clothes, when he’s shivering with cold. Is he a real refugee, or just a migrant?

But Jesus wouldn’t have made that distinction. In that time of final judgment, when Jesus separates the sheep and the goats, he will decide, he will judge, by what we have done for the hungry, for the thirsty, for the homeless stranger, for the person with no clothes. [See Matt. 25:31f]

It is disgraceful that there are still thousands of people in Calais and Dunkirk who are marooned without proper habitation, without washing facilities and proper sanitation. These are people whose homes in Syria have been bombed, whose families have been decimated. Some of the children in the camp actually have a legal right to join relatives in this country, but it’s not happening.

We are going to take the Foodbank van over there soon. There was some confusion at first, and we couldn’t find out how to get access to the camp; but now we have established contact with the local Guildford charity, Guildford People to People, and we’ll be able to get in. Many of you have already given clothes and blankets, which is great. I’ll let you know if there are any other needs which we can supply. We must do it. Jesus will ask us, when he was a stranger, a refugee, what did we do?

Then again there was another terrible story in the paper this week. An MP, Stella Creasy, had actually thrown the chief exec of a charity out of her office – called a policeman to throw him out of the Houses of Parliament – because she was so cross with him.

His charity had sold some flats which it owned, all of which had been occupied for years by poorer people who thought that the charity was looking after them. The charity sold the flats to a developer, who promptly gave all the poor tenants notice to quit. The MP raised this with the chief exec of the charity. Was it not wrong that their old tenants, old people, should be made homeless in this way? He shrugged his shoulders and said,’It happens’. All that mattered was that they had raised a lot of money by selling the flats. ‘It happens’ is what people say, far too often. We have to try to stop ‘it’ happening. ‘It’ is the sort of thing which has killed the son in the vineyard.

Let’s not be like the tenants in the vineyard. Let’s not do the things that kill the landlord’s son. Jesus was challenging us, us just as much as he was challenging his contemporary audience. We must not throw Him out; we mustn’t leave him shivering outside; we must make room in our hearts for Him.

Sermon for Mattins on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016

Zechariah 9:9-12, 1Cor.2:1-12
We know what happens next. Or as people say nowadays, ‘Spoiler alert!’ ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’. If you’ve just been to the family Eucharist at 10 o’clock, and seen the lovely tableau which the children presented, and maybe you have admired the Shetland pony on your way out, you will know why, when you were little, Palm Sunday was one of the best Sundays in the year to go to church. Donkeys are, alas, in rather short supply these days: there are now rather strict rules about what you have to do if you are going to carry a donkey around.

Mind you, in Stoke D’Abernon, many of the Mums do have the right vehicle for towing a horse box. Somewhere around here there is even a Range Rover with the registration number KT11 MUM! Anyway at St Mary’s we have had a lovely Shetland pony, and I am sure that Jesus would not have turned his nose up at a ride on him.

Processions are fun. Walking down the hill in a happy throng following someone riding on a Shetland pony was a very jolly thing to do. You can wave your palm leaves and your palm crosses. People do get quite carried away when they get caught up in supporting somebody who seems to take away their cares and blot out the annoyances that they have to put up with.

It’s quite noticeable, for example, that Donald Trump seems to have caught the imagination of a lot of people who feel left out by mainstream politics in the United States. They feel that big government doesn’t listen to them. Trump is their champion.

The Israelites had been in exile, and then under foreign domination, in their own country, for hundreds of years. At the time of Jesus, of course, the Romans were in charge and the Jews were second-class citizens. They were looking forward to the coming of a messiah, a deliverer, a king who was going to liberate them. They looked back to the various prophecies in Isaiah: the servant king, and in Zechariah was this strange image of a king coming on a donkey.

The basic model for the procession was what Roman generals did when they came back from foreign wars. If they had been successful, they were granted the right to have what was called a ‘triumph.’ A triumph was a magnificent procession through the centre of Rome, parading their captives and soaking up the applause of the people.

You can see that it would very much depend on your point of view how such a procession, with Jesus at its head, would be viewed. Even though Jesus was riding on a donkey, it might look rather challenging to the powers that be. In Palestine at that time, the ‘powers that be’ were both the Romans and the Jews, (the Pharisees and the scribes), because the Jews had a form of self rule, under the overall authority of the Romans. So if this big procession came over the hill from Bethany and down the Mount of Olives, it’s fairly understandable that both the Jewish authorities and the Romans might well have found it disturbing.

Even today, although we are supposed to be very liberal in our approach to free speech, you have to get permission for a demo to take place. You can’t just have a procession through the centre of the village, so that it blocks the traffic. For people in authority, processions are a sign of discontent.

There was a raw energy about to this crowd. In St John’s Gospel, we are told that the people were particularly excited because they had heard about Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life from the dead. Jesus, riding on a donkey, was a fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. It all added up to a moment of great hope for the people. A man who could bring a dead man back to life could certainly be the king that they were looking for, to throw off the yoke of Roman rule so that Jerusalem would be liberated again.

But we know what comes next. ‘Ride on, ride on, in lowly pomp ride on – to die.’ A huge amount of the New Testament is devoted to the events of next week, Holy Week. A quarter of St Luke’s gospel; a third of Saint Matthew and St Mark and nearly half of St John’s Gospel. This is what Christianity is all about. And certainly, in this week, it is not about a triumph. It is not about conquest. It is more like a catalogue of suffering and failure.

When you’re little, you can only really take in nice stories about people riding on the back of donkeys. Good Friday is not something that we go into in great detail with our children. It is in a very real sense what in the cinema would attract an X rating. It is something which is too shocking. What we are talking about is the death of God, people putting to death the man who was also God. Five days earlier this man was being feted as the returning hero, as the Messiah, the king from over the water.

Nevertheless he, this same man, was going to be strung up on a cross along with common criminals.

Saint Paul says that the authorities would never have done it if they had known the full story. ‘We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery which none of the princes of this world knew; for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’ [1 Cor. 2:8]

In Spiritual Cinema next week, on Tuesday, we intend to show the shortened, animated version of Ben Hur. We debated what would be an appropriate film to show during Holy Week. One film which we have shown in the past, which I felt was perhaps the very best one, was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A few years ago, we actually showed it in St Andrew’s Church, in the church itself.

For those who haven’t seen it, it is a very harrowing film, because it does show, in a very realistic way, exactly what happened to Jesus; how he was flogged, humiliated and ultimately crucified. Somehow it brings home to you the awfulness of what he suffered in a way that cold print on a page just can’t do. It would be a shocking film if you were watching somebody – just anybody – suffering in that way. Nobody should be treated in such a brutal and bestial way. But Jesus did suffer in that way, and he was the son of God.

The contrast with the jolly man on a donkey could not be more profound and more complete. We know what happened next. What must it feel like if you have just committed the most terrible crime, and realise what you have just done? What will the Judge say? What will your sentence be? What if that crime is to kill the son of God?

Oh, you say, but we didn’t. We weren’t there. It was the bad people, even the Jews. But in a sense, we were there. In a sense, the turnover, from his triumph to his downfall and being lifted up on the cross, was entirely predictable. It made sense in human terms to the powers that be. It wasn’t specifically because they were Jews or because they were Romans or whomever. They were just ordinary fallible human beings. They didn’t recognise his divinity. Pontius Pilate having the inscription put over the cross, naming Jesus as the King of the Jews, says it all. In one sense, he was the king of the Jews, but in that the Jews were the chosen people of God he was also king of heaven.

In Lent we have been encouraged to reflect, to deny ourselves, maybe to fast, and to pray. Now in this week, this Holy Week, we are invited to think about the full awfulness of what Jesus suffered, and why he suffered it. Maybe we should do it without a spoiler alert. Maybe we should say, we don’t know what comes next. Maybe we aren’t too comfortable. If Jesus died for all of us, for all of humankind, we should reflect that the sort of evil which pushed Jesus on to the cross is still with us.

People are still hurting each other, pursuing gain without thought for the loss to someone else that that gain entails. We are still returning an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We are still going by on the other side. We are still worshipping false gods.

‘Ride on, ride on in majesty. In lowly pomp, ride on to die.’

Sermon for Mattins on the Second Sunday of Epiphany, 17th January 2016

1 Corinthians 12:1-11: John 2:1-11
Spiritual gifts, which God created in us, have given us a variety of aptitudes and skills. We are all rather different, but, St Paul’s point is, we are all bound together by being created by the same spirit. That’s appropriate to mention now, because next week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
I’m sure we could also have a nice time reflecting on the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Did you know that there has been a change in the etiquette of buying somebody a drink? This is as a result of the government’s recent health advice on safe levels of alcohol consumption. The other day, as I found myself entering the ‘Running Mare’ for some reason, as I sometimes do, one of my boon companions greeted me by saying, “Hugh, would you like a unit?” A unit. I responded, as I understand you have to do in the circumstances, “Yes please, make it three”. And accordingly, a pint of the finest Tongham Traditional English Ale, otherwise known as a pint of TEA, was duly produced.
Moderation in all things, μηδέν αγαν; ‘do nothing to excess’. It is not a Christian principle as such. It was the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Classical antiquity. Perhaps discussion of wine, or even TEA, belongs to the jollifications of Christmas, and we really need to move on to more serious things.
Quite often at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have discussed the relations between the various churches, have regretted our differences, and prayed for better understanding between the different parts of God’s church, and possibly the coming together of some of the different parts in unity. So for example, we have had a close encounter with the Methodists, and the relations between the Church of England and the Catholic Church have greatly improved.
What I think is more topical, more important for us today, is to discuss the idea of Christian unity not between our church and others, but within the Anglican church in the light of the meeting of Primates, that is, senior bishops (not gorillas), the leaders of the various national Anglican churches, but which has just taken place in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.
Over 30 senior bishops from all over the world were meeting, at Archbishop Justin’s invitation, to try to sort out their differences over various aspects of human sexuality, in particular, gay marriage and the ordination of openly gay people as ministers. Perhaps after all the wedding at Cana is relevant today – not in its wine, but simply as a wedding. Weddings are the same focus.
There are divisions between those churches which uphold a so-called ‘traditional’ view and those who believe that the spirit of Jesus’ teaching allows them to recognise that the definition of marriage may well have changed or widened to include homosexual people.
It’s probably true also to say that the dividing line is between those who rely on the letter of the Bible and those who allow the Bible to be subject to interpretation. The argument centres around the verses in the 10th chapter of St Mark’s Gospel, ‘God made them male and female’. Coupled with some gruesome prohibitions in the book of Leviticus and the less enlightened parts of Saint Paul’s letters, to the effect that homosexuality is wrong, the traditionalists argue that gay marriage cannot be allowed in church.
Against this, understanding of people’s sexuality from a scientific point of view has advanced in many countries so that there is a recognition that it may well be an oversimplification to say simply that “God made them male and female”.
We now know there are all sorts of, degrees of, maleness and femaleness, up to and including cases where people are literally hermaphroditic, that they have as many male characteristics as female. And there are also people who discover that the body in which they are born doesn’t reflect their true sexuality, so that they may have sex change operations as a result. Some very well-known people have started out as being of a different sex from the one they are now recognised to be. For example the travel writer and historian, Jan Morris, until 1972 was James Morris, who reported for the Times on the first ascent of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing.

Again, within homosexual couples, it is often quite clear that one takes a male role and the other takes a female role within the partnership, notwithstanding the fact that the partners are biologically of the same sex.
Having said all that, it is also true that people who are not gay or bisexual often find the idea of gay or bisexual behaviour physically repulsive. This is presumably a natural instinct aimed at directing us towards those who share the same orientation. Similarly, some homosexuals have a distinct aversion from the opposite sex.
But I am sure that homosexual couples feel the same love, and have the same aspirations towards lifelong commitment and fidelity, that heterosexual couples do in marriage.
The churches within the Anglican communion have adopted different attitudes. The Church of England, our church, will not marry gay people in church, have gay bishops or ordain gay clergymen. Some of the African churches take things much further. Uganda and Nigeria have both either passed or are planning to pass laws which make homosexuality a criminal offence, and their local Anglican churches support this. They are in the same position as was the case in England before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality. On the other hand, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America has consecrated an openly gay bishop, and is willing to marry gay people in church.
Archbishop Justin convened the so-called Primates’ meeting, or conference, because it was beginning to look likely that a number of the national Anglican churches would split away from the worldwide Anglican communion, because of this disagreement on sexual questions.
As you will no doubt have read in the newspaper or heard on the radio, the conference has finished and a communiqué has been issued, to say that, although the bishops regret any hurt which may have been given to homosexuals or LGBTI people, and although the church commits itself to opposing legislation against homosexuality wherever such legislation is introduced throughout the world, nevertheless they have sanctioned the Episcopal Church of United States of America by excluding them from voting rights in the various Anglican communion meetings and consultations for the next three years as punishment for that church changing their doctrine concerning marriage without first obtaining the agreement of the other churches in the Anglican communion.
Archbishop Justin has avoided a split in the church for the time being, but it is at least arguable that he is just putting a lid on a seething cauldron of disagreement which is bound to result in some kind of schism in future.
It’s not my function to tell you how to think. But I think it is legitimate simply to point out, that, from its earliest times, the church has had disagreements about how to interpret the Bible, how to strike a balance between the norms of secular society and Biblical teaching.
It has been pointed out, for example, that right up to the passing of the legislation against it in the middle of the 19th century, the Church of England had nothing against slavery. The slave traders, whose wealth went into the creation of the cities of Liverpool and Bristol, were all devout churchgoers, and the church at that time saw nothing wrong in their activity. The Clapham Sect around William Wilberforce developed their opposition to slavery at their church, Holy Trinity, Clapham Common: and in so doing they were going against the official position of the Church of England at the time.
So I think it may be a little naive to suggest that there is some such thing as “the truth”, which can be discovered simply by reading the Bible. You will, I’m sure, all know of the various ambiguities and internal contradictions in the Bible. If you read the book of Leviticus, chapters 20 and 21, where the bloodcurdling prohibitions against homosexuality are to be found, you will find that not only is homosexuality condemned, but many other things are also slammed, which we might not find particularly objectionable today. But it is only homosexuality whose prohibition is remembered.
Very early on, the church evolved a formula for the interpretation of scripture and the development of the correct doctrine, according to which the Bible was certainly the first source, but it should be understood in the light of tradition and the application of reason. If something doesn’t make sense or is contradictory, then you can use reason to correct it, and it is also relevant to see what the church in its history has believed.
But to me the bottom line seems to be that, in all these discussions, it’s difficult to see how Jesus’ great commandment of love, that ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ is being observed, where the churches’ attitude to the gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is concerned. I find it very difficult to understand how the church can espouse anything as policy which results in such hurt.
We now know much more about how human sexuality works, as a matter of science. It seems to me that we should take advantage of that knowledge, so that in the mixture of scripture, reason and tradition we should give some weight to reason: and where scripture is concerned, we should recognise that some things are more central than others, none more so than Jesus’ new commandment that we love each other. Yes, we should acknowledge that there has been a tradition: but we should weigh this tradition appropriately against the other two factors.
We should give Archbishop Justin credit for keeping the churches in the Anglican communion together in one group and, we hope, keeping them talking to each other. The sad thing is, I can’t imagine that, if I went to a church in Nigeria or in Uganda, it would be very different, (except that it might be more jolly), from a church here or in the United States. There would indeed be ‘diversities of gifts, but the same spirit.’ And ‘differences of administrations, but the same Lord’, as St Paul says.
Let’s hope and pray that the Primates, (who are, after all, not gorillas), will recognise this in future. And then we can stop worrying about sex, and concentrate on all people who really need our compassion and love, like the refugees in Calais as they face a northern winter for the first time.

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday in Advent, 13th December 2015
Isaiah 35; Luke 1:57-80

So where are we up to in Advent? This is the third Sunday, and we are thinking about John the Baptist. Our second lesson was about Zacharias and Elisabeth, the faithful old couple who were way past having children when an angel visited Zacharias and told him that Elisabeth would have a son and that they would call him John.

Not surprisingly, Zacharias was rather worried that this was all not real. He asked the angel for some sign that he was telling the truth, and the angel said that he would be struck dumb until the boy was born. At about the same time, the angel Gabriel went to see Mary.

These were instances of special children, children with links to God, being born to women who had previously been unable to conceive, which had happened before in the Old Testament, in the book of Samuel. Hannah was infertile, but she prayed in the temple that if God granted her a son, she would give him up to be a priest. According to the book of Samuel, this happened.

So: John the Baptist. The angel had said that ‘he shall be great in the sight of the Lord and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost … And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:15-17) It was the beginning of the Kingdom of God, the time when all the happy things described by Isaiah in our first lesson would happen, the lame man leaping as an hart, like a deer: ‘then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing.’ [Isa.35:5f]

John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. But what did he actually do?
He baptised people. What did that really involve? Obviously, dunking them in the river Jordan was what he was doing physically, but why did people turn out in vast numbers, as they apparently did, in order for him to submerge them in the Jordan?

Baptism by total immersion still happens today. The last Deanery confirmation and baptism service was at St George’s, Ashtead, where they have a built-in baptism pool. One of the faithful at St Andrew’s, a grown-up, was duly baptised there this Autumn. According to him, the pool was not heated, but he didn’t seem to mind.

The symbolism of baptism is fairly straightforward. It is a symbolic washing way of all our sins, all the bad things about us. If we are making a stand against evil, and trying to be closer to God, this washing will symbolically wash away the obstacles to our closeness to God. You can see what the washing is intended to signify.

Well that in Ashtead was a couple of months ago, but going back to Biblical times, the story of Zacharias and Elisabeth and their son John needs to be related to the context of the Old Testament. The significance of John’s arrival in this miraculous way has to be understood as it would have been understood at that time, in the context of Old Testament theology.

What John was doing in baptising was not just giving people a wash, but it had ritual significance as well. In the Jewish cult, that is, the way in which the Jews worshipped God, there are all sorts of procedures laid down, particularly in the book of Leviticus, among them for what was called ‘purification’. The Jewish religion was a religion of sacrifice, holiness, purification and atonement.

At every stage in life, Jews had to come before their God and propitiate him, turning away his anger and regaining his love by giving him things, by making sacrifices in his favour. This mostly involved killing innocent animals, unfortunately, and then burning them on the altar. I won’t take you through the whole ghastly procedure. If you really want to look it up, it is in Leviticus chapters 11 to 15.

The Jewish religious rules also laid down foods which were permitted to be eaten and which were not. Jewish people still abide by this – although some of my Jewish friends seem to have given themselves some latitude where bacon sandwiches are concerned!

I always smile when we read Romans chapter 14 about the Christian attitude to foods which were ritually proscribed. ‘One believes that he may eat all things, another, who is weak, eateth herbs’ – or, as for once in my life I prefer a modern translation, ‘the weak eat only vegetables.’ [NRSV, Romans 14:2]

Be nice to your vegetarian friends!

But there is an urgency about this, a dynamic to it, which perhaps we don’t quite ‘get’, if all we understand about John the Baptist and about baptism is a kind of symbolic washing, or even a kind of initiation ceremony. As we say, anyone who has been baptised is welcome to eat at the Lord’s table. That’s not really the full flavour of how it was in the Old Testament. The Jews were God’s chosen people, and their worship was designed to acknowledge that they had been singled out by God.

The whole dynamic of the Old Testament concerns the interaction between the Jews and God. They disobeyed God, and were enslaved by the Egyptians and Babylonians. They obeyed God; God loved them again, he freed them and took them to the Promised Land. It’s an idea of God, a picture of God, which I don’t think we would find convincing today.

Take the stories, that we were brought up on, of the soldiers in the trenches in the First World War, perhaps 100 or 150 yards apart, the Germans and the Brits so close that they could hear each other talking. So close that they could hear each other saying their prayers. They were both praying to the same God. What were they praying for? To survive, not to be hurt, and, dare one say, to win.

How could there be a God who favoured one side over the other? Or both sides against each other? Just as a matter of simple logic, it doesn’t work. It surely can’t be how God works.

Of course some people don’t take it any further than that and simply say that it means that God does not exist. I think in a way that is just as big a mistake as imagining God as some kind of divine helper who can fix things when they are seemingly hopeless, and more importantly, who can favour one lot of people over against another.

Of course the Emperor Constantine, in 312AD, had a vision, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, that if he and his soldiers painted the sign of the cross on their shields, God would give them victory. They did paint the sign of the cross on their shields and they were victorious.

After that, Constantine adopted Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. That was probably one of the biggest factors in making Christianity a world religion instead of just being a local middle eastern cult.

But it is rather doubtful whether Constantine actually believed in anything which modern Christians would recognise as Christianity. We certainly would not imagine that God would work some kind of magic so that someone would win a battle.

But certainly in the Old Testament time, the time of Moses and Elijah, Jews believed that they had to perform these various sacrificial rituals as part of their proper worship of God. There was a vital significance to this, that unless they worshipped properly, God would be angry with them. If so, God would ultimately enslave or destroy them. Ritual cleansing was all part of this worship.

These days, I don’t really ‘get’ the idea of ritual washing. I’m as fond of a nice spa as the next person, but that has to do with simply enjoying a pleasant experience. If somebody said to me that, in order to get closer to God, to put myself right with God, perhaps to atone for past wrong, for things which I have done, I needed to be baptised, I needed to have a ritual bath, I’m not sure whether I would believe in it.

Perhaps we should look again at what the work of John the Baptist could mean today.

For instance, the idea of purification. In the Jewish religion, purification has a connotation of stripping away things which are not true, bringing people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation.

Such a purification, a weeding out of things that are not true, that are wrong, could still make sense. There are plenty of things that are wrong today. If they were purified, refined back to their true essentials, would it indeed help to bring people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation?

Vital reality. I wonder why it is, therefore, that today there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of urgency. Quite a lot of people, after their Sunday lunch, and perhaps a little walk, may indeed have watched Songs of Praise, but now instead of coming to Evensong, they will be settling down for a pleasant evening catching up with the doings of some Norwegian detective.

I wonder whether we ought to be quite so blasé. Some of the things, which we take as being facts of life, perhaps aren’t. They might perhaps be better for some purification.

Take money for example. We all understand the idea of money: that money is something which stands for things which you can exchange for it. A certain amount of money gets you a certain amount of goods or services. Until 1933, a £1 note could be exchanged for a gold sovereign. There was a gold standard. The idea was that money had a fixed worth.

Clearly that is not true any more (if it ever was). Why is it, for example, that if a poor person goes into debt, maxes out their credit cards at Christmas and then is made redundant, they are immediately in trouble, and there is no one to help them; but if the banks go bankrupt, as they did in 2008, governments will step in to bail them out? It’s all the same stuff: all money.

Indeed the banks were bailed out largely by the government creating money. Clearly that money did not necessarily represent, or have any equivalence with, goods or services in a way we would understand. Is that the reality that suits us human beings best? Is it a true reflection of how things are? Perhaps we need some kind of washing. Perhaps this whole system needs to be washed through, cleaned.

Maybe John the Baptist still has something to say to us. It is something to think about when you are next in the Jacuzzi.