Archives for posts with tag: gospel

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Easter, 8th April 2018
Isaiah 26.1-9,19, Luke 24.1-12

I must confess that this week I had quite a case of writer’s block before this sermon came to me. I have been through all the Easter services: for a minister in the Church, just as for faithful members of the congregation like you, it has been a really busy time. But it all comes together in the happiness of Easter Sunday, after which point a lot of people take off for a bit of holiday.

Stoke D’Abernon and Cobham are really quiet; I went into Town a couple of times last week and I managed to park my car at the station right near to the station building, which is unheard-of normally. A lot of people are away. Now in the church we have got this period until 10th May, the Ascension, when we are in Easter time, which is the time when the church reflects on and celebrates the appearances which Jesus made after he was resurrected from the dead.

Tonight we have read about the visit of the various women going with Mary Magdalene who had been at the crucifixion and seen Jesus laid in the tomb. They had brought all the various embalming spices to prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial. Then they found that the stone had been rolled away and they met two men in shining garments – two angels.

This is St Luke’s account, which doesn’t have some of the features in the other Gospels. For example, St Peter runs to the empty tomb by himself according to St Luke, but in St John’s Gospel he’s accompanied by ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, which is presumably St John himself.

Mary Magdalene is met by two angels, whereas in another version there is a person, whom she mistakes for the gardener, who turns out to be Jesus himself. When you realise that all these Gospel accounts were written at the least 20 years and often more like 40 years after the events described, it’s not surprising that there are some minor variations in the story.

It’s all about resurrection from the dead. That Jesus died a horrible death and then somehow came alive again. When you look at the prophecy of Isaiah which is from the time approximately 750 years before Jesus, you see this picture of the land of Judah and of the city of Jerusalem as concrete expressions of God keeping his covenant, his agreement, with his chosen people. ‘We have a strong city’: I looked it up and this is not where ‘Ein’ Feste Burg’, Martin Luther’s hymn, comes from. [It’s Psalm 46].

In Martin Luther’s German it’s ‘ein fester Stadt’ here. But the idea is similar. The city of God, a protection, a bulwark, against the godless. And it’s interesting to see the prophetic vision of a fair society in the city of God. It’s almost the same train of thought as in the Magnificat. ‘… he bringeth down them that dwell on high; the lofty city, he layeth it low; he layeth it low, even to the ground; he bringeth it even to the dust.’ And then at the end of the passage that we had tonight, there is what my Bible commentary tantalisingly says is one of the only two references in the Old Testament to the idea of resurrection from the dead. ‘…. for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise.’

It’s great: it must have been a really wonderful time. It’s very inspiring to read in the Acts of the Apostles how the early Christians lived; looking after each other, holding their possessions in common and looking forward to Jesus’ second coming as though it was going to happen any day.

But is it too awful, perhaps even sacrilegious, to ask, ‘So what?’ How does that work today? How is my life and your life affected by those events of the first Easter? Granted, of course, that they were cosmic events, that the world would not be the same after them: before Jesus, people were in touch with God through the prophets, like Isaiah. And the prophecies came true, and the dead man did live; but when I look at the nuts and bolts of what I have been dealing with this week and what I have been reading about in the newspapers, I’m challenged. I find it quite difficult to see the footsteps of the resurrected Jesus in some of the things that I encountered this week.

An earnest lady came to see me this week, representing the Department of Work and Pensions, to try to persuade me that Universal Credit was going to be good for the clients of the Foodbank; I pointed out to her that, if somebody is sick or disabled, and signs on for benefits now, they will get 28% less than they used to. There are lots of other ways in which this new system is worse than what went before. 4/5 of people receiving Universal Credit are in arrears with their rent, because there is a six-week delay in paying it – and because you only have to miss two rent payments for the landlord to be able to repossess your home, they are at risk of becoming homeless.

Sir Gerry Acher was very involved with the Motability scheme, providing specially adapted cars for disabled people. Hundreds of those cars are now being returned because the poor disabled people no longer have enough in benefits to afford to run them.

Teenagers are being murdered in London; although the Metropolitan Police Commissioner says that the cuts in the police service have no effect on the murder rate, you can’t help feeling that things would be better if there was a bobby on the beat, as there used to be. But the cuts have taken them away.

So who knows? David Lammy, the widely-respected MP for Tottenham, says that a lot of this is caused by our society becoming so mean, so that single mothers have to go out to work and leave their children at home on their own. He gives an example of 12-year-olds being offered new pairs of trainers by drug dealers, and asked to run little errands – little ones to start off with – round the corner to deliver a packet. Soon they are earning more than their parents ever dreamt of, but they will have become members of gangs and they will be armed. According to Mr Lammy, the drugs that they supply end up being used by trendy middle-class people who live behind electric gates – maybe somewhere around here.

Well I can’t say this stuff, without some of you jumping up and down and saying, ‘This isn’t a sermon: it is a political speech’. But it seems to me that Jesus would be concerned. Jesus would say that so many of these things really don’t chime with the idea of a strong city, ‘for whose walls and bulwarks God will appoint salvation.’

‘Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.’ Is that a picture of an immigration policy? Somehow it doesn’t sound like it. The meanness at the heart of the idea of controlled immigration just doesn’t sound like that strong city in the land of Judah whose gates are open.

And what about the events in Palestine? 15 or 16 people have been shot by the Israeli army and 1500 people have been injured. The Israeli army has been firing bullets at people throwing stones at them. The most recent tragedy was a photojournalist called Yaser Murtaja, who was wearing a flak jacket with ‘Press’ written in big letters across the front. He was shot in the stomach by the Israeli forces. Where is the kingdom of God in any of that?

But then there were all the stories this week about Ray Wilkins, the great footballer and Cobham resident, who died this week very early, at the age of 61. There were an amazing number of stories, not only about his great goals and tremendous talent as a footballer, but also about what a good and generous man he was.

There is one I particularly like which I saw told by a homeless man, an ex-soldier, who was sitting outside West Brompton station. Ray Wilkins went over to him, sat down with him and took time to talk with him. Ray Wilkins’ phone rang, apparently, and he answered it and said that he would call the person back, because he was ‘busy’. Busy – busy talking to a homeless bloke sitting on a cardboard sheet, huddled up against the wall of the station. He gave the bloke £20, and took him across to a café to buy him a cup of tea. He suggested that the homeless man should use the money to stay in a hostel and get a hot meal. He did that, and that night, at the hostel, the old soldier met a social worker specialising in ex-soldiers. As a result, the homeless man was put on a path which brought him back to a decent life with a new job and a home.

Ray Wilkins, whom I’m sure many of us have met around the village, did what Jesus would have wanted him to do. He was a Good Samaritan – as well as a very good footballer.

So maybe things are not so bleak, and maybe the resurrection of Jesus, the Easter story, isn’t totally submerged in godless ghastliness after all.

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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 the Sunday next before Advent, Christ the King: 22nd November 2015

Daniel 5

Today in the Christian year we celebrate, we talk about, the idea of Christ the King. The expression ‘King’ comes up when he is on trial in front of Pontius Pilate, which seems to have been the most extraordinary scenario. ‘Are you a king?’ Pilate asks.

Pilate seems to me to have been a rather normal bloke, in a difficult position, having to deal with a bunch of fanatics who were zealots who caused a lot of trouble: possibly we might say they were in the line of ancestors of the people who are Zionists today, contributing to dissent and and unrest in the Holy Land. 

Well, perhaps that’s not a legitimate thing to say, but we can say that the Jews presenting Jesus for judgement by the ruler, by Pontius Pilate, were certainly not thinking about how to promote peace and harmony in the long run; they just wanted to rub out Jesus. He was asking awkward questions, which they did not find easy to answer. It was said that he was King of the Jews.

The idea of the kingdom of God in Jewish theology is a mixture of the idea of the Promised Land and the theology of God’s Holy Mountain. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:9) – the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and so on. We all know to some extent about Jesus’ rather upside-down concept of kingship. The first shall be last, washing people’s feet, giving up all that you own and giving it to the poor, when dealing with somebody described as a “rich young ruler”, a sort of prince.

But I’m afraid that I will rehearse all these stories, and then add a couple of pious sentences, saying that somehow you should follow them – and then you will forget this sermon and the ideas that it contains, probably before the end of the service, if not a few moments later.

I’d be very doubtful if a sermon, which concentrates on telling you, just in an academic way, what the meaning of kingship was in relation to Jesus Christ, would influence your life in any meaningful way, because you would find the way of life then so different, so alien from what we do now.

We have to build a bridge. What would Jesus do if he were here today? If we go back to the trial before Pontius Pilate, there’s an awful lot of irony in it. Pilate clearly is the representative of the ruling establishment, of the empire of Rome. So the idea that somebody else should come forward and present themselves as a king looks rather counter-intuitive, when it was so obvious that the ruler was a Roman.

Maybe Jesus’ kingship was a bit like all those grandly-named sort-of kings that survived in India after independence – I think largely for the purpose of owning classic vintage Rolls-Royces. The Maharajah of Jaipur, or the Nawab of Pataudi, for instance. Possibly Pontius Pilate had something similar in mind when he was tackling Jesus. ‘Are you a king?’ Meaning, ‘Are you one of those symbolic kings?’

I’m pretty sure that that’s not what the earliest Christians, what the contemporary readers of the Gospel, would have had in mind. The idea of some kind of symbolic king without any power just doesn’t chime with the whole of Jewish history. It’s more likely that they thought of a king as being like King Belshazzar the King of Babylon, the King from Ur of the Chaldees, portrayed in the wonderful fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel.

That King’s father, Nebuchadnezzar, was so confident in his own legitimacy and strength that he had invaded the kingdom of Judah, overrun the Temple, and nicked all the treasures, the gold goblets, plates and things used in the Temple rituals; he turned them over for use at parties, at his court banquet. It was pretty insulting to the Jews, but he had the power. 

Was their God so weak, so inferior to Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar’s god? The Jews didn’t believe this. What that King did, what Belshazzar did, was sacrilege to the Jews. Even today, in theological debates, now between Moslems and Christians, the heart of the matter is precisely that both sides think they have the correct understanding of the most important question ever, namely, what the nature of God is.

But then, despite all his power, Belshazzar encountered the writing on the wall. What did it mean? And Daniel, the Jew, explained. Despite all his power as a king, Belshazzar was finished.

What would happen today, if the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate was re-run in a contemporary environment? Was Jesus a king? And if so, what sort of king? Well, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus very clearly reserves his position, and points out that the kingdom that he rules as a king is not of this world. So we can’t judge him by how big a country he rules or how big an empire: or whether he has given up his power and become a constitutional monarch like the Queen; or whether he is still an absolute monarch, like the Saudi King, for example.

There’s a faint colour of artificiality about the move which I’m trying to make, between Jesus the king in the Bible and some kind of contemporary interpretation. But never mind; let’s pursue it. I’m confident that it will illustrate what needs to be said here. 

What would the kingdom of God look like? Is it like Belshazzar’s banquet, or is it ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ as Jesus proclaimed in St Luke chapter 4 [4:19], fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah [Is. 61:1,2]? Is it ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’? Or is it, ‘The last shall be first, and the first shall be last’, in the Gospel story itself? [Matt. 20:16]
What does it mean to be a king? I think that the idea of kingship can be taken in more than one way. 

You can of course look historically at who has actually been a king, and identify the qualities these historic kings actually had. But equally, another way of looking at it is to see kingship as a kind of metaphor for the whole business of government, of leadership of people. What would a really Christian government look like – a government where Christ was really in charge?
Would he be democratic, for example? Surely yes. We believe that God loves every single one of us: indeed that he has called us all by name [Isaiah 43:1], and that therefore we are all worth knowing. That would imply that we should each have a vote; it would imply a need for democracy. 

But would Jesus approve of our particular version of democracy? So many people didn’t vote in the last general election. So, although the government claims a majority, in fact I believe that only 24% of the electorate as a whole actually voted for them. Many more, 36%, didn’t vote for anyone. It’s at least arguable that our current arrangements are not as democratic as one feels they might be, if we were trying to create heaven on earth. It’s something to think about.

Again, after Bishop John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’, we now understand that the Kingdom of God isn’t in a particular place, where Jesus, the Lamb or God Himself is, up there somewhere on their thrones. In a spiritual sense, the Kingdom is with us here and now. We are God’s workers – ‘Take my hands and let them move | At the impulse of thy love’, as the hymn says [Common Praise no 581]. It’s up to us to work to bring about the year of the Lord’s favour. Jesus is our King – not in a temporal, earthly sense, as he says when Pilate questions him – but he does rule; he rules in our hearts. 

I worry a bit, when I say that. I worry because I think that it might be the same type of reasoning which IS, Daesh, uses in support of its ‘Caliphate’. They talk about their Islamic State having a king, a ‘caliph’. But the difference is that, whereas their caliph is to be a sheikh, an Arab king, who is defined as the successor to, or deputy for, Mohammed, in Islam, and is king, caliph, by virtue of that divine authority, in Christianity, as Jesus says, the king is not a secular ruler. ‘My kingdom is not from this world’, he said, in John 18:36.

And definitely, on our God’s holy mountain there will be peace: ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:9). It’s so tragic that people who support Daesh believe that God supports violence. We understand that Moslems as well as Jews all worship the same God as we do – but the IS people don’t recognise that if their Islamic State were a real Caliphate, governed by God, then God ‘will dwell with them, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them’: 

that we agree on; but we believe that 

‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ 

That’s in our Bible, in the Book of Revelation, 21:3-4. To be fair, I think that most Moslems do not support the idea of a a militant ‘caliphate’, based on terror. They wouldn’t recognise a Daesh Caliph as a real ruler, whoever he might be.

So, even if there’s no kingly pomp, let us give our allegiance, let us indeed sing hymns and praises, sing the National Anthem of the Kingdom of Heaven, even, to our King, to Jesus.

Sermon for Mattins on the Festival of St Luke the Evangelist, 18th October 2015
2 Timothy 4:5-15, Luke 10:1-9

What is it to be a doctor? St Luke the Evangelist, whom we are commemorating today, was a doctor: ‘the beloved physician’, ιατρός αγαπητός, according to St Paul in his Letter to the Colossians, [4:14].

He was the author of the Gospel that bears his name, and it looks as though he was the author of the Acts of the Apostles too. Both books are addressed to somebody called Theophilus. It’s quite clear from the beginning of the first chapter of Acts that it is a continuation of the story which was told in Luke’s Gospel. If you look at Acts chapter 16, you’ll see that, all of a sudden, the narrative changes from third-person, ‘they’ did this, that and the other, to ‘we’ did this, that and the other; so it’s pretty clear that Luke was one of the people who actually went around with St Paul.

My daughters, Emma and Alice, are both doctors. They’re probably not evangelists as well, like Luke was, but I think they would both say they had their hands pretty full, just being doctors.

This weekend doctors are in the news. My daughter Alice travelled up from Exeter in order to join yesterday’s demonstration in Parliament Square by thousands of so-called ‘junior’ doctors – because that is what she is. It’s a misleading description. ‘Junior’ doctor, in this context, means any doctor who is not a consultant or GP.

But even a really junior ‘junior doctor’ – and I think that Alice, as an F1 hospital doctor (what used to be called a Junior Houseman) would accept that she is one of those – is somebody who has had at least five years of academic study and whose career then goes forward through more or less constant further training until they either become a general practitioner, or a Senior House Officer, Registrar or Consultant in hospital.

Alice’s elder sister, my elder daughter Emma, is a junior surgeon, a Senior House Officer in the Royal Glamorgan Hospital working for her MRCS qualification (she’s half-way there) which will enable her to apply for a Registrar’s post. She has two degrees, has published academic papers, and she is just entering her tenth year of study and training since she started at Bristol University.

Emma will be very happy to take your, or your children’s, tonsils and adenoids out, or to fit grommets in their ears – all of which she does very well, every day of the week, including weekends. She’s at work now, right now, on Sunday morning. She often is.

image

Dr Emma Hallett, surgeon

I’m not sure whether St Luke was a physician or a surgeon: whether he worked with drugs or other non-invasive therapies, or whether he wielded a scalpel. It’s interesting that, in the Gospel reading, (from St Luke), Jesus sends out his 70 or 72 missionaries in pairs, travelling very light; and after they have wished peace upon those whom they visit, they are told to heal the sick – which is something that St Luke, the doctor, reports without comment.

I would be really interested to know what he thought about this healing. We have, even today, almost a parallel set of disciplines here: on the one hand you have the medical profession, that my daughters belong to, who practise medicine as a scientific discipline with drugs, with other non-invasive therapies, and with surgery. On the other hand you have healing ministries. In many churches – including St Andrew’s, our sister church – there is a healing ministry, where during the service, people are available to lay on hands and pray for people who feel they need God’s healing touch.

Of course Jesus himself healed many people, even including raising people from the dead – Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus, who’d both definitely died. That must be the ultimate form of healing. There were also many other healing miracles: the blind man, that Jesus had to have two goes at healing; the man who had been lame from birth: ‘Take up thy bed, and walk’; the woman who had had a haemorrhage for 12 years – she touched his clothing, and it was enough for her to be healed; people who had ‘devils’ – what we perhaps would now characterise as a kind of psychiatric illness: in all these cases, Jesus didn’t use any drugs or psychiatric techniques or behavioural therapies – or surgery.

Jesus did seem to approve of surgery. He said, If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (Matt. 5:30).

There are people who sincerely believe that one or other branch of healing, scientific, medical on the one hand, and faith-based on the other, should oust the other one entirely. A very important ministry in the church is our ministry as chaplains in hospital. On the whole our chaplains are not medically qualified – although some are. I know a very experienced hospital chaplain who started as a nurse.

On the whole, everybody in the NHS believes that having hospital chaplains is a very good thing, simply from the point of view that it helps people to get better; it helps people to cope with the stresses and strains of being in hospital. You could almost say that hospital chaplaincy offers a kind of complementary therapy.

What about today’s ‘beloved physician?’ What do we, as Christians, have to say about a situation where our beloved physicians feel that things are so wrong for them that they have to actually have a demonstration, in public outside Parliament?

Jesus was pretty clear that someone who needs medical assistance should receive it. The Good Samaritan found the man who had been hurt and helped him. He didn’t ask to see his credit cards or the details of his insurance. He helped him because he was hurt. That is the principle of our National Health Service. The Health Service should be available to all, free at the point of need.

I believe that Margaret Thatcher said that we should note that the Good Samaritan had the means to look after the poor man that he found injured on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He took him to an hotel, had them swipe his credit card, and undertook that he would be responsible for the cost of the injured man’s accommodation until he was better. That wouldn’t have been possible if the Good Samaritan had not had the wherewithal to do it.

Actually I’m rather uneasy about the conclusion that Margaret Thatcher drew from that. When I go collecting for charities, particularly Christian Aid, it’s always easier to get money from the poorer roads. People who have less, tend to give disproportionately more of what they have, in charity.

The National Health Service is, effectively, a collective charitable operation by all of us, paying through our taxes, so that everyone can receive medical treatment if they need it, irrespective of the cost of that treatment and the ability of the patient to pay for it.

But it is very wrong, I think, for us who enjoy the benefits, at the same time to ask the professionals who actually deliver that medical care, the doctors and the nurses and the ancillary workers, to give their time and energy, and not have decent living conditions or proper salaries, because we, through our politicians, are not prepared to pay enough for what they do. I think that we should be brought up short – and I hope that our leaders are brought up short – by the sight of thousands of the cleverest, most dedicated and most highly qualified people in our society gathered outside Parliament and demonstrating against the conditions which the government is threatening to impose upon them: demonstrating not only that they are not being paid enough or given enough rest time, but that they are being forced by those conditions to deliver substandard or possibly dangerous care.

If a doctor in this country wants to practise abroad, in Australia, Canada, South Africa, mainland Europe or the USA, or anywhere in the world, they usually require a certificate of competency which the Health Service has to provide on request. Applications for these certificates are now running at the highest level they have ever done since the Health Service began.

We are losing doctors in significant numbers because they believe they can no longer practise in a way which is consistent with their Hippocratic oath and with the ability to have a decent life. Remember, the Good Samaritan had enough money, and so he was able, to help the injured man.

The whole business of healing was obviously central to Jesus’s ministry. The son of God – God in man – didn’t want people to be ill. He healed people, and when he sent out the 70 or 72 as missionaries, they were medical missionaries. They were there to bring healing to sick people.

I’m very proud of my two daughters – Dr Emma and Dr Alice. But I am deeply troubled that Dr Alice had to be in a demo yesterday and Dr Emma would have been there but for the fact, as she tweeted earlier in the week, that #IAmInWorkJeremy.

I do pray that the politicians will start to realise that however expensive the mission of healing is, it is a cost that society, in the sixth richest country in the world, should meet gladly and in full. As we remember Saint Luke, the beloved physician, let us also remember, and give proper support for, our beloved physicians as well.

image

Dr Alice Bryant, right

imageSermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Trinity, 14th June 2015
Jeremiah 7:1-16, Romans 9:14-26

On Wednesday night the Leatherhead Deanery Synod met in our church hall. It was a very interesting meeting, addressed by the Revd Canon Dr Hazel Whitehead, who is director for Discipleship Vocation and Ministry in our Guildford Diocese. Hazel is dynamic and somewhat formidable. Her topic was so-called ‘Faith Sharing’.

Among other things, she asked us to come up with about 20 words which would sum up the Good News, the Gospel message, which we would want to share with any heathens that we might meet in our ordinary lives. There was discussion about how one could approach people who were not Christians in a way which might open their minds to knowing more about the Gospel.

We all were nervous about possibly seeming like Jehovah’s Witnesses or those earnest people with clip-boards who tackle you at the least suitable time when you are out and about. I think that it’s probably true to say that many of us are not naturally ‘God Squad’ people, but nevertheless we are sincere in our belief, and if we could find a way of doing it, which didn’t make us look like lunatics, we would be very happy to share the Good News with people who don’t yet know about it.

How would I speak to the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’, to use the old lawyer’s phrase, about the work of a prophet like Jeremiah, who was at work 400 years after the kingdom of David and Solomon had split into two, a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah, including Jerusalem.

Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BC-

‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold’

as you will remember, in Lord Byron’s poem: and in 587 BC the remainder of the Chosen People, the people of Judah, were deported to Babylon:

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept (Psalm 137).

400 years before, there had been the time of the Exodus, and Moses had received the Ten Commandments from the Lord. Jeremiah was reminding the people of Judah that they would only be able to continue to live in the Promised Land if they kept God’s commandments: to love the Lord your God, and not to worship other gods, and to keep the other moral laws, not to steal, not to do murder, not to commit adultery, and so on.

Interestingly, when he is going through the various commandments, Jeremiah doesn’t recite the commandments about stealing, murdering and committing adultery, until he has emphasised, they would only be able to continue to live in the Promised Land, ‘If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.’

We tend to think of Old Testament morality as being centred around ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’. Not a bit of it – practical care for the weaker members of society was very important indeed. We perhaps don’t think of it as being part of the Law of Moses – it was not actually part of the Ten Commandments not to oppress the fatherless, the stranger and the widow. But it is part of the Jewish Law: you’ll find it in Deuteronomy (24:17) and in Exodus (22:22). There’s a real strain of socially-directed morality in the Jewish Law.

The Italians and the Maltese today, throwing their navy and their coast guard into rescuing all the refugees embarking from North Africa in unseaworthy craft, are carrying out the Law of Moses. They are saving the strangers, the refugees. Jesus affirmed that Jewish Law. He said, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil’ (Matt. 5:17).

It surprises me that, although they have committed the Royal Navy, our government so readily rejects the proposals of the European Commission, that all the nations of Europe should take a fair share of the refugees. In this our government’s attitude seems to me not only to be contrary to the Law of Moses, but also to the precepts of Christ Himself.

But if even the government is so deaf to God’s commands, how do I get through to the man on the Clapham omnibus about the ‘law and the prophets’? How can I get him to think about whether keeping to the Law and following the prophets would keep him in the Promised Land, as Jeremiah was saying to the people of Judah? Alas, I have a feeling that the chap on the bus will look at me as though I’d just stepped off a spaceship from Mars.

What about what St Paul says? In Romans 9, ‘Is there unrighteousness with God?’ Is God unfair? Is God unjust? St Paul goes back to the original giving of the Ten Commandments, God saying to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ In other words, nothing that humans can do will necessarily influence the will of God.

But does that make God good, or bad? Again, it looks quite difficult to explain to our chap on the bus. (Perhaps not on the actual number 88 from Clapham, but maybe I might be listened to on a number 9 coming along Pall Mall – a Boris Bus – what do you think?)

It was relatively simple in the time of Jeremiah. Behave decently, look after those who are weak and disadvantaged in your society – and God will look favourably on you. He will not turf you out of the Promised Land.

But St. Paul points out that things aren’t quite so simple. In the passage which comes immediately after that terrific passage which we often have at funerals – ‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’,[Rom. 8:38-39], Paul agonises about whether the Israelites, the Jews, are still the chosen people.

Of course much of the Old Testament is a kind of epic love-hate story between the chosen people and God. When the chosen people obeyed God, worshipped the One True God, then they were able to escape from captivity in Egypt and go into the Promised Land.

But then when they mixed with the Canaanites, whose land they had occupied, and started to worship the Baals, the gods that the Canaanites worshipped, and no longer exclusively worshipped the One True God, then God was angry with them, and eventually they lost the Promised Land.

What St Paul points out is that God is not some kind of cosmic prizegiver. God is far greater than that. As it says at the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, ‘To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become Children of God’. St Paul says, ‘As Hosea prophesied, I will call them my people which were not my people; and it shall come to pass that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there shall they be called the children of the living God’.

God is omnipotent, so of course He can do this: and there’s no point answering back and complaining, railing against God if He doesn’t do what we want.

Back to my 20 words of message to my heathen friend on the top deck of the Number 9 bus. What would he make of a prophet like Jeremiah, and what would he make of a Jewish convert to Christianity like St Paul? Our heathen friend is, by definition, in this context, not an Israelite, not one of the chosen people.

So he won’t be familiar with the terms of art, with the language, of Christianity and Judaism before it. What does a prophet do? Could there be prophets today? In the Old Testament, at the crucial moment, God will speak through a prophet, to His chosen people: ‘Do this. Do that, and you will be able to enjoy the promised land.’

In today’s world, after the New Testament, it may be a bit different. Be alert to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Try to discern what God has in mind for you, and what God is calling you to do. ‘Amend your ways and your doings. If you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow’, says God through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘then I will dwell with you in this place.’

So what are we to make of all this? How would we share it with our heathen friend? How does God speak to us these days? Do we still have prophets, and if we don’t, how do we know if what we are doing is in line with the will of God?

St Paul doesn’t say straightforwardly that God only does good things. He asks, ‘Is there injustice on God’s part?’ He answers his own question, By no means – or, ‘God forbid.’ But he then goes on to say that God ‘will have mercy on whom [he] has mercy and [he] will have compassion on whom [he] has compassion.’ In other words, justice seems to depend on God’s whim, not on whether something is right or wrong.

It’s an old philosophical problem, and it’s possible that it was something that Paul knew about, from his study of Ancient Greek philosophy, and in particular, Plato. 400 years before the time of Christ, Plato wrote about the teaching of Socrates. Socrates himself didn’t write anything down, but he was reported faithfully, just as Boswell reported Dr Johnson, by Plato.

Socrates’ philosophical investigations usually took the form of dialogues, of conversations that he had with various people, which brought out the issues that he wanted to explore.

One of these dialogues is called Euthyphro. It takes the form of a conversation between Socrates and a man called Euthyphro. In the course of the dialogue, the famous Euthyphro Dilemma comes up. It is this: is something good because it is good in itself or is it good because God makes it good? St Paul seems to come down on the side of the second: something is good because God makes it good. The Ten Commandments are expressions of the will of God not because they are good in themselves but because God has laid them down by giving them to Moses.

It does seem clear, nevertheless, that most of the things that are recommended in the Jewish law are, almost self-evidently, good in themselves. But what about the refugee, and the widow and the orphan? What about the immigrants? Is God telling us to look after them? And if He is, what are we doing about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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