Archives for posts with tag: Guildford diocese

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?

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Sermon for the Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, 15th February 2015

Holy Communion and Mattins – Mark 9:2-9: Evensong – 2 Peter 1:16-21

One of the nicer ways to get people, who don’t normally come to church, to darken our doors, is for there to be a concert in church. We are blessed here in Stoke and Cobham with an awful lot of good music. We have all sorts of recitals, here in St Mary’s, and down the road, St Andrew’s hosts regular concerts under the ‘Maiastra’ name.

This is where musicians who have participated in a residential master-class at Aidan Woodcock’s house, at Little Slyfield, just opposite the Yehudi Menuhin School, give a concert, led by their teacher. These are people at the beginning of their performing career, who have already graduated – sometimes more than once – from leading music schools, and have usually won some prizes as well. The Maiastra concerts – the name, incidentally, comes from a mythical Persian bird – are a real opportunity to hear the classical music stars of tomorrow, and they’re very exciting, very good.

These concerts do bring a lot of people into the church who wouldn’t ordinarily come – either because they are not local, or because they just don’t go to church. I hope that some of them, having found a warm welcome and a beautiful space, do decide to come back to worship with us later on.

So far, so good. But I had a rather disappointing exchange the other day with one of the admin staff for the master classes, who was trying to book the church for a Maiastra concert at the beginning of April. ‘How would Friday 3rd or Saturday 4th be? Would the church be free?’ Well, I was rather surprised, because of course that is Good Friday and Easter Saturday. I had to delicately remind the lady that this was Easter, the height of the Christian year, and that, I was afraid, the church was not going to be free.

‘So sorry’, she said, ‘Of course.’ She would talk to the course tutor to see whether the course could be slightly rescheduled, so as to allow the concert to take place without conflicting with Easter. Back came another email. ‘How about the Monday or Tuesday?’ Oh dear.

So I had to go back and explain that that was the Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week – all part of the most important part of the Christian year, so that you couldn’t think of having a concert in the church, unless it was a devotional performance, at all during that week.

Well, of course the concert will eventually take place at some other time. But I reflected on that a bit, in the context of our worship today, on the Sunday before Lent, when we remember Jesus’ Transfiguration. The cloud descended, and a voice said the same words as they heard when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan: ‘He is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.’ It was a literally dazzling experience for Peter and James and John, as they accompanied Jesus up the high mountain. You couldn’t ignore that. It would be a life-changing experience.

But here’s the thing. Today, very often it would appear that people are ignoring this: that these extraordinary events no longer affect people’s lives. The nice people organising the Maiastra concert had forgotten what the main purpose of a church is. It’s not just a pretty concert venue. At the Church’s General Synod this week, one of the speakers reminded the delegates that studies had shown that, if the Church of England carries on declining in numbers at the current rate, 1% per year, overall in England (although fortunately, not in the Guildford Diocese), there will come a time, sooner rather than later, when churches in many rural parishes will be unsustainable and it will no longer be the case that the Church of England will have a parish church in every city, town and village in England.

So the Church has been embarking on all sorts for programmes of evangelisation: Messy Church, Fresh Expressions, Alpha courses, and so on. And quite a lot of it seems to be working. New people are coming to the the Church. Its interesting that it’s not always the most modern ideas which are successful in involving new people. Apparently the fastest-growing service in terms of numbers attending in the Church of England is – what do you think? It’s Evensong.

Obviously to some extent that’s influenced by the fact that cathedrals are attracting more and more people, and Evensong is seen as a quintessentially cathedral service; although of course we have lovely Evensongs here at St Mary’s every Sunday, sung just as they are in a cathedral; in fact, we sing a little bit more of the service than they do in Guildford Cathedral.

But the fact is that we are 2,000 years away from the spectacular events of Jesus’ time here on earth. It was relatively easy, when compared with our position, for the disciples to go out and spread the Gospel. As St Peter said in his second letter [2 Peter 1:16], they’d ‘been eyewitnesses of his majesty’ – they had seen Him, they’d witnessed the miraculous things that happened; and the inner circle, Peter and James and John, had even seen a foretaste of the Resurrection. The transfigured Jesus was like the resurrected Jesus. It was a glimpse into the future.

As a matter of intellect, as a matter of rational reflection, that’s still tremendously important, even 2,000 years later, even today. For us as Christians, as practising Christians, it’s something we couldn’t even think of ignoring. We have to react. We have to come and worship, and say prayers, and give our sacrifice of praise.

But what about the people who don’t get it? The people for whom church really doesn’t figure in their lives? St Paul has something to say about that in his second Letter to the Corinthians. ‘If our gospel be hid’ – if our Gospel is veiled, if our Gospel is obscure – St Paul says that it is ‘hid to them that are lost’, who are ‘on their way to perdition’, as one translation puts it. ‘Their unbelieving minds are so blinded by the god of this passing age, that the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the very image of God, cannot dawn upon them and bring them light.’ [2 Corinthians 4:3f]

It’s an easy thing to understand. If you are doing well, having a nice life, enjoying good things, you probably don’t feel there’s anything much missing in your life: that’s one kind of distraction. If you are somebody who comes from a home where nobody ever went to church, and you go to school and study at university among people who see a scientific explanation for everything; who don’t need, or feel they don’t need, any kind of reference to God, the Gospel will be veiled from you.

Later on in his second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul says this. ‘No wonder we do not lose heart, though our outward humanity is in decay, yet day by day we are inwardly renewed. Our troubles are slight and short-lived; and their outcome an eternal glory which outweighs them far. Meanwhile our eyes are fixed, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen: for what is seen passes away; what is unseen is eternal.’ [2 Corinthians 4:16f]

I think that’s a very good message for us. We can’t see, in the same way that the disciples saw. That unseen reality, that inner spiritual reality, the working of God, is what is permanent and unchanging. It’s just as good now, as it is was 2,000 years ago, as it was in the time of St Paul.

Jesus’ injunction to us Christians was to ‘go and teach all nations, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.’ So what is it that we should do? I’m not really qualified to tell you a whole lot about Fresh Expressions of Church or Messy Church – although I can tell you that our Messy Church, run by Churches Together, attracts big numbers of children and their parents each time – but what I think is important and perhaps may open the idea of the Kingdom to more and more people – is the idea that we get over and over again, from Archbishop Justin and Archbishop John Sentamu, that we should be as the Lord intended us to be, and that we should live our lives in such a way as to promote human flourishing: flourishing, ευδαιμονία, something more than just passing your time without hurting anybody, something more than just keeping your nose clean: but instead actively looking out for ways to go the extra mile, to do the better thing.

It’s perhaps a bit unfair to single out anyone, particularly in the last week, for examination against that kind of background, but I can’t help thinking we will all have been a bit challenged by the sad story of the Revd Lord Green, the retired boss of HSBC, who has preached sermons and written books, preaching the virtue of observing the very highest moral standards.

But unfortunately at the same time, his bank was offering to clients a very aggressive form of tax avoidance. When I worked in the City, we were brought up to distinguish, reading the fine print, between tax avoidance, which is legal, and tax evasion, which isn’t. But this now seems to be a place where simply following the letter of the law isn’t enough. The Christian way, the Gospel way, is in fact not only not to evade tax, but also not to avoid it either. It’s rather bad luck, I think, on poor old Lord Green that in his part of the City – as indeed in my part of the City when I was there – nobody told him that the rules had changed, and he perhaps never appreciated that simply observing the law wasn’t necessarily sufficient in order to demonstrate the light of God.

Because, you see, when you do get to be able to see the light, then you will be like the Good Samaritan. You will be actively looking out for people you can help, rather than just sticking to the letter of the law. Let us pray that we will see that light: that the light will shine on us: and if we’re not transfigured, let us pray that we are at least transformed.