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Sermon for Evensong on the 21st Sunday after Trinity, 21st October 2018

Psalm 141: Matthew 12:1-21 – ‘Smite me Friendly’

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works with the men that work wickedness, lest I eat of such things as please them.

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

That’s from Psalm 141, which is the one set in the Lectionary for tonight.

‘Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth

and keep the door of my lips.’ Make sure that I only say the right things. But if I should inadvertently stray off-piste,

‘Let the righteous rather smite me friendly

and reprove me.’

I rather like the idea that the righteous should ‘smite me friendly’! Anyway, I have been warned.

As quite a lot of you know, I haven’t been very well. I’ll spare you the details, but I spent a week in Epsom Hospital three weeks ago, and then had a quiet week at my daughter Alice’s outside Exeter, before spending last week getting back up to speed at home in Cobham. It was very nice to hear from so many friends from St Mary’s, and to have some lovely visits too. Thank you for all your kindness!

I don’t know what it is that makes this happen, but my irregular stays in hospital have coincided with momentous events in the world outside. The last time I was in Epsom Hospital, in 1997, coincided with the death of poor Princess Di. I became quite an expert on all the various theories and odd facts surrounding that sad story. Now, just recently, and again in Epsom Hospital, I’ve been trying to keep on top of all the twists and turns in the Brexit negotiations, and particularly the ideas which our government and the European Commission have each come up with in order to avoid creating a ‘hard border’ around Northern Ireland.

Now you will realise why I adopted the ‘smite me friendly’ words from Psalm 141. I may find that you’re smiting me, but not friendly, if I’m not careful when I talk about Brexit!

Well, here’s the thing. There’s a nightmarishness about all the twists and turns of the Brexit process. If you go one way, you bump into an obstacle, perhaps something we’ve agreed beforehand or that Parliament has decided on, which rules out what you now think might be a good idea. So you turn down another entrance, and head off in another direction. You come up with something that you think will square with what the EU will accept – but your own MPs don’t like it. Nightmare. And of course, all the time there are plenty of people reminding you that they feel that nothing can compare with what we already have, as members of the European Union.

People are very passionate about it. Friendships have been broken. Families aren’t speaking to each other. And the worrying thing is, that no-one seems to agree how to decide who is right. People cling to the principle of democracy. More people voted to leave than to remain: 52% to 48%. But other people point out that 67% didn’t vote to leave. So people even disagree about what the democratic outcome was.

A factor in all this, this inability to decide who is right, is that there has been a lot of cheating and lying. There was the infamous red bus which had a banner down each side saying that, if we left the EU, there would be £350m a week more for the NHS – whereas even before Brexit day, as soon as the vote to leave was passed, the NHS has taken huge hits, from the devaluation of the £, making many drugs 20% more expensive, from doctors and nurses from the EU leaving, because they feel that the Brexit vote shows that people don’t like them – and from the 98% drop in numbers of nurses from the other EU countries applying to work here. The message on the bus was a wicked lie.

How do people know whom to believe? What is true in all this? Is it just a question of shouting louder?

Sitting in my hospital bed, and on Dr Alice, my daughter’s, couch, I started to wonder. Does it make a difference if you are a Christian? What would Jesus have done?

Today’s lesson from St Matthew shows him facing a rather similar set of conundrums to the ones that Mrs May and Dominic Raab, our MP, who’s now the Brexit minister, have to wrestle with. The question of eating on the Sabbath. Maybe what was held to be wrong extended to the act of gleaning, picking up the ears of wheat left at the edge of the field. Healing sick people, again on the Sabbath Day. Conflicting realities. Being hungry; worse, being ill: and you have the means to solve the problem. You can see where there is food freely available. Just pick it up. You have the power of healing. Just get him to stretch out his withered hand, and you can restore it to full strength. Does it matter if the Sabbath rules make it wrong to do these things?

Jesus gives a scholarly answer. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures to show that there are exceptions. King David and his men ate the bread offered on the altar in the Temple when they were hungry, which was something only the priests were allowed to do. Jesus pointed out that they had moved on from the limits of the old Temple worship. He was here. He was something else, something more. In Hosea [6:6] is a prophecy which includes these words, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’. In Hosea those words follow a prophecy about rising again from the grave on the third day. This is all about Jesus, Jesus as much more than just a teacher, a rabbi. More than ‘a priest of the order of Melchizedek’ as the letter to the Hebrews describes him. (Hebrews 5:5, 5:10)

And he goes on to give the lovely example of a shepherd rescuing one of his sheep which has fallen into a pit on the sabbath day. We always want to help if an animal is trapped or hurt. That is why I was angry the other day when our local Painshill animal rescue team were not able to be on duty because the austerity cuts had reduced their numbers, so that a cow which had fallen into a ditch locally, and was in distress, had to wait for a crew from Sussex to come. Never mind what Jesus would say about austerity – the point is that He said that the animal, the sheep, must be saved, whatever day it is.

And finally Jesus quoted from Isaiah chapter 42, a prophecy again about the Messiah. Gentle, quiet – and trusted, even by the Gentiles, the non-Jews. ‘A bruised reed he shall not break’.

What can we bring from this, from how Jesus squared the circle with the Pharisees about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath? He, Jesus, rises above any day-to-day considerations. The Temple rules don’t apply to him. But almost more important, Jesus is the servant, the gentle spirit of kindness. He expects mercy, not ritual sacrifice. It’s not about Him, but about the ones in need. The man with the withered hand, maybe a Thalidomide victim, in today’s world; the sheep which has fallen down into a hole.

So what could we learn from Jesus about the Brexit ‘conundrum’, as Godfrey [Revd Godfrey Hilliard, Rector of Stoke D’Abernon] calls it? What principles can we use as followers of Jesus, as Christians? Obviously no-one can say for sure what Jesus would have said or done. But surely it would be good if we at least thought about it.

Would Jesus have wanted the Jews, his people, to get their independence from the Romans? Was it a bad thing to belong to the great Roman empire? After all, St Paul did very well out of being able to say, ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’, Acts 22, after Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.162) – and indeed he was very proud of being able to say that. Jesus himself seems to have felt the same way: ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, is what he said. (Matt.22:21)

What about immigration? The Jewish law protected the widow, the orphan – and ‘the stranger that is within thy gate’ (Deut. 10:19, Leviticus 19:34). That stranger is in the same position as the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan. He was saved by a Samaritan, who was a foreigner, not someone Jewish people would ordinarily have wanted to have living next door. But this foreigner showed compassion and kindness. He showed that human dignity, human rights, the right to life, the right to medical treatment if you are hurt, are far more important than nationalistic considerations. Being a neighbour, a good neighbour, is far more important than what flag you fly.

But as I sat on Alice’s couch I realised that I wasn’t hearing those sort of arguments very much. There are some of our bishops who have said things along the same lines. [See, e.g., https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/1-july/news/uk/church-leaders-seek-to-unite-divided-country] But it occurred to me that we ought to try to work through it, through the Brexit conundrum, with Jesus on our shoulder. What would He think of as important? Would He ‘smite anyone friendly’ for things they said? What about that red bus? What else do the politicians know about that they aren’t telling the ordinary people? Aren’t all the doctors and nurses from other countries who work in our NHS ‘Good Samaritans’, just as Jesus would have wanted?

And we, when we argue passionately for one side or the other, do we give any thought to what our Christian faith might bring to the argument? And if not, why not? I have a feeling that things might work out rather better if we did – and if our leaders remembered Psalm 141.

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works ….

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

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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?