Archives for posts with tag: hungry

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 23rd December 2018

Isaiah 10:33-11:10, Matthew 1:18-25

‘In the bleak midwinter’; ‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow’; ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out … deep and crisp and even’. But Bethlehem is a hot place, dusty rather than snowy. I suppose carols and hymns can be rather an unreliable source of proper geographical information. ‘And did those feet .. walk upon England’s green and pleasant land?’

I don’t suppose they sing ‘Jerusalem’ in Italy, or in France or in Germany. Or if they do, presumably those feet were walking in the Black Forest or on the Palatine Hill, or maybe, in the Bois de Boulogne. There is, if we are literal about it, quite a lot of nonsense which we happily tolerate at this time of year. Things that appear to go completely contrary to common sense; like snow in Bethlehem. It probably was quite cold at night in the stable, once the sun had gone down. But there certainly wasn’t any snow.

One of the things that these carols are doing is assimilating the story of the birth of Jesus into our homes, or rather into an idealised version of our homes, because even here in England a white Christmas is, of course, very rare. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that we won’t have one this year either.

And as well as the carols, the Bible readings that we traditionally use at this time also contain things which look contrary. Isaiah’s wonderful vision of the peaceful life on ‘God’s holy mountain’, after the Rod of Jesse, the Saviour, has beaten the Assyrians, and saved God’s chosen people, isn’t just a pastoral idyll.

It deliberately puts almost impossible companions together. The wolf and the sheep; the leopard, the kid; the calf, the young lion, the cow and the bear – the little child, leading them, like a party of schoolchildren following their teacher around the Tower of London, say.

Or perhaps it’s a classroom, full of these unlikely neighbours, who are not busily eating each other, but they are sitting attentively in class, being kept in good order by a little boy, like my two-year old grandson Jim. In your dreams, Sunshine!

Well, yes; in Isaiah, in Isaiah’s dreams. In the words of the prophet, telling his hearers what God has spoken to him and said, that the Rod of Jesse would come and slay the Assyrians, and then that they ‘would not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.’

Interesting that it is on a mountain, on a high place. The Greek gods were on a mountain too; on Mount Olympus. And in the Old Testament, the heathen gods, the Baals and the Astartes of the Chaldeans, were worshipped with sacred poles, which were ‘in the high places’. ‘High places’ was almost a synonym for where God lived. We ourselves look up, look up to heaven, because conventionally, God lives in Heaven, and Jesus sits at God’s right hand ‘on high’, we say. Think of our Psalm this evening.

Unto thee I lift up mine eyes:

O thou that dwellest in the heavens. [Ps. 123]

But again, it’s not literally true. Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, was said by Nikita Krushchev to have gone into space ‘but not to have seen God there’. The early astronauts didn’t find a man with a white beard sitting on a golden throne and floating above the clouds. John Gillespie Magee’s wonderful poem, which is often read at the funeral of a pilot, ‘High Flight’, comes to mind. ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth … put out my hand and touched the face of God’. And so, on God’s holy mountain, children can safely play with cockatrices, vipers, and with asps, cobras. ‘Sheep may safely graze’.

It’s a much better outlook for the Israelites. The Messiah would come along and free them from slavery. The Rod of Jesse would mete out retribution to all their foes. That’s something that we can certainly relate to. ‘If only ..’, we say. If only: what would you call in the Rod of Jesse to do in your life? But maybe we are too comfortable, too well settled to really empathise with how the Israelites must have felt.

But there are people who are in exile, who are not free, who may even be subjected to slavery, even today, not far away. On Friday I did my first Father Christmas duty of this Christmas, up at Brooklands College, where there is a project for children who are asylum seekers and refugees. I gave out splendid big stockings full of goodies donated by the supporters of the project and by Elmbridge CAN, our local refugee support group, to 26 young people, teenagers and in their early 20s, who had come from Eritrea, from Syria, Ukraine, from Kurdistan, Iraq, from Afghanistan. Some were black Africans, some were Arabs, a couple were Chinese, and a couple were white Europeans. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to stay.

Some were learning to read and write for the first time; although typically, the ones who hadn’t been able to read and write were amazingly good at mental arithmetic. They were learning English, of course, and learning how to fit in with English society. The first words that they are taught are ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘sorry’, because none of those are necessarily expressions that you come across in some of the countries that they have come from. Part of Father Christmas’ visit was a huge lunch, of Middle Eastern and African delicacies, that one of the volunteers from Elmbridge CAN had made. For about half the children, this would be their only meal that day. One meal, if you’re lucky. This is in Weybridge!

So pictures of the Israelites, in exile and under the oppressor’s boot, could still in certain circumstances be a picture of contemporary life, for refugees and asylum seekers today. Think what life in the refugee camps must be like, in Jordan, for example. No snow there, either!

As well as the mythical snow on this fourth Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas itself, St Matthew tells us the story of the other half of the Annunciation. This isn’t about Mary but about Joseph her betrothed. Again, the Christmas story is so familiar that we perhaps gloss over the bits that seem rather unlikely. Joseph’s original reaction when he finds out that his wife-to-be is pregnant, although he has had nothing to do with it, is what you might expect. His first thought is that the wedding is not going to happen.

Who is the Angel Gabriel? Have you met any angels recently? Or at all? It seems to depend a bit on where you come from and what you’re used to. In Africa and in Southern Europe, people are much more ready to believe in the existence of angels than perhaps we are. I don’t think that we can explain the Virgin Birth in the same way that we could explain how to bake a perfect soufflé – or whatever it is they do on the Great British Bake-Off.

But look at it functionally. Jesus definitely lived. He was a human being, although during his life and afterwards, things happened which have led us to believe that he was more than human, that he was divine as well as human. So somehow he must have been born, been conceived. All the things that show that he was really born, that he really was human, just like the other miracles, turning water into wine, miraculously healing sick people, raising Lazarus from the dead – none of those can be explained: so Jesus’ conception is equally mysterious and impossible to understand.

But notice how Jesus’ earthly parents, wonderfully, accepted the situation; and of course Mary said the Magnificat, which we’ve just sung together. God has chosen me; God has magnified me; God has made a big thing out of me.

Is it just a pretty story, then? Is it just a convenient excuse to have a nice time at Christmas? Think about what Mary said. Think about the message of the Magnificat, and the message of Isaiah, about the animals on ‘God’s holy mountain’. ‘He has put down the mighty from his seat, and exalted the humble and meek.’ Are we the mighty? Or are we the ‘humble and meek’?

We need to think about it, and to do something. Perhaps the other thing about God’s holy mountain is that a little child shall lead them. Shall we say that that is the Christ Child? You know, in snowy Bethlehem? And another thing. ‘No crying he makes’. This is some baby!

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941)

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Feast of Christ the King, 26th November 2017, at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn.

[Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24, Ephesians 1.15-23], Matthew 25.31-46

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378268013 for the readings, and https://sjparish.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Nov-26-Pentecost-25-1030am.pdf for the full service booklet.

It’s really kind of you to welcome me back to St John’s to preach again. Susan, you have been amazingly gracious. Just when you were getting nicely settled in as Rector, Bill and Hope Eakins dropped in the suggestion that you might want to risk having me, this old Brit, to preach at the church – and just after Thanksgiving as well, when you are all celebrating having got rid of us colonial throw-backs. You’re truly kind.

Obviously I have been well briefed. I must stay away from anything too controversial or political. And I can’t really do the ancient Greek orator’s trick of doing a Philippic: you know, saying loudly, ‘I’m not going to say anything about Philip’, and then going on to say what an awful person he is. So no Brexit and Trump, then. Sorry.

Instead I want to get to grips with the sheep and the goats. Are you a sheep, or a goat? It’s a rigid division. On the right side, the Elysian Fields await you; but if you’re Billy Goat Gruff, nothing so nice.

That’s the thing I want to explore, with the sheep and the goats: divisions. People divided: divided, because they disagree. They disagree about what is best to do. And then, perhaps, do they have those divisions confirmed, ratified, by the Judge eternal?

At Thanksgiving you are celebrating independence from the colonial power that we were, the young nation standing on its own feet. It was a journey started by the Pilgrim Fathers, Puritans, who found themselves different from, at odds with, divided from, the society they were leaving in England. So I want to look at that division. It stemmed at least in part from the religious ferment and turmoil of the Reformation.

Apart from those things I’m not talking about, the other thing this year that has been of special note, not in our political, but in our spiritual life, has indeed been the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, 500 years since he is said to have posted up 95 points where he was at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, on the church door at Wittenberg in Saxony, which is the event which started the Reformation.

The Reformation led to civil war and persecution: the particularly ghastly thing about it was that the favourite way of getting rid of opponents was to burn them alive at the stake. We often spend time on Good Friday, during the Three Hours, reflecting on the dreadful mechanics of death by crucifixion. Death by burning seems to me to have been equally dreadful. And the penalty was so arbitrary and undeserved.

Think of Thomas Cranmer, the great scholar and Archbishop who created the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and gave the new Church of England liturgy, forms of worship, which were for the first time in a language that could be ‘understanded of the people’, as they said, in English instead of Latin, although they were in fact based on, and continued the tradition of, services which in some cases could be traced back to the earliest Church Fathers. But even Cranmer was eventually burned to death, at the hands of the original ‘Bloody Mary’, Queen Mary, who brought back the Catholic faith for the duration of her reign.

This happened because Cranmer was a Protestant, at a time when it was no longer the right thing to be. We don’t know whether he met Martin Luther – some scholars, such as Diarmaid McCulloch, think he might well have done – but he certainly spent time in Zürich with Zwingli and Bucer.

It is fascinating to see how Cranmer reflected the new Reformation ideas, in the way in which he dealt, (in the Book of Common Prayer that he largely authored), with what was happening in the Holy Communion, at the point when the bread and the wine are shared.

The Roman church, the Catholics, believe in what they call ‘Transubstantiation’, the ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. Many of the Reformers did not believe in Transubstantiation. For them the bread and the wine were just that, bread and wine; just symbols of a greater thing.

The words in Cranmer’s Prayer Book changed, from the 1549 original, where the bread and wine are treated in the Catholic way, as actually being Christ’s body and blood, to his revision in 1552, perhaps after he met the other reformers: ‘Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving’ , which means they remain just that, bread and wine, just symbols, until, long after Cranmer’s awful death in 1556, in 1662 the final version of the Prayer Book (until the twentieth century revisions, here and in England), the 1662 Book has it all ways: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken for thee: Eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ In the first bit, the body, the actual body: but then a ‘remembrance’, a symbol: feeding, but by faith, not literally. Now, you can be anywhere on the Catholic – Protestant spectrum, and find spiritual resonance somewhere in those words, which we will still use, albeit in a slightly different order, in our service today.

But, the point is that, then, people were dying for those differences. Or feeling so alienated by them, that they opted to make a perilous voyage to a largely unknown land, and make a new life – as the Pilgrim Fathers did. It’s frankly strange – repugnant, even – to us today to think that the State could mete out the ultimate punishment, death, to a learned theologian such as Cranmer. But it did.

Belief, opinion, learned opinion, was a life-or-death affair. Now we can look back 500 years and shake our heads sagely, regretting how brutal life was then: we’re far too rational to let ourselves get into that kind of overreaction.

But I wonder. I promised not to talk about Brexit and Trump. But I will just say that it seems to be true both back home in England, over Brexit, and, dare I say, here, where Pres. Trump is concerned, that a climate has built up recently where people on each side not only feel strongly, very strongly: but they have stopped talking to each other. Certainly at home in the UK, the referendum on Brexit has divided people, divided people in a serious way. Old friends are avoiding each other; families are divided. There’s no sense of the old way of managing differences: so that we would say ‘Old so-and-so thinks such-and-such: I know he’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still the best of friends.’ That really doesn’t seem to be working any more.

Time was, even recently, when we could disagree about quite serious things, and still be friends; it really was a case of hating the sin and loving the sinner. So what did Jesus the King do? The sheep and the goats are to be separated out, they are to be divided: but not by what they have thought, but what they have done. Jesus wasn’t requiring the elect, the people who were saved, the sheep, to subscribe to any particular world view. He was looking for acts of kindness, not manifestos.

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matt.25:35-36).

Hungry; thirsty; a stranger; no clothes; ill; in prison. You can construct all sorts of scenarios, which may well broadly reflect your political outlook, to explain how a person can be in any of those situations – and we might disagree.

Hungry and thirsty because they’ve made bad ‘life choices’, perhaps; a stranger, because they live somewhere that I don’t go to – and perhaps they don’t live the way we do; no clothes, probably not literally, but scruffy, down-at-heel, when – ‘if they cared about their appearance… ‘ You know.

Or they might be refugees, from a poor country. Are they ‘genuine refugees’, or just ‘economic migrants’? That’s a question which I suspect you would answer much more sympathetically than many of us Englishmen have been doing. The USA’s prosperity is built on the labour of economic migrants – but we are now trying to keep them out.

Or what if you are sick, if you are ill? You know one of the differences between us in England and you is that, I think, we have more restrictive rules about when you can fire people. Basically, our law says that an employer has to show that he has a fair reason for terminating someone’s employment, and it is presumed that it was not fair. But a fair reason, in English law, is if you are ill, ill for too long.

That’s one where I expect there might be disagreements. You know, on the one hand, you can’t run a business if you have to pay a salary for someone who’s not there: and on the other, think what it will do to your powers of recovery if, when you are in the depths of illness, you lose your livelihood. What’s your point of view? Which side are you on?

Jesus says, when I was in hospital, you came and visited me. Dare we say, you visited me, and didn’t bring me any bad news? I hope so. Here in the home of the US insurance industry, of The Hartford and the Aetna, let me dare say it – surely long-term sickness might be covered by an employer’s insurance. Or maybe that’s too much. I was ill, and you visited me. That’s what Jesus said.

I was in prison. You came to me. I was a criminal. I didn’t deserve anything. I had done something terrible. But surely there are limits? Some criminals are just beyond the pale. At home, the man called the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, has died, and there was controversy where his remains should be buried. He killed a number of children, in appalling circumstances. Here, Charles Manson has died. Both of them I have heard called ‘evil personified’. But Jesus isn’t judging them. Jesus’ judgement, separating the sheep and the goats, is not about whether someone has been bad, been a sinner. Jesus would have visited them. He sat down and ate with sinners.

That’s the clue. That’s how it is with Jesus. Not what you’d think; perhaps not particularly reasonable. But good.

So I suspect that if we acknowledge Christ as King, and as judge eternal, as we are invited to do today, on this festival of Christ the King at the end of Thanksgiving, we may find a way to deal with our differences: even, dare I say, those real, deep differences over Brexit and Trump. Ultimately those differences may not really be that important. Instead we need to think sheep and goats. Acts of kindness, not manifestos.

Sermon for Evensong on the fourth Sunday before Lent, 5th February 2017, at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon
Amos 2: 4 -16, Ephesians 4:17–32

Beloved. That’s how Bishop Richard Chartres, who is just retiring as Bishop of London after 21 years, starts his sermons. I have just been to a marvellous Eucharist for Candlemas this Thursday evening at St Paul’s Cathedral, when the cathedral was completely full, with several thousand people inside and a ‘pop-up cathedral’ with many more, outside in Paternoster Square.

At this service of Holy Communion, Bishop Richard celebrated and preached his last sermon as Bishop. Anyone who tells you that the Church of England is declining and falling apart should just have been at that wonderful service, which was full of spirituality, vitality, beautiful music and inspiration. Signs of decline? Not there! Not at St Paul’s this Candlemas!

It was a wonderful antidote to the constant chorus of gloomy news about President Trump and Brexit. Bishop Richard cuts a most imposing figure and when, in his beautiful red robes, with his mitre and crozier, he brought up the rear of the long procession of clergy and dignitaries, other bishops and representatives of all the other churches, I did think that there, there indeed was a real bishop, a bishop-and-a-half, you might say.

Before I went to Bishop Richard’s Candlemas Eucharist, I was a bit afraid that tonight I was going to have to do rather a gloomy sermon about the tough message that the prophet Amos was giving to Israel about 730 BC about all the things that they had done wrong:

‘… they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor,’ – the last bit of which is rather opaque, but which I think means that they grind the faces of the poor into the dust – ‘and turn aside the way of the meek’. It sounds a bit like our consumer society today, where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, and some of the newspapers are always very scathing about poor people. Fortunately, however scornful they are, they don’t stop hungry people from coming to our food bank.

But actually I got diverted by what Bishop Richard preached about the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’; it was a very appropriate text, as this was Bishop Richard’s last sermon as Bishop: he is departing in peace. ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Bishop Richard preferred those traditional words to the more modern translation, ‘Now you are letting your servant depart’, which, he said, he thought sounded like a ‘divine sacking’ (http://bishopoflondon.org/sermons/master-now-you-are-dismissing-your-servant/), whereas, he said, he was still looking forward, looking forward to great things in future, ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’.

Bishop Richard has been a very successful Bishop of London. Numbers of people belonging to the various churches in the diocese have increased considerably – by nearly 50%, and he has succeeded in keeping together in the diocese a wide variety of different styles and types of churches, all belonging to the Church of England, from Anglo-Catholics to charismatic evangelicals. In effect he has managed to accommodate a diocese-within-a-diocese, in the form of the Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha ministries, with their extensive church planting activities. He told us that one of his last tasks would be to license a Chinese minister to lead a new congregation of Chinese people at St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City. He has the knack of being at home in all sorts of contexts, but he never stops being the Bishop.

In the Christian tradition, before the bishops came the apostles, among them the apostle for the Gentiles, the apostle for us, St Paul. St Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote his Letter to the Ephesians, that cosmopolitan city where he had met with opposition from Demetrius the silversmith who made statues of the Greek god Artemis, Diana: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, they had shouted.

Paul didn’t want the Ephesians to descend to the depths of depravity which the prophets had decried in the Israelites of old. He used this famous figure of speech, about how Christians should ‘put on the new man’, as though being a Christian was like putting a best suit on. If you wore that white suit, you should:
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. [Eph. 4:31f]

In the Letter to the Ephesians there’s also a sort of version of the Ten Commandments, where Paul takes the place of the prophet. What is the message of all this for us? Does it still work to put on the Christian suit?

I started out, in this sermon, with a sly nod towards all the news and controversy, which the election of Mr Trump in the USA, and the Brexit stuff here, has been creating. What should a Christian think and say about these issues in our life today?

When the President of the USA comes out with ‘executive orders’, seemingly without any checks and balances, one of which arbitrarily bans entry to Moslems from some, but not all, Moslem countries: or when our government seems to have adopted a view of life outside the EU which places more weight on cutting immigration than preserving our access to the single market; as a country, we are terribly divided and confused. What would Jesus have done?

I think that he might well have agreed with St Paul – and Bishop Richard – that we must go forward, putting on the ‘new man’. For St Paul’s idea is that God, in Christ, has created a completely new social order.

In Galatians [3:27-28] he wrote,

‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.’
There it is again – the Christian suit. Put it on.
‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’

 

You are all one.

 

‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. There have been a lot of departures, recently. Not only Bishop Richard, but also our own Rector, Robert Jenkins, going, and soon Folli Olokose will have to go off to another parish – we hope, as their vicar. And the vacancies for Bishop of Dorking and Vicar of Oxshott have only just been filled.

Soon a team will have to set to in order to draft a ‘Parish Profile’ for St Andrew’s. It should really have a section in it about St Mary’s – and it probably will have one, because we are a ‘united benefice’ – but really the job is at St Andrew’s. What will our fellow church in the benefice be like, with its new vicar? What will we at St Mary’s be like, alongside them?

This is where the people in each church need to have a look at what St Paul is saying in his Letter to the Ephesians: because this letter, more than any other part of the Bible, deals with the building up of a church. Fundamental to that is the abolition of boundaries and divisions. There is room for everyone.

Bishop Richard ended his sermon by adapting the Te Deum, from Mattins. He said, ‘May God bless each and every one of you; the glorious company of my fellow priests; the goodly fellowship of Churchwardens, Readers, Lay Workers, Youth Ministers, Faithful Worshippers, and the noble army of Pioneers in Paternoster Square’.

I think that is a wonderful image. There’s room in the church for a glorious company, for a goodly fellowship, indeed for a noble army; room for all those different people; and they will all do their jobs differently: and so each church is a bit different too, as we all feel that different things are important in bringing the best of ourselves in worship to God. But at bottom, we are all one.

And Trump? So, yes, also in the world outside the church, and by the same token: Trump’s immigration ban is wrong, and Brexit, if it is anti-immigrant, is wrong. ‘For [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.’ All one. Beloved.

Sermon for Holy Communion at St Andrew’s, Cobham, on 9th February 2014, the Fourth Sunday before Lent
Isaiah 58:1-9, Matt. 5:13-20

It’s funny how words change their meaning over time. When Jesus was speaking to his disciples, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, he said they were ‘the salt of the earth’. He meant that they were pretty good: that they had a strong flavour: they were capable of doing good things.

They used salt, in those days, to preserve food; so if a piece of meat was well salted, it would stop it going off. But these days, when we say that somebody is the ‘salt of the earth’, we tend to think of them more in terms of Arthur Daley or Eddie Grundy in the Archers: a little bit fly, a bit of a lad. Heart of gold, but the cheque’s in the post. You know what I mean.

So maybe to get the full flavour of what Jesus was saying, you need a slightly different expression. Not ‘salt of the earth.’ How about ‘light of the world’? As we’ve just heard, Jesus told His disciples that they were ‘the light of the world’ [Matt.5:14]. In St John’s gospel he says that He himself is ‘the light of the world’. Here He goes on to talk about the disciples being like ‘a city built on a hill’, which can’t be hidden from view, and that, once you have lit a lamp, you mustn’t hide it away: you mustn’t ‘hide your light under a bushel’.

What does it all mean in practice? Jesus was to some extent contrasting His message with the teaching of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law – the Jewish law, which was the 10 Commandments and the laws of behaviour which you get in the first five books of the Old Testament, and then in the Jewish law as developed by the various rabbis over the years and recorded in the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Jewish Law has a rule for absolutely everything, and the Pharisees were famous for knowing all those rules and punctiliously carrying them out. But of course in the story of Jesus, in the gospels, the Pharisees are not the good guys. They are the ones that opposed Him. They are the ones that Jesus called hypocrites, ‘whited sepulchres’; they looked all right on the outside, but on the inside they were full of awfulness, ‘full of dead men’s bones’.

But it doesn’t mean that Jesus was against the Jewish law. The Jewish law, in its essence, was – and is – a very good set of principles. The bit that we’re familiar with, the 10 Commandments, is a fine ethical code, and Jesus assured the disciples that He wasn’t there to dismantle the Jewish law: not ‘one jot or one tittle’ would be taken away. But, He said, you have to do better than the Pharisees and the scribes if you’re going to have a place in heaven.

Then Jesus went on to preach His most famous sermon – probably the most famous sermon there’s ever been – the Sermon on the Mount, about going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies. All this is contrary, counter-cultural stuff, which is the essence of Jesus’ teaching.

But He wasn’t going against what the law and the prophets had previously taught. If we look again at the first lesson, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, it’s actually the same kind of message. What do you do in order to show that you’re obedient to God, that you have a proper respect for Him?

Do you cover yourself with sackcloth and ashes, and do some drastic fasting? According to the prophet Isaiah, the Israelites are complaining, because they do do all that, they go through all the ritual of fasting and self-abasement: but they don’t think God takes any notice.

Isaiah points out – and as a prophet he’s speaking the words of the Lord – that the right kind of penitential behaviour is not doing something which only really impacts on you yourself. Instead it is doing something for other people: ‘to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free’. Sharing your food with the hungry: taking the homeless poor into your house: clothing the naked when you meet them, and never sneaking out of looking after your family.

‘Then’, Isaiah says,’your light shall break forth like the dawn.’ If you give of your own food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the wretched, ‘then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noonday’.

How should it affect us? There are posters for the Alpha Course, where there’s a man looking a bit puzzled and asking himself, ‘Is that all there is?’ Is his normal life all that there is – or is there more to life?’ The course introduces you to the idea that there is more to life, and the reason that we know that there is more to life is because, as Christians, we understand that the meaning of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, is that God does care for us.

But what Jesus is telling us here in his preaching is that this is not just something good for us as individuals. If we’re disciples, the fact of our being a disciple should shine out from us. ‘Let your light so shine … so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

Let’s assume that we are all trying to be good disciples. What does it mean in practice to say, ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works’? What good works? ‘To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free’. But – are you actually oppressing anybody? What do you think? Do you think that it applies to you in any way today?

Isaiah suggests that the way to set free the oppressed is to share your food with the hungry: take the homeless poor into your house: clothe the naked when you meet them.

Sharing your food with the hungry may be quite straightforward. As the manager of our Foodbank, I’m very grateful that so many people – and that certainly includes lots of people here – have gone and bought extra food when they’re shopping and have given it to the Foodbank.

But what about taking the homeless poor into your house, and clothing the naked when you meet them? Would it be stretching it too far to ask, in this context, how you think that the ‘Bedroom Tax’ fits in with the idea of taking the homeless poor into your house?

Say somebody works for a low wage, and gets housing benefit. In the old days, they would have had a council house at a cheap rent which they would have been able to afford. Unfortunately they don’t have many council houses any more, so now we have housing benefit, to make up for the extra cost of privately rented houses. The poor person’s children have grown up and moved away; so strictly speaking, they don’t need three bedrooms any more.

So the new rules say that their housing benefit will only be paid to cover the cost of a house which the government says is necessary. So they are paid enough to be able to afford a one-bedroomed house – whereas they are actually living in a three-bedroomed house. There aren’t any one-bedroomed houses available. Very soon our poor person won’t have enough to live on.

In effect, Isaiah suggests that we, as individuals, should be doing something about that. The Jewish law, the law of Moses, is pretty clear that society must care for its weakest members. In Deuteronomy ch.14, Moses tells the Israelites to make a tithe on all their wealth, to provide for ‘aliens, orphans and widows’ living with them, so that those aliens, orphans and widows may have enough to eat.

Aliens, orphans and widows. Immigrants, refugees: children in care: people living on their own. It really doesn’t take too big a stretch of the imagination to realise that we still have the same sort of people in our society that Moses was worried about 3,000 years ago.

I’m not telling you what the answers should be. But I encourage you to go away and think about it. Just to suggest one instance: is it right that, when the property market is booming, we should be imposing taxes on the poorest people so that they have to make a choice between paying the rent and buying food?

Or, do you think that things have changed, and in fact these ideas from the Jewish law and from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are not actually directly referable any more to present-day circumstances? What do you think?

Last week was Candlemas, when we celebrated the coming of Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’, and Jesus said later on, ‘I am the light of the world’. This week, we’re looking at Jesus’ teaching that we, his disciples, his followers, we also are the light of the world.

Our challenge today is to make it a reality, so that our light is not in fact hidden under a bushel, so that it is not just a matter of us feeling a rosy glow: instead the challenge is to us, so that we really do become a light, a light to the world outside.

So I pray, ‘Let our light so shine, so that they may see our good works, and give glory to you, to our Father in heaven’.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday of Epiphany, 5th January 2014
John 2:1-11 The Wedding at Cana in Galilee – Christ Reveals his Glory

You might wonder why our lesson just now was about the wedding at Cana in Galilee rather than Jesus’ visit from the Wise Men, given that this Sunday is our celebration of Epiphany; Epiphany, which means showing off, revealing.

This morning indeed the Gospel was the story of the Wise Men: the last of the traditional Christmas stories. It’s the lesson for the twelfth day of Christmas. Our decorations are supposed to be taken down tonight, Twelfth Night. Christmas is over. The season of Epiphany begins.

In the Epiphany season, next week we mark the baptism of Christ, and three weeks after that, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Candlemas – when we are going to have a special Evensong here at St Mary’s. In between, in a fortnight, on 19th January, there will be our Christingle service in the morning before Mattins, and – as this is another traditional Epiphany theme – there will be the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service in the evening, at the Methodist chapel, instead of Evensong here.

The candles, the Christingles and at Candlemas, are symbolic of the Epiphany light, the enlightenment, that the coming of God’s kingdom brings. ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come,’ says Isaiah in our first lesson. It is all about showing, showing to the world that Jesus is here.

The wedding at Cana fits in with this. The evangelist says that Jesus turning the water into wine was his first miracle, ‘and he revealed his glory.’ Revealed, manifested. Epiphany.

That’s all very familiar. Emmanuel, God with us. ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. But what does it really mean, mean to us today?

Time was, when the idea of light, the idea of enlightening people, was seen differently. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the time of the Enlightenment with a capital E, it was the time of Erasmus and the Humanists. They believed that the world could be completely understood through the use of reason, reasoning and logic. That went for knowledge of God as well: whatever we could know about God, we could know only by the use of our intellect – the same way in which we learned about animals and geology and so on.

It led some theologians and philosophers to look at the findings of scientific enquiry, like Darwin’s work on evolution, and to reach the conclusion that life on earth may have been started by God, but that we could not know much more about this God than that He is an ultimate first cause, a creator from nothing, an unmoved mover.

Reason could take you to a belief in that rather limited god, the divine creator – but not much further. You could not know much about what such a god was like. Most importantly, there seemed to be no evidence that God had done anything more than just starting the process off. No evidence that God had any interest in human life, or in particular, that He cares for us.

That’s quite a contradiction with the things that we say we believe in our worship. Look at the Magnificat:

‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

That’s not a description of a laissez-faire god, of an unmoved mover who has, frankly, just moved on: it’s a description of an interventionist God, a God who cares for social justice. God with us. God with us, who does not stand idly by in the face of injustice, in the face of poverty and exploitation.

Somebody like Richard Dawkins might say, the Magnificat is just pretty words. It doesn’t really mean anything. Science can’t lead you to believe in a God, or at least in a God who has any personal interest in us.

At the time of the Enlightenment, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the answer to the deists, as they were called – to the people who said that God was just the creator, a blind watchmaker, and nothing more – the answer was that our religion is revealed religion. There are things beyond what reason can tell us, things nevertheless revealed to us, revealed to us by God.

One sort of revelation is the sort of thing which we are celebrating today. Turning the water into wine was a demonstration, an epiphany. Did it really happen? It can’t be proved. But one thing you can say is that if it did happen, then it was a complete contradiction of the idea that God has moved on, that He doesn’t care.

If God has manifested Himself, has showed Himself to us, in the person of Jesus, then it can’t be true that He doesn’t care for us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He in turn calls on his flock to be good sheep. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, in Jesus’ new commandment, that we love one another, He calls on us to live like people who recognise that they have God in their midst, God with us, Emmanuel.

‘Whoso have this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ (1 John 3:17). You’ll remember that from the Communion service. It goes on, ‘My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.’

It was, and still is, a revolutionary message. By turning the water into wine, by manifesting himself in his divine nature, Jesus was challenging the powers that be, both spiritual – the Pharisees and the scribes – and temporal, the Romans. They both had a vested interest in the established order – ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’. To upset it was dangerous. In the story of the Wise Men, Herod ‘was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him,’ when the Wise Men told him of the new king’s birth.

Similarly today. Let’s not be too ‘political’, or upset the status quo, people say. Look at all those respectable people who say they are all right, they have no need to believe: there is nothing missing in their lives. They never say, like the bod in the Alpha Course poster, ‘Is that all there is?’ But they have no proper roots, no real understanding of what is good. Instead, they tend to cling to status and possessions. There is nothing else, for them, nothing else to cling on to.

But a Christian has faith, a Christian has faith that there is more, there is a reality beyond what we can reach simply by the exercise of reason, excellent though that is. Our prayers are answered; we know we are not alone. It is reasonable, it makes sense, after all, for us to read the miracle stories, to open our minds to analogy, to metaphor, and to see God, revealed.

‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.’

The Lord is here: His Spirit is with us – but we mustn’t ignore Him. It must make a difference – we must change. That’s what Epiphany calls us to do.

‘He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ Now what are we going to do?

Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s on the Second Sunday before Advent, 17th November 2013
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19 – Famines and Pestilences

‘Then he said unto them, Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.’ [Luke 21]

It might make sense for me to preach about this picture of the end of the world which Jesus paints for the disciples. You might think that I would go on to talk about the damage which Hurricane Haiyan has done in the Philippines, and all the other various natural disasters which suddenly seem to be happening. Is it a sign that the world is coming to an end, perhaps as a result of man’s careless use of the earth’s resources, so producing global warming?

I don’t think that I can be that definite. I think there’s a very high probability that, whatever I might try to say in relation to whether or not Jesus’ words here in St Luke’s Gospel actually do refer to disasters such as the one which has struck the Philippines, I think there’s a very high likelihood that I will turn out to be wrong. We are indeed horrified by what has happened in the Philippines, but it seems to me that Jesus’ message in relation to it is not that this is in some way evidence of the end of the world coming about, but rather that we must treat the people affected with as much compassion as we can muster, both through our governments and as individuals.

Both here in St Mary’s and at St Andrew’s today, there are collections for the Disasters Emergency Committee, and I do hope that you will give generously. There is a basket at the back as you go out.

But honestly, I don’t think there’s very much which I can usefully say about the end of the world, at least based on this passage in St Luke’s Gospel. From the earliest times, Christians thought that the end of the world was just round the corner. St Paul himself even counselled against getting married, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (7:8), if people could possibly avoid it, because everything was about to come to an end. But it didn’t, and it hasn’t. We still have a working planet, which sustains more and more people all the time, and which provides enough riches to feed everyone, even today, if only food were fairly distributed.

No, what I’m interested in this morning are indeed some of St Paul’s words, in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, which was our first lesson. ‘For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.’ If you don’t work, you don’t eat. Is St Paul saying something here which is relevant today in the context of the Welfare State? I hope you won’t groan inwardly, but I am going to say a few words about our new Cobham Area Foodbank.

The Foodbank will indeed, in some instances, feed people who are not working. As a matter of trite reality, people who are out of work may well not have enough money with which to buy food, as well as paying for rent, heat and all the other incidentals of life, on the £150-odd a week, or £600 a month, that unemployment benefit provides.

I am one of the team who have come together under the auspices of Churches Together to create a food bank in this area. Although it is now an independent charity in its own right, Cobham Area Foodbank was created by the local churches. It is affiliated to the network created by an organisation callee the Trussell Trust, which is a Christian foundation in Salisbury, which has been setting up food banks for the last 15 years.

In the last three years, there has been a vast increase in the number of food banks which are operating. There are over 400 food banks in the UK today. In the year from April 2012, 370,000 people in the UK came to food banks for food, which was 170% increase on the previous year.

Since then, since April this year so far, 355,000 people have come to food banks, including 40-odd thousand who have been fed in the prosperous south-east. In other words, the numbers needing to turn to a food bank have doubled again. We don’t expect that Cobham is going to be any different. The Oasis Childcare Trust is already, among its other good works, providing a hot meal once a week for fifteen families, and they tell us that in fact they could do this for double that number if they had the resources.

In the area behind the fire station in Cobham there is very high unemployment among the 18-30 year olds. I recall that the Envisage project found levels of unemployment around 25%. In our area there is a huge gap between those who are well-off, who are on the whole very well-off, and those who are not, who are in some cases destitute. We are in the Borough of Elmbridge, which, on some criteria, is supposed to be the second richest borough in the country, after Kensington and Chelsea.

Cobham Area Foodbank will be the third food bank in the Borough of Elmbridge, when it opens on 13th December. Instead of relying on St Paul’s rather fierce statement to the Thessalonians – which I think was really aimed at those in the church community, perhaps in particular the ministry team – I would prefer that we looked for our Bible text in relation to people who have to use the Foodbank in the sentences which precede the offertory in the Communion service: ‘Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him: how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ (From the first letter of John, chapter 3.)

The fact is that there are needy people, even here in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, for whom there is now often a choice between paying the rent and having something to eat. The Foodbank network has established that, in Britain today, there are 13m people who are living below the official poverty line. The reasons why people have used a food bank – which are known, because everyone who gets food from a food bank has to provide some information – included the following:

Delay in paying benefits – 30% of the people;
Low income – by itself, just not earning enough to be able to afford to live – nearly 20%;
Changes in the benefit system – 11.5%;
Getting into debt – 9%;
Unemployment is actually only 5.5%.
Being homeless – just under 5%;
Being refused a crisis loan – 3.5%;
Domestic violence – 2.7%.
Sickness – 2.2%. How come somebody who is ill does not have enough to eat?
Delayed wages; wages paid late – just under 1%.

Note how low the figure is for unemployment. Even if we accepted what St Paul said, in fact there are very few people coming to the food banks and asking for food, because they are unemployed.

The system is tough. The food bank system set up by the Trussell Trust, which we will operate, is designed to provide emergency relief only, for three days at a time. The food provided will be non-perishables, effectively the sort of thing which we give at Harvest Festival time. In Cobham we are very fortunate in that Sainsbury’s Local on the High Street have agreed to provide bread, which will be freely available to the clients of the Foodbank.

But basically the system is designed to provide only three food parcels to last three days at a time in any period of six months. It is not designed to provide long-term sustenance, because the Welfare State is supposed to provide a safety net. We will know whether that is still true once we start operations in the middle of December.

However, I can tell you that, here at St Mary’s, you have been the most pro-active of all the congregations in Churches Together locally, because you have already started to collect food, and indeed Arnie Gabbott, who is your representative on the Foodbank organising team, has provided, at the back by the font, the prototype of a very smart green bin, which will be in all the churches soon, for people to put their food contributions in.

From this week, food will be collected each week by the Foodbank van and taken to a warehouse on the outskirts of Leatherhead: please do keep on putting food in the church bin here.

People must obtain a voucher in order to get food for the Foodbank. They can’t just turn up and demand food. Vouchers will be available from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, from Oasis Childcare, from the Cobham Children’s Centre, from the schools in the area, from the doctors’ surgeries, from all the ministers in the churches and from the social services and housing benefit offices – and, we hope, from the Jobcentre.

The Foodbank will open initially once a week, on Fridays, at Friday lunchtime, and we aim to extend to a second day of opening, probably on a Monday, once everything is working. The recent meeting which we had for volunteers who want to work in the Foodbank brought in over 50 people, and there has been wonderful generosity shown in giving money for the launch and sustaining of the Foodbank operation. So I am confident that we will be able to provide an effective service.

But it will need continuing support. As well as giving out food, there will be members of the team at the distribution centre – which will be at the Methodist Church in Cedar Rd – who will be trained to listen to the clients carefully and sympathetically, and then to provide ‘signposts’ to possible ways to make their situation better. And last, in the Foodbank there will always be somebody who will be willing to pray with a client who felt that they needed to bring their situation to God in prayer.

I know when you read the newspaper today, you very often read that if people are poor, it is because they are in some way feckless. But I have to say that, the nearer we get to the sharp end, trying to alleviate poverty on our doorstep, the less I believe in that. The churches nationally have done research into the causes of poverty today, and found that less than 2% of people are out of work for more than a year. It is natural for people to want to work, and they do. The problem is that there are too many jobs which pay the minimum wage, or possibly even less – which is the situation with so-called zero-hours contracts, where somebody is contracted to work for a particular employer – can’t work for anybody else – but that employer does not commit to give him a set number of hours of work – and they are paid by the hour. So they could be unable to claim benefit (because they are employed), but not earning any money.

The people of the Philippines, and the poor people of Cobham, both need your prayers – and your gifts. Please be generous.