Archives for posts with tag: Isaiah

Sermon for Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, 11th November 2018

Isaiah 10:22-11:9, John 14:1-29

Drawing Hands (1948) lithograph by M.C. Escher

This is Evensong on the 24th Sunday after Trinity. That is the rather esoteric description which you find in the church calendar. It is also a very special Remembrance Sunday, the 11th day of the 11th month of the hundredth year since the end of the First World War. That conflict was so terrible, and the human consequences so great, that many people lost their faith in God. How could a good and loving God allow such terrible things to happen?

To some extent that is a question, or was a question, that didn’t really touch individuals. It was really about the great affairs of state. To what extent could God guide the great leaders of the nations? How could a good God for instance countenance the use of poison gas? Theologians have wrestled with those difficult questions ever since, and the answers reached have tended to argue that there is evidence of God’s benign activity in the world as well as all the awful things; that the bad things are not God’s fault, as we have been created with a degree of autonomy, free will. God has not created us as robots; there would be no meaning to the ideas of the right and the good if it were not possible also to have evil, and that, in their relations with the Almighty, people can either be faithful, doing what God wants, or they can be sinful, which means separated from God.

But that was this morning, that was all about Remembrance Sunday, the hundredth Remembrance Sunday. But what about tonight? Tonight we are looking at two visions, Isaiah’s vision of the coming of the Messiah and the effect of it – ‘they shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’ – and all these wonderful new friendships, animals that usually eat each other becoming friends at peace with each other: the wolf and the lamb, and the little child leading them.

And then in St John’s Gospel we have this great passage in chapter 14, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’. I think that ‘mansions’ is far better than the bathos of ‘In my father’s house are many rooms’ – or ‘dwelling-places’, which is the way some modern translations of the Bible put it. In Greek, ‘mansions’ is translated from μοναι, from μενω, I remain – the ‘… -main’ bit in ‘remain’. It turns into ‘maneo’ in Latin, from which there is a noun ‘mansio’, a ‘staying-place’: a mansion. The Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible in the 4th century, largely by Jerome, which the Roman Catholic Church used till 1979, has ‘in domo Patris mansiones multae sunt’. William Tyndale’s translation in 1525, on which the King James Bible is based, just transliterated the same word, from ‘mansiones’ to ‘mansions’. Obviously the meaning of ‘mansion’ in English has evolved since the early 16th and 17th century, certainly since1611, when the Authorised Version came out. But it’s much more memorable than ‘rooms’, I feel – and it leads to a theological reflection.

Leaving aside the etymology, I have always loved the puzzle of contemplating how a house can itself contain mansions. It is almost as though the two up-two down cottage, in which I originally lived in Anyards Road when I first came to this area in 1990, somehow contained three or four of Eaton Park Road’s finest footballers’ palaces. If the kingdom of God is like that, a house with many mansions, I’ve thought, surely there is a strong message there, that the kingdom of God is literally beyond human comprehension, beyond the bounds of our logic!

If that was all there was in this Gospel, I think we would tend to give up on it. We would just throw up our hands in horror and say, ‘It’s all beyond me’. No one knows; and what no one knows no one tends to bother about. And that is, perhaps, Doubting Thomas’ point. ‘Lord, how can we know the way?’ What is it? Jesus answers, ‘I am: I am the way, the truth and the life’.

We can’t fully understand the workings of God. The world we live in is not one of these impossible pictures by MC Escher. Not a staircase that you climb, only to find that you are at the bottom of the same staircase. Not a hand holding a pencil, drawing a picture of a hand holding a pencil, drawing a hand… and so on. Nightmarish perfection, in which there is no beginning and no end.

We believe that Jesus was God – is God, in that he is beyond time. But crucially, he was, for a while, placed in space and time. He came to Palestine and he spent 33 years, living as a human being. He had a human family, a mother, a father, brothers and sisters. For three momentous years he went around with his 12 disciples lecturing to enormous crowds of people. If he had been around today, he would have become an Internet sensation, with millions of followers on YouTube and Twitter.

We believe that he was both God and man, because of the evidence that he went beyond what a mere man could do, most crucially, in coming back from the dead. But also, in all the other various miracles which Jesus did, he demonstrated his divine nature.

That may be a controversial proposition. If you don’t believe that Jesus was more than just human, then St John chapter 14 is not going to mean very much to you. Jesus is asserting that if you know him, then you know God.

There is another ‘dimension’ to God, if you like, which Jesus describes as being his Father, or ‘heaven’, even; it is beyond our comprehension, but nevertheless, real. I am the way, the truth and the life. If you follow me, you will get into one of those mansions, those mansions which look impossible but which are, really, to be found, on the holy mountain where the wolf lies down with the lamb.

So what does all this have to do with remembrance? In a sense, of course, remembrance is just as impossible for us as making sense of MC Escher. How can we remember, when we were not there? It isn’t so much remembrance as history, but that doesn’t make it any less real, and moreover, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’, as George Santayana wrote. We could also say that history need not repeat itself, because if we know what is coming, we can avoid it.

If we look at the industrialised slaughter of the First World War and indeed the way in which the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles led to the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, we might think that these great affairs of state, those great seismic movements in history, are outside the scope of what any of us as little individuals can possibly influence; but we can reflect that, just as the greatness of God is ineffable, immeasurable, unknowable, still God has come down as one human being on God’s holy Mountain, the kingdom of heaven, where ‘they shall not hurt or destroy’. The lion will lie down with the lamb and be friends. There are no nationalities in the kingdom of heaven. But there is love.

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Sermon for Mattins on the Second Sunday after Easter, 15th April 2018

Isaiah 63:7-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

I’ve been wrestling with some contrasts in the last day or two. Obviously the civil war in Syria, the apparent poison gas attack: and then the attack on Syria by the Americans, the French and our RAF. 104 missiles, apparently, of which 8 were ours.

And the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. An actor read it again on the wireless last night – although I didn’t listen to it. Perniciously, some its ghastly racism still comes back. References to black people as ‘smiling picaninnies’ and the cod classical reference to ‘the Tiber red with blood’ are still awful.

And the 70th anniversary of the voyage of the ‘WINDRUSH’ from the Caribbean, bringing people who would become postmen and nurses and drive taxis and do all the jobs which we couldn’t find people to do, whom we had advertised in the Caribbean for. Some of them have been here for most of that time, bringing up children and working hard – but now our frankly nasty Home Office is trying to throw out some of the ones who never applied for a passport, back to the Caribbean, where they haven’t lived for decades. On appeal, the Home Office’s ‘be extra beastly to immigrants’ policy has been overturned in about half the cases. What’s that about? Putting Granny on a plane to Jamaica because, as a British citizen – but a black one – she had no idea that she should keep any old documents to prove her right to be here.

The contrast was with the Easter sunshine yesterday, as lots of people came back from Easter holidays, expecting the usual murky weather back home, and found real, warm sunshine. The contrast was with our Easter happiness in our church, as we celebrated Christ’s resurrection. The story of Doubting Thomas is such a good one for us, because we sometimes feel that the miracle of that first Easter is just too much. But – ‘My Lord and my God!’ said Thomas, he, a person like us, was convinced – and we feel Jesus came back for us too.

But. But just as the Easter story is overlaid with the terrible sadness of the crucifixion, so we can’t help feeling that those simple Galilean fishermen are an awful long way away now. How can what happened so long ago, in such a different world, give us anything useful about the violence in Syria: how can the Easter story make any difference to the message of ‘Rivers of Blood’ which people like Enoch Powell, people like Nigel Farage and perhaps even Theresa May, when she was Home Office minister, gave out, any difference to the message that there is something wrong with people coming to live and work in our country, with immigration?

Actually, not just living and working here, but joining their relatives here. And where children are concerned, there are still a couple of thousand – really, not just a few – just across the Channel in France, who can’t get here. Theresa May, when she was Home Office minister, arranged a disgusting advert displayed on the back of vans, driving around advising immigrants to ‘Go home’. And she went to church faithfully all that time. Apparently, she saw nothing wrong in her deterrent vans.

What use is Easter against all that stuff? Can we learn from the early church? One thing about learning our Christianity from St Paul’s letters, is that we have to imagine what the other side of the conversation might be. So what was St Paul responding to when he wrote to the people in Corinth?

He was pointing out that, if one ignored God’s commandments, the Ten Commandments, God might not keep on forgiving them. The Old Testament is full of stories of the Chosen People, Israel, disobeying God. And it brought bad consequences on them. Plagues of snakes. And St Paul thought it was all pretty symbolic. For him, the Old Testament story of Moses in the wilderness after God had parted the Red Sea and they had escaped from Egypt, was deeply significant. Not everyone made it, because they fell away, they forgot God.

St Paul, in counselling the Corinthians, reminds them of the story of Moses and the Israelites coming out of Egypt. Even though the Israelites were God’s chosen people, it didn’t give them a complete licence to behave any way they wanted. Each breach of a commandment had a price. ‘Fornication’ brought a death sentence for 23,000 in one day.

At first sight, this doesn’t seem to square with the idea that God is our friend, that He cares for us. For if he really did, surely He wouldn’t be so fierce and judgmental towards human failings – because after all, He made us the way we are.

So why does St Paul offer these cautionary tales? It isn’t a question of ‘Be good and you’ll be welcome in heaven’ – and the converse, if you’re not virtuous. That if you’re bad, you’ll be going down.

It’s much more a question that God does love us, unconditionally; but we mustn’t fail to reciprocate. Perhaps the ‘other half’ of the dialogue between St Paul and the Corinthians was some idea that the Corinthians had, that becoming a Christian sort-of inoculated them against the consequences of bad behaviour. Once you’d been baptised and confirmed, perhaps they thought you could give full rein to your baser instincts. St Paul is pointing out that God may still take a dim view if the people who are receiving His blessing, go out immediately and do things more befitted to their old lives, before they saw the light.

St Paul’s point is, that if you are ‘saved’, you won’t want to fornicate and do all the other things, having riotous dinners and ‘putting God to the test’.

But my thought is that, if you are full of the Easter spirit, if you are a good Christian, it won’t just be a question of your avoiding fornication. There will be other signs of your being a Christian. And this is where I get back to my contrasts. How to be full of the spirit of Easter, and at the same time rushing into following Pres.Trump in attacking Syria before the United Nations weapons inspectors have even started? How to be full of the spirit of Easter, but sympathetic to Powell’s racism – as surveys have shown 70% of the British population were at the time. How does that – did that – work? Can you really be a Christian and support have a racist view of immigration? What about things that Nigel Farage has said really recently?

What about us here at St Mary’s? Why don’t we have any black people in our church? Some of us must have black neighbours; we must be more friendly to them, and see if we can get them to join us. It’s part of our vision, a vision of inclusion, of openness. As we start our befriending programme, let’s be open to inviting people who look a bit different to join us and become our friends. Let’s not just think of Easter as a quaint story 2,000 years ago, without any practical effect on us. Let’s show that Easter has made a difference to our lives.

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 7th January 2018

Isaiah 42:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=382181977

Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, hit the headlines the other day by suggesting that Americans who go to church, but who also support the policies of President Trump, are not really Christians. Or, shall we say, by supporting Trump, they are acting in a way which conflicts with true Christian belief.

He doesn’t see how you can square professing to be a Christian with supporting Donald Trump, in that Donald Trump has shown that he is a womaniser, a xenophobe, a racist and a warmonger. If Christians support Donald Trump, does that in any way compromise their Christianity? The Bishop of Liverpool clearly says, ‘Yes, it does.’

Instead of the President, look for a minute at the leader whom Isaiah was describing in our first Bible reading. This is sometimes called the Song of the Covenant. It is a proclamation, through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, putting God’s words into the mouth of the prophet, describing that chosen leader, the Messiah, leading the people bound by their agreement with God, the covenant with Abraham: ‘He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.’ He is gentle. ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’. Strangely, you might feel, there’s no mention of Twitter.

But interestingly – perhaps a bit paradoxically – this is all in a series of chapters describing God reaching an agreement, a covenant, with his chosen people – it’s not just an agreement between God and the chosen people, the Israelites. Even back in the beginning, in the Old Testament, in Isaiah it says, ‘… he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles’ and ‘I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles’. A light of the Gentiles – the Gentiles were the non-Jews. They were what we are.

So right at the beginning, at the championing of the people of Israel in God’s eyes, there was also more than a look over the shoulder at the people who were not Jewish. The Messiah was going to be a light to them too, a ‘light to the Gentiles’. This is universal. Christ is for all the world, for everyone.

The idea of a private understanding, a covenant, between God and his ‘chosen people’ may seem a bit strange to us now. But in the Methodist Church all over the world this Sunday, the first Sunday of the year, is known as Covenant Sunday, and there is a special service in which the congregation renew their commitment to follow God’s commandments, and John Wesley’s special Covenant prayer is said. I will pray that prayer for us when I lead our prayers in a few minutes.

What the Messiah was going to do had a distinctly revolutionary aspect to it. He would bring the prisoners out of prison and give light to the blind, in a society where, if you were disabled, people thought that was because you had done something wrong and were bad in some way. So in other words the people who had the deal with the Almighty, the chosen, the chosen race, the Israelites, were not chosen so that they could carry all before them and rule the world, they were to be a haven of social justice and reconciliation, where the leader was not a mighty warrior but was a gentle person who would not hurt a fly. Rather different from President Trump.

People who are politically savvy will probably glaze over a bit as I go through this because, they will say, ‘What is the relevance of what happened 2000 years ago – or even earlier, if you are talking about Isaiah?’ There are practical things that you just can’t ignore. ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I mean, in this country these days, even if in an ideal world we would like to, we just don’t have the money to do all the good things that we would like to do.’

But it is notable that in the Bible there is never any reference to what doing the right thing might cost. It’s just a question whether it’s the right thing to do or not. St Paul’s point in our second lesson from Ephesians is that, given that the Messiah has come, that Jesus has appeared, and in so doing God has renewed his covenant; so there is an effect on the faithful believers. Once they realise that God has taken an interest in them, then, the argument goes, they won’t want to do any bad things in future. It won’t matter what the practicalities are: ‘Teach us, good Lord …. to give, and not to count the cost’. That will be their guiding principle.

But whereas perhaps even in the light of this, all we can do about the godlessness of President Trump is to sigh, and say how much we disapprove, what about things nearer to home? For instance, what about the leader of Windsor borough council?

The leader of the Windsor council has written to the police and crime commissioner local to him, to ask that homeless people be cleared off the streets in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Now is there any kind of conflict between the Christianity of the wedding and the unsympathetic attitude to homeless people exhibited by the council leader? He has said that he just wanted to do something to help the wedding couple. He has said that he thought that many of the homeless people were not really homeless, because there were places where they could stay. They were begging, making themselves a nuisance.

But what would Jesus say about that? Or indeed Isaiah? The Old Testament has numerous places where the prophets tell people to look after widows and orphans, and ‘the stranger that is in your midst’. That must imply that they are homeless. And in the New Testament, in Jesus’ own words, what about the Great Judgement in Matthew 25:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I would suggest that it’s pretty clear that Jesus wouldn’t be sympathetic to the leader of Windsor borough council. I think Jesus would say that it doesn’t matter why someone is homeless, or a beggar. The Good Samaritan didn’t check to see whether the man who had been hurt had in some way been responsible for his plight, to blame for it, had somehow brought his misfortune on himself.

And indeed many of the organisations which work to care for the homeless have challenged the council leader’s reasoning. Thames Valley Police, the ones he asked to clear so-called ‘rough sleepers’ off the streets, didn’t think that would help. It would be more effective, the police said, if the causes of homelessness and destitution were addressed instead. Crisis, the charity for the homeless, said similar things. People don’t choose to be homeless, and they only beg when they are desperate. Shelter and Centrepoint, two other leading charities, have agreed.

I don’t know whether the leader of Windsor and Maidenhead Royal Borough Council goes to church at all. But I think that if he does, he ought to reflect very carefully on what the Bishop of Liverpool has said about whether it’s possible to be a Trump supporter and a Christian at the same time. It applies here on this side of the Atlantic too. If you don’t love your neighbour as yourself, never mind what it costs, you’re not a real Christian.

The Covenant Prayer of John Wesley (1703–1791)

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

Further Bible references: see http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20110203_1.htm

Sermon for Evening Prayer with the Prayer Book Society, Guildford Branch, on Saturday 26th November 2016 in the Founders’ Chapel, Charterhouse

Isaiah 24; Matthew 11:20-30 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=347292826 for the text

‘Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down.’ This is First Isaiah – first of the three writers who contributed to the Book of Isaiah – gloomy, doomy; Isaiah at his gloomiest.

And then ‘Woe unto thee, Chorazin!’ Jesus berates all those places where they have ignored his teaching and have failed to mend their ways.

It’s tough stuff. I don’t know whether it’s just because I’m a preacher but, when the lessons are read out in a service, I immediately start to imagine what points the preacher will draw out from the passages in the Bible which have been set for that day.

How does the Bible speak to that congregation, I wonder. What will their minister make of that lesson? And my thinking is coloured also by what has been going on in the world. Has anything happened in the world outside which will test our faith? Are there any situations about which we need God’s guidance and help, where we depend on His grace?

What would I expect today? The lessons are full of doom and gloom. The world has turned upside down. God punishes those who have broken his covenant. Jesus says it will be ‘more tolerable for the land of Sodom, than for [Capernaum]’. Indeed, Capernaum ‘shalt be brought down to hell’.

Is there a message for us today?

Is this something which could apply to the vote for Trump, or for the USA under Trump? Or is it reminiscent of Britain, divided in the face of the Brexit referendum? Is the race hatred that has arisen in both countries, the blaming of minorities and outsiders, the move away from openness and internationalism towards a narrower nationalistic approach, the sort of thing which the prophet, and which Jesus himself, was alluding to, all those years ago?

But just a minute, you might say. There’s a time and place for everything – and this is the Prayer Book Society service immediately before Advent. We are looking forward to the joy of Christmas. Let us just take refuge in the beauty of the holiness that is the Book of Common Prayer. Never mind all that Last Judgement stuff. Look, our New Testament lesson ends with those Comfortable Words, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

And also, we are a rather varied congregation. We come from all sorts of churches, with all sorts of theological emphases. Some of us come from churches where the BCP isn’t much used, and where there is a modern, evangelical approach, emphasising the Bible as the Word of God. And some members might even rely on some of the wording in the BCP to justify not having women priests, and not accepting gay marriage.

Others of us come from churches where the BCP is used regularly, but the theology is decidedly liberal. Less influenced by John Stott or David Bracewell than by David Jenkins or the John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ – or lately, of Victor Stock. We love the language of the BCP and treasure its theological riches – but we allow that it is of its time, and it has to be read, and used, in a nuanced, undogmatic way.

Phew! That’s all right then, you might think. Nothing controversial this afternoon. Roll on the splendid ‘match tea’ in the Saunders Room. No need to worry about the awful things going on in the world this afternoon, at least. This is our Prayer Book Society meeting, and we can just enjoy renewing our friendships and celebrating how lovely the Prayer Book is.

We’re on the brink of Advent, too. Let’s not spoil it with politics. After all, the other thing that’s happened this week has been that happy holiday, Thanksgiving, in the USA. I have had the splendid experience of preaching, in Hartford, Conn., on Thanksgiving Day. Then, again, I faced a dilemma whether to link the Bible lessons for that day with some of the things going on in the world for which one would be strongly inclined not to give thanks: poverty in the midst of plenty, homelessness, wars and refugees.

I don’t think that in church we should ever shy away from political and social engagement. I agree with both our current archbishops, that Christians ought to engage with the problems of secular society. ‘Faith in the City’, [https://www.churchofengland.org/media/55076/faithinthecity.pdf] the Church of England report into spiritual and economic decline in various inner city areas in 1985, criticised Thatcherism and was itself heavily criticised at the time – but it bears re-reading now. The nonconformist churches produced a comprehensive report three years ago called ‘The Lies we tell Ourselves: ending comfortable Myths about Poverty'[http://www.methodist.org.uk/news-and-events/news-archive-2013/lies-about-poverty-shattering-the-myths]: and the House of Bishops sent an open letter entitled ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ to the ‘people and parishes of the Church of England’ before the 2015 General Election [https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2170230/whoismyneighbour-pages.pdf].

But again, being engaged doesn’t necessarily mean following a particular political doctrine. There are Christians in all the major parties, even including UKIP, in this country. Even Revd Dr Giles Fraser supported Brexit. Donald Trump in the USA gained support from the ‘Bible Belt’ of conservative evangelical Christians there.

So as I deliver my sermon to you, I can expect that, when you listened to the scarifying words of Isaiah chapter 24, and Jesus’ condemnation of the places who had ignored his teaching, I can expect that you will have brought a variety of things into mind. Does the rise in hate crimes, xenophobia and racism both here in the U.K. and in the USA have anything to do with the populist politics of the so-called ‘alt-right’, Trump and the Brexiteers? The man who murdered Jo Cox MP was shouting white supremacist slogans as he killed her. Was he encouraged to do so by the nationalist tone of some politicians?

Or would you take a different view? Would you, for instance, link the apocalyptic visions in our lessons today to the sort of things that GAFCON has made a lot of – the many clergymen in our church who are openly gay, whom GAFCON have listed publicly? Is that the sort of sin (if it is a sin) which would break God’s covenant?

Well, this isn’t Question Time, and, until the Match Tea in a few minutes, you can’t answer back, so I don’t know what links you will make in your mind. But it is important that you do try to make those links, and to reflect on what God’s Word is telling us about our lives, and our countries’ lives, today.

At least I am confident that, when I challenge you gently in this way, you won’t react like one of the congregation at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn., did after my Thanksgiving sermon there [https://hughdbryant.co.uk/2013/11/29/a-turkey/]. I had preached about food banks and poverty. This gentleman shook my hand warmly as he went out, and said, ‘I enjoyed your sermon very much. But mind you, I entirely disagreed with it. Indeed, if I were a younger man, I would have had to shoot you!’

Now Hartford is the home of the Colt Manufacturing Company, makers of the famous Colt 45. Quite a thought. I do hope you all checked your weapons in at the door!

Sermon for Evensong on the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 23rd October 2016
Ecclesiastes 11,12, 2 Timothy 2:1-7 Falling off the High Wire

Cast your bread on the waters. Take a risk. Buy a ticket in the lottery, perhaps. ‘Have a portion in seven, or in eight’. What on earth does all this mean? 

In Hebrew Qoheleth, the ‘preacher’, or ‘teacher’, or ‘the speaker’ – whatever the Latin word ‘ecclesiastes’ means – has a rather cynical outlook. You don’t know how a baby takes shape in the mother’s womb. You don’t know how God decides that one baby should spring to life and another not. If you are a young person with all the grace and beauty and energy of youth, make the most of it. Because it won’t last. 

But this wonderful asset, of being young, is ultimately useless, is ultimately ‘vanity’. We will all have to meet our maker at some stage and account for what we have done in our lives. There is nothing for it; the only thing you can do is to obey God’s commandments and do your best.

It’s rather an odd set of sentiments to find in the Bible. Usually we read about how God cares for us; that if we follow God’s commandments, or turn away from bad things that we have been doing, we will be ‘saved’. What sort of salvation is it? Perhaps we shall be saved, in the sense that the Good Samaritan saved the man who had fallen among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho: saved, taken to hospital, picked up in a lifeboat – saved in an earthly sense. Or alternatively, there is the vision of heaven, the vision of eternal life. Being saved in the sense of having eternal life. 

I gave a birthday present to the lady who is my personal trainer at David Lloyd’s gym the other day. I should say that, as you can see, I am not her model student, apparently because of the things I like eating and drinking rather than because I’m doing the wrong exercises. But even Charles Atlas couldn’t do a better job on me than Liz Ferrari.

Anyway, I decided to give her a book, a book that she would enjoy; and I found a lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced travel book. But it was a travel book with a twist. The idea was that, in each of the exciting or beautiful places around the world, there was an activity which you could do. You could run up mountains or cross bottomless gorges on rickety rope bridges. You know, all those rather extreme sports. She likes that sort of thing.

Liz was pleased with the book. But it got us talking about risky activities. I confessed that I don’t really like going to the circus. I know that unfortunately the lion tamer and the elephant man or the beautiful girl choreographing sea lions in evening dress are not what they seem, and circuses don’t have them any more. Unfortunately there was a lot of cruelty involved in training those animals. We know better now.

But what about the Cirque du Soleil, those circuses that have no animals, but just have acrobats, trapeze artists and people on high wires? I can’t bear to look. I can’t bear to look because it seems to me that the risk of falling is terrible. Is there a safety net? If there is a safety net, thank goodness, because if they fall, we can hope that they will not be badly hurt.

But why is it often somehow more exciting, a bigger box-office draw, if the artist on the high wire does it without a safety net? Why do people pay more to see something like that? Something really dangerous. When Philippe Petit walked on the tight-rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, 107 storeys up, why was that to be celebrated? If he had fallen, like the people who jumped out of the windows of the burning towers on 9/11, he would likely have been dead, we understand, before he hit the ground. 

I can’t bear to watch it. I don’t want these people to risk being maimed or killed just for the sake of giving spectators a thrill. I’m not even sure what that thrill is, really. We don’t have wild beast shows like the ancient Romans – and that’s good. The Romans who went to the arena to watch these shows – gladiators and Christians against each other, and against lions – and, I suppose, people who go to bullfights or boxing matches – all go because they want to see somebody surviving even through there is a terrible risk, and some people get hurt. 

They want to see Cassius Clay; but they’re not so fussed about Joe Frazier or Sonny Liston or George Foreman. I don’t think people really want to go to see people or animals being hurt, but I really wonder how the thrill works. Because it could happen. The man could fall off the high wire. The girl might not catch the hands of her partner hanging down from the trapeze. It’s a risk. 

And somehow people say that it is a good thing to have an ‘appetite for risk’. It’s supposed to be good for the character of children to do risky things. Of course there has to be a ‘risk assessment’ to make sure that the risk is not too great.

I’m sorry, but I think this is all nonsense. ‘They shall not hurt or kill on my holy mountain,’ says God, through the prophet Isaiah. ‘The lion shall lie down with the lamb, and the little child shall play on the hole of the asp’. There will be salvation. But how? Ecclesiastes points out how in individual cases it may not work. ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.’ 

I just went to see probably one of the most disturbing and terrifying films that I’ve ever seen. It didn’t involve dinosaurs; mountains didn’t explode like they do in James Bond films; Bruce Willis didn’t slaughter half the world. There was no terrifying car chase, and there was no love interest.

But nevertheless, it’s a film which will live on in my mind’s eye for a very long time. It was about what happens when you fall. Why do you fall? Why could you fall? Was it because you were a bad acrobat, if you somehow deserved to fall? When you are lying, maimed, on the ground, can you reasonably expect that there will be somebody to care for you and put you back together again? 

I won’t spoil the plot for you. All I would say to you is that you should go and see ‘I, Daniel Blake’ before very long. 

Ecclesiastes doesn’t really offer any answers, for all his pretty words. ‘A time to laugh: a time to cry. … For everything there is a season.’ That’s Ecclesiastes. Vanity. Is that what we believe? Where are the seeds of salvation, and what is salvation? On God’s holy mountain, there. And there, ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’.

But where is that mountain? It’s not a place for extreme sports. Is it all right that in the trapeze artistry of life, some people don’t make it? They fall. But as Ecclesiastes says, we don’t know which ones they will be. Then we see the refugees in their dangerous boats, or the young ones in Calais, who, whatever the newspapers may say, are young – but look old. They look old because of the risks that they take every night, trying to jump on trains and into lorries to get through the tunnel.

They are risk-takers. But they’re not risk takers for someone else’s enjoyment. They have no alternative. Their houses are destroyed. Their relatives are gone. They are unable to work – although they’d like to. Why them, and why not us?

What is it about the fact that we happen to live here, where they want to be? For them to be in England represents salvation. In Ecclesiastes, there is no salvation. It’s just the luck of the draw. Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity. What a bleak vision. It must look like that when the bulldozers come, and the gendarmes escort you to a bus, to take you heaven knows where. Where they definitely don’t speak English. 

But Jesus says, ‘Love your neighbour’ – love that young man, who is, you know, just an economic migrant. Think about it. Of course he’s an economic migrant. He is hungry. He has no money. He has no money and he is hungry, because he is a refugee, because he has been driven out of his home. 

How would we feel, if we were driven out from our home? Just imagine if London had been invaded by IS/Daesh. Just imagine if large parts of greater London, including Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, had been flattened in the fight. If our brave boys had had to become guerrillas and fight house to house. In the eyes of the enemy, we had become combatants. And we had to leave. We had to get away from our dangerous place. Everybody who could had to pack up their cars and get away. But where would we go?

Could we get on a ferry, or through the Tunnel? And find a new life in safety, in Europe? Would they welcome us? Would we be able to speak the language? That must be what it feels like to be a refugee. There are hundreds of thousands of them – millions, even – and about 12,000 of them on our doorstep. About 1,000 of them are children. Is it vanity? Is it emptiness, just a spectator sport?

Although some people do like watching people on the high wire, I do hope that, in this area, we won’t: I hope that we realise, as a society, and for those in power as a government, that there are some risks that should not be taken. There should always be a safety net. Not as in Ecclesiastes, for whom, however awful things are, it’s just too bad: everything is vanity. 

Instead, we Christians should feel very confident that we have a better example, the example of the man who said that we should love our neighbour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Mattins on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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