Archives for posts with tag: jesus christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon for 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 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 12th November 2017 at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon

Judges 7:2-22; John 15:9-17 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=377554049

This morning we held our Remembrance Day Services. Godfrey, in his sermon, said that, when he had first been ordained, in the 1970s, people had not expected remembrance services to carry on being held after the year 2000. There would be no-one still alive who had served in either of the World Wars. So the memory, the ‘remembrance’, would just be an impersonal one, a collective celebration of something we had learned about from history. It would be like our celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation, or Guy Fawkes Night, perhaps.

But as Godfrey pointed out, since the end of WW2, there has been only one year during which members of the British armed forces have not been engaged in conflict, somewhere in the world. So there is still a reason to be thankful for their bravery, to remember them, and to pray that, through our bringing to mind their sacrifice, we will gradually and finally turn away from war and strife.

Now in this evening service, as we turn towards the ending of this day of remembrance, I want to reflect on some of the many things that challenge us – or which, I suggest, ought to challenge us, as we enter the 100th year after the promise was made that the First World War was the ‘war to end all wars’. Because, 99 years later, very sadly, that still isn’t true. Wars haven’t ended.

So I want to reflect, to look carefully at some of the things we have said and done in relation to war, and see if perhaps we can discern any factors which might help towards bringing peace in future. You may not agree that I am asking the right questions: but I hope that what I say may start you thinking critically and, I hope, constructively. I very much doubt whether there are any automatically right answers here, at least so far as mortal men and women are concerned, but I think we ought to try.

Love one another. On Remembrance Sunday. Lest we forget. And, to pick up both our lessons tonight, you don’t need a big army to win a battle against overwhelming odds, if God is on your side.

How to make sense of all this. This morning we stood in silence by the war memorial and tried to commemorate all those who, in one sense, had not loved one another. They had killed each other. We honoured those who fell. We do honour, usually, those who fell fighting, fighting for our side. We don’t usually pray for the people who were the enemy, although there have been good exceptions, like the prayers at the service in Westminster Abbey after the Falklands War, for example, when the then Archbishop of Canterbury insisted that there should be prayers for the Argentines too.

After all, Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,’ (Matt. 5:44). But we – and mankind generally – never have. Indeed, we love to rake up, in a rather triumphal way, the history of the First and Second World Wars. We thank our ancestors for being brave and standing up against the enemy – Germany in both cases – and keeping us independent.


The enemy’ wasn’t just Germany, in fact: it also included Turkey, Japan, Austria, and Italy as well, at various times. Most of those countries have been friends and allies for far longer than they were enemies in one or other of the World Wars. The same countries, at different times, have been both allies and enemies.

It’s difficult to generalise about countries, whether they are always going to be friends or foes. But what we can say about most wars is, that in most cases, it wasn’t personal. Even in the terrible trench warfare of WW1, people weren’t fighting people whom they knew, and whom they’d fallen out with.

That should perhaps be something we could think about, when we’re tempted to think of the Germans as baddies, or someone makes a joke about them not having a sense of humour or wanting to extend their territory round a swimming pool on holiday. People were not fighting people they hated personally, but fighting for ideas, or for their country’s sovereignty. Our soldiers fought because our leaders thought that otherwise, we would be overrun by Germany – sovereignty; and, in WW2, to avoid being turned into Nazis, a question of ideas. Remember the Christmas Day truce in 1914, when the soldiers got out of their trenches and played football, exchanged cigarettes and gifts. They had nothing personal against each other.

Again, I think that, as we reflect on the sad fact that no amount of ‘Remembrance’ has stopped wars from breaking out, we might try to identify some of the ideas which seem to have led to war. Sovereignty, for instance: not wanting someone else, foreigners, to dictate our laws. But think about this. A pooling, a watering down, of sovereignty, to some extent, in the European Union, has brought about the longest ever unbroken period of peace in Europe. And every treaty between countries, for any purpose, involves the parties giving up a little of their individual autonomy in order to agree together.

And allied to that, perhaps we should reflect on what it is that makes us British, or French, or Chinese, or whatever nationality we are. In the majority of cases, it is an accident of birth. There is no special distinction, it confers no special entitlement by itself, just to be born. You certainly might say that the miracle of life itself, of being brought to birth, is itself hugely valuable. But whether you’re born in poverty in a Calcutta slum or in a mansion on St George’s Hill, that fact of itself doesn’t entitle you to do better or worse than another human being.

We are all children of God, equally. So aggressively putting up barriers to keep people out of ‘our’ country – and I’ve put the word ‘our’ in inverted commas, because although people use that expression, ‘our’ country, I’m not sure what it really should mean – aggressively keeping others out may not be a good, or a right, thing to do. But millions of people have died, effectively to uphold that principle.

We sense that there must be some reasonable limit, some reasonable extent of nationalism. In WW2, we would not have wanted our government to be in Berlin, or to have had to speak German instead of being able to speak English, (loudly if necessary, if people don’t understand us), to everyone we meet, wherever we happen to be. So where is the right balance?

The bravery and sacrifices made in the World Wars kept us free, and we are thankful. But if today the same instincts for independence result in our driving out from our midst people who have come to live and work here, and who provide such valuable contributions to our health service, to our farmers, in our hotels and restaurants and so on, if those people feel we no longer welcome them and accept them, this is not the ‘love’ that Jesus was talking about. It was αγάπη [agape], brotherly love, charity and kindness that he meant.

‘Greater love hath no man .. Jesus’ next sentence in St John’s Gospel, after the great command that we should love one another, is ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ As Canon Giles Fraser pointed out on the radio on Friday, some war memorials don’t say ‘lay down his life for his friends’, but ‘for his country’ instead. But really, the context in the Bible is, of course, that Jesus is looking forward to his own death, to the crucifixion. ‘As I have loved you, so you must love each other.’

That is a sacrificial kind of love. Making sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice, for someone you love. There are all those stories of heroism and sacrifice in war.

Jack Cornwell, the under-age naval hero who stayed at his post during the Battle of Jutland, severely wounded himself, even though everyone around him had been killed or wounded, quietly waiting for orders.

My own relative, Dr John Fisher, who won the MC at Arnhem as a medic, by going into a minefield to treat wounded soldiers, laying a tape behind him so that the stretcher bearers could safely get through the minefield to the casualties and bring them to safety. Every step could have been his last, if he had trodden on a mine. But he was willing to risk death, in order to save others. He survived, fortunately.

Or other heroes, who weren’t soldiers. ‘Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz, on August 14, 1941. When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: My wife! My children! I will never see them again! At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. His request was granted’. [ http://auschwitz.dk/kolbe.htm]

We should try always to remember them, and to be grateful for their sacrifice. And as well, we should realise that Jesus wasn’t just talking about supreme, life and death, sacrifices. Love means giving things up for your friends, small sacrifices as well as big ones.

And what about Gideon, and his battle against the Midianites? Why did he go through this bizarre process of whittling his army down to 300 champions only, instead of the thousands he had at his disposal? God didn’t want the Israelites to be so powerful that they could boast that their own strength had brought them victory. To show the power of God, they had to be seen to win against impossible odds.

But the puzzling thing is the thought that, as so often in war, it is said that both sides are praying to God, to the same God, that their side will prevail. Will God support one side against the other? And if so, why? It is a version of the theological conundrum called ‘theodicy’ (θεοδικη), the question why a good God would allow bad things to happen. The answer in this story from the Old Testament is that God favours his chosen people, the people who worship him rather than any other, false gods.

There is also the story of the Roman emperor Constantine at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in the fourth century, who had a dream about Jesus Christ and decided to paint his soldiers’ shields with a symbol of the cross. They won the battle, and Constantine, in gratitude, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire – which was a major factor in making Christianity spread throughout the world.

But – but there’s something uneasy about this rather crude, almost superstitious approach to God. Having God as a kind of nuclear weapon, the ultimate ‘game changer’, seems wrong. Granted that we believe that God cares for us, knows all of our names, and so on: but why would He almost justify a war, by determining its outcome? Or to put it another way, why would the good God become involved in the evil that is warfare? The hymn says, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’ Not, ‘Whose side is the Lord on?’

Enough for one Sunday evening, I think. Lest we forget. Let us love one another, as Jesus has loved us.

Sermon for Evensong on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20th August 2017
2 Kings 4:1-37; Psalm 90; Acts 16:1-15

‘Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men’. That’s what we’ve just sung, in Psalm 90. It means, return to the dust, out of which you were made. Psalm 90 is sometimes used at funerals, and describes the insignificance and fleeting existence of human life when compared with the creative – and destructive – power of God.

 

There’s a powerful novel by P. D. James called ‘Children of Men’. It’s a dystopian vision of the future – just as 1984 suddenly wasn’t in the distant future, in this case, the future is 2021 – not long now.

 

Gradually, no more children are being born. The human race is dying out. Then, years after the last person was born, a woman becomes pregnant. Now read on! I won’t spoil it for you. There’s a film of it too, which is also good, but rather different.

 

One little switch. No more babies. And that’s it for the human race. It’s perhaps more frightening, as being rather more mundane, more feasible, in a way, than a nuclear holocaust.

 

There has been a school of thought – perhaps as a result of too much reading of the Old Testament – that if God does take steps against mankind, it must be to punish them for something they’ve done wrong.

 

So now, for people who think in that way, it will be likely to be rather a worrying time. We have the President of the USA completely failing to condemn white supremacists and Nazis – saying there are ‘some very good people’ among them; in this country, all of sudden, it’s not beyond the pale for people openly to want to shut out from this country anyone who isn’t a white, English-speaking person with useful skills and plenty of money.

 

Nearer to home, did anyone even think for a minute whether it was right to chase away the travellers, the gypsies, who came and camped out on the Leg O’Mutton field in Cobham? Remember, Hitler exterminated Gypsies as well as Jews. How should we treat them? What would Jesus have said?

 

Now again, instead of seeking closer union with our neighbours in Europe, we have set our faces against them with the vote for so-called ‘Brexit’. ‘Sovereignty’, whatever that means, is supposed to be more important than the brotherhood of man.

 

I think that Emily Thornberry was right, although she got into hot water for saying it, about the house with a white van parked in the drive, festooned with English flags. That flag is not benign: it is meant to say, ‘England alone!’ Go away, everyone else. Black, brown, foreign people: go away from our ‘crowded’ island. The crowds are, I would suggest, a myth. There is plenty of room in the UK. The hidden, evil message is that there are too many of the ‘wrong sort of person’ – people who are not like us.

 

I still remember the first time I went to Bombay – the first time I went to India – and walked down the street. I was the only white man. The only white man among thousands of brown and black faces. I began to imagine what it must feel like to be a black person in England sometimes. No wonder that black people may congregate in places where there are already significant numbers of black people. We have a certain innate small-c conservatism, all of us, I think, which makes us easier with people whom we know.

 

Obviously in a country of nearly 70 million people, we can’t know everyone, so I suspect that we fall back on what people look like. If they look like us, fine. If not, there might be a reservation, a hesitation, a query in our minds.

 

This isn’t good. Xenophobia, racism, white supremacy. No thought for the idea that we are all equally God’s creatures, God’s children. God, if He cares about us in the way the Old Testament describes, might well send some plagues down on us for being so awful.

 

Yet so far as I know, God hasn’t worked that way recently. Taken as a whole in the Bible, in contrast with the various chastisements in the Old Testament – and Psalm 90 is said to be a Psalm of Moses, inspired by the complaining of the Israelites in the desert – there are many stories of healing and salvation.

 

Elisha’s two miracles described in our first lesson are cases in point. The first one is a sort of self-help example with a miraculous element, a bit like feeding the 5,000, in that the oil never ran out, and the resurrection of the Shunammite woman’s daughter is like the raising of Lazarus or the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter – ‘damsel, arise’ – in the New Testament.

 

We don’t know how these miracles worked – or else they wouldn’t be miraculous. Maybe these stories are just mythical. It’s striking how similar the miracles done by Elisha are, in these two cases at least, to Jesus’ miracles.

 

The ‘rose of Sharon’, the beautiful girl, in the Song of Solomon, ‘nigra sum sed pulchra,’ in the Latin words of the beautiful canticle in Monteverdi’s Vespers, is said to be a ‘Shulamite’, or a Shunammite. Perhaps there’s a link with the ‘great woman’ in our lesson from 2 Kings. She was kind to the man of God, Elisha, and ‘constrained him’ to eat bread. It’s a bit reminiscent of Mrs Doyle, Father Ted’s housekeeper, pressing ever more cake and sandwiches on her hapless priestly charges: ‘Oh, go on, go on, go on …!’ Maybe she was Abishag, the most beautiful woman in Israel, who went to comfort King David in his old age – she too came from Shunem.

 

But even in the beauty of Monteverdi there’s a wrong note. ‘Nigra sum sed pulchra’ sings the girl – although often, for mysterious musical reasons, it’s actually a male counter-tenor singing – meaning, ‘I am black but beautiful’. To sing ‘but’ beautiful is awful – but in 1610, when the Vespers was written, that kind of casual racism was unfortunately there. I feel that if we can change the words of the Lord’s Prayer so that we ‘forgive those who’ trespass against us, instead of ‘them that’ do it, we could change ‘nigra sum, sed’ (black, but …) to ‘nigra sum et pulchra’. ‘And’ beautiful. Perhaps you, Robert [Prof. Robert Woolley, Director of Music at St Mary’s], could speak to Harry Christophers or Sir John Eliot Gardner about it.

 

The disciples with St Paul – (including St Luke, who most likely was the author of the Acts of the Apostles as well, and who was an eyewitness with the Apostles, at least for some of the time, which we think partly because of the passage which was our lesson tonight, in their journey, where it says, ‘We’: ‘We came with a straight course to Samothracia’, and so on) – well, he and the disciples went to pray, not just in the synagogues, but in Philippi they went to a part of the river bank, where people went to pray; actually, not just any ‘people’ went there, but a group of women. And there they met and got to know Lydia, who, like the Shunammite woman with the man of God, Elisha, invited them to stay with her. She ‘constrained them’ too; she was another Mrs Doyle!

 

Shunammite women, blacks, and the women worshipping with Lydia on the river bank: all a bit different, according to the lights of the time then; but all variously blessed. To be with Elisha, and with the apostles – and of course, with Jesus – we should be celebrating diversity and welcoming the people who are shut out – shut out by polite society, but also because they are black or strangers or refugees. Let us not shelter behind false distinctions between ‘genuine’ refugees and ‘economic migrants’. Whatever they are, they are here; they are human beings like us; they’re just as good as us; and if they are refugees, they need our welcome, our love, and our help. ‘Come again, ye children of men.’

Sermon for Mattins at Sexagesima, 19 February 2017

Romans 8:18-25, Matthew 6:25-34

‘Don’t worry: be happy’. I think I remember a pop song along those lines. You might think that it sums up the idea in both our Bible lessons today. St Paul: ‘For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us’ and Jesus himself in St Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? … [and] Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’

Actually I think those are rather challenging passages today. Why wouldn’t we be worried? Why shouldn’t we ‘take thought for the morrow’? What with Trump and Brexit and the rise of ‘populist’ politics around the world – which some commentators have likened in many ways to Nazism – how can we not worry?

This last week, the Church of England did its own collective bit of worrying, when its governing body, its parliament, the General Synod, met. 

On Wednesday, I watched the General Synod live stream from Church House, Westminster. It was the debate on the bishops’ report on their shared conversations concerning sexuality. In particular the report was about the church’s attitude to homosexuality: whether there could be marriages of homosexuals in church, and how to deal with homosexual clergy.

Would it be possible for the church to regard homosexuality as not being sinful? Could gay clergy in active relationships be accepted in the church? Could gay unions be blessed in marriage ceremonies in church just like heterosexual couples? The report is 17 pages long but you can sum up the main conclusions in a couple of sentences. The bishops did not see any reason to change the church’s traditional understanding of marriage, i.e. a lifelong union between a man and woman, not gays. Instead they wanted to demonstrate the church’s willingness to welcome gays by developing new teaching material and seeking ‘maximum freedom’ in pastoral matters.

The motion was for this report simply to be ‘noted’, which seemed rather odd. The Synod was asked not to express approval or disapproval of the report, but rather simply to note that the bishops had been doing this work – as they had, for the last three years – so that they could continue with it. People clearly didn’t buy that explanation. The intended sense, I think, was that the subcommittee of bishops (it wasn’t all of them) wanted Synod to ‘take note’ of their work in the sense of seeing the way the subcommittee’s thoughts were developing, and indicating thereby that they were content for them to carry on along the same lines.

If that was the intention, it didn’t work. Speaker after speaker in the debate said that the trouble with the bishops’ report was that it looked to normal people in the outside world like homophobia and a justification for it. There was only one speaker who actually said that homosexuality was sinful, although, as Christians, she said, we should still be nice to the sinful homosexuals.

There was a lot of talk about how people in the various moderated discussions had changed their views, although I have to say that eventually in the report, nothing seems to have changed since the last major church report on sexuality in 1991. 

One younger delegate, Lucy Gorman, from York diocese, said very simply that it was difficult to attract young people into the church and get them to listen to the gospel of Jesus, in circumstances where they perceived that the church was institutionally homophobic and did not seem to reflect Jesus’s commandments of love. 

Various people, including some of the bishops themselves, stated that the problem was that the church is seemingly irreconcilably divided. 

On the one side, so-called traditionalists or conservative evangelicals argue that Scripture and tradition uphold the proposition that marriage is only possible between a man and a woman, and any other possible combination of sexes is sinful. It is however possible, they say, to love the sinner and hate the sin. 

On the other side are liberals who argue that all the supposed biblical authorities for the proposition that any kind of homosexual love is sinful are either to be understood within the social context of the time or can be accommodated within a liberal theological understanding. The more important thing is that a loving union should be blessed and upheld.

I’ve got a feeling that there ought to be a health warning about the use of the various terms to describe the parties like ‘evangelical’ or ‘liberal’, as it tends to make people behave in tribal ways rather than being rational in their analysis. So I would ask you today not to get hung up on the labels which I’m using. It might be better if I simply said that the yellow camp believed so-and-so, and the green camp believed so-and-so else. Try to identify them by what they believe rather than by their colours!

Many speakers told how the church’s current position is hurtful to many people, both ordained and lay. Faithful people with many years of membership of the church mentioned how hurtful it was to be told that you were sinful, and there was even a story of one teenager who committed suicide because, recognising that they were gay, they believed that the church would never accept them.

The bishops’ paper was couched in terms that people were being influenced by the standards of society today, and that in some sense immutable truths of Biblical teaching were in some sense being overturned or or challenged for the sake of earthly values; in other words, ‘It doesn’t matter if everyone else in England thinks I’m wrong, if I can find a biblical authority for what I believe.’ 

At the beginning and end of the debate the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, spoke. In his introduction he said one thing which nobody else in the debate picked up, but which I think could be a key to an amicable and just resolution of the controversy. 

What Bishop Graham James said was that, since the Church’s last document, which came out in 1991, called ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’, insufficient attention has been given by the Church to scientific and medical understanding as it has developed concerning homosexual couples. 

My perception is that the scientific research concerning homosexuality can be summed up in two simple propositions. Whether one is a heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, or bisexual is not a question of volition but of genetic inheritance; you don’t choose, but you are born that way. The second proposition is that it is possible to understand maleness and femaleness against a spectrum of sexual orientation rather than according to a hard and fast duality. 

To put it another way it is not simply a question of whether people are physically male or female, that is, all-male or all-female, but it is possible that in many instances people may exhibit sexual characteristics which come from both the male and the female side which do not match their physical make-up. You can be physically male with many female attributes, for example.

All the Biblical authorities, it is said, reflect a basic proposition that marriage requires the union of a man and woman. I suggest that it might be better, in the light of the advances in science, if we talked not of ‘a man’ and ‘a woman’, but rather, of a husband and a wife, male and female parties to a union.

I wonder whether a possible area for further discussion which might be fruitful is as follows. Because of the infinitely graded spectrum of sexual orientation, one finds gay couples referring to each other, one as the husband and the other as the wife. Even though, physiologically, they may both be male or female, as between themselves, one is treated as male and the other is treated as female. I think that if ‘male’ and ‘female’ are understood in that way, behaviourally, one might say, rather than physiologically, then one can accept the Biblical and Prayer Book terms without having to explain them away.

I don’t think it can be right that God created some people in such a way that they are flawed, sinful. Indeed use of the word ‘sin’ has a connotation of behaviour, bad behaviour, the sort of thing which separates us from God. I cannot see how it can be sinful for someone to behave according to the way they were made.  

I wonder whether one could also bring in St Paul here. Chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans contains some of his most famous passages. In our lesson, we have heard the perhaps rather puzzling passage, 

‘For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.

And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.’ (Romans 8:22-23) 

The ‘firstfruits of the Spirit’ on the one hand, and ‘the redemption of the body’ on the other. It is one of St Paul’s key ideas, the distinction between the body and the spirit. It is reminiscent of the Platonic concept of ‘forms’ – in Greek τα είδη , ideas. Plato distinguished physical objects, like tables, say, from the ‘idea’ of tables; what it is to be a table.  

I wonder whether one could align ‘the body’ in St Paul with the physiological man, or woman: and the ‘spirit’ could reflect the behavioural aspect, the being a husband, or being a wife. On the one hand, the physical human being; and on the other, that they are a husband, or a wife. And what it is to be a husband, how we understand what it is to be a husband, or a wife, doesn’t necessarily coincide with their physiology. 

It can’t involve sin. Look what St Paul himself says, at the end of this great chapter:
‘For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

Well, you might say that the Church of England is still miles away from any understanding along the lines I’ve just suggested. But the heartening thing, as I see it, is that the Synod didn’t vote to ‘take note’. I think they saw through the rather artificial way it was being considered. Not by very much, but nevertheless by a majority (except among the bishops), the Synod didn’t ‘take note’ of the report – it meant, they didn’t want anything to do with it. The Church needs to do better, they said.

I say ‘Amen’ to that.

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 Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 26th July 2015 

Job 19:1-27, Hebrews 8 

‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’. We are all very familiar with these words, in Handel’s ‘Messiah’. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: …. For now is Christ risen, from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.’ The first bit comes from our Old Testament lesson, Job chapter 19, and the second from 1 Corinthians 15. The link between the two was made by Charles Jennens, the librettist of Messiah, who was of course no mean theologian. He made a link between the ‘Redeemer’ in Job and Jesus Christ, whom we often refer to as our Saviour and Redeemer.

But I think that it’s at least arguable that Job was not in fact referring to the Jewish idea of the Messiah, the chosen one of God, coming to save Israel. I think he had a narrower perspective. He simply thought that his troubles had been caused by God; that they were unjust, but that God would eventually be there again, to vindicate him, to defend him, to redeem him from the unjust punishment which he was suffering. 
He had done nothing wrong, and therefore what his Job’s Comforters, his friends, were saying about bad people wasn’t to the point. Just before Chapter 19 that we heard, Bildad the Shuhite had said, 

He is driven from light into darkness

and banished from the land of the living.

He leaves no issue or offspring among his people,

no survivor in his earthly home;

in the west men hear of his doom and are appalled;

in the east they shudder with horror.

Such is the fate of the dwellings of evildoers, … (Job 18:18f, NEB)

In this lively debate between Job and his so-called friends there is an unspoken assumption that Job is suffering because in fact he has done something dreadful: he has brought his suffering on himself: he is being punished for something which he has done. It is a terrible punishment. Everybody is alienated from him:

My brothers hold aloof from me,

my friends are utterly estranged from me;

my kinsmen and intimates fall away, 

my retainers have forgotten me;

… My breath is noisome to my wife,

and I stink in the nostrils of my own family. [Job 19:13f, NEB]

In the to-ing and fro-ing between the Friends and Job, the friends seeking to justify poor old Job’s sufferings, on the basis that they are the sufferings that wicked people deserve, and Job stoutly defending himself, at one point Bildad, his cheerless friend, says, 

How soon will you bridle your tongue?

Do but think and then we will talk.

What do you mean by treating us as cattle?

Are we nothing but brute beasts to you?

There is one standard for animals, and one standard for humans. Humans, by implication, have rights: human rights. But if one treats them like animals, one is not doing justice to them.

On Friday, the ‘Surrey Advertiser’ popped through my letterbox as usual, and I was brought up short by the main headline on the front page: “‘They treat us like animals’ say travellers”. It was a piece about the Gypsies who had arrived and spent a few days by the war memorial on the Tilt. Tom Smurthwaite, the Surrey Advertiser’s reporter who covers Elmbridge, and who impresses me with the quality of his reporting, had been to interview the Gypsies, the Travellers, and there was a very moving extended quote from his interview with one of the group, John Lewis, who spoke of the ‘tough life’ he experienced as a Traveller. He had said, ‘When councils ask us to move, they know a lot of us are not well educated. They give us the paperwork and it hasn’t got a county court stamp on it. They treat us like animals and look at us like we are foreign insects – it’s not right in the eyes of God. Everyone is a human being.’

That rang a bell with me. On Monday I had been to a lecture at the Cathedral by the Master of the Temple Church, Robin Griffith-Jones, on Magna Carta. A very good lecture, explaining how Magna Carta had been the foundation of the rule of law which we enjoy in this country. The Church, in the person of Archbishop Stephen Layton, had been at the heart of the negotiations. 

The principles of the rule of law are enshrined in Magna Carta. The rule of law: for example, that ‘no free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’ – that’s chapter 39 – or chapter 40, ‘To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we deny or delay, right or justice.’ This was what Job was hoping for – a fair trial with someone to argue his case for him, his Vindicator, his ‘Redeemer’.

The rule of law involves a powerful set of principles, a heady brew, which I had been reflecting on: it came to a sharp focus in the moving cri de coeur of John Lewis, the spokesman for the Travellers who had stayed for a few days on the Tilt.

He said, ‘Although some people understand our culture, and have been very sympathetic… People see us come into a community and say, Oh my God, here come the Gypsies; my lawnmower is going to go missing. … This is not the case; we don’t bother anyone. Our children go to the local swimming pool and are told they are not welcome, and pubs turn us away.’ 

Another member of the group, Lisa Green, described as the group’s ‘matriarch’, said, ‘Everywhere we go, it’s as if we are aliens. People threaten the travelling community and try to run us out of town. There are lots of green spaces in Surrey,’ Miss Green said, and councils should be able to provide sites that are  of the way. ‘It would be better for residents and the travellers – councils don’t care as long as we go, that’s the truth. If they could tell us where we would be able to settle, we would gladly go. The Romani-Irish groups need to be recognised as a community,’ Miss Green believes. ‘It’s our way of life,and we are not going away. We are not dirty people… Everyone has their own rights and cultures, and you are never going to get rid of travellers.’ Of course the last person who tried to get rid of the Gypsies was – Hitler.

When I was little, I remember that my grandfather read me stories from a book by G. Bramwell Evens, who gave nature talks on BBC radio – the Home Service – using the pen-name ‘Romany’: because he was at the same time a Methodist minister and also, by birth and upbringing, a Gypsy. Romany paved the way for people like David Attenborough. His stories were very beautiful and showed a real sensitivity and understanding of the countryside. Some of his books are still in print, although he died in 1943.

But I realised that, apart from hearing ‘Romany’s’ stories, I had never really encountered, let alone talked to a Traveller, to a Gypsy. I have always been somewhere else, or even walked round the other side and avoided any kind of meeting. I vaguely remember people coming to sell clothes pegs at the door to my mother. She said that they were Gypsies. But I have never really met one.

At the talk on Monday night about Magna Carta, there was a question whether Magna Carta was related in any way to the Human Rights Act. The learned speaker asked a member of the audience, Lord Toulson, one of the Law Lords, who happened to be there, to answer the question. Lord Toulson referred to a book called ‘The Rule of Law’ by Tom Bingham. [Bingham, T., 2010, The Rule of Law; London, Allen Lane] 

Lord Bingham, another eminent Law Lord, the former Master of the Rolls, had written in his book that in his view there was a direct line of history between Magna Carta and the principles of the Human Rights Act and the European Convention upon which it was based. 

Indeed Article 6, the right to a fair trial, and Article 7, no punishment without law, are direct descendants of Chapters 40 and 39 respectively of Magna Carta. Lord Bingham has written in his book, ‘.. the rights and freedoms embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights, given direct effect in this country by the Human Rights Act 1998, are in truth “fundamental”, in the sense that they are guarantees which no one living in a free democratic society such as the UK should be required to forgo’ [Bingham p.68]. In other words, they are rights which we enjoy simply by virtue of our being human.

We are not to be treated as animals: but that distinction, which came up in the debates in the Book of Job, is still a live issue today. ‘They treat us like animals’, said the Travellers, here on our doorstep.

Of course, in a sermon in the parish church, as this is, I shouldn’t cross the line into anything political, but one has to note, in passing, that our local MP, Dominic Raab, is now a junior minister, and that one of his jobs is to progress the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’. This has, of course, been widely challenged, not least by many members of the judiciary and legal profession.

In Lord Bingham’s book, which came out five years ago, he says this. ‘Over the past decade or so, the Human Rights Act and the Convention to which it gave effect in the UK have been attacked in some quarters, and of course there are court decisions, here and in the European Court, with which one may reasonably disagree. But most of the supposed weaknesses of the Convention scheme are attributable to misunderstanding of it, and critics must ultimately answer two questions. Which of the rights … would you discard? Would you rather live in a country in which these rights were not protected by law? I repeat the contention [that] …. the rule of law requires that the law afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights. … There are probably rights which could valuably be added to the Convention, but none which could safely be discarded.’

‘I know that my Redeemer liveth. I know that my Vindicator, my Defender, liveth’. Who is to stand up for, to vindicate, people like the Travellers? You might say that there is an atmosphere of lawlessness about Travellers; that they don’t play by the rules. I’ve no idea whether this is true, but it is something that you hear.

I think that there is something in our New Testament lesson, from the Letter to the Hebrews, which is worth considering in this context. I don’t think I would make quite such a simple move as in Handel’s Messiah, from ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ to identifying that Redeemer with Jesus Christ, but I do think that there is a very relevant contrast in Hebrews 8. 

The writer to the Hebrews contrasts the first Covenant which God made with his chosen people, which has become redundant, has died out, if you like: it lost its force ‘…because they did not abide by the terms of that covenant, and I abandoned them,’ says the Lord.

The new covenant would not depend, for its effectiveness, on whether it was observed by the people: ‘I shall be their God, and they shall be my people. … For all of them, high and low, shall know me; I will be merciful to their wicked deeds, and I will remember their sins no more.’ 

This is the essence of New Testament theology to me. On the one hand, the Old Testament: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; albeit a fair system of justice – no more than an eye for an eye – but certainly not much room for generosity or forgiveness. In the New Testament, by contrast, Jesus’ rule of love, the rule of the Sermon on the Mount, rules out retaliation and goes by love. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of ‘They treat us like animals’ there could be a headline, ‘We know that our Redeemer liveth. So we are safe and welcome here in Cobham.’