Archives for posts with tag: Jesus

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

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

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

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

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

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

‘Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth

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

‘Let the righteous rather smite me friendly

and reprove me.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works ….

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

Sermon for Evensong on the 13th Sunday after Trinity, 26th August 2018

Hebrews 13:16-21 – see https://tinyurl.com/y754tzue

‘Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant,
Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ’.

This lovely blessing comes from the letter to the Hebrews, from the end of our second lesson which Len read for us. It’s often used at Easter time, and if you are a Methodist, as I used to be, you will be familiar with the blessing as it is the one used at the end of the communion service.

May God make us perfect. It’s a really inspiring idea to go out with at the end of the service. May God make us perfect, perfect to do His will. I’m not quite sure how we would put that today: ‘perfectly suited’ to do it, perhaps.

The modern Bible translation in some of our other services [NRSV Anglicised Edition] says, ‘.. make you complete in everything good, so that you may do His will..’, which isn’t so memorable, and I’m not sure that it’s any more understandable; because in normal speech today, we don’t say we are ‘complete’ to do something. [I have also put at the beginning a link to Paul Ingram’s very useful ‘katapi’ site, showing the excellent New English Bible translation alongside the Greek original].

We don’t talk about being ‘complete’ people. ‘The Compleat Angler’ was the title of the famous book by Izaak Walton published in 1653, which subsequently went on to become the name of countless riverside pubs: ‘The Complete [sic, 1760] Angler, or, Contemplative Man’s Recreation’ was the full title of the book. You can get an early edition, a 1760 one, printed 100 years after the original one was published, for the bargain price of £1,500, I see, on the Internet, at biblio.co.uk: but you don’t have to pay such a lot, because it looks to be still in print, at much more modest prices.

The book title, The Compleat Angler, is the only use of the word ‘complete’ to describe a person that has occurred to me. You certainly might say that some thing was complete: my Hoover is complete with all its attachments. The spares kit in the boot of the car is complete. But I, a person, am not normally referred to as ‘complete’ in that sense. Tom Wolfe wrote a good novel called ‘A Man in Full’, published in 1998. The description ‘in full’, ‘A Man in Full’, has something of the same connotation as ‘complete’ has in the NRSV Bible.

Thinking about this prompted me to read the passage in the original Greek to see what this intriguing couple of sentences really says. It’s very inspiring, particularly at the end of an uplifting service, to feel that, with God’s help, we could be perfect. But does it really mean that?

The Greek word, καταρτισαι, is a word which means to ‘fully prepare’ someone or something, to ‘restore’ them, to put them in full working order. It’s not really the same as ‘perfect’, though – at least not nowadays.

Clearly the translators of the King James Bible (which is the version Len read from, the one we use for Evensong and Mattins), those three groups of learned scholars, used the word ‘perfect’ slightly differently from how we would use it today. They actually adopted, nearly word for word, the translation by William Tyndale just under 100 years earlier. Tyndale’s two editions, of 1525 and 1535, both used the word ‘perfect’: they said, ‘… make you perfect in all good works, to do his will, working in you that which is pleasant in his sight…’ In those days ‘perfect’ had a connotation of being ‘apt’ or ‘well-equipped’, as well as of being faultless.

These famous words in the Bible, in Hebrews, first written by Tyndale, link us right back to the time of the Reformation. William Tyndale was martyred because he dared to translate the Bible out of Latin into English. The Reformers, like him, Martin Luther and John Calvin, didn’t want there to be any barriers between the people and God in worship.

The idea, that only the priests could understand the words, was something that the Reformers were dead against. ‘Hoc est … corpus meum’, the Latin for ‘This is my body’, in the Communion service, became ‘hocus pocus’. Hocus pocus – hoc est corpus. That’s what the ordinary people tended to think about it. Sacrament had become superstition. I do think that, if we let words just pass by unexamined, we might fall into the same trap.

Article XXIV of the 39 Articles reflects the Reformers’ intentions. Thomas Cranmer, who wrote it, was familiar with the work of Martin Luther, and may have met both him and Huldrych Zwingli, the great Zurich reformer. The Article is entitled,

‘Article XXIV: Of speaking in the congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth.

It says:

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God, and the custom of the primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.’

You can find Art XXIV on page 621 at the back of your little blue Prayer Book. As a small aside, you can look at the whole Letter to the Hebrews as another angle on the whole theology of priesthood. A lot of the Letter, its main theme, is taken up with discussion of Jesus’ position as a priest ‘of the order of Melchizedek’, which is an idea that only people steeped in the Old Testament, Jews or Jewish converts to Christianity, would understand.

The Jews never referred to God by name. God was the great ‘I am’, and anyone who met God face-to-face would be destroyed by the sight. Only the prophets and priests of the Temple could encounter God face-to-face and survive. And the Letter to the Hebrews goes into great detail in explaining how Jesus is indeed a true priest, with a direct line to God the Father.

Contrast that with the Reformation, Protestant, idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, (originally espoused by Luther and Calvin, following 1 Peter 2:9, which says, ‘But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people…’), the belief that you didn’t need a priest to stand between you and God. Any worshipper, any true believer, was his own priest. So in this earliest English translation, adopted by King James’ translators, a Greek word which means to prepare or to restore – ‘may the God of peace prepare you, make you up to the task’ – which I suppose is a bit like being ‘complete’ in the sense of the ‘Compleat Angler’, fully qualified, fully prepared, becomes, ‘perfect’. Make you perfect.

Perhaps I’m being too finicky about words here. Perhaps we do really know what it is to be made ‘perfect in every good work to do his will’. But it’s not all down to us whether we are ‘perfect’. Whether we have 20-20 spiritual vision or not is a question of grace; God has either blessed us with it or He hasn’t. There’s another version of the Hebrews blessing which is perhaps a bit closer to our modern way of thinking and expressing what we mean. This is:

‘May Christ the Son of God perfect in you the image of his glory

and gladden your hearts with the good news of his kingdom’

‘Perfect in you’ the image. Make it perfect. Not make you perfect, though. But in Hebrews it is a prayer for you: and it is to make you perfect. Not perfectly formed, necessarily, but perfectly equipped.

So let us pray.

May the God of peace,

that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,

that great shepherd of the sheep,

through the blood of the everlasting covenant,
Make us perfect in every good work to do his will,

working in us that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ.

FFC51CEC-7413-42F0-BAE5-6E554435EB6DSermon for Evensong on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

(Exodus 2:23-3:10;) Hebrews 13:1-15

‘NEVER CEASE TO LOVE your fellow-Christians. Remember to show hospitality. There are some who, by so doing, have entertained angels without knowing it.

Remember those in prison as if you were there with them; and those who are being maltreated, for you like them are still in the world’. [Hebrews 13:1-2, NEB]

As well as the lovely angel reference, this is good advice for Christians about how to live a good life. Jesus’ two great commandments were to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. It is that second commandment that our lesson from Hebrews is all about. Do as you would be done by, sometimes referred to as the Golden Rule. It’s so familiar that nobody would really challenge it as a recipe for a peaceful and harmonious life. But I think it’s worth just pausing to look at it in more detail.

The examples in Hebrews are encouraging us to put ourselves in the shoes of various other people. People in prison and people who are being maltreated in one way or another: what does it feel like? What does it feel like to be in prison?

Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, in the context of learning how to do the right or the good thing in life, isn’t just an exercise in sympathy or empathy – you know, ‘I feel your pain’. Saying that, after all, doesn’t really mean anything, because you can’t feel another person’s pain.

Never mind pain. You can’t actually perceive exactly what that other person perceives, either. When I was younger, my mother had a Mini, which, because it was the swinging 60s, was a very fetching shade of pale yellow. It was called ‘Fiesta Yellow’ by the manufacturers. But an awful lot of our friends thought that the car was light green. One person’s Fiesta Yellow is another person’s light green. I have a picture of the car on my phone if you want to inspect it afterwards and see which colour you think it is.

You can’t feel another person’s pain, but you can certainly imagine what it would feel like to have something or other done to you. You know that you would not want to be hurt; and what Jesus is saying is that therefore you should not want to hurt anyone else. And, following St Francis of Assisi, you might extend that principle to all God’s creatures. Do as you would be done by. What if you were a cow? How do you feel about roast beef?

We rapidly stumble across the same sort of issues that we encounter in the context of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5]. Jesus seems to be putting forward counsels of perfection, things which you can’t actually carry out perfectly in practice.

It raises issues with the Ten Commandments (which, after all, are all summed up in the two great commandments.) ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example. So we have all the elaborate legal and philosophical theory which has created the concept of the ‘just war’, effectively putting two moral principles against each other and making one take precedence over the other. The idea is that in certain circumstances justice may be served by making war where there is no alternative, for example where a country has to act in self-defence. In the ‘just war’ theory, the principle of upholding justice between nations, international law, is regarded as more important than ‘Thou shalt not kill’.

Jesus, however, did not talk about ‘just wars’. He did talk about loving your neighbour ‘as yourself’, and therefore not wanting to harm your neighbour, without any ifs or buts; without any exceptions.

This idea of sympathy, feeling with somebody, which is what the word literally means, clearly has paradoxical implications. You can’t get inside somebody else’s head. We are all separate individuals: except, perhaps, if you are Jesus himself. We say that Jesus took upon himself the burden of our sin. He suffered for us.

It is relatively straightforward for us to be able to say this, but really difficult to know what it really means. You might say that it is really a sacred mystery. Jesus entered into our world, our personality, our souls. And, according to some theologians, he took upon himself the burden of our sin and suffered for us. But again, it is difficult to make literal sense of that. What is the sin that Jesus took upon himself? Sin is usually defined as whatever it is that separates you from God, so it seems odd that Jesus, who was God, could take upon himself things which were anti-God.

There are, of course, examples from history of people making heroic sacrifices in order to save other people. We have just, in the church’s calendar, remembered a brave Polish priest, Maximilian Kolbe, who died in the Second World War in Auschwitz. The Nazis were executing people in the camp, in reprisal for a breakout attempt, and they had selected 10 prisoners at random. Father Maximilian volunteered to take the place of one of the prisoners selected. He had heard the prisoner crying out that he would never see his wife and family again. That’s why father Maximilian stepped forward and said he would take his place, so that now he would be able to see his family again. The Reverend Father’s sacrifice saved the family. But it’s not clear that what Jesus did, by suffering on the cross, actually falls into this category.

Perhaps it was more a way of his demonstrating the ultimate expression of loving one’s neighbour as one’s self. Jesus knew that people are crucified, symbolically and actually. People suffer, and he entered into their suffering; he endured the same kind of suffering. He was like a leader who leads from the front. There is nothing that he asks his army to do that he won’t himself do. It means that Jesus, God, is in us, is with us, alongside us at every step of our life.

The God with us gives us a challenge – the Christian challenge. Do we really try to handle others as we ourselves would like to be handled: to give to them, to take away from them, to build them up, or to do things that hurt them; do we do that, always thinking at the same time what it would feel like if it was happening to us?

That’s today’s message. It’s deceptively simple, but it is absolutely revolutionary for our lives. So let us give it more than a second thought. Think about what your neighbour will feel if I do what I do to him – or her.

Sermon for Mattins on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Whale

Jonah didn’t want to go to preach in Nineveh. Nineveh was a big city in Assyria, Syria today – it’s now called Mosul. Jonah was a Jewish prophet. His people had been enslaved by the Assyrians – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, as Byron put it – and the Assyrians definitely didn’t believe in the One True God of the Israelites. They believed in the Baals and the sacred poles and various other idols, and they were generally immoral and badly behaved. But God had told Jonah, as his prophet, to go and preach to them.

But Jonah decided to disobey God, and he ran away to sea. Our lesson says he took a passage in a ship to a place called ‘Tarshish’, but that word is just a general Hebrew word for ‘the ocean’. He just went anywhere except to Nineveh.

It didn’t go well. They were caught in a storm, and they had to throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. As an aside, I wonder whether this is an early reference to the ancient maritime law concept of General Average, defined by the Marine Insurance Act 1906 (s66.2) as ‘… any extraordinary sacrifice or expenditure … voluntarily and reasonably made or incurred in time of peril for the purpose of preserving the property imperilled in the common adventure.’

I don’t want to wander off the track too far, telling you all about the more esoteric things in English maritime law, but I ought to just mention that our law has a wonderful expression, the ‘marine adventure’. It just means the business of sending a ship to sea on a voyage. The Marine Insurance Act, where so many of the principles which still govern maritime law and trade are found, says ‘there is a marine adventure where… Any ship goods or other moveables are exposed to maritime perils.’

‘Other moveables’: this was a law passed in 1906! It gives flexibility for any kind of transport by sea – what about an ‘Ekranoplan’, for instance? [https://goo.gl/images/ydMN5r] Or more mundanely, a hovercraft? Or a marine drone? I think they could all be described as ‘moveables … exposed to maritime perils’. They were very far-sighted in 1906, obviously.

But never mind which shipping line he took, whether they declared General Average, or which flag the ship was flying. The point was that Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh. It begs the question why anyone, never mind just Jonah, would want to stand up in public in a strange place and tell their audience that they’re a bunch of godless no-good libertines. Come to think of it, though: if I stand up in this pulpit and say anything that some of you might call ‘political’, some of you may well give me a hard time. It has been known …

Imagine what it would be like if I were a Jewish rabbi – a preacher – today, going to Gaza and telling the Palestinians that they are all sinners, that the god that they worship is not real – well, not that their god is not real, because the Moslem God is the same God that Jews and Christians worship – but suppose this imaginary rabbi preached that the Palestinians’ understanding of god is faulty – and that the end is coming. I doubt that they would be particularly receptive. It’s not a preaching assignment I would want. And indeed, Jonah didn’t.

But there was a very important extra factor, which would also have influenced Jonah. That was nationality. Jonah was an Israelite, and the people of Nineveh were Syrians (or more precisely, Syrians under the overall rule of Persians.)

Incidentally, I hope it won’t disturb your repose just now if I mention – dangerously, perhaps – that we never, these days, refer to the Jewish people in the Old Testament as ‘Israelis’, but always as ‘Israelites’. Why is this?

When the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim was interviewed on BBC Radio 3 before his BBC Proms concert on Tuesday this week, he said something along these lines; (I haven’t tracked down a verbatim recording, but my recollection is) he said that, in the current context of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, if you criticise the Israelis, you are also, automatically, criticising the Jews – and people may allege it is anti-semitic to do so. But Maestro Barenboim, who is an Israeli citizen and a Jew, clearly did not think that it was necessarily antisemitic to criticise Israel, and the Israelis.

Given what the Bible tells us of the search by the Jews for the Promised Land, it’s certainly difficult to make a distinction between Jews and Israelites. The people of Israel were the Jews: the Jews settled in the land of Israel. They were what we would normally call, Israelis. And if so, then the ancient Israelites have become the modern Israelis, one could argue.

Here, in the story of Jonah, there is a very strong anti-nationalist, universalist, theme. In God’s eyes it doesn’t matter whether the people to be prayed for, or to be preached to, belong to the right nationality, whether they are Israelites. When Jonah has been saved by being swallowed up in the great fish, and God asks him a second time to go to preach in Mosul, this time he doesn’t hesitate.

And it works. The people in Nineveh are very receptive to what Jonah has to tell them. They repent; they are forgiven. God doesn’t destroy their city. If you read on in the Book of Jonah – it’s only got four chapters – you’ll see that Nineveh is saved, but, rather surprisingly, Jonah is unhappy: he is cut up about why the heathens in Nineveh, those totally undeserving layabouts, should get this prize. They aren’t the right people to be saved. It should have been the Israelites, the chosen people.

But from God’s point of view, what difference did it make what nationality they were? Jonah seems to have thought that only the Jews, only Israelites, would understand the full theological background, the need for repentance. Heathens, ‘gentiles’, like the Assyrians, wouldn’t get it. They did not worship the one true God and so they didn’t qualify, in Jonah’s eyes. But when the Assyrians, having realised the power of God, saw that God had accepted their repentance, and wasn’t going to destroy them, they started to worship God too.

I think that we sometimes slip into a similar kind of insularity, a tendency to think that nobody who isn’t like us deserves to do as well as we do. I know I sometimes catch myself out being surprised when I find that someone who’s ‘not British’ turns up doing an important job, or where there’s a foreign-sounding name where we’d expect Smith or Jones.

After all, what is wrong with people coming and living here, earning a salary and paying their taxes? I would argue that the Book of Jonah supports the view that it doesn’t matter where you came from or who your parents were. You are a human being like me. The Jewish Law of the Old Testament said, look after the stranger at your gate. In Deuteronomy 10:19 Moses teaches, ‘Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’.

God makes it very clear to Jonah that, as He said through the prophet Ezekiel, He loves all people. ‘He does not want the death of a sinner, but rather that he should repent and live’ (Ezekiel 33:11). That’s exactly what He got from the people in the great heathen city of Nineveh. They repented, and He let them live.

The story of Jonah and the whale is a lesson in universalism. It isn’t just a good monster story. It’s wisdom literature: it’s there to teach a lesson. That lesson is that God isn’t just one lot of people’s god, not a local idol. He created all of humankind. All of us: black, white, brown, Polish, Welsh, Indian: all humans, all equally children of God.

It is the origin of the idea of universal human rights. It took the aftermath of the Second World War for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be drafted and adopted by the United Nations, (and then for British lawyers, led by David Maxwell Fyfe, to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights, which in our law is the Human Rights Act), but the seeds of the concept were sown in Old Testament times. The people of Nineveh were just as much children of God as Jonah and the Israelites.

Perhaps as a parting thought over your lunch, you might think about this. Today if you, we, are the Israelites, who are our Assyrians?

Maybe we should just keep that gate open. And do we need a whale to keep us out of trouble? I hope and pray, not.

Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 12th August 2018

Job 30:1-40:4, Hebrews 12:1-17, Psalm 91

Through the great kindness and generosity of one of my St Mary’s friends, I spent a wonderful day yesterday at Lords watching the Test Match between England and India. As you will know, there was a lot to celebrate, at least if you were an English fan. But what must have poor old Sharma, the Indian fast bowler, have been feeling? More than anybody else in the team, except the other pace bowler, Shami, he was running vast distances to bowl at over 80 miles an hour, spot on target, over and over again – but it wasn’t working. He only got one wicket.

Once Bairstow and Woakes were in, there didn’t seem to be anything that he could do. I can imagine that, when he got to the end of the day, over his biryani, Ishant Sharma would have felt a little bit like Job. ‘Why me, Lord? Why is everything going so badly? I’m doing all the right things, but nevertheless I keep getting hit all over the ground.’ That’s what I want to look at tonight: how things can go wrong for us, whether God has anything to do with it, and how we can come to terms with it.

I’m not quite sure how far I can pursue the cricketing metaphor, but of course God goes on to answer Job, by giving lots of illustrations of divine power: all the things that God can make animals do, interestingly including unicorns (at least in the King James version of the Bible which we had tonight). Unfortunately in all the more modern, mundane versions of the Bible, the unicorns have turned into some special kind of ox or heifer; the unicorns have disappeared. Nevertheless, it’s God that makes them do whatever they do, not man.

Similarly at Lord’s today, and on Friday, God made the rain come down. That really changed the way the game was going. It wasn’t anything that either of the teams did which changed the course of the game, when it rained: it was the rain.

There is only so far that I can go with this cricketing analogy with the book of Job, but the point about the passage which Len have been reading tonight is that with divinity comes omnipotence. There is no limit to God’s power. Let’s leave aside for a minute the question who is talking in the book of Job – the question who is God in this context. How realistic is it that someone can write a book saying that so-and-so so had a dialogue with God, in the way that is portrayed in this book in the Bible?

Let’s leave that on one side for minute and just say that, however it came to be written, the book gives a perfectly plausible illustration of the workings of the divine. God is omnipotent, God can do anything. God can make all the animals in the world do what those animals do; and the corollary is that God may not regard the needs of a particular human being as being very high up the list of priorities, so that human being may lose out if it fits God’s cosmic programme for him to lose out.

Job has to accept his position and not rail against it – however unreasonable that might seem, particularly if you’re Job. There are connotations of zero-sums in this as well. Just as in a cricket game, somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose, (unless, of course, it’s a draw), so in the world of nature, for all the sunny days, some rain has to fall at some time.

I think the implication is also that, as between God and man, God and Job, between the Indians and the weather forecast, there is nothing personal. The suffering that is caused, the suffering that is a spin-off of the operation of creation, of the natural order, is not in any way intended, directed against anyone – although that was Job’s beef: he thought God had got it in for him, and he didn’t feel that he deserved it.

But I think that the message of the Book of Job is that there is nothing personal. God has not got it in for Job. This is just the way that God makes nature work. But then contrast the situation in the book of Hebrews. There is, if you like, a different sort of engagement with the divine, ‘seeing we have such a great cloud of witnesses’. Everyone is looking at us. Poor old Sharma: everyone is looking at him. Things may be tough for us. In order for us to achieve the goals which we have set ourselves or to do justice to the calling we feel to follow the example of Jesus, say, as Christians, it’s not easy. We have to persevere to the end.

The metaphor in Hebrews is an athletic one; running a tough race. But this is where it gets complicated. In Job’s case the tough stuff, the suffering, is nothing personal, as between Job and God, as Job has really done nothing wrong, and God is not punishing Job. It’s just that, in the wider compass of things, things have to go badly as well as well, there has to be black as well as white.

But there is also a sense where difficulties are to some extent intended. This is where there is a training purpose involved. The Letter to the Hebrews suggests that God sometimes is – and should be – like a father who follows the old idea about ‘sparing the rod and spoiling the child’. It’s supposed to be a sign of parental love if the father whacks the children by way of punishment. Thank goodness, we don’t do that any more. I think that now we know that simply hurting people when they won’t stop doing something doesn’t in any sense train them not to do whatever it is. In a sense, indeed, it may be, in a microcosm, like the beginnings of wars.

A war often starts with a ultimatum: If you invade Poland, we will declare war on you. What it means is, if we can’t persuade you by argument, we will compel you by force. If you throw golf balls at Mr Jones’ greenhouse, I will smack your bottom. The problem is, that whereas possibly in the case of Mr Jones’ greenhouse, the threat to smack bottoms may be effective in stopping you doing it, in the case of modern warfare, it’s arguable that all you do by waging war is add to death and destruction, and perhaps store up resentments and enmity for the future.

Think of the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles, which brought about the end of the First World War. It was so hard, it exacted such a harsh penalty in reparations on Germany, that Germany was reduced to its knees economically, and the seeds of Nazism were sown. The war did not achieve its peaceful or practical objective. Think of the wars in Afghanistan, since the time of British India, when it was the ‘North-West Frontier.’ The British Army in Victorian times couldn’t defeat the Afghans. The Russians couldn’t do it. And we and the Americans haven’t done it more recently either.

So we might query the efficacy of the ideas behind this passage in Hebrews. ‘Spare the rod, and spoil the child’, is not what we believe in today: but we can understand the idea, the theory. If we, who are supposed to have seen the light, who are supposed to be believers, to be Christians, behave badly – if ‘…there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright, ..’ if we are sinful, God will punish us, will give us a hard time, says Hebrews.

Maybe that’s a point to ponder. Would a loving God hurt his chosen people? However naughty they were? And what if they repented, if they sought forgiveness? I have a feeling that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews – who wasn’t St Paul, according to a number of scholars – may have been wrong here. Surely a loving God would not hurt people. So perhaps, actually, the Job model, that suffering doesn’t necessarily result from bad behaviour, from sin, is more apt, even in the light of Christ. Bad things just happen. It doesn’t mean that God is angry with us. So do run the race, do go into training for the race to run the good life. But don’t give up if rain stops play. God doesn’t have it in for you and your team.

Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 5th August 2018

Psalm 88, Job 28, Hebrews 11:17-31

I’m going to cheat, ever so slightly, tonight: because the text that I want to talk about isn’t actually part of either of our lessons this evening. But it does come in the Book of Job, a bit earlier than our first lesson, which was from chapter 28. This quotation is from chapter 19: and it is

‘For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth’.

You can probably hear it, as one of the arias, ‘airs’, as he called them, in Handel’s ‘Messiah’. I know that my redeemer liveth. It does lead into our two lessons, which are about different ways of knowing things.

The first lesson, from the Book of Job, is all about wisdom; the value of wisdom, how difficult it is to come by, but how important it is: and the second lesson, from Hebrews, is all about faith; trusting that something is the case, believing in something. Hebrews tells how faith can make you a hero, and how the various stars of the history of the Israelites had faith in things, and did remarkable deeds as a result.

Let’s look first at wisdom. What does it mean to be wise? This has connotations of good judgement, discernment and fair-mindedness. I think these days that we often tend to concentrate not on what would be wise in certain circumstances, but rather, on what would not be wise. You know: we tend to say, for instance, ‘If I need to go home from here, I could go in the golf buggy. But it wouldn’t be wise.’

The idea of wisdom is that it’s the sort of knowledge which leads to a successful outcome. Knowing what is likely to turn out well, and having the good judgement to choose that course of action rather than anything else.

Another thing that wisdom is bound up with is understanding. If you understand something properly, then probably you will deal with that thing better, more effectively, more correctly. In the Book of Job, Job has three dialogues with his so-called ‘comforters’, his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, candid friends who hold up a mirror to him, he having suffered unjustly. He’s not done anything wrong, but terrible things have happened to him. They try to help him to understand what has happened to him. For some reason God has caused it.

One thing that’s different between the world of Job and our world today is that we don’t tend to look for a divine cause for everything that happens. Obviously, as Christians, we believe that God is the ultimate creator and sustainer of our life. But I’m not sure that we would see Him at work taking sides, if you like, lifting up some people and casting down others. I think these days we tend not to think of God in that way, because it tends to lead you into the possibility that God is not a good and loving god, but that He may in certain circumstances be a vengeful and cruel god.

I think we tend to say that things just happen; perhaps, tying them a little bit to somebody’s conduct: ‘If we carry on polluting the atmosphere, then global warming will happen much more quickly’, say. Of course, if you were in an Old Testament frame of mind, you could cast that discussion in terms of breaking the Covenant to look after God’s creation on our part, and God inflicting punishment accordingly.

But I’m inclined to think that’s not a common view these days, even among people who do think about God and believe in Him, because in a way it makes God out to be not necessarily a loving god. And it’s interesting to see how Job thought of wisdom in this context.

‘… the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.., and so on, is, I suppose, what ‘the fear of the Lord’ means – although it’s odd that it should be fear and not love. Maybe a better word would be ‘respect’. You can have loving respect for God.

I think that’s pretty good, even in the court of the philosophers. What is it, to be wise? It’s not something you can just acquire, as the lesson says. And it’s not something you can buy, or learn, like riding a bike. There has to be some sort of guarantor, that what we think may be true, is true. That could be God.

The point about having God in the background, underpinning our knowledge and understanding, is that otherwise, we might never agree on what is wise. What is it, to know that something is a good idea? It might be a good idea for me; but it might not be a good idea for you.

In Handel’s ‘Messiah’, that line from Job, ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’, actually points to the Messiah, the Saviour of Israel, to Jesus. The air goes on, ‘For now is Christ risen, the first fruits of them that sleep.’ Händel’s librettist Charles Jennens quoted 1 Corinthians 15:20 as well as the Book of Job.

But in the context of Job himself, another way of putting what he says is, ‘I know that my vindicator lives’. He has been unjustly condemned. Poor old Job is suffering all sorts of indignities, trials and torments. And he has done nothing to deserve it. So what he really needs is somebody to speak up for him in a persuasive way, an advocate, a ‘vindicator’: somebody who can prove that he is not a guilty party: somebody to show everyone what the true position is.

But here’s the problem. It’s not necessarily the case that we will all agree about things that we say we ‘know’. I might say that I know that something or other is a good thing. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing – and you might disagree with me. We sort-of think that, if you say you know something, if I know that such-and-such is the case, then it must be true. Really? Well, just saying it tells you that that’s not necessarily right.

Maybe faith can add another angle on this. This whole topic is what’s called epistemology, the philosophy of understanding, what it is to understand something, what it is to know something, what it is to perceive something. And faith is in this area. In the Letter to the Hebrews, you find this wonderful catalogue of heroes in Bible history, doing heroic things because of their faith. By faith they did such-and-such. I think we’re meant to distinguish faith from knowledge – although that may not actually be a real distinction.

At the beginning of chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews, there’s a definition of faith. ‘Faith gives substance to our hopes and makes us certain of realities we do not see’, (NEB), or ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’, according to the King James version.

I’ve been beginning to think about how I’m going to explain God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit to my little grandson Jim. Jim is 19 months old, so his capacity for philosophical reasoning is probably a bit limited, at least for now. But I think it’s a good thing for me to start thinking about how I will be able to explain these things in terms that Jim can understand.

So much of our understanding of God, so much of our religion, involves things we cannot see. In some ways it would be very handy if, in the same ways as with the ancient Greeks, our God periodically came down from heaven and appeared among us: and of course 2,000 years ago, that’s exactly what happened. But these days we are challenged by how to explain that we believe in something, we trust something to be true, that we can’t see and we can’t prove the existence of – at least in the same way as we could prove whether I’m wearing pink socks.

It’s not just religious things: there are a lot of things where in order for our lives to just carry on normally, we need to have faith. I have faith that I will get up next morning and that there’ll be another day. But there’s no way I can prove it. Anything involving the future involves faith. If I turn the ignition key of my car, I have faith that it will start up and go. But I don’t know.

There are some similarities with what Job was talking about. He was praising the idea of wisdom. It was a gift beyond price, unable to be found anywhere specific. If you had wisdom, then you would make fewer mistakes. You would be able to discern the right thing to do.

But if you have faith, it takes it on a further stage. If you believe and trust in something or in someone, depending on how inspiring that figure is, how compelling they are, you will be inspired, you will be able to rise to the highest challenges. Just as with wisdom; you won’t be able to prove it, but it will be real for you. If you have faith that something is the case, then for you, that is reality.

But there is an extra factor in this, both where wisdom is concerned, and also with faith. And that is, that it isn’t just a question that if I do the right thing, it will make me more successful; or if I have complete faith in, say, a particular diet, then I will achieve spectacular weight loss – well, actually , there may be better examples that you can think of – but the idea, the point, is that wisdom and faith, in this context at least, involve something extra, someone extra: they involve God.

In Job’s world, the fear of the Lord is wisdom, and in the context of the Letter to the Hebrews, in the light of Jesus, faith makes it possible for us to be heroes, to do things which by ourselves we would never be able to do.

I know that my Redeemer liveth.

I know it. It’s wise to believe it. I do believe it. I have faith.