Archives for posts with tag: Jesus

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.

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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.

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 22nd July 2018

Job 13:13-14:6, Hebrews 2:5-18

I’m always struck by how personal the relationship between the Israelites and God is. In the Old Testament, actually to see God face to face is fatal. There needs to be a prophet or a priest to go into the inner sanctum and intercede for you. But still, God speaks to the Israelites, through the prophets.

Here in our OT lesson, Job, an innocent man who nevertheless has been dreadfully stricken, is making a speech to God. What have I done to deserve this? What are the specifics of your charges, God?

It implies that Job doesn’t think of God as being a random sadist. He wants to have a courtroom battle, with charges and a defence, before the throne of judgement. It implies that, even though Job is suffering way beyond what he could possibly attribute to any crimes he might have done, this isn’t the sentence of a court after reaching its judgement in a careful and considered way. Job wants his day in court.

I warn you now that there are going to be two elephants in this room. Just keep that in the back of your mind for the next few minutes.

What Job is suffering is something he doesn’t blame God for, although he can’t understand why God would want to do it to him. By contrast, in our second lesson, in the Letter to the Hebrews, the undeserving sufferer is Jesus himself. Although He was innocent, not guilty of any sins or wickedness, Jesus was made to suffer, as part of the mechanism of our salvation.

Jesus had to enter into our human nature in order to be like us in every respect, to take upon himself the burden of our sins, following the Jewish idea of a scapegoat. In Judaism there was a sacramental idea of symbolically loading all one’s mistakes and sins on to the back of a sacramental animal, a goat or sheep, and sending it out into the desert to fend for itself – to starve to death, in reality.

It was a sort of homeopathic remedy. You exposed yourself to the thing that had hurt you.

I think you could be forgiven for having rested your eyes during the first part of this sermon. You might say, a massive ‘So what?’ What has poor old Job got to do with us, today? And what does it really do for us, in order to bring us to Jesus, to study a recondite theory of atonement?

I worried about that, about the lack of some contemporary relevance, when I was preparing this sermon. I had just read a challenging article in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin [accessed at https://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/springsummer2018/understanding-white-evangelical-views-immigration] called ‘Understanding White Evangelical Views on Immigration’, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez.

The article’s thesis was this. The Evangelical mega-churches in the US deep South are predominantly white, and they profess that nothing is more authoritative in their belief than the literal words of the Bible. ‘Sola scriptura’, only Scripture, matters. And, by the way, this isn’t meant to be specifically directed against one denomination rather than another.

Holy Scripture is overwhelmingly in favour of our helping the stranger, the alien, the refugee in our midst. Immigrants are to be protected and supported. The line of references stretches from Deuteronomy, with its injunction to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger that is within your midst, to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We are all children of God; where we have come from, whether it was a palace or a bomb-site in Syria, is a matter of luck, the ‘accident of birth’.

And so we might expect that the white Evangelical churches, and their congregations, would be supportive of immigration, would welcome strangers. But all the surveys apparently show the exact opposite. No-one is more against these strangers, orphans, poor and in need, than the white evangelicals.

The causes of this are investigated in the article. The history of the Cold War and the perceived Communist threat to world order, the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the ‘domino theory’; then 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’, when the threat to the American way of life was identified with Moslem kids hanging around on street corners, all had influences.

America, so the theory ran, needed to be protected – protected by strong men, ‘the meanest so-and-so’s you could find’, as they described it. Even one of the evangelical church leaders put it in exactly those terms:

In light of ongoing and ever-present threats, many evangelicals have concluded that we need strong men, and a strongman. For this reason, President Trump’s “character flaws” aren’t the stumbling block we might expect them to be. In the words of Rev. Robert Jeffress: “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.”

‘President Trump’s character flaws’. Bet you were wondering when The Donald, as they used to call him, would come up. Well yes, here he is. Why would the Bible Belt in the southern USA have voted for him, when his character was – is – so inimical to the values of generosity, kindness and openness to others that one finds in the Bible? So he’s the first elephant in the room.

And Pres. Trump does have some major character flaws. He is happy to separate little children from their parents and lock them up, with little hope of their being reunited, sometimes ever: because the little children were with their parents, who were deemed to be illegal immigrants. And he is a sexist, saying most unsavoury things about what he has felt able to do to women, because he is so powerful, that it somehow suspends his moral obligations. He is a xenophobe. He tells blatant lies. And so on. Not, we might have thought, a suitable person to be the most powerful individual in the world. And he claims, I believe, to be a Christian.

But equally worrying, I suggest, is that large numbers of the electorate in the USA, who also claim to be Christian, voted for him, and, according to the article, don’t think that the Bible is relevant, when questions of national sovereignty and immigration arise. The article says,

‘In fact, the Bible appears to hold little sway when it comes to immigration: a 2015 LifeWay Research poll found that 90 percent of all evangelicals say that “the Scripture has no impact on their views toward immigration reform.” Evangelicals, then, are not basing their views on scripture. Instead, they are acting out of a powerful, cohesive worldview—an ideology that is at the heart of their religious and political identity, an ideology influenced by conservative media sources but that is also deeply rooted in their own faith tradition.’

This morning I talked about what we believe, and how we reach those beliefs. Here, we are seeing that people who claim to be guided supremely by Scripture, by the Bible, are in fact relying on a ‘faith tradition’ which has very little derived from the Bible.

Poor old Americans! You will say. I agree – having Pres. Trump is not good, in so many ways. But here’s the second elephant. What about us? Do we recognise the Bible’s teaching in our lives, when it comes to difficult questions, maybe even political questions, on such matters as immigration? Do we really believe that we were all made in the image of God?

What do we really feel when we sing the Magnificat? ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and hath exalted the poor and meek’? Does it just wash over us like poor old Job’s troubles – ‘nothing to do with us’?

Does it really resonate with us that Jesus was a man, a human being just like you and me? If He was like us, are we like Him? Are we, really, like Him?

Something for us to think about. Maybe we ought not to have to suffer as Job did – but equally, ought we to be quite so blasé – if we are – blasé about how closely we are following Jesus?

Sermon for the Parish Eucharist by Extension on the Feast of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2018

2 Corinthians 5:14-17, John 20:1-2,11-18

Confronting the Miracle

The story of Mary Magdalene might be the most important passage in the Bible.

Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty. What did it mean?

… she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

How to deal with it mentally, in our thought – is it open to reasonable doubt?

Reasoning against other logical possibilities, that, e.g.

– Joseph of Arimathea took his body and reburied it; why? What good would it do to Joseph, or anyone he sympathised with?

– Jesus wasn’t dead when they put him in the tomb;

– The Jews or the Christians took his body; what Mary M initially thought must have happened. Someone would have ‘snitched’ or leaked.

– It was a ‘conjuring trick with bones’. The late David Jenkins, formerly Bishop of Durham, said it was not a …

Rational answers are available to contradict all these theories.

But do we believe? Memo 1 Cor 15:12f. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, our faith is in vain: we are proclaiming a lie.

But what does it mean, to believe in something? To believe that x is true, x is real – but what does that mean? That x is something, or does something? That if I believe that x, x is necessarily true? Not necessarily.

If I believe that something is true, then for me it is true; but someone else might review the exact same proposition that I have said must be an example of God at work, and get the same moral imperatives without a Christian sanction. Do this, because God says it is good, or, if God is not in the picture, because it benefits the most people or makes for the greatest human happiness (if you are a Utilitarian, say).

What if we somehow ‘duck’ the issue and simply carry on? How? I think this is a way of describing what Richard Dawkins thinks. He doesn’t worry about a beginning or an end of creation, but rather sees a process, evolution, which is all we need to know about, from a practical point of view. There is no Creator, no divine force.

Can there be a sort of ‘tribal’ Christianity? Maybe the earliest example of this would be the army of the Emperor Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 325AD [CE]. Constantine, inspired by a dream, ordered that his soldiers should paint on their shields the symbol of the Cross. They then won a victory. Did they believe? Surely not. But Constantine went on to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It’s arguable that that was as important in making Christianity a worldwide religion as St Paul’s work among the so-called ‘Gentiles’, the ‘nations’, in a Jewish Bible context, the non-Jews.

If either St Paul’s realisation that the Gospel ought to be preached to the Gentiles, or the Emperor Constantine’s decision to adopt Christianity as his empire’s official religion, had not happened, we might well not be here in church.

But what about today? People talk about having ‘Christian values’, without their being churchgoers. That’s interesting. The way that St Paul thought it worked, as he put it in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 5), and effectively as everyone from John the Baptist onward preached, if you came to believe in the Good News of Christ, you would be changed: you would ‘repent’. And you would start to live a virtuous life.

But what if you skip the believing bit, and just decide to live a virtuous life, because it makes sense to you?

We’ve then got at least two schools of lukewarm moralists. C of E Christians, on the one hand, say, and the ‘spiritual – I mean charitable – but not religious’ on the other.

But are we right to qualify these two groups as ‘lukewarm moralists’? Lukewarm, yes. The early Christians were willing to sacrifice themselves for the Gospel, for the cause. To die for it. Horribly, often. But what about us? Maybe some are willing to risk their lives. Respect to them! But most of us will do good, generous deeds, just so long as rescuing refugees doesn’t involve personal liability or risk.

Is this akin to the current populism, mistrust of ‘experts’ etc? A rejection of reason? Voting for Trump, who is a racist, sexist, xenophobe and liar? Why should these characteristics not weigh more with people?

How do we regard people who definitely don’t believe? Or who are happy to take part in church activities, but ‘I don’t go along with everything in the Creed’? Do we let them ‘belong and then believe?’

What about being ‘inclusive’?

What would Mary Magdalene say? We often ask, ‘What would Jesus say?’ But what would Mary say? If she met one of the lukewarm believers …?

Why is her story the most important in the Bible? Compare the best-known passage, John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

God – the creator – loves us. Only the creator could bring a dead person back to life. Think about that, in the light of the Mary Magdalene story. Really confront it. Confront the miracle. Don’t just duck it, don’t say it’s too hard. Then perhaps being a Christian really will change you. Change you for the better.

Sermon for Mattins on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 15th July 2018

Deuteronomy 28:1-14; Acts 28:17-31

‘I’m the urban spaceman, baby; I’ve got speed

I’ve got everything I need

I’m the urban spaceman, baby; I can fly

I’m a supersonic guy’ [Neil Innes, 1968]

The great Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band reached number five in the hit parade, in the UK charts, in 1968, with that song, ‘I’m the urban spaceman’. The writer of the song, Neil Innes, that you might remember from children’s TV programmes, is still performing, and occasionally he still sings that song. He was at the Claygate Music Festival last year; and very good he was, too.

What is success, in life? What does it mean to be a ‘supersonic guy’? For the Israelites in the Old Testament, having come out of Egypt, crossed over the Red Sea, and then being stuck in the desert for a long time maybe not literally 40 years, but that’s what the Bible says – everything paled into insignificance when compared with the need for them to get to the Promised Land, the place of safety, the land overflowing with milk and honey. That must be the same sort of feeling that you have if you are stuck in a refugee camp in Jordan, say. Northern Europe must look pretty decent as an ultimate destination: you might well use such expressions as ‘the promised land’ in talking about that.

But interestingly, what Moses says God has told him is slightly more complicated, and if anything, even better. If the Israelites will keep to their bargain with God,

[I]f thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day….

… all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, ….. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. … And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers to give thee.[Deut. 28:1- 3,11]

In other words, if you worship God, you will do well. If you go through the list of blessings, it is very much a promise of prosperity.

Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. [Deut. 28:4]

Of course, the converse is true.

[I]f thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, …. all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee:

Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field.

Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store.

They are the other side of the coin. Instead of blessings, you will get cursed.

Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep.

Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out. [Deut.28:15-19]

Compare all that with the blessings that Jesus goes into in chapter 5 of St Matthew’s Gospel.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: ….

Blessed are the merciful: ..…

Blessed are the pure in heart: …

Blessed are the peacemakers: .…

And then follows Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount – which isn’t a ‘prosperity gospel’. It doesn’t say, ‘Do all these good things, and they will make you rich – or powerful, or successful.’

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; ….

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. [Matt. 6:25-26]

So who is it who is talking? In the Book of Deuteronomy, God is talking to Moses; or rather God is giving a message to the Israelites through Moses, who is a prophet.

In the New Testament, even though Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, that He has not come to ‘abolish the Law or the prophets’, (and the Law includes a lot of the principles laid down in Deuteronomy, for example); nevertheless the whole accent has changed: indeed, you could almost think that God had changed.

The kingdom of God, to the Christians, is not really like the Promised Land was to the Israelites. It isn’t really a place, and there aren’t any special foods. No milk and honey – although perhaps quinoa is a sort of manna: who knows? As Christians, we aim instead to seek the kingdom of Heaven and to gain eternal life.

In both cases, whether we’re following the Old Testament God, or whether we are Christians, it’s a good thing to do what we believe God has commanded us to do.

If we are Old Testament Israelites, it’s pretty straightforward. God has made a contract with us, a covenant: if you do such-and-such, then I will do such-and-such in return – a solemn agreement. You mustn’t worship anyone except me; you must follow the other nine commandments and all the second-order rules and regulations which are set out in the first five books of the Old Testament. If you do that, God says, ‘I’ll make you successful and secure in the Promised Land. If you don’t, I will punish you.’

St Paul, in effect, tried to reconcile and make sense of these two visions, it’s very interesting to see how St Paul got on, on his way to Rome to appear before the emperor. He got some of the local Jewish people together – they were keen to hear what he had to say, because they had heard about the Christians, whom they thought of as a sect of the Jewish community – but they hadn’t heard any good things.

They were a bit suspicious. Paul laid out the whole story, from Moses up to and including the life of Jesus. In his teaching, he was telling them about God. And off they went, afterwards, discussing what he had said.

Some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not. [Acts 28:24]

Paul remembered that Isaiah had also observed that some people’s ears were completely closed to any kind of enlightenment. He could tell them about the Kingdom, but they wouldn’t listen. That’s pretty similar to what happens today. Not a lot has changed. Some people believe, and some people don’t.

I sometimes think that perhaps that has to do with our not really knowing who or what God is. We blithely read stories in the Bible, where God said this, and God did this, and that – on the face of it, some very human-sounding things. Making a contract, making a covenant, for example.

But at the same time, God is said to be all-powerful, all-knowing: to be feared, even. I’m not sure that He really speaks to people in the way that you read about in the Old Testament; and in particular, speaking to the people through the prophets. I think that we would, to some extent, not recognise some of the aspects of God as He is put in the Old Testament.

He is said to speak through Moses; He is said to make things all right; he endorses the idea of material prosperity, especially in the Promised Land; he favours some people over others; and He is to be feared. In a lot of the Old Testament, just as in our lesson, there isn’t a lot about love. God is a fearsome god rather than a loving god. ‘God so loved the world ..’ is very much a New Testament message.

The other interesting thing is that the objective in the New Testament is not the Promised Land, so much as to be ‘saved’, to gain eternal life. Is that a selfish message? Is one supposed to turn in on oneself in order to draw near to God?

If you believe and trust in God now, as opposed to 3,000 years ago, do you indeed become the ‘Urban Spaceman’?

I wake up every morning with a smile upon my face

My natural exuberance spills out all over the place

I’m the urban spaceman, I’m intelligent and clean

Just as we haven’t seen any burning bushes or received tablets from heaven recently, I’m rather worried that a lot of what we are, blithely, reading in our Bibles and letting flow over us, without perhaps challenging it, engaging with it, is open to an ultimate question.

I never let my friends down

I’ve never made a boob

I’m a glossy magazine, an advert in the tube

I’m the urban spaceman, baby; here comes the twist–

I don’t exist…

Too many people think of God as the urban spaceman; and too many people know what comes at the end. We don’t follow the Urban Spaceman. Frankly, we don’t follow the God of Moses much. Do we follow the gospel of Jesus?

It won’t take us to the promised land. But it will change us. If you believe and trust in Him, you will want to follow Jesus’ two vital commandments, to love God – and to love your neighbour as yourself. Think how they were, even when they had St Paul himself preaching to them. Which side of the line would you be on? Is this something you can believe in – or not? I hope and pray that you can.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 8th July 2018

[Jeremiah 20:1-11], Romans 14:1-17

‘You are what you eat’. I’ve always smiled at this passage, where St Paul seems to put himself in the position of the alpha male, a rugby playing, beef eating hearty, who might be inclined to be a bit sniffy about his younger brother, who is a vegetarian, for some unaccountable reason. Proper chaps don’t eat vegetables. Indeed some proper chaps take this to considerable extremes and avoid greens together. They stick to steak and chips only. Well, of course, this is not a case of St Paul micromanaging what the disciples in Rome should be eating.

In the Jewish tradition, of course, there are things which, for religious reasons, observant Jews are not allowed to eat. Pork, for example. And before we talk about the religious reasons for avoiding certain foods I would point out that some of the old Jewish food rules are sensible on medical and public health grounds as well. Pork goes off quickly in Middle Eastern temperatures.

Paul is referring to people who choose either to eat or to not eat foods because they believe that God has forbidden them to eat them or positively ordered them to eat them. Think of the manna in the desert, divine food which God recommended. Panis angelicus, the bread of angels.

And of course the ultimate spiritual food is the Lord’s Supper, where we ‘feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’. It’s not a form of cannibalism, as the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals, 15.44) may have hinted. There seems to have been an urban myth that the Christians had an initiation ceremony which involved child sacrifice and cannibalism, amazing as it sounds to us.

Holy Communion, eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, is not literal but sacramental, an ‘outward and visible sign of an inner spiritual grace’. It’s a really clear example of doing something ‘to the Lord’, for the Lord, or with the Lord in mind. It depends for its power on the faith of the person eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper. The beginning of this passage in Romans is clearly talking about this.

Depending how strong your faith is, you can eat anything, or, if you are a doubtful, more sceptical type, ‘another, who is weak’, can only eat ‘herbs’, or vegetables. I wonder if the word ‘herbs’ is one of those old English usages which have got into American English – they talk about ‘Erbs’ [sic] in a context which suggests to me that they mean more than just rosemary sage and thyme.

St Paul is saying that whatever we do, whatever we take to eat, whatever we choose, we do it ‘to the Lord’. This ‘to’ does not mean the same as when we do something ‘to’ someone. It’s more like ‘for’. We do it for the Lord. Another translation offers the idea that we do something ‘with the Lord in mind’, which I think gives a good idea of what St Paul meant.

For example, ‘He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord’. In other words, if someone thinks that a particular day is special, for religious reasons, it means that he has the Lord in mind in deciding whether to make that day a special day or not. All this chapter in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans is an eloquent plea that Christians should be tolerant of each other’s views.

‘Regarding’ a day, thinking a particular day is special in some way, could, for example, be relevant to the question of Sunday trading. Do you think that it is Sunday that is the Sabbath, and that if we had been to Waitrose today, (preferably just after the 10 o’clock service, as half of St Andrew’s and this congregation seem to do), we would have been breaking one of the Ten Commandments, to keep the Sabbath holy?

There’s quite a good case for saying that we wouldn’t have been. Because, Sunday isn’t necessarily the Sabbath. If you’re Jewish for example, Saturday is the Sabbath. The point about having a Sabbath day is to give a day of rest rather than to specify which particular day in the week is the day off. If we are Jewish it is Saturday, but if we are Christian it is usually Sunday.

But if you have to work on Sunday, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take another day off instead. Godfrey, for example, like a lot of vicars, takes Fridays off. What St Paul is saying is that none of this actually matters much, except that we should not condemn each other for our own particular preferences. We should not ‘judge thy brother’ – or sister, indeed – because all these little differences are of no real consequence, when you think that we will eventually all stand before the judgement seat of Christ.

At various stages in Christian history theologians have debated what the ‘important’ things to believe in are, and what are αδιάφορα, Greek for ‘things that don’t make a difference’ – which is almost what the word sounds like even to us: all you need to know is that α- as in αδιάφορα is a negative: ‘not’ διαφορά, in this context, things that make a difference.

There have been several times in the history of the church when there has been controversy about what is αδιάφορα and what is important.

At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther had a falling-out with Philipp Melanchthon over the importance of ‘justification by faith’ as opposed to gaining salvation by doing good works – or celebrating elaborate masses.

Then again the Puritans, in the Westminster Confession of faith (1646), asserted the rule that only things which were in the Bible were important – ‘sola scriptura’, only scripture, counted. That’s still basically the URC and Baptist position. Church structures, hierarchy and liturgical formulae weren’t as important. There is a distinction between true worship itself and what were called ‘circumstances of worship’, the Biblical essentials on the one hand and the way the worship was organised, not so important, αδιάφορα even, on the other. The Puritan position was summed up in this:

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas (commonly translated as “in necessary things unity; in uncertain things liberty; in all things charity”). The guiding principle was a line from Romans 14, after the passage which we had as our lesson tonight, v.19:

Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.

That’s sometimes used as an introduction to the Peace.

Then came the Anglican ‘latitudinarians’, who were even more relaxed about what mattered. ‘The latitudinarian Anglicans of the 17th century built on Richard Hooker‘s position in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Hooker (1554–1600) argues that what God cares about is the moral state of the individual soul. Aspects such as church leadership are “things indifferent“.’ [Wikipedia, accessed at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latitudinarian]

You will also find an echo of the same issues at the beginning of your little blue Prayer Books, in the section called ‘Of Ceremonies’. Page x at the front of the book. Again, this is about what we need to do in order to offer appropriate worship to God. Should it be elaborate services with great torrents of flowery words, dressed up with beautiful music sung by accomplished, perhaps professional, choirs – or should it be stripped-back, plain words, no music – or maybe simple amateur ‘worship songs’?

This brings us up with a bit of a jolt to what we do today. What is essential to the worship here at St Mary’s? Remember that this morning we had a special event in our church life: we admitted five young ones to be able to receive Holy Communion before they’re confirmed.

What looks important to them? What does it mean to them to worship the Lord? I think that St Paul set the tone pretty well all those years ago, maybe only 30 years after Jesus was crucified, when he counselled the Roman Christians not to look down on each other because some things were important to some of them and other things to others.

So – what’s important to us, here, at St Mary’s? What can we see other Christian friends doing differently? I mean, we make quite a thing about our doing things in a distinctively different, traditional way here. But how much is at the heart of our faith, and how much just our taste, our preference?

I think I can suggest that one way one would argue would be that we don’t water things down. The little ones this morning went through a proper communion service with some grownup words in. We think they will be more likely to think deeply about the service if they’ve had to look up some words. Their parents didn’t think there was anything babyish either. Our approach is not to water things down. God isn’t an easy thing. Immortal, invisible.

And when we have been exposed to God’s grace, when we have come to the Lord in prayer, in the way we do, can you tell? Does it make a difference to our lives? Do we ‘repent’?

Put it another way. We aim to eat the red meat of worship and witness here at St Mary’s. Full fat. But we mustn’t look down on the friends who only take the vegetarian, decaf option. Which are you?