Archives for posts with tag: Lent

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 6th March 2016
Isaiah 40:27-41:13; 2 Timothy 4:1-18.

Among the dreaming spires of Oxford – in the ivory towers – there has been an almighty row between a student movement and my old college, Oriel, which in turn has excited the unwelcome attentions of the Daily Telegraph and some former students, who are so cross that they have stopped giving money to the College – at least that’s what the leak from the Senior Common Room published in the Telegraph said, so it must be true.

It’s all about Cecil Rhodes. There’s a statue of him high up on the bit of Oriel College which faces on to the High Street. The statue is so high up, in fact, that most of us who were there for three or four years in the 1960s can’t say we ever really registered the fact that it was there. Rhodes was an Oriel man, and he left a substantial benefaction to the College in his will, which was used to build the building which has his statue on it. Rhodes also founded the Rhodes Scholarships, which have brought all sorts of scholars from the Commonwealth and the USA to study at Oxford. It’s well documented, incidentally, that among the earliest Rhodes scholars was a black American, and the terms of Rhodes’ gift expressly ruled out discrimination on the grounds of race in awarding the scholarships. [Nigel Biggar (2016): Rhodes, Race and the Abuse of History, http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/6388/full%5D

But, the protesters say, Rhodes was a bad man, who was involved in the worst aspects of colonial oppression. He was almost guilty of slavery, and, they say, he was a racist.

So there has been a great argument about whether Oriel should take down the statue. Although it hasn’t been put this way exactly, the point seems to be that people are arguing that if, according to today’s standards, our benefactor was a bad man, that taints his gifts, even though at the time he gave them, he was not judged to be a particularly bad man according to the moral standards then. A bad man can’t give a good gift, they say, even though at the time he gave it, he wasn’t regarded as a bad man.

The argument rages on. I was thinking about it when I saw the Bible lessons for this service. A Christian minister – for instance Timothy, the young man to whom two epistles are addressed – must uphold authentic doctrine and good teaching, and not be led astray by fads and crazes: ‘For the time will come when they will not stand wholesome teaching, but will follow their own fancy and gather a crowd of teachers to tickle their ears.’ (2 Timothy 4:3, NEB)

The young minister must be steadfast, and stand up to hardships in support of his ministry. He will be strengthened in his calling by the Lord. The prophet Isaiah says, ‘But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’ (Isaiah 40:31) The Epistle echoes this. ‘Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.’ (2 Timothy 4:17)

So the young minister, the young evangelist, will be strengthened in his calling, supported by God in his work. Or her work, indeed. This Lent we are being encouraged to consider a calling to ministry in our church. The Diocesan newspaper, The Wey, which you can pick up on your way out tonight, has as its main headline on the front page, ‘Who me …..? A vicar?’ [http://www.cofeguildford.org.uk/about/communications/the-wey/details/the-wey—march-april-2016]

St Paul’s two letters to Timothy and his letter to Titus, called the Pastoral Epistles (‘epistle’ means ‘letter’ – from the Latin epistola) are chiefly concerned with the character which a Christian minister needs to have. As well as being of good character – ‘blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, …. not greedy of filthy lucre’ [1 Timothy 3:2-3] – a minister must stick to sound doctrine. But how to know what is sound doctrine?

St Paul’s letters are full of controversies, reflecting the various arguments which must have sprung up among the early Christians. Think of all his arguments about whether Christians needed to be circumcised; whether, once baptised, a Christian need not worry about living a morally upright life – because they were already ‘saved’. Could one earn salvation by doing good works? They argued about all these.

What was the right answer? At the time of the Reformation, a thousand years later, the Reformers liked verse 16 of 2 Timothy chapter 3: ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’.

‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God.’

So that means, if it’s in the Bible, it must be right. The Bible is the Word of God. But wait: these fine sentiments, in what says it is ‘St Paul’s’ Letter to Timothy, are reckoned by scholars not in fact to have been written by St Paul from his prison cell in Rome at all. These were what are called ‘pseudonymous’ letters, letters written after the style of St Paul, and in order to be more persuasive, claiming to have been written by him, but in fact not. The language, and references to things which the earliest church didn’t have, such as bishops, have led the academic commentators to say that these Pastoral Epistles aren’t really by St Paul.

So what is true? Does the truth – or what is right and good – change over time? Is there merit in the argument put forward by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, that what may have been good once upon a time, need not still be so? We have to acknowledge, for example, that the Church of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw nothing wrong in slavery. The grand buildings at the heart of Bristol and Liverpool were built with profits from the slave trade, and the traders were church-goers. John Newton, who wrote the great hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, was originally the captain of a slave ship.

Then gradually people’s understanding – Christian people’s understanding – changed. William Wilberforce and the members of the Clapham Sect, who worshipped at Holy Trinity, Clapham Common, began to understand that their Christian belief would lead them to recognise that all are made in the image of God, that we are all – equally – God’s creatures.

I wonder what people will say about us in 100 years. Adam Gopnik, in his recent radio talk, ‘A Point of View’ [http://bbc.in/1QwPjC9], has suggested that in years to come, our generation will be criticised for extreme cruelty to animals, the animals that we eat, like chickens, cows and sheep.

I wonder whether our inclination towards nationalism, not just in opposition to the EU, but also in relation to migration, might be criticised as being like the Victorians’ attitude to slavery – or at least their attitude towards their colonial subjects. Why are we any more entitled to live in wealth and comfort, just because we have been born in England, than someone who was born in Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan? Are we really?

I wonder. I wonder what St Paul – or, dare one say, what Jesus Himself – would say. Have you got itchy ears?

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Eve

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, 7th February 2016
John 12:27-36 Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.

I was rather shocked to find out that this year the Boat Race is going to be run on Easter Sunday. Not just on a Sunday, but on Easter Sunday of all Sundays! It does seem to me to be quite shocking that the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Clubs have completely ignored the fact that there are an awful lot of people who enjoy the Boat Race, as one of our main national sporting fixtures, but who are also Christians. For us, Sunday, and not just any Sunday, but certainly Easter Sunday, is surely far more important than the Boat Race. They should not be on the same day.

Time for a letter. Dear Mr Raab – ‘Dear Mr Raab’, I want to write, to our MP. ‘I understand that Parliament has very nearly finished considering the Enterprise Bill which started in the House of Lords and which has already received its first and second readings in the House of Commons. On Tuesday the Business Secretary, Mr Javid, announced that provisions would be added – even at this late stage – to the Enterprise Bill to allow local councils to relax Sunday trading restrictions. Parliament hasn’t debated it at all so far. The bishops can’t say anything, because it has already gone through the House of Lords, without this Sunday trading proposal. I am unhappy that this is surreptitiously slipping in yet another watering-down of the idea that Sunday should be special.’ I hope he takes some notice. If only a few Conservatives vote against, this late addition to the Bill can be defeated.

Yes, I know that I often go to Waitrose after Sunday morning service, and I often have a curry from Cobham Tandoori after Evensong. But I think the time has come for us to review the need for there to be a day of rest and the need for those who, because they are doing essential jobs, are not able to rest on the day of rest, the need for them to be paid extra for their trouble, or to be assured of a substitute day of rest as a matter of right. Well, I am going to go on and finish, elegantly, my letter to our MP along those lines. I would ask you to consider writing a letter to him too.

The church is just about to embark on Lent. Lent, the lead up to the high point of the Christian year, Easter. In our Gospel lesson tonight we have heard St John’s slightly different account of the beginning of the Passion story. It’s different from the order of events in the other Gospel accounts, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a donkey after he has raised Lazarus from the tomb, and some Greeks have come, saying, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ [John 12:21]. And Jesus starts to tell them, and his disciples, what he has to face in the coming time. That’s the context of tonight’s lesson. It leads us up to Lent.

It will be Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, this Wednesday, and I hope that you will be able to begin your Lent devotion by coming to the 1030 service that morning. That’s the service with the imposition of ashes. If you are at work and unable to make the morning service, you can come to Saint Andrew’s in the evening for a similar service, at 8 o’clock.

Afterwards, as we pass through Lent, we will have a Lent communion service here every Wednesday morning at 10:30, and there will also be Lent study groups which are being organised ecumenically by all the churches in Churches Together. I will be helping to lead a group on Tuesday evenings. There will be other groups in various places and at various times to suit everyone. The topic which is going to be followed is a course which has been designed by the Archdiocese of York called the ‘Handing on the Torch’, which is all about being Christian in a secular society.

The question of Sunday trading is very much a case in point. Does it make any difference to be a Christian today? Should Sunday be special?

All the churches around here have to deal with the fact that a lot of young people now play sport on Sunday mornings. It can be rugby or hockey or many other sports. These children are put in a difficult position. They either drop out of the sporting activities in order to go to church with their folks, or, as happens more and more, they feel they have to keep up with their contemporaries, if they’re going to have a chance to get into school teams, through taking part in sport at the weekend. That is, not just any old time at the weekend, but very often specifically, on Sunday morning.

Some churches, for example in Great Bookham and West Molesey, have changed the time of family worship to the afternoon, so that people can take part in sporting activities in the morning, but still come to church at, say, 4 o’clock to have a ‘teatime church’. I think that’s probably fine. Otherwise, of course, slightly more grown-up people often go to 8 o’clock service in the morning and then go on to do various activities later on in the day. That’s all right as well. We are making time for God, but it doesn’t mean to say that everything else has to stop. ‘The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath’, as Jesus himself said [Mark 2:27].

But as Jesus said in our Gospel reading,’Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you’. If we don’t keep spaces for the light of the Gospel to shine through, then we will be in darkness.

So going back to my letter to the MP, who does benefit from ever longer opening hours on the Sundays? Not the people who work in shops, for sure. Mr Javid, in his statement on Tuesday, made a point that the rules would be changed, so that employees who wanted to opt out of Sunday working on religious grounds would only have to give a month’s notice, instead of the current three months.

But that does not get over the point that, in many working environments, people who are unavailable, who won’t work whenever their employers want them to, limit their chances of promotion and career advancement, whatever the reason.

We have heard a lot also about the so-called ‘seven day NHS’ in the context of the junior doctors’ fight for decent conditions. As you may know, both my daughters are hospital doctors, so-called junior doctors. One is a house officer in England, at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital – and she has been on strike – and the other an ENT surgeon in Wales, at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. The one in Wales is not in dispute because of the government in Wales has not followed the policies of the Westminster government.

Both my doctor daughters, however, are equally affronted when they see the Secretary of State talking about what he calls ‘the need for doctors to accept seven day working’. Mr Hunt seems oblivious of the fact that all hospital doctors work a seven day rota already. The point is whether or not weekend working should be special. If you work on a day which most other people, including Mr Hunt himself, regard as a normal holiday, then I agree with the doctors in thinking you should be rewarded specially for giving up your holiday time. I don’t think that Mr Hunt has ever worked any of the 13-hour weekend night shifts which my daughters regularly do.

But even if he has, I think that it is very important that the principle of a sabbath, a day of rest, which was part of the law of Moses, the 10 Commandments, and which has come into Christianity on Sunday rather than on Saturday, should be preserved, should be defended. As Christians we ought to take a lead in this.

There is likely to be no real benefit to anyone, other than the owners of big shops, if opening hours on Sunday are extended. I really think that there should be a proper calculation, setting the extra convenience which we are supposed to enjoy through extended Sunday opening, against the disruption to family life it would cause, for very many shop workers, people who live in the centre of town, and small businessmen. My ability to buy a couple of AA batteries, at 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon from Sainsbury’s, frankly does not weigh very heavily against the damage to the quality of family life which is likely to result for an awful lot of people if shop hours are extended to make my trivial purchase easier.

I would suggest that, as Christians, not only is it important to us that there should be a day for God, but that also that this day should be a sabbath. It should be a day of rest and recreation, and all those people who have to give up that day, because they are, for example, doctors or other kinds of emergency workers – or indeed because they are working in some of the shops – should have it properly recognised and rewarded.

I don’t think that it is necessarily an answer that Mr Javid, or Mr Hunt, or any other politician, should have to work on a Sunday. I think that the basic principle ought to be that nobody should. Let’s stand up and be counted on this one. ‘Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.’ Sunday is special.

Sermon for Mothering Sunday, 15th March 2015
Exodus 2:1-10 – the Baby in the Bulrushes

Today is Mothering Sunday, as well as being the fourth Sunday in Lent, which incidentally is sometimes known as Rose Sunday or Refreshment Sunday. Depending on how fierce the regime is that you follow during Lent, you may be very pleased to have Refreshment Sunday, because that is the Sunday when you are allowed to relax a bit and go back to some of the things which you’ve given up, like chocolate and Chateau Yquem or a nice Burgundy to go with your Sunday lunch. On Rose Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, you are allowed to have those things.

Alternatively of course, you can follow the theory which says that Sundays are not part of Lent at all, and that therefore you can stoke up on your goodies every Sunday without breaking any rules. I leave it to you and your conscience, because today I want to concentrate on this Sunday’s motherly aspect, to look through the prism of the beautiful story of the birth of Moses, and the way in which he was saved by being left in an ‘ark’ made out of bulrushes, in the flags of the river, in the reeds at the river’s edge, where he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who then gave him back to his real mother to bring him up as a nurse. [Exodus 2:1-10]

At this time in Lent we are reading in the Bible how our understanding of God and our encounters with God developed through the covenant with Abraham and God’s dealings with His chosen people, Israel, the Jews: how they were given the Ten Commandments through the prophet Moses, and then how Moses the high priest, of the order of Melchizedek, was succeeded by Jesus, the real, the true high priest, our mediator and redeemer, as we say in our prayers.

We are reflecting on this central part of our faith, that God made Himself known to us directly by being here with us in human form. Coming in human form, through being born of a human mother.

But today I’m not actually going to spend time considering the vital part which the Blessed Virgin Mary played in the Incarnation of our Lord. Instead I am going to look at Moses himself, the great forerunner, the law-giver. You will remember how the Israelites were in Egypt because Jacob’s sons had sold their brother Joseph into slavery. But Joseph had turned himself into being the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, chief of staff, administrator over the country. The brothers had come to Egypt to buy grain at a time of famine, Joseph having prudently stored up supplies of grain in Egypt, and Joseph had brought his brothers and the people of Israel back into the land of plenty, where they settled, as aliens in a foreign land.

They did well: they went forth and multiplied. They were very successful; they worked hard – perhaps did jobs which the indigenous Egyptians didn’t want to do, and generally became quite visible, visibly successful – people noticed the Hebrews. The Pharaoh, the ruler, didn’t like the way that the Hebrews were, in his terms, getting above themselves. So he tried to wipe them out, by stopping them breeding.

First of all he told his midwives, when they were attending a Jewish woman, not to let male children be born alive: but the midwives didn’t carry out his instructions. Their excuse was that the Hebrew women gave birth too fast, so that by the time they had been summoned as midwives, the birth had already taken place, and it was too late to do away with any male children.

So Pharaoh thought again and came up with the idea that any male children that were born to the Hebrews should be thrown into the river and drowned. Genocide, unfortunately, is something that the Jews haven’t only had to contend with in the last hundred years.

Moses’ mother was from the tribe of Levi; Moses’ parents were from the tribe of Levi, the special tribe of priests, who were allotted a share of any produce simply by virtue of being Levites, priests [Deut.18]. But before all else, she was a Hebrew, in circumstances where Hebrews were aliens in the land, immigrants, and they were subject to persecution.

Pharaoh had been working them harder and harder, trying to grind them down. And now he was trying to wipe them out, by killing their first-born sons. It’s a heart-rending picture. Imagine. Somehow or other, the mother felt that the only way that her baby could survive was for her to abandon him in a little coracle in the hope that somebody would find him and save him. It was a long shot just on the chance he would survive at all. What would the odds have been against that somebody, who found him, being the ruler’s daughter?

It must have been a terrifying moment for Moses’ Mum. There she is, hiding nearby to see if somebody will come and save little Moses, and then the very person who turns up is from the family of the man who has decreed that little Moses and all the other Hebrew boys are to be killed, not saved.

But nevertheless Pharaoh’s daughter had a motherly instinct. She couldn’t hurt little Moses. She looked for somebody to look after him – and along came his real Mum. Pharaoh’s daughter knew perfectly well that Moses was an illegal – not exactly an immigrant, but certainly an alien. He was one of the Hebrew children. She said as much. Nevertheless she saved him, and Moses’ real Mum brought him up, so he was able to thrive.

It’s a lovely story. Just imagine, what would be a parallel today? Let’s imagine, perhaps, the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton, as was) and some of her girl-friends having a few days by the sea in Sicily, staying in one of those beautiful Relais et Chateaux palazzi, with nannies and ladies-in-waiting, all sitting on the beach under an umbrella, enjoying a glass of Prosecco and chatting, setting the world to rights – and then, all of a sudden, on the horizon, they see one of the refugee ships.

The crew has abandoned it. It is on auto-pilot: the engine is still turning the screw, and it is heading straight for the sea shore. But – wait a minute! It looks as though the ship is going to go past the promontory where the ladies are, and it looks as though it’s taking on water. Suddenly someone on board launches a little life raft, and in the life raft is a baby. Clinging to the life raft, but not in it, is a girl, a teenager, just about hanging on. They get washed up on the beach, just down from where the duchess and her friends are sitting.

Kate Middleton says, ‘Look: there’s a baby. It’s one of those refugee babies – we must save him, and we must make sure that he gets a good start in life. Let’s bring him ashore, wrap him up; give him some food. Oh, he’s only a teeny baby. Can someone nurse him? I wonder if that African girl, the one who was clinging to the life raft, could nurse him. Look, she’s still lying on the beach just a little way down. Poor thing, she looks half dead. Let’s give her something to eat and put everything together.’

Can you imagine that? Or are you persuaded by politicians who tell us that to have enough coast guard rescue ships and helicopters in the area to save everyone who is a refugee and in peril, would act as what they call a ‘pull factor’? Their idea is that if you believe that somebody will rescue you if you get into trouble, it will encourage you to embark on a lethal refugee ship, barely able to stay afloat. Frankly that is evil nonsense. Those people are so desperate that they will take those sort of risks irrespective whether there’s anyone to rescue them.

What do you think about those people – those refugees, those immigrants, those illegal immigrants? Some people say, ‘They take our jobs’ – like the Jews were supposed to be taking the jobs of the Egyptians. Next time someone says how dreadful immigrants are, and how we ought to stop people daring to try to come away from the poverty and violence in their country to get into the UK, think of the Law of Moses. God spoke through Moses: He gave Moses the Law, the Jewish Law: and Jesus affirmed it. The Law tells you to care for the alien in your midst. In the Law of Moses, when you harvest a field or pick the grapes, you are supposed to leave something for the alien and the stranger to have, so that they don’t starve. See Deuteronomy chapter 24, or Leviticus chapter 19.

Somebody else might say, ‘We were born in England, or to English parents. We deserve our comforts. We’ve earned them’. They might say. ‘We’ve paid our taxes. We don’t want our hard-earned benefits squandered on people who haven’t earned them. It’s our birthright’.

But just think what it must be like if you’ve been born in Syria, or in Iraq, or in Somalia, or Libya, instead of in England! What is your birthright then? Surely the most important difference between us and them is where you were born, which is a matter of sheer luck. But God loves us all, wherever we were born. So the commandment means, love your neighbour, wherever they come from.

3,000 years later, are we as good as Pharaoh’s daughter was? It is something for us to reflect on, as we enjoy our roast beef – with or without Chateau Yquem with the pudding.

Sermon for Evensong on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 16th March 2014
Luke 14: ‘For which of you … counteth the cost?’

I’ve never really got this passage. On the one hand, Jesus tells his disciples that they must turn their backs on family and friends, must give up everything, if they are to become his disciples, his students.

On the other, He asks some rhetorical questions about making prudent choices, making sure you have sufficient building materials before starting to build; weighing up the relative numbers of opposing armies before launching an attack.

On the first hand, Jesus seems to be calling for reckless abandon on the part of his followers. Cast off the trappings of life. Have faith.

On the other, He says, everyone figures out the odds before committing themselves. Is it really worth doing, to become a disciple of Jesus? What are the pros and cons?

These two points of view can’t both be true. Conventionally, scholars reconcile the apparent contradiction – reckless abandon versus figuring the odds before acting – by saying that this is about the seriousness of the commitment needed in order to become Jesus’ disciple. I’m not sure that’s right.

Lent is supposed to be a time of reflection and self-examination, reflecting the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, during which time He was tempted by the Devil. Traditionally we have made this into a time of abstinence and fasting, a time of self-denial. So people typically give up alcohol and chocolate as a sign that they are marking Lent, that they are part of the group that is marking Lent, that is, the Christian church. Let’s say that their reflection and self-examination correspond with being Jesus’ sensible builders, figuring out the odds.

But let’s face it, the abstinence, the keeping off chocolate – unless you are Revd Keith Hebden, the vicar in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, who is going to take no food for 40 days and nights in order to support End Hunger Now – whatever you do, will be relatively trivial.

Not but what I hope that you will, for example, support the Bishop’s Lent Call, for which there is a flyer at the back of the church on your way out, which puts a price on various things that you might do in the normal course of your life, so that, rather like a swear box, you will pay a little penalty for doing a particular thing, like taking more than 2½ minutes to have your shower in the morning, or having an alcoholic drink: I’m not knocking any of this.

I think that anything, which makes you reflect, is a good thing. But I have experienced something in the last few days which has made me realise what it is to search my inner being in a way which I have never had to before. I have been attending court for the last week, to support a friend of mine who is on trial.

I got to the end of the third day of the trial, and as I drove home, my mind started to fill with all sorts of testing thoughts. I thought about the testing time which Jesus himself suffered: and I slowly began to realise what a real, serious, testing period could involve.

Obviously I can’t tell you in any great detail about the court case, which, incidentally, is still going on. It is a re-trial. The whole trial has taken place before, but the jury was unable to agree. So the prosecutors decided that they would do it all over again. Three months later, a new jury was empanelled, the new hearing began, and the evidence was starting to be set out all over again.

But after three days, three days of the retrial, one of the jurors called in sick. The rules are that they are supposed to get a doctor’s note to justify their absence, or else such absence becomes a criminal offence in itself. Well, by the next day the juror hadn’t turned up, and the police had been round to his house to find him, but he had disappeared. No doctor’s certificate had arrived.

Both sides don’t want less than a full jury, so it looks as though there is going to be a third trial. What I was reflecting on, as I drove back from the court, was how all the various people involved in the case must have been feeling. My friend, who is on trial, is under terrible stress. He maintains that he did not do what he’s accused of. There is a witness who is effectively accusing him of something which, if it is proved to have happened, would amount to a very serious crime, for which he could be sent to jail for several years. There is apparently evidence on both sides.

Now I don’t know about you, but I quite enjoy policier stuff on the TV. The whole emphasis is on the thrill of the chase. Whether we’re watching Wallander or Dixon of Dock Green, the idea is that the policeman is out to catch criminals and have them locked away when they have been convicted in court. You can thoroughly enter into this and enjoy it. My favourite detective at the moment is Montalbano. Montalbano is a detective in Sicily. He has the most beautiful flat, which is on the beach. In the opening sequences we see him enjoying a swim before he goes to work. Various things happen, sometimes involving the Mafia, and sometimes even involving murders. Montalbano’s method of working always involves lunch, in a congenial trattoria where he’s extremely well-known, and where he lunches people who might be helpful in the context of his current case. Strangely enough, such people are always very good-looking girls.

It’s great viewing on a Sunday evening after Evensong. But having been in the court this week, it certainly occurs to me that real crimes, and real criminal law, aren’t like that. It’s not fun. The court has to establish the facts, then to establish if those facts mean that any law has been broken, and then to establish whether the person in the dock did the things which amounted to the breach of the law: and if so, the right penalty, as prescribed by law, has to be handed down.

So far, so uncontroversial. And frankly, so unconnected with our comfortable lives here. Some of us may have done some prison visiting, and some of us may have gone to one of those Grange Park Opera productions performed in prisons around the country. But what would you feel like, if you were watching your barrister and the prosecuting barrister fighting it out in front of the jury? And knowing that, if it goes the wrong way, you will end up for several years in jail?

What does it feel like for my friend? He’s a professional person. He went to a good university. He had a professional job. Something has gone terribly wrong. He is ruined. He is already ruined, even before the verdict, just by being in court on trial. His wife has left him. But he didn’t do it.

But will the jury believe him? Will the jury weigh up the evidence, with the help of the barristers on each side and with the help of the judge, who will give directions? What happens if he’s acquitted? There are still those people who accused him. They’re still going to be out there.

What if he goes to jail? Where will he end up? Will any of his friends be able to come and see him easily? What about those long periods when his friends can’t make it? He has no family any more. It’s not like hospital visiting, just down the road. For whatever reason, people are not going to do it so easily.

I know he’s a Christian. He prays every night, and he asks me to pray for him. And I do. And then I find all these thoughts come crowding in. What if the jury finds him guilty? What if he does go to jail? What am I supposed to feel if they find him guilty of the things he’s accused of? Then, on the face of things, he would be a terrible criminal. Certainly the rest of the world will think that.

These are my reflections, my trials in the wilderness. Would I choose that fight? How strong are the forces ranged against my friend in the court? I’m figuring out the odds.

And that sort of reflection, that sort of analysis, doesn’t help. When I came back from the court, full of conflicting thoughts and emotions, deep, rational thoughts, thoughts fit for Lent, even – they didn’t help.

But if I thought in the way Jesus started off arguing here, just dropping everything and falling in behind Him; getting rid of all the baggage – then what? I think that is the clue, that is the way to look at what Jesus was saying. Not that one should weigh up carefully the cost/benefit of being a disciple, and then make a reasoned commitment: not that. Nothing wrong with figuring things out – but this is different. This is in a different league. What Jesus is looking for is commitment, commitment untrammelled by the baggage of life.

So when I worry about my friend facing his trial in court, I can reflect all I can, but it won’t get me anywhere. ‘Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?’ Jesus asked, in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matt. 6:27). What will happen, will happen. What Jesus is saying, is raising things to a higher plane. Whatever happens, proved innocent or proved guilty, my friend is still my friend. I can hate the sin – if there is one – but love the sinner. We are all sinners. But Jesus shows that, if we are prepared to make a commitment, to take up a cross and follow him: to be reckless, reckless about the cost – then He will be there.

Even in that court this week, in the context of serious crime, God was there. He gives us reason to hope. He will give my friend reason to hope, whichever way it goes for him. Let us today remember, as part of our Lenten observance, those people who are being tested, tested in a much tougher way than just giving up chocolate. Where they are concerned, let us pray St Ignatius Loyola’s prayer: ‘Teach us, good Lord, …. to give, and not to count the cost’. [St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)]

PS – this story has a happy ending. My friend was acquitted of all charges.

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday before Lent, Septuagesima
Ephesians 5:1-17

Today is actually Education Sunday, which is an ecumenical fixture promoted across all the churches in the UK. It is sponsored locally by Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke. This morning I preached a sermon at Mattins about Christian education, and I raised a few queries about what’s going on in our schools today, contrasting the church schools with the newer Free School in Cobham, which appears not to have any religious assemblies.

But this evening I want to come nearer to home and, if you like, to run a bit of a trailer for the study course which I hope as many of you as possible will try out during Lent. This year is one of the years when we will be organising the Lent course ecumenically under Churches Together again, and the groups will be organised on the basis that you will meet people from the other churches in Cobham as well as from St Mary’s.

I know that there is a sign-up sheet at the back of the church, and that Sue Woolley is the point-person whom you need to see if you haven’t signed up yet. There will be sessions during the evening and during the day most days.

What we will be studying is St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, from which our second lesson this evening came. Ephesians is not a long letter. It has just six chapters and in my Bible it runs over three and a half pages. It is nevertheless what the great Bible scholar C.H. Dodd regarded as ‘the crown of Paulinism’, Paul’s finest letter.

In its six short chapters Ephesians covers just about everything you need to know about Christianity. First, of course, about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Then about grace, about God’s generosity to us and the effect of it on us Christians.

The title of the course is, ‘Be Reconciled’. Reconciliation is a major topic in Ephesians. In the context of the early church, the people who needed to be reconciled were the Jews and the Gentiles – and St Paul was known as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Christianity would never have become the worldwide religion that it is, if it had remained as a Jewish sect.

The letter goes on to look at the wider context of reconciliation, reconciliation with God. Sin is understood as separation from, exclusion from, God’s love.

Other themes include St Paul’s perspective on the church, the body of Christ – not the churches as they are today, in lots of denominations, but as the way, the channel, through which the Holy Spirit works on earth.

I find it really fascinating to read and study anything which tells us about the life of the early church. Sometimes I think one forgets what cataclysmic events Jesus’ life, death and resurrection must have been for the people who were close in history to them. It wasn’t just something that you read about, but you could see the vital consequences, the living controversy.

Religion was very important to the Ephesians. They were people who revered the Greek gods: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’ you will remember they chanted in the story in Acts (Acts 19:28). It was a powerful city with sophisticated people. It’s interesting to see how St Paul and the other early Christians coped with this strong, confident civilisation which believed in different gods.

I think there can be messages for us to learn today. People may not say, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, but there are other things which seem to be worshipped like pagan gods. There was a staggering letter in yesterday’s FT: the latest instalment in a correspondence which started with somebody saying that, for someone on £200,000 a year, a rise in tax back to 50% would cost about £7 a day, and the letter said, ‘What’s the odd £7 a day more or less, between friends?’ Someone who was that well paid wouldn’t miss it.

Then there were some other letters saying that no one had mentioned the point of paying taxes, that is, to support the community at large; but yesterday there was a letter from a lady in Evercreech, Somerset, whose judgement may of course have been slightly skewed because perhaps she had been flooded, but what she wrote was this.

‘The pursuit of success provides a satisfying goal in itself, resulting in financial rewards if it succeeds making the attendant sacrifices worthwhile. It is therefore galling to have this endeavour viewed by the public as a source of envy and by politicians as an asset to be plundered. Only when success is assured and large amounts of wealth have been amassed do the incentives change. Only a few will follow … [the] noble values of gaining satisfaction from a willingness to contribute to community. In the main, it becomes a game, with the driving motivation to outwit the Inland Revenue … The only way to reverse this trend is to shoot their fox by lowering taxes significantly and moving the goalposts again, in order for recognised philanthropy to become the new order of priority as a source of satisfaction and status.’ (Letter from Miss Sierra Hutton-Wilson in the Financial Times, February 15-16 2014)

I wonder what Jesus would have said about that. There is really nothing about anyone other than the self in what this lady writes. The main objective which she supports is ‘the pursuit of success’. First, become successful (meaning, become rich). Lower taxes will help you to achieve your objective. There is no room for philanthropy until and unless you have achieved your objective. Then, and only then, philanthropy can become ‘a source of satisfaction and status’.

Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan’s motives were not a desire to feel better (satisfaction) or the be more highly regarded (status). Instead, as we read in St Luke’s gospel (10:33), when he saw the man who had fallen among thieves, ‘he had compassion on him’ – the Greek word literally means, ‘his innards were churned up’ by what he saw. It wasn’t, as somebody once said, only possible for the Samaritan to be generous because he himself was well-off; it was because he cared about the other man, the injured man.

After all, Jesus told the parable to illustrate what it was to be someone’s neighbour. There’s nothing in Jesus’ teaching about ‘satisfaction and status’. But yesterday, the Financial Times could print this letter under the heading ‘Philanthropy – the new status symbol’ without batting an eyelid.

As Christians, we have to be on our guard against these seductive ideas which encourage us to be selfish and not to love our neighbours. The idea that you get wealthy first, and then do some philanthropy not because it helps other people, but because it makes you look good, is superficially pretty attractive, and it has been endorsed by famous people. The person who said that the Good Samaritan had to be rich, before he could have done anything to help the injured man, was – who do you think? It was Margaret Thatcher.

So you wouldn’t be blamed for adopting that selfish theory – only be generous if you are rich enough, and if it makes you look good or feel better. The best people agree with you. That was exactly the challenge that St Paul and the early Christians faced. His letters, including his letter to the Ephesians, set out how he countered these seductive arguments. His arguments are still good value today. To follow self is to cut yourself off from God. Separation from God is what ‘sin’ means. So when Paul says, ‘Be reconciled’, he means, be reconciled with God, be saved. (See Ephesians 2:16.)

This is still so relevant today. Come and study Ephesians this Lent. I guarantee it will be very worthwhile.

Sermon for Mattins at The Chapel of Ease, Westhumble, on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 10th March 2013

2 Corinthians 5:19 – ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…’

Today is the fourth Sunday of Lent, sometimes known as Rose Sunday or Refreshment Sunday. More recently it has become Mothering Sunday. The good news is that Refreshment Sunday is a break in the austerity of Lent; a nice time to make a fuss of one’s mother, and to see the children giving Mum a nice day, perhaps a lie in with some tea in bed, or some nice flowers, just something to show that we treasure our mothers.

Unfortunately, however, if we think of motherhood as central to the family, family relations are not in very good shape in the world today. There are too many people whose marriage has broken down, perhaps because a partner has left with somebody else.

There are too many cases of child abuse. We are wrestling, in the church at large, with many problems of human sexuality. Our friends in the Catholic Church are reeling from scandals, most recently involving Cardinal O’Brien. It does seem inappropriate just blithely to celebrate motherhood and the family without engaging with some of the challenges which family life has to face today.

There is something very shocking about cases like Jimmy Saville and Cardinal O’Brien. It is very shocking if public figures, people who set themselves up as examples, or who preach morality, turn out not to be worthy of their fame or respect. Jimmy Saville is supposed to have perpetrated over 200 sex crimes, and although we don’t know what Cardinal O’Brien is supposed to have done in any detail, he admits that he did not do what he preached.

Last week we had the story in St John’s gospel of the woman ‘taken in adultery’. If you just think of the basic scenario: somehow she had been caught in bed with someone who was not her husband; and if you stop at that point, that is a serious matter. If we lament the fact that so many marriages fail, and that so many children and families suffer unhappiness, pain and poverty as a result, we have to pause and say that the woman – and of course the man with her – were doing what causes all that. They were not doing what they should have been doing.

Although it may be rather unfashionable to talk in these terms, it seems to me that all these things – abuse of children, adultery, being a sexual predator, abusing a position of authority, are all species of sin. What makes these things sinful, as opposed to being just bad or criminal or immoral, is that they drive a wedge between us and God. The word for ‘sin’ in Greek is ´αμαρτια, which means literally, ‘missing the mark’. You will remember the famous passage in St Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 7, where Paul expresses his frustration and anger at his sinful nature.

He says, ‘For I know that nothing good lodges in me – in my unspiritual nature, I mean – for though the will to do good is there, the deed is not. The good which I want to do, I fail to do. But what I do is the wrong, which is against my will. And if what I do is against my will, clearly it is no longer I who am the agent, but sin which has its lodging in me.’ [Romans 7:18-20, NEB]

To a greater or lesser extent we do sinful things because of human frailty. We do sinful things, even despite knowing what the right thing to do is. When you see all the evil that is around us, it is very daunting. What does it mean? Are we submerging under a tide of immorality and godlessness?

Let’s read again what St Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians. ‘God …. hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them…’ [v. 18-19]

‘Not imputing their trespasses unto them.’ No longer blaming them. Contrast with that the story of the Old Testament, say in Jeremiah, for example. The prophets of the Old Testament had to battle with constant tension between God and his chosen people.

Jeremiah says, ‘Hast thou utterly rejected Judah? hath thy soul lothed Zion? why hast thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us? we looked for peace, and there is no good; and for the time of healing, and behold trouble! We acknowledge, O Lord, our wickedness, and the iniquity of our fathers: for we have sinned against thee.’ [Jeremiah 14:19-20]

That’s a very different message from the one that we find in St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. St Paul is all about reconciliation. The interesting thing is that the word in Greek that is translated as ‘reconciliation’ (καταλλαγη) originally meant ‘exchange’, almost ‘a trade’, substituting one thing for another. It is also the word used to translate ‘atonement’, as in the Jewish festival of Atonement.

We say that Jesus’ sacrifice, his death, ‘atoned’, made ‘atonement’ for, our sin, made up for it, paid the price for it, in some way. He ‘redeemed’ us, he paid a ransom for us. I have always found it tough to think in terms of a blood sacrifice, that Jesus’ death on the cross was in some way a blood sacrifice. This passage in 2 Corinthians shows us another way of understanding the idea of atonement. Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus’ death, reconciles us with God.

Richard Hooker, the great Reformation theologian, said, about this passage, ‘Let it be counted folly or frenzy or whatsoever, it is our wisdom and our comfort. We care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man has sinned and God has suffered; that God has made himself the sin of men and that men are made the righteousness of God.’ Richard Hooker, A Discourse of Justification, http://tinyurl.com/dxfvxzq

It’s a sort of a swap, an exchange: reconciliation. Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible called ‘The Message’, which is perhaps a commentary and a translation rolled into one, expresses this passage in 2 Corinthians as follows. ‘All this comes from God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.’

This is the clue to the Christian revolution, that God is not vengeful, he is loving. God knows that we are imperfect, and that we do bad things. The woman taken in adultery didn’t intend to hurt anybody, but was just prey to an animal passion. Even St Paul, doing the things that he hated, was still subject to the influence of sin.

We should remember this when we are confronted by people who have done truly dreadful things – the killers of little Jamie Bulger came into the news again this week, for example; and of course we can think again of Jimmy Saville and others who seem to have allowed their baser instincts to get the better of them.

Jesus said to the woman, ‘Has no-one condemned you? She answered, ‘No-one, sir.’ Jesus said, ‘Nor do I condemn you’. Jesus’ message is, to put it another way, we should hate the sin, but have compassion for the sinner. This is a message of forgiveness, of redemption, the very opposite of hopelessness and bleakness. It is a happy message. It is a message for Refreshment Sunday: Mothering Sunday. There is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a rosy glow. Rose Sunday looks forward to the dawning of the Sun of Righteousness – as Homer put it, ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ – on Easter morning.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday called Quinquagesima, or the next Sunday before Lent, 10th February 2013
Exodus 3:1-6, John 12:27-36 – ‘Father, glorify your name.’ The Riley Elf.

Do you remember the Riley Elf? Or the Wolseley Hornet? Those little cars? Well, sometimes people used to say they were just ‘glorified Minis’. They were posh versions of the Mini.

Is that what we mean by ‘glorified’ – or, ‘glory’? Is it just a sort of embellishing process? What is glory?

I’ve always found the passage in St John’s gospel that we had as our lesson really rather difficult to understand. Indeed, it’s quite a theme in St John’s gospel, glory. What is this glory?

St Paul talks about a woman’s hair being her ‘glory’ (1 Cor. 11:15), and we talk about people ‘glorying’ in some good fortune or other. 12th August is known as the ‘Glorious 12th’. The glory there seems to consist in mass slaughter of grouse. We sometimes say that it is a glorious day, when we mean that it is sunny and fine.

But none of this really seems to help us when we examine what Jesus was mulling over here, after his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. He is thinking about the fact that he is going to be ‘lifted up’, as he says, and as the gospel put it, ‘He said this to indicate the kind of death that he was to die’, being lifted up on the cross. Just as in the other gospels they have the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying to his Father, ‘Take this cup away from me’ (Matt. 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:40-46), here similarly he is thinking whether to ask to be saved from his impending fate.

On a human level, he’s afraid of what’s in front of him. So his instinct is to ask to be saved. But he knows that it is his destiny, that the purpose of his life on earth is to go through this terrible suffering. Just before this passage, he explains how death can be more fruitful, ultimately, than life. ‘A grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest’ (John 12:24, NEB).

So Jesus says this rather peculiar phrase, ‘Father, glorify your name.’ And a voice comes out from heaven saying, ‘I have glorified it, and I will do it again.’ (John 12:28) Just like the voice from the burning bush to Moses in our Old Testament lesson from Exodus, here the voice from heaven, which was heard by those standing round, is miraculous evidence that God is present, and that Jesus isn’t just a man. One of the modern translations of the Bible, the Contemporary English Version published by the Bible Society, translates this section this way: “‘I must not ask my father to keep me from this time of suffering. In fact I came into the world to suffer. So Father, bring glory to yourself’. A voice from heaven then said, ‘I have already brought glory to myself, and I will do it again.'”

‘Glorify your name’: ‘bring glory to yourself’. The Greek word behind this passage (δόξα, δόξαζω) is interesting. It has been translated literally as ‘glory, I glorify’, but it started out as a word meaning, ‘I have an opinion about’, maybe ‘a good opinion’, something ‘seems to me’, then, something ‘seems good to me’. That goes on to mean something is a ‘good spectacle’, a sight to see: and it’s a very big word in Christianity.

In the Nicene Creed which we say at Holy Communion, we mention glory twice. Jesus ‘shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.’ And we believe in the ‘Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, …. who …. is worshipped and glorified’. We have great hymns, ‘Thine be the glory’; ‘Angels from the realms of glory’: the Gloria itself, ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.’ Good repute, good opinion. Difficult to translate – what on earth does ‘Glorify your name’ mean here?

I think the Contemporary English Version translation is probably right. Bring glory to yourself. On one level it seems an absurd request. God is omnipotent. God can do whatever He wants. He doesn’t need to demonstrate how powerful He is. He doesn’t need to curry favour. He is God.

But still, Jesus says, ‘Bring glory to yourself’. The more I consider this, the more I think about it, it dawns on me that of course this is a mystery, a holy mystery. Jesus is weighing up two alternatives. Calling on his father to save him, or the alternative, ‘Father, glorify your name’, which must mean, ‘Do something which will redound to your credit.’ In other words, let Jesus go through with the Passion, with suffering and death.

It doesn’t seem right. But so much about Jesus contains apparent paradoxes. The Servant King. Washing the disciples’ feet. Showing humility, never glorying in his position. ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted'(Matt. 23:12). So there’s a paradoxical meaning to ‘glory’ in St John’s gospel. When Jesus talks about being glorified – ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’, he says – what he means is not that the Son of Man, that he, is going to preside in triumph.

There is a paradox about the way in which he entered Jerusalem, on a donkey. It’s meant to make you think about the way in which Roman generals, after a successful campaign, would lead their armies back to Rome and enjoy a triumph: games, processions, jollifications, huge celebrations. At their heart was a kind of worship for the successful leader. Jesus wasn’t intending anything like that. His triumphal procession, on the donkey, was nothing like a Roman general’s triumph. Jesus earns his glory, his good reputation, by showing ultimate humility, by submitting to the whole process of his passion: the torture at the hands of the Romans and the Jews culminating in his agonising death on the cross.

Some triumph! But it is meant to be a triumph. It is meant to be a glory. As St John writes, later on in his gospel, ‘The book has been written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing, you may have life in his name’ (John 20:31). ‘Glory’ really has a connotation of the divine nature. Jesus is not only a man, but also he is divine, the Son of God. ‘Coming to glory’ has that meaning. The realm of glory is the realm of the divine.

We may not now think of the realm of glory as being up in the clouds, somewhere beyond the clouds, but the idea is still a perfectly good way of understanding something which is strictly beyond our understanding. So when Jesus says that ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’, he really means it is time for the Son of Man, for him, to put on his divine nature. And that means that Jesus’ glory comes not only from his glorious resurrection, but also from his suffering and his passion. That is glorious too.

We are on the edge of what we can understand. It’s not really surprising that the words we are using don’t necessarily convey the full weight of meaning which this mighty truth requires. Let’s go back to the Riley Elf. A glorified Mini. Nothing of the divine there. That’s something that should bring us up short. We talk quite easily in church about something being glorious, God being glorious, ‘Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost’, and so on. It’s a word which just slips down and does not really mean anything to us as we say it. Just like the Mini turning into a Riley Elf, are we saying that Jesus in our lives is almost like a shining ornament in the corner, very nice to look at, but it doesn’t do anything?

Or are we saying that the lustre, the glory, the special shine, that we see on Jesus, is because he is the Son of God? And because he is, that we will have to change our lives in response? I think so. ‘Who is the king of glory: even the Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.’ (Psalm 24).