Archives for posts with tag: Magnificat

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 23rd December 2018

Isaiah 10:33-11:10, Matthew 1:18-25

‘In the bleak midwinter’; ‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow’; ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out … deep and crisp and even’. But Bethlehem is a hot place, dusty rather than snowy. I suppose carols and hymns can be rather an unreliable source of proper geographical information. ‘And did those feet .. walk upon England’s green and pleasant land?’

I don’t suppose they sing ‘Jerusalem’ in Italy, or in France or in Germany. Or if they do, presumably those feet were walking in the Black Forest or on the Palatine Hill, or maybe, in the Bois de Boulogne. There is, if we are literal about it, quite a lot of nonsense which we happily tolerate at this time of year. Things that appear to go completely contrary to common sense; like snow in Bethlehem. It probably was quite cold at night in the stable, once the sun had gone down. But there certainly wasn’t any snow.

One of the things that these carols are doing is assimilating the story of the birth of Jesus into our homes, or rather into an idealised version of our homes, because even here in England a white Christmas is, of course, very rare. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that we won’t have one this year either.

And as well as the carols, the Bible readings that we traditionally use at this time also contain things which look contrary. Isaiah’s wonderful vision of the peaceful life on ‘God’s holy mountain’, after the Rod of Jesse, the Saviour, has beaten the Assyrians, and saved God’s chosen people, isn’t just a pastoral idyll.

It deliberately puts almost impossible companions together. The wolf and the sheep; the leopard, the kid; the calf, the young lion, the cow and the bear – the little child, leading them, like a party of schoolchildren following their teacher around the Tower of London, say.

Or perhaps it’s a classroom, full of these unlikely neighbours, who are not busily eating each other, but they are sitting attentively in class, being kept in good order by a little boy, like my two-year old grandson Jim. In your dreams, Sunshine!

Well, yes; in Isaiah, in Isaiah’s dreams. In the words of the prophet, telling his hearers what God has spoken to him and said, that the Rod of Jesse would come and slay the Assyrians, and then that they ‘would not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.’

Interesting that it is on a mountain, on a high place. The Greek gods were on a mountain too; on Mount Olympus. And in the Old Testament, the heathen gods, the Baals and the Astartes of the Chaldeans, were worshipped with sacred poles, which were ‘in the high places’. ‘High places’ was almost a synonym for where God lived. We ourselves look up, look up to heaven, because conventionally, God lives in Heaven, and Jesus sits at God’s right hand ‘on high’, we say. Think of our Psalm this evening.

Unto thee I lift up mine eyes:

O thou that dwellest in the heavens. [Ps. 123]

But again, it’s not literally true. Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, was said by Nikita Krushchev to have gone into space ‘but not to have seen God there’. The early astronauts didn’t find a man with a white beard sitting on a golden throne and floating above the clouds. John Gillespie Magee’s wonderful poem, which is often read at the funeral of a pilot, ‘High Flight’, comes to mind. ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth … put out my hand and touched the face of God’. And so, on God’s holy mountain, children can safely play with cockatrices, vipers, and with asps, cobras. ‘Sheep may safely graze’.

It’s a much better outlook for the Israelites. The Messiah would come along and free them from slavery. The Rod of Jesse would mete out retribution to all their foes. That’s something that we can certainly relate to. ‘If only ..’, we say. If only: what would you call in the Rod of Jesse to do in your life? But maybe we are too comfortable, too well settled to really empathise with how the Israelites must have felt.

But there are people who are in exile, who are not free, who may even be subjected to slavery, even today, not far away. On Friday I did my first Father Christmas duty of this Christmas, up at Brooklands College, where there is a project for children who are asylum seekers and refugees. I gave out splendid big stockings full of goodies donated by the supporters of the project and by Elmbridge CAN, our local refugee support group, to 26 young people, teenagers and in their early 20s, who had come from Eritrea, from Syria, Ukraine, from Kurdistan, Iraq, from Afghanistan. Some were black Africans, some were Arabs, a couple were Chinese, and a couple were white Europeans. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to stay.

Some were learning to read and write for the first time; although typically, the ones who hadn’t been able to read and write were amazingly good at mental arithmetic. They were learning English, of course, and learning how to fit in with English society. The first words that they are taught are ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘sorry’, because none of those are necessarily expressions that you come across in some of the countries that they have come from. Part of Father Christmas’ visit was a huge lunch, of Middle Eastern and African delicacies, that one of the volunteers from Elmbridge CAN had made. For about half the children, this would be their only meal that day. One meal, if you’re lucky. This is in Weybridge!

So pictures of the Israelites, in exile and under the oppressor’s boot, could still in certain circumstances be a picture of contemporary life, for refugees and asylum seekers today. Think what life in the refugee camps must be like, in Jordan, for example. No snow there, either!

As well as the mythical snow on this fourth Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas itself, St Matthew tells us the story of the other half of the Annunciation. This isn’t about Mary but about Joseph her betrothed. Again, the Christmas story is so familiar that we perhaps gloss over the bits that seem rather unlikely. Joseph’s original reaction when he finds out that his wife-to-be is pregnant, although he has had nothing to do with it, is what you might expect. His first thought is that the wedding is not going to happen.

Who is the Angel Gabriel? Have you met any angels recently? Or at all? It seems to depend a bit on where you come from and what you’re used to. In Africa and in Southern Europe, people are much more ready to believe in the existence of angels than perhaps we are. I don’t think that we can explain the Virgin Birth in the same way that we could explain how to bake a perfect soufflé – or whatever it is they do on the Great British Bake-Off.

But look at it functionally. Jesus definitely lived. He was a human being, although during his life and afterwards, things happened which have led us to believe that he was more than human, that he was divine as well as human. So somehow he must have been born, been conceived. All the things that show that he was really born, that he really was human, just like the other miracles, turning water into wine, miraculously healing sick people, raising Lazarus from the dead – none of those can be explained: so Jesus’ conception is equally mysterious and impossible to understand.

But notice how Jesus’ earthly parents, wonderfully, accepted the situation; and of course Mary said the Magnificat, which we’ve just sung together. God has chosen me; God has magnified me; God has made a big thing out of me.

Is it just a pretty story, then? Is it just a convenient excuse to have a nice time at Christmas? Think about what Mary said. Think about the message of the Magnificat, and the message of Isaiah, about the animals on ‘God’s holy mountain’. ‘He has put down the mighty from his seat, and exalted the humble and meek.’ Are we the mighty? Or are we the ‘humble and meek’?

We need to think about it, and to do something. Perhaps the other thing about God’s holy mountain is that a little child shall lead them. Shall we say that that is the Christ Child? You know, in snowy Bethlehem? And another thing. ‘No crying he makes’. This is some baby!

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941)

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Sermon for Evensong on the second Sunday of Easter, 3rd April 2016
Wisdom 9:1-12

It’s one of those classic ways of passing time or getting off to sleep, if you’ve woken up in the middle of the night. You are the heir to the throne: you’re going to be king. God appears to you in a dream, and says, ‘What would you like? You can have anything you like.’

Of course, being a good Bible student, you will immediately be reminded of the story of Solomon and his dream in 1 Kings 3 or 2 Chron. 1. What did Solomon ask for? Solomon asked for wisdom. He might have used the words which were in our lesson today, from the book called ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’. He said, ‘God of my fathers, and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things with thy word,
And ordained man through thy wisdom, that he should have dominion over the creatures which thou hast made, …
Give me wisdom, ..’

Solomon did not ask for riches, or power, or any of the other kingly trappings – although God was so pleased with his choice, with his asking for wisdom, that he did give him all the other good things as well.

These days we don’t really think much about wisdom, or in those sort of terms. We don’t talk about people being ‘wise’ men. ‘Wise’ tends to be more of a cynical pejorative – he is just a ‘wise guy’. But wisdom, on proper reflection, is not just knowledge, but discernment and the ability to choose the right thing to do in circumstances where it is very difficult to know what is the right thing to do. Perhaps, indeed, we ought to look at wisdom again.

When you watch the pictures on the news showing the government minister meeting the steelworkers at Port Talbot, and you hear the ministers saying that they will do everything that they can do, lots of questions come crowding into one’s mind. If you thought along the lines of the author of the book of Wisdom, you could imagine the government ministers praying that Wisdom would come and help them out.

We don’t think that it was actually Solomon who wrote the book, but it was someone much later, writing in his honour: a Greek, most likely in Alexandria, who could have been writing about the same time as Jesus Christ. The Book of Wisdom was very much influenced not just by Jewish history, but also by Greek philosophy, especially by Plato and the Stoics. There is the Platonic idea of the essences of things being real as well as their manifestations. So we understand what it is for something to be a table, because we have an idea, a concept, an essence, of tables, in our minds.

So similarly Wisdom, the idea of Wisdom, to put it in Plato’s terms, almost has an independent existence all of its own – or rather of her own. If you are called Sophie or Sophia, you are named after the Greek word for wisdom. In the wisdom literature in the Bible, the books like the Wisdom of Solomon or Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, wisdom is personified; wisdom is a being in her own right, who can guide you into the correct path in order to follow the will of God.

So a government minister looking at the crisis in the steel industry would no doubt be very pleased to have a guiding figure, a Mrs Wisdom, at his or her side. What is the right thing to do? What are the principles which should inform one’s decision? Is it right that the only thing that matters is the law of the market, and, moreover, the law of the market worldwide? If so, it is tough, but it should just be a question whether our steel plant can make steel cheaper than anyone else. That wouldn’t give much hope to the people in Port Talbot.

But what if the market is modified, by tariffs, for example? Should we protect our steel producers by erecting a tariff barrier? There are arguments for and against. Does the fact that thousands of people will lose their jobs, does that outweigh in importance all the other considerations? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a gentle feminine voice in one’s ear saying, ‘Choose this; avoid that. This is the way that the problem will be solved.’

But how do you know whether you have got it right? Solomon, of course, demonstrated wisdom right at the beginning, when the two women came, both claiming to be the mother of a particular baby. How to tell which was the right mother? So he proposed to chop the baby in half and give each mother half a baby. It soon became clear which was the real mother. Wouldn’t it be nice if all wisdom calls were so simple? [1 Kings 3:16-28]

I’m sure that the ministers would indeed be really delighted if it was really possible to invoke the assistance of some goddess-like creature who would hold their hands and point them in the right direction.

The Wisdom of Solomon was a book which the early Christians liked, because they thought that it pointed forward to Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The lesson says, ‘Who ever learnt to know thy purposes, unless thou hadst given him wisdom and sent thy holy spirit down from heaven on high?’ (Wisdom 9:17) Wisdom is bound up with the Holy Spirit.

The Book of Wisdom is not a canonical book. Not every Bible has it in. It’s in the Apocrypha. If you look in the Articles of Religion in the back of your prayer book, Article 6, on page 613, you will see the list of canonical books which were the books which were supposed to contain everything necessary for salvation, and the other books which ‘the church doth read for example of life and instruction in manners’, include the Book of Wisdom. St Paul considered Christ to be the wisdom of God. There is something very closely connected, between the idea of Wisdom and the idea of the Holy Spirit, the essence of God at work.

Just before Christmas in the early Roman church at Vespers (which became part of our Evensong), before the Magnificat they sang an Antiphon, an ‘O’ Antiphon: O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David: and the first Antiphon was ‘O Sapientia’, ‘O Wisdom’, in Latin.

‘O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things;
come and teach us the way of prudence.’

That is ‘O Sapientia.’

We can get something out of the idea of wisdom personified, of O Sapientia, even today. Wisdom, for a government minister, ought not to be just a question of making sure they take all the right theories, the right political dogmas, into consideration. True wisdom means they should consider in the round, from all angles, whether that dogma is right, whether it is kind enough to the people whose lives it affects.

The spirit of wisdom is surely the Holy Spirit. So to consider Wisdom, we must consider the Spirit as well. What would Jesus do? What is the will of God? Where is the Holy Spirit leading? In the chapels in the Welsh valleys tonight, their prayers will be rising. Let us pray with them, and let us pray in particular that the true spirit of Wisdom will come among those who have the power, either to save those communities or to turn their backs on them. They do it in our name. Let us hope that they, in their power and good fortune, will appreciate how those strong men in their Welsh valleys really do need them to have, not just clever theories, but true wisdom.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 20th December 2015

Luke 1:39-55

Not long ago there was a feature running in our parish magazine ‘Together’ about favourite hymns. Today I want to talk about another hymn, which wasn’t mentioned: perhaps the favourite hymn in all of Christianity. This is far bigger than ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ or ‘Love Divine’.

In the Gospel, that I have just read, we heard it. It’s the Song of Mary, which is often referred to by its old Latin name, Magnificat. ‘Magnificat’ means ‘magnifies’, ‘makes bigger’.

Every evening, about 6 o’clock, in every cathedral in this country, a really good choir (because all our cathedrals have super choirs) will sing this beautiful song, using the words from the Book of Common Prayer – words which were written half-way through the sixteenth century, as a translation from the Latin of St Jerome, which was itself a translation from the Greek that St Luke the doctor actually wrote his Gospel in.

And every Sunday at Evensong, at six o’clock at our sister church, St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon, there too, we sing the Magnificat. It could be the number one hymn in the Church of England – and versions of it are sung by churches all over the world. Magnificat might even be the most-loved hymn in Christianity.

Evensong in cathedrals – which is broadcast as Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons – it’s on this afternoon at 3, if you want to listen, this time from Chester Cathedral [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06rwy7p%5D – is reported to be the service where the congregations have grown most in the Church of England in recent years: not, actually, a modern service, but a service which can trace its origins back to the fourth century, and which was first set out, in the form we use today, in 1549.

The music which they sing is really beautiful. Choral Evensong, in every cathedral, every night, with a wonderful choir in every one, is a secret gem. More and more people are discovering it.

These are the words of the Magnificat that they sing:

My soul doth magnify the Lord :
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded :
the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth :
all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me :
and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him :
throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

OK, some words we ought to explain a bit. ‘He … hath holpen his servant Israel’. ‘Holpen’ means helped.

He has ‘regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’: he has looked favourably on her, he has held her in high regard, we might say.

And presumably you all know what a handmaiden is. Mary was a ‘lowly handmaiden’. She wasn’t one of the great and good.

‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’. There’s that ‘magnifies’ word again. This time it’s not Mary ‘magnifying’ God, but her saying how God has magnified her.

And then the ‘purple passage’.
‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

Can you, really, see Mary, a teenager, a simple country girl, singing this song? Are they the sort of words which would just come tripping off the tongue of a teenager?

Not for the first time our Bible doesn’t really put this – even in a modern translation, like we used for the lessons – in the sort of language we would use today. ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’, in Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn which we’ve just sung, isn’t actually a very good translation either – although Bishop Timothy got it from my favourite modern Bible, the New English Bible.

The meaning is really better expressed by what a teenager today might say: ‘Deep in my heart, I big up the Lord’. I big Him up: that’s exactly right. Mary isn’t saying that she is somehow making God bigger – because God is bigger than anything – but she is bigging Him up, she is telling out His greatness.

Giles Fraser, who often does Thought for the Day on the Today programme, who was at one time philosophy tutor at Wadham College, Oxford and Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, who got fired for trying to make friends with the Occupy protesters camped out on the Cathedral doorstep, he, Giles Fraser, reckons that the Magnificat is one of the most powerful revolutionary texts. In September, he Tweeted, ‘BTW I don’t think [that] the Red Flag [is] anywhere near as revolutionary as the Magnificat’. [https://twitter.com/giles_fraser/status/643049147919110144]

Remember what Mary said. It could indeed be rather revolutionary.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

In these short lines, Giles Fraser thinks there is a revolutionary blueprint. There are some shades of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man. Jesus turns everything on its head. The last shall be first and the first shall be last [Matt. 20:16].

I said earlier that perhaps Mary didn’t think up her famous song all by herself. As a regular worshipper in the synagogue, she would have remembered the song that Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, sang, thanking God for his birth. You can read it in the first Book of Samuel, chapter 2. ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord,’ she sings. ‘The Lord makes a man poor, he makes him rich, he brings down and he raises up. He lifts the weak out of the dust, and raises the poor … to give them a place among the great, …’

It’s very like the Magnificat. There is the difference that Mary uses a past tense: God did these things, he put down the mighty from their seat, and so on, whereas Hannah uses the present tense, he does these things. God is capable of bringing the rich and powerful down, and he is capable of building up the poor and meek. Hannah’s emphasis is more on what God can do, rather than on what he has done. Mary on the other hand says what He has done.

Both songs are songs, hymns, of praise for God. They are hymns of gratitude: ‘Now thank we all our God.’ And given that Mary undoubtedly started on one of the bottom rungs of society, it’s not surprising that from her point of view, she emphasised how God has humbled the rich and powerful from time to time.

So – do sample Choral Evensong, either on the wireless or – better – by going along in person, on Sunday evening to St Mary’s, or indeed on any weeknight to Guildford Cathedral. And when you hear, indeed when you sing, the Magnificat, do spare a thought for the handmaidens, spare a thought for the people who have to come to the Foodbank. You could be surprised at what might happen.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 12th July 2015
Job 4:1; 5:6-27

Why do bad things happen? Has it got anything to do with God? Sadly, we’ve had several cases in point in the last couple of weeks. This week we remembered the ‘7/7’ bombings. Last week there was the dreadful shooting of tourists in Tunisia. Before then, more shootings of innocent people, in a church in the United States.

Poor old Job had a similar experience. He was a rich and successful livestock farmer. He had a large and happy family.

‘There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.
And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters.
His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of the east.’

Then various disasters struck, and he lost everything; even his family were killed in a hurricane which destroyed the house they were staying in. The story in the first chapter of the Book of Job puts it all down to Satan, who had challenged the Lord God: strike down Job, he tempted, and he will curse you. The Lord didn’t exactly fall for the temptation, but

‘… the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.’

So according to the story, Job came to grief not at the hand of God, but of Satan – or perhaps more relevantly, he came to grief not as a result of anything he himself had done. Job is portrayed as a wholly good man. But nevertheless something, some external force, has brought disaster on him.

That’s quite an important step. There is an idea in parts of the Bible called technically ‘eudaimonism’, according to which, if you become ill or suffer misfortune, it is because you have done something wrong, you have sinned against God: and God has punished you. For example in St Matthew chapter 9:

And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’, not, ‘Here’s some medicine for your palsy.’ In this theory, illness is caused by, is a punishment for, sin.

Here, in Job’s case, it’s made quite clear that Job isn’t the author of his own misfortune. But I would just pause there, and say that eudaimonism isn’t an attractive idea anyway. Would a God of love make people ill? How would it be if, when you met someone who was poorly, your first thought was not, ‘I hope you get better soon’, but, ‘What did you do wrong, in order to bring your suffering upon yourself?’

And at first Job doesn’t blame anyone. He worships God and accepts his terrible lot. Then along come his three friends, the original Job’s Comforters.

In tonight’s lesson we hear from the first one, Eliphaz. His explanation for Job’s trouble is that troubles are just part of being human. There’s no-one specific to blame. Just put your trust in God, God

‘Which doeth great things and unsearchable; marvellous things without number:
Who giveth rain upon the earth, and sendeth waters upon the fields:
To set up on high those that be low; that those which mourn may be exalted to safety.’

It reminds me of the Magnificat: ‘Who hath exalted the humble and meek, but the rich he hath sent empty away.’

That doesn’t seem to me to offer Job much real comfort. If God has the power to right wrongs, to impose justice – then why has He allowed suffering to take place at all? If God is so capable, why has He allowed Job to get into trouble? This is something which still troubles us today. Even people with the strongest faith can find that it is tested to destruction. There was a moving dramatic recreation, on the TV this week, of the story of Rev. Julie Nicholson, whose daughter was caught up in one of the bombings on 7/7, and was killed. This terrible loss effectively destroyed the mother’s faith, and her ministry in the church. She just couldn’t square the idea of a loving God with what had happened.

Eliphaz goes on with a fine piece of Job’s Comfort:

‘Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty:’

I have never understood why people receiving punishment are supposed to be grateful for it. There are all those school stories involving corporal punishment, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays onwards. It is nonsense – and in a rather sinister way, getting the victim of brutality to thank the perpetrator, must be intended somehow to amount to consent – so that ‘volenti non fit injuria’.

This is the legal principle that ‘to a willing man, it does not turn into a hurt’, it does not become the cause of legal action. This is why rugby matches do not usually end up in the High Court, even when people are seriously injured. It is surely nonsense in this context. Hurting someone by way of punishment is not something which can or should be consented to by the person being punished.

But to go back to Eliphaz. He has introduced the idea that God may punish. He may punish, may do harm – but it’s all right, because He will heal the wounds afterwards.

‘For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole.’

I suppose this is a refinement of the earlier idea that God is good, God only does good things – which clearly seems not to be true.

But God does everything. God is the creator and sustainer of all – so He must make or do bad things as well as good. The created world needs light and shade, black and white, good and bad.

But if in a given instance, in your bit of creation, you encounter the bad side, you may still, quite naturally, want to protest, to cry out against God in pain. ‘Why me?’ you will ask.

Eliphaz accepts this, and says that although there may be pain and suffering, God will heal and comfort. That’s the first part of what he says. But then he says that God ‘reproves’, ‘correcteth’. Although Job may think himself to be blameless, perhaps he isn’t.

Eliphaz’ first scenario is where the person who suffers is innocent: the second is where they are somehow at fault. But God still puts things right –

‘He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee.’

There is an echo here of the Jewish idea of the Sabbath, the seventh day, the seventh year, the jubilee, the day of the Lord’s favour. It is described in Isaiah 61, which Jesus quoted in Luke 4:18-19 –

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Just in passing, I’m uneasy about the way that the restrictions on Sunday trading have been relaxed in this week’s Budget. Of course, we Christians have changed the original sabbath from Saturday to Sunday – it happened when the Romans adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, in the fourth century. Some people have said that one reason for changing from Saturday to Sunday was to get away from the Jewish idea of jubilee, of relief from debt and time off for recreation.

Canon Giles Fraser indeed commented this week that Sunday has become a day of worship – of shopping, not of God.[http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2015/jul/10/money-is-the-only-god-the-tories-want-us-to-worship-on-a-sunday] The thing which worries me is that for many people, Sunday will become just another working day.

The Jewish idea of the Sabbath, when, on the seventh day, the Lord of creation rested from his labours, is still vitally important today. Perhaps it is right that the weekly day of rest should not automatically be Sunday: perhaps it is better that the business of life (or the life of business) should not stop only on Sundays. But I do hope that the government realises that there must be a right for people to have a day off each week. I hope they – and the other European governments – remember about debt relief in the Greek context too.

Things do come right for Job. He gets his family back, and his sheep, and oxen, and camels, even more than he lost before. At the end, the Lord acknowledges that, unlike his friends, Job hasn’t tried to explain away how God works, and somehow thereby put himself above God. He hasn’t tried to be clever. He has just accepted that God is more than he can see or understand, and that God has infinite power.

There are things which we can’t understand. Awful things. But God has assured us, revealed Himself to us. In the Old Testament, He appeared through the prophets: for us, He has appeared in Jesus Christ. We have to acknowledge that this will not of itself take away our pain. But we can believe that God is there, God cares for us. He has told us what to do with pain and suffering. The answer is in Matt.25:35-40.

‘For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’

We have the power to feed the hungry: we have the power to heal the sick: we have the power to house the homeless: we can accept the refugees. We ought to do something about it. And then, just as Job found out, the Kingdom of heaven will be ours.

‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.’ [Rev. 21:4-5]

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday of Easter, 19th April 2015
Isaiah 63:7-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

This week I was influenced by two stage plays. On Thursday I went to see Tom Stoppard’s latest play, ‘The Hard Problem’, as a live relay from the National Theatre to the Everyman cinema in Walton-on-Thames. I won’t spoil the play for you, if you haven’t seen it yet: but you won’t be cheated if I tell you that the ‘hard problem’ is the question, if we know how the brain works, as a kind of super-computer, so we know which bits of the brain control different functions, and we know that they do it by switching little electrical currents, the question, what is it to be conscious of something?

Another philosophical problem touched on in the play is the so-called ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. Why do we often do things which aren’t necessarily in our own interests? If Ned Kelly and I rob a bank, and we are arrested, do I give evidence against Ned? If I do, it may go easier for me. But I probably won’t, out of loyalty to Ned. ‘Honour among thieves,’ even.

In pure evolutionary terms – survival of the fittest – there is no reason for altruism. It would serve my interest best to look after myself. But I may well not do. Why are we often altruistic? This is something that Tom Stoppard looks at in his play. But because it’s a play, and not a philosophy lecture, in the ‘Hard Problem’ the altruistic part is played by a pretty girl, who believes in God and says her prayers every night. The Richard Dawkins part is played by a rather suave Irishman, her tutor, who likes to exercise a kind of droit de seigneur with his female students, and who is an atheist, a materialist.

Imagine these actors transposed into the world immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead of a rather dry set of arguments about the way that computers, the way that the most able computer, the human brain, works, and Wittgenstein’s conclusion that ‘of which [we] may not speak, [we] must be silent’ [L.Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1.21], groping towards an understanding of God by reasoning and inference – which must feel like really inadequate tools – instead of that, they would bump into people who claim to have seen a man who has risen from the dead, who is divine, God on earth.

What a contrast! In the Hard Problem, the actors are tied up with questions about how life – and its creator – works, and whether one can infer from that any information about said creator. Is it an algorithm, or God? The early Christians, by contrast, had accepted the momentous news about the presence of God in their lives, as a fact. They were concerned much more with how they should react to that fact, than whether it was a fact. Doubting Thomas had settled that.

Today our Bible themes, in our lessons, deal with the after-effects of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection. How did it affect Jesus’ followers – and how should it affect us, even though we are so long after it happened? You might be surprised that there is such an Old Testament emphasis, but this is the train of thought used by St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

St Paul, as a leader of the early church, sought to link the new life, which he called ‘being in Christ’, with the Jewish Law, the tradition of the Jews as spiritual ancestors of the Christians. He was ticking off the people in the new young church at Corinth for forgetting the story of the Israelites, and how by obeying and worshipping the one true God the Israelites of the Old Testament had been saved, led out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.

He goes through the history of the Israelites, how they ‘ate the same spiritual meat’, manna from heaven, but ‘with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness’. Then comes a moral lesson. ‘Now these things were our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things’. In St Paul’s letter, if you do the wrong thing, if you break the Commandments, you will come to a sticky end.

Looking at things 2,000 years on, it is perhaps a little bit difficult to bring alive in our minds the excitement of the period after Jesus first appeared to the disciples risen from the dead. Even if their lives hadn’t already been changed by being with Jesus, they certainly were when they became aware of His resurrection.

In the light of that cataclysmic fact, some early Christians thought that, as they were God’s elect, saved, they need not worry about how they behaved. There was no need for them to keep the Jewish Law, to abide by the Ten Commandments, any more. They could do what they liked: they could eat, drink and be merry – because tomorrow they would not die, but have eternal life.

In the Old Testament, Moses was receiving from God His Commandments, rules for a good life in the Promised Land. 700 years later, Jesus came, the Messiah. Surely the old Law had had its day. Jesus had given a new commandment, a commandment simply ‘that ye love one another’. But Jesus said He had not come to abolish the Law and the prophets. Instead, His coming was fulfilment of those prophecies, and the Ten Commandments were still valid.

But there is a thread running through Jesus’ teaching, most evident in the Sermon on the Mount, that simply following the letter of the law is not enough: Jesus’ commandment of love involves going the extra mile, doing something extra.

Which brings me round to my second theatrical encounter this week. This one was even more of a ‘virtual’ experience than seeing the Tom Stoppard play by live relay in the local cinema. The second play was one that I read about, in the editorial of a newspaper this Thursday. This is what it said.

‘”The bodies of the drowned are more varied than you’d think,” says the character Stefano in the opening scene of a new play, Lampedusa (in London now …) The work of the young playwright Anders Lustgarten, the title refers to the island where Stefano works rescuing the bodies of those who’d fled from war and disaster in Africa and the Middle East, and found death at sea instead. “They’re overwhelmingly young, the dead,” he observes. “Twenties. Thirty at most. Kids, a lot of them. You have to be to make the journey, I suppose.” The play wants to make its audience ask what kind of society it wants. Within days of its opening last week, 400 people were missing presumed drowned after a wooden fishing boat capsized off the Libyan coast. Its human cargo had all rushed to one side in the hope of rescue. At the start of what is becoming the Mediterranean’s annual drowning season, the question of what sort of society we want to be is a challenge for all Europeans.’ [The Guardian, 16th April 2015 http://gu.com/p/47hb2%5D.

All the commentary on this topic which I’ve read so far concerns itself with how to stop the migrants coming into Europe. Do we set up systems to head them off at the point of original departure, or put up even fiercer barriers at the points of entry?

What would Jesus say? I wonder whether He might point out that it is a matter of luck where we are born. Some are fortunate, and are born in Northern Europe. The majority are born in greater or lesser poverty somewhere else. Is it wrong to try to go where there is a better life? After all, that’s what is celebrated in the Old Testament: the wanderings of the Jewish people, their search for the Promised Land. Just imagine what might be said today if 144,000 people all decided to migrate from a big country into a smaller, more fruitful one. All the talk would be of how to prevent them. Think about it. The population was much smaller then. Think of the effect on their schools and their local services. Much more of an impact than Poles or Romanians might have today.

I think that Jesus might also point out that we are all children of God, wherever we have been born. Rich people are no more deserving than poor. Indeed, ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek’. (Luke 1:51) or, ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ (Matt. 16:26). It follows that we should not be concerned about nationality in future – we are all, in a real sense, citizens of the same world. There would be no more immigrants, no more strangers. Our sole concern should be to see that no-one should be hungry and in need.

Remember what the early disciples did – no doubt because they believed that this is what Jesus would have prescribed. ‘..all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.’

It’s a challenge. What do we believe Jesus would say? Tom Stoppard’s play made room for God, even in the rational worlds of a business school and a hedge fund: in his play Lampedusa, Anders Lustgarten has posed ‘the question of what sort of society we want to be’, ‘at the start of … the Mediterranean’s annual drowning season’.

What sort of society do we want to be? Will Easter make any difference to us? I pray that it will.

Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 1st June 2014
2 Sam 23:1-5, Eph.1:15-23

First we heard the last words of King David, and then St Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Ephesus. The context is the Ascension, which the church celebrated on Thursday. Leave-taking. The end of the party. I wonder who did the washing-up. When the disciples – and certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus as well as his brothers, when they were all together after Jesus had left them and a cloud had taken Him out of their sight, when it was over, when the ‘farewell tour’, Jesus Christ Superstar, had come to the end of its run: what do you think they all did?

They went back to the upstairs room and said prayers. And maybe they got busy doing the washing up. Because they must have been feeling very flat. We know that when Jesus had been crucified, if we think of the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, they were very sad then, when they thought that Jesus had been taken away from them.

So I think we can reasonably expect that they were also feeling very flat and very sad when Jesus had been taken away from them the second time, when He had ascended into heaven. Whitsuntide, Pentecost, had not yet come, although Jesus had assured them, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). But that hadn’t happened yet.

It must have been very difficult, after all the momentous things that had happened. After the roller-coaster ride of following Jesus, suddenly He wasn’t there any more. In the church, we have commemorated that roller-coaster ride, through the Easter season, though the time of Jesus’ passion, and suffering, Good Friday; and then the glorious Resurrection on Easter Sunday; and then His risen appearances, the road to Emmaus, doubting Thomas: all the wonderful stories of the risen Christ.

It is a revelation to us, a sure and certain hope that we have, because of God’s presence with us, His gift of His only Son and His Resurrection from the dead. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that God will give them ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they come to know Him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance among the saints.'(Eph.1:17)

If you are a Christian, if you go to church, this is a wonderful time of year: the Easter season. It is a time of hope and joy. But in the world outside, there is a sense of challenge. Not everyone is a Christian. Not everyone is aware of, let alone believes in, the wonderful story of Jesus. The Boko Haram people who have kidnapped 200 children, 200 girls, in Nigeria, are actively opposed to the Christian message. They want forcibly to convert people to Islam – forgetting perhaps that the god of Islam is very like the God of Israel and the God of the Christians – and certainly forgetting that God is a god of love.

Also in the world outside, we had an election. Some of you may have heard of my huge success in the Cobham Fairmile Ward election. It was a massive success, honestly: despite representing the Labour Party, I managed to poll in double figures! St Mary’s has much more successful politicians – congratulations to James Vickers!

After the elections, the press and the BBC are talking about the phenomenon of UKIP and what they stand for. It seems that a major part of UKIP’s message is that they are opposed to large-scale immigration and they are opposed to our membership of the EU, perhaps because they see the EU as being a major cause of the immigration which they don’t like.

And then there’s the controversy which has grown up concerning the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, called ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, which is all about the widening gap between the rich and the poor worldwide. Prof Piketty offers, at the end of his 573-page tome, some suggested alternatives to the economic policies which are being pursued in all the leading economies. But a Financial Times journalist, Chris Giles, has argued that Prof Piketty’s figures are wrong. If you put more than one economist in a room, they will inevitably disagree! I see that Ed Miliband confessed that he’d only just started reading Thomas Piketty. I have got to page 51.

It does all seem quite a long way away from the world of Easter, from the Resurrection and the Ascension: from the hopeful question from the disciples to Jesus just before He was taken from them, ‘Lord, is this the time when you are to establish again the sovereignty of Israel?’ (Acts 1:6 – NEB), a long way from all that, to the rather gloomy fact that only a minority of people cared enough about the way they are governed, even to cast a vote.

There does seem to be a big gap at the moment, between our church lives and the world outside. It’s all very well St Paul saying in his Letter to the Galatians that ‘the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control’. (Gal. 5:22f), but how is that relevant to UKIP and to the world of macroeconomic theory?

What we are not hearing, in all this ferment of debate, is a Christian voice. What about immigrants? A politician says he couldn’t hear any English spoken in his carriage on the Tube. An election flyer says that there is some impossible number of East Europeans just waiting to come to the UK, take our jobs and claim all our benefits. Someone else points out, against this, that the NHS would collapse without doctors and nurses from abroad. Another expert points out that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and that fees from foreign students are vital to the survival of our universities.

But – and perhaps I haven’t been reading the right paper or listening to the right station on the wireless – I don’t recall anyone bringing the Bible into it, which they could have done. In the Old Testament, it’s a fundamental point of the Jewish Law that you must look after strangers, aliens, foreigners – in Deut. 10:19, Moses says that God ‘loves the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt.’ In Jesus’ staggering picture of the Last Judgment in Matt. 25, He says that the righteous shall ‘enter and possess the kingdom’ because ‘… when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home …’ When the righteous didn’t get it, and queried when they had done this, Jesus said, ‘I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.’

Jesus didn’t blame people for being poor. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a refugee. His ancestors, the Jewish people, had all been refugees. He didn’t talk about benefit cheats and scroungers. He didn’t talk about corporate tax avoidance – although he did say, ‘Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’. Maybe that is a good message for Starbucks, Vodafone and Google.

What about the widening gap between rich and poor, which Thomas Piketty has written about? Are the only things, which can be said, ‘It’s the market’, and ‘There is no alternative?’ If the government gives a tax cut to the highest earners, (which one commentator said was enough for them to go out and buy a Porsche with), at the same time as over 1 million people have had to go to a food bank to avoid starvation – and by the way, that includes 307 people in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon who have used the Foodbank since we opened five months ago – if there is that seeming bias towards the rich, what is the Christian way to look at it?

Perhaps the answer is in the Magnificat, the song of Mary, the mother of God:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
And hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
And the rich he hath sent empty away. [Luke 1:46-55]

You might also remember what Jesus said about camels and the eye of a needle. [Matt.19:24]

But Jesus has been taken away from us. He has disappeared behind a cloud. Disappeared behind a cloud, a cloud of modern stuff. But, you might say, things were much more simple in Jesus’ day. There weren’t any benefit cheats. There weren’t any Romanians using the EU as a way to come and steal our jobs. You just can’t compare how it was then with the situation these days.

I think we should think carefully about it. I know that, in this week in the church’s year, you might argue that Jesus has ascended, and the Holy Spirit is coming – Jesus told his disciples to expect it, in Acts chapter 1 – but it doesn’t arrive till next Sunday. If it looks as though our world is rather godless, that fits with Jesus having left us, with the Ascension time.

But in this world, in our day to day lives, of course the Holy Spirit is here. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. So why does it look as though we are we ignoring Him? Is it OK not to want strangers? Is it OK that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?

As Christians, what do we think? Have I chosen my Bible references too selectively? Or is it more a question that the world today is more complicated than it was in Jesus’ time, and that some of Jesus’ sayings are out of date these days?

Or have we Christians really got something very distinctive to say, which doesn’t necessarily fit in with conventional wisdom? I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday of Epiphany, 5th January 2014
John 2:1-11 The Wedding at Cana in Galilee – Christ Reveals his Glory

You might wonder why our lesson just now was about the wedding at Cana in Galilee rather than Jesus’ visit from the Wise Men, given that this Sunday is our celebration of Epiphany; Epiphany, which means showing off, revealing.

This morning indeed the Gospel was the story of the Wise Men: the last of the traditional Christmas stories. It’s the lesson for the twelfth day of Christmas. Our decorations are supposed to be taken down tonight, Twelfth Night. Christmas is over. The season of Epiphany begins.

In the Epiphany season, next week we mark the baptism of Christ, and three weeks after that, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Candlemas – when we are going to have a special Evensong here at St Mary’s. In between, in a fortnight, on 19th January, there will be our Christingle service in the morning before Mattins, and – as this is another traditional Epiphany theme – there will be the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service in the evening, at the Methodist chapel, instead of Evensong here.

The candles, the Christingles and at Candlemas, are symbolic of the Epiphany light, the enlightenment, that the coming of God’s kingdom brings. ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come,’ says Isaiah in our first lesson. It is all about showing, showing to the world that Jesus is here.

The wedding at Cana fits in with this. The evangelist says that Jesus turning the water into wine was his first miracle, ‘and he revealed his glory.’ Revealed, manifested. Epiphany.

That’s all very familiar. Emmanuel, God with us. ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. But what does it really mean, mean to us today?

Time was, when the idea of light, the idea of enlightening people, was seen differently. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the time of the Enlightenment with a capital E, it was the time of Erasmus and the Humanists. They believed that the world could be completely understood through the use of reason, reasoning and logic. That went for knowledge of God as well: whatever we could know about God, we could know only by the use of our intellect – the same way in which we learned about animals and geology and so on.

It led some theologians and philosophers to look at the findings of scientific enquiry, like Darwin’s work on evolution, and to reach the conclusion that life on earth may have been started by God, but that we could not know much more about this God than that He is an ultimate first cause, a creator from nothing, an unmoved mover.

Reason could take you to a belief in that rather limited god, the divine creator – but not much further. You could not know much about what such a god was like. Most importantly, there seemed to be no evidence that God had done anything more than just starting the process off. No evidence that God had any interest in human life, or in particular, that He cares for us.

That’s quite a contradiction with the things that we say we believe in our worship. Look at the Magnificat:

‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

That’s not a description of a laissez-faire god, of an unmoved mover who has, frankly, just moved on: it’s a description of an interventionist God, a God who cares for social justice. God with us. God with us, who does not stand idly by in the face of injustice, in the face of poverty and exploitation.

Somebody like Richard Dawkins might say, the Magnificat is just pretty words. It doesn’t really mean anything. Science can’t lead you to believe in a God, or at least in a God who has any personal interest in us.

At the time of the Enlightenment, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the answer to the deists, as they were called – to the people who said that God was just the creator, a blind watchmaker, and nothing more – the answer was that our religion is revealed religion. There are things beyond what reason can tell us, things nevertheless revealed to us, revealed to us by God.

One sort of revelation is the sort of thing which we are celebrating today. Turning the water into wine was a demonstration, an epiphany. Did it really happen? It can’t be proved. But one thing you can say is that if it did happen, then it was a complete contradiction of the idea that God has moved on, that He doesn’t care.

If God has manifested Himself, has showed Himself to us, in the person of Jesus, then it can’t be true that He doesn’t care for us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He in turn calls on his flock to be good sheep. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, in Jesus’ new commandment, that we love one another, He calls on us to live like people who recognise that they have God in their midst, God with us, Emmanuel.

‘Whoso have this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ (1 John 3:17). You’ll remember that from the Communion service. It goes on, ‘My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.’

It was, and still is, a revolutionary message. By turning the water into wine, by manifesting himself in his divine nature, Jesus was challenging the powers that be, both spiritual – the Pharisees and the scribes – and temporal, the Romans. They both had a vested interest in the established order – ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’. To upset it was dangerous. In the story of the Wise Men, Herod ‘was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him,’ when the Wise Men told him of the new king’s birth.

Similarly today. Let’s not be too ‘political’, or upset the status quo, people say. Look at all those respectable people who say they are all right, they have no need to believe: there is nothing missing in their lives. They never say, like the bod in the Alpha Course poster, ‘Is that all there is?’ But they have no proper roots, no real understanding of what is good. Instead, they tend to cling to status and possessions. There is nothing else, for them, nothing else to cling on to.

But a Christian has faith, a Christian has faith that there is more, there is a reality beyond what we can reach simply by the exercise of reason, excellent though that is. Our prayers are answered; we know we are not alone. It is reasonable, it makes sense, after all, for us to read the miracle stories, to open our minds to analogy, to metaphor, and to see God, revealed.

‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.’

The Lord is here: His Spirit is with us – but we mustn’t ignore Him. It must make a difference – we must change. That’s what Epiphany calls us to do.

‘He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ Now what are we going to do?