Archives for posts with tag: Matthew 25

Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 3rd May 2015
Isaiah 60:1-14

‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. … The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.’ [Isa. 60:1 and 6]

This is a vision of the City of God, the new Jerusalem, ‘Jerusalem the golden’, that we just sang about in our second hymn. What is the City of God? Is it stretching things to think of Jerusalem, City of God, as being in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’? Is it even more risky to have that kind of vision four days before a General Election? Let’s consider it.

I’m not sure what the ‘multitude of camels’ would be, in today’s ‘new Jerusalem’ – let alone the ‘dromedaries of Midian and Ephah’. Perhaps in today’s world the camels, the ships of the desert, would be super-yachts, and the dromedaries, the ‘road-runners’, Ferraris and Porsches. But they are all signs of riches, surely. We have an echo of the entry of the Queen of Sheba in the back of our heads, of course, as soon as we hear it – perhaps accompanied in our mind’s eye by a picture of a beautiful diva, say Danielle De Niese or Joyce Di Donato, singing Handel’s oratorio Solomon, where that lovely music comes from.

What splendour could rival the entry of the Queen of Sheba today? Do you think that the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is the sort of thing that we would put up against it? Or, now we have a royal baby, a royal christening? Maybe so. We certainly can do grand spectacles and grand ceremony here in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’.

But, you might say, surely this is the time of austerity. There’s no money, no money for showy ceremonies! I don’t suppose that you have room in your minds for any more politicians, each one claiming to be leaner and more fiscally correct than the next: everything is costed; nobody will have to pay any more tax; miraculously, important services will be preserved, even though we will spend less money on them. Our arts, our great opera houses, our concert halls, will continue to lead the world – running on air. Our National Health Service has been promised £8bn by one party – but only after £20bn of ‘efficiency savings’. That’s really £12bn of cuts.

Both the leading parties want to ‘cut the deficit’, and offer to do it at different speeds, but both do promise to make cuts in public expenditure. It’s interesting that at least one Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, has written recently under the title ‘The Austerity Delusion: the case for cuts was a lie. Why does Britain still believe it?’ We are, after all, the sixth-richest nation on earth. [http://www.theguardian.com/business/ng-interactive/2015/apr/29/the-austerity-delusion]

I’m sure it would be quite wrong for me to say anything political from the pulpit. But our bishops have written a pastoral letter – which is still well worth reading: you’ll find a hard copy at the back on your way out, if you want to pinch one – it’s called ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ Archbishop John Sentamu has also assembled a very interesting collection of essays, designed to inform Christian voters, called ‘On Rock or Sand?’ and every newspaper has contributed its six-penn’orth of economic and political analysis. You don’t really need me to add to the Babel chorus.

I think also that one has to be realistic in our own local context. We inhabit a ‘safe seat’; so safe that the retiring MP didn’t feel it was necessary actually to turn up at the hustings which Churches Together arranged up at St Andrew’s in Oxshott on Thursday. Which was a pity, because all the other candidates made a very good effort to explain their positions and to answer questions.

I’m going to assume that St Mary’s will follow the national statistic, as I understand it, which is that 55% of the faithful in the Church of England vote Conservative – and I might risk a guess that here, the percentage might be even higher! So I wouldn’t dare try to persuade you out of your ancient loyalties; but I do hope that all the excitement and debate which the election has caused in the last few weeks will at least have stirred up in you renewed interest in what it is to be the City of God, what the good society, the Common Good, as the Archbishops call it, should be.

St Augustine’s great work was called that, City of God, De Civitate Dei. Anyone who thinks that the church shouldn’t become involved in politics should remember that they have to contend with Archbishops John and Justin, both of whom passionately disagree with that proposition. The Archbishops passionately believe that the church should be engaged in modern society, and that that engagement necessarily involves contributing to the political debate.

That tradition goes right back to St Augustine, if not earlier. The City of God was written in the fifth century AD, right at the end of the Roman Empire, after the Goths had sacked Rome. There is of course also a lot of Biblical authority for the idea of the city of God: the hymn, Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion City of our God, is based on Psalm 87. Citizenship was pretty important to St Paul. In Acts 22:25 he raised the matter of his being a Roman citizen – perhaps he quoted Cicero, ‘Civis Romanus sum’ – ‘I am a Roman citizen’ (Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.162), in order to stop the authorities imprisoning him without charge. ‘Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman and uncondemned?’ he said to the centurion.

And of course, Jesus himself said, ‘Render unto Caesar’. [Mark 12:17, or Luke 20:25] That wasn’t a command not to engage in human society, but rather positively to do one’s duty both to God and to mankind.

So whichever way you vote on Thursday – and of course I do think that you should vote rather than not vote – even if the result in Esher and Walton, our constituency, is rather a foregone conclusion, I do think that we all ought to keep alive in our minds the vision of the City of God. In our new Jerusalem, will we be covered by camels, will God smile on us in our abundance – or will we forget who our neighbours are? Let us pray that even those MPs who don’t have to make much of an effort to be elected, will still bear in mind what Jesus said about neighbours.

Think about what Jesus said about the last judgment in Matthew 25: ‘I was hungry, and you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home, when naked, you clothed me; when I was ill you came to my help, when in prison you visited me.’ You remember the story. The righteous people asked when they had done these good deeds, and Jesus replied, ‘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.’ (Matt. 25:40)

So following this, Jesus’ explanation of who was his neighbour, and following the bishops’ letter, does our government policy on refugees, especially those risking their lives in the Mediterranean, square up? Our MP wrote to me recently that the Mediterranean refugees should be the concern just of the states with Mediterranean coastlines, like Italy, France, Greece or Spain. I wonder whether his parents, who were Czech refugees from Nazism in 1938, would have made it to safety here if we had had such a narrow policy then.

‘I was hungry,’ said Jesus. Would He have thought that it was acceptable that over a million people turned to food banks last year? 1,300 food parcels were given out in Cobham alone between April 2014 and March 2015.

‘When I was ill,’ He said. I think that the answer today is not just to buy private health insurance, and stand idly by while the NHS is steadily and stealthily run down, but to look out for each other: everyone in their hour of need deserves help. That help, in the NHS, depends on proper funding. That massive enterprise, the National Health Service, was founded when the national debt was several times the current size.

As the bishops have said, we should be good neighbours internationally as well. Would our Lord have approved cuts in overseas aid, or threats to withdraw from the EU? He wanted us to care for those poorer than ourselves, and to look out for others who might need our skills. I think He would have praised the EU for giving 70 years of peace in Europe.

I could go on, but you know the areas where the bishops have focussed. Civil rights and freedoms should be balanced by obligations, human rights. British lawyers drafted the European Human Rights Convention on which the Human Rights Act is based. Is it really right to want to get rid of it?

Think of the multitude of camels. Whatever government we end up with, whoever is our MP, after Thursday, we must press them, we must speak up for the City of God. We must try to ensure that our leaders work to create a fairer, more neighbourly society. Or else, as Isaiah said at the end of our first lesson, ‘For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted.’

[The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ is at https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2015/02/house-of-bishops%27-pastoral-letter-on-the-2015-general-election.aspx%5D

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Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, 30th November 2014, at St John’s Episcopal Church, West Hartford, Connecticut

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

Yesterday I asked your Rector and her Assistant, Hope and Bill, ‘Is today still part of the Thanksgiving season? Or is it the beginning of the run-up to Christmas – Advent?’ I needed a bit of technical advice – both on the Thanksgiving part, and of course also on the theological side.

As you will realise, I can claim to be at all qualified only about the theology. As a mere Englishman I don’t know enough about Thanksgiving – although, as this is my third Thanksgiving here in Hartford, I am getting the hang of it. It’s a lovely time. I have to tell you that at home in England, a supermarket chain, Waitrose, in their in-house newspaper, are claiming that 17% of Brits – yes, Brits – are now celebrating Thanksgiving – or at least having turkey dinners on Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps – and I hope this is not too cynical – this is some variation on the idea of turkeys voting for Christmas, but this time promoted by the farmers.

Hope preached a lovely sermon here on Thursday about remembering: looking back at the year and giving thanks for all the blessings we’ve received. At our Thanksgiving dinner, she went round the table and we all had to tell the others about something we wanted to give thanks for. Both the lovely thoughts the sermon brought out, and our stories round the table, were gentle and kind and good. Good memories, good feelings; real thanksgivings.

But now, as members of Christ’s church, we are called to be in a different mood. The secular world and the Christian one have different calendars here. If we’re not churchgoers, Christmas marks the end of the year, and Christmas, not Thanksgiving, leads to the new year.

But as Christians, Episcopalians, Anglicans, we mark the end of the church year and the beginning of the new one now, just after Thanksgiving, at the end of Ordinary Time, as it’s called in the Lectionary, at the beginning of Advent, today. This is the beginning of a new church year.

And Advent is a season not of unmixed jollification, but of penitence. As Isaiah says, we have rather forgotten God. ‘There is no one who calls on your name.’ We are caught up in Black Friday, and in ‘so-and-so many shopping days to Christmas’.

But if we change our point of view, and see things through the prism of our Christian faith, then Advent is the beginning of a new year, the time of anticipation, looking forward to the Christmas story, to the momentous events which show that God is with us. With Isaiah we say, ‘You are our Father, we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand’. But God is not just the divine watchmaker, a creator who has simply wound up the mechanism, put it down and let it run, without any further interference. Instead God has become incarnate, become flesh and blood, become a man like us.

So in Advent we are waiting to celebrate the coming of Jesus, the coming of God as a man, that was His first coming. That is certainly something to look forward to, and surely it’s all right to be quite jolly about it. Of course the children – and maybe some of us grown-ups too – get pleasure out of thinking about the nice things they hope to get as presents. But for us the biggest present, the most generous gift, is the one from God, the gift of Jesus.

That should also make us pause and reflect. In the face of this, in the face of the fact that God didn’t just make the world and then ignore it, didn’t just leave it to get on by itself, we have to reflect on the fact that God knows about us, God cares about us. What do we look like to Him? What sort of shape are we in to meet God? That’s why Advent is a time for reflection, for penitence.

Just after my sermon we will say the Creed together. We will say, ‘He will come again’. Jesus will come again. We will pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come’. In both cases, we will imply that Jesus, and Jesus’ kingdom, haven’t come yet. The coming of the Kingdom, the Second Coming is still ahead.

Jesus talked about these things in his sermon which we heard in our Gospel reading today. ‘Lo! he comes, with clouds descending’ as Charles Wesley’s great hymn, which we just sang, puts it. The last trump, the Day of Judgment, the end of the world.

Now I suspect that for most of us that’s a vivid image, a powerful picture – but nothing really more than that. In any case Jesus must surely have been mistaken when He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’: even if we don’t actually contradict that, or reject it, we are tempted not to try to understand it at all. It’s too far-fetched.

But Jesus clearly did want us to keep it at the front of our minds, not at the back. ‘Wachet auf! (‘Keep awake!’) as the music at the beginning and end of the service says. ‘Keep awake, the voice is calling’. There might even be a contradiction between Jesus’ first statement, that ‘this generation will not pass away’ until the end time has come, and His second statement that ‘about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’

What would you do if you encountered the risen Jesus, now? To put it another way, are we right to keep all this talk of the Kingdom of God conveniently separated from our normal lives? Are we right to think of it as something that might happen in thousands of years, but definitely not something that will happen to us? Can we be absolutely sure about that?

Jesus definitely wanted to make us less certain. I would suggest that He wasn’t necessarily talking about a Second Coming which was all in the future. Remember the wonderful passage in St Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, when Jesus has come in his glory to judge the nations, dividing the sheep from the goats; and He says to the righteous people, the good sheep who are going to heaven, to eternal life, ‘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.’ They didn’t understand. ‘When did we do all this?’ they asked. ‘And the King shall answer and say unto them, “… Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”‘

How really important that is. It means that in one sense, the Second Coming, the Kingdom of God, has actually happened already. Jesus is with us. He is in everyone we meet. If you do it to someone else, you do it to Jesus. You may have difficulty believing in some kind of supernatural Flash Gordon riding on the clouds. But you’d be far less wise to rule out seeing the Holy Spirit in the people you meet.

So do keep awake. Look out for someone who is ‘an hungred’, hungry; someone who has no clothes; who is sick, or in prison. But I would dare to say, don’t worry about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. No-one knows when they will be coming. Have a happy and blessed end to the Thanksgiving holiday, and I pray that this time of Advent will be for you a time of prayerful – and joyful – expectation.