Archives for posts with tag: Matthew

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

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

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

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

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

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

‘Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth

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

‘Let the righteous rather smite me friendly

and reprove me.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works ….

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

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Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 31st August 2014, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon

Acts 18:5 – When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus.

Who was right? Was Jesus the ‘Messiah’, the chosen one of God, the King, enthroned in the kingdom of God, or not? Jews and Moslems both recognise Jesus as a prophet, but neither accepts that Jesus was himself divine. Therefore they have both regarded Christianity as a challenge to the orthodoxy of their true religion. In places, Islam is doing this right now. Before Mohamed came along, the Bible is full of conflicts between the Jews and Jesus, and later between the Jews and the disciples.

On Jesus’ cross, Pilate had a sign fixed up in three languages, ‘This is the king of the Jews’. For the Romans this was ironic. They could not understand why it was so contentious among the Jews for someone like Jesus to be their king. Since it was clear that the Jews did reject Him – demanding His crucifixion and freedom for the acknowledged criminal Barabbas instead – the distinction of kingship was ironic at best.

Jesus himself was clear that He was the Messiah. He did not contradict Peter when Peter worked out for himself that Jesus was the long-awaited King [Matt. 16]. But what was coming was not an insurrection against the Romans, but something much more important.

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:21-28).

The ‘Son of Man’ is Jesus’ way of referring to himself, as Messiah, chosen one of God. Jesus repeated what the prophet Daniel had written in the Old Testament [Daniel 7:13], ‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him.’

Was Jesus saying that the end of the world was just about to happen? Because if so, He seems to have been wrong. After all, 2,000 years later, we still pray,

‘Lord of all life,
help us to work together for that day
when your kingdom comes
and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.’

[Common Worship, Services and Prayers for the Church of England (2000), London, Church House Publishing, p197 – Holy Communion Order One: Eucharistic Prayer E]

I always pray that prayer very fervently. I feel that we need justice and mercy to be seen in all the earth: because, in so many places, there is no justice and mercy.

We have only to think back over the last week’s news. Are Islamic State, ISIS, full of ‘justice and mercy’? Is there justice and mercy for the poor people in Africa with Ebola? Would the children in Rotherham, who suffered abuse for so long and who were not taken seriously by the forces of law and order, did they receive any ‘justice and mercy’?

It doesn’t look as though Jesus got this right, on the face of things. Surely if the Son of Man had come in power with his angels and set up His kingdom, the Kingdom of God, then surely in the words of the Book of Revelation, ‘… there [would] be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither [will] there be any more pain.’ (Rev.21:4)

But, because it was Jesus who said it – and it seems unlikely that he was mistakenly reported, because three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, have Him saying almost identical words – just because Jesus Himself did say this, it must be reasonable to assume that he wasn’t just mistaken, just because the end of the world didn’t in fact happen during the lifetime of any of His disciples – but rather we ought to look at the possibility that it doesn’t mean what it seems to at first sight. It doesn’t literally mean that Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of God was synonymous with the the end of the world, and that that End Time was about to happen, in the early years of the first century AD.

We have to acknowledge that the early church did think that was what Jesus was saying. St Paul’s teaching about marriage, in 1 Corinthians 7, where he seems to suggest that it’s best to remain celibate, although ‘it is better to marry than to burn’, reflects the idea that the earliest Christians had, that the Apocalypse was really imminent: think of Jesus’ teaching about signs of the end of the world in S. Matthew 24, and parables like the Ten Bridesmaids – ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’. Of course as well as the early Christians, other prophets of doom have been forecasting the end of the world ever since – and no-one has got it right so far. It must mean something else. One alternative, of course, is that the Jews and the Moslems are right, and Jesus was just a prophet, nothing more.

Even in today’s world, with all its tragedies and strife, is it still possible that the Kingdom of God is with us? I believe that for us too, even 2,000 years after Jesus, heavenly things do still happen.

In among the unheavenly things which I mentioned from the news this week, in the Middle East, in Africa with Ebola, and nearer to home in Yorkshire, I truly had a heavenly experience – yes, ‘heavenly’ really is the right word – when I went to the Proms on Friday. I heard Mahler’s Symphony, No 2, the ‘Resurrection’ he entitled it. In the 5th movement, the mezzo, the soprano and the great chorus of two choirs, over 200 singers, sing:

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
nothing is lost for thee!

Oh believe, thou wert not born in vain,
neither hast thou vainly lived, nor suffered!

Whatsoever is created must also pass away!
Whatsoever has passed away, must rise again! [Must rise again!]
Cease thy trembling!
Prepare thyself to live!

[From ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’: Friedrich Klopstock (1724-1803) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), translated by Ron Isted]

Imagine what an uplifting, amazing moment it was. Huge forces – the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with 65 string players, 26 brass players, 17 woodwinds, 7 percussionists, the mighty Willis organ of the Royal Albert Hall, and two choirs with over 200 choral singers as well as the two soloists: and in the audience a full house, a complete sell-out, all 6,000 seats and promenade spaces taken.

And they raised the roof. Resurrection. It felt as though it was really happening there. Wonderful. Suddenly it gave me a clue about Jesus’ really being the Messiah, the King.

Resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection, was the coronation, as it were, of Jesus coming into His kingdom. The disciples did live to see it. Indeed they didn’t ‘taste death’ beforehand. In a real sense, the King had arrived. His resurrection was his coronation.

If it had been the end, the end of everything, then there would be nothing more to say. But it wasn’t the end – and clearly Jesus’ coming into His kingdom wasn’t a cataclysmic revolution. The perfect world pictured in the Book of Revelation didn’t miraculously come about.

We must remember what St Paul said, in Romans chapter 7. ‘The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will.’ [Rom 7:18, NEB]. Even that saint, Saint Paul, fell prey to temptation.

That was because God has not abolished good and evil. God’s kingdom on earth is like any kingdom, in that there are crimes as well as good deeds. God is not a sort of puppet-master who controls all the people, stopping them from doing harm. We believe that God is omnipotent, all-powerful, so He could control everyone, could, theoretically, make us into robots. But He plainly hasn’t done.

Instead He has shown us, by giving us His only Son, that He cares for us. His kingdom is real. Even so, even in God’s kingdom, we still have to choose the right and the good over the bad. We still need to pray; and our prayers are answered.

But we do also have a sense, a belief, as Christians, in a Kingdom of God in the other sense, of a life after death, a spiritual realm at the end of time: strictly beyond our powers to imagine or describe it, but maybe along the lines of the vision in Revelation chapter 21. We can’t say what it is precisely, but we may be able to say what it does – that it takes away pain, sorrow, crying, even death.

God’s kingdom involves an End Time, as well as a Kingdom on earth. In one sense the End Time is ours personally, in our death. In another, there will be, Jesus has taught us, a Day of Reckoning, when, in the words of Matt 16, ‘He will give each man the due reward for what he has done’.

Then at that End Time – and at any time, in fact – we will need to be ready, for Jesus may be there, and He may say to us, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ [Matt. 25:35f] We know what we have to do. It is the King who has commanded us.

Sermon for Holy Communion for Thanksgiving at St John’s, West Hartford, 28th November 2013
Deut. 8:1-3, 6-10 (17-20), James 1:17-18, 21-27, Matthew 6:25-33

Carved on the inside of the pulpit at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge – I should say, ‘Cambridge, England’ – carved by the great preacher Charles Simeon, were the words, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ (John 12:21). In other words, the preacher’s job is not to leave you with an impression of the preacher, but to try to leave you with an impression of Jesus.

That having been said, I think I ought to tell you a little about myself, so that you can decide whether indeed I am qualified to be addressing you today. The bad news is, of course, that if you come to an unfavourable conclusion, I am standing here, six feet above contradiction …

In your notices for today, your Rector, Hope, kindly introduces me as a ‘maritime lawyer in England, a lay Reader from St Andrew’s in Cobham, Surrey’, who went to the same college as your Assistant Rector, and ‘who has charge over the chaplains at Guildford Cathedral.’ I have to admit that my legal practice ceased seven years ago now, so I’m a very bad guide to the ins and outs of the DEEPWATER HORIZON oil spill or the COSTA CONCORDIA tragedy; not only that, but it have also recently stopped organising chaplains at the Cathedral.

The reason for that is that I am now heading a team which is setting up, and will on 13th December launch, a food bank in Cobham, Surrey – from where I bring you greetings from the congregations at St Andrew’s in Cobham and St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon, which are the two parishes where I minister as a Reader. I’ll come back to the food bank in a minute.

The elephant in the room is that I am an Englishman, which probably disqualifies me from preaching to you Americans on one of your two greatest holidays, which are quintessentially American. We do eat turkey, but only at Christmas. Self-destructive urges are referred to as ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’. Christmas. Do your turkeys vote for Thanksgiving? Maybe they do. There is a Presidential pardon, I hear, so there must be votes in it somewhere.

So having said all that, which I suppose amounts to a rather laboured disclaimer, let’s turn our minds to the Word of God for today.

We are here to give thanks to God for His bountiful gifts. Although Moses in Deuteronomy speaks to the Israelites looking forward to the Promised Land, we’re already there: we have reached the Promised Land. You certainly have. Part of your history certainly involved a great journey from England to reach your Promised Land, and now here you are enjoying it. It is indeed a good land, where you will ‘eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing’, so obviously you shall ‘… bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.’

But here’s the bit which I want to talk about this morning. Moses said, ‘Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth”, but remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth.’ In the Letter of James, ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above; coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.’ We have just sung the wonderful hymn based on that passage, ‘Great is thy faithfulness, … there is no shadow of turning with Thee’.

In St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. …. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.’

The question is whether it is us who are the authors of our own success or failure. Moses in Deuteronomy says very clearly that it was not because of the Israelites’ excellence or hard work, or whatever it was, that they had been saved from Egypt; it was because God had blessed them.

When I was in Hartford last, Hope and Bill asked me whether I had seen a film about Margaret Thatcher, called ‘The Iron Lady’. They said it was a very good film, and that Meryl Streep had done a wonderful acting job.

Now one of the things that I’ve noticed in my travels is that our friends in different countries very rarely see each other’s leaders in the same light as they are seen domestically.

Actually, perhaps we would all agree about President Kennedy. And yes, I can remember where I was when the news came through. Even at the tender age of 12, I remember the feeling of shock and disappointment which those events in Houston 50 years ago caused. I think that we probably would all agree that he was a great man, cut down in his prime, and that he had not been in office long enough to realise all the things he promised.

But when Hope and Bill told me what a wonderful film ‘The Iron Lady’ was, I had a different reaction. They, like all my friends outside the UK, thought Lady Thatcher was someone who should surely be celebrated, and that the film had done a good job of celebrating her. But I surprised them: I said I had no intention of seeing the film, however excellent it might be. Far from celebrating Lady Thatcher, I really thought she did a great deal of harm.

That is perhaps rather a harsh thing to say from a pulpit, but I stand by it. I can expatiate for a long time on the reasons. In essence, Margaret Thatcher believed that everyone had the seeds of their own success or failure within them: it was up to you whether you prospered or starved. She did not care for people who were not able to be active in the market, perhaps because they were old, or ill, or disabled, or not intelligent enough, or just poor. She even said to a journalist once, ‘There is no such thing as society’. She ruthlessly suppressed the powers of the labour unions, greatly reducing the protection available for ordinary employees. Thousands were put out of work. Industry was decimated.

One of her ministers suggested that, if one was out of work, one should ‘get on one’s bicycle’ and go where there was work. This was highly offensive, because the people who were out of work – at least metaphorically speaking – had no bicycles, and there was no work for them, anywhere.

According to Mrs Thatcher, it was up to you if you succeeded. According to Moses, and indeed according to Jesus, it isn’t. As we heard from Deuteronomy, Moses said, ‘Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth”, but remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth.’ Jesus said, ‘Look at the birds of the air’.

And that brings me to the food bank. When I was preparing to come here, Hope sent me an advance copy of your notices for today, which I’ve referred to already. In it, I see that last Sunday you an interfaith Thanksgiving service, joining with the Congregation Beth Israel from down the road. The offering suggested was an offering of non-perishable food for the West Hartford Food Pantry.

It might surprise you to know that, in the UK today, there are over 400 food banks. In the Borough of Elmbridge, where my home, Cobham, is, (which is said to be the second most prosperous borough in the country after Kensington and Chelsea), our food bank in Cobham will be the third food bank in that rich borough.

In England we used to have a ‘welfare state’. We had a safety net, and we prided ourselves on it. Nobody would starve if they were out of work, or disabled, or old, or suffering from anything else which prevented you from being able to have enough money, from your own efforts, to buy food. The state would provide a safety net. You would never starve. ‘Consider the lilies of the field’. It made sense.

That has gone. The present British government has so reduced the scope and effectiveness of our welfare state that there are large numbers of people who need to go to food banks for emergency non-perishable food: in other words, they are starving. There are people starving in Britain. I hope you find that as shocking as I do.

So we are following your good example, and setting up food banks. It is a very Biblical thing to do. In his letter, James says, ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this; to care for orphans and widows in their distress’. Earlier on in the same passage, ‘Be doers of the Word, and not merely hearers.’

So after all, I think that, where I come from, we’re not that different from you. Christian people are trying to be ‘Doers of the Word’, we are trying to look after the orphans and the widows in their distress. And I pray that God will bless us – and you – in this work. At this wonderful time of Thanksgiving, with God’s help, let us all continue to ‘do the Word.’