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Sermon for Pentecost 2018

Acts 2:1-21

The disciples were all gathered together with the mother of Jesus and his brothers. Then all these people from places with odd names came and joined them: Phrygia, Pamphylia and Cappadocia. And then after the rushing wind and the tongues of fire that came and settled on their heads, the disciples started to talk in ways that could be understood by all the different people who were present there, who spoke a variety of languages, so that the disciples seemed to each person to be speaking to them in their own language.

Once upon a time I went to Brussels to watch a select committee of the EU Parliament at work. They were discussing something about the insurance of oil rigs and tankers. As some of you will know I used to be a marine underwriter and then a maritime lawyer, so I could appreciate the finer points. It was in a room which was a bit like a theatre, with a big table on a raised dais for the committee members to sit at, surrounded by rows of seats for the audience, each one with a small table fitted to the chair with a set of headphones and buttons to control them.

You were invited to put the headphones on and select the language in which you wanted to listen to the discussion. The MEPs were pretty good at speaking in a variety of languages; even the British ones managed pretty good French and German from time to time. But I had the headphones on, and I was listening in English. I was plugged into the simultaneous translation into English which was provided by the translators sitting in glass booths around the outside of the room. So far as I know, all the languages in the EU used by the 27 member nations – sorry, I mean 28 – were being translated, one into another, simultaneously. It’s an incredible piece of work. The translators are really good.

We are told, in the story in the Acts of the Apostles, that the disciples spoke in such a way that those who heard them could understand them without the need for translation. They spoke in everyone’s language, whatever their native language was. I have absolutely no idea how that could possibly have been done. It was miraculous.

It’s a very familiar story, although it is still a hugely remarkable one. Those events at Pentecost are said to be the birthday of the church. These apparently supernatural powers appeared, and the gospel started to spread throughout the world.

Thinking about the gospel spreading round the world, I had a rather unworthy thought that the Pentecost narrative might actually be not very British. You know that there is a very strong thread in British Christianity which likes to think that the Holy Land is somehow transposed over here. ‘And did those feet in ancient time | walk upon England’s green and pleasant land?’

Englishmen, notoriously, can’t speak other languages. It may be that our children are doing it better than we did, but there is still a feeling that, if foreigners don’t understand us, all we need to do is to speak English a little bit louder. We certainly do benefit from simultaneous translation but we are not that good at doing it. I have got away with using my O-level French and German for the last 50-odd years, but when it comes to the crunch, If there is anything serious, then I gratefully accept that my German or French colleagues speak English much better than I speak German or French.

I know that there are some people who reckon to ‘speak in tongues’. They go into some kind of trance when they attend certain types of church service. Indeed those churches are often called ‘Pentecostal’ churches. But still, in the back of my mind, I do have a little doubt whether the full Pentecostal ‘Monty’, speaking in tongues and waving your arms about, really chimes with that many people in England.

I’m tempted to say that a lot of those mass Pentecostal events, congregations in industrial warehouses shouting ‘amen’ and raising their arms in unison, reflect not so much the worship of the divine but some collective hysteria, perhaps whipped up by some Billy Graham-like figure. Who knows? But I do wonder whether it’s really British.

When I wrote that, I hadn’t watched the royal wedding, as I did yesterday. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon was wonderful – but it certainly wasn’t the ten minutes of fairly cerebral disquisition on the theology of marriage that you might have expected from a Primate in the Anglican church. Bishop Michael just went in straight to the heart of it. Princess Di’s sister had read a lesson from the Song of Solomon – ‘set a seal upon my heart.’ It was all about love, the power of love. Then the preaching started. Bishop Michael showed passion: he used repetition, repetition for emphasis: economy of style: his message was in your face. And then it was followed by a black church gospel choir. There’s nothing for it; it was truly Pentecostal, even if the royal party didn’t quite wave their arms about.

Perhaps another way of looking at this, though, is to ask what Pentecost is for. How are we supposed to react now to those events 2000 years ago, to what happened to the disciples and to the people from Phrygia and Pamphylia? What would you feel if, suddenly as we sat here, in St Mary’s, our hair caught fire and, instead of one or two select classical allusions, I was speaking to you simultaneously in Yoruba, Serbo-Croat and Welsh, of course as well as in English?

What would you make of it? What if, having seen the extraordinary firework display, the most you could say was, ‘Cor, fancy that!’, just expressing some vague astonishment? If that’s all it meant, it’s surely highly unlikely that we would still be celebrating Pentecost 2000 years later, as Christians, all around the world.

But we are still celebrating Pentecost. So why? What has given the story such long legs? When you listened to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry yesterday, (although of course his sermon was addressed to the Prince and his new Princess), he could have been giving the answers that we’re looking for here as well. Power: love: fire. Those were his key words to Harry and Meghan. And they are also the hallmarks of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Power. The force of the rushing wind. Fire. The tongues of fire. And love. Jesus’ great commandment. Love, love one another. But look what the power of the Holy Spirit did. It gave the disciples power, capability to speak so that their message could be understood by all people. How important in promoting love that was.

Look at how we notice, today, in various contexts, how people are different from us, not like us, and how that sense of difference can make life difficult. For instance, why are we so uneasy about immigrants? All the rational considerations show that they are really beneficial and useful to us. But – but they are different. They look different, perhaps, as well. Speak a different language.

The Greeks of Jesus’ time called strangers βάρβαροι, barbarians – and one version of the etymology of that word was that strangers would speak in a funny way: they sounded as though they were saying ‘ba, ba, ba,’ a sort of animal grunting. That’s it. That might be the problem with immigrants. You know, you might not want animal grunters living next door to you.

But what if you could understand them, and they could understand you, perfectly, as if both of you had grown up in the same street? You wouldn’t have any prejudices against them. They wouldn’t be barbarians, barbarians at the gate. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch even to love them. Certainly you could love them, if to love them means not to fall in love with them and get married, but simply to care for them, to look out for them and be generous to them. If you speak the same language, you’re half-way there.

If you speak the same language, literally or metaphorically, it’s much more difficult to think of other people as being different, not like us. If we’re not different, we can see all the things we have in common. We won’t want some people, (who are just like us underneath), to starve while others, who also are just like us underneath, are homeless or refugees, risking their lives in overloaded boats in the Mediterranean, say. They’re just like us. That ability, for the disciples to speak in everyone’s language, was the power of love.

So what is Pentecost about, for us, today? It is, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said, all about the power of love. I can’t resist reading you some of his words from yesterday.

He said:

‘Think and imagine a world where love is the way.

When love is the way, poverty will become history.

When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.

When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more.

When love is the way, there’s plenty good room – plenty good room – for all of God’s children. ‘Cos when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well… like we are actually family.

When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.

My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.

And let me tell you something, old Solomon was right in the Old Testament: that’s fire.’  [Michael B. Curry, found at https://tinyurl.com/y96c2z6e ]

Power, love, fire. Pentecost.

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Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 7th January 2018

Isaiah 42:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=382181977

Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, hit the headlines the other day by suggesting that Americans who go to church, but who also support the policies of President Trump, are not really Christians. Or, shall we say, by supporting Trump, they are acting in a way which conflicts with true Christian belief.

He doesn’t see how you can square professing to be a Christian with supporting Donald Trump, in that Donald Trump has shown that he is a womaniser, a xenophobe, a racist and a warmonger. If Christians support Donald Trump, does that in any way compromise their Christianity? The Bishop of Liverpool clearly says, ‘Yes, it does.’

Instead of the President, look for a minute at the leader whom Isaiah was describing in our first Bible reading. This is sometimes called the Song of the Covenant. It is a proclamation, through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, putting God’s words into the mouth of the prophet, describing that chosen leader, the Messiah, leading the people bound by their agreement with God, the covenant with Abraham: ‘He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.’ He is gentle. ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’. Strangely, you might feel, there’s no mention of Twitter.

But interestingly – perhaps a bit paradoxically – this is all in a series of chapters describing God reaching an agreement, a covenant, with his chosen people – it’s not just an agreement between God and the chosen people, the Israelites. Even back in the beginning, in the Old Testament, in Isaiah it says, ‘… he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles’ and ‘I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles’. A light of the Gentiles – the Gentiles were the non-Jews. They were what we are.

So right at the beginning, at the championing of the people of Israel in God’s eyes, there was also more than a look over the shoulder at the people who were not Jewish. The Messiah was going to be a light to them too, a ‘light to the Gentiles’. This is universal. Christ is for all the world, for everyone.

The idea of a private understanding, a covenant, between God and his ‘chosen people’ may seem a bit strange to us now. But in the Methodist Church all over the world this Sunday, the first Sunday of the year, is known as Covenant Sunday, and there is a special service in which the congregation renew their commitment to follow God’s commandments, and John Wesley’s special Covenant prayer is said. I will pray that prayer for us when I lead our prayers in a few minutes.

What the Messiah was going to do had a distinctly revolutionary aspect to it. He would bring the prisoners out of prison and give light to the blind, in a society where, if you were disabled, people thought that was because you had done something wrong and were bad in some way. So in other words the people who had the deal with the Almighty, the chosen, the chosen race, the Israelites, were not chosen so that they could carry all before them and rule the world, they were to be a haven of social justice and reconciliation, where the leader was not a mighty warrior but was a gentle person who would not hurt a fly. Rather different from President Trump.

People who are politically savvy will probably glaze over a bit as I go through this because, they will say, ‘What is the relevance of what happened 2000 years ago – or even earlier, if you are talking about Isaiah?’ There are practical things that you just can’t ignore. ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I mean, in this country these days, even if in an ideal world we would like to, we just don’t have the money to do all the good things that we would like to do.’

But it is notable that in the Bible there is never any reference to what doing the right thing might cost. It’s just a question whether it’s the right thing to do or not. St Paul’s point in our second lesson from Ephesians is that, given that the Messiah has come, that Jesus has appeared, and in so doing God has renewed his covenant; so there is an effect on the faithful believers. Once they realise that God has taken an interest in them, then, the argument goes, they won’t want to do any bad things in future. It won’t matter what the practicalities are: ‘Teach us, good Lord …. to give, and not to count the cost’. That will be their guiding principle.

But whereas perhaps even in the light of this, all we can do about the godlessness of President Trump is to sigh, and say how much we disapprove, what about things nearer to home? For instance, what about the leader of Windsor borough council?

The leader of the Windsor council has written to the police and crime commissioner local to him, to ask that homeless people be cleared off the streets in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Now is there any kind of conflict between the Christianity of the wedding and the unsympathetic attitude to homeless people exhibited by the council leader? He has said that he just wanted to do something to help the wedding couple. He has said that he thought that many of the homeless people were not really homeless, because there were places where they could stay. They were begging, making themselves a nuisance.

But what would Jesus say about that? Or indeed Isaiah? The Old Testament has numerous places where the prophets tell people to look after widows and orphans, and ‘the stranger that is in your midst’. That must imply that they are homeless. And in the New Testament, in Jesus’ own words, what about the Great Judgement in Matthew 25:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
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.

I would suggest that it’s pretty clear that Jesus wouldn’t be sympathetic to the leader of Windsor borough council. I think Jesus would say that it doesn’t matter why someone is homeless, or a beggar. The Good Samaritan didn’t check to see whether the man who had been hurt had in some way been responsible for his plight, to blame for it, had somehow brought his misfortune on himself.

And indeed many of the organisations which work to care for the homeless have challenged the council leader’s reasoning. Thames Valley Police, the ones he asked to clear so-called ‘rough sleepers’ off the streets, didn’t think that would help. It would be more effective, the police said, if the causes of homelessness and destitution were addressed instead. Crisis, the charity for the homeless, said similar things. People don’t choose to be homeless, and they only beg when they are desperate. Shelter and Centrepoint, two other leading charities, have agreed.

I don’t know whether the leader of Windsor and Maidenhead Royal Borough Council goes to church at all. But I think that if he does, he ought to reflect very carefully on what the Bishop of Liverpool has said about whether it’s possible to be a Trump supporter and a Christian at the same time. It applies here on this side of the Atlantic too. If you don’t love your neighbour as yourself, never mind what it costs, you’re not a real Christian.

The Covenant Prayer of John Wesley (1703–1791)

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

Further Bible references: see http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20110203_1.htm