Archives for posts with tag: neighbour

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 20th October 2019

Nehemiah 8:9-18, John 16:1-11 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=438415019

‘What is truth?’ You’ll remember Pontius Pilate’s famous question when Jesus was on trial in front of him, in John 18:38. In the context of our Christian faith, what is ‘truth’?

When Nehemiah had gathered all the exiles, who had returned from Babylon, together, and Ezra the scribe had started to read out all the Law of Moses to them, he made the occasion a great holiday. Nothing was more important than knowing what God had commanded – that was the ultimate truth.

It’s interesting that, as well as decreeing that everyone should take the day off and celebrate – or possibly take longer than the day off, so as to go off on a kind of summer camp and live in tents – or booths, or tabernacles – temporary houses – for a week – that also, as well as feasting themselves, they had to make sure that they sent a share of the food to anyone who couldn’t manage to provide for themselves. The two most important commandments in the Law of Moses were to love God, and also, to love your neighbour as yourself.

So there was a social truth as well as a theological one in the law of the Old Testament. Later on, when Jesus is telling his disciples what to expect when he has finally left them – and indeed, telling them that he has got finally to leave them, which they might not necessarily have expected after the huge miracle of his resurrection, (you could understand them not wanting to let him go) – he says that it is to their advantage, for their good, that he is leaving, because then what he describes as the Comforter, the Advocate, the spirit of truth, will come in his place: truth personified, not just a matter of law. Living truth, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

What Jesus is saying here, as reported in St John’s Gospel, is one of the first mentions in the Bible of the Holy Trinity. Jesus talks about his father, about his being the son, and then about this third party, the Comforter, the Advocate; somebody who, literally in Greek, shores them up, supports them, perhaps in a forensic context, in court; the Greek word, παρακλητος, sometimes actually said as the ‘Paraclete’, the Comforter, the Advocate, means a sort of barrister: that is how the third member of the Holy Trinity is described.

When I was thinking about that, and about what Jesus says about the Comforter, the Advocate, it reminded me of what I had experienced last Sunday when I went to Rome to attend the mass at St Peter’s for the ‘canonisation’ of five new saints in the Roman Catholic Church, John Henry Newman and four other saintly figures, three nuns and a Swiss seamstress, who all had various claims to ‘sainthood’, as the Roman Catholics understand it.

One of the things that comes out, that the Roman Catholics do that we don’t, is that they use saints as intermediaries between themselves and God. They pray to God through the saints, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary, the Mother of God, but also then through one of more of the various saints of the church. So a form of prayer in the Catholic Mass is that you name a particular saint, and you ask that saint to pray for you.

The idea is that the saint is almost like what Jesus is describing the Holy Spirit as, if the Holy Spirit is the Advocate. It involves the idea of somebody who speaks for you. You pray through the saint, you invoke the assistance of the saint. The process of becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church involves miracles, to show how close the saint is to God. The person to be canonised as a saint, recognised as a saint, therefore needs to have brought about miracles, miracles which have been investigated and found to be genuine by theologians of the church.

I was in Rome particularly to witness the canonisation of one of the new saints, John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, who wrote the hymns ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’, and ‘Lead, kindly Light’, for example. He started out in the Church of England and was for 20 years a fellow of my old college at Oxford, Oriel. Eventually he changed to Roman Catholicism and became a Cardinal.

Newman was a leader – perhaps the leader – of the spiritual revival in the Church of England called the Tractarians, or the Oxford Movement, in the 1830s. Newman’s great theological message – and he was a prolific author and preacher – he was the vicar of St Mary’s in the High Street in Oxford, the University Church – the heart of his message was a call to the church to abandon what we might call today ‘relativism’, in favour of what we might describe as revealed truth.

He didn’t want the church to base its beliefs and its teaching on whatever was popularly thought to be ‘a good thing’ at the time, but rather on the truth as shown in God’s word in the Bible and in the teaching of the early Christian Fathers. You can see that sort of argument still alive in the church today, in the context, for example, of things like same-sex marriage.

The story of the Tractarians is a story of exciting spiritual revival in parts of the church. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in the period between 1820 and 1840, the Senior Common Room of Oriel College contained some of the most influential theologians in England: not only Newman, but also Pusey, Keble and Hurrell Froude, who all supported this powerful revival movement in the Church of England, based on going back to what was perceived to be the message of the early fathers, stripped of any of the superstructure built up over the years by attempts to modernise the church in various ways.

Tractarianism (the name came from their series of pamphlets, called Tracts for the Times) came after the earlier Methodist revival, and in both those revivals there was a strong social message. The Tractarians were great believers in the Christian obligation to care for others, and particularly to care for those less fortunate than themselves.

This was a time when the Tractarians founded new congregations, new churches, in, for example, the East End of London and in some of the downtown slum areas of the big industrial cities. Just as Methodism had attacked the gin houses and encouraged people not to become prey to the demon drink, but rather to be able to keep and save their earnings and become more secure financially, so the Tractarians went out into places and founded churches where posh country parsons would never have dreamed of going.

Two healing miracles are attributed to John Henry Newman, one of Deacon Jack Sullivan in 2001, who was healed in a way that defied a normal medical explanation, and involved prayer invoking John Henry Newman, or rather his memory; and the second miracle involved the healing of an unstoppable haemorrhage in a pregnant American woman in 2013, where the woman, Melissa Villalobos, living near Chicago, had offered a prayer for healing, again invoking John Henry Newman to pray for her, and her bleeding suddenly stopped. These two miracles were considered, by the Roman Catholic Church, to be sufficient evidence of Newman’s sainthood.

We in the Church of England don’t reckon much to the idea of saints: Article XXII of the 39 Articles – on p.620 of your Prayer Books – says that the ‘Romish Doctrine concerning … invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented’, not Biblical and indeed contrary to the word of God.

This reflects the Reformation idea of our not needing to have priests stand between us and God, to pray for us and celebrate the mass on our behalf. By the same token we don’t need to have saints to pray for us. The idea is of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, which came from John Calvin.

But the Church of England is not a wholly Protestant church, although neither is it wholly a Catholic one. Henry VIII wanted to have the best of both worlds. He wanted to uphold all the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, except for the fact that he had some slight local difficulty with the Pope; so instead of the Pope being the head of the church on earth, he arrogated that function to the English monarch. So as it says on our coins, or on some of them, the name of the king or queen is on them and then ‘FD’, or ‘fidei defensor’, defender of the faith, signifying that the monarch is the head of the church on earth. That title started out as a compliment from the Pope for Henry VIII’s support for him against Martin Luther. But after they differed over Henry’s wives, the king kept the title nevertheless.

I have to say that, despite that background, I didn’t think any less of the wonderful service in Rome – there were reckoned to be 50,000 people attending, and we all got the bread of communion. It’s available on YouTube to watch [at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzFObwA79xo], with a gentle but helpful commentary from an American priest. The beautiful illustrated multilingual service book had 125 pages – and everyone, from the Pope and his cardinals downwards, was given one.

In a sense there was a slight flavour of a sporting event – groups of the congregation were cheering on ‘their’ saint as they were canonised – but at bottom it was just a very beautiful Holy Communion service, whose words, and the hymns and their tunes, were familiar to everyone. The music from the choir and organ was beautiful.

Of course the idea of saints performing miracles is very far-fetched to us. But when you saw all those people not going to a football match, but going to church, it was a very happy occasion, when we all felt inspired, caught up in something beyond our own little domestic concerns, something good and wholesome which made us willing to exchange the peace and try to talk to people sitting next to us – all sorts of nationalities, speaking all sorts of languages.

Smiles went a long way – and the fact that the service was in Latin actually helped, because everyone had a little knowledge of some of the words. I was going to use the ‘Kyrie’ as a for-instance – but of course, that’s Greek. But I hope you can see what I mean.

In its basic structure, the wonderful Canonisation Mass was just like our communion service every week here at St Mary’s. It had all the same bits, and only a couple of extras – the ‘Angelus’, Angelus Domini, the Angel of the Lord, the prayer commemorating the angel Gabriel’s coming to Mary, was the most obvious extra bit – but most was word-for-word the same as our service. It made you feel very special, part of a huge family, a huge, warm family. John Henry Newman was truly a saint: and I felt the presence, in that huge crowd, of great comfort; maybe it was even the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. I think it could well have been.

Sermon for Evensong on the fourth Sunday before Lent, 5th February 2017, at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon
Amos 2: 4 -16, Ephesians 4:17–32

Beloved. That’s how Bishop Richard Chartres, who is just retiring as Bishop of London after 21 years, starts his sermons. I have just been to a marvellous Eucharist for Candlemas this Thursday evening at St Paul’s Cathedral, when the cathedral was completely full, with several thousand people inside and a ‘pop-up cathedral’ with many more, outside in Paternoster Square.

At this service of Holy Communion, Bishop Richard celebrated and preached his last sermon as Bishop. Anyone who tells you that the Church of England is declining and falling apart should just have been at that wonderful service, which was full of spirituality, vitality, beautiful music and inspiration. Signs of decline? Not there! Not at St Paul’s this Candlemas!

It was a wonderful antidote to the constant chorus of gloomy news about President Trump and Brexit. Bishop Richard cuts a most imposing figure and when, in his beautiful red robes, with his mitre and crozier, he brought up the rear of the long procession of clergy and dignitaries, other bishops and representatives of all the other churches, I did think that there, there indeed was a real bishop, a bishop-and-a-half, you might say.

Before I went to Bishop Richard’s Candlemas Eucharist, I was a bit afraid that tonight I was going to have to do rather a gloomy sermon about the tough message that the prophet Amos was giving to Israel about 730 BC about all the things that they had done wrong:

‘… they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor,’ – the last bit of which is rather opaque, but which I think means that they grind the faces of the poor into the dust – ‘and turn aside the way of the meek’. It sounds a bit like our consumer society today, where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, and some of the newspapers are always very scathing about poor people. Fortunately, however scornful they are, they don’t stop hungry people from coming to our food bank.

But actually I got diverted by what Bishop Richard preached about the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’; it was a very appropriate text, as this was Bishop Richard’s last sermon as Bishop: he is departing in peace. ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Bishop Richard preferred those traditional words to the more modern translation, ‘Now you are letting your servant depart’, which, he said, he thought sounded like a ‘divine sacking’ (http://bishopoflondon.org/sermons/master-now-you-are-dismissing-your-servant/), whereas, he said, he was still looking forward, looking forward to great things in future, ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’.

Bishop Richard has been a very successful Bishop of London. Numbers of people belonging to the various churches in the diocese have increased considerably – by nearly 50%, and he has succeeded in keeping together in the diocese a wide variety of different styles and types of churches, all belonging to the Church of England, from Anglo-Catholics to charismatic evangelicals. In effect he has managed to accommodate a diocese-within-a-diocese, in the form of the Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha ministries, with their extensive church planting activities. He told us that one of his last tasks would be to license a Chinese minister to lead a new congregation of Chinese people at St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City. He has the knack of being at home in all sorts of contexts, but he never stops being the Bishop.

In the Christian tradition, before the bishops came the apostles, among them the apostle for the Gentiles, the apostle for us, St Paul. St Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote his Letter to the Ephesians, that cosmopolitan city where he had met with opposition from Demetrius the silversmith who made statues of the Greek god Artemis, Diana: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, they had shouted.

Paul didn’t want the Ephesians to descend to the depths of depravity which the prophets had decried in the Israelites of old. He used this famous figure of speech, about how Christians should ‘put on the new man’, as though being a Christian was like putting a best suit on. If you wore that white suit, you should:
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. [Eph. 4:31f]

In the Letter to the Ephesians there’s also a sort of version of the Ten Commandments, where Paul takes the place of the prophet. What is the message of all this for us? Does it still work to put on the Christian suit?

I started out, in this sermon, with a sly nod towards all the news and controversy, which the election of Mr Trump in the USA, and the Brexit stuff here, has been creating. What should a Christian think and say about these issues in our life today?

When the President of the USA comes out with ‘executive orders’, seemingly without any checks and balances, one of which arbitrarily bans entry to Moslems from some, but not all, Moslem countries: or when our government seems to have adopted a view of life outside the EU which places more weight on cutting immigration than preserving our access to the single market; as a country, we are terribly divided and confused. What would Jesus have done?

I think that he might well have agreed with St Paul – and Bishop Richard – that we must go forward, putting on the ‘new man’. For St Paul’s idea is that God, in Christ, has created a completely new social order.

In Galatians [3:27-28] he wrote,

‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.’
There it is again – the Christian suit. Put it on.
‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’

 

You are all one.

 

‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. There have been a lot of departures, recently. Not only Bishop Richard, but also our own Rector, Robert Jenkins, going, and soon Folli Olokose will have to go off to another parish – we hope, as their vicar. And the vacancies for Bishop of Dorking and Vicar of Oxshott have only just been filled.

Soon a team will have to set to in order to draft a ‘Parish Profile’ for St Andrew’s. It should really have a section in it about St Mary’s – and it probably will have one, because we are a ‘united benefice’ – but really the job is at St Andrew’s. What will our fellow church in the benefice be like, with its new vicar? What will we at St Mary’s be like, alongside them?

This is where the people in each church need to have a look at what St Paul is saying in his Letter to the Ephesians: because this letter, more than any other part of the Bible, deals with the building up of a church. Fundamental to that is the abolition of boundaries and divisions. There is room for everyone.

Bishop Richard ended his sermon by adapting the Te Deum, from Mattins. He said, ‘May God bless each and every one of you; the glorious company of my fellow priests; the goodly fellowship of Churchwardens, Readers, Lay Workers, Youth Ministers, Faithful Worshippers, and the noble army of Pioneers in Paternoster Square’.

I think that is a wonderful image. There’s room in the church for a glorious company, for a goodly fellowship, indeed for a noble army; room for all those different people; and they will all do their jobs differently: and so each church is a bit different too, as we all feel that different things are important in bringing the best of ourselves in worship to God. But at bottom, we are all one.

And Trump? So, yes, also in the world outside the church, and by the same token: Trump’s immigration ban is wrong, and Brexit, if it is anti-immigrant, is wrong. ‘For [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.’ All one. Beloved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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