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Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent, 4th December 2016

1 Kings 18:17-39, John 1:19-28

‘John Vavassour de Quentin Jones
Was very fond of throwing stones
At Horses, People, Passing Trains,
But ‘specially at Window-panes.

Like many of the Upper Class
He liked the Sound of Broken Glass.

It bucked him up and made him gay:
It was his favourite form of Play.’ (Hilaire Belloc, 1930)

Those of you, who have watched, perhaps with consternation, the referendum and its aftermath in this country and the election of the seemingly appalling Trump in the USA, might like to pause and reflect on these words by Hilaire Belloc. John Vavassour de Quentin Jones. In the first half of the last century, ‘like many of the Upper Class, …he liked the sound of broken glass.’

People sometimes rebel in a very irrational way. John Vavassour de Quentin Jones lost his inheritance because a stone which he threw hit his rich uncle by mistake, and he cut him out of his will. John Vavassour just wanted to break things: he clearly had no idea what his actions would lead to.

I think one is tempted to say, that neither did many of those, who voted for Brexit or who voted for Donald Trump, know what they were voting for either. These were votes against things rather than votes for anything in particular.

They were expressions of alienation. When Michael Gove – who used to write leaders for The Times, and so presumably is an educated man – encouraged his supporters to have nothing to do with experts, he pandered to this sense of alienation. It has been said that this populist backlash is a rejection of the elite, of the intelligentsia, of metropolitan liberal sentiment.

In this climate, we Christians are somewhat on the back foot, in the face of a rising tide of secularism. It might seem rather far-fetched, to imagine a scenario today like that described in our first lesson: a sort of bake-off of sacrifices, in which the prophet Elijah is bringing King Ahab back into the fold after he had lost his faith in the One True God and started to worship the Baals.

Elijah organised a ‘spectacular’. ‘You call on your God and I will call on mine, and let’s see whose god can cook the beef on the altar’. And if we are to believe the story in the Bible in 1 Kings, God responded to Elijah’s prayers and roasted Elijah’s ox in a spectacular way. Whereas of course Baal, being just a figment of the heathen imagination, did nothing – or rather, wasn’t even there at all.

So not surprisingly, Elijah was listened to. He was the greatest of the prophets. He was in direct touch with God. He was God’s mouthpiece on earth. But we can’t imagine anything happening even remotely like Elijah’s spectacular today.

In St John’s Gospel, the introduction to the Good News, to the story of Jesus himself, is the story of John the Baptist, ‘preparing the way of the Lord’. Again, it’s really difficult to imagine a modern scenario which is anything like this. Just as, by and large, people don’t become influential or command an audience by doing miracles, as Elijah did, so if you take another step back and try to imagine the scenario involving John the Baptist, it is very, very different from our experience today.

What John was doing is mentioned almost just in passing: he was baptising people. The account in St John’s Gospel concentrates much more on the significance of what he was doing. ‘Why baptizest thou them, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?’ Today, if you talk about baptism, it is synonymous with christening, with Christian initiation of a little child; and it’s also how the little child gets his or her name. Naming, not repentance.

There is no equivalent of what was by all accounts a mass movement, something that people naturally did, to go and wash ritually in the river Jordan: to wash away their sins and iniquities, as well as becoming physically clean.

You will recall that passage in St Mark chapter 7, where the Pharisees pull Jesus up for eating without washing his hands first. I’ve always felt that if you came across that passage for the first time today, you might protest that, from a public health point of view, anyone following Jesus’s advice might well catch some disease or other! They even saw things like washing completely differently.

If we try to tell people about the true meaning of Christmas, and the Gospel story, I think we should be a bit cautious about the fact that quite a lot of the story reflects a world which is totally different from our world. I think that there is a danger that people listening to Christians talking about the Gospel and the true meaning of Christmas may be put off, may even be alienated.

There was somebody in the audience on the BBC Question Time programme on Thursday night, which came from Wakefield in Yorkshire, a very assertive and gruff person, who, despite the fact that he was shaven-headed and dressed as a football hooligan, was said to be some kind of teacher.

He loudly asserted on several occasions during the programme that everyone who had voted to leave the EU had been voting to leave the Single Market. He said things like, ‘Everybody knew that a vote to leave meant a vote to leave the Single Market’. Now leaving aside the point that, as a matter of fact what that man said can be challenged on a number of levels, starting with the fact that the question put to the referendum was just a simple choice between leaving or remaining in the EU, and nothing else, the striking thing was that he was impervious to reason.

I’m not sure what subject he was a teacher of, but one hopes, for his pupils’ sake, that it was woodwork or PE: because although several people on the panel gave him very clear and well argued responses, which if true, completely contradicted his proposition that, if you voted one way in the referendum, that automatically meant that you were in favour of something else, he was completely deaf to all argument. But maybe that’s being rude to woodwork and PE teachers. This alleged teacher wasn’t interested in argument, or reasoning, or experts, and he certainly discounted all the posh people on the panel. They were obviously not gritty or Yorkshire enough for him to take them at all seriously. Sadly, almost the whole audience was with him.

So what would a prophet today have to do or say in order to carry conviction? What is the good news, or the call to obedience, if we follow Elijah, that a prophet today should be crying in the wilderness? What is the equivalent of baptism in the river Jordan for today’s people? How would a preacher get through to the man on Question Time?

I’m not making a political point. I’m not saying whether Brexit is good or bad, or Trump is good or bad, but just that, in those cases, people seem to have ignored reasoned argument and voted as a sort of knee-jerk reaction, voted for something negative, something which they perceive as not coming from the ivory tower of the elite liberal establishment.

People have in effect been throwing stones. And they’re in very good company. John Quentin de Vavassour Jones came out of the top drawer of society ‘.., like many of the Upper Class,… he liked the sound of broken glass’. This man in Wakefield, who asserted his non sequitur so positively, that something unsaid was the unanimous will of the people, this man was voting for something which would almost certainly harm him: it would very likely harm a lot of his fellow citizens. But he didn’t care. He was throwing stones.

How do we Christians deal with this? How do we deal with somebody who is impervious to reason, and is convinced that Christianity is wrong, or does not have anything relevant to say, or is going to disappear anyway? Because if you do follow that rather bleak outlook, and believe that there is no God, would you necessarily think that it is wrong to be xenophobic, or racist?

Unless you believe that it was God who created all people equal in his sight, how would you justify the concept of human rights? How would you avoid being led astray by seemingly reasonable voices, like a friendly man in the pub telling you that he’s not a racist, but that we just have too many immigrants – even though there is ample evidence that immigration is really good for this country and that it fulfils a number of really important needs?

Even though there is considerable evidence that the National Health Service will be in even greater trouble if it loses its doctors and nurses from abroad, both from the EU and from outside, although there is plenty of evidence that immigrants as a whole contribute over 30% more in taxes than they receive in benefits – even though there is this positive evidence, there are still people in numbers who will parrot sentiments which are not rational. If they’re not racist, they are very similar to it.

The other irrational thing is that the anti-immigration sentiment seems to be strongest where there aren’t actually any – or where there are very few – immigrants. The audience in Wakefield the other night cheered every xenophobic, little-England statement to the rafters. But I believe there are hardly any immigrants from the EU in Wakefield.

This is very strange. Clearly people were not operating rationally. They were not listening to the experts, and they were not bothering to think about where our moral imperatives come from. If you are a Christian, you will believe that we are all children of God. If you are a Christian, and indeed if you are a Jew or a Moslem, you will believe that God has told us how to behave, in His Ten Commandments.

‘Blah, blah, blah’. Yes, blah, blah, blah. For some people, what I’m saying is just meaningless noise. I wonder if that scares you as much as it does me. Let us pray that God will make himself known, not in some cosmic bake-off, but in everything that we say and do, and that we will not be dismissed as people with nothing relevant to say.

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Eve

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, 7th February 2016
John 12:27-36 Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.

I was rather shocked to find out that this year the Boat Race is going to be run on Easter Sunday. Not just on a Sunday, but on Easter Sunday of all Sundays! It does seem to me to be quite shocking that the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Clubs have completely ignored the fact that there are an awful lot of people who enjoy the Boat Race, as one of our main national sporting fixtures, but who are also Christians. For us, Sunday, and not just any Sunday, but certainly Easter Sunday, is surely far more important than the Boat Race. They should not be on the same day.

Time for a letter. Dear Mr Raab – ‘Dear Mr Raab’, I want to write, to our MP. ‘I understand that Parliament has very nearly finished considering the Enterprise Bill which started in the House of Lords and which has already received its first and second readings in the House of Commons. On Tuesday the Business Secretary, Mr Javid, announced that provisions would be added – even at this late stage – to the Enterprise Bill to allow local councils to relax Sunday trading restrictions. Parliament hasn’t debated it at all so far. The bishops can’t say anything, because it has already gone through the House of Lords, without this Sunday trading proposal. I am unhappy that this is surreptitiously slipping in yet another watering-down of the idea that Sunday should be special.’ I hope he takes some notice. If only a few Conservatives vote against, this late addition to the Bill can be defeated.

Yes, I know that I often go to Waitrose after Sunday morning service, and I often have a curry from Cobham Tandoori after Evensong. But I think the time has come for us to review the need for there to be a day of rest and the need for those who, because they are doing essential jobs, are not able to rest on the day of rest, the need for them to be paid extra for their trouble, or to be assured of a substitute day of rest as a matter of right. Well, I am going to go on and finish, elegantly, my letter to our MP along those lines. I would ask you to consider writing a letter to him too.

The church is just about to embark on Lent. Lent, the lead up to the high point of the Christian year, Easter. In our Gospel lesson tonight we have heard St John’s slightly different account of the beginning of the Passion story. It’s different from the order of events in the other Gospel accounts, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a donkey after he has raised Lazarus from the tomb, and some Greeks have come, saying, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ [John 12:21]. And Jesus starts to tell them, and his disciples, what he has to face in the coming time. That’s the context of tonight’s lesson. It leads us up to Lent.

It will be Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, this Wednesday, and I hope that you will be able to begin your Lent devotion by coming to the 1030 service that morning. That’s the service with the imposition of ashes. If you are at work and unable to make the morning service, you can come to Saint Andrew’s in the evening for a similar service, at 8 o’clock.

Afterwards, as we pass through Lent, we will have a Lent communion service here every Wednesday morning at 10:30, and there will also be Lent study groups which are being organised ecumenically by all the churches in Churches Together. I will be helping to lead a group on Tuesday evenings. There will be other groups in various places and at various times to suit everyone. The topic which is going to be followed is a course which has been designed by the Archdiocese of York called the ‘Handing on the Torch’, which is all about being Christian in a secular society.

The question of Sunday trading is very much a case in point. Does it make any difference to be a Christian today? Should Sunday be special?

All the churches around here have to deal with the fact that a lot of young people now play sport on Sunday mornings. It can be rugby or hockey or many other sports. These children are put in a difficult position. They either drop out of the sporting activities in order to go to church with their folks, or, as happens more and more, they feel they have to keep up with their contemporaries, if they’re going to have a chance to get into school teams, through taking part in sport at the weekend. That is, not just any old time at the weekend, but very often specifically, on Sunday morning.

Some churches, for example in Great Bookham and West Molesey, have changed the time of family worship to the afternoon, so that people can take part in sporting activities in the morning, but still come to church at, say, 4 o’clock to have a ‘teatime church’. I think that’s probably fine. Otherwise, of course, slightly more grown-up people often go to 8 o’clock service in the morning and then go on to do various activities later on in the day. That’s all right as well. We are making time for God, but it doesn’t mean to say that everything else has to stop. ‘The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath’, as Jesus himself said [Mark 2:27].

But as Jesus said in our Gospel reading,’Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you’. If we don’t keep spaces for the light of the Gospel to shine through, then we will be in darkness.

So going back to my letter to the MP, who does benefit from ever longer opening hours on the Sundays? Not the people who work in shops, for sure. Mr Javid, in his statement on Tuesday, made a point that the rules would be changed, so that employees who wanted to opt out of Sunday working on religious grounds would only have to give a month’s notice, instead of the current three months.

But that does not get over the point that, in many working environments, people who are unavailable, who won’t work whenever their employers want them to, limit their chances of promotion and career advancement, whatever the reason.

We have heard a lot also about the so-called ‘seven day NHS’ in the context of the junior doctors’ fight for decent conditions. As you may know, both my daughters are hospital doctors, so-called junior doctors. One is a house officer in England, at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital – and she has been on strike – and the other an ENT surgeon in Wales, at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. The one in Wales is not in dispute because of the government in Wales has not followed the policies of the Westminster government.

Both my doctor daughters, however, are equally affronted when they see the Secretary of State talking about what he calls ‘the need for doctors to accept seven day working’. Mr Hunt seems oblivious of the fact that all hospital doctors work a seven day rota already. The point is whether or not weekend working should be special. If you work on a day which most other people, including Mr Hunt himself, regard as a normal holiday, then I agree with the doctors in thinking you should be rewarded specially for giving up your holiday time. I don’t think that Mr Hunt has ever worked any of the 13-hour weekend night shifts which my daughters regularly do.

But even if he has, I think that it is very important that the principle of a sabbath, a day of rest, which was part of the law of Moses, the 10 Commandments, and which has come into Christianity on Sunday rather than on Saturday, should be preserved, should be defended. As Christians we ought to take a lead in this.

There is likely to be no real benefit to anyone, other than the owners of big shops, if opening hours on Sunday are extended. I really think that there should be a proper calculation, setting the extra convenience which we are supposed to enjoy through extended Sunday opening, against the disruption to family life it would cause, for very many shop workers, people who live in the centre of town, and small businessmen. My ability to buy a couple of AA batteries, at 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon from Sainsbury’s, frankly does not weigh very heavily against the damage to the quality of family life which is likely to result for an awful lot of people if shop hours are extended to make my trivial purchase easier.

I would suggest that, as Christians, not only is it important to us that there should be a day for God, but that also that this day should be a sabbath. It should be a day of rest and recreation, and all those people who have to give up that day, because they are, for example, doctors or other kinds of emergency workers – or indeed because they are working in some of the shops – should have it properly recognised and rewarded.

I don’t think that it is necessarily an answer that Mr Javid, or Mr Hunt, or any other politician, should have to work on a Sunday. I think that the basic principle ought to be that nobody should. Let’s stand up and be counted on this one. ‘Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.’ Sunday is special.

The article [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/10/jeremy-hunt-junior-doctors-nhs?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other] is wrong in saying, ‘Why should doctors be paid on an antiquated basis that encourages them to work absurdly long hours on weekdays rather than to make themselves available for weekend shifts?’ Doctors have no say in their rotas, which already provide for 7-day working. If there is anything lacking at weekends, it is ancillary services, not doctors. Essentially the government is asking doctors to work longer hours, with no safeguards against exploitation by those who fix the rotas – that is, the administrators – and at the same time confirming to the Treasury that ‘there will be no extra cost’. Tired doctors are a danger, not some imagined lack of their availability at weekends. To cut their salaries at the same time (as the increase in their basic salary does not compensate them for the loss of ‘banding’ overtime payments) is insulting, to say the least.

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

Sermon at Holy Communion at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, The Conversion of St Paul – 25th January 2015
Acts 9:1-22 – ‘Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.’

For a couple of weeks now, I have been going to a house group, which is not one of ours, run by St Mary’s or St Andrew’s, but it’s a sort of spontaneous house group, run by some nice people who live locally, who go to the International Community Church (the American church, that was). I was invited to go along by a friend of mine who sometimes worships here but who usually goes to St Andrew’s, Oxshott.

It’s a shame, in a way, that in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the ICC church is no longer a member of Churches Together in Cobham, Stoke, Oxshott and Surrounding Areas. They used to be, when they used to meet locally, but now they hold their meetings in Chertsey, so they are not local to us any more.

The house group is watching a series of videos made by an American evangelist called Rob Bell, who looks about 15 but who is apparently a bit older than that, and runs a mega-church somewhere in the USA. If you want to look up his videos, they are on YouTube under the title ‘NOOMA’, N-O-O-M-A, which he explains as a phonetic transliteration of the Greek word πνεύμα, from which we get ‘pneumatic’, for example. It’s a word for a wind or a spirit: so το πνεύμα άγιον is the Holy Spirit.

On the NOOMA YouTube channel there are a number of videos, which are really illustrated sermons by Mr Bell. The one that we watched this week [http://nooma.com/films/001-rain] involved Mr Bell going for a walk in the woods with his one-year-old son – whose name I didn’t catch, but it sounded like one of those American ‘surname’ names like ‘Spencer’ or ‘Washington’ or whatever – although his friends probably call him Spike, or Bonzo, of course.

Mr Bell hoisted the baby on to his back in some kind of back-pack affair and strode off into the woods, in true frontiersman fashion. It looked like a scene out of a holiday promotion video: beautiful warm sunlight coming through the trees, birds singing, and so on.

They were walking round a lake. Half way round, the weather changed, and it started to rain. The rain quickly turned into a full-blooded thunderstorm. Mr Bell and his offspring were both wearing tops which had hoods. Mr Bell reached behind him and pulled the baby’s hood up over his head, to keep the rain off, and did the same for himself. The baby, of course, as babies do, immediately threw off his hood. However, Mr Bell was oblivious to this, because he had the baby hitched to his back, so he couldn’t see him.

He strode on, at a military pace. He told us that he was about a mile from home. Obviously this was not the sort of afternoon stroll that you or I might get up to after lunch today, but something altogether more athletic. Anyway, there’s Bell, striding along under his hoodie top, and suddenly, Rufus Alexander Williamson III starts to protest – because he is now wet, not having his hood up.

He shouts and screams and generally makes all the usual baby protesting noises. Mr Bell, finally, rumbles the fact that all is not well with the baby. So he unhitches the backpack and he tucks the baby under his own coat in front, snuggling him up and getting him nice and warm again, out of the rain.

All the while, Mr Bell is gently repeating to the baby, ‘I love you, Rufus Alexander Washington III: and we are going to make it.’ Fortunately, they do make it; they get back home – and we have to imagine the scene in the log cabin, with the blazing fire, jacuzzi and fluffy towels which no doubt the returning father and son then enjoyed.

Cut instead to Mr Bell, who tells us that the story was an analogy, a metaphor, for how God is. God is with us in our darkest moments, when it is raining on us and our hood is not up. God will be there, and He will say that He, our Heavenly Father, loves us, and that we will make it together.

I thought it was a nice idea, but I wasn’t sure. It was a pity that it wasn’t a Churches Together house group during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, because I would then have got a lot of points for being outside my comfort zone, but still, with Christian friends!

The leader of the group had a sheet of questions. One was, were we conscious of God being alongside us, perhaps in times of trouble? Did we have experiences like Mr Bell and his little boy, caught in the rain?

I was rather challenged. I haven’t had an experience like John Wesley, who was going to a Bible class and who suddenly felt his heart was ‘strangely warmed’, for example. I certainly haven’t had a Road to Damascus experience like St Paul.

I felt rather stuck – because I am not given to that kind of spirituality, unfortunately. I am a rather down-to-earth person and I’m not sure that I necessarily would hear a ‘still small voice of calm’ – although what St Paul experienced would surely have got through to me.

I have, however, been reading a new book, from our bookshop – and by the way, please remember, where bookshops are concerned, you must use them or lose them, and not be tempted by the likes of Amazon. Our bookshop can get you any book you like the next day, just as quickly as Amazon. (The usual disclaimers apply.)

Well anyway, I have been reading a new book, which is a series of papers assembled and edited by Archbishop John, John Sentamu, called ‘On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain’s future’. It’s a series of essays designed to inform the debate which is going to lead up to our General Election in May. It’s not meant to be party-political in any way, but is intended to inspire all our politicians to think in terms of what Archbishop John calls ευδαιμονία, the Greek word which roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’.

The idea is that it’s not enough for us to flourish in material terms, but rather we have to flourish as men and women made in the image of God. According to Genesis 1:27: … God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

We have to flourish, to reach our full human potential, according to Archbishop John. The two greatest commandments, to love God and to love our neighbour, are to be applied to our economic and political situation. The essays explore how we can become closer to how God intended us to be, and therefore to flourish and reach our full potential, in a fair, just and loving way.

John Sentamu’s book in many ways is influenced by, and perhaps was inspired by, Archbishop William Temple’s 1942 book, ‘Christianity and Social Order’ [Shepheard-Walwyn 1976, 1987, ISBN -10: 0-85683-025-9], which was one of the key documents which led to the creation of the Welfare State and NHS after the Second World War.

Archbishop Temple, R.H. Tawney, the famous economic historian, and William Beveridge, the architect of the Welfare State, were all at Balliol College, Oxford. They were sent off by the Master of Balliol, Edward Caird, in the vacations to work in the East End of London among poor and deprived people, which gave them an insight which they would not otherwise have received. People sometimes forget that, when the Welfare State and the NHS were created, the National Debt was far greater than it is today: but the inspiration which drove Archbishop Temple and his fellow students pointed to something far more important than money, or the lack of it.

In a similar vein, Jean Vanier, the Canadian theologian who founded the worldwide network of L’Arche communities where people with disabilities live together with able-bodied people, to great mutual benefit, was interviewed on the Today programme on Thursday [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02hkfzr]. He told a story about visiting a city in South America and being told, as they drove down a main road, that on one side of the road the poor people lived, in squalor and depravity; lives full of uncertainty, hunger and disease.

On the other side of the same road were the big houses with gates and armed guards, with police patrols, in which the rich and privileged lived. Nobody from that side of the road ever crossed over to meet the people in the slums. Jean Vanier said that his whole work had been to encourage people to cross the road; to go and see, and make friends with, people who are differently situated: handicapped or poor, just not so fortunate.

It occurred to me that for me, reading Archbishop John and his contributors’ words of hope, setting out a vision according to which more things matter than just money and the market: and Jean Vanier, showing how it is possible to cross the road – they, for me, showed that God is there. For me, no bright light; no voices from heaven. Like St Paul, I haven’t been fortunate enough actually to be around with Jesus and his first disciples. But just as surely, I felt the presence of God. I’m sure we all can, too.

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on Bible Sunday, 19th Sunday after Trinity, 26th October 2014
Isaiah 55:1-11, Luke 4:14-30

It’s been a challenging week to be a Christian. The other night I was listening to The Moral Maze on the radio, when a panel of people, including the Reverend Giles Fraser and Melanie Phillips, who is Jewish, were discussing the footballer Ched Evans, and the question whether he should be allowed to rejoin his former club and play football again. Had he paid his debt to society and therefore was he entitled to be rehabilitated into society and continue his normal life, or was he in some way disqualified from his previous career because of the nature of the crime that he had committed?

I heard stories about the terrible virus Ebola in Africa. This week we were worried by a couple of instances where people appear to have caught the virus and come to areas which have not so far been affected, in Europe and also in the United States.

We had a report from the new chief executive of the National Health
Service, on what the health service in this country is going to need if it is to survive and continue to give the wonderful service which we expect.

There was a very sad story, here in Cobham, of a 21-year-old boy who was in the middle of a glittering career at university, with great prospects ahead of him, from a wonderful family, who suddenly dropped dead with a heart attack.

I listened to the debate on The Moral Maze about Ched Evans the footballer – and one of the things that rather surprised me was that neither Canon Giles Fraser not Melanie Phillips, the two expressly religious people on the panel, mentioned the Bible. Neither of them tried to relate what had happened and the punishment process which Ched Evans had been through to any passages in the Bible or anything which Jesus or the prophets had said.

In relation to the Ebola virus I have been struck by how it is very much a story about third world countries and poor people. Up to now none of the big drug companies had decided to put any money behind trying to find a cure or trying to develop a vaccine – I hope I’m not offending any of those companies by saying this – until it looked like becoming a threat to the developed part of the world. All of a sudden we now have the hopeful development that GlaxoSmithKline is claiming to have to developed a cure and a vaccine and that they will very fortunately be ready for use very shortly after Christmas; but the observation remains that it does look as though it matters more if you are a rich person in the northern hemisphere rather than a poor person in Africa, if there is going to be an epidemic.

Nearer to home, of course there is the whole question of the future of the National Health Service. The great thing that we all love about it is that it is free at the point of need: in other words it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor; it’s just a question whether you are a human being and whether you are sick as to whether or not you are going to get treatment under our health service.

And finally, the poor chap who died just at the beginning of an adult life, which which probably was going to be very successful and very happy, clearly prompts the question, how could a loving God allow something like this to happen?

To add to those general challenges to Christians, I personally had an interesting thing happen to me this week, which was that I went to attend the inaugural lecture of the new Regius Professor of History in Oxford, Professor Lyndal Roper, an Australian scholar whose speciality is Martin Luther. Her lecture was all about Martin Luther’s dreams. I never knew that Martin Luther had dreams.

I hope it’s not a reflection on the quality of teaching in the diocesan ministry course, but the only revelatory experience involving Martin Luther which I could remember having been taught about was what was called the ‘Turmerlebnis’, the ‘Tower Experience’, when Martin Luther, who apparently was said to suffer dreadfully from constipation, had had to go to the loo in the tower in the monastery where he was, and was said to have experienced spiritual and physical release at the same moment.

Funnily enough, Prof. Roper didn’t mention the Turmerlebnis. It obviously didn’t count as a dream. He had apparently had five other experiences which she counted as dreams, including a vision of a giant quill pen, writing on the door of the church in Wittenburg, where his 95 Theses were subsequently pinned up, and another dream about a cat in a bag, which fortunately did not come to a bad end, but was not simply a question of letting the cat out of the bag.

If we were addressing the task, which Giles Fraser and Melanie Phillips addressed on The Moral Maze, as Christians here at St Mary’s, surely we would have gone to our Bibles. ‘Judge not, lest ye yourselves be judged’: ‘The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons’: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’; and what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, on the question of adultery.

If we looked at Ebola and at the National Health Service as Christians we might remember what it says in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘From each according to his ability and to each according to his need’. We would worry about the huge gap between the rich and poor, the verse which we no longer sing in ‘All things bright and beautiful’, ‘… the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate’.

The fact that we are so keen on the NHS and we think it is so special is surely all to do with the fact that it does not distinguish between the rich and poor. It’s not perhaps so much a question that we don’t approve of the gap between the rich and the poor, but we certainly do approve of something where there is no distinction between rich and poor.

What would Jesus do? Remember what he said to the rich young ruler, that he should give away everything that he had to the poor and follow Him – and indeed he then went on to make the famous remark about it being harder for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven then for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

Shall we quote to the parents of the poor chap who has died, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ [Romans 8:35]. Will that hit the spot with them? Will they listen to that? Will it mean something properly to them? Does it sound realistic to them that that is what God is like?

Well perhaps the first thing to say in relation to all these challenges for a Christian is that in each case I am coming up with a quotation from the Bible. I am going to my Bible first, in order to try to find out what Jesus would do, what God feels about this particular situation.

The difficulty, of course, is that the Bible does not give you straightforward answers; it’s not a textbook in that sense or an instruction manual for life. It’s not a guidebook to the divine. It’s not a description of God and how he works.

We believe that God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent: the creator and sustainer of everything we now about, of our entire life. But we can’t be said to know much about God, in the same way as I know for example how many people there are here in church.

That’s deeply frustrating, because we could easily say that the most important things that we could possibly know would be the things that we can find out about God: but he is the one thing that we can probably know least about! What we can say is that what we do know, what we can infer, starts off with what we read in the Bible. Holy Scripture is the beginning of our experience of God and as such there is nothing more important than what we can learn from Holy Scripture.

There are so many questions – starting with, of course, what is Holy Scripture? What is the criterion by which we decide which books are in the Bible and which books from the same era are out, are apocryphal, or just not part of the canon of accepted books?

Right from the very earliest times Christians have debated what the Bible, the gospels and the various letters of St Paul and the Acts of the Apostles all really mean. What did Jesus say and what did he mean by it? What would Jesus do in particular circumstances? Who was Jesus really? Was He the son of God, and if so, is that the same thing as being God, in some way?

Terribly important questions, because, depending on the answers to them, we are talking about the most important things that we can possibly have in our lives today: that’s why I was particularly fascinated to go to the lecture about Martin Luther.

The Reformation may have happened in the 16th century – and we’re now in the 21st century – but all the various questions, which are relevant to the problems that I was looking at earlier, were around in Martin Luther’s time and he tried to understand better the message of the gospels in order to deal with them.

Was God ‘judge eternal’, inclined to condemn us, stern and unbending, or is he a loving God who forgives us despite our imperfections and our sins? Can we earn his forgiveness by the way we act? What happens to people who don’t know about Jesus and God and are good nevertheless? Are they saved or are they condemned because they are in ignorance?

We all know the story of Martin Luther pinning up his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, mainly aimed at the Pope and his sale of so-called ‘indulgences’: that you could in fact buy yourself a shorter time in Purgatory, which was supposed to be the kind of antechamber to heaven, where you had a chance to make amends for all those dreadful things that you had done, all the sins you had committed in your life, so as to have a sort of second chance to get into heaven.

The Pope was selling the right to shorten your time in Purgatory by making charitable gifts to the church. It all sounds very far-fetched, if not slightly corrupt, now and we’re not really surprised that Martin Luther was against it.

We should perhaps not be too hasty to condemn the Pope because the background to the sale of indulgences was the need to raise money for Saint Peter’s in Rome. It was in fact a parish fundraising campaign by another name.

Who was right? Was Luther right or the Pope right? Was Henry VIII right? Was Cranmer right? Who has the authoritative statement of what Jesus would do in all these various circumstances?

Who has an authoritative view on what the correct interpretation of the Bible in relation to any given instance is? Because you can find contradictory things in the Bible.

Professor Roper had a thesis behind her lecture that in fact whereas John Calvin, the other great reformer, would say that his inspiration was ‘sola scriptura’, only Scripture, only Holy Scripture alone, and whereas the Pope would point to his apostolic succession from St Peter and the tradition of the holy Fathers, Luther could point to revelation, revelation from God, in the various dreams which he had had.

I have to say that I rushed to my copy of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s great book ‘Reformation’, and couldn’t find any reference to Luther’s great dreams – although the lavatorial experience, the Turmerlebnis, was quite well covered!

The point is, on this Bible Sunday, that whatever view you take and however you fit in with church history and the various strands of theology that have grown up over the ages in dealing with this incredibly important but terribly difficult topic, the important thing is that everything starts with the Bible: nothing is more authoritative.

It may not be the be-all and end-all, and it may not be literally the result of God dictating to somebody, but it is the word of God in the sense that it is the best source we have for our knowledge of God and Jesus; so let us never stop reading our Bibles; never stop wrestling with the words in them and trying to understand them.

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.