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Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent, 29th November 2015 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Luke 21:25-36 There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations …

It’s Advent. We’re about to embark on that happy progress up to Christmas. We will get together with our families. We will give presents. We will send cards. We will be happy, and friendly, and full of the ‘season of goodwill’.

So why such a doom-laden Bible reading? Surely it’s all fun in the run up to Christmas?

Advent is looking forward to the coming of God on earth, Emmanuel. Today we are looking forward to the revelation of God. Quite a lot of the Bible readings in Advent are about watching and waiting, looking for the coming of the Kingdom of God. When the baby Jesus appears, that is the revelation of God. God isn’t some impossible hugeness, some grand master in the sky: He is a baby.

This is a time for deep reflection, spiritually, in the light of that astonishing Revelation. There are some important challenges for Christians out there. To start you off on your Advent reflection, here are some things that I have encountered.

I went, earlier this week, to a presentation by the Walton Charity, the Walton-on-Thames charity, the very old-established (its origins are 800 years old) and influential body who are behind all sorts of good works locally. They had commissioned a report from an economic think-tank, the New Economics Foundation, under the title ‘Inequality in Elmbridge’.

Some of you may have been at the reception too: I must confess that I have given up using the Rugby skills that I once had, in order to get to the prawn sandwiches. So I’m sorry if I didn’t greet you. It was heaving with people.

It looked like everyone was there. All the local great and good. A county councillor or two. Senior people from Elmbridge Borough Council and Surrey County Council. Social workers. Foodbank people. Businessmen.

Our borough, Elmbridge, was being looked at, from an economic standpoint. How were the lowest paid fixed? What was affecting the middle class people? What about the commuters?

It comes as a surprise that there are any poor people in Elmbridge. It’s supposed to be the second richest borough, in the sense that the average income is second only to Kensington and Chelsea. But – as I know from my work as manager of the Cobham Foodbank – there are substantial pockets of deprivation and poverty.

For instance, our area has one of the highest levels of domestic violence in the country. This means that there are single parents – usually women, with children – trying to put their lives together, sometimes after years of abuse. They aren’t in a fit state to work. They lack self-esteem. There’s a wonderful charity in Cobham, Oasis Childcare, which provides all sorts of courses and support for them, even taking their clients on holiday in the summer. This year they took 70 families to Weymouth for a week.

Oasis’ clients are our clients too, at the Foodbank. We provide food for around 30 people each week: 1,500 not very exciting, but nutritionally balanced, parcels of non-perishable food a year. In Cobham, Stoke and Oxshott. Yes really. There really are a number of people who sometimes find that they haven’t got enough money even to buy some food. We were a bit quiet on Friday – we provided food for 17 adults and 4 children, the day before yesterday.

In the next chapter of the report, it looked at middle income earners. The middle income people have different needs, compared with the very poor people. They aren’t hungry – they have good jobs – but they want more. They admire their neighbours’ new kitchens and curved-screen TVs: they stretch themselves financially in order to keep up with the Joneses. They spend a bit more than they actually earn – and they worry. Will it all come to an end? Their lives aren’t secure.

And finally the report looked at some wealthy ones, who are commuters – couples, who both get the 7.56 to Waterloo, and don’t get home much before 8 most evenings. They don’t really know anyone in the village, and they don’t really participate in local life. They have lots of money – but once you’ve put that island in your kitchen, what else can you do with it? And as every German motorway – Autobahn – driver knows, however fast you are going in your beautiful bolide, there is always a Porsche, a faster car, coming up to overtake you.

Remember what our Gospel today said. ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.’ (Luke 21:34-35)

There’s a spiritual emptiness in our world. What is really worth something? What will have lasting value? The posh kitchen and the Bentley in the drive won’t do it.

The thing that struck me was that none of the great and good, who were gathered to mark the publication of the report, were saying anything much about it. What do the grandees and the local councillors feel? How much of the poverty, the poverty in the middle of riches, is down to ‘austerity’ and cuts in benefits?

How do we feel about the huge gaps between rich and poor, and between the rich and the richer? Should we – dare I say this? – pay more taxes?

Would it help if people came to church and said their prayers a bit more often?

Oh, and another thing. We’re going to be singing about peace in all those Advent and Christmas hymns. Take hymn 56, [Common Praise] for instance:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
‘Peace on earth, good will to men,
From heaven’s all-gracious King!’ …

‘Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song that they bring:..’

Are we really going to be bombing Syria at Christmas? I have to say that, although of course we all sympathise completely with the poor people in Paris who suffered from the terrorist atrocity, and with the Russian families who lost relatives and friends in the plane which IS bombed, nevertheless it’s not clear to me what the objective of dropping even more bombs in Syria would be. The Americans have been dropping huge numbers of bombs already, and there is no sign that IS is going away. On the other hand, just as when they bombed a Médecins sans Frontières hospital by mistake, or when they killed an IS leader with a drone strike (and killed four others, nameless in the same car), there are always innocent bystanders who are killed and maimed as well.

Let’s use this time of prayerful anticipation in the lead up to Christmas, let’s use Advent, use it as a time to reflect and think again what Jesus’ true message for us today would be.

Back to the carol:
‘Oh hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.’

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.