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Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 14th July 2019

Genesis 32:9-30, Mark 7:1-23 (see https://bible.oremus.org/?ql=430034390)

I could tell you a good story about Jacob and Esau and the beginnings of the nation of Israel: how Jacob cheated his brother Esau, as we heard last week; how he in turn was cheated by Laban, his relative, father of Leah and Rachel, so that eventually Jacob managed to marry both of them: how Jacob in his wandering prospered, again through some sharp practice, this time getting his own back on old Laban. He said Laban could have goats and sheep, provided they had certain markings on them, and Jacob would have the others, although quietly he was making sure that he was breeding only the sheep and the goats that had his markings on.

So Jacob became rich and prospered. Still, his brother Esau was out to get him, for taking away their father’s blessing, his birthright. So Jacob went out with a huge gathering of cattle and various other presents for his brother to appease him, and to make him forgive him.

On the night before he was due to meet his brother, (and both of them were accompanied by private armies), he met a mysterious man, with whom he wrestled all night, and who dislocated his hip for him. He wouldn’t tell Jacob his name, although the mysterious man said that Jacob’s name would not be Jacob any more, but Israel, which means ‘God strove’, or ‘God struggled’, so Jacob deduced that he had had God as his opponent. Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning, ‘the face of God’.

I could tell you all that story; Oh, and I could also mention Jacob’s dream, of the angels ascending and descending a ladder to and from heaven.

In the story there’s a real intimacy between Jacob and God. It doesn’t seem to be particularly the case that God is upholding Jacob because he is a good and moral man – which he clearly isn’t; and even after Jacob has stolen his brother’s birthright, nevertheless his father Isaac, too, seems to treat it as just one of those things. He blesses Jacob and he sends him out to start a family. I could tell you that story.

Or, I could go into the other story today in our Bible readings, about washing one’s hands before you eat, and various other Jewish rules which were not part of the law of Moses, which Jesus condemned as forms of hypocrisy.

The part about washing hands doesn’t translate very well into a modern context, but the other half of the story, where Jesus goes on to tick the Pharisees off for relying on the small print, relying on get-out clauses allowing them to avoid having to do good, to avoid having to care for their parents as it is laid down in the Law of Moses, is something we can easily understand.

Apparently a practice had grown up according to which people could get out of looking after their old Mums and Dads and devoting resources to it, if they had first set aside the bulk of their savings for a sacrifice, or sacrificial offering, to God. This is what was called ‘Corban’.

Whatever was set aside as Corban was no longer available to be used to benefit one’s family, one’s aged parents, and so you were excused from having to look after them.

I could spend a long time teasing out all the various bits of meaning in our two Bible lessons. On one level you might possibly find it edifying, even enlightening; just as you would do, if you were watching a documentary film or going to one of the Art Fund lectures at the Yehudi Menuhin School.

But then I think, an hour or so after you come out of church, you might have a moment of dismay, because those stories just don’t bear on all the important things that are going on in our lives.

What on earth has wrestling with a mystery man in the night, or seeing angels climbing up and down to heaven, got to do with our worries about naval threats in the Gulf of Hormuz, or the unpredictability of Pres.Trump and his refusal to follow the norms of statesmanlike behaviour?

What do Jacob’s wanderings and Jesus’ teaching about hypocrisy really have to say to us in today’s world? Some of it is, on its face, out of date or inappropriate. Our children really ought not to think that Jesus says it’s OK not to wash your hands. (I know it’s about ritual washing, but that’s even further away from real life).

We are worried about knife crime. The terrible murder on the train at East Horsley. It was a shock. It seemed to be something that could have happened to any of us who commute on that line, on our local line to London. What has God got to do with that?

What will happen about ‘Brexit’? Our country has already been greatly diminished in the eyes of the rest of the world and the preparations for Brexit have cost billions. Where will it end?

Austerity, over the last ten years, has not made our economy any stronger. But is has meant that the poorer people in our society are now desperately poor, and food banks are everywhere. Our own food bank will supply over 3,000 food parcels, locally, here in this area, in the next twelve months. What would Jesus say?

During the ITV debate between the two candidates for the Conservative leadership, when one was asked about his Christian faith, he said: “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.” [https://twitter.com/churchtimes/status/1149735677430390784?s=21]

Why doesn’t his faith in God define his politics? Is there anything more important? How worrying is that? I’m not concerned about who the politician was or that it was one party or another: this could have been said by almost anyone. But he was an MP, an important person, a minister. Why shouldn’t such an MP’s faith influence his politics?

In the Bible, Jacob could talk to God and lament that he had not followed God’s commandments; but nevertheless God kept faith with him. They had this regular contact. In his dream he saw the angels climbing up and down a ladder, Jacob’s Ladder, into heaven. And God met him at night to wrestle with him. Was that a dream as well? Whatever it was, Jacob felt that he had seen the face of God; he had been close to God.

But we, we don’t seem to experience anything like that. Perhaps like the Pharisees, we’ve become too regimented in our approach to God. Perhaps our prayers are too formulaic. Perhaps we are not open enough to see the face of God any more. Perhaps we’re like that politician. Like the one who said, “I sometimes pray. I’m like regular Church of England folk: it’s part of my life and my identity, but I don’t think it defines my politics.”

When Jesus told the Pharisees not just to go through the motions, not just to follow the rules for the sake of following the rules, I think he could have been talking precisely about the ‘regular Church of England folk’ that this politician said he belonged to. The Pharisees went through the motions, but they didn’t actually do anything. It didn’t ‘define their politics’.

I think what Jesus is teaching us in relation to washing one’s hands and setting aside resources that might have gone to look after your parents, is that this is sham love, and it is no good. Jesus wants us to show risky love, real love, the sort of thing he preached about in his Sermon on the Mount.

The love that Jesus was recommending, going the extra mile, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, being like the Good Samaritan, is generous love and it’s a love which is not calculating in any way. Paul wrote about it in 1 Corinthians 13. ‘Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant’. It isn’t necessarily love which you can easily afford. It could be like the widow’s mite. Not much, but it could be more than you can easily afford.

But when you do see that kind of giving, giving which does not count the cost, at work, when, (and this seems especially apt today, which is Sea Sunday), when you see the risks that Captain Carola Rackete, the young German sea captain, took in order to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean and take them to a safe port, even though it might result in her going to jail; or more mundanely and closer to home, when you see someone give their entire trolley of purchases from the supermarket to our Foodbank, all for their poor neighbours: it may not be a sensible gift: it may be really extravagant: but it is loving. It is a blessing. A real blessing, and I think we may begin to see the face of God in it.

Just as Jacob was really concerned to be blessed, to have his father’s blessing and then for God to bless him – he said, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me’ – we need to look out for our blessings. If we count our blessings, I am confident that we are going to find, not that we are alone, but that God really is still at work among us.

So may God bless us and keep us, and make His face to shine upon us.

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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.