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Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 25th August 2019 – Prophetic and Theological Considerations in the Brexit Debate

Isaiah 30:8-21; [2 Corinthians 9] – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433650150

The first part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, sometimes known as ‘First Isaiah’, (because scholars think that there were three prophets whose work is collectively known as the Book of the Prophet Isaiah), ‘the first book of Isaiah’, was written in the 8th century BCE. It’s been pointed out that that century was one of the pivotal points in the history of modern civilisation.

It was the time when the Homeric legends, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were first being recited by travelling bards; in the British Isles, Celts, refugees from mainland Europe, were pouring into Cornwall; Egypt was where the most sophisticated culture was, and Assyria (Syria, roughly) was the most powerful imperial power. It was a time of religious stirrings. Zoroaster was born in Persia in about 650BCE. The Upanishads were written in India probably between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE. It was the time of Confucius and Tao in China.

E. H. Robertson has written, ‘Over the whole world the spirit of God stirred the spirit of man. In Judah and Israel, four men spoke in the name of the living God, …’ [ Robertson, E. H., Introduction to J.B. Phillips, 1963, ‘Four Prophets’, London, Geoffrey Bles, p. xxv] These were the four prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. Just as in the middle of the 19th century it was a time of revolutions, and the end of the 20th century it was the beginning of the digital age, this, in the 8th century BCE, was another turning point in human history.

The spiritual narrative of this historic period was supplied, in Israel and Judah, by the four prophets.The great historical event in this period was the fall of Samaria in 732BCE, when the whole of the Northern Kingdom, Syria and Israel was depopulated and turned into Assyrian provinces. It was a great shock to the people of Israel left in the Southern Kingdom, Judah. Her prophets, particularly Isaiah, were finally listened to. ‘The general line taken by the prophets was, trust in God and keep out of foreign alliances.’ [Robertson, p.xxvi]

Our lesson tonight from chapter 30 of First Isaiah is exactly on this point. The prophet is saying that God has told him to tell the Israelites not to make an alliance with the Egyptians. But he complains that they are not taking any notice. How does God communicate with us?

I heard on the radio an absolutely fascinating programme about the fire in York Minster [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007pws]. This year, of course, we have had the terrible fire in Notre Dame in Paris, but in July 1984 there was a terrible fire in York Minster, which destroyed the roof of the south transept and caused extensive damage to the magnificent mediaeval Rose window.

Just before the fire, a new Bishop of Durham had been consecrated, David Jenkins. He was an academic theologian in the liberal theological tradition; in other words, he did not hold with a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible. Indeed, he went as far as saying that he didn’t think that the Virgin Birth necessarily literally took place.

When he was consecrated as Bishop of Durham, in York Minster, there was an outcry from some parts of the church; today no doubt it would have been a ‘Twitter storm’, protesting that Bishop Jenkins, Prof. Jenkins, was flying in the face of the traditional beliefs of the church over the previous 2,000 years. Some people went as far as to say that the fire in the Cathedral, in the Minster, which was attributed, by the surveyors who came to examine the wreckage, most probably to a lightning strike, that it was an ‘act of God’, literally, in that God had struck the Minster with lightning and set fire to it, as a way of showing His disapproval of the preferment of David Jenkins to the bishopric of Durham.

Isaiah was prophesying to the Israelites in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, against their making an alliance with Egypt. Judah heeded the prophecy, and did not make an alliance with Egypt. The Israelites were able to build the Temple and live in peace for nearly 100 years.

Now we are perhaps at another pivotal time in history – well, certainly in the history of this country; and perhaps if one includes as a key element in this current historical perspective the rise of populism, this pivotal time affects not only our country, but also the USA and Italy at least. We are noticing changes in our society as a result; there have been increases in nationalism and xenophobia, (with an unhealthy interest in where people have come from), leading to opposition to immigration, which also involves a ground-swell of racism.

In the British manifestation of this wave of populism, in the Brexit debate, there is also an emphasis on sovereignty – ‘take back control’, they say – as well as all the other features of populist politics. So in relation to all this, is there an Isaiah out there speaking to us? A prophetic voice, guiding us in relation to this turbulent time? And if there is, are we listening?

We look at some of the prophetic utterances in the Bible, and wonder if they might also be talking about our present age. Last week’s Gospel reading for instance, in which Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father. ..’ [Luke 12:51f.]

Dare I say that Brexit has had very much the same effect? Friends have stopped speaking to each other. Families are divided. Literally billions have been spent on preparing for something which there is no agreement about, either within our population, our Parliament or with our European neighbours; at the same time our hospitals are desperate for resources, our schools, similarly, have often not got enough money for books, and our local authorities can’t afford to fill the potholes – and that’s not saying anything about the need for housing or the closures of our fire stations.

Is this another time when a prophet might say that God is punishing us, or that He may punish us? Revd Dr Jonathan Draper, the General Secretary of Modern Church (which used to be called the Modern Churchmen’s Union), who was the Dean of Exeter, in his conference speech in July, has tried to identify the theological aspects of the Brexit debate. I’ll put a link to his paper on the website with the text of this sermon. [Published written version: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5ees6m98pb25bh9/theology%20after%20brexit%20-%20final.docx?dl=0 – version as delivered: https://www.modernchurch.org.uk/2019/july-2019/1494-how-theology-has-failed-over-brexit]

He says, ‘Our national so-called ‘debate’ on Brexit has exposed deep, damaging, and shocking divisions: divisions that cut across families and friends, divisions that have exposed the raw experience of some of being entirely left out and ignored by the political and ecclesiastical ‘elite’, divisions that pit one part of the nation against others. Without even leaving, a deep and disturbing vein of xenophobia and racism has been exposed and even normalized in our public life.’

He goes on. ’Dr Adrian Hilton wrote ‘A Christian Case for Brexit’ on the website christiansinpolitics.org.uk. … His …. reasons for why Christians should want to be out of the EU [are], he writes, ‘about liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’.’ As Dr Draper points out, these are not theological reasons. There is nothing in the Bible to support these reasons.

In relation to the various things we have identified in the Brexit debate, it seems doubtful whether the ‘Christian case’ would in fact elevate ‘liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’ over such things as loving one’s neighbour – who, as the Good Samaritan found, might not be of the same nationality – and that anyway there is ‘no such thing as Jew and Greek’ in the Kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28) [https://biblehub.com/kjv/galatians/3.htm]- that nationality is not something which mattered to our Lord; and that political power, democratic or otherwise, wasn’t very important either, in the context of the Kingdom. More important to love (and therefore obey) the Lord your God. ‘Render unto Caesar’, indeed; but in those days democracy was practically non-existent.

Another theologian, Dr Anthony Reddie, has pointed out ‘a rising tide of white English nationalism’ and ‘the incipient sense of White entitlement’; that participants in the Brexit debate seem to have emphasised White English interests to the exclusion of other races and nationalities. Dr Reddie feels that the churches should be speaking out against this. He asks why the churches have not ‘measured Brexit against the standards of justice and equality’, loving God and loving neighbour. Dr Reddie also argues that churches ought to consider ‘not just the rights and wrongs of Brexit, but what it has done to us’. [Quoted in Dr Draper’s written text]

Dr Draper goes on to consider the theology of incarnation, of being the body of Christ, Christ incorporated in His church. It isn’t an individualistic thing. He quotes John Donne’s poem, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’:

Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

He also says this.

‘This is not an argument for saying that we ought to stay in the EU. It is an argument for saying that a Christian theology of the Kingdom of God, being all one in Christ, drives us away from things that divide us and towards things that bring us together. … The impulse to unity ought to be strong for Christians. Walls, barriers that divide, theologies that exclude, have no part of the Christian vision.’

Where do we as a church stand in relation to the concept of human rights, for example? Our own MP, who is now the Foreign Secretary, has recently campaigned to abolish the Human Rights Act. This is something which our country adopted by signing up to a European convention – a convention which was actually drafted by English lawyers. Although the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution, it is seen, mistakenly, by some Brexit supporters as interference in our country’s sovereignty by the EU. What do we as Christians have to say about this? Surely, at this pivotal point in our national life, it is too important for us to stay silent. How does Brexit square with Jesus’ great human rights challenge at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel? Dr Draper, [in the version of his paper that he delivered], quoted it in this way.

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. [Matt. 25: 37-40]”

He went on.

‘And let’s not spiritualise this either. To feed the hungry is a political act; to welcome the stranger is a political act: enacting, embodying the Christian faith is a political act. And sometimes that means not just praying for everyone but taking sides.’

That’s what Dr Draper said to the Modern Church conference. I don’t think Isaiah would have kept quiet either: but would we have heard him?

Sermon for Evensong on the ninth Sunday after Trinity, 18th August 2019

Isaiah 28:9-22, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433037279 – Not Just a Crown Jewel

Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. (Isaiah 28:9)

Sometimes I expect you are slightly puzzled by our Bible readings at Evensong. Even the language of Shakespeare might need a little bit of explanation. This is how the New English Bible renders it.

Who is it that the prophet hopes to teach,

to whom will what they hear make sense?

Are they babes newly weaned, just taken from the breast?

It could be a taunt thrown back by the drunken prophets of Judah at Isaiah. J.B. Phillips has translated it as, ‘Are we just weaned … Do we have to learn that The-law-is-the-law-is-the-law, The rule-is-the-rule-is-the-rule…?’. [Quoted by Derek Kidner in The New Bible Commentary, 4th edition 1994, reprinted 2007, Nottingham, Inter-Varsity Press, p 650.]

The background to this prophecy in Isaiah is the situation in Jerusalem between 740 and 700 BCE the two kingdoms of the Israelites, the North, Samaria, and the South, Judah, were being threatened by Assyria – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, if you remember Byron’s poem. In 734 the kings of Damascus and Samaria tried to force Jerusalem to join a coalition against Assyria. This ‘Syro-Ephraimite’ war is the background to the main prophecies of Isaiah. So our passage is prophecy addressed to the rulers in Jerusalem.

14 Listen then to the word of the LORD, you arrogant men

who rule this people in Jerusalem.

15 You say, ‘We have made a treaty with Death

and signed a pact with Sheol:

so that, when the raging flood sweeps by, it shall not touch us;

for we have taken refuge in lies

and sheltered behind falsehood.’

16 These then are the words of the Lord GOD:

Look, I am laying a stone in Zion, a block of granite,

a precious corner-stone for a firm foundation;

he who has faith shall not waver.

17 I will use justice as a plumb-line

and righteousness as a plummet;

hail shall sweep away your refuge of lies,

and flood-waters carry away your shelter.’ (Isaiah 28:14-17, NEB)

Godfrey, in some of his sermons recently, has been introducing a ‘that was then: this is now’ angle on what he is preaching about. It’s perhaps a bit tempting, to compare Isaiah’s criticism of the rulers of Judah, whom he criticised as being ‘liars’, and indeed earlier on as ‘complete drunkards’, tempting to compare them with some contemporary politicians today.

What is our prophetic duty at this time? What would Jesus say? What would Isaiah say if he were around today? One thing seems pretty clear, that God wants nothing to do with lies and deception. It’s perhaps sobering to realise that, in 721, the Assyrians did conquer Samaria, the Northern Kingdom, shortly after Isaiah had prophesied; and just over a century later, the Southern Kingdom also fell and the people were largely deported to Babylon. So these ‘scoffers’, whom Isaiah railed against, didn’t end well.

As has been said very well by Godfrey, this is a time of great anxiety, for just about all of us. Nobody knows what is going to happen with our way of life, with our country, and with our relationships with the rest of the world. We don’t like the signs of xenophobia, racism and extreme nationalism that the populist politicians in this country and abroad seem to have encouraged.

These are not just questions of taste. People are getting hurt; refugees are being abandoned on the high seas by populist politicians who seem to have completely forgotten the milk of human kindness, let alone the law of the sea. On the Mexican border with the USA, our closest allies are separating young children from their parents and putting them in cages without any sanitation.

Where should our church fit in, how should we deal with all this? Our second lesson tonight, from 2 Corinthians, is, in effect, about planned giving to the church. I’m sure everybody will be groaning away at that: but even 2,000 years ago, when St Paul was writing to the congregation in Corinth, he was telling them all about the generosity of other new Christian churches in Macedonia. There’s a wonderful piece of Greek which is really untranslatable in the second verse of our lesson, saying that the Macedonians have excelled in generosity although they are poor – the words mean ‘rich from poverty’ – εἰς τὸ πλοῦτος τῆς ἀπλότητος αὐτῶν· It’s the same idea as in Jesus’ story of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4).

Not that they gave nothing; but that they gave much more than, as poor people, they might be expected to give. Stephen Chater is speaking to as many of us as possible, encouraging everybody to ‘Count ourselves in’. Count me in, so far as supporting our church’s financial position is concerned.

But I suspect that we ought to consider something a bit wider as well. And if we do consider something wider, it will surely lead us on to the sort of sacrificial giving which St Paul praises here.

On September 8th we will open the church at the beginning of the ‘Crown Jewels of Cobham’ scheme organised by Cobham Heritage. We will encourage people to come and look at our beautiful church, along with the other places locally which have been called ‘crown jewels’, (about which you’ll find a nice booklet on your way out if you haven’t already got one).

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m sure it’ll be very enjoyable and everybody will have a wonderful time working out whether our brass knights in front of the altar are the real thing or some very clever reproduction. If you haven’t made up your own mind which it is, and you’d like to come and look close up, do come after the service and have a look in the sanctuary. The Sir Johns, D’Abernon, Senior and Junior, are ready to welcome you!

But the thing is that, as a parish church, we surely have a place in the community. We aren’t just a monument to be admired. We have indeed affirmed that in our PCC and at our parish ‘awayday’ a little while ago now.

What we come to church to do is not just to love God, but it is also to love our neighbour as ourself. And at present we haven’t got any settled outward-social-concern or giving projects. They might not just be questions of money – although it usually does involve some money – but there is also the question of a ‘warm embrace’ for our neighbours, as that wonderful local Christian figure Derek Williams, who has sadly just died, used to put it.

At St Mary’s we do a lot of good already in supporting the Foodbank, for example, not only with money but also by providing three of the five trustees who manage it.

There are other important local charities that do a lot of good in this area, that we might want to involve ourselves more closely with as well.

Oasis – sometimes called Oasis Children’s Charity – exists to put families back together and restore the self-confidence of family members who have suffered from break-ups, in particular involving domestic violence. That’s a terrible scourge, which unfortunately is very prevalent in Surrey. Surrey has, if not the highest level of domestic violence in the country, something very close to it, according to those who work in this field. The local authority delegates some important social work functions to Oasis – but at the same time they have cut their funding. Could we help?

We have now, in and around Cobham, Oxshott, Stoke D’Abernon and the immediate vicinity (meaning the areas that the Foodbank covers), I think there are nine of them, Syrian refugee families, who are being helped in various highly practical ways by the local refugee welcome charity called Elmbridge CAN. Maybe we could get involved there.

I was excited to hear that one of our ‘Mums’ has discovered that some local children, some no more than 11 years old, are being left at home on their own in the holidays because Mum and Dad are both out at work. What about a ‘holiday club’ in St Mary’s Hall, with some interesting things to do with friends around – maybe the odd outing, to Bockett’s Farm perhaps – and all with some responsible adults to supervise? If you’re interested, talk to Kelly McConville or Emma Tomalin. The objective is to have the holiday club ready for the Christmas holiday.

And last on my list of local charitable initiatives, there is the Safe Places scheme, which I mentioned last week. The idea is that there will be a network of places to which somebody feeling vulnerable or in a crisis, who wants to find a quiet, safe place for an hour or so, can go to, directed by an app on their phone and social media publicity. It’s an initiative started by Elmbridge Borough Council in response to a national movement; and the churches have been invited to be at the heart of it. After all, churches have been places of refuge since the beginnings of Christianity.

So far, I’m sad to say, people have reacted rather negatively to the idea of St Mary’s becoming a place of refuge, to the effect that ‘We don’t have many people passing by this church, just to drop in: so really, it isn’t worth the effort’.

The point about not being on the beaten track seems to me to be a misapprehension. The whole point is that we should make our church a beacon, a beacon of hope, to which people are attracted. We can use modern technology and social media to help with this. I hope we can think more about becoming a Safe Space.

And then there are all the things abroad that we could consider getting involved in.

In view of the refugee crisis, perhaps we should look at the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, or one of the great Christian overseas charities, Christian Aid (not just for Christian Aid Week, but year-round), or World Vision or Oxfam or Save the Children, for example.

I would like to get us talking about this. These things won’t happen overnight, but, as a growing church, we should have some of them on our agenda. The wonderful thing is that, if we look outside ourselves, we will grow, and God will give us the strength. It’s like that wonderful film ‘Field of Dreams’ and the man who dreamed about bringing the legendary Babe Ruth to life again – ‘If you build it, he will come’. And in a more mundane way, in the church, many people come to faith by ‘doing stuff’ – belonging and then believing.

Remember what Isaiah said:

‘Now therefore be ye not mockers, lest your bands be made strong’

‘Lest your bands be made strong’ – lest all those things you’re worried about overwhelm you.

Instead we must love God – and not forget to love our neighbour – if our church is indeed to become a ‘cornerstone in Zion’, a precious corner-stone, a sure foundation, at this worrying time of uncertainty. I pray that with God’s grace, it will happen. And do let’s talk about it.

‘But I thought you were our friends’, said a German friend when I was in Hamburg soon after the Brexit referendum in June 2016. ‘So did I – and you are’, I answered, churning with embarrassment.

Since then I have been puzzled and disappointed by the fact that not everyone, whom I would have expected to be, is solidly opposed to Brexit, which fact, in my view, flies in the face of the EU’s worth, as the most successful movement for peace, security and comity between peoples ever in Europe. 

I believe that the European Union has brought 70 years of peace in Europe; that it has brought about a consensus, which has become law in all member states, that human rights (defined by a British-drafted convention) shall be upheld and the exploitation of workers outlawed; introduced limits on working hours and requirements for the active provision of safe places in which to work and play. It is an area where students can study freely in any member country, and academics are free to work in whatever nationality of university they choose. The vision of Europe United seems to me to be profoundly Christian, in that it espouses the idea of a brotherhood of mankind, that all humans are children of God and dear to Him, irrespective where they come from. This is the ‘human values’ side of EU membership, if I can put it like that.

There are economic benefits of membership in the EU, based on free trade and the absence of customs duties for movement of goods between EU countries, as well as freedom of movement and common standards for food and various types of hardware: the ‘four freedoms’ – movement of goods, capital, services and labour – guaranteed by the Single European Act of 1993. The ‘single market’ this has created has become one of the biggest trading blocs in the world.  None of the proposed forms of Brexit would avoid major harm to the UK economy when compared with the status quo.  This is the economic side of EU membership. We are better off remaining where we are. It is true that the nations who are members have given up some of their individual sovereignty, but this is in return for being part of a much greater collective whole, and therefore they are actually more powerful as such than they would be on their own.

But yet there are people who, one would think, would agree with all this and be enthusiastic about it, but who favour Brexit. One such is Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, and another (probably) is Jeremy Corbyn. There has recently been a podcast discussion between Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, Dr Maurice Glasman, the founder of the so-called ‘Blue Labour’ movement (listen at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/confessions-with-giles-fraser-unherd/id1445038441?mt=2&i=1000426741962) in which they both ‘confessed’ – or rather, celebrated – that they were both in favour of Brexit, despite both being generally in favour of the ‘human values’ side of the EU. Both are Labour Party members, and both practise their religious faiths.

This was – is – because they both see the EU as a powerful instrument of neoliberal economics, under which the rich get richer and the poor poorer, big corporations have unfettered power to harm our lives, and the values of the market trump all others. They both see value in nationhood and patriotism, and they believe that the rules of the Single Market would prevent a future Labour government from giving state aid including borrowing to invest in the steps necessary to rectify the effects of the current Conservative government’s austerity programme. They distance themselves from the overtones of racism and xenophobia which often seem to arise in the context of Brexit.

Fraser is, otherwise, a caring social liberal. His most recent article for the ‘UnHerd’ website created by the founder of ‘Conservative Home’, Tim Montgomerie, is ‘Why Brexit Britain should welcome more Refugees’ [https://unherd.com/2019/01/why-brexit-britain-should-welcome-more-refugees/]. 

As an aside, I am rather unsure whether I like ‘UnHerd’. Apart from Giles Fraser, its contributors all seem to be right-wing. In the body of Fraser’s article are suggestions for further reading. I show these links above. One gets an uneasy feeling that this is not really an enlightened, liberal publication in the way that Dr Fraser’s previous home, the Guardian, is. Some of the images used are quite disturbing. ‘Economic rationalists … immigration’ is alongside a picture of our leading black – British – politician, Diane Abbott. ‘How bigoted is Brexit?’ appears alongside a picture of orthodox Jews playing what looks like a playground game. In both cases, one asks why these images were used, if there is not some appeal to unenlightened instincts.

Pace what the Brexit faction alleges, the EU is democratic, and upholds democracy. There is an elected European Parliament and an elected Council of Ministers, which bodies are sovereign. The European Commission is the civil service, the administrative arm, of the EU. Its powers are analogous with those of our British civil service as between themselves and the elected bodies. We currently enjoy considerable influence on the policy-making of the EU. Brexit would deny us any representation or control of EU policy in future. In ‘taking back control’, Britain would risk being governed by people who are not so committed to human rights, for example. One recalls that when he was a justice minister, Dominic Raab wanted to abolish the Human Rights Act.

It seems to me that we would have more chance of being able to put right the cruel excesses of austerity if we are inside the EU and able to benefit from its collective strength. If Jeremy Corbyn feels that, if he were Prime Minister, he would be able to negotiate more favourable Brexit terms than those obtained by Theresa May, then surely he ought to be confident that, among his many socialist colleagues in European parties, if we remained in the EU, he would be able to build a consensus away from neoliberalism.  After all, just as neoliberalism has failed in the UK, it has clearly not succeeded in several parts of the EU: certainly in Greece, and probably also in Italy, Spain and Portugal, the case for a change to Keynsian economics is strong. Note, incidentally, that the leading economist and former Finance Minister of Greece, Prof. Yanis Varoufakis, does not think that either his own country, Greece, or the UK, where he teaches, should leave the EU. Reform from within is the better route.

The argument that EU rules on state aid would frustrate Labour policy on rebuilding a fair and humane welfare state has been demolished by the leading competition lawyer, George Peretz QC. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/27/four-reasons-jeremy-corbyn-wrong-eu-state-aid. 

Now, with weeks to go before the date recklessly set by the government for Britain to leave the EU, I do hope that those respected thinkers on the Left such as Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, as well as the Labour leadership, will come round to a similar view to that held by Yanis Varoufakis, that reform from within is possible, that the EU need not necessarily always be in thrall to neoliberalism, and that Brexit is ‘a disaster for Britain’ – see https://www.yanisvaroufakis.eu/2018/12/22/talking-brexit-bernie-and-left-internationalism-with-yanis-varoufakis-vice/. Then the Labour Party can solidly oppose Brexit and ensure that the Article 50 clock is stopped in order to allow a further referendum to take place, in which the people can decide whether they really want to make our country catastrophically poorer and less influential in the world, by leaving the EU (either under the current May ‘deal’ or without a deal), or whether, now that they can see what Brexit actually involves, they would prefer to remain in the EU.  Then I can hope to greet my friend in Hamburg and be recognised again as his true friend.

Hugh Bryant

5th January 2019 

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday of Easter, 22nd April 2018

Exodus 16:4-15; Revelation 2:12-17

Salvation. What is it to be ‘saved’? After the glorious Easter story of Jesus’ resurrection, it seems logical to move on from celebrating his, Jesus’, triumph over death to his promise that we too will be ‘saved’, to a life after death. In the Book of Revelation, we find a vision of what that might look like. I’m often rather dismissive about heaven being a place above the clouds where you meet a kindly old man with a white beard. But actually the beginning of the Book of Revelation is one source of that quaint image of the divine. This is how the book begins.

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,

Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; ….

And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. … one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt … with a golden girdle.

His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; … out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength [Rev. 1:10-14]

But even if it comes from the Bible, that picture of heaven is just a best effort to imagine something beyond the scope of human knowledge. There are rational objections to the idea of heaven being above the clouds – not least the evidence of the early astronauts, who didn’t bump into angels or anything like that. The Book of Revelation is, I’m sure, spiritually inspired, but I don’t think we’re meant to take it literally.

But it’s a vision of heaven, of what life after death might be like, the seven churches in Asia meeting Jesus the Judge Eternal, who decides what he likes and dislikes about them.

The church in Pergamum almost gets a clean bill of health. They are steadfast. They stood up to persecution, and one them, Antipas, became a martyr for the Gospel. But

‘I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel’.

This is a reference to an episode in the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, in the Book of Numbers, chapter 22.

‘And the children of Israel set forward, and pitched in the plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho.

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.

And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many: and Moab was distressed because of the children of Israel.

And Moab said unto the elders of Midian, Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field. And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moabites at that time.

He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:

Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me: peradventure I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land’ …

The story of the Exodus from Egypt and the entry into the Promised Land is a great one. Parting the waters of the Red Sea; annihilating the Amorites. And a constant theme is that the Israelites must keep their covenant, their contract, with God, so that He will protect them, will save them.

If you remember the story, the Israelites didn’t really appreciate where they were going. They ‘murmured’ among themselves. They hadn’t got enough to eat. Why did they leave Egypt? And Moses put their complaints in prayer to God, and God sent vast numbers of quails for them to eat. I’m not sure how they were presented, these quails. I’ve always imagined them arriving ready cooked, sort of chicken-in-the-basket. And then God sent manna, the divine bread.

What was it that the Judge Eternal thought was reprehensible about Balak and Balaam? You’ll remember that Balak, king of the Moabites, wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites, to curse Jacob, because he thought that there were too many of them, too many likely to come in as immigrants.

‘Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me:

Come now therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people; for they are too mighty for me’.

The Moabites didn’t want immigrants to come into their country.

‘[B]ehold, they cover the face of the earth’, they said. Keep them out. Vote for Brexit. Maybe support UKIP.

Well, remember what the Judge Eternal felt. He was quite happy with the people from the church at Pergamum, except to the extent that they followed the

‘ …doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel’.

You’ll remember the story of Balaam’s donkey, who pulled up in awkward places because she could see an angel, holding a double-edged sword, blocking her path. But it was all right for the Israelites, who were refugees, to come in, to be immigrants.

It makes a difference whose point of view you adopt. If you’re with the Israelites, you are entering the Promised Land – and you don’t want to mix with the people whom you’ll find there.

The people like the Amalekites and the Moabites, the Palestinians, are being turfed out, displaced, by the Israeli settlers. They not unnaturally don’t want the Israelites to come in and displace them.

How difficult it is to find the right answers here! Are immigrants, asylum seekers, a good thing? Are they going to overwhelm the indigenous population?

Now shall this company lick up all that are round about us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field.’

As they discovered with their encounter with the Amalekites, the Israelites were following a fierce, tough God. The fierce God wanted them to exterminate the Amalekites in their quest for Lebensraum in the Promised Land. So much for controlled immigration. You remember: God blamed Israel, because Israel had spared a few people, a few Amalekites. God was angry not because they had gone on a killing spree, but because they hadn’t; they hadn’t exterminated the Amalekites. [1 Samuel 15]

Nowadays surely we find that story strange, and challenging. Surely God would be merciful? But no, He is portrayed as wanting to kill every last Palestinian, or rather, Amalekite. It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t look fair. But it was the Promised Land. And they were rewarded with celestial food, manna from heaven.

There’s an echo of that in the Book of Revelation. The churches who prove faithful, and don’t fall for the temptations of illicit sex and other bad behaviour, will get the ‘secret manna’. That must be “I am the bread of life’ in St John’s Gospel, chapter 6. Jesus is the bread of life. ‘Feed on Him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving’.

So what about immigrants? Are you on the side of the Israelites, or of the Moabites – or even the poor old Amalekites? Are you running away from slavery, in Egypt – or Syria – or are you upholding a policy of ‘creating a hostile environment’ for immigrants?

As the shocking cases of the ‘EMPIRE WINDRUSH migrants’ show, creating a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants is practically impossible to do in the way apparently intended here, to deter people who are not deemed to be ‘worthy’ immigrants. Unless you set up barriers which challenge all who seek to come in, it will be a lottery whether you catch the ones you want to. But if you set up that hostile barrier, you will obstruct many people who are perfectly legitimate. It also seems that the only class of people who have been consistently mistreated by the ‘hostile environment’ policy are black people.

There haven’t been any dreadful miscarriages of justice involving white people who came over from Australia, or Canada, or South Africa 50 years ago, and never bothered to keep hundreds of documents just in case, 50 or even 70 years after they arrived, got jobs, paid taxes, and raised children here, somebody challenged them to prove they were entitled to be here. There don’t seem to be any of those cases against white people.

The big irony here is that even today, the story of the Promised Land is still controversial. The Palestinians who lost their homes after the Balfour Declaration, and who have been pushed out even more by the foundation of the ‘settlements’ in modern Israel, can be excused for being negative about immigration. But people who stand up for them against the Zionists find themselves labelled as antisemitic.

What would Jesus do? Where is the salvation here? I think that to be ‘saved’ here doesn’t just mean getting up there with the Son of Man with his white robe and snowy beard. It surely means also being ‘saved’ from being deported to a country you’ve never seen; it surely means also finding a better balance between today’s Moabites in Palestine, worried about being overwhelmed by Zionist immigrants, and the people on the run from civil war in Syria, who so desperately need places of refuge.

Manna from heaven? Well, food for thought anyway.

Sermon for Mattins on the Second Sunday after Easter, 15th April 2018

Isaiah 63:7-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

I’ve been wrestling with some contrasts in the last day or two. Obviously the civil war in Syria, the apparent poison gas attack: and then the attack on Syria by the Americans, the French and our RAF. 104 missiles, apparently, of which 8 were ours.

And the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. An actor read it again on the wireless last night – although I didn’t listen to it. Perniciously, some its ghastly racism still comes back. References to black people as ‘smiling picaninnies’ and the cod classical reference to ‘the Tiber red with blood’ are still awful.

And the 70th anniversary of the voyage of the ‘WINDRUSH’ from the Caribbean, bringing people who would become postmen and nurses and drive taxis and do all the jobs which we couldn’t find people to do, whom we had advertised in the Caribbean for. Some of them have been here for most of that time, bringing up children and working hard – but now our frankly nasty Home Office is trying to throw out some of the ones who never applied for a passport, back to the Caribbean, where they haven’t lived for decades. On appeal, the Home Office’s ‘be extra beastly to immigrants’ policy has been overturned in about half the cases. What’s that about? Putting Granny on a plane to Jamaica because, as a British citizen – but a black one – she had no idea that she should keep any old documents to prove her right to be here.

The contrast was with the Easter sunshine yesterday, as lots of people came back from Easter holidays, expecting the usual murky weather back home, and found real, warm sunshine. The contrast was with our Easter happiness in our church, as we celebrated Christ’s resurrection. The story of Doubting Thomas is such a good one for us, because we sometimes feel that the miracle of that first Easter is just too much. But – ‘My Lord and my God!’ said Thomas, he, a person like us, was convinced – and we feel Jesus came back for us too.

But. But just as the Easter story is overlaid with the terrible sadness of the crucifixion, so we can’t help feeling that those simple Galilean fishermen are an awful long way away now. How can what happened so long ago, in such a different world, give us anything useful about the violence in Syria: how can the Easter story make any difference to the message of ‘Rivers of Blood’ which people like Enoch Powell, people like Nigel Farage and perhaps even Theresa May, when she was Home Office minister, gave out, any difference to the message that there is something wrong with people coming to live and work in our country, with immigration?

Actually, not just living and working here, but joining their relatives here. And where children are concerned, there are still a couple of thousand – really, not just a few – just across the Channel in France, who can’t get here. Theresa May, when she was Home Office minister, arranged a disgusting advert displayed on the back of vans, driving around advising immigrants to ‘Go home’. And she went to church faithfully all that time. Apparently, she saw nothing wrong in her deterrent vans.

What use is Easter against all that stuff? Can we learn from the early church? One thing about learning our Christianity from St Paul’s letters, is that we have to imagine what the other side of the conversation might be. So what was St Paul responding to when he wrote to the people in Corinth?

He was pointing out that, if one ignored God’s commandments, the Ten Commandments, God might not keep on forgiving them. The Old Testament is full of stories of the Chosen People, Israel, disobeying God. And it brought bad consequences on them. Plagues of snakes. And St Paul thought it was all pretty symbolic. For him, the Old Testament story of Moses in the wilderness after God had parted the Red Sea and they had escaped from Egypt, was deeply significant. Not everyone made it, because they fell away, they forgot God.

St Paul, in counselling the Corinthians, reminds them of the story of Moses and the Israelites coming out of Egypt. Even though the Israelites were God’s chosen people, it didn’t give them a complete licence to behave any way they wanted. Each breach of a commandment had a price. ‘Fornication’ brought a death sentence for 23,000 in one day.

At first sight, this doesn’t seem to square with the idea that God is our friend, that He cares for us. For if he really did, surely He wouldn’t be so fierce and judgmental towards human failings – because after all, He made us the way we are.

So why does St Paul offer these cautionary tales? It isn’t a question of ‘Be good and you’ll be welcome in heaven’ – and the converse, if you’re not virtuous. That if you’re bad, you’ll be going down.

It’s much more a question that God does love us, unconditionally; but we mustn’t fail to reciprocate. Perhaps the ‘other half’ of the dialogue between St Paul and the Corinthians was some idea that the Corinthians had, that becoming a Christian sort-of inoculated them against the consequences of bad behaviour. Once you’d been baptised and confirmed, perhaps they thought you could give full rein to your baser instincts. St Paul is pointing out that God may still take a dim view if the people who are receiving His blessing, go out immediately and do things more befitted to their old lives, before they saw the light.

St Paul’s point is, that if you are ‘saved’, you won’t want to fornicate and do all the other things, having riotous dinners and ‘putting God to the test’.

But my thought is that, if you are full of the Easter spirit, if you are a good Christian, it won’t just be a question of your avoiding fornication. There will be other signs of your being a Christian. And this is where I get back to my contrasts. How to be full of the spirit of Easter, and at the same time rushing into following Pres.Trump in attacking Syria before the United Nations weapons inspectors have even started? How to be full of the spirit of Easter, but sympathetic to Powell’s racism – as surveys have shown 70% of the British population were at the time. How does that – did that – work? Can you really be a Christian and support have a racist view of immigration? What about things that Nigel Farage has said really recently?

What about us here at St Mary’s? Why don’t we have any black people in our church? Some of us must have black neighbours; we must be more friendly to them, and see if we can get them to join us. It’s part of our vision, a vision of inclusion, of openness. As we start our befriending programme, let’s be open to inviting people who look a bit different to join us and become our friends. Let’s not just think of Easter as a quaint story 2,000 years ago, without any practical effect on us. Let’s show that Easter has made a difference to our lives.

Sermon for Evensong on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20th August 2017
2 Kings 4:1-37; Psalm 90; Acts 16:1-15

‘Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men’. That’s what we’ve just sung, in Psalm 90. It means, return to the dust, out of which you were made. Psalm 90 is sometimes used at funerals, and describes the insignificance and fleeting existence of human life when compared with the creative – and destructive – power of God.

 

There’s a powerful novel by P. D. James called ‘Children of Men’. It’s a dystopian vision of the future – just as 1984 suddenly wasn’t in the distant future, in this case, the future is 2021 – not long now.

 

Gradually, no more children are being born. The human race is dying out. Then, years after the last person was born, a woman becomes pregnant. Now read on! I won’t spoil it for you. There’s a film of it too, which is also good, but rather different.

 

One little switch. No more babies. And that’s it for the human race. It’s perhaps more frightening, as being rather more mundane, more feasible, in a way, than a nuclear holocaust.

 

There has been a school of thought – perhaps as a result of too much reading of the Old Testament – that if God does take steps against mankind, it must be to punish them for something they’ve done wrong.

 

So now, for people who think in that way, it will be likely to be rather a worrying time. We have the President of the USA completely failing to condemn white supremacists and Nazis – saying there are ‘some very good people’ among them; in this country, all of sudden, it’s not beyond the pale for people openly to want to shut out from this country anyone who isn’t a white, English-speaking person with useful skills and plenty of money.

 

Nearer to home, did anyone even think for a minute whether it was right to chase away the travellers, the gypsies, who came and camped out on the Leg O’Mutton field in Cobham? Remember, Hitler exterminated Gypsies as well as Jews. How should we treat them? What would Jesus have said?

 

Now again, instead of seeking closer union with our neighbours in Europe, we have set our faces against them with the vote for so-called ‘Brexit’. ‘Sovereignty’, whatever that means, is supposed to be more important than the brotherhood of man.

 

I think that Emily Thornberry was right, although she got into hot water for saying it, about the house with a white van parked in the drive, festooned with English flags. That flag is not benign: it is meant to say, ‘England alone!’ Go away, everyone else. Black, brown, foreign people: go away from our ‘crowded’ island. The crowds are, I would suggest, a myth. There is plenty of room in the UK. The hidden, evil message is that there are too many of the ‘wrong sort of person’ – people who are not like us.

 

I still remember the first time I went to Bombay – the first time I went to India – and walked down the street. I was the only white man. The only white man among thousands of brown and black faces. I began to imagine what it must feel like to be a black person in England sometimes. No wonder that black people may congregate in places where there are already significant numbers of black people. We have a certain innate small-c conservatism, all of us, I think, which makes us easier with people whom we know.

 

Obviously in a country of nearly 70 million people, we can’t know everyone, so I suspect that we fall back on what people look like. If they look like us, fine. If not, there might be a reservation, a hesitation, a query in our minds.

 

This isn’t good. Xenophobia, racism, white supremacy. No thought for the idea that we are all equally God’s creatures, God’s children. God, if He cares about us in the way the Old Testament describes, might well send some plagues down on us for being so awful.

 

Yet so far as I know, God hasn’t worked that way recently. Taken as a whole in the Bible, in contrast with the various chastisements in the Old Testament – and Psalm 90 is said to be a Psalm of Moses, inspired by the complaining of the Israelites in the desert – there are many stories of healing and salvation.

 

Elisha’s two miracles described in our first lesson are cases in point. The first one is a sort of self-help example with a miraculous element, a bit like feeding the 5,000, in that the oil never ran out, and the resurrection of the Shunammite woman’s daughter is like the raising of Lazarus or the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter – ‘damsel, arise’ – in the New Testament.

 

We don’t know how these miracles worked – or else they wouldn’t be miraculous. Maybe these stories are just mythical. It’s striking how similar the miracles done by Elisha are, in these two cases at least, to Jesus’ miracles.

 

The ‘rose of Sharon’, the beautiful girl, in the Song of Solomon, ‘nigra sum sed pulchra,’ in the Latin words of the beautiful canticle in Monteverdi’s Vespers, is said to be a ‘Shulamite’, or a Shunammite. Perhaps there’s a link with the ‘great woman’ in our lesson from 2 Kings. She was kind to the man of God, Elisha, and ‘constrained him’ to eat bread. It’s a bit reminiscent of Mrs Doyle, Father Ted’s housekeeper, pressing ever more cake and sandwiches on her hapless priestly charges: ‘Oh, go on, go on, go on …!’ Maybe she was Abishag, the most beautiful woman in Israel, who went to comfort King David in his old age – she too came from Shunem.

 

But even in the beauty of Monteverdi there’s a wrong note. ‘Nigra sum sed pulchra’ sings the girl – although often, for mysterious musical reasons, it’s actually a male counter-tenor singing – meaning, ‘I am black but beautiful’. To sing ‘but’ beautiful is awful – but in 1610, when the Vespers was written, that kind of casual racism was unfortunately there. I feel that if we can change the words of the Lord’s Prayer so that we ‘forgive those who’ trespass against us, instead of ‘them that’ do it, we could change ‘nigra sum, sed’ (black, but …) to ‘nigra sum et pulchra’. ‘And’ beautiful. Perhaps you, Robert [Prof. Robert Woolley, Director of Music at St Mary’s], could speak to Harry Christophers or Sir John Eliot Gardner about it.

 

The disciples with St Paul – (including St Luke, who most likely was the author of the Acts of the Apostles as well, and who was an eyewitness with the Apostles, at least for some of the time, which we think partly because of the passage which was our lesson tonight, in their journey, where it says, ‘We’: ‘We came with a straight course to Samothracia’, and so on) – well, he and the disciples went to pray, not just in the synagogues, but in Philippi they went to a part of the river bank, where people went to pray; actually, not just any ‘people’ went there, but a group of women. And there they met and got to know Lydia, who, like the Shunammite woman with the man of God, Elisha, invited them to stay with her. She ‘constrained them’ too; she was another Mrs Doyle!

 

Shunammite women, blacks, and the women worshipping with Lydia on the river bank: all a bit different, according to the lights of the time then; but all variously blessed. To be with Elisha, and with the apostles – and of course, with Jesus – we should be celebrating diversity and welcoming the people who are shut out – shut out by polite society, but also because they are black or strangers or refugees. Let us not shelter behind false distinctions between ‘genuine’ refugees and ‘economic migrants’. Whatever they are, they are here; they are human beings like us; they’re just as good as us; and if they are refugees, they need our welcome, our love, and our help. ‘Come again, ye children of men.’