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Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 26th May 2019

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Matthew 28:1-10, 16-20 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=425693885) – But what about the Bigots?

‘Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.’

You can tell, even without reading the whole book, that this passage at the end of the book of the prophet Zephaniah turns things around. The first two chapters of the book are not joyful; they are more like lamentations. The kingdom of Israel, the people who made the exodus from Egypt, who had David and Solomon as kings, had split into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom called Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah, in which was Jerusalem.

In 721 BC the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. Zephaniah was prophesying some time after that, probably about 100 years later, in Jerusalem. The sub-heading in one of my Bibles on this passage is, ‘Doom on Judah and her neighbours’; so the first part of the book is all about how the kingdom of Israel, which has become the province of Judah, has gone to pot.

The great day of the Lord is near, …

That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, …. And I will bring distress upon men, that they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord: (Zephaniah 1)

Why is the Lord cross with his people? Zephaniah says,

“Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, to the oppressing city!

She obeyed not the voice; she received not correction; she trusted not in the Lord; she drew not near to her God.’ (Zephaniah 3:1-2)

This was all nearly 3000 years ago, but there are definite resonances with things that are happening here today. I wrote this sermon originally on Friday, and I didn’t think we would know the outcome of the EU election until after 8 o’clock tonight, as we have to wait until all polling stations in all EU member states are closed – and most of the countries are having their vote today.

I suspect that it will turn out to have been a strange business, and whatever the outcome, we will all continue to have a more or less uneasy feeling that something is wrong with our society, and with our country, at the moment.

Whether it goes as far as the sort of thing that Zephaniah was prophesying about is obviously a moot point, but it seems to me that it’s not controversial to say that, wherever you are in relation to modern politics, whatever you believe in, this is a time to be concerned and worried.

The idea that comes from Zephaniah in the part which was our first lesson today, ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion’, … ‘be glad and rejoice’, is something which I think we would all respond very well to. We would love to feel that everything was right with the world, and that we could relax and be joyful.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. I don’t think that it’s going to help very much for me to try to spell out to what extent any of the competing parties and interest groups – ‘interest groups’, because the Brexit Party isn’t a political party, it’s actually a limited company – it isn’t going to be easy or productive at this stage to try to relate aspects of each of these people to the eternal verities which we are trying to understand and to carry out in our Christian witness.

It’s no good trying to say whether one or other party or interest group is better or worse at trying to bring the various parts of society back together, so as to finish the various arguments which have so divided people. It isn’t even worth it at this stage to try to express a view on what is going to help people materially, or perhaps more realistically, to hurt them least, in the various proposals advanced by the various parties. People are not listening to rational arguments.

What would Jesus say? I really don’t know. But I think it’s worth reminding everyone that it’s a good question. If we sit down quietly and try to work through the various propositions which have been put to us, from the time of the referendum three years ago until now, it might be a very good exercise to look at each one in the light of that question.

What would Jesus have done? What would Jesus have thought about these various things?

I went on Thursday night to our friends at St Martin’s in East Horsley for a talk which they had organised, by the long-serving former MP, Chris Mullin, who is well known for his many books, including ‘A very British Coup’, which was made into a TV series. After he had given his talk, from the audience a lady stood up and, I think, rather shocked everybody. I should tell you that the audience was about 30 people, and they could easily have been from here. Normal bods, tending towards the middle-aged if not slightly elderly; middle-class, middle-aged, respectable people. When this lady stood up, asked her question and made her point, she looked exactly the same as everyone else. But she wasn’t.

She told us that although she had grown up in this country, had lived here for many years and had worked as a solicitor for a City firm, she was not English. She was German, and her father had been head of the UK division of the great German engineering company Siemens, which has a number of factories here, and has had for many years. She is married to an Englishman. After the referendum result, her husband had said that he thought that it was not going to very nice for their family to carry on living in England – meaning, not very nice for his wife, for his German wife. So they now live in Spain. There they have recently bought a new car. One of their neighbours, she said, wondered whether it was going to be a Range Rover, and said he hoped that it wasn’t – because they didn’t want to see anyone buying anything British for the time being.

And I, as I think some of you will already have heard, had a similar experience shortly after the Brexit referendum when I went to Hamburg, and some of my German friends, several of whom have been friends for 30 or more years, all said more or less the same thing to me, the same simple sentence: they said, ‘But we thought that you were our friends’. Imagine how I felt.

No more comments on that. We all have strong views. But what would Jesus say about it? I wonder.

Let’s move on to our second Bible lesson, from St Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the resurrection story, the empty tomb, which we have read about in St John’s and St Mark’s Gospels already, during this Easter time.

For some reason the compilers of the Lectionary have missed a bit out. You’ll notice that, in St Matthew chapter 28, tonight we have heard verses 1 to 10 and then 16 to 20. The missing bit is a story, which appears only in St Matthew’s Gospel, about the chief priests bribing the Roman soldiers who had been set to guard the tomb – and again, we read about these guards only in this Gospel – bribing these soldiers to spread a story that Jesus’ disciples had come in the dead of night and taken Jesus’ body away. The passage ends, ‘This story is still told among the Jews to this day’. Perhaps that’s why it’s left out now in our lessons, as it could be taken as a a point against Judaism.

That’s one bit which is unique to St Matthew, not too crucial. But the other unique bit is far better known. It is the Great Commission, as it is called.

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.

It is the great call to Evangelism, to spreading the Good News, the ‘Evangelia’,(Ευαγγελία) the Greek word for good news. Jesus assured us that He is still with us: he said, ‘... lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’

I began this sermon with a rather gloomy recital of the prophet Zephaniah’s words of lamentation about the godless state of the people of Israel in Jerusalem, and I invited comparisons with the state of our nation today. I invited you to think what Jesus might have to say about it. That is a really tough question.

But what about the Great Commission? How are we doing on that one? Our British reserve tends to make us rather coy about announcing our Christianity to people in public. But increasingly, people are growing up without having read the Bible or been to Sunday School. It’s important, therefore, that we have our family services at St Mary’s and that our PCC is beginning to think about having a youth worker. We invited Esther Holley, the children and young people’s minister from St Andrew’s in Cobham, to come and talk to us about her work, and we all found her account inspiring. As a result of Esther’s work, St Andrew’s has a solid group of children and some teenagers. But nothing stands still. Esther has been accepted for ordination training, so they will be looking for her successor soon. Maybe we should start making moves in this direction too.

And finally, on the question how we are carrying out Jesus’ commission to ‘teach all nations’, I think that it is vitally important that we maintain the warmest welcome, here at St Mary’s, to our services, to our church family, and to our other activities based around St Mary’s Hall, the best church hall for miles around.

I personally would like us to look at joining an organization called ‘Inclusive Church’, which encourages churches not just to be welcoming to all, but to advertise that they are. It’s the old story of the two milkmen competing for business (you can tell it’s an old story, because competition on the same milk round disappeared years ago), and one milkman put a big banner on his milk float saying, ‘We deliver milk every day’. Of course his competitor did the same thing, but they didn’t advertise it. The milkman with the banner doubled his sales!

The same reasoning, I think, would work for us. If I have moved into this area and I’m looking for a church to go to: if I’m going through a tough time in my life and I’d like to find somewhere to say prayers: if I want my kids to learn what’s in the Bible: what will St Mary’s be like inside? Now if there’s a big sign outside saying that everyone is welcome – and I’ve put a picture of an Inclusive Church sign from another church with my sermon on the website [see above] – then people can feel confident, and they will dare to open our door and come in.

I know that not everyone agrees with this idea. Some people say we are already a really welcoming church. No need to join organisations or advertise – although I would gently say that it’s noticeable that we have no black people in our congregation. Somebody once even said to me, in this context, ‘But what about the bigots? We mustn’t upset the bigots!’

Well that perhaps takes me full circle, to the outcome of the European election. What about the bigots? What would Jesus say? I think he would say, ‘Look who I have lunch with already. People get shirty that I sit down with tax gatherers and sinners. But they are welcome!’

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Sermon for Mattins on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016

Zechariah 9:9-12, 1Cor.2:1-12
We know what happens next. Or as people say nowadays, ‘Spoiler alert!’ ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’. If you’ve just been to the family Eucharist at 10 o’clock, and seen the lovely tableau which the children presented, and maybe you have admired the Shetland pony on your way out, you will know why, when you were little, Palm Sunday was one of the best Sundays in the year to go to church. Donkeys are, alas, in rather short supply these days: there are now rather strict rules about what you have to do if you are going to carry a donkey around.

Mind you, in Stoke D’Abernon, many of the Mums do have the right vehicle for towing a horse box. Somewhere around here there is even a Range Rover with the registration number KT11 MUM! Anyway at St Mary’s we have had a lovely Shetland pony, and I am sure that Jesus would not have turned his nose up at a ride on him.

Processions are fun. Walking down the hill in a happy throng following someone riding on a Shetland pony was a very jolly thing to do. You can wave your palm leaves and your palm crosses. People do get quite carried away when they get caught up in supporting somebody who seems to take away their cares and blot out the annoyances that they have to put up with.

It’s quite noticeable, for example, that Donald Trump seems to have caught the imagination of a lot of people who feel left out by mainstream politics in the United States. They feel that big government doesn’t listen to them. Trump is their champion.

The Israelites had been in exile, and then under foreign domination, in their own country, for hundreds of years. At the time of Jesus, of course, the Romans were in charge and the Jews were second-class citizens. They were looking forward to the coming of a messiah, a deliverer, a king who was going to liberate them. They looked back to the various prophecies in Isaiah: the servant king, and in Zechariah was this strange image of a king coming on a donkey.

The basic model for the procession was what Roman generals did when they came back from foreign wars. If they had been successful, they were granted the right to have what was called a ‘triumph.’ A triumph was a magnificent procession through the centre of Rome, parading their captives and soaking up the applause of the people.

You can see that it would very much depend on your point of view how such a procession, with Jesus at its head, would be viewed. Even though Jesus was riding on a donkey, it might look rather challenging to the powers that be. In Palestine at that time, the ‘powers that be’ were both the Romans and the Jews, (the Pharisees and the scribes), because the Jews had a form of self rule, under the overall authority of the Romans. So if this big procession came over the hill from Bethany and down the Mount of Olives, it’s fairly understandable that both the Jewish authorities and the Romans might well have found it disturbing.

Even today, although we are supposed to be very liberal in our approach to free speech, you have to get permission for a demo to take place. You can’t just have a procession through the centre of the village, so that it blocks the traffic. For people in authority, processions are a sign of discontent.

There was a raw energy about to this crowd. In St John’s Gospel, we are told that the people were particularly excited because they had heard about Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life from the dead. Jesus, riding on a donkey, was a fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. It all added up to a moment of great hope for the people. A man who could bring a dead man back to life could certainly be the king that they were looking for, to throw off the yoke of Roman rule so that Jerusalem would be liberated again.

But we know what comes next. ‘Ride on, ride on, in lowly pomp ride on – to die.’ A huge amount of the New Testament is devoted to the events of next week, Holy Week. A quarter of St Luke’s gospel; a third of Saint Matthew and St Mark and nearly half of St John’s Gospel. This is what Christianity is all about. And certainly, in this week, it is not about a triumph. It is not about conquest. It is more like a catalogue of suffering and failure.

When you’re little, you can only really take in nice stories about people riding on the back of donkeys. Good Friday is not something that we go into in great detail with our children. It is in a very real sense what in the cinema would attract an X rating. It is something which is too shocking. What we are talking about is the death of God, people putting to death the man who was also God. Five days earlier this man was being feted as the returning hero, as the Messiah, the king from over the water.

Nevertheless he, this same man, was going to be strung up on a cross along with common criminals.

Saint Paul says that the authorities would never have done it if they had known the full story. ‘We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery which none of the princes of this world knew; for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’ [1 Cor. 2:8]

In Spiritual Cinema next week, on Tuesday, we intend to show the shortened, animated version of Ben Hur. We debated what would be an appropriate film to show during Holy Week. One film which we have shown in the past, which I felt was perhaps the very best one, was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A few years ago, we actually showed it in St Andrew’s Church, in the church itself.

For those who haven’t seen it, it is a very harrowing film, because it does show, in a very realistic way, exactly what happened to Jesus; how he was flogged, humiliated and ultimately crucified. Somehow it brings home to you the awfulness of what he suffered in a way that cold print on a page just can’t do. It would be a shocking film if you were watching somebody – just anybody – suffering in that way. Nobody should be treated in such a brutal and bestial way. But Jesus did suffer in that way, and he was the son of God.

The contrast with the jolly man on a donkey could not be more profound and more complete. We know what happened next. What must it feel like if you have just committed the most terrible crime, and realise what you have just done? What will the Judge say? What will your sentence be? What if that crime is to kill the son of God?

Oh, you say, but we didn’t. We weren’t there. It was the bad people, even the Jews. But in a sense, we were there. In a sense, the turnover, from his triumph to his downfall and being lifted up on the cross, was entirely predictable. It made sense in human terms to the powers that be. It wasn’t specifically because they were Jews or because they were Romans or whomever. They were just ordinary fallible human beings. They didn’t recognise his divinity. Pontius Pilate having the inscription put over the cross, naming Jesus as the King of the Jews, says it all. In one sense, he was the king of the Jews, but in that the Jews were the chosen people of God he was also king of heaven.

In Lent we have been encouraged to reflect, to deny ourselves, maybe to fast, and to pray. Now in this week, this Holy Week, we are invited to think about the full awfulness of what Jesus suffered, and why he suffered it. Maybe we should do it without a spoiler alert. Maybe we should say, we don’t know what comes next. Maybe we aren’t too comfortable. If Jesus died for all of us, for all of humankind, we should reflect that the sort of evil which pushed Jesus on to the cross is still with us.

People are still hurting each other, pursuing gain without thought for the loss to someone else that that gain entails. We are still returning an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We are still going by on the other side. We are still worshipping false gods.

‘Ride on, ride on in majesty. In lowly pomp, ride on to die.’