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Sermon for Holy Communion on the Feast of Christ the King, 26th November 2017, at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn.

[Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24, Ephesians 1.15-23], Matthew 25.31-46

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=378268013 for the readings, and https://sjparish.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Nov-26-Pentecost-25-1030am.pdf for the full service booklet.

It’s really kind of you to welcome me back to St John’s to preach again. Susan, you have been amazingly gracious. Just when you were getting nicely settled in as Rector, Bill and Hope Eakins dropped in the suggestion that you might want to risk having me, this old Brit, to preach at the church – and just after Thanksgiving as well, when you are all celebrating having got rid of us colonial throw-backs. You’re truly kind.

Obviously I have been well briefed. I must stay away from anything too controversial or political. And I can’t really do the ancient Greek orator’s trick of doing a Philippic: you know, saying loudly, ‘I’m not going to say anything about Philip’, and then going on to say what an awful person he is. So no Brexit and Trump, then. Sorry.

Instead I want to get to grips with the sheep and the goats. Are you a sheep, or a goat? It’s a rigid division. On the right side, the Elysian Fields await you; but if you’re Billy Goat Gruff, nothing so nice.

That’s the thing I want to explore, with the sheep and the goats: divisions. People divided: divided, because they disagree. They disagree about what is best to do. And then, perhaps, do they have those divisions confirmed, ratified, by the Judge eternal?

At Thanksgiving you are celebrating independence from the colonial power that we were, the young nation standing on its own feet. It was a journey started by the Pilgrim Fathers, Puritans, who found themselves different from, at odds with, divided from, the society they were leaving in England. So I want to look at that division. It stemmed at least in part from the religious ferment and turmoil of the Reformation.

Apart from those things I’m not talking about, the other thing this year that has been of special note, not in our political, but in our spiritual life, has indeed been the Martin Luther 500th anniversary, 500 years since he is said to have posted up 95 points where he was at odds with the Roman Catholic Church, on the church door at Wittenberg in Saxony, which is the event which started the Reformation.

The Reformation led to civil war and persecution: the particularly ghastly thing about it was that the favourite way of getting rid of opponents was to burn them alive at the stake. We often spend time on Good Friday, during the Three Hours, reflecting on the dreadful mechanics of death by crucifixion. Death by burning seems to me to have been equally dreadful. And the penalty was so arbitrary and undeserved.

Think of Thomas Cranmer, the great scholar and Archbishop who created the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and gave the new Church of England liturgy, forms of worship, which were for the first time in a language that could be ‘understanded of the people’, as they said, in English instead of Latin, although they were in fact based on, and continued the tradition of, services which in some cases could be traced back to the earliest Church Fathers. But even Cranmer was eventually burned to death, at the hands of the original ‘Bloody Mary’, Queen Mary, who brought back the Catholic faith for the duration of her reign.

This happened because Cranmer was a Protestant, at a time when it was no longer the right thing to be. We don’t know whether he met Martin Luther – some scholars, such as Diarmaid McCulloch, think he might well have done – but he certainly spent time in Zürich with Zwingli and Bucer.

It is fascinating to see how Cranmer reflected the new Reformation ideas, in the way in which he dealt, (in the Book of Common Prayer that he largely authored), with what was happening in the Holy Communion, at the point when the bread and the wine are shared.

The Roman church, the Catholics, believe in what they call ‘Transubstantiation’, the ‘Real Presence’ of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. Many of the Reformers did not believe in Transubstantiation. For them the bread and the wine were just that, bread and wine; just symbols of a greater thing.

The words in Cranmer’s Prayer Book changed, from the 1549 original, where the bread and wine are treated in the Catholic way, as actually being Christ’s body and blood, to his revision in 1552, perhaps after he met the other reformers: ‘Take and eate this, in remembraunce that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeving’ , which means they remain just that, bread and wine, just symbols, until, long after Cranmer’s awful death in 1556, in 1662 the final version of the Prayer Book (until the twentieth century revisions, here and in England), the 1662 Book has it all ways: ‘The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, broken for thee: Eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.’ In the first bit, the body, the actual body: but then a ‘remembrance’, a symbol: feeding, but by faith, not literally. Now, you can be anywhere on the Catholic – Protestant spectrum, and find spiritual resonance somewhere in those words, which we will still use, albeit in a slightly different order, in our service today.

But, the point is that, then, people were dying for those differences. Or feeling so alienated by them, that they opted to make a perilous voyage to a largely unknown land, and make a new life – as the Pilgrim Fathers did. It’s frankly strange – repugnant, even – to us today to think that the State could mete out the ultimate punishment, death, to a learned theologian such as Cranmer. But it did.

Belief, opinion, learned opinion, was a life-or-death affair. Now we can look back 500 years and shake our heads sagely, regretting how brutal life was then: we’re far too rational to let ourselves get into that kind of overreaction.

But I wonder. I promised not to talk about Brexit and Trump. But I will just say that it seems to be true both back home in England, over Brexit, and, dare I say, here, where Pres. Trump is concerned, that a climate has built up recently where people on each side not only feel strongly, very strongly: but they have stopped talking to each other. Certainly at home in the UK, the referendum on Brexit has divided people, divided people in a serious way. Old friends are avoiding each other; families are divided. There’s no sense of the old way of managing differences: so that we would say ‘Old so-and-so thinks such-and-such: I know he’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter. We’re still the best of friends.’ That really doesn’t seem to be working any more.

Time was, even recently, when we could disagree about quite serious things, and still be friends; it really was a case of hating the sin and loving the sinner. So what did Jesus the King do? The sheep and the goats are to be separated out, they are to be divided: but not by what they have thought, but what they have done. Jesus wasn’t requiring the elect, the people who were saved, the sheep, to subscribe to any particular world view. He was looking for acts of kindness, not manifestos.

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matt.25:35-36).

Hungry; thirsty; a stranger; no clothes; ill; in prison. You can construct all sorts of scenarios, which may well broadly reflect your political outlook, to explain how a person can be in any of those situations – and we might disagree.

Hungry and thirsty because they’ve made bad ‘life choices’, perhaps; a stranger, because they live somewhere that I don’t go to – and perhaps they don’t live the way we do; no clothes, probably not literally, but scruffy, down-at-heel, when – ‘if they cared about their appearance… ‘ You know.

Or they might be refugees, from a poor country. Are they ‘genuine refugees’, or just ‘economic migrants’? That’s a question which I suspect you would answer much more sympathetically than many of us Englishmen have been doing. The USA’s prosperity is built on the labour of economic migrants – but we are now trying to keep them out.

Or what if you are sick, if you are ill? You know one of the differences between us in England and you is that, I think, we have more restrictive rules about when you can fire people. Basically, our law says that an employer has to show that he has a fair reason for terminating someone’s employment, and it is presumed that it was not fair. But a fair reason, in English law, is if you are ill, ill for too long.

That’s one where I expect there might be disagreements. You know, on the one hand, you can’t run a business if you have to pay a salary for someone who’s not there: and on the other, think what it will do to your powers of recovery if, when you are in the depths of illness, you lose your livelihood. What’s your point of view? Which side are you on?

Jesus says, when I was in hospital, you came and visited me. Dare we say, you visited me, and didn’t bring me any bad news? I hope so. Here in the home of the US insurance industry, of The Hartford and the Aetna, let me dare say it – surely long-term sickness might be covered by an employer’s insurance. Or maybe that’s too much. I was ill, and you visited me. That’s what Jesus said.

I was in prison. You came to me. I was a criminal. I didn’t deserve anything. I had done something terrible. But surely there are limits? Some criminals are just beyond the pale. At home, the man called the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, has died, and there was controversy where his remains should be buried. He killed a number of children, in appalling circumstances. Here, Charles Manson has died. Both of them I have heard called ‘evil personified’. But Jesus isn’t judging them. Jesus’ judgement, separating the sheep and the goats, is not about whether someone has been bad, been a sinner. Jesus would have visited them. He sat down and ate with sinners.

That’s the clue. That’s how it is with Jesus. Not what you’d think; perhaps not particularly reasonable. But good.

So I suspect that if we acknowledge Christ as King, and as judge eternal, as we are invited to do today, on this festival of Christ the King at the end of Thanksgiving, we may find a way to deal with our differences: even, dare I say, those real, deep differences over Brexit and Trump. Ultimately those differences may not really be that important. Instead we need to think sheep and goats. Acts of kindness, not manifestos.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 2nd July 2017
1 Samuel 28:3-19, Luke 17:20-37

Like a lot of military leaders in history, before his big battle with the Philistines, King Saul, first king of Israel, wanted to consult a seer, someone who could discern what God’s will would be in the battle to come. Was he destined to win or lose?

Saul wanted to ask God, through a priest or, perhaps more controversially, through a medium, a witch, a ‘woman that hath a familiar spirit’, who would be able to discern the will of God, that is, she would be able to discern what would happen. And he was taken to see the Witch of Endor.

What do you think a ‘familiar spirit’ might be? Perhaps it’s a ‘witch’s familiar’ – usually a black cat. But I think it sounds a bit too high-falutin’: another modern translation suggests that the whole expression is simply a synonym for what we would now call a ‘medium’.

Anyway, divination, foretelling the future by casting lots, or examining the entrails of an animal which had been sacrificed, was common in the ancient world – although even then, there was a feeling that this might be some kind of magic trick, just superstition.

Saul persuaded the Witch of Endor to bring back the spirit of the great judge and prophet Samuel from the dead. The ghostly Samuel duly appeared, and forecast that Saul and the Israelites would be defeated. It was a shock to Saul to hear what was going to happen.

The Witch linked Saul’s imminent defeat to the fact that he hadn’t obeyed the voice of the Lord, and hadn’t ‘executed his fierce wrath against Amalek’, so God would foresake the Israelites.

And then you heard the story, in St Luke’s Gospel in the New Testament, of the Pharisees wanting Jesus to forecast the future: what day will the Kingdom of God – or perhaps the end of the world – come? Jesus firmly told them that you couldn’t tell the answer by ‘observation’ – a translation from a Greek word which has a connotation of close observation in a superstitious sense – ‘reading the runes’ or some sort of divination, like going to see the Witch of Endor.

Jesus said, in effect, that you could not discern the will of God by reading tea-leaves or ghastly rituals with the innards of dead animals. The kingdom of God wasn’t ‘out there’ to be observed or divinated for. ‘For behold, the kingdom of God is within you,’ he said.

We could just pause at that point, and reflect on the whole business of fortune-telling and divination. I think that it is open to a logical, philosophical challenge.

If you go back to Saul calling up the spirit of Samuel from the dead – and any of those military examples, somehow asking God how the battle would go the next day – the logical problem is that, unless you believe that we have no free will – unless you think we are rigidly programmed, so that whoever discovers the programme can predict what we’ll do in a given set of circumstances – then at least in theory, you can always react to the prediction, to the prophecy, so as to avoid the outcome predicted.

I’ve always thought it was rather a weak bit of that film ‘Gone with the Wind’ when Scarlett O’Hara tells her father not to chase after someone on his horse, because if he does, he’ll fall off and kill himself: so he chases after the man, falls off, and kills himself. He could have avoided that, I’ve always thought.

So Saul could have decided not to fight the Philistines. But he didn’t, in fact; he didn’t take avoiding action, and so the prophecy actually came true. There was perhaps an extra factor, in that God’s will had resulted from his anger at what Saul had been doing, so arguably it wouldn’t have made much difference if he’d decided to pick another quarrel.

This is about how we discern the will of God. What does God want of us? According to the prophet Micah, ‘He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ [Micah 7:8]

It isn’t a question of going to Mystic Meg or reading the horoscopes at the back of the News Chronicle. When will the kingdom of God come in? For those Pharisees addressing Jesus, of course, the kingdom meant victory over the occupying power, over the Romans, kicking them out of Palestine. But Jesus offered another vision, that the kingdom had come really, when someone accepted him into their hearts, when they were converted. ‘The kingdom of God is within you!’

How do we encounter the kingdom of God? Should we look out for mediums and diviners? I think not. Who is like a prophet today? Surely we should look to our spiritual shepherds, who look over us as a flock – our ministers in our churches. Of course it’s not the case that only through a priest that we can approach God: since the Reformation we have had the idea of the Priesthood of all Believers too.

This is an especially apt weekend to think about who our prophets and pastors, our shepherds, are. It is the time known in the Church as Petertide, after the feast day of SS Peter and Paul on Thursday. It is traditionally the time when priests and deacons in the Church of England are ordained. In Guildford Cathedral today and yesterday, yesterday morning was a service for the ordination of priests, and today there were two services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, for the ordination of deacons. You will remember that when people are ordained, they are first ordained Deacon, which is a sort of L plate ministry – you can’t celebrate Holy Communion or marry people – and a year later you are ‘priested’, you are made a priest, fully ordained and fully able to celebrate the sacraments.

Why the link with St Peter? It’s because of what is called the ‘apostolic succession’, the originally Catholic idea that Christian ministry is derived from the earliest apostles, chief among whom was St Peter. The idea is that πρεσβύτεροι, elders, presbyters, ministers, are appointed by laying on of hands by the Pope – who is said to derive his authority under God from his direct line of succession from St Peter – and so they are all in a line of ministry which comes down from St Peter.

The authority of priests in the Church of England is said by Roman Catholics not to be in the line of apostolic succession, because of Henry VIII. It is the fact that Henry refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope, but instead made himself ‘fidei defensor’, ‘defender of the faith,’ which is what FD means on coins, after the Pope, rather prematurely, had given him this title), rather than that the C of E is a Protestant church. Our theology is said to be ‘catholic but reformed’. But despite what the Roman Catholics might say, in the C of E, we also think that our bishops and priests have been ordained in a due apostolic succession from St Peter.

Now, this week, this Petertide, there’s been a happy new development in relation to apostolic succession.

John Wesley – who was an Anglican vicar all his life – found that there were no bishops to ordain ministers for service in the new American colonies, when he visited in 1738, and so he eventually decided to ordain some ministers himself. This led to his ‘Methodist’ societies becoming a separate denomination in the church, although they had started as something rather like bible study groups, home groups, within Anglican parishes. You would go to the parish church in the morning, and to the Methodist ‘class’ in the afternoon.

There have been various efforts to bring Methodism and Anglicanism back together. The two churches believe the same things, and some theological colleges teach Anglicans and Methodists alongside each other – for example The Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham. There was an attempt to join the two churches in 1972, which was turned down by the Anglican General Synod, and in the early 2000s there were Anglican-Methodist Covenant meetings, aimed at paving the way for unity – not losing each church’s separate identity, but recognising the validity of each other’s ministry and teaching. A stumbling-block was the question of apostolic succession. Except in the USA, the Methodist Church does not have bishops. There are ‘circuit superintendents’ in Methodism, who function much like bishops. The former Methodist minister in Cobham and Leatherhead, Rev. Ian Howarth, is the Chair of the District of the Methodist Church in Birmingham – effectively, he is the Methodist Bishop of Birmingham, in all respects except for the fact that he has not been ordained by the laying on of hands by a bishop.

Now this week a new report has been published by the ‘Faith and Order’ bodies of both churches, called ‘Mission and Ministry in Covenant’. It is a set of proposals to make each church’s ministers fully equivalent. [See https://www.churchofengland.org/media/4002173/ministry-and-mission-in-covenant-revised-final-draft-formatted.pdf%5D

The churches have agreed to recommend to their governing bodies – to General Synod for us and to the Methodist Conference for them – that there will be Methodist bishops, originally ordained by three C of E bishops, and then, as more and more Methodist bishops are ordained, eventually the apostolic succession will extend to both churches. In time there will be Methodist ministers serving as vicars in parish churches, and C of E priests leading Methodist congregations.

I’m very pleased. Both my grandfathers, and one great-grandfather, were Methodist ministers, and I was brought up a Methodist. My last Methodist ‘class ticket’, as the membership card is called, is dated 1997. We used to have an evening service every third Sunday which alternated between Cobham Methodist Church and St Andrew’s. For various reasons, eventually I decided to become an Anglican: I’m not alone in Cobham. There are at least two Methodist Local Preachers, which is their name for Readers, at St Andrew’s.

We had a very friendly Anglican-Methodist Covenant discussion group: I hope we do it again. It will be a joyful way to show how ‘these Christians do love each other’.

So let us remember that God will not show himself to us through Mystic Meg: that the kingdom of God is ‘within us’, and that means at least partly here in our churches. And the great news is that at least two of the churches are moving closer together in love and fellowship. What a splendid witness that will be.