Archives for posts with tag: Romans

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 12th July 2015
Job 4:1; 5:6-27

Why do bad things happen? Has it got anything to do with God? Sadly, we’ve had several cases in point in the last couple of weeks. This week we remembered the ‘7/7’ bombings. Last week there was the dreadful shooting of tourists in Tunisia. Before then, more shootings of innocent people, in a church in the United States.

Poor old Job had a similar experience. He was a rich and successful livestock farmer. He had a large and happy family.

‘There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.
And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters.
His substance also was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she asses, and a very great household; so that this man was the greatest of all the men of the east.’

Then various disasters struck, and he lost everything; even his family were killed in a hurricane which destroyed the house they were staying in. The story in the first chapter of the Book of Job puts it all down to Satan, who had challenged the Lord God: strike down Job, he tempted, and he will curse you. The Lord didn’t exactly fall for the temptation, but

‘… the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand.’

So according to the story, Job came to grief not at the hand of God, but of Satan – or perhaps more relevantly, he came to grief not as a result of anything he himself had done. Job is portrayed as a wholly good man. But nevertheless something, some external force, has brought disaster on him.

That’s quite an important step. There is an idea in parts of the Bible called technically ‘eudaimonism’, according to which, if you become ill or suffer misfortune, it is because you have done something wrong, you have sinned against God: and God has punished you. For example in St Matthew chapter 9:

And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’, not, ‘Here’s some medicine for your palsy.’ In this theory, illness is caused by, is a punishment for, sin.

Here, in Job’s case, it’s made quite clear that Job isn’t the author of his own misfortune. But I would just pause there, and say that eudaimonism isn’t an attractive idea anyway. Would a God of love make people ill? How would it be if, when you met someone who was poorly, your first thought was not, ‘I hope you get better soon’, but, ‘What did you do wrong, in order to bring your suffering upon yourself?’

And at first Job doesn’t blame anyone. He worships God and accepts his terrible lot. Then along come his three friends, the original Job’s Comforters.

In tonight’s lesson we hear from the first one, Eliphaz. His explanation for Job’s trouble is that troubles are just part of being human. There’s no-one specific to blame. Just put your trust in God, God

‘Which doeth great things and unsearchable; marvellous things without number:
Who giveth rain upon the earth, and sendeth waters upon the fields:
To set up on high those that be low; that those which mourn may be exalted to safety.’

It reminds me of the Magnificat: ‘Who hath exalted the humble and meek, but the rich he hath sent empty away.’

That doesn’t seem to me to offer Job much real comfort. If God has the power to right wrongs, to impose justice – then why has He allowed suffering to take place at all? If God is so capable, why has He allowed Job to get into trouble? This is something which still troubles us today. Even people with the strongest faith can find that it is tested to destruction. There was a moving dramatic recreation, on the TV this week, of the story of Rev. Julie Nicholson, whose daughter was caught up in one of the bombings on 7/7, and was killed. This terrible loss effectively destroyed the mother’s faith, and her ministry in the church. She just couldn’t square the idea of a loving God with what had happened.

Eliphaz goes on with a fine piece of Job’s Comfort:

‘Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty:’

I have never understood why people receiving punishment are supposed to be grateful for it. There are all those school stories involving corporal punishment, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays onwards. It is nonsense – and in a rather sinister way, getting the victim of brutality to thank the perpetrator, must be intended somehow to amount to consent – so that ‘volenti non fit injuria’.

This is the legal principle that ‘to a willing man, it does not turn into a hurt’, it does not become the cause of legal action. This is why rugby matches do not usually end up in the High Court, even when people are seriously injured. It is surely nonsense in this context. Hurting someone by way of punishment is not something which can or should be consented to by the person being punished.

But to go back to Eliphaz. He has introduced the idea that God may punish. He may punish, may do harm – but it’s all right, because He will heal the wounds afterwards.

‘For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole.’

I suppose this is a refinement of the earlier idea that God is good, God only does good things – which clearly seems not to be true.

But God does everything. God is the creator and sustainer of all – so He must make or do bad things as well as good. The created world needs light and shade, black and white, good and bad.

But if in a given instance, in your bit of creation, you encounter the bad side, you may still, quite naturally, want to protest, to cry out against God in pain. ‘Why me?’ you will ask.

Eliphaz accepts this, and says that although there may be pain and suffering, God will heal and comfort. That’s the first part of what he says. But then he says that God ‘reproves’, ‘correcteth’. Although Job may think himself to be blameless, perhaps he isn’t.

Eliphaz’ first scenario is where the person who suffers is innocent: the second is where they are somehow at fault. But God still puts things right –

‘He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee.’

There is an echo here of the Jewish idea of the Sabbath, the seventh day, the seventh year, the jubilee, the day of the Lord’s favour. It is described in Isaiah 61, which Jesus quoted in Luke 4:18-19 –

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Just in passing, I’m uneasy about the way that the restrictions on Sunday trading have been relaxed in this week’s Budget. Of course, we Christians have changed the original sabbath from Saturday to Sunday – it happened when the Romans adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, in the fourth century. Some people have said that one reason for changing from Saturday to Sunday was to get away from the Jewish idea of jubilee, of relief from debt and time off for recreation.

Canon Giles Fraser indeed commented this week that Sunday has become a day of worship – of shopping, not of God.[http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2015/jul/10/money-is-the-only-god-the-tories-want-us-to-worship-on-a-sunday] The thing which worries me is that for many people, Sunday will become just another working day.

The Jewish idea of the Sabbath, when, on the seventh day, the Lord of creation rested from his labours, is still vitally important today. Perhaps it is right that the weekly day of rest should not automatically be Sunday: perhaps it is better that the business of life (or the life of business) should not stop only on Sundays. But I do hope that the government realises that there must be a right for people to have a day off each week. I hope they – and the other European governments – remember about debt relief in the Greek context too.

Things do come right for Job. He gets his family back, and his sheep, and oxen, and camels, even more than he lost before. At the end, the Lord acknowledges that, unlike his friends, Job hasn’t tried to explain away how God works, and somehow thereby put himself above God. He hasn’t tried to be clever. He has just accepted that God is more than he can see or understand, and that God has infinite power.

There are things which we can’t understand. Awful things. But God has assured us, revealed Himself to us. In the Old Testament, He appeared through the prophets: for us, He has appeared in Jesus Christ. We have to acknowledge that this will not of itself take away our pain. But we can believe that God is there, God cares for us. He has told us what to do with pain and suffering. The answer is in Matt.25:35-40.

‘For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’

We have the power to feed the hungry: we have the power to heal the sick: we have the power to house the homeless: we can accept the refugees. We ought to do something about it. And then, just as Job found out, the Kingdom of heaven will be ours.

‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.’ [Rev. 21:4-5]

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How does Easter work? A Sermon for Evensong at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, on Palm Sunday 2015
Isaiah 5:1-7; Mark 12:1-12; Romans 7

This time last week I was in St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney, Australia. Even allowing for the time difference, at the beginning of the sermon there, you are in for a much bigger sermon than my little efforts here. The Sub-Dean, Canon Chris Allan, preached for nearly 40 minutes – and in the pew sheet there were two blank pages for you to make notes in! He was preaching about Romans, chapter 7. What he said – or rather, some of what he said – was this. It leads rather neatly into what I want to say at the beginning of Holy Week today.

In his letter to the Romans, St Paul wrote that being married is a legal relationship. Break your marriage and you break the law. But if your spouse dies, the law no longer binds you. You can marry again without breaking the law.

Pardon? I thought. Surely, there is no law against cheating on your poor spouse. Instead it’s a classic example of the dichotomy, which all lawyers are familiar with, between something which is illegal and something which is immoral.

But of course in the context of St Paul’s letter to the Romans, the ‘law’ is the Jewish Law, the law of Moses: the Ten Commandments and the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the Old Testament.

That Law was, is, a moral law rather than a civil law. It is against the Jewish Law to commit adultery. To keep to the Jewish Law, generally, is to avoid falling into sin. Paul says, rather mysteriously, that until that Law was given to Moses, there was no sin. Perhaps this is like saying that, unless we have black, we cannot understand white. Until there was a Law to be broken, there were no breaches, no crimes against the law, no sins.

The coming of Jesus has released us, as if, having been ‘married’ to sin, inseparably hitched to it, we had died, ‘died to sin’. As a result, our legal tie, our ‘marriage’ to sin, is over.

This comes about as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was a man as well as being divine. As such, he was, potentially at least, ‘married’, inextricably linked, to sin. But He died, and the link died as a result. Then He rose again, no longer human, but divine.

If we somehow die with Him, our bondage, our ‘marriage ties’ to sin will be dissolved, like a widow’s former marriage. But as St Paul pointed out in Romans chapter 7, in one sense, perhaps it doesn’t work. Even after we have become Christians, our links to the former partner – dare I say to the old ‘ball and chain’? – are still there. I know what the good is, and I want to choose it, says St Paul, but I don’t do it. I still do the bad thing instead. I can’t help it.

Does that mean that we’re like the bad tenant farmers, the evil husbandmen, in Jesus’ parable of the man who let out his vineyard? God has planted a vineyard, a fruitful vineyard, and has let it out. Will the tenant farmers pay the rent? Or in Isaiah 5, God has dug and planted and done everything necessary for his vineyard, that he has planted, to bear tasty fruit – but it doesn’t.

God will be cross. He will dig up the vines that produce bad stuff, vinegar instead of wine. He will punish the tenant farmers for the way they have abused his rent-collectors.

Those favoured tenants, given leases over Chateau Lafitte (or maybe Château Musar, as we’re in a Middle Eastern context), have spurned their obligations to the landlord. Appallingly, they have even killed the landlord’s son rather than honour their contract and pay the rent to him.

Jesus is telling a parable. He’s drawing a picture, making an analogy – much in the same way as Isaiah did, generations ago. No more special relationship, no more chosen people. They, the Israelites, have produced a duff vintage, not even plonk.

Was this going to turn out badly? On one level, yes. The people in the promised land wouldn’t pay their rent. The harvest was lousy. So God would plough up the vineyard, he would forfeit the lease.

But are we like the evil husbandmen? If St Paul is right, and we never stick to what is right, even though we know what the right thing to do is, will we be cast out of the Lord’s vineyard? The Easter message is that the exact opposite will happen. Although the only Son was killed, he was raised up again. This is a sign, a sign that He was not defeated, not defeated by sin and death. In effect, even though they had murdered Him, the son will go back to those husbandmen and give them a second chance.

The other thing is who the husbandmen were. In the New Testament, when this story comes up in St Mark, or, in almost the same words, in St Matthew or St Luke, the suggested interpretation is that they were the Jews, or more particularly the Pharisees, who were on a course of deadly opposition to our Lord. But ‘the stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’. There is no chosen people under the new Covenant, the Covenant summed up in John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ Instead, whoever believes, wherever they come from, can be saved; everyone, not just the Jews.

The Easter message isn’t that God will miraculously fix us, fix all our faults. St Paul may have found it very frustrating, but the reality is that, in this life, we are not perfect. But in the next – as the hymn says, ‘in this world and the next’, we will have died, we will have left sin a widow, so our bonds will have been broken. And meanwhile, we have this ‘blessed assurance’ in Jesus, that God will forgive us when we fall short – and ‘falling short’ is the literal meaning of the Greek word for ‘sin’, άμαρτια.

So we may indeed, in a sense, be like the bad husbandmen in Jesus’ story. As long as we live, we can’t escape our sinful nature. But it does not mean that we’ll be cast out into the outer darkness. Provided that we repent, that we acknowledge our sins before God and try to improve, we will be forgiven, God will still care for us.

As we start Holy Week by remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on his donkey, there is some tension between our feeling joy with those crowds who strewed his path with palm leaves, and the undertow of foreboding, the dark shadow of the cross.

He looks like the one to save his people. It may only be a donkey, but it is a triumphal procession. But are we good enough? In our hands, God’s Château Lafitte has produced plonk. And we haven’t paid the rent.

What next? Come back, come back every day this week, and see. But this isn’t Sydney Cathedral, so I don’t need you to write notes.

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, on the Second Sunday of Lent, 1st March 2015

Genesis 12:1-9, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Yesterday morning, along with Beryl Jones and Godfrey from St Mary’s, Robert Jenkins and the other ministers from St Andrew’s, together with their churchwarden Dr Moni Babatunde – and about 991 others – it was our privilege and our joy to attend the Service of Inauguration of our new bishop, Bishop Andrew, at Guildford Cathedral.

The process is called ‘inauguration.’ Just as we are no longer supposed to think of bishops as ‘princes of the church’, so we don’t talk about them being enthroned any more, but just ‘inaugurated’.

Bishop Andrew had to declare his loyalty to the inheritance of faith professed by the Church of England, the ‘faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the Catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.’ That is in the preface to the Declaration of Assent, which is read by the Dean. She went on say, ‘Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.’

If you want to look at the ‘historic formularies’ which are referred to, then look at p.584 (and following) in your little blue Prayer Books, where the historic form of service is set out – although I’m disappointed to tell you that we didn’t follow that, but instead it was a more modern version. Do look at the wonderful lesson in the Prayer Book, from 1 Timothy, setting out all the qualities which a bishop needs – ‘.. not greedy of filthy lucre..’ and so on. The 39 Articles are there too.

Tonight, on the Second Sunday in Lent, we are reflecting on the nature of faith. The faith which inspired Abraham to leave his home and go off in search of the promised land, just relying on the Lord’s promise, in our first lesson from Genesis, and the great catalogue of instances of faith set out in the Letter to the Hebrews, the faith shown by a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that it refers to in Chapter 12.

Bishop Andrew chose as his lesson, which was beautifully read by his eldest daughter Hannah, a passage from chapter 47 of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, which certainly those of us in my car, coming away from the service, couldn’t remember before, as it wasn’t the ‘still, small voice’ of calm, and it wasn’t the dry bones: but it was Ezekiel being walked around where the temple would be, and being shown a spring of water, which variously was a trickle, came up to his knees, and then was deep enough to swim in, which flowed out into the Dead Sea, and made the water of the Dead Sea sweet enough for fish to thrive and be caught abundantly there.

Bishop Andrew drew on that image as he outlined the task ahead of him. He had some allusions to Classical mythology as well: the story of Odysseus and the Sirens in the Odyssey, and a version of the same story in Jason and the Argonauts. The Sirens’ song was intended to draw Odysseus and his companions to their deaths on the rocks, and they were saved by the beautiful song of the singer Orpheus, which drowned out the Sirens.

For Bishop Andrew, this illustrated the need for continual work, continual strife against all the challenges which he would have to face in his ministry. As he pointed out, rotting fruit will spread rapidly and ruin all the good fruit next to it: but it doesn’t work the other way. The good fruit doesn’t neutralise the rotting fruit by itself. Something positive has to be done to get rid of the bad stuff.

In the Letter to the Hebrews chapter 11, that first line, ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ has a rather different meaning from the ‘faith’ which the Bishop has to declare his assent to, as part of his inauguration.

We can say that Bishop Andrew shares our core Christian beliefs: he shares the specifics of belief which are set out in the creeds. But what we’re being asked to reflect on tonight is slightly different. This passage in Hebrews is a pretty philosophical passage, and it deals, not so much with the content of our faith, with what it is we believe and trust in, but instead it invites us to think about what it means to have faith. What are we doing when we have faith?

It’s drawing a contrast, which you’ll also find in Chapters 4 and 8 of St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, between what we can see with our eyes, what we can sense with our five senses, the truth of which we can witness – we were there, we saw it happen, so we can certainly say we believe in it – and the things that we can’t see, but nevertheless believe in: what it is that gives substance to our hopes and in some way provides a touch-stone, a reality check, for things which we cannot directly experience.

Some philosophers and writers have of course challenged this. H. L. Mencken, whom Alastair Cooke was so fond of quoting in his Letter from America, said, ‘Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.’ The Oxford philosopher Richard Robinson, in his book ‘An Atheist’s Values’ [Oxford, OUP, 1964] simply finds Christian explanations of faith to be ‘unintelligible’, believing something where there is no evidence for it.

The word which we translate as ‘evidence’ in this context, in ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’ in Hebrews 11:1 (KJV), something which convinces us that something is true, is something objective, it’s something outside us. It’s not a question of our being disposed to believe something, credulous. It’s what it is that makes us disposed to believe it. In Greek, the word is ελεγχος: it’s a word which means a proof, a process of putting something to the test.

I have to say that I disagree with those philosophers who say that this kind of belief, faith, trust in the reality of something which you can’t actually prove, is simply unintelligible. We believe and trust in all sorts of things every day, which we can’t prove. For example, that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, or that we will – or most of us will – carry on with our lives, and that there will be another day.

I believe and trust that some of my friends are curling up in front of the TV, and getting ready to watch Top Gear. I can’t prove it – I can’t see them. But for practical purposes, I’m quite confident that that’s what they’re doing.

You can of course object that some things are more likely than others. Some things are more believable, if you like, than others, and therefore more deserving of our faith. Can faith, our faith, pass this test?

I would suggest that our faith in God is both intelligible and intellectually respectable, because of the testimony of the actual people who were the real witnesses, which we have in the Bible, and because the history of that faith, as it has been passed down by the generations here in Stoke for the last 1,500 years, is such that, frankly, if it wasn’t true, it would’ve died out.

The thing about our Christian faith is that, although the object of it is invisible, it is real. ‘Abraham put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness’, St Paul writes in Romans 4. ‘Righteousness’ in Paul’s letters is what draws us closer to God. If all there were is mankind and what man can see, can perceive with the senses, then indeed, faith makes no sense. But we believe that there is more, more than we can know or perceive. Just because we can’t perceive it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Hebrews gives a catalogue, as I said earlier, of all the various heroes and heroines of faith. Look what a tremendous tradition you will be following if you join in! Bishop Andrew is saying that, if you have the faith, if you get swept up in its stream, a stream like that stream rising in the middle of the temple, in Ezekiel’s vision, then even in the barren waters of the Dead Sea, you will make a good catch.

Let us give thanks for Bishop Andrew’s teaching, and for the example of his faith. He will be a good man to watch over us – which is what a bishop does.

Sermon for Evensong on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, the Feast of
Christ the King
2 Samuel 23:1-7, Matt. 28:16-end

The other day in the Guardian there was an extended article, in a section which they now call ‘the long read’, about Prince Charles, and what sort of a king he would be when eventually he accedes to the throne. Apparently it’s not something he likes to talk about, because to do so would necessarily mean that he would have to be thinking about the death of his beloved mother, the Queen.

I think that’s rather endearing. I read the article with extra interest, knowing that I was going to be preaching tonight, on the Sunday when we celebrate Christ the King. It’s a relatively new festival in Christianity – it began in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925. Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King as a reaction against what he perceived as a rising tide of secularism. People had forgotten the importance of God.

Actually I preached only last week about the text from the Gospel according to St Matthew which was our New Testament lesson tonight, Jesus’ Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all the world.

It isn’t the Gospel reading which one most readily associates with the idea of Jesus as King. This morning the lesson was Matthew 25, ‘Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat, …’ You remember, when they asked when they had done this, Jesus replied, ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’ – one of the most powerful social justice and charitable love messages that Jesus ever gave.

Jesus the King was King in heaven, and He was dividing the sheep and the goats in the Last Judgment. The Gospel writer expected Jesus to be an absolute monarch, splendid in majesty and power.

We are not used to absolute monarchs now, today in England. After Magna Carta our kings are ‘constitutional monarchs’ with powers constrained and restricted. The will of the people, expressed in Parliament, is sovereign.

King David, the greatest king of the Jews, in his last words, in the first lesson, from 2 Samuel, affirmed that God had told him that ‘One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.’ That’s the poetry of the man who wrote the Psalms, describing kingship in a similar vein to Magna Carta. The king is subject to higher authority, and, respecting that higher authority, he must rule justly: not capriciously or cruelly.

Reading the article about Prince Charles,[http://gu.com/p/43dtt, ] I found that the author was concerned that perhaps Charles, who has a habit of writing to people in public life and expressing very forthright views, would be much more assertive in public than the Queen has been, and is. The thrust of the article was to ask whether Charles would throw his weight around in an anti-democratic way.

I confess that I was somewhat uneasy about the Monarchy when I was a young man. What was it that made the Queen and her family better than you or me, so that we owed her respect – reverence, almost. What was her strength? Why would we go through elaborate rigmaroles when she was about?

That feeling in me changed completely, when my Father got the OBE. My mother, my brother and I went with him to the investiture in Buckingham Palace. We sat no more than a few feet away from where Her Majesty was standing. She had someone standing next to her to pass her the medals, but no notes or prompts.

She bestowed medals on about 75 people. What was amazing was that she seemed to know about every single one that she was giving a medal to. She spoke to my Father for a couple of minutes – which felt much longer, of course – and clearly she had carefully researched all that Dad had been doing.

She had done this thorough preparation for every single person that she decorated that day. It must have been a big task of preparation – and just think, she must have to do a similar job several times a year. It speaks volumes that, after so many years, the Queen still takes it upon herself to prepare and get to know exactly what her loyal subjects have been doing, the reason why they have been awarded the medals.

The Queen is reported to say that this hard work is just part of the job. She has a very strong ethic of service. The Queen is modest enough to do masses of homework, so that she can serve her people in a professional way. My Dad was really impressed. Although he was dying, the whole thing really bucked him up. He really did walk taller after getting his OBE from the Queen.

And I ceased to have republican leanings. In a minute we will pray for our Queen; I will lead the prayers; and I’ll really mean it.

I do hope that Prince Charles will be similarly imbued with an ethic of service. He has had to lead a rather odd life so far. In the article which I read, for example. It describes Prince Charles visiting Chester Cathedral.

‘Inside the cathedral, the strangeness of Prince Charles’s life came into focus. … Some modernist choir stalls, installed 15 years ago, caught his disapproving eye. “Doesn’t quite go,” the prince announced, locking eyes with the senior churchman. “It may be time for a review.” …. Finally, in the cloister, Charles was invited to hold Grace the golden eagle, a magnificent bird who, moments earlier, had evacuated her bowels explosively on to this reporter’s notebook.’ A close shave for the Prince.

Apart from the eagle, Charles seemed to act as though he was in charge. Telling the Dean of a cathedral that his seating ‘didn’t quite go’ and that it was ‘time for a review’ doesn’t sound like someone whose prime object is to serve.

But that is it. The Servant King. That is a modern hymn which we can like. Think of the passage in St Mark chapter 10: ‘You know that among the Gentiles [in the context, it must mean, among the Romans], those whom they recognise as their rulers [their kings] lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But …. whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, …’

Jesus’ kingship was not like a Roman emperor’s. Not even like Herod, the puppet king, king of the Jews, who would soon condemn Him. These men had considerable power in the secular sphere, we say, ‘on earth’. They had the power of life and death. Jesus, Jesus the man, didn’t have that kind of power.

‘Pilate said to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”… Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world,to testify to the truth.”‘ (John 18:33b, 36-37).

So we come back to this question, what makes a real king. King David said that he must fear God and deal justly; our Queen is giving her service, committed and faithful to her people. Prince Charles already does a great deal of charitable work – but he must not stray into autocracy. He needs to be a Servant King, just as his mother is a Servant Queen.

And the Servant King, the original Servant King, will be with us till the end of the age. As Bob Dylan sang, ‘You’re gonna have to serve somebody.’ Christ the King. Let us indeed serve Him.

Sermon for Evensong on the 11th Sunday after Trinity, 31st August 2014, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon

Acts 18:5 – When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus.

Who was right? Was Jesus the ‘Messiah’, the chosen one of God, the King, enthroned in the kingdom of God, or not? Jews and Moslems both recognise Jesus as a prophet, but neither accepts that Jesus was himself divine. Therefore they have both regarded Christianity as a challenge to the orthodoxy of their true religion. In places, Islam is doing this right now. Before Mohamed came along, the Bible is full of conflicts between the Jews and Jesus, and later between the Jews and the disciples.

On Jesus’ cross, Pilate had a sign fixed up in three languages, ‘This is the king of the Jews’. For the Romans this was ironic. They could not understand why it was so contentious among the Jews for someone like Jesus to be their king. Since it was clear that the Jews did reject Him – demanding His crucifixion and freedom for the acknowledged criminal Barabbas instead – the distinction of kingship was ironic at best.

Jesus himself was clear that He was the Messiah. He did not contradict Peter when Peter worked out for himself that Jesus was the long-awaited King [Matt. 16]. But what was coming was not an insurrection against the Romans, but something much more important.

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt.16:21-28).

The ‘Son of Man’ is Jesus’ way of referring to himself, as Messiah, chosen one of God. Jesus repeated what the prophet Daniel had written in the Old Testament [Daniel 7:13], ‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought him near before him.’

Was Jesus saying that the end of the world was just about to happen? Because if so, He seems to have been wrong. After all, 2,000 years later, we still pray,

‘Lord of all life,
help us to work together for that day
when your kingdom comes
and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth.’

[Common Worship, Services and Prayers for the Church of England (2000), London, Church House Publishing, p197 – Holy Communion Order One: Eucharistic Prayer E]

I always pray that prayer very fervently. I feel that we need justice and mercy to be seen in all the earth: because, in so many places, there is no justice and mercy.

We have only to think back over the last week’s news. Are Islamic State, ISIS, full of ‘justice and mercy’? Is there justice and mercy for the poor people in Africa with Ebola? Would the children in Rotherham, who suffered abuse for so long and who were not taken seriously by the forces of law and order, did they receive any ‘justice and mercy’?

It doesn’t look as though Jesus got this right, on the face of things. Surely if the Son of Man had come in power with his angels and set up His kingdom, the Kingdom of God, then surely in the words of the Book of Revelation, ‘… there [would] be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither [will] there be any more pain.’ (Rev.21:4)

But, because it was Jesus who said it – and it seems unlikely that he was mistakenly reported, because three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, have Him saying almost identical words – just because Jesus Himself did say this, it must be reasonable to assume that he wasn’t just mistaken, just because the end of the world didn’t in fact happen during the lifetime of any of His disciples – but rather we ought to look at the possibility that it doesn’t mean what it seems to at first sight. It doesn’t literally mean that Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of God was synonymous with the the end of the world, and that that End Time was about to happen, in the early years of the first century AD.

We have to acknowledge that the early church did think that was what Jesus was saying. St Paul’s teaching about marriage, in 1 Corinthians 7, where he seems to suggest that it’s best to remain celibate, although ‘it is better to marry than to burn’, reflects the idea that the earliest Christians had, that the Apocalypse was really imminent: think of Jesus’ teaching about signs of the end of the world in S. Matthew 24, and parables like the Ten Bridesmaids – ‘Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour’. Of course as well as the early Christians, other prophets of doom have been forecasting the end of the world ever since – and no-one has got it right so far. It must mean something else. One alternative, of course, is that the Jews and the Moslems are right, and Jesus was just a prophet, nothing more.

Even in today’s world, with all its tragedies and strife, is it still possible that the Kingdom of God is with us? I believe that for us too, even 2,000 years after Jesus, heavenly things do still happen.

In among the unheavenly things which I mentioned from the news this week, in the Middle East, in Africa with Ebola, and nearer to home in Yorkshire, I truly had a heavenly experience – yes, ‘heavenly’ really is the right word – when I went to the Proms on Friday. I heard Mahler’s Symphony, No 2, the ‘Resurrection’ he entitled it. In the 5th movement, the mezzo, the soprano and the great chorus of two choirs, over 200 singers, sing:

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube

Oh believe, my heart, oh believe:
nothing is lost for thee!

Oh believe, thou wert not born in vain,
neither hast thou vainly lived, nor suffered!

Whatsoever is created must also pass away!
Whatsoever has passed away, must rise again! [Must rise again!]
Cease thy trembling!
Prepare thyself to live!

[From ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’: Friedrich Klopstock (1724-1803) and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), translated by Ron Isted]

Imagine what an uplifting, amazing moment it was. Huge forces – the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, with 65 string players, 26 brass players, 17 woodwinds, 7 percussionists, the mighty Willis organ of the Royal Albert Hall, and two choirs with over 200 choral singers as well as the two soloists: and in the audience a full house, a complete sell-out, all 6,000 seats and promenade spaces taken.

And they raised the roof. Resurrection. It felt as though it was really happening there. Wonderful. Suddenly it gave me a clue about Jesus’ really being the Messiah, the King.

Resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection, was the coronation, as it were, of Jesus coming into His kingdom. The disciples did live to see it. Indeed they didn’t ‘taste death’ beforehand. In a real sense, the King had arrived. His resurrection was his coronation.

If it had been the end, the end of everything, then there would be nothing more to say. But it wasn’t the end – and clearly Jesus’ coming into His kingdom wasn’t a cataclysmic revolution. The perfect world pictured in the Book of Revelation didn’t miraculously come about.

We must remember what St Paul said, in Romans chapter 7. ‘The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will.’ [Rom 7:18, NEB]. Even that saint, Saint Paul, fell prey to temptation.

That was because God has not abolished good and evil. God’s kingdom on earth is like any kingdom, in that there are crimes as well as good deeds. God is not a sort of puppet-master who controls all the people, stopping them from doing harm. We believe that God is omnipotent, all-powerful, so He could control everyone, could, theoretically, make us into robots. But He plainly hasn’t done.

Instead He has shown us, by giving us His only Son, that He cares for us. His kingdom is real. Even so, even in God’s kingdom, we still have to choose the right and the good over the bad. We still need to pray; and our prayers are answered.

But we do also have a sense, a belief, as Christians, in a Kingdom of God in the other sense, of a life after death, a spiritual realm at the end of time: strictly beyond our powers to imagine or describe it, but maybe along the lines of the vision in Revelation chapter 21. We can’t say what it is precisely, but we may be able to say what it does – that it takes away pain, sorrow, crying, even death.

God’s kingdom involves an End Time, as well as a Kingdom on earth. In one sense the End Time is ours personally, in our death. In another, there will be, Jesus has taught us, a Day of Reckoning, when, in the words of Matt 16, ‘He will give each man the due reward for what he has done’.

Then at that End Time – and at any time, in fact – we will need to be ready, for Jesus may be there, and He may say to us, ‘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.’ [Matt. 25:35f] We know what we have to do. It is the King who has commanded us.

Sermon for Evensong on Palm Sunday, 13th April 2014
Isaiah 5:1-7, Matt. 21:33-46 – Three sad stories

There were three sad stories that I read in the paper this week.

The first was about the way in which some of the changes in the government benefits system are affecting people who are disabled or who have long-term chronic illnesses. The Disability Living Allowance is being abolished, and a new Personal Independence Payment is being brought in. The trouble is that, in many instances – one recent study said it is affecting up to 40% of cases – people who used to get the Disability Living Allowance (this is people who have terminal illnesses, for example, where there is no realistic prospect that they can go back to work) are now being assessed as ‘fit to work’ and have to wait for an appeal before they can get any money. This can take months. In addition, apparently, a lot of people have been approved to get the new payment, but it still doesn’t come, because things are ‘lost in the system’.

Macmillan Cancer Care have been reported as saying that cancer patients are even missing appointments for chemotherapy because they don’t have the money for a bus fare.

Another sad story concerned an 18-year-old schoolgirl, Yashika, who has been deported by the Home Office as a failed asylum seeker, weeks before she was due to take her A Levels. The bit which really distressed me was this, which I read in the Church Times:

The Home Office .. [took] this vulnerable girl away from her family … [and placed her] alone, in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, for six weeks during December and January (including Christmas and New Year), and again for two weeks in March.

… Three times, she was put through the ordeal of suddenly being informed that she would be deported imminently. On the first occasion she was driven to Gatwick in a van, only to be turned around at the last minute and returned to the detention centre.

On the second, she was informed at the eleventh hour that the decision had been reversed – both confusing and distressing events in themselves. On the third instance, escorted by five guards, she was placed on a flight from Heathrow, seated in an isolated position in the plane, and flown to a country where, as far as our authorities were concerned, there was no-one to meet her.’
[Rev. Steve Chalke in ‘Church Times’, 11th April 2014]

The third story – just to get all the ghastliness over in one go – was the story of the trainee solicitor (I’m ashamed to say) who left her dog to starve to death, locked up in her flat.

There are lots of things which we can say about all these cases: there are lots of things wrong with each one of them. They’re all horrifying. But I just want to pick out a couple of things which I think are relevant on Palm Sunday.

The point that struck me about the welfare changes affecting sick and disabled people, and what struck me about what happened to the schoolgirl Yashika, was that somebody, somewhere, was actually being cruel face-to-face – face-to-face with the poor disabled people or with that terrified young girl. There were five guards on the plane. There are the people at the Dept for Work and Pensions who receive the phone calls or open the letters chasing up unpaid benefits, and who fail to respond.

There’s a government minister involved. The author in the newspaper said she had tackled him, on the Andrew Marr Show. She said, ‘He waved it away airily’. ‘Oh, it’ll all be sorted by the autumn’, he claimed. Or again, ‘He batted away the idea with a shrug.’

Nothing illegal going on here. Nothing illegal in deporting the schoolgirl Yashika. Nothing illegal in denying benefits or paying benefits late. Due process of law has been gone through.

What seems to be lacking is any kind of compassion. Jesus’ second commandment, the ‘golden rule’, ‘Do unto others: love you neighbour as yourself’, doesn’t seem to be evident in either of the first two cases.

So far as the poor dog was concerned, there was of course law-breaking, and the cruel person has gone to jail for it. But the essence of what she did was the same – lack of compassion, lack of fellow-feeling. She didn’t even vaguely put herself into the shoes of the dog, if I can put it like that. She didn’t think what the dog would have felt as he starved to death. She didn’t – she refused to – feel his pain.

The same with the Home Office people who organised the deportation of Yashika. They weren’t there as she was chucked off the plane in Mauritius, a place that her family had fled from in the first place, because they believed that they were threatened. These Home Office people apparently couldn’t care less that this 18-year-old girl – just like one of us’ daughters – had been forcibly separated from her family, and was being dumped in a hostile country with no-one to help her or care for her. This was being done in our name: but what kind of compassion is it?

The same with the government minister: not his job, the nuts and bolts of putting his excellent plans, his policy, into effect. Not his job that his policy means that civil servants are instructed, as part of their job, to deny the means of livelihood to sick and disabled people.

Well, maybe you excuse the minister. What about the people on the ground? Surely they know that they are making people starve? All over the country, people who’ve been denied benefit are turning up in our food banks.

So what about Palm Sunday?

‘There is a green hill far away
Without a city wall
Where the dear Lord was crucified …’

It was another inhumanity. Jesus the king, riding on his donkey, wasn’t going to triumph: he was going to die. He was going to die horribly. And there were people who were going to do it to him: soldiers and the whole apparatus of the Jewish state-within-a-state, and of course Pontius Pilate and his Roman administration.

It wasn’t just an administration or a system, it was people. It was people who actually hurt Jesus, who did the unspeakable things to him which we will be reading about and thinking about in the next week.

Jesus’ death was not just a spectacular injustice. There was due process. The Pharisees and the Sadducees passed a death sentence on Jesus as a dangerous trouble-maker – translation – freedom-fighter, terrorist. He threatened the good order of the Jewish administration. So although we would say that the whole business of Jesus’ crucifixion was totally unjust, we should note that it was procedurally correct, according to their lights at the time.

Jesus was ‘the stone which the builders rejected’. That rejection, that crucifixion, that God-killing, was the worst thing that mankind has ever done. Far worse than the cruelties and injustices which we see around us happening every day. That poor dog. That poor girl. The cancer patient without the bus fare to get to their chemo session.
But in a sense, these cruelties and injustices which we see today are related to Jesus. He showed us how to live. He showed us how not to be cruel. In a sense, if those things are still happening, in a real sense, He is still being rejected: he is still being crucified.

Why is there so little love and compassion? Why does the minister just shrug when people starve? Why does no-one say, ‘It’s cruel, it’s wrong, to take a girl away from her parents and surround her with five guards on a plane’. They are all just like the soldiers who beat Jesus, who nailed Jesus to the cross.

But remember, even men under orders can see the light. Remember what the Roman centurion said. ‘Truly this man was the son of God!’ Then God raised Jesus from the dead – after the ultimate humiliation, the ultimate affirmation. ‘The stone which the builders rejected, the same was made the head of the corner’ – the cornerstone.

We say that Jesus ‘saves’. This isn’t a cue for a weak joke making an unflattering comparison between the Lord and, say, Petr Cech at Chelsea. We say that Jesus made ‘a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.’ Does this mean that we don’t need to care about our cruelties and inhumanities, because in some way Jesus has ‘paid the price’ on our behalf?

I think not. What sort of God would that be? I certainly don’t believe that God is in the business of human sacrifice. How could He be a God of love, if He really was prepared to hurt His own son? Indeed, if we are proper believers in the Holy Trinity, we could put it another way. In that Jesus was God, was God in human form, how could God hurt Himself?

Instead, I think that God’s sacrifice, Jesus’ Passion, was a sacrifice in the sense that Jesus entered into the depths of our suffering. He experienced the worst that we can do to each other. But it didn’t destroy him.

If we repent,
if we stop our cruelty and inhumanity,
if we have faith in Him, we also will not be destroyed.
If … If …

Sermon for Holy Communion at St Mary’s on 1st December 2013, the First Sunday in Advent
Romans 13:11-14, Matt. 24:36-44 – The Thief in the Night

Some of you may know that I have just come back from a visit to the USA, where I enjoyed Thanksgiving with some friends. It’s like a combination of Harvest Festival with Christmas – you eat a massive meal of turkey with all the usual trimmings – and with some things we don’t have, like fresh cranberries instead of cranberry sauce, squash as one of the vegetables, and pecan pie for pudding.

The timing of the meal depends on whether the family you are visiting favours a brisk walk in the park afterwards, playing touch football or watching it – American football, that is. The TV schedule is often influential in the decision concerning the timing of Thanksgiving lunch. Another thing is that you may find that you need to rest your eyes. Somehow there is no need to eat or drink anything more that day!

Thanksgiving is just that, thanksgiving, a season where the Americans give thanks to God for the abundance of good things that they enjoy. It looks back to the hard work of the harvest. It doesn’t look forward to Christmas. It’s not like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, a blow-out before a time of restraint and fasting.

So in America, on Thursday it was Thanksgiving. I flew back yesterday – and now the season of Advent begins. One is tempted to think that, if one were an American, it ought to be a seamless transition from one season of joy to another. From one turkey dinner to another, at Christmas. Only so many shopping days to Christmas: Christmas parties: starting to think about good resolutions for the New Year. Sit down at the fireside. Happy times.

Even if you can put presents and shopping out of your mind, still at Advent it is wonderful to reflect, to reflect on God with us, how God became incarnate, took on human form, in the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. The deep meaning of Christmas is that it is a sign of the revelation of God to us. We would not know much about God if He had not revealed Himself to us. He was born, he was a human baby – but He was also God, and He showed his divine nature to us – showed it to us in person.

That’s the background to our lessons today. You might think that the Advent time, when the church prepares to commemorate the birth of Jesus, would just be a time of mounting jollifications as a result. Christmas is a happy time, because we are celebrating the tangible evidence that God cares for us. By coming in human form, God shows that He isn’t just the blind watchmaker, setting the world in motion and then not bothering with it again.

But also we have to acknowledge that precisely because of this, it ought to be a time of awe, of reverence, for the majesty of God. Although a baby doesn’t on the face of things, look particularly fearsome, once you fully appreciate what that baby represented, then, indeed as the Wise Men did, you are called, perhaps even feel yourself to be compelled, to show respect, to offer worship.

The lessons set in the Lectionary for today start with Isaiah 2:1-5, which we haven’t read in our service, but which might be a passage for you to read at home after lunch. It is that very familiar passage, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, … that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’. He shall judge between the nations …; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks…’ Isaiah 2.

This time of the Kingdom will be a time of judgment. And St Paul picks up on that in his letter to the Romans. ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.’

And last comes St Matthew’s gospel, recording the words of Jesus himself, rather eerily warning people to be ready for the coming of the Kingdom, as though it would not be unmixed good news. It will come like a thief in the night, unexpectedly. ‘… two will be in the field. One will be taken and the other left’ in Matthew: and the process is compared with Noah’s flood in Romans. This is the end time, the Day of Judgment, the Dies Irae.

At first blush it doesn’t fit such a happy, jolly time as the run-up to Christmas. But traditionally, the church has used this time to reflect on the meaning of God with us, Immanuel, in terms of the Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

To some extent I think that raises a question what exactly we are doing as we follow the liturgical year. We aren’t literally looking forward to the birth of Jesus – after all, He has already been born. It is a commemoration. We are doing something similar to a serious play. We are acting out a sacred story. By telling the story, we get into it, as indeed actors sometimes say, they get into character.

So we aim, as Christians, to be in character for the Advent drama. That drama is far too awe-inspiring to be just a jolly time. In the time of the Kingdom, the Last Judgement cannot be far away. But St Paul has it right when he says that the impending time, the thing which you must prepare yourself for, is not Doomsday, but ‘salvation’. ‘Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.’ So Advent is sometimes called a ‘penitential time’ in the same way as Lent: but that is rather uneasy. We are looking forward to a happy event, the happy event in the stable in Bethlehem.

So I think that it’s all right to enjoy Advent, all right to look forward happily – as we will do tonight, to sing carols and be merry, during Advent time. But we have to remember that we are at the same time preparing for the end time, whenever it will be. That needs repentance, so that we can be saved. ‘Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’.