Archives for posts with tag: sermon on the mount

Sermon for 1030 Holy Communion at St Mary, Oatlands on 14th October 2020

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=469611667

Galatians 5.18-end; Luke 11.42-46

In our Gospel reading today, it leapt out at me, when I was reading it in preparation for our service today, that Jesus was saying rude things about lawyers. Although, in the Bible translation which we are using today, Jesus doesn’t actually talk about lawyers but about people who are ‘experts in the law’, in Jesus’s time there wasn’t such a thing as a ‘lawyer’ in the same sense that we understand it. Then, what you had were ‘advocates’.

You will recall that the Holy Spirit is referred to sometimes as the advocate, or even a ‘comforter’; in John 14:16, Jesus says he will send us his Holy Spirit to be an advocate and guide. If you went to the right Bible classes you may even have heard the word Paraclete, which is one of those words you only hear in church, but it means an advocate, it means somebody to be with you, to speak for you, in court.

What we have here isn’t a Paraclete, but a νομικός, that Jesus is being rude about. Νόμος, substantive, the thing, means the law; νομικός, adjective its characteristic, means ‘to do with law’; as a substantive, it means somebody who is familiar with the law, so the word is usually translated as ‘lawyer’.

As some of you will know, I used to be a lawyer, a solicitor. It’s now a dim and distant memory – I retired 15 years ago – but still I feel that I should stand up for my old profession. That is, if Jesus is really slagging off lawyers.

Actually, of course, when you see the other lesson, from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians, you will see that we are into the distinction that St Paul draws, picking up on what he learned of Jesus’ teaching, that on the one hand you have the Law, meaning the Jewish law, the first five books of the old Testament, the Pentateuch, and on the other hand you have the state of grace for those who have been saved and have come to faith in Christ Jesus. So maybe it is indeed right to talk about people who are ‘expert in the law’, meaning the Jewish Law, rather than simply about ‘lawyers’.

But as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it [Matt. 5:17]. He said that all his teaching can be summed up in two supreme commandments, commandments taken from the Jewish Law, to love God and to love your neighbour [Matt. 22:36-40].

Galatians 5 tells you what to expect from someone who has been saved, who has had that revolution in their life and doesn’t need to have a policeman standing over them, but just does the right thing. The right thing is to love your neighbour. All those things that St Paul lists as the Fruits of the Spirit lead to various ways of loving your neighbour. So fortunately it turns out that nothing in our Gospel today is really against lawyers.

Well, I know that Folli [Revd Olokose] and Hugh [Montgomerie, Reader] have an excellent style of preaching here, which always ends with a challenge. So I thought I would try to enter into the spirit of that too; but first of all, I need to tell you a little story.

When I was starting my ministry training nearly 14 years ago, it coincided with my elder daughter Emma starting her university studies in medicine at Bristol University. Very soon in the first term I visited her to see how she was settling into her hall of residence.

When I came back, I was at church for the 10 o’clock service, and after the service I was having coffee with some of the other faithful people. Somebody asked me how I had found my trip to Bristol. Had it been an easy journey? I said that it had been a very easy journey, but that I just suddenly thought – a little cloud had crossed my brain – that it might turn out to have been rather more expensive than I had bargained for.

Why so? Because, just before I turned off on the M32 to go into the city of Bristol, I had passed under a bridge, which, too late, I’d noticed was bristling, bristling with things that looked mighty like cameras. ‘So’, my faithful friend asked, ‘surely that’s not a problem? You were doing 70 miles an hour’.

‘Hmm’, I said, ‘if only; but I did manage to get it below100!’

She took my arm and marched me off into a corner. ‘Now Hugh’, she said. ‘Now that you are in ministry training, you have to do two things. You must stop breaking the law – and the other thing is, you must stop crowing about it!’

Oh dear. She was, of course, right. The Fruits of the Spirit hadn’t quite taken root in me at that point, as you will realise. But what about you? Have you had those sort of moments? Has the Spirit taken root in you and borne fruit yet? What do you think?

And that’s my challenge to you this morning. Not just to get it below 100 – but you know what I mean.

Sermon for 1030 Eucharist at St Mary, Oatlands on 21st October 2020

Acts 16:6-12; 2 Timothy 4:5-17; Luke 10:1-9 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=470148758)

On Sunday we were remembering Saint Luke, the ‘beloved physician’, as Saint Paul describes him in his second letter to Timothy, the one who wrote not only the Gospel according to Saint Luke but also the Acts of the Apostles, I want to carry on remembering St Luke this morning, looking at the same Bible passages as we used on Sunday.

Folli [Revd Folo Olokose] treated us to a theological masterclass in his sermon on Sunday. I don’t want to go over exactly the same ground again, but he did make some points which I will just briefly mention, particularly for anyone who was not there on Sunday.

Folli took, as the heart of his sermon, the name of the person to whom Saint Luke dedicates his two books, Theophilus. Who was Theophilus? Folli argued that it is a name for a type of person, not someone in particular – not who, but what. It literally means, ‘a friend of God’. It could mean any of us.

All the other things which might seem to make us different from each other, such as our education, our physical characteristics, or the ability to run a four-minute mile, are all things which can come and go, and might depend on where you have been born, who your parents were. However, being God’s friend is something which lasts forever, and which any of us can be.

So Folli argued that, in dedicating his books to Theophilus, Luke was in fact dedicating them to all of us, to all who love God. And we see from today’s lessons that Luke was a companion of Saint Paul on his travels. ‘We did this..’, rather than ‘they did it’, in the passage from Acts 16 which was one of the lessons prescribed for Sunday.

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.’

Luke says, ‘We’. He was there, travelling with St Paul. In a wider sense, who are ‘we’ in this context? From Paul’s letter to the Romans, ‘… there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all…’ (Romans 10:12).

So in our lesson today, Luke reports on Jesus sending his disciples out ahead of him, to prepare people for him coming and preaching among them. Roughly the same report comes in St Matthew’s Gospel too.

You might note that Jesus instructs the apostles, ‘Do not move around from house to house’. I had a bit of an unholy thought – do you think our Lord might have had tier 2 or tier 3 in mind?

Of course they didn’t have a plague then. Sending them out they were a bit like Billy Graham’s people, arranging one of his crusades, securing the venues and booking the hotels – although Jesus stipulated that it should all be done on a shoestring – but what was the message that Jesus was going to preach?

The message wasn’t going to be about life after death. Jesus hadn’t died at this stage. Let’s look at the Gospels where Jesus sends out his disciples to do the Billy Graham thing, that is, our Gospel passage today from St Luke, chapter 10, where Jesus sends out 70 or 72 apostles, and St Matthew chapter 10, where he only sends out 12 apostles.

By the way, the word ‘apostle’ comes from the Greek verb αποστέλλω, which means ‘I send out’, so an αποστολος, the noun from it, means someone sent out, in the same sense that an ambassador is sent out.

The other difference is that in St Matthew’s account, Jesus wanted the apostles just to go to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, and not to go to the non-Jews, the Gentiles and Samaritans, whereas in St Luke’s gospel the only thing that mattered was whether they were welcomed or not.

Given that Luke and Paul were together for some time, and that actually Paul wrote his letters, like the letter to the Romans, before any of the Gospels were written, I’m inclined to say that Luke’s account is more likely. Paul’s idea that there was no difference between Jew and Greek, between Jews and non-Jews, Gentiles, seems to me to be more in line with what Jesus was teaching.

In St Luke’s Gospel, immediately after the 70 are sent out, we read the story of the Good Samaritan. The point is, it doesn’t matter what nationality he was. He cared for his neighbour, for the person he found hurt on the road. Surely Jesus wouldn’t have warned the apostles off having to do with Samaritans, if he was going to praise the Good Samaritan in his next breath, as He did.

Bear in mind that St Matthew’s Gospel is generally reckoned to have been aimed at a Jewish readership, whereas St Luke probably wasn’t a Jew and was writing for everyone – for ‘Theophilus’. And St Paul definitely had the same idea. No such thing as Jew and Greek.

One thing that these two accounts, in Matthew and Luke, do have in common is that the apostles were sent out just after Jesus preached his great Sermon on the Mount. You know, all those great challenges: love your enemies, turn the other cheek. Think of the lilies of the field: they neither spin nor weave: yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Don’t worry about material comforts. The Lord will provide.

Surely, you might say, the sermon on the Mount is great in theory, but not really doable. Impractical instructions. How literally can we take what Jesus said? Why would we have armies, if we really always turned the other cheek?

And according to St Luke, it was all for Theophilus. For anyone who loves God. No one has any special qualification to receive God’s blessing.

So if we are thinking about Jesus’ teaching as he sent out the apostles, and the idea that in God’s sight we are al equal, neither Jew not Greek, can I pose a question for you to think about?

My question is about refugees, about ‘migrants’. If we believe that it is true that all people, from any nationality, are equal in the sight of God, why should we be entitled to live in bounteous Surrey in England whereas a person from another country – Syria or Afghanistan or South Sudan, say – has to pass rigorous checks before they are let in? Why are they not equally entitled?

Is it because will overwhelm our public facilities, schools, hospitals and so on? Is that true? They will be a drain on our economy, some people say. The statistics say that immigrants contribute 15% more in tax than people who were born here. Or, should we sift out the applications so that we only let in people with a certain minimum level of qualifications?

But just a minute. I wasn’t born in the UK only because I’d won an Oxford scholarship. What does ‘Theophilus’ mean? Are British people more entitled to salvation than, say, Ethiopians? In St Luke’s terms, both could be ‘Theophilus’.

What do you think? It might be a good idea to imagine that we could be like the people on the road to Emmaus, that we might suddenly meet Jesus. What would we say to Him? Would we justify to Jesus what we do, keeping poor immigrants out of ‘our’ country? Even if our country is supposed to be ‘full’, how would we, who have so much, justify drawing up the drawbridge against people who have so little?

I’m not telling you what to think. We have quite a few refugees who’ve come to this area, and we have a local charity to help refugees, Elmbridge CAN. Through them I’ve had refugees and, yes, ‘economic migrants’ staying for a few months in my own spare room. I felt that I was being called to help them. They are all now settled – productively. Should we be doing more of that sort of thing for refugees?

Well, I hope that is food for thought. Please do keep on thinking about St Luke and Theophilus. Theophilus. Everyone.

Sermon for Holy Communion at 1030 on Wednesday 4th November 2020 at St Mary Oatlands

Matthew 5:1-12

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=471270293

If you had to say what was the real essence of Jesus’ teaching, the true essence of what it means to be a Christian, I think that a good place to start would be Saint Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount.

In his great sermon, Jesus built on the foundations of the Old Testament. He put himself in the tradition of the prophets, like Moses. For instance, Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet God, and Jesus, who was God, also went up a mountain to give his most important teaching.

Jesus highlighted the old teaching, according to which, if somebody did you harm, you should pay back ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Jesus took that much further by saying you should turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; again under the old Jewish law, the rule was to love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but Jesus taught that you should love your enemy and pray for your persecutors.

Jesus said that he had ‘not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it’. He was not rejecting the old Jewish law, but rather developing it. It would be a mistake for us to ignore what is in the Old Testament, but Jesus went much further.

The ‘blessed are they’ sayings, these Beatitudes, are at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve always thought the first one was rather difficult to understand. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Or, as the New English Bible translates it, ‘Blessed are those who know that they are poor.’ Poor in spirit – what does that mean? Is it really that they ‘know that they are poor’?

I’m not really sure what it means to be ‘poor in spirit’. It might have connotations of lack of character, being weak-willed or spineless, not, on the face of things, what Jesus might want to give a prize for, in the kingdom of heaven.

The Greek word which many Bibles translate as ‘spirit’, as in ‘poor in spirit’, is the same word, πνεύμα, that is used for the Holy Ghost, sometimes as a translation for the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, meaning a sort of rushing wind, reminiscent of the events on Whit Sunday, when a sort of rushing wind came upon the assembled disciples, lighting tongues of fire on their heads (which didn’t burn them, just as the burning bush which Moses came across was not burned up: again, another parallel between Old and New Testaments in the Bible: it’s a sign of God’s presence.)

That word in Greek, πνεύμα, is related to the word that you have in French for a tyre, pneu, or for something inflated like a tyre, pneumatic; they all involve wind or breath. So, what are the poor blessed in? – they are blessed for being short of wind. Blessed are the people who don’t know which way they’re blowing, don’t know whether they’re blowing hot or cold, say.

Or is it in fact better translated the way the New English Bible has it,‘Blessed are those who know that they are poor’? There, the translation has taken the ‘in spirit’ bit and turned it into a sense of consciousness, knowledge. They know that they are lacking, deficient – but deficient in what? On this interpretation, it doesn’t say. They are just ‘poor’.

But the word which means ‘poor’ in this passage goes grammatically with the word for ‘spirit’ the other way. You are not spiriting out the poverty, the being poor, but being poor, deficient, in spirit. In Greek it says, ‘Blessed are the deficient in wind’. To say they are simply ‘poor’ isn’t really right. They’re not short of money, but short of puff.

On Sunday, the preacher said it meant, ‘Blessed are the humble’. Humble. Not people who think they are big-shots. People who know their limitations. Again, that’s not what the Greek says literally, but you could argue that it’s closer to what the words really imply. In need – lacking; in spirit – in self-esteem, say: so, humble, lacking in self-esteem.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Think about it a bit, and think what it means for you. Are you humble? Are you running out of puff? Never mind. You are blessed.

But when are you blessed? The other thing you can say about the Beatitudes, and obviously specifically about this first one, is that they are a vision of the future, a vision of the kingdom of God, which Jesus is promising to his followers, but which hasn’t happened yet.

Things may be awful now, but in the world to come it’ll all come right. There might be a snag in this; because you might think, on the basis of this passage, that it was all right to tolerate slavery and oppression in this life, keeping people oppressed, but pacifying them by giving them an assurance that they are on target to inherit heavenly blessings later. That would conflict with what I think is the the heart of the revolutionary message that Jesus gives us.

Those bits of the Sermon on the Mount don’t mean, put up with bad things now because you will be all right later in heaven; but rather, you must do this extra thing, go the extra mile, and not just pay back evil for evil: you must even love your enemy. And the reason for doing that is because it’s the right thing to do, not because it leads to a payoff in heaven.

People often say that the Sermon on the Mount is all very well, but it is just not practical. It demands more than mortal man is capable of. But then you read about people like Nelson Mandela. People can do those impossibly generous things that Jesus recommended. They really can. Really? People like that must need to be saints, you might say.

It’s a good point to make, especially at this time in the Christian year, when we do think about saints. Sunday was All Saints’ Day and the list of the various Beatitudes is, if you like, a list of the things which mark out a saint. Saints – in Latin the word is ‘sancti’ – are people who are marked out, distinguished, holy – holy, which is another word which means the same thing, separate, kept apart from the general run of people. But not necessarily marked out because they’re exceptionally virtuous.

The things that Jesus blesses are all characteristics of saints; but they aren’t superhuman; they are ordinary characteristics, ordinary virtues. Anyone can be a saint. Anyone in any of our churches could be a saint.

St Paul addressed his letters to the ‘saints’ in the various churches he was writing to, and it’s clear that he was just writing to the people in the pews. For example in his First Letter to the Corinthians he wrote: [This is from] ‘Paul, …. unto the Church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’. Sanctified – there’s the ‘sancti’ word – but I don’t think there’s any suggestion that he was only writing to part of the congregation, just to the good guys. He was writing to all of them.

When you work through the list of the Beatitudes you will realise that it is far from being a catalogue of success or perfection; it’s a catalogue full of weakness and need, the sort of thing that ordinary people suffer from. Jesus is affirming that. He is saying that in the kingdom, people like that, ordinary people, will be saints. Just as they are, they will go marching in.

So be a saint: be a peacemaker; be gentle in spirit, care about justice; you are allowed to be sad; people may make fun of you or even actively persecute you for trying to do all these things as a Christian. But don’t worry; you are a saint; you are blessed, and you do have a place in heaven.

Sermon for 4th October 2020 – St Michael and All Angels (transferred from 29th September); St Francis of Assisi: Animal Welfare Sunday: on Zoom

Revelation 12:7-12; Luke 15:3-7 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=468720899)

St Francis of Assisi (unknown artist), from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Francis-of-Assisi/images-videos, accessed 8th October 2020

Today we commemorate St Michael and All Angels, and St Francis and his love for animals. 

Blessings of the animals and pet services are usually great fun, especially for the children – although perhaps a bit less so for their parents, who have to catch the hamsters, cats and other exotic creatures which escape from their baskets during the service. We don’t have that problem, because all our pets are with us at home and they are only appearing and being blessed, like us, on Zoom. But I still think that it is important that our beloved animals, our furry friends, should have the benefit of a blessing at least once a year. In saying Saint Francis’ prayer and in blessing the animals, as we’re going to do, we are giving thanks for all God’s work in creation. 

But what about those angels? I am what is called a liberal theologian, which means (among other things) that I am not wedded to taking everything in the Bible absolutely literally. I think this passage about war breaking out in heaven and the battle between Michael and his angels and the Dragon, known as Satan and the Devil on other occasions, is a good case in point. I dare say if we were in the south of Italy, where they are more used to miracles, we would hear this lesson from the book of Revelation without batting an eyelid. We wouldn’t be too troubled about exactly where heaven was or what the Dragon really represented – or indeed possibly who the Devil was. But we do understand the contrast between good and evil and the way in which frequently, in order to uphold the right and the good, there has to be a battle. 

‘Guido Reni’s resplendently theatrical depiction of St Michael, part Roman soldier, part ballet dancer, was painted in 1635 and can be seen in the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Rome.’ (Andrew Graham-Dixon at https://www.andrewgrahamdixon.com/archive/itp-238-st-michael-archangel-by-guido-reni.html, accessed 8th October 2020)

We will notice in passing that it is not George who slays the Dragon but Michael, although the stories are a bit similar. Also there is seemingly a second fight. It’s not just Michael. The good angels have conquered the serpent as well, the Dragon, ‘by the blood of the Lamb, by the word of their testimony and by their willingness to die’ for the cause.

So there are perhaps two stories here. One is the story of the war in heaven between Archangel Michael and the great dragon, a.k.a. Lucifer, the devil; and the other, where salvation is achieved and victory over evil by the blood of the lamb. 

In Jewish tradition there is this idea of a scapegoat, which could also be a ‘scape-lamb’; you read in Leviticus chapter 16 how this is supposed to work sacramentally, where all the sins of the people are symbolically loaded on the back of a lamb or a goat which is then cast off into the desert. In a sacramental sense, the scapegoat ‘takes the burden’ of the people’s sins, and dies for those sins. You can say that the lamb died for the sake of the people’s sin. It is very similar to the idea of what Jesus has done, ‘dying for our sins’ on the cross.

The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt (1854-1856) in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight

Liberal theologians like me have difficulty with the idea that a loving God would have demanded a human sacrifice, but certainly we can follow the development of the idea of the ‘atonement’, as it is called, by Jesus on the cross, by looking at the Jewish tradition of the scapegoat. 

You might think, from this story of the scapegoat, that people at the time of Jesus might not have been very nice to animals. But I don’t think we can necessarily draw that conclusion. There are many instances in the Bible where Jesus appears to love and care for animals. In the sermon on the Mount: ‘Behold the fowls of the air: they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them’ [Matt.6:26]; and as we can see in the parable of the lost sheep and indeed the other parable of the good Shepherd, Jesus certainly didn’t just think of lambs in the context of sacrifice, but rather as animals to love and care for. 

And this is one of the things which produced Saint Francis of Assisi’s distinctive theology, his famous preaching to the animals and his love for all creation. ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Brother Moon’, for instance. So on this feast of Saint Francis of Assisi it’s entirely right that we should bless the animals and bring them before the Lord in prayer. In a minute I will ask you to find your pets or pet pictures and put them up for a blessing.

But first, a final thought. This is the last of these Zoom Eucharists and we have become, I think, a proper little congregation. A proper little flock. Soon we will return to the various churches that we came from, as they are able to reopen for worship.

It seems to me that it would be nice to do something, to give some tangible expression to our gathering in the name of the Lord, every Sunday for the last few months. We could, of course, pass the plate round, and we would have to do it virtually using PayPal or something similar. But I think I’ve got a better idea. 

It occurred to me that on the day when we are blessing the animals, we should try to help our various zoos – Regent’s Park,  Whipsnade, Chester and Bristol (where I still hear Johnny Morris in my head) and all the others. They are all having a very hard time. Feeding all the animals at Regent’s Park, at London Zoo, for example, costs £1 million per month. So my suggestion is that, as we give thanks for creation and all the wonderful animals that the Lord has created, we should all consider taking a trip to the nearest zoo to where we are in the next week or two. I think that zoos are eminently safe places to visit even in the Covid epidemic, and the price of admission, if enough people turn up, will help to restore their finances. [Donations – https://tinyurl.com/y2m75jd4, https://www.chesterzoo.org/support-us/, https://bristolzoo.org.uk/save-wildlife/bristol-zoological-society-appeal, or to help a wonderful zoo in Hamburg, https://www.hagenbeck.de/de/_news/tierpark/Unterstuetzung_FAQ.php ]

We shouldn’t forget that the animals themselves will be very pleased to see us, because, as we ourselves have found, being locked down in quarantine with nobody to see is very lonely and no fun. I think that Jesus the Good Shepherd would want you to find out where your nearest zoo is and go and see all the lovely animals in it, very soon. 

Blessing of the Animals

Now we are going to bless all animals. If you have any with you, or any pictures of animals whom you used to have, please do bring them into the picture.

Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. 

You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. 

You inspired Saint Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. 

We ask you to bless all animals, and those which are or were our pets. 

By the power of your love, enable them to live in peace and harmony. 

May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. 

Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures!

A Reflection at Easter, April 2020

By Hugh Bryant

‘The language around COVID-19 has sometimes felt trite and misleading. You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the Prime Minister’s colleagues’ll tell us. And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same. This is a myth which needs debunking. Those serving on the front line right now, bus drivers and shelf stackers; nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers, are disproportionately the lower-paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed. Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lock-down tougher; those in manual jobs will be unable to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health. Tonight, as France goes into recession, and the World Trade Organisation warns the pandemic could provoke the deepest economic downturn of our lifetimes, we ask what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark.’ (Emily Maitlis, introducing ‘Newsnight’, BBC Two, 8th April 2020.)

That was such a grown-up and eloquent comment on the COVID-19 plague, that my first reaction was to scratch around to see whether Emily Maitlis had been quoting some eminent philosopher or grand old man or a woman of world affairs when she introduced ‘Newsnight’ on BBC2 on Wednesday night. But my instinct was unworthy. She is a very talented journalist in her own right and those are her words.

Her words are among the most apt and most challenging words in the torrent of verbiage which the first week of lockdown has produced. I can’t really get excited by this procession of metropolitan sophisticates discovering the joys of birdsong and blue-skies-without-aeroplanes, empty roads and silence.

I’m sure there is a place for all those good things, but somehow I don’t think that, when this is all over, historians will look back and celebrate stumbling prose about the unaccustomed joys of birdsong. Instead our generation will be judged on how we dealt with this ‘health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, [or] …welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health’, as Emily Maitlis so eloquently put it.

It seems extraordinarily apt that Emily Maitlis said what she did on the eve of Maundy Thursday. For Christians, Maundy Thursday is the day when they remember Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The son of God, arguably the most important man who has ever lived, doing the same sort of thing that a care home worker does, washing the dirty bits, becoming a servant. As we have seen in this COVID-19 plague, the sort of thing that Jesus was doing can become very dangerous. So dangerous that only people who don’t matter are put in the line of risk. Only the expendable ones, although nobody spells this out. As Emily Maitlis said, the bus drivers, the shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers. The government has advertised jobs in the new Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre including receptionists at £37,500 per annum, when at the same time nurses and doctors, after years of training, start at less than £25,000.

Somebody will say that the market justifies this, that there are fewer people willing to be receptionists in the Nightingale hospital than there are willing to be doctors and nurses in that dangerous place. Therefore by the inexorable laws of supply and demand the willing, the brave, are worth less than those in short supply. Put that way, the proposition looks quite indefensible. How could the market, even if it is correct in identifying shortages in that way, be the only guide to the value of these vital people’s work?

But wait a minute. How does the market account for the fact that there is a shortage of doctors and nurses, tens of thousands of doctors and nurses? Either the market is not functioning properly, as their value is not rising to reflect their scarcity, in which case all these political statements based on “realism” and “the market” are not true, or the market as an index of value is not actually accurate. Either way there is a glaring injustice. As Emily Maitlis put it, ‘… what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark?’ How are people to be valued in future?

Christians have a number of pointers in front of them, particularly at this time in Holy Week and Easter. So much of what Jesus did and said was counterintuitive and back-to-front. Before he was born, when an angel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, what she said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour…’: this speech, this aria, this canticle, is one of the most subversive, even one of the most revolutionary, passages in the whole of literature. ‘For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’. God chose an ordinary young girl; he selected her knowing that she was one of the little people. ‘He that is mighty hath magnified me’. The omnipotent, the divine, the greatest power, has chosen me, small and insignificant, and made me great.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

This is what God is doing. This is the implication of his having chosen someone not special, just an ordinary girl; but having chosen that person to be the mother of the divine incarnation, God with us. God in human form. She wasn’t in any way rare or perfect or uniquely suited to this job. She was just an ordinary girl from a humble background. God’s choice implies a direct challenge to the value system that we have had and we have in our world today. The Magnificat shows up and challenges head-on the great divide in our society between the rich and the poor, between the great and the little people.

That was before Jesus was born. The Magnificat points to how he is going to operate. It points forward to the Sermon on the Mount, the longest sustained piece of counterintuitive argument that you are ever going to come across. The Beatitudes: ‘blessed are the – poor: blessed are the meek. Not ‘blessed are the people in large houses riding about in Lamborghinis’. (See Matt. 5,6 and 7 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=453535527)

In one sense I disagree with Emily Maitlis. She says, ‘And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same.’ I know – indeed I passionately agree with – what she means. But in one important sense, there is equality. We are all – wherever in the world we come from – we are all creatures of God, made in His image. The virus is not a leveller, as Emily Maitlis rightly says. It affects all humans – and, unfortunately, tigers too.

Where it does not level us is shown by what happens when the virus has struck someone. Then it depends where you are and how wealthy you are, either as an individual or because you belong to a rich society, whether you will get full treatment. Even so, so far we have not yet discovered a cure, so even with the best treatment in an intensive care unit in a European or American or Far Eastern teaching hospital, you may still die – but you will be made as comfortable as possible, and you will have the very best chance of survival.

If on the other hand Coronavirus strikes and you are in a refugee camp on the border of Syria, in Jordan perhaps, or if you live in the slums of Calcutta or Bombay, or in many parts of Africa, there are far fewer doctors, far fewer hospitals, and no money or National Health Service to pay for your treatment. In the USA, except in one or two enlightened states such as Massachusetts, unless you can afford to buy expensive health insurance, no-one will treat you.

But perhaps the reason why this is so wrong, and why this is a ‘health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare’, is that there is no good reason why some people should be so much better off than others – or rather, that so many people should be so much worse off than the fortunate few. Why should there be any entitlement in an accident of birth? Rich and poor, G7 or Third World, we are all susceptible to COVID-19. But if we are all liable to suffer, should we not all share the means of salvation?

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke recently about the objective of the Good Life (with a capital G and L) being, not, as theologians and philosophers from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas have argued, ‘human flourishing’ (ευδαιμονία) but rather, the objective, the objective of the Good Life, is to be safe. Safe. Safe from harm. Safe from disease. Safe from hunger.

Again, Christians can turn to the teaching of Jesus. Think of the Great Judgment in St Matthew chapter 25 (from verse 31), the division of the sheep and the goats, the saved – the ones who are safe – and those condemned to eternal damnation. Hunger. Thirst. Disease. They are at the heart of it. What did you do for them? No suggestion that some hungry people, or thirsty people, or poorly people, might deserve to be safe, to be saved, more than others. Absolutely not. Jesus says that He is in all of us, however lowly.

Again, just as God chose the humble Mary, so ‘the righteous will [say]…, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and took you home, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and come to visit you?” And the king will answer, “I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me”. (Matt. 25:37-40, NEB). (Jesus would surely have wanted to be explicitly gender-neutral if he had been saying this today, and would surely have said, ‘anything you did for one of my brothers and sisters here, however humble, you did for me.’)

So at this Easter time, when we remember Jesus’ amazing self-abasement, his humbling himself to wash the disciples’ feet, and then his enduring the most terrible torture and death – being the most important man on earth, but beaten and strung up to die with common criminals, as a common criminal, because that was actually his rank, his lowly position in society – and then rising in triumph, leaving the empty tomb: when we reflect on that extraordinary sequence of events, the Triduum, the Three Days, we can realise that there is an alternative. There is an alternative to the dominion of the market. There is an alternative to people who know the price of things but not their value. The fact that Jesus beat death – and that must be about the most counterintuitive thing he ever did – has given us hope: the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. And that is for everyone, for everyone who could possibly catch COVID, wherever they are and whatever flag they fly.

Emily Maitlis concluded, asking ‘what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark’. That is the most important thing we have to do when the medical campaign against COVID-19 has been won. It is a huge challenge: but Jesus has given us hope, hope that we can do it. The Easter message is one of hope, and of salvation, that we can make that Good Life, where all people, everywhere, are safe.

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday after Trinity, 7th July 2019

Genesis 29:1-20 – and following; Mark 6:7-29 (see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=429430740)

This week’s Bible lessons are both to some extent about marrying; marrying the wrong cousin by mistake, if you can believe that, or marrying one’s brother’s wife: some rather odd-sounding stories from up to 3,000 years ago.

First of all Jacob – you remember, Jacob had stolen his brother Esau’s birthright, or cheated him out of it, in return for a bowl of soup, a ‘mess of pottage’; well, Jacob got duped into marrying his girlfriend’s sister by mistake: then Herod, who had somehow managed to marry his brother’s wife Herodias, and Herodias had taken against John the Baptist because John had pointed out that what Herod had done was immoral if not illegal. But he did it because he could, because he was a king.

Jacob was looking for a wife, and somehow the daughters of Laban, his uncle, got mixed up and he accidentally went to bed with the wrong cousin. He had wanted to marry Rachel, but for some reason the girls’ father, Laban, brought along Leah, Rachel’s elder sister, and Jacob slept with her by mistake.

Perhaps it was an elaborate way in which Laban, the father, could force Jacob to work for him for a long time, in order finally to be able to marry the girl whom he loved, that is, Rachel.

The contrast between these stories and how we ‘do’ marriages today could not be more striking. As some of you will know, three weeks ago my younger daughter Alice was married to her beloved, Nick, in a beautiful church in Devon, just outside Axminster. So marriage and the mechanism of marriage is pretty fresh in my mind at the moment.

So far as I know, although Nick may have espied Alice across a crowded room and been attracted to her – which I think is very likely, knowing how beautiful she is – he didn’t immediately come to see me with a request that I should in some way arrange for him to consummate a marriage with Alice without in any way consulting her first. But that’s apparently what Jacob did with Laban.

In the case of Jacob, poor Leah ended up in bed with him, in such a way that it looks as though neither she nor her sister Rachel had much say in what was going on. It almost looks as though what was happening might even, in certain circumstances, if it had happened these days, have been regarded as rape.

Where Herod and Herodias were concerned, it seems that Herodias was quite happy to be married to Herod, and she resented anyone pointing out that her second marriage was, in effect, adulterous or bigamous.

Herod is portrayed as being caught on the horns of a dilemma, torn between wanting to honour his rash promise to Herodias’ daughter Salome, to give her whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom, as a reward for her wonderful dancing, the rash promise on the one side, and his own affection for, and respect for, John the Baptist on the other.

He had nothing against John the Baptist. Indeed we are told that Herod liked to listen to him; but when Herodias put Salome up to demanding John the Baptist’s head, as her reward for winning the Old Testament equivalent of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, Herod was too weak to say that that was not one of the things which he had intended when he made her the prize offer.

As a lawyer, it occurs to me that surely he could have argued that there was an implied term in his offer, namely that she could have whatever she wanted – so long as it was lawful. And surely, gratuitously killing John the Baptist was not lawful. It was murder.

Herod showed the same kind of weakness when Jesus was on trial. (See Luke 23:6-12). Pilate had found nothing wrong in what Jesus had done, but Herod was not prepared to say that the Jews were wrong. And so, in both John the Baptist and Jesus himself’s cases, partly through Herod’s weakness, good and innocent men lost their lives.

I’m not sure that either of these stories, of Jacob with Rachel and Leah, Herodias with Herod and his brother, are actually there to instruct or enlighten us in any way. They are really just background. So far as the story of Jacob is concerned, of course it goes on to show that perhaps there was a divine retribution for Jacob’s having spurned Leah, because Leah conceived and had a son, whereas Rachel was childless, (at least initially). There were some dubious manoeuvres involving slave girls, and it becomes apparent that Jacob was actually treating both sisters as his wives, and having sex with both of them. The whole thing is very wooden, very mechanical. There is a mention of love, but the love seems to be equated with whether or not children have resulted from the various couplings.

It’s a world away from the romantic love that we hope our children, and indeed that we can enjoy or have enjoyed in our marriages.

We know that Jesus’ teaching on marriage is still quite a long way away from our current practice. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says that if a man ‘looks on a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matt. 5:27-28).

In St Mark’s Gospel, chapter 10, Jesus was teaching about the Jewish law relating to divorce, that, according to the law of Moses, a man could just send his wife away and it was enough in order to divorce her just to give her a note of dismissal, to confirm that she was divorced. But Jesus says that marriage is for life; that when a man and a woman come together in marriage, they become ‘one flesh’. They are no longer two individuals, they are one: ‘what God has joined together, man must not separate’.

Those of course are the words that we hear in the marriage service today; but sadly of course, just as with other commandments of Jesus, as we are human beings, we find that sometimes we are just not able to keep to his commandments. Divorces do happen, with all the sadness that they bring.

But I would also suggest that perhaps one lesson that we can learn from the story of Jacob and the story of the death of John the Baptist is that, in both cases, they involve people trespassing against Jesus’ great ‘new commandment’, to love your neighbour as yourself. What did poor Leah feel like, when she was rudely dumped on Jacob – and then spurned? What did either of the girls feel when they were being treated just as things, just as child-producing machines, property, property of men, who could deal with them without any regard for their feelings or desires?

We are told that Jacob didn’t love Leah: but did Rachel love Jacob? Was she happy that Jacob chased her when he was already married to her sister? In those days it didn’t matter. Nobody bothered to ask.

Similarly with Herod and his brother, what did Herod’s brother feel about Herod taking his wife away? We are told that Herodias loved Herod: but even so, it had all the things wrong with it that any divorce caused by infidelity has.

Looking around at everyone here tonight, I can imagine, in the nicest way, that for most of us this sermon and these Bible stories are pretty much archive material in our lives. Not current, burning issues. But many of us are parents, and for many of our children keeping their marriages together and, indeed, getting married in a loving way, are real, live issues. We need to support our children.

Let us pray that whatever we and our children do, we do it not like Jacob or Herodias, because of lust or jealousy, but because of real love: the sort of love that we often have in the marriage service, from St Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13 – ‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love (or as the AV puts it, charity)…’

Let us remember, ‘Faith, hope and love… But the greatest of these is love.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FFC51CEC-7413-42F0-BAE5-6E554435EB6DSermon for Evensong on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

(Exodus 2:23-3:10;) Hebrews 13:1-15

‘NEVER CEASE TO LOVE your fellow-Christians. Remember to show hospitality. There are some who, by so doing, have entertained angels without knowing it.

Remember those in prison as if you were there with them; and those who are being maltreated, for you like them are still in the world’. [Hebrews 13:1-2, NEB]

As well as the lovely angel reference, this is good advice for Christians about how to live a good life. Jesus’ two great commandments were to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. It is that second commandment that our lesson from Hebrews is all about. Do as you would be done by, sometimes referred to as the Golden Rule. It’s so familiar that nobody would really challenge it as a recipe for a peaceful and harmonious life. But I think it’s worth just pausing to look at it in more detail.

The examples in Hebrews are encouraging us to put ourselves in the shoes of various other people. People in prison and people who are being maltreated in one way or another: what does it feel like? What does it feel like to be in prison?

Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, in the context of learning how to do the right or the good thing in life, isn’t just an exercise in sympathy or empathy – you know, ‘I feel your pain’. Saying that, after all, doesn’t really mean anything, because you can’t feel another person’s pain.

Never mind pain. You can’t actually perceive exactly what that other person perceives, either. When I was younger, my mother had a Mini, which, because it was the swinging 60s, was a very fetching shade of pale yellow. It was called ‘Fiesta Yellow’ by the manufacturers. But an awful lot of our friends thought that the car was light green. One person’s Fiesta Yellow is another person’s light green. I have a picture of the car on my phone if you want to inspect it afterwards and see which colour you think it is.

You can’t feel another person’s pain, but you can certainly imagine what it would feel like to have something or other done to you. You know that you would not want to be hurt; and what Jesus is saying is that therefore you should not want to hurt anyone else. And, following St Francis of Assisi, you might extend that principle to all God’s creatures. Do as you would be done by. What if you were a cow? How do you feel about roast beef?

We rapidly stumble across the same sort of issues that we encounter in the context of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5]. Jesus seems to be putting forward counsels of perfection, things which you can’t actually carry out perfectly in practice.

It raises issues with the Ten Commandments (which, after all, are all summed up in the two great commandments.) ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example. So we have all the elaborate legal and philosophical theory which has created the concept of the ‘just war’, effectively putting two moral principles against each other and making one take precedence over the other. The idea is that in certain circumstances justice may be served by making war where there is no alternative, for example where a country has to act in self-defence. In the ‘just war’ theory, the principle of upholding justice between nations, international law, is regarded as more important than ‘Thou shalt not kill’.

Jesus, however, did not talk about ‘just wars’. He did talk about loving your neighbour ‘as yourself’, and therefore not wanting to harm your neighbour, without any ifs or buts; without any exceptions.

This idea of sympathy, feeling with somebody, which is what the word literally means, clearly has paradoxical implications. You can’t get inside somebody else’s head. We are all separate individuals: except, perhaps, if you are Jesus himself. We say that Jesus took upon himself the burden of our sin. He suffered for us.

It is relatively straightforward for us to be able to say this, but really difficult to know what it really means. You might say that it is really a sacred mystery. Jesus entered into our world, our personality, our souls. And, according to some theologians, he took upon himself the burden of our sin and suffered for us. But again, it is difficult to make literal sense of that. What is the sin that Jesus took upon himself? Sin is usually defined as whatever it is that separates you from God, so it seems odd that Jesus, who was God, could take upon himself things which were anti-God.

There are, of course, examples from history of people making heroic sacrifices in order to save other people. We have just, in the church’s calendar, remembered a brave Polish priest, Maximilian Kolbe, who died in the Second World War in Auschwitz. The Nazis were executing people in the camp, in reprisal for a breakout attempt, and they had selected 10 prisoners at random. Father Maximilian volunteered to take the place of one of the prisoners selected. He had heard the prisoner crying out that he would never see his wife and family again. That’s why father Maximilian stepped forward and said he would take his place, so that now he would be able to see his family again. The Reverend Father’s sacrifice saved the family. But it’s not clear that what Jesus did, by suffering on the cross, actually falls into this category.

Perhaps it was more a way of his demonstrating the ultimate expression of loving one’s neighbour as one’s self. Jesus knew that people are crucified, symbolically and actually. People suffer, and he entered into their suffering; he endured the same kind of suffering. He was like a leader who leads from the front. There is nothing that he asks his army to do that he won’t himself do. It means that Jesus, God, is in us, is with us, alongside us at every step of our life.

The God with us gives us a challenge – the Christian challenge. Do we really try to handle others as we ourselves would like to be handled: to give to them, to take away from them, to build them up, or to do things that hurt them; do we do that, always thinking at the same time what it would feel like if it was happening to us?

That’s today’s message. It’s deceptively simple, but it is absolutely revolutionary for our lives. So let us give it more than a second thought. Think about what your neighbour will feel if I do what I do to him – or her.

Sermon for Evensong on Remembrance Sunday 2015

Isaiah 10:33-11:9; John 14:1-29
‘We will remember them.’ This has been a time of remembrance today, looking back in remembrance on all those brave people who have given their lives in the service of their country in war. Now in the evening of the day, ‘at the going down of the sun,’ it is time perhaps for us to look forwards, and reflect on the question of peace.
‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them …. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.’ This beautiful and mystical scene is the prophecy of Isaiah. And then in St John’s Gospel, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions …. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’
When I started to study Latin and Greek, the Latin was Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico (‘about the war in Europe’), and the Greek was Xenophon’s Anabasis, another history of war. Julius Caesar, as you know, invaded Britain in 55 and 54BC – less than a century before the time of Christ. It was definitely a warlike time throughout the Roman Empire.
Jesus grew up surrounded by wars. Before then the world of the Old Testament was permeated with lots of violence and wars. The story of the exodus from Egypt was very violent and the entry into the promised land equally involved a number of battles.
In the passage we have read from St John’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ Presumably, that includes ‘Thou shalt not kill’. But even so, Jesus himself also said, ‘I came not to bring peace but a sword’ (Matt. 10:34). So would Jesus have belonged to the Peace Pledge Union, and worn not a red poppy, but a white one, today? Just as today most people see war as something to be avoided if possible, but never to be ruled out as a last resort, in Jesus’ time, war was an unavoidable fact of life.
Following St Thomas Aquinas, the church developed a doctrine of the ‘Just War’. (See Summa Theologiae 40.1). This is what Aquinas says. ‘If a war is to be just, three things are needed. It must be waged by the due authorities, for those who may lawfully use the sword to defend a commonwealth against criminals disturbing it from within may also use the sword of war to protect it from enemies without. … the cause must be just, …. And those waging war must intend to promote good and avoid evil.’
It might be instructive to compare these principles with the principles laid down in the United Nations Charter allowing a modern nation lawfully to declare war – or at least to make war, even without a declaration – on another. These days the requirements for a war to be just are: that it should be in self defence; or because a treaty obliges us to wage war to protect another nation – as we were obliged by treaty to protect Poland at the beginning of WW2 – or because the approval of the United Nations has been obtained.
But the original ‘just war’ principles are still influential. War can only be waged lawfully by a sovereign nation: you cannot have private wars, vendettas, as they have in Sicily between Mafiosi. The cause must be just. A nation can’t wage war simply in order to benefit itself. So Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum, literally, ‘living space’, territorial aggrandisement, was not a legitimate occasion for making war.
And the means employed must be proportionate. Proportionality is an old legal principle dating back at least to the lex talionis, an eye for an eye, (Deut .19:21): the point is that it is just an eye for an eye, not more. There were similar provisions even earlier, in Babylonian law and the laws of Hammurabi.
There must also be a reasonable expectation that the war will be successful. This does still come, perhaps, from Aquinas. He says, “The Lord’s words, ‘I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance’, [Matt. 5:39 ] must always be borne in mind, and we must be ready to abandon resistance and self defence if the situation calls for that.” (Summa Theologiae 40.1) Pyrrhic victory might not be lawful. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus certainly went much further than the Lex Talionis.

Are we content that there is, or there can be, such a thing as a just war? Does it matter that some of the wars which have been waged, at least arguably, as just wars, have not achieved their objectives? See for example the situation in Iraq today, or even more tragically, in Afghanistan.
Is it reasonable to ask, what would Jesus do? Would he have something to say, for instance, about the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, (the rationale behind the holding of nuclear weapons), or of ‘shock and awe’ as used in Iraq. Would these doctrines square with the doctrines of just cause and proportionality in the case of MAD, or proportionality, in the case of ‘shock and awe’?
The theory of nuclear deterrence does not depend on the rightness of one’s cause. The opponent is deterred not because we are right, but because we can kill him. Perhaps it is proportional to respond to a threat of global annihilation – with what? With a threat of global annihilation. But perhaps that simply illustrates that the principle of proportionality is inadequate in the context of nuclear weapons. And again, what about a nuclear suicide bomber? MAD will not affect them.
I for one was very encouraged when Parliament refused to back military action in Syria. It seemed to me that the criteria for a just war were indeed not properly met. There was no threat against this country, so as to raise a question of self-defence. There was no treaty obligation to help some of the Syrians against the Syrian government – how could there be? And what was the likelihood of success – if indeed one could agree on what would constitute success? Of course, the question may come up again soon.
So much of our Remembrance Day liturgy and poetry was inspired by WW1. That was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’ – which must be a perfect example of Aquinas’ second test for a just war, that the cause must be just. There can surely be no more righteous cause than the eradication of war for the future.
But even in this most worthy objective, war was not a solution. Indeed the seeds of the Second World War were sown in the aftermath of the First one. Can we honestly point to many wars and say they have really achieved anything?
Perhaps universal pessimism is not justified: it was vital that Nazism had to be defeated: war was the only way to do it; the war succeeded. The war on Nazism succeeded at least in that the military threat to this country was removed – it was justified according to the principle of self defence.
But one cannot change people’s minds by war against them. Just as there are still people who are Nazis, even in this country, and there certainly are still Nazis in mainland Europe, it is certainly arguable that people have been inspired to take up terrorism by their believing that the West has waged war unjustly in the Middle East.
This is a terribly difficult area. Clearly we can be, and we are, really thankful for the bravery and sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. That is the main purpose of Remembrance Sunday. But it is much more difficult to know where our duty lies as Christians in the face of the threats to peace which the world now faces.
We must say our prayers, we must pray for world peace. But also we must be alert, we must scrutinise everything that is done in our name, especially if warlike acts are being prepared. ‘At the going down of the sun’ we will remember. We must remember – and because of what we remember, we must be careful. And we must be just.

Sermon for Evensong on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 16th March 2014
Luke 14: ‘For which of you … counteth the cost?’

I’ve never really got this passage. On the one hand, Jesus tells his disciples that they must turn their backs on family and friends, must give up everything, if they are to become his disciples, his students.

On the other, He asks some rhetorical questions about making prudent choices, making sure you have sufficient building materials before starting to build; weighing up the relative numbers of opposing armies before launching an attack.

On the first hand, Jesus seems to be calling for reckless abandon on the part of his followers. Cast off the trappings of life. Have faith.

On the other, He says, everyone figures out the odds before committing themselves. Is it really worth doing, to become a disciple of Jesus? What are the pros and cons?

These two points of view can’t both be true. Conventionally, scholars reconcile the apparent contradiction – reckless abandon versus figuring the odds before acting – by saying that this is about the seriousness of the commitment needed in order to become Jesus’ disciple. I’m not sure that’s right.

Lent is supposed to be a time of reflection and self-examination, reflecting the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, during which time He was tempted by the Devil. Traditionally we have made this into a time of abstinence and fasting, a time of self-denial. So people typically give up alcohol and chocolate as a sign that they are marking Lent, that they are part of the group that is marking Lent, that is, the Christian church. Let’s say that their reflection and self-examination correspond with being Jesus’ sensible builders, figuring out the odds.

But let’s face it, the abstinence, the keeping off chocolate – unless you are Revd Keith Hebden, the vicar in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, who is going to take no food for 40 days and nights in order to support End Hunger Now – whatever you do, will be relatively trivial.

Not but what I hope that you will, for example, support the Bishop’s Lent Call, for which there is a flyer at the back of the church on your way out, which puts a price on various things that you might do in the normal course of your life, so that, rather like a swear box, you will pay a little penalty for doing a particular thing, like taking more than 2½ minutes to have your shower in the morning, or having an alcoholic drink: I’m not knocking any of this.

I think that anything, which makes you reflect, is a good thing. But I have experienced something in the last few days which has made me realise what it is to search my inner being in a way which I have never had to before. I have been attending court for the last week, to support a friend of mine who is on trial.

I got to the end of the third day of the trial, and as I drove home, my mind started to fill with all sorts of testing thoughts. I thought about the testing time which Jesus himself suffered: and I slowly began to realise what a real, serious, testing period could involve.

Obviously I can’t tell you in any great detail about the court case, which, incidentally, is still going on. It is a re-trial. The whole trial has taken place before, but the jury was unable to agree. So the prosecutors decided that they would do it all over again. Three months later, a new jury was empanelled, the new hearing began, and the evidence was starting to be set out all over again.

But after three days, three days of the retrial, one of the jurors called in sick. The rules are that they are supposed to get a doctor’s note to justify their absence, or else such absence becomes a criminal offence in itself. Well, by the next day the juror hadn’t turned up, and the police had been round to his house to find him, but he had disappeared. No doctor’s certificate had arrived.

Both sides don’t want less than a full jury, so it looks as though there is going to be a third trial. What I was reflecting on, as I drove back from the court, was how all the various people involved in the case must have been feeling. My friend, who is on trial, is under terrible stress. He maintains that he did not do what he’s accused of. There is a witness who is effectively accusing him of something which, if it is proved to have happened, would amount to a very serious crime, for which he could be sent to jail for several years. There is apparently evidence on both sides.

Now I don’t know about you, but I quite enjoy policier stuff on the TV. The whole emphasis is on the thrill of the chase. Whether we’re watching Wallander or Dixon of Dock Green, the idea is that the policeman is out to catch criminals and have them locked away when they have been convicted in court. You can thoroughly enter into this and enjoy it. My favourite detective at the moment is Montalbano. Montalbano is a detective in Sicily. He has the most beautiful flat, which is on the beach. In the opening sequences we see him enjoying a swim before he goes to work. Various things happen, sometimes involving the Mafia, and sometimes even involving murders. Montalbano’s method of working always involves lunch, in a congenial trattoria where he’s extremely well-known, and where he lunches people who might be helpful in the context of his current case. Strangely enough, such people are always very good-looking girls.

It’s great viewing on a Sunday evening after Evensong. But having been in the court this week, it certainly occurs to me that real crimes, and real criminal law, aren’t like that. It’s not fun. The court has to establish the facts, then to establish if those facts mean that any law has been broken, and then to establish whether the person in the dock did the things which amounted to the breach of the law: and if so, the right penalty, as prescribed by law, has to be handed down.

So far, so uncontroversial. And frankly, so unconnected with our comfortable lives here. Some of us may have done some prison visiting, and some of us may have gone to one of those Grange Park Opera productions performed in prisons around the country. But what would you feel like, if you were watching your barrister and the prosecuting barrister fighting it out in front of the jury? And knowing that, if it goes the wrong way, you will end up for several years in jail?

What does it feel like for my friend? He’s a professional person. He went to a good university. He had a professional job. Something has gone terribly wrong. He is ruined. He is already ruined, even before the verdict, just by being in court on trial. His wife has left him. But he didn’t do it.

But will the jury believe him? Will the jury weigh up the evidence, with the help of the barristers on each side and with the help of the judge, who will give directions? What happens if he’s acquitted? There are still those people who accused him. They’re still going to be out there.

What if he goes to jail? Where will he end up? Will any of his friends be able to come and see him easily? What about those long periods when his friends can’t make it? He has no family any more. It’s not like hospital visiting, just down the road. For whatever reason, people are not going to do it so easily.

I know he’s a Christian. He prays every night, and he asks me to pray for him. And I do. And then I find all these thoughts come crowding in. What if the jury finds him guilty? What if he does go to jail? What am I supposed to feel if they find him guilty of the things he’s accused of? Then, on the face of things, he would be a terrible criminal. Certainly the rest of the world will think that.

These are my reflections, my trials in the wilderness. Would I choose that fight? How strong are the forces ranged against my friend in the court? I’m figuring out the odds.

And that sort of reflection, that sort of analysis, doesn’t help. When I came back from the court, full of conflicting thoughts and emotions, deep, rational thoughts, thoughts fit for Lent, even – they didn’t help.

But if I thought in the way Jesus started off arguing here, just dropping everything and falling in behind Him; getting rid of all the baggage – then what? I think that is the clue, that is the way to look at what Jesus was saying. Not that one should weigh up carefully the cost/benefit of being a disciple, and then make a reasoned commitment: not that. Nothing wrong with figuring things out – but this is different. This is in a different league. What Jesus is looking for is commitment, commitment untrammelled by the baggage of life.

So when I worry about my friend facing his trial in court, I can reflect all I can, but it won’t get me anywhere. ‘Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?’ Jesus asked, in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matt. 6:27). What will happen, will happen. What Jesus is saying, is raising things to a higher plane. Whatever happens, proved innocent or proved guilty, my friend is still my friend. I can hate the sin – if there is one – but love the sinner. We are all sinners. But Jesus shows that, if we are prepared to make a commitment, to take up a cross and follow him: to be reckless, reckless about the cost – then He will be there.

Even in that court this week, in the context of serious crime, God was there. He gives us reason to hope. He will give my friend reason to hope, whichever way it goes for him. Let us today remember, as part of our Lenten observance, those people who are being tested, tested in a much tougher way than just giving up chocolate. Where they are concerned, let us pray St Ignatius Loyola’s prayer: ‘Teach us, good Lord, …. to give, and not to count the cost’. [St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)]

PS – this story has a happy ending. My friend was acquitted of all charges.