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Sermon at St Andrew’s, Oxshott on 5th July 2015
Mark 6:1-13

When I was little – maybe 8 or 9 – my terrifying Aunt Pegs came to stay. Peggy was my father’s sister, and she was a history lecturer at the Institute of Education in Malet Street. She was a Girton Girl, and she had never married..

She lived in one of those tall, up-and-down houses on the north side of Clapham Common, facing Holy Trinity Church, where she was one of the pillars of the congregation, and a constant source of terror to curates.

On that morning it just so happened that she and I coincided at the doors of our respective bedrooms, just about to go downstairs for our breakfast. Aunt Pegs looked into my bedroom, the door of which I had not managed to shut quickly enough, and she noticed that my bed was not made.

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Hugh, I think you should make your bed, before you come down to breakfast’, she said.
Outrage! I felt. Who was she, to tell me that?
Only my Mum could tell me to make my bed. And anyway, the rules, as I understood them, were that the time for making one’s bed was much later: when you got round to it naturally – or possibly, when Mum had done it for you anyway.

But Aunt Pegs was challenging all that. I had to abandon the rules: think again, and take in the awful prospect of bed-making before breakfast.

It’s quite reminiscent of the story from our reading from St Mark’s Gospel. Who was this chap who was making such a splash? Wasn’t he just the carpenter’s son from Nazareth? And who were the chaps with him? Weren’t they just ordinary fishermen, that you’d seen around the place: nothing special?

How on earth could people like that be at all qualified to talk about things of cosmological significance, the beginning and end of time, questions of divine wisdom – surely not some bloke from a joinery workshop down the road, who’d never had anything special about him before. But the things he was doing: they were truly remarkable.

The thing that really stuck in their gullet was that he told them to change their outlook on life, turn over a new leaf, even to change the rules. Just as Aunt Pegs upset my convenient little routine, so Jesus was upsetting the orthodoxy of the Jewish leaders, who thought they’d worked it out and had everything down to a T.

So Jesus sent his followers away, sent them off, two by two, to spread the good news about him, to encourage all the people they met to repent, to change their ways.

As I was re-reading this Gospel passage, I came across something I must’ve read hundreds of times, but never really taken in. And that’s the sandals. Nowadays sandals are a sort of a fashion statement – certainly for people of my generation. There are the sandals that we remember our fathers wearing on holiday, usually with long socks, probably rather highly polished as well: basically the sandals were just like the shoes that they wore to work, but they had holes in, to let the summer in.

Or alternatively, of course, there were the sandals that left-wing intellectuals were supposed to wear. CND marchers in the 60s: the leaders would be striding forth – and they would be wearing sandals. Probably without socks.

Now that we’ve got a heatwave I reviewed this bit of my sermon, because I was going to say that in Cobham and Oxshott most of the people you would see wearing sandals would be wearing them on the beach in somewhere warm and sunny like Portofino or Cannes or somewhere like that. But in view of this lovely weather, I expect if I took a straw poll of everybody’s footwear today, there will even be a few sandals here in church. If so, you can take comfort in the thought that you are wearing the footwear that Jesus recommended.

But you may hastily murmur, ‘But that doesn’t make me some kind of lefty!’ Of course. Well, as some of you know, I am some kind of lefty, and so the usual disclaimers apply. You will catch yourselves saying, I bet, after I get into my stride this morning – I will catch little murmurs, one to the other, saying, ‘Who does he think he is? He’s just that old bloke that used to catch the 7.31 from Oxshott. What does he know?’

And if I start to suggest that some of our hallowed ideas might not necessarily be right, again, you will say, ‘Why on earth should I change my mind? I know how it all works.’

Well, let me try you with the Foodbank. Surely we don’t need a food bank round here, you might well say. As many of you will know, Cobham Area Foodbank was founded partly by this very church. The Foodbank is a creation of Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott, Downside and Surrounding Areas, to give it its full title.

The representatives of the seven churches in Churches Together started discussing the creation of a food bank in this area just over two years ago, and it is now a registered charity, independent of Churches Together. I was its first manager.

In the first clear year of operation, we provided approximately 1500 food parcels. Just under half the people were hungry not because of changes in state benefits or because of unemployment. The biggest category were people who are working, who are employed, but who don’t earn enough money to pay the rent and buy food as well.

Of course the various Government changes have made life more difficult for people at the poorer end of our society. If you are unlucky enough to be made redundant, and you were working in a low-paid job, so you weren’t able to build up any savings, you will find that you don’t get any unemployment benefit for at least two weeks, and in fact, often longer.

If you receive housing benefit, to enable you to afford to pay the rent, because there are very few council houses left – for practical purposes, none in Elmbridge – you will find that the Council has to apply the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. They assess how many bedrooms you’ve got, and if your children have grown up and moved away, you will find that they will say that, according to the rules for Housing Benefit, you should be occupying a smaller house: they will only provide the benefit for a house which is ‘appropriate’ for your needs, so a one-bedroom house or flat if you’re by yourself – but even if you wanted to move, there aren’t any available.

Whereas in the old days with council houses, rents were controlled and went up very slowly, now the market dictates the rent, and landlords can raise the rent of their properties to whatever level the market will bear.

So the tenants are squeezed. They have to pay more rent, and they get less benefit to set against it. If they are in a low-paid job, perhaps on the minimum wage and perhaps on a zero-hours contract, paid by the hour worked, but without a guarantee that they will actually get any work to do, they will soon run out of money.

They have to take a hard decision about whether to pay the rent or go and buy food for themselves and their families. In the old days, again, with a council house, the council was pretty understanding about rent arrears when people were in financial difficulty. Nowadays the majority of so-called social housing is let on an ‘Assured Shorthold Tenancy’, which gives the landlord very sweeping powers to evict tenants if they miss a couple of rent payments. So people regard paying the rent as being the top priority, and then find that they haven’t got enough money left to buy any food.

A very common reaction, when I tell people that we have a food bank here in Cobham and Oxshott, is to say, ‘That’s a good thing – but surely we don’t need it here.’ There really are people who are hungry, but don’t have enough to buy food, right here in Oxshott. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have given out those 1,500 food parcels.

The Foodbank opens once a week in the Methodist Church hall, just down the road from the new library in Cobham, in Cedar Road; it opens for an hour-and-a-half at lunchtime on Fridays. People who need food go to one of a number of organisations whom we have authorised to be voucher issuers, professionals qualified to assess the genuineness of each person’s need, and they get a pink food voucher.

The food voucher tells us how many people there are to feed in the family and it identifies the reason why the people have found themselves short of food. There are a number of categories specified. The most common one around here, as I said, is simply ‘not having enough money’. There are other categories, such as the various benefit changes, unemployment, illness and disability and so on.

We belong to a network of food banks created by the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity which is based in Salisbury in Wiltshire. The Foodbank pays an annual subscription and gets the right to use Trussell’s food bank operations manuals and their computer systems.

Every ounce of food given to the Foodbank and every ounce given out, is weighed and recorded. All the vouchers are noted down and recorded so that, nationally and locally, there are robust statistics to say how many people are using the Foodbank, and why.

Trussell Trust also provides training programmes for our volunteers. We have four departments: the distribution centre, the warehouse, the van – and the management team. We have a 400sq ft warehouse in a small industrial park on the outskirts of Leatherhead. We run a van which many of you will have seen, which has so far been financed by Cargill, that very generous and successful food company.

We have eight drivers including two ladies, and ten driver’s mates. The van does a pick-up round every Monday, from all the seven churches, from Waitrose, Sainsbury’s on the High Street, Starbuck’s and from any schools who might have had a special collection. During the week there may be other collections and deliveries, and on Friday the van delivers from the warehouse to the Methodist Church hall, ready for the clients to come and collect their food.

Our Foodbank – your Foodbank – is supported by around 130 volunteers. At the distribution centre, at each session there will be five or six volunteers, who are all specially trained, two people to receive clients and take their vouchers, two people to get out bags of food and somebody to make them a cup of tea and point them in the direction of a big collection of what we call ‘signposts’ to try to help people improve their lot: for example, Christians Against Poverty, which can help people who have got into debt. It’s able to intercede for them with creditors and negotiate staged payments which they can afford, to keep them out of the hands of loan sharks.

Volunteers also deliver food to people who are housebound, or who have suddenly found themselves in urgent need for whatever reason, and can’t wait till the Friday distribution session, perhaps as a result of injury.

Those home deliveries are always done in a car rather than in the Foodbank van, in order not to embarrass people. Indeed we try very hard to recognise that for many people it’s very embarrassing to have to come and effectively beg for food. Having a voucher is a great way to take a lot of the sting out of it, because the original request is made one-to-one to one of the voucher issuers, who are professionals qualified to assess the genuineness of each person’s need. That’s a private conversation.

As soon as somebody comes to the Foodbank with their pink voucher, then they have rights. We will give them food without question. But still they need to be treated tactfully. So they get the food in a supermarket bag, so there’s nothing to show that they’ve actually got food from the Foodbank.

The exact mix of food that they get is planned by a nutritionist employed by Trussell Trust. Each food parcel is supposed to last a minimum of three days.

We are very blessed by having a lot of very generous people in this area. We are definitely not short of food. Some sorts of food are in surplus – if our clients could live just on pasta and baked beans, we could probably feed them until this time next century!

If you’re thinking, what shall I give to the Foodbank, think that poorer people who are hungry actually like to eat the same things that you like too.

The one thing that I haven’t mentioned so far is that, although we get lots and lots of food, which is great, we are struggling to get enough money to run the Foodbank.

We had a lot of generous grants to start the thing up – the Bishop of Guildford’s Foundation gave us £5,000, the churches chipped in substantial sums, Elmbridge Borough Council gave £2,000, and even the government, despite their rude remarks about food banks, gave us £2,000 through the Cinnamon Trust. Cargill very generously met the leasing cost of our van.

But – there is still rent to pay on our warehouse, there are bills for fuel, insurance and repairs to be paid for; and we do sometimes have to go out and buy food. Because we’ve got a ton of pasta and baked beans, we haven’t necessarily got enough of certain other foods which we need in order to offer a balanced diet.

In round numbers, it costs £19,000 a year to run Cobham Area Foodbank, and we have funding at the moment which will take us just about up to October. Thereafter, we will have to see if there’s a food bank for food banks!

So we would be very grateful if you would put anything you can spare into a gift aid envelope. Or you can go on our website and sign up either for a single gift or a regular donation. Gift Aid forms are on the website as well.

It couldn’t happen here, could it? It may be a bit uncomfortable for you to hear me telling you that unfortunately it can, and it does. The only thing I can say is what the disciples were told by Jesus, ‘Tell everybody to repent’.

‘Repent’ in Greek is a word which means ‘change your mind’ (μετανοιειτε). In the Foodbank context, I don’t think you need to repent in the sense of changing your evil ways, but perhaps you might need to adjust your preconceptions a bit. And of course, occasionally, don’t forget to wear your sandals.

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Sermon for Evensong on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, 1st June 2014
2 Sam 23:1-5, Eph.1:15-23

First we heard the last words of King David, and then St Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Ephesus. The context is the Ascension, which the church celebrated on Thursday. Leave-taking. The end of the party. I wonder who did the washing-up. When the disciples – and certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus as well as his brothers, when they were all together after Jesus had left them and a cloud had taken Him out of their sight, when it was over, when the ‘farewell tour’, Jesus Christ Superstar, had come to the end of its run: what do you think they all did?

They went back to the upstairs room and said prayers. And maybe they got busy doing the washing up. Because they must have been feeling very flat. We know that when Jesus had been crucified, if we think of the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, they were very sad then, when they thought that Jesus had been taken away from them.

So I think we can reasonably expect that they were also feeling very flat and very sad when Jesus had been taken away from them the second time, when He had ascended into heaven. Whitsuntide, Pentecost, had not yet come, although Jesus had assured them, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). But that hadn’t happened yet.

It must have been very difficult, after all the momentous things that had happened. After the roller-coaster ride of following Jesus, suddenly He wasn’t there any more. In the church, we have commemorated that roller-coaster ride, through the Easter season, though the time of Jesus’ passion, and suffering, Good Friday; and then the glorious Resurrection on Easter Sunday; and then His risen appearances, the road to Emmaus, doubting Thomas: all the wonderful stories of the risen Christ.

It is a revelation to us, a sure and certain hope that we have, because of God’s presence with us, His gift of His only Son and His Resurrection from the dead. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that God will give them ‘a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they come to know Him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance among the saints.'(Eph.1:17)

If you are a Christian, if you go to church, this is a wonderful time of year: the Easter season. It is a time of hope and joy. But in the world outside, there is a sense of challenge. Not everyone is a Christian. Not everyone is aware of, let alone believes in, the wonderful story of Jesus. The Boko Haram people who have kidnapped 200 children, 200 girls, in Nigeria, are actively opposed to the Christian message. They want forcibly to convert people to Islam – forgetting perhaps that the god of Islam is very like the God of Israel and the God of the Christians – and certainly forgetting that God is a god of love.

Also in the world outside, we had an election. Some of you may have heard of my huge success in the Cobham Fairmile Ward election. It was a massive success, honestly: despite representing the Labour Party, I managed to poll in double figures! St Mary’s has much more successful politicians – congratulations to James Vickers!

After the elections, the press and the BBC are talking about the phenomenon of UKIP and what they stand for. It seems that a major part of UKIP’s message is that they are opposed to large-scale immigration and they are opposed to our membership of the EU, perhaps because they see the EU as being a major cause of the immigration which they don’t like.

And then there’s the controversy which has grown up concerning the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, called ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, which is all about the widening gap between the rich and the poor worldwide. Prof Piketty offers, at the end of his 573-page tome, some suggested alternatives to the economic policies which are being pursued in all the leading economies. But a Financial Times journalist, Chris Giles, has argued that Prof Piketty’s figures are wrong. If you put more than one economist in a room, they will inevitably disagree! I see that Ed Miliband confessed that he’d only just started reading Thomas Piketty. I have got to page 51.

It does all seem quite a long way away from the world of Easter, from the Resurrection and the Ascension: from the hopeful question from the disciples to Jesus just before He was taken from them, ‘Lord, is this the time when you are to establish again the sovereignty of Israel?’ (Acts 1:6 – NEB), a long way from all that, to the rather gloomy fact that only a minority of people cared enough about the way they are governed, even to cast a vote.

There does seem to be a big gap at the moment, between our church lives and the world outside. It’s all very well St Paul saying in his Letter to the Galatians that ‘the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control’. (Gal. 5:22f), but how is that relevant to UKIP and to the world of macroeconomic theory?

What we are not hearing, in all this ferment of debate, is a Christian voice. What about immigrants? A politician says he couldn’t hear any English spoken in his carriage on the Tube. An election flyer says that there is some impossible number of East Europeans just waiting to come to the UK, take our jobs and claim all our benefits. Someone else points out, against this, that the NHS would collapse without doctors and nurses from abroad. Another expert points out that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive in benefits, and that fees from foreign students are vital to the survival of our universities.

But – and perhaps I haven’t been reading the right paper or listening to the right station on the wireless – I don’t recall anyone bringing the Bible into it, which they could have done. In the Old Testament, it’s a fundamental point of the Jewish Law that you must look after strangers, aliens, foreigners – in Deut. 10:19, Moses says that God ‘loves the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt.’ In Jesus’ staggering picture of the Last Judgment in Matt. 25, He says that the righteous shall ‘enter and possess the kingdom’ because ‘… when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home …’ When the righteous didn’t get it, and queried when they had done this, Jesus said, ‘I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me.’

Jesus didn’t blame people for being poor. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a refugee. His ancestors, the Jewish people, had all been refugees. He didn’t talk about benefit cheats and scroungers. He didn’t talk about corporate tax avoidance – although he did say, ‘Render … unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s’. Maybe that is a good message for Starbucks, Vodafone and Google.

What about the widening gap between rich and poor, which Thomas Piketty has written about? Are the only things, which can be said, ‘It’s the market’, and ‘There is no alternative?’ If the government gives a tax cut to the highest earners, (which one commentator said was enough for them to go out and buy a Porsche with), at the same time as over 1 million people have had to go to a food bank to avoid starvation – and by the way, that includes 307 people in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon who have used the Foodbank since we opened five months ago – if there is that seeming bias towards the rich, what is the Christian way to look at it?

Perhaps the answer is in the Magnificat, the song of Mary, the mother of God:

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. [Luke 1:46-55]

You might also remember what Jesus said about camels and the eye of a needle. [Matt.19:24]

But Jesus has been taken away from us. He has disappeared behind a cloud. Disappeared behind a cloud, a cloud of modern stuff. But, you might say, things were much more simple in Jesus’ day. There weren’t any benefit cheats. There weren’t any Romanians using the EU as a way to come and steal our jobs. You just can’t compare how it was then with the situation these days.

I think we should think carefully about it. I know that, in this week in the church’s year, you might argue that Jesus has ascended, and the Holy Spirit is coming – Jesus told his disciples to expect it, in Acts chapter 1 – but it doesn’t arrive till next Sunday. If it looks as though our world is rather godless, that fits with Jesus having left us, with the Ascension time.

But in this world, in our day to day lives, of course the Holy Spirit is here. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. So why does it look as though we are we ignoring Him? Is it OK not to want strangers? Is it OK that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?

As Christians, what do we think? Have I chosen my Bible references too selectively? Or is it more a question that the world today is more complicated than it was in Jesus’ time, and that some of Jesus’ sayings are out of date these days?

Or have we Christians really got something very distinctive to say, which doesn’t necessarily fit in with conventional wisdom? I’d be interested to hear what your thoughts are.