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Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 23rd December 2018

Isaiah 10:33-11:10, Matthew 1:18-25

‘In the bleak midwinter’; ‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow’; ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out … deep and crisp and even’. But Bethlehem is a hot place, dusty rather than snowy. I suppose carols and hymns can be rather an unreliable source of proper geographical information. ‘And did those feet .. walk upon England’s green and pleasant land?’

I don’t suppose they sing ‘Jerusalem’ in Italy, or in France or in Germany. Or if they do, presumably those feet were walking in the Black Forest or on the Palatine Hill, or maybe, in the Bois de Boulogne. There is, if we are literal about it, quite a lot of nonsense which we happily tolerate at this time of year. Things that appear to go completely contrary to common sense; like snow in Bethlehem. It probably was quite cold at night in the stable, once the sun had gone down. But there certainly wasn’t any snow.

One of the things that these carols are doing is assimilating the story of the birth of Jesus into our homes, or rather into an idealised version of our homes, because even here in England a white Christmas is, of course, very rare. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that we won’t have one this year either.

And as well as the carols, the Bible readings that we traditionally use at this time also contain things which look contrary. Isaiah’s wonderful vision of the peaceful life on ‘God’s holy mountain’, after the Rod of Jesse, the Saviour, has beaten the Assyrians, and saved God’s chosen people, isn’t just a pastoral idyll.

It deliberately puts almost impossible companions together. The wolf and the sheep; the leopard, the kid; the calf, the young lion, the cow and the bear – the little child, leading them, like a party of schoolchildren following their teacher around the Tower of London, say.

Or perhaps it’s a classroom, full of these unlikely neighbours, who are not busily eating each other, but they are sitting attentively in class, being kept in good order by a little boy, like my two-year old grandson Jim. In your dreams, Sunshine!

Well, yes; in Isaiah, in Isaiah’s dreams. In the words of the prophet, telling his hearers what God has spoken to him and said, that the Rod of Jesse would come and slay the Assyrians, and then that they ‘would not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.’

Interesting that it is on a mountain, on a high place. The Greek gods were on a mountain too; on Mount Olympus. And in the Old Testament, the heathen gods, the Baals and the Astartes of the Chaldeans, were worshipped with sacred poles, which were ‘in the high places’. ‘High places’ was almost a synonym for where God lived. We ourselves look up, look up to heaven, because conventionally, God lives in Heaven, and Jesus sits at God’s right hand ‘on high’, we say. Think of our Psalm this evening.

Unto thee I lift up mine eyes:

O thou that dwellest in the heavens. [Ps. 123]

But again, it’s not literally true. Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, was said by Nikita Krushchev to have gone into space ‘but not to have seen God there’. The early astronauts didn’t find a man with a white beard sitting on a golden throne and floating above the clouds. John Gillespie Magee’s wonderful poem, which is often read at the funeral of a pilot, ‘High Flight’, comes to mind. ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth … put out my hand and touched the face of God’. And so, on God’s holy mountain, children can safely play with cockatrices, vipers, and with asps, cobras. ‘Sheep may safely graze’.

It’s a much better outlook for the Israelites. The Messiah would come along and free them from slavery. The Rod of Jesse would mete out retribution to all their foes. That’s something that we can certainly relate to. ‘If only ..’, we say. If only: what would you call in the Rod of Jesse to do in your life? But maybe we are too comfortable, too well settled to really empathise with how the Israelites must have felt.

But there are people who are in exile, who are not free, who may even be subjected to slavery, even today, not far away. On Friday I did my first Father Christmas duty of this Christmas, up at Brooklands College, where there is a project for children who are asylum seekers and refugees. I gave out splendid big stockings full of goodies donated by the supporters of the project and by Elmbridge CAN, our local refugee support group, to 26 young people, teenagers and in their early 20s, who had come from Eritrea, from Syria, Ukraine, from Kurdistan, Iraq, from Afghanistan. Some were black Africans, some were Arabs, a couple were Chinese, and a couple were white Europeans. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to stay.

Some were learning to read and write for the first time; although typically, the ones who hadn’t been able to read and write were amazingly good at mental arithmetic. They were learning English, of course, and learning how to fit in with English society. The first words that they are taught are ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘sorry’, because none of those are necessarily expressions that you come across in some of the countries that they have come from. Part of Father Christmas’ visit was a huge lunch, of Middle Eastern and African delicacies, that one of the volunteers from Elmbridge CAN had made. For about half the children, this would be their only meal that day. One meal, if you’re lucky. This is in Weybridge!

So pictures of the Israelites, in exile and under the oppressor’s boot, could still in certain circumstances be a picture of contemporary life, for refugees and asylum seekers today. Think what life in the refugee camps must be like, in Jordan, for example. No snow there, either!

As well as the mythical snow on this fourth Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas itself, St Matthew tells us the story of the other half of the Annunciation. This isn’t about Mary but about Joseph her betrothed. Again, the Christmas story is so familiar that we perhaps gloss over the bits that seem rather unlikely. Joseph’s original reaction when he finds out that his wife-to-be is pregnant, although he has had nothing to do with it, is what you might expect. His first thought is that the wedding is not going to happen.

Who is the Angel Gabriel? Have you met any angels recently? Or at all? It seems to depend a bit on where you come from and what you’re used to. In Africa and in Southern Europe, people are much more ready to believe in the existence of angels than perhaps we are. I don’t think that we can explain the Virgin Birth in the same way that we could explain how to bake a perfect soufflé – or whatever it is they do on the Great British Bake-Off.

But look at it functionally. Jesus definitely lived. He was a human being, although during his life and afterwards, things happened which have led us to believe that he was more than human, that he was divine as well as human. So somehow he must have been born, been conceived. All the things that show that he was really born, that he really was human, just like the other miracles, turning water into wine, miraculously healing sick people, raising Lazarus from the dead – none of those can be explained: so Jesus’ conception is equally mysterious and impossible to understand.

But notice how Jesus’ earthly parents, wonderfully, accepted the situation; and of course Mary said the Magnificat, which we’ve just sung together. God has chosen me; God has magnified me; God has made a big thing out of me.

Is it just a pretty story, then? Is it just a convenient excuse to have a nice time at Christmas? Think about what Mary said. Think about the message of the Magnificat, and the message of Isaiah, about the animals on ‘God’s holy mountain’. ‘He has put down the mighty from his seat, and exalted the humble and meek.’ Are we the mighty? Or are we the ‘humble and meek’?

We need to think about it, and to do something. Perhaps the other thing about God’s holy mountain is that a little child shall lead them. Shall we say that that is the Christ Child? You know, in snowy Bethlehem? And another thing. ‘No crying he makes’. This is some baby!

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941)

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Sermon for Evensong on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016
Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 20:9-19

Did you see the Shetland pony this morning? The children made a beautiful tableau and there was a Shetland pony pretending to be a donkey for them to ride on, to make a procession, to remember Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem for the last week. It’s really a bittersweet message. For that lovely hour or two, Jesus led a procession of people who believed that he was God’s chosen saviour, God’s chosen saviour in a triumphal sense, like a Roman general returning in triumph from conquests overseas, leading a procession into the capital.

But the sad thing is that that was then, but the mood darkened very quickly thereafter. The clouds started to gather and Jesus started to challenge Jerusalem. This parable, the parable of the vineyard, some of which, on one level, was simply a retelling of the story from the prophet Isaiah, sets the tone.

Holy Week is about divine judgement; for God, against God. For man, against man: ‘Judge eternal, throned in splendour’. Isaiah made a prophecy of the kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah – the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is Israel, and the men of Judah are the plant he cherished – ‘He looked for righteousness but found it denied, for righteousness but heard cries of distress.’ [Is. 5:7, NEB] Jesus put out this story as a challenge. You are the chosen people, Israel. You have all the advantages. God has done everything he can to make the vineyard a good one.

Then he let it, to professional winemakers, tenants. Those tenants are the human race. The human race rejected God’s son and eventually killed him. What will God do? What will the landlord of the vineyard do? If we, who are tenants in his vineyard, have a lease on life in this world? What will God do if we have killed his son? It is a truly terrifying prospect.

Even so, we don’t really appreciate its force these days. This morning I said my theme was that we know what comes next. There was a sort of spoiler alert. We know that after the Passion, after Jesus’ terrible suffering, after Jesus dies, after God is killed, God rises again in glory on Easter morning.

Maybe we can’t really help knowing what comes next, but still, we ought to appreciate the force of the Passion story. We ought to appreciate that we are still like the tenants in the vineyard. If we have no care for God, if we do the things which killed Jesus, if we have no love for him and no love for each other, if we pursue false gods, then we are like those hard-hearted people who figured that it was to their advantage to free Barabbas and crucify the son of God.

Whatever we have been doing by way of Lenten reflection, in prayer and abstinence in the last four weeks, in this week of all weeks we should remember that we are tenants in God’s vineyard.

Maybe, just as with a new story, if we know what happens, we should keep it to ourselves – spoiler alert! – we should actually be cautious about saying we know what happens next. What will the owner of the vineyard do? We’re very cavalier. We just carry on. We live our lives as we’ve always done. We don’t receive the stranger, and take him in: we don’t give him clothes, when he’s shivering with cold. Is he a real refugee, or just a migrant?

But Jesus wouldn’t have made that distinction. In that time of final judgment, when Jesus separates the sheep and the goats, he will decide, he will judge, by what we have done for the hungry, for the thirsty, for the homeless stranger, for the person with no clothes. [See Matt. 25:31f]

It is disgraceful that there are still thousands of people in Calais and Dunkirk who are marooned without proper habitation, without washing facilities and proper sanitation. These are people whose homes in Syria have been bombed, whose families have been decimated. Some of the children in the camp actually have a legal right to join relatives in this country, but it’s not happening.

We are going to take the Foodbank van over there soon. There was some confusion at first, and we couldn’t find out how to get access to the camp; but now we have established contact with the local Guildford charity, Guildford People to People, and we’ll be able to get in. Many of you have already given clothes and blankets, which is great. I’ll let you know if there are any other needs which we can supply. We must do it. Jesus will ask us, when he was a stranger, a refugee, what did we do?

Then again there was another terrible story in the paper this week. An MP, Stella Creasy, had actually thrown the chief exec of a charity out of her office – called a policeman to throw him out of the Houses of Parliament – because she was so cross with him.

His charity had sold some flats which it owned, all of which had been occupied for years by poorer people who thought that the charity was looking after them. The charity sold the flats to a developer, who promptly gave all the poor tenants notice to quit. The MP raised this with the chief exec of the charity. Was it not wrong that their old tenants, old people, should be made homeless in this way? He shrugged his shoulders and said,’It happens’. All that mattered was that they had raised a lot of money by selling the flats. ‘It happens’ is what people say, far too often. We have to try to stop ‘it’ happening. ‘It’ is the sort of thing which has killed the son in the vineyard.

Let’s not be like the tenants in the vineyard. Let’s not do the things that kill the landlord’s son. Jesus was challenging us, us just as much as he was challenging his contemporary audience. We must not throw Him out; we mustn’t leave him shivering outside; we must make room in our hearts for Him.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 6th March 2016
Isaiah 40:27-41:13; 2 Timothy 4:1-18.

Among the dreaming spires of Oxford – in the ivory towers – there has been an almighty row between a student movement and my old college, Oriel, which in turn has excited the unwelcome attentions of the Daily Telegraph and some former students, who are so cross that they have stopped giving money to the College – at least that’s what the leak from the Senior Common Room published in the Telegraph said, so it must be true.

It’s all about Cecil Rhodes. There’s a statue of him high up on the bit of Oriel College which faces on to the High Street. The statue is so high up, in fact, that most of us who were there for three or four years in the 1960s can’t say we ever really registered the fact that it was there. Rhodes was an Oriel man, and he left a substantial benefaction to the College in his will, which was used to build the building which has his statue on it. Rhodes also founded the Rhodes Scholarships, which have brought all sorts of scholars from the Commonwealth and the USA to study at Oxford. It’s well documented, incidentally, that among the earliest Rhodes scholars was a black American, and the terms of Rhodes’ gift expressly ruled out discrimination on the grounds of race in awarding the scholarships. [Nigel Biggar (2016): Rhodes, Race and the Abuse of History, http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/6388/full%5D

But, the protesters say, Rhodes was a bad man, who was involved in the worst aspects of colonial oppression. He was almost guilty of slavery, and, they say, he was a racist.

So there has been a great argument about whether Oriel should take down the statue. Although it hasn’t been put this way exactly, the point seems to be that people are arguing that if, according to today’s standards, our benefactor was a bad man, that taints his gifts, even though at the time he gave them, he was not judged to be a particularly bad man according to the moral standards then. A bad man can’t give a good gift, they say, even though at the time he gave it, he wasn’t regarded as a bad man.

The argument rages on. I was thinking about it when I saw the Bible lessons for this service. A Christian minister – for instance Timothy, the young man to whom two epistles are addressed – must uphold authentic doctrine and good teaching, and not be led astray by fads and crazes: ‘For the time will come when they will not stand wholesome teaching, but will follow their own fancy and gather a crowd of teachers to tickle their ears.’ (2 Timothy 4:3, NEB)

The young minister must be steadfast, and stand up to hardships in support of his ministry. He will be strengthened in his calling by the Lord. The prophet Isaiah says, ‘But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’ (Isaiah 40:31) The Epistle echoes this. ‘Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.’ (2 Timothy 4:17)

So the young minister, the young evangelist, will be strengthened in his calling, supported by God in his work. Or her work, indeed. This Lent we are being encouraged to consider a calling to ministry in our church. The Diocesan newspaper, The Wey, which you can pick up on your way out tonight, has as its main headline on the front page, ‘Who me …..? A vicar?’ [http://www.cofeguildford.org.uk/about/communications/the-wey/details/the-wey—march-april-2016]

St Paul’s two letters to Timothy and his letter to Titus, called the Pastoral Epistles (‘epistle’ means ‘letter’ – from the Latin epistola) are chiefly concerned with the character which a Christian minister needs to have. As well as being of good character – ‘blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, …. not greedy of filthy lucre’ [1 Timothy 3:2-3] – a minister must stick to sound doctrine. But how to know what is sound doctrine?

St Paul’s letters are full of controversies, reflecting the various arguments which must have sprung up among the early Christians. Think of all his arguments about whether Christians needed to be circumcised; whether, once baptised, a Christian need not worry about living a morally upright life – because they were already ‘saved’. Could one earn salvation by doing good works? They argued about all these.

What was the right answer? At the time of the Reformation, a thousand years later, the Reformers liked verse 16 of 2 Timothy chapter 3: ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’.

‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God.’

So that means, if it’s in the Bible, it must be right. The Bible is the Word of God. But wait: these fine sentiments, in what says it is ‘St Paul’s’ Letter to Timothy, are reckoned by scholars not in fact to have been written by St Paul from his prison cell in Rome at all. These were what are called ‘pseudonymous’ letters, letters written after the style of St Paul, and in order to be more persuasive, claiming to have been written by him, but in fact not. The language, and references to things which the earliest church didn’t have, such as bishops, have led the academic commentators to say that these Pastoral Epistles aren’t really by St Paul.

So what is true? Does the truth – or what is right and good – change over time? Is there merit in the argument put forward by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, that what may have been good once upon a time, need not still be so? We have to acknowledge, for example, that the Church of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw nothing wrong in slavery. The grand buildings at the heart of Bristol and Liverpool were built with profits from the slave trade, and the traders were church-goers. John Newton, who wrote the great hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, was originally the captain of a slave ship.

Then gradually people’s understanding – Christian people’s understanding – changed. William Wilberforce and the members of the Clapham Sect, who worshipped at Holy Trinity, Clapham Common, began to understand that their Christian belief would lead them to recognise that all are made in the image of God, that we are all – equally – God’s creatures.

I wonder what people will say about us in 100 years. Adam Gopnik, in his recent radio talk, ‘A Point of View’ [http://bbc.in/1QwPjC9], has suggested that in years to come, our generation will be criticised for extreme cruelty to animals, the animals that we eat, like chickens, cows and sheep.

I wonder whether our inclination towards nationalism, not just in opposition to the EU, but also in relation to migration, might be criticised as being like the Victorians’ attitude to slavery – or at least their attitude towards their colonial subjects. Why are we any more entitled to live in wealth and comfort, just because we have been born in England, than someone who was born in Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan? Are we really?

I wonder. I wonder what St Paul – or, dare one say, what Jesus Himself – would say. Have you got itchy ears?

Sermon for Mattins on the 24th Sunday after Trinity, 15th November 2015 – Security or Liberty?
Daniel 12:1-3 ‘There shall be a time of trouble, such as never was ..’
Mark 13:1-8 ‘Such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet’

‘For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows. But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten:…’

That’s the end of our Gospel reading this morning, and the verse after. It might be a description of what it feels like to be a Christian in Iraq, or Syria, or anywhere else where so-called Islamic State is operating. It’s not safe to be a Christian there – and many Christians have become refugees.

And now, in Paris, that violence, that terrorism, has come out of the Middle East and is on our doorstep. Hundreds of people have been killed and maimed by suicide bombers with Kalashnikovs in that lovely city, where we all have treasured memories, of happy days, beautiful sights and wonderful meals in fine company.

We are horrified. We feel for the poor people of Paris. How frightened they must feel. If these terrorists could do it once, can they, will they, do it again? It could be London next time. How can we deal with this terrorism?

I was already thinking about this earlier in this week, before the terrible news from Paris arrived. Mohammed Emwazi, ‘Jihadi John’, the IS terrorist with a British accent, who appeared on several of their awful propaganda videos and appears to have murdered several innocent people, was killed in Syria earlier this week by a missile fired from an unmanned aircraft, a drone. Or rather, the Americans, whose missile it was, say they are ‘99% certain’ they killed Emwazi. And several other people were in the same car and were killed when it was hit by the missile.

You may remember the case of Derek Bentley, condemned to death – and executed – in 1953 – for the murder of a policeman. He was a 19-year-old with learning difficulties. During an attempted burglary, his partner in crime, Christopher Craig, who was under 18, shot a policeman after Bentley had called out ‘Let him have it’, ‘it’ being the gun. The prosecution alleged that ‘Let him have it’ meant ‘Shoot him’, and the judge directed the jury to find that interpretation. Bentley was hanged. He has since been posthumously pardoned, and his conviction quashed.

Bentley’s case was one of those miscarriages of justice which persuaded our parliament to abolish the death penalty. At least, to abolish it when we bring an alleged murderer before the courts.

But what if the alleged murderer is a terrorist? Do you remember ‘Death on the Rock’, the ITV documentary broadcast in 1988, about three IRA man who were shot by the SAS in Gibraltar?

Or Jean Charles de Menezes, the innocent man shot nine times by policemen on a Victoria Line tube train?

Or even Osama bin Laden, shot by the US special forces in Pakistan at his home? None of them was tried. But they were all killed, killed by the forces of law and order. Was that right?

There is a difference in legal interpretation between us and the USA in this context. They characterise these operations as being part of a ‘War against Terror’, an actual war, in which the terrorists are combatants, soldiers. We, on the other hand, see terrorists as criminals, to be brought to justice in the courts.

In general, in war, subject to the Geneva Conventions, it is lawful to kill enemy soldiers. Therefore if Mr Emwazi was a soldier and there was a war, in principle it would have been lawful to kill him.

But if there wasn’t a war, at least a war in the sense that Mr Emwazi was a soldier in an army belonging to a country which was at war with the United States, then he was simply a criminal who should have been brought to trial. Incidentally, murder is one of the few crimes which the British courts will try, irrespectively where in the world the offence was committed.

So was it right, or lawful, to kill him with a missile? Nobody is sure even that it was indeed him who was killed – let alone whether his fellow-passengers were in any way sufficiently culpable in order to deserve the death penalty.

Compare Jihadi John’s case with Derek Bentley’s. Bentley was tried. He had the benefit of counsel. There was a jury. The judge was experienced. But they still got it wrong.

Here, we don’t even know for sure whether it was Jihadi John that the missile hit. We don’t know who the other people who were killed were. The missile was fired by the US Army at a car in a town in Syria, Raqqa. The United States is not at war with Syria. Dare one ask, on what legal basis could the strike be justified?

Now I know that you will have listened to me saying that, and you’re probably thinking, ‘That must be wrong’. Wrong, in the sense that ‘of course it was the right thing’ to get rid of Emwazi. He was a ‘dangerous terrorist’. The Prime Minister, I believe, has said that killing him was a question of self-defence.

A former law professor at the LSE, a very old friend of mine, said that the special circumstances, in effect, justified the killing. ‘Imagine you have him in your sights, knife poised over neck of a captive… Do you shoot, or ring 999 and hope for the best?’ It is the same sort of reasoning which is sometimes used to justify torture.

Well, some lawyers at least certainly disagree with those suggestions. The former Master of the Rolls, Lord Bingham, Sir Tom Bingham, in his very fine book ‘The Rule of Law’, quoted Cicero, De Legibus (‘On Laws’),’ Salus populi suprema lex esto’, (‘let the safety of the people be the highest law’), but said that he preferred Benjamin Franklin’s view that ‘he who would put security before liberty deserves neither’.

The early Christians had a hard time. As we read in St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus was preparing the apostles for persecution. What he warned them about indeed sounds like what is happening to the Christians in the Middle East today. But remember what St Paul said, in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 8.

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
36 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

And let us remember what Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount.

‘I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’

Jesus had no use for military intervention, let alone a ‘war on terror’. In the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’. Love your enemies. Love your enemies! This is revolutionary stuff. How can we handle it?

Surely we cannot just stand aside and let IS run amok all over the world? Can we? Last week I preached about how ‘Thou shalt not kill’ had evolved into the doctrine of the Just War, and how in modern times the rules sometimes allowing for warlike acts had been agreed in the United Nations Charter. The war must be in self-defence, or to give effect to a mutual protection treaty, or if the United Nations to has sanctioned it.

This is presumably why the Prime Minister has made reference to self defence, in seeking to justify the drone strike which probably killed Jihadi John. But it is at least arguable that there is no war; there was only terrorism, which in this country is a criminal matter, not an act of war.

In that case, whether or not the action was in self-defence is not relevant, in the sense that the Battle of Britain was fought in self-defence by the RAF. Even if it were, it is highly unlikely that Jihadi John was in any meaningful way a threat to the existence of this country.

We need to pray for guidance, and for our leaders to have wisdom and discernment where terrorism is concerned. It is no use our getting involved in ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. We should remember that ‘He who would put security before liberty deserves neither’.

Truth and reconciliation are far more likely to lead to long term peace. Let us pray that they are forthcoming.

Sermon for Evensong on Remembrance Sunday, 9th Nov 2014
John 15:9-17 – Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

I wondered whether tonight I should just read you some of those stories of heroism and self-sacrifice which perhaps we all know, and which Remembrance Sunday reminds us of. They are almost sermons in themselves. For example:

Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest imprisoned in Auschwitz, who volunteered to take another prisoner’s place when the Nazis selected ten men at random to be starved to death after someone had escaped; or

Jack Cornwell, the boy sailor, ‘Boy’ Cornwell, who was only 16 when he was mortally wounded at the battle of Jutland in 1916, who stayed at his post by the ship’s gun which had been hit and put out of action. He stayed there, although all the rest of the gun crew were dead, ‘in case he were needed’, as he said before he died. Or

Robert Leiper Lindsay, the superintendent of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company oil-well compound in ‘the side of Persia that slopes down into Mesopotamia’, as the story in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia [Arthur Mee, ed., c.1922 (undated), London, The Educational Book Company Limited, vol.9, p.6194] puts it, who died shutting down an oil leak to a furnace and saved 300 colleagues. This was one of my favourite stories when I was about ten, and it still moves and shocks me.

‘The quick mind of Lindsay sees at once that the pumps must be stopped and the supply of oil feeding the furnaces must be cut off; so he calls to his assistant to shut off the pumps, and sets off to cut off the furnace supply. But to get to the furnaces he must pass through the fountain of streaming oil, and arrive at the furnaces with his clothes saturated with petroleum. He knows what the end will be, but he does not shrink. He passes through the oil shower, turns off the oil tap of the furnaces, and then turns away, and falls, a blazing torch.’

Terrible stories. So moving. Would we be so brave, we ask ourselves. The first two stories were from wartime: Father Kolbe in the Second World War, and Jack Cornwell VC in the First. Robert Leiper Lindsay was in 1918. As you will know, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, that he worked for, became BP.

Jesus’ great saying, ‘Greater love hath no man ..’, is about love. He has said, ‘This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you’ [John 15:12]. It isn’t the sort of soft love, companionable love, that Jesus means here. This is sacrifice, violent, painful. Like Lindsay, a ‘blazing torch’.

We can say amen to that. We know what terrible sacrifice Jesus went on to make, how He suffered.

But the mention of Jack Cornwell and Maximilian Kolbe, those wartime martyrs, and the fact that we are remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice in wars, makes me think, what is the point of all that undoubted bravery in war? What was it for?

It is reported that, before Jack Cornwell, Boy Cornwell, died, he was told that the Battle of Jutland had been won; and he was pleased. ‘The strife is o’er, the battle done.’ He had died for his friends.

Similarly Maximilian Kolbe and Robert Lindsay, by their sacrifice of themselves, saved others. They died in order that others might live.

Now there are two other sacrifices which we have to consider today. First, our forces – now in harm’s way again in Iraq. Who will their sacrifices save? It is very difficult to be sure. We have seemingly moved a long way from the Ten Commandments and ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Even back in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas restated the ancient Roman doctrine of the ‘Just War’. He suggested three criteria (Summa Theologiae vol 35, 40(1)):

war must be waged by the ‘due authorities’;
The cause must be just; and
Those waging war must intend to promote good, and avoid evil.

Right authority, just cause, right intention. Even so, Thomas must have reflected that his concept of a ‘just war’ didn’t sit very easily with what Jesus had said, notably in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Matt. 5:39).

Thomas wrote, ‘The Lord’s words, “I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance”, must always be borne in mind, and we must be ready to abandon resistance and self-defence if the situation calls for that.’ That begs the question when ‘the situation’ would call for resistance to be abandoned. What could be such a situation?

Why would one make war in the first place, why would one feel justified in going against Jesus’ command of peace and non-violence: His commands, not only ‘thou shalt not kill’, but also ‘turn the other cheek’?

St Augustine, Augustine of Hippo, writing, in the fourth century, much earlier than Thomas, identified another reason for which a Christian might be justified in using force, which I think is perhaps the only really good reason – as a matter of charity: to go to the aid of his neighbour who was being attacked.

This is clearly a really difficult area; when it isn’t a case of going to the aid of Poland, when it isn’t a case of a threat to our own independence, but a bloody dispute between governments whose legitimacy is in some cases questionable, and who have shown brutality and a contempt for the rule of law, on the one side, as, say, may be argued to be the case in Syria and Iraq, and opposing factions upholding a particularly vicious and intolerant type of militant Islam – who are killing Christians and other non-Moslems simply for not being Moslems, unlike their opponents, the dubious governments, so unsatisfactory in so many ways, but who at least allow freedom of religion. Where is the ‘just war’ in this context?

But I have left to the end the biggest self-sacrifice, Jesus himself. Greater love hath no man. ‘This is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins’ (The Communion, at p.256 in the Book of Common Prayer). Greater love hath no man, than that he die for his friends. Is it, die instead of his friends? That was Maximilian Kolbe. Or was it to help his friends? That would be like Jack Cornwell or Robert Leiper Lindsay.

The idea is said to be like taking someone else’s punishment for them – again like Maximilian Kolbe. We are sinful; instead of punishing us, as He could, God put up His own son, and punished him instead. ‘Who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world’: that’s what the Prayer Book says, in the Prayer of Consecration on p. 255.

I hope that God isn’t really like that. The language of human sacrifice – or of blood feuds: having ‘satisfaction’ is the language of D’Artagnan, the language of duels – ‘redemption’, paying the price, the price of sin, does not really square with the idea of a loving God. The idea of ‘substitutionary atonement’, as it’s called, seems to me to be very barbaric.

We may be fallen people. We may indeed be sinful. But what does that really mean? It surely doesn’t mean that we have a price on our heads, which has to be paid, or else we go into the fires of Hell.

‘Sin’ isn’t a question of persistent badness, or criminality, or just plain evil. All those things might be signs of sin, but they aren’t sin itself. In the New Testament, ‘sin’ is the translation of the Greek ‘αμαρτία, from the verb ‘αμαρτάνω, I ‘miss the mark’, I don’t hit the target. It has a connotation of distance, separation from the goal. So sin is separation, distancing, from God’s kingdom. ‘Remission’ of sins is forgiveness, release from prison.

I would like to emphasise not only the sacrifice, Jesus’ greater love, on the Cross, but also the Resurrection. God is assuring us that not only are we grateful for Jesus’ taking upon himself the punishment that perhaps we might have deserved, but also that it isn’t a story with a sad and pointless end – like the story of so many wars.

Here ‘The strife is o’er, the battle won’; but instead of a posthumous VC, we have a living God, who raised Jesus from the dead. What a sign! Let us indeed remember them: let us remember those who gave their lives in order that we might be free. But let us always remember that biggest, that most meaningful, sacrifice. Greater love hath no man – Jesus had that love, and it was for us.

Sermon for Holy Communion on the 15th Sunday after Trinity at All Saints’, Ockham, 28th Sept 2014
Ex. 17:1-7, Phil. 2:1-13, Matt. 21:23-32

‘Have you got a licence for that thing?’ I remember, when I was a graduate trainee, having a conversation with another trainee, visiting our office from Germany for a few months, who pointed out that, whereas In England everything is permitted, everything is authorised, unless it is forbidden, in Germany it is safer to assume that things are not allowed unless they are specifically permitted. Incidentally it used to be that way round in the golden age of the railways here too; coaches were designated ‘smoking’ rather than ‘non-smoking’.

I think that Jewish practice in the Temple around 33AD was closer to the German model which my friend described than to what we’re used to. ‘Have you got authority to preach in the way you’re doing? – to carry out miraculous healing, and so on?’ I suppose you might get a similar sort of reaction if a speaker prophesying the end of the world on Speakers’ Corner suddenly popped up in St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘Is he properly authorised?’ people would ask.

Authorised. I’m not sure that the concept of authority hasn’t sometimes brought its own problems. The whole question, to whose authority one defers, can be fraught with difficulty. In the time of the Reformation, Catholics were outlawed because it was feared that they owed allegiance to the Pope rather than to the King or Queen.

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England are built on the concept of authority, on the apostolic succession, so-called, from Jesus’ Great Commission in Chapter 28 of St Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus said to the disciples,

Full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Go forth therefore and make all nations my disciples…

So every ordained person is ordained by a bishop, who in turn is in a line of ordination which, the church says, it can trace back to the disciples, or specifically to St Peter.

People who were against women’s ordination tried to say that the apostolic succession was just from male disciples (although there were female disciples like Dorcas or Lydia very early in the church). The idea of ‘authority’ wasn’t at all helpful.

Authority isn’t all bad, however. There was a very happy event in the Church of England at Evensong in Guildford Cathedral on Friday, when our new Bishop of Guildford, who will actually be installed and will start work officially in February, was introduced to us. He is Bishop Andrew Watson, who is currently the Bishop of Aston – you know, as in Villa – in Birmingham – the suffragan bishop, as it’s called, the number 2 bishop in that diocese.

So very soon we will have a Bishop of Guildford again, and the service, when he is inducted, will use the idea of apostolic succession to confer authority on him, that he is in the tradition of ordination starting with Jesus’ first disciples.

In our lesson from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, St Paul gives advice to that very early church in Philippi on how they should conduct themselves as Christians.

They should be modest and look out for each other, selfless in their desire to put others’ interests first. Because, St Paul said, Jesus was ultimately modest in the same way: he ’emptied himself, in the form of a slave’, even though he was ‘in the form of God’, so that, even though demonstrating utter human weakness, Jesus gained the highest status in the Kingdom of God.

Something which, in the Old Testament, in the book of Isaiah, was supposed to be an attribute of God, that

… at the name of God, every knee should bend (Isaiah 45),

has now been refocused by Paul to be about Jesus: that in heaven at least, Jesus would have authority, would command respect. That is the authority which is said to come down to a new bishop, and indeed in his first words to us, as he anticipated receiving his new authority, Bishop Andrew did seem to show real modesty. We will pray for a continuing welcome for him and his family.

If there was at least one happy authority-event this week, in Bishop Andrew being announced as bishop-designate for Guildford, there was unfortunately also an unhappy one. This is our Parliament’s vote to wage war yet again in Iraq, against the background of the continuing crisis involving Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and perhaps wider in the Arab world.

Yet again we are seeing pictures from aircraft, or from cameras in the noses of UAVs, so-called drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, which show a building in black and white, perhaps with a few small stick men outside it, and perhaps with the odd vehicle coming in and out: then the target designator places a cross on the building in the picture, and seconds later, you see cataclysmic explosions, after which the building is obliterated. And, of course, so are the people.

We have heard here, and also in the context of the conflict in Palestine, in Gaza, that what is called ‘collateral damage’ occurs, that when bombing and shelling takes place, you can’t guarantee to hit only combatants, only soldiers. You may risk hitting innocent civilians as well. The Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions are clear that you are not supposed to shoot if there is a risk that you will hit non-combatants – even when they are human shields. Sadly, this is a provision of the Geneva Conventions which has been observed in the breach recently.

There is a huge contrast between this military might – ‘shock and awe’ – and the way that Jesus went around, emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, not deploying overwhelming force. I’m worried that, by going to war, we are deploying overwhelming force, but we are not persuading anybody, we are not changing hearts and minds.

But I know that there are other arguments along the lines that it is necessary to go to war because there is no other way of preventing genocide, which the IS, the so-called Islamic State, is threatening against anyone who does not subscribe to their version of Islam.

But who has authority in this? The pilot of a Tornado will say that he is acting under orders. His orders come from the military hierarchy, who are in turn ordered by Parliament. Where does Parliament’s authority come from?

‘From the will of the people’, you might say. But as the Scots proved, there is democracy and democracy. They had an 80+ % turnout. I’m not sure what the equivalent at the last General Election was, but it was far less. Instead would anyone seriously say now that he had authority from God to take a particular line? There are no easy answers, but it does seem to me that the same question could be asked today as the Jews asked Jesus all those years ago:

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, 2nd March 2014
2 Kings 2:1-12; Matt. 17:9-23 – Elijah and Jesus

I’m not quite sure whether you still find some of the stuff in the Bible surprising or not: just in case it did just flow over you, I will just highlight a couple of surprising things which we have heard in this evening’s lessons.

In the second Book of Kings, we heard about the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven – but first of all, parting the waters of the River Jordan, so that he and his successor Elisha could pass through to the other side: ‘They went over on dry ground’ (2 Kings 2:8). And then ‘a chariot of fire appeared, and horses of fire, and took Elijah up in a whirlwind to heaven’ (2:11).

Then if we turn to St Matthew’s gospel, we have picked up the story, as Jesus, Peter, James and John the brother of James were coming down the high mountain on which they had seen Jesus ‘transfigured’ with Moses and Elijah. A bright cloud had suddenly overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him’ (Matt. 17:5).

And then as they came down the mountain, Jesus cured a man’s son who had epilepsy, by ‘casting out a devil’ which had made the boy have fits. Jesus challenged his disciples by saying that they did not have enough faith: ‘If you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there: and it will move. Nothing will prove impossible for you.’

What do you think? Is there any way these days that we could understand Elijah suddenly appearing with Moses and Jesus, in some way ‘transfigured’? I’m not sure what ‘transfigured’ really means. There is that wonderful piece of music by Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Verklärte Nacht’, Transfigured Night, a night of strange light, a supernatural aspect. What do we feel? Are we in the camp which feels, along with C. S. Lewis, that anything is possible for God, and therefore there is no reason why God could not make miracles like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven?

Elijah being taken up into heaven, of course, is somewhat like the Ascension of our Lord Himself. So are we comfortable saying, ‘Because of the omnipotence of God, there is no reason why, given that Jesus was God, he shouldn’t be able to have transfigurations and ascensions: and no reason that Elijah, as the prophet of God – as the other great prophet with Moses – couldn’t be taken up into heaven in the way described?’

On the other hand, we could be sensitive to the charge of humanists and rationalists, who object that everything that we believe in ought to be subject to the same rules of logic and science, and that you could not make sense of stories such as Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind or the Transfiguration in the normal way: just contrast the way in which you would describe the arrival of a number 38 bus with the way in which these stories about Elijah and Jesus are told. Quite different.

We can generally agree that if I tell you about seeing a number 38 bus, you will know what I am talking about, even though perhaps what you and I actually see when we look at a number 38 bus might in fact be different. We can’t get into each other’s heads to prove what it is exactly that we are looking at: whether it is the same thing. Nevertheless it’s sufficiently similar for us to be able to communicate about it successfully. What it is for something to be a number 38 bus is sufficiently similar in my understanding to what it is in yours for us to be able to talk about it.

But on the other hand, if we talk about something like Elijah going up to heaven in a whirlwind, or Jesus being transfigured with Moses and Elijah, we can’t necessarily be confident that we will be understood by everyone in the same way.

Jesus adds a twist, by asking whether or not the disciples have enough faith; if they do have enough faith, even the tiniest quantity, it will be sufficient to move mountains.

But – are you going to beat yourself up over the fact that you aren’t able to go out there and transpose K2 for Everest using pure will-power and faith? Nobody else has done it. So what did Jesus mean? Clearly we are in a different area, different from simple mundane questions like whether the 38 bus has arrived or not.

Of course some of the Oxford philosophers of the 50s and 60s, like the late, great, A. J. Ayer, would have said that, unless a statement is verifiable, in the same way that something about the number 38 bus would be verifiable, then it is meaningless. So everything about Moses and Elijah, transfiguration, being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind and so on, is, according to Prof. Ayer and others, meaningless.

So on the one hand you have C.S. Lewis accepting miracles and saying, ‘This is just the sort of thing that an omnipotent god would do’, and on the other, you’ve got a sort of common sense view, either that they’re not true, or that there’s no way in which we could make sense of these stories in any literal way.

Does it matter? We are just about to start Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday, and in fact our Lent courses are going to start on Monday morning, so that we can get six sessions in before Holy Week. We’re going to be studying St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, under the heading, ‘Be Reconciled’.

St Paul wrote, ‘He has made known to us His hidden purpose – such was His will and pleasure, determined beforehand in Christ – to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely that the universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.’ We will be studying all the various aspects of this ‘unity in Christ’, this reconciliation, over the next six weeks.

But for the purpose of this sermon, I simply want to draw attention to the process, to the way that our faith can work. There must be a very strong suspicion that unless something very remarkable did in fact happen, it’s tempting to feel that no-one would have said that Elijah was a prophet, someone through whom God spoke.

Without the miracles, the revelations, perhaps no-one would have said that Jesus was not only a prophet – as the Moslems and Jews acknowledge – but was in fact God on earth, the Son of God. But it’s not so much a question how God manifested Himself through Elijah, or became incarnate in Jesus Christ, not a question of how, but that He did. The exact mechanism is beyond our powers of understanding.

One can say that these big miracles, like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, are indeed beyond our power fully to describe or explain. But that doesn’t mean to say that they did not happen in some sense. Because if they did happen, we can recognise through them that God cares for us, that God is involved with us.

And in the light of that wonderful fact, we ought to be reconciled, to be reconciled with God and with each other. Sin is being separated from God: salvation is being brought back together, reconciled.

So much for this rather philosophical excursion. You might be rather scornful that I could stay in this rather rarified vein in the face of all the momentous events which have been happening this week. As Christians preparing to rehearse, to act out, the drama of Jesus’ Passion, prepared to accept the reality of God on earth, how do we look at the conflicts in the world, in Syria or in the Ukraine?

Nearer to home, what do we think about the two criminals who murdered the soldier, Lee Rigby? ‘ROT IN JAIL,’ in bold capitals, read the headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror. What is the Christian perspective? How would we see it if we ourselves had just come down from the mountain with Jesus?

Who are the good people and the bad people in these stories? What happens when the dust has settled? When the Syrians have finally stopped killing each other, and the Ukrainians have decided whether they want to go with the Russians or with the Europeans, where are we going to stand as Christians?

Are the killers of Lee Rigby really condemned to rot? Is there no redemption for them? Clearly now the killers don’t appreciate that what they did was wrong. They have a crooked justification for it. But let’s suppose after years in gaol, they appreciate the wrongness of what they have done, and they repent. What shall we say then? Jesus’ message was a message of forgiveness, not ‘rot in jail’. How would it feel to us if we had just come down from that high mountain?

The same with the civil war in Syria and the terrible divisions in the Ukraine. Will people be reconciled? In these situations the church can speak. The church can remind the world of Jesus’ message of forgiveness and reconciliation: we Christians should be fired up by the thought of that mountain-top experience.

We can be prophets; we can let the Holy Spirit speak through us. Let us pray that, at the end of the conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine – and in all other places where there is a breakdown of law and order, where there is civil war or civil unrest – that there will be a resolution, not based on victors’ justice, but rather on true reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation, in Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s words: truth and reconciliation. Come down from the mountain. Be reconciled.