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Sermon for Evensong on the ninth Sunday after Trinity, 18th August 2019

Isaiah 28:9-22, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433037279 – Not Just a Crown Jewel

Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. (Isaiah 28:9)

Sometimes I expect you are slightly puzzled by our Bible readings at Evensong. Even the language of Shakespeare might need a little bit of explanation. This is how the New English Bible renders it.

Who is it that the prophet hopes to teach,

to whom will what they hear make sense?

Are they babes newly weaned, just taken from the breast?

It could be a taunt thrown back by the drunken prophets of Judah at Isaiah. J.B. Phillips has translated it as, ‘Are we just weaned … Do we have to learn that The-law-is-the-law-is-the-law, The rule-is-the-rule-is-the-rule…?’. [Quoted by Derek Kidner in The New Bible Commentary, 4th edition 1994, reprinted 2007, Nottingham, Inter-Varsity Press, p 650.]

The background to this prophecy in Isaiah is the situation in Jerusalem between 740 and 700 BCE the two kingdoms of the Israelites, the North, Samaria, and the South, Judah, were being threatened by Assyria – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, if you remember Byron’s poem. In 734 the kings of Damascus and Samaria tried to force Jerusalem to join a coalition against Assyria. This ‘Syro-Ephraimite’ war is the background to the main prophecies of Isaiah. So our passage is prophecy addressed to the rulers in Jerusalem.

14 Listen then to the word of the LORD, you arrogant men

who rule this people in Jerusalem.

15 You say, ‘We have made a treaty with Death

and signed a pact with Sheol:

so that, when the raging flood sweeps by, it shall not touch us;

for we have taken refuge in lies

and sheltered behind falsehood.’

16 These then are the words of the Lord GOD:

Look, I am laying a stone in Zion, a block of granite,

a precious corner-stone for a firm foundation;

he who has faith shall not waver.

17 I will use justice as a plumb-line

and righteousness as a plummet;

hail shall sweep away your refuge of lies,

and flood-waters carry away your shelter.’ (Isaiah 28:14-17, NEB)

Godfrey, in some of his sermons recently, has been introducing a ‘that was then: this is now’ angle on what he is preaching about. It’s perhaps a bit tempting, to compare Isaiah’s criticism of the rulers of Judah, whom he criticised as being ‘liars’, and indeed earlier on as ‘complete drunkards’, tempting to compare them with some contemporary politicians today.

What is our prophetic duty at this time? What would Jesus say? What would Isaiah say if he were around today? One thing seems pretty clear, that God wants nothing to do with lies and deception. It’s perhaps sobering to realise that, in 721, the Assyrians did conquer Samaria, the Northern Kingdom, shortly after Isaiah had prophesied; and just over a century later, the Southern Kingdom also fell and the people were largely deported to Babylon. So these ‘scoffers’, whom Isaiah railed against, didn’t end well.

As has been said very well by Godfrey, this is a time of great anxiety, for just about all of us. Nobody knows what is going to happen with our way of life, with our country, and with our relationships with the rest of the world. We don’t like the signs of xenophobia, racism and extreme nationalism that the populist politicians in this country and abroad seem to have encouraged.

These are not just questions of taste. People are getting hurt; refugees are being abandoned on the high seas by populist politicians who seem to have completely forgotten the milk of human kindness, let alone the law of the sea. On the Mexican border with the USA, our closest allies are separating young children from their parents and putting them in cages without any sanitation.

Where should our church fit in, how should we deal with all this? Our second lesson tonight, from 2 Corinthians, is, in effect, about planned giving to the church. I’m sure everybody will be groaning away at that: but even 2,000 years ago, when St Paul was writing to the congregation in Corinth, he was telling them all about the generosity of other new Christian churches in Macedonia. There’s a wonderful piece of Greek which is really untranslatable in the second verse of our lesson, saying that the Macedonians have excelled in generosity although they are poor – the words mean ‘rich from poverty’ – εἰς τὸ πλοῦτος τῆς ἀπλότητος αὐτῶν· It’s the same idea as in Jesus’ story of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4).

Not that they gave nothing; but that they gave much more than, as poor people, they might be expected to give. Stephen Chater is speaking to as many of us as possible, encouraging everybody to ‘Count ourselves in’. Count me in, so far as supporting our church’s financial position is concerned.

But I suspect that we ought to consider something a bit wider as well. And if we do consider something wider, it will surely lead us on to the sort of sacrificial giving which St Paul praises here.

On September 8th we will open the church at the beginning of the ‘Crown Jewels of Cobham’ scheme organised by Cobham Heritage. We will encourage people to come and look at our beautiful church, along with the other places locally which have been called ‘crown jewels’, (about which you’ll find a nice booklet on your way out if you haven’t already got one).

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m sure it’ll be very enjoyable and everybody will have a wonderful time working out whether our brass knights in front of the altar are the real thing or some very clever reproduction. If you haven’t made up your own mind which it is, and you’d like to come and look close up, do come after the service and have a look in the sanctuary. The Sir Johns, D’Abernon, Senior and Junior, are ready to welcome you!

But the thing is that, as a parish church, we surely have a place in the community. We aren’t just a monument to be admired. We have indeed affirmed that in our PCC and at our parish ‘awayday’ a little while ago now.

What we come to church to do is not just to love God, but it is also to love our neighbour as ourself. And at present we haven’t got any settled outward-social-concern or giving projects. They might not just be questions of money – although it usually does involve some money – but there is also the question of a ‘warm embrace’ for our neighbours, as that wonderful local Christian figure Derek Williams, who has sadly just died, used to put it.

At St Mary’s we do a lot of good already in supporting the Foodbank, for example, not only with money but also by providing three of the five trustees who manage it.

There are other important local charities that do a lot of good in this area, that we might want to involve ourselves more closely with as well.

Oasis – sometimes called Oasis Children’s Charity – exists to put families back together and restore the self-confidence of family members who have suffered from break-ups, in particular involving domestic violence. That’s a terrible scourge, which unfortunately is very prevalent in Surrey. Surrey has, if not the highest level of domestic violence in the country, something very close to it, according to those who work in this field. The local authority delegates some important social work functions to Oasis – but at the same time they have cut their funding. Could we help?

We have now, in and around Cobham, Oxshott, Stoke D’Abernon and the immediate vicinity (meaning the areas that the Foodbank covers), I think there are nine of them, Syrian refugee families, who are being helped in various highly practical ways by the local refugee welcome charity called Elmbridge CAN. Maybe we could get involved there.

I was excited to hear that one of our ‘Mums’ has discovered that some local children, some no more than 11 years old, are being left at home on their own in the holidays because Mum and Dad are both out at work. What about a ‘holiday club’ in St Mary’s Hall, with some interesting things to do with friends around – maybe the odd outing, to Bockett’s Farm perhaps – and all with some responsible adults to supervise? If you’re interested, talk to Kelly McConville or Emma Tomalin. The objective is to have the holiday club ready for the Christmas holiday.

And last on my list of local charitable initiatives, there is the Safe Places scheme, which I mentioned last week. The idea is that there will be a network of places to which somebody feeling vulnerable or in a crisis, who wants to find a quiet, safe place for an hour or so, can go to, directed by an app on their phone and social media publicity. It’s an initiative started by Elmbridge Borough Council in response to a national movement; and the churches have been invited to be at the heart of it. After all, churches have been places of refuge since the beginnings of Christianity.

So far, I’m sad to say, people have reacted rather negatively to the idea of St Mary’s becoming a place of refuge, to the effect that ‘We don’t have many people passing by this church, just to drop in: so really, it isn’t worth the effort’.

The point about not being on the beaten track seems to me to be a misapprehension. The whole point is that we should make our church a beacon, a beacon of hope, to which people are attracted. We can use modern technology and social media to help with this. I hope we can think more about becoming a Safe Space.

And then there are all the things abroad that we could consider getting involved in.

In view of the refugee crisis, perhaps we should look at the work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, or one of the great Christian overseas charities, Christian Aid (not just for Christian Aid Week, but year-round), or World Vision or Oxfam or Save the Children, for example.

I would like to get us talking about this. These things won’t happen overnight, but, as a growing church, we should have some of them on our agenda. The wonderful thing is that, if we look outside ourselves, we will grow, and God will give us the strength. It’s like that wonderful film ‘Field of Dreams’ and the man who dreamed about bringing the legendary Babe Ruth to life again – ‘If you build it, he will come’. And in a more mundane way, in the church, many people come to faith by ‘doing stuff’ – belonging and then believing.

Remember what Isaiah said:

‘Now therefore be ye not mockers, lest your bands be made strong’

‘Lest your bands be made strong’ – lest all those things you’re worried about overwhelm you.

Instead we must love God – and not forget to love our neighbour – if our church is indeed to become a ‘cornerstone in Zion’, a precious corner-stone, a sure foundation, at this worrying time of uncertainty. I pray that with God’s grace, it will happen. And do let’s talk about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Evensong on the fourth Sunday before Lent, 5th February 2017, at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon
Amos 2: 4 -16, Ephesians 4:17–32

Beloved. That’s how Bishop Richard Chartres, who is just retiring as Bishop of London after 21 years, starts his sermons. I have just been to a marvellous Eucharist for Candlemas this Thursday evening at St Paul’s Cathedral, when the cathedral was completely full, with several thousand people inside and a ‘pop-up cathedral’ with many more, outside in Paternoster Square.

At this service of Holy Communion, Bishop Richard celebrated and preached his last sermon as Bishop. Anyone who tells you that the Church of England is declining and falling apart should just have been at that wonderful service, which was full of spirituality, vitality, beautiful music and inspiration. Signs of decline? Not there! Not at St Paul’s this Candlemas!

It was a wonderful antidote to the constant chorus of gloomy news about President Trump and Brexit. Bishop Richard cuts a most imposing figure and when, in his beautiful red robes, with his mitre and crozier, he brought up the rear of the long procession of clergy and dignitaries, other bishops and representatives of all the other churches, I did think that there, there indeed was a real bishop, a bishop-and-a-half, you might say.

Before I went to Bishop Richard’s Candlemas Eucharist, I was a bit afraid that tonight I was going to have to do rather a gloomy sermon about the tough message that the prophet Amos was giving to Israel about 730 BC about all the things that they had done wrong:

‘… they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes; that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor,’ – the last bit of which is rather opaque, but which I think means that they grind the faces of the poor into the dust – ‘and turn aside the way of the meek’. It sounds a bit like our consumer society today, where people know the price of everything but the value of nothing, and some of the newspapers are always very scathing about poor people. Fortunately, however scornful they are, they don’t stop hungry people from coming to our food bank.

But actually I got diverted by what Bishop Richard preached about the Nunc Dimittis – ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’; it was a very appropriate text, as this was Bishop Richard’s last sermon as Bishop: he is departing in peace. ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Bishop Richard preferred those traditional words to the more modern translation, ‘Now you are letting your servant depart’, which, he said, he thought sounded like a ‘divine sacking’ (http://bishopoflondon.org/sermons/master-now-you-are-dismissing-your-servant/), whereas, he said, he was still looking forward, looking forward to great things in future, ‘To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’.

Bishop Richard has been a very successful Bishop of London. Numbers of people belonging to the various churches in the diocese have increased considerably – by nearly 50%, and he has succeeded in keeping together in the diocese a wide variety of different styles and types of churches, all belonging to the Church of England, from Anglo-Catholics to charismatic evangelicals. In effect he has managed to accommodate a diocese-within-a-diocese, in the form of the Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha ministries, with their extensive church planting activities. He told us that one of his last tasks would be to license a Chinese minister to lead a new congregation of Chinese people at St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City. He has the knack of being at home in all sorts of contexts, but he never stops being the Bishop.

In the Christian tradition, before the bishops came the apostles, among them the apostle for the Gentiles, the apostle for us, St Paul. St Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote his Letter to the Ephesians, that cosmopolitan city where he had met with opposition from Demetrius the silversmith who made statues of the Greek god Artemis, Diana: ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians’, they had shouted.

Paul didn’t want the Ephesians to descend to the depths of depravity which the prophets had decried in the Israelites of old. He used this famous figure of speech, about how Christians should ‘put on the new man’, as though being a Christian was like putting a best suit on. If you wore that white suit, you should:
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. [Eph. 4:31f]

In the Letter to the Ephesians there’s also a sort of version of the Ten Commandments, where Paul takes the place of the prophet. What is the message of all this for us? Does it still work to put on the Christian suit?

I started out, in this sermon, with a sly nod towards all the news and controversy, which the election of Mr Trump in the USA, and the Brexit stuff here, has been creating. What should a Christian think and say about these issues in our life today?

When the President of the USA comes out with ‘executive orders’, seemingly without any checks and balances, one of which arbitrarily bans entry to Moslems from some, but not all, Moslem countries: or when our government seems to have adopted a view of life outside the EU which places more weight on cutting immigration than preserving our access to the single market; as a country, we are terribly divided and confused. What would Jesus have done?

I think that he might well have agreed with St Paul – and Bishop Richard – that we must go forward, putting on the ‘new man’. For St Paul’s idea is that God, in Christ, has created a completely new social order.

In Galatians [3:27-28] he wrote,

‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.’
There it is again – the Christian suit. Put it on.
‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’

 

You are all one.

 

‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. There have been a lot of departures, recently. Not only Bishop Richard, but also our own Rector, Robert Jenkins, going, and soon Folli Olokose will have to go off to another parish – we hope, as their vicar. And the vacancies for Bishop of Dorking and Vicar of Oxshott have only just been filled.

Soon a team will have to set to in order to draft a ‘Parish Profile’ for St Andrew’s. It should really have a section in it about St Mary’s – and it probably will have one, because we are a ‘united benefice’ – but really the job is at St Andrew’s. What will our fellow church in the benefice be like, with its new vicar? What will we at St Mary’s be like, alongside them?

This is where the people in each church need to have a look at what St Paul is saying in his Letter to the Ephesians: because this letter, more than any other part of the Bible, deals with the building up of a church. Fundamental to that is the abolition of boundaries and divisions. There is room for everyone.

Bishop Richard ended his sermon by adapting the Te Deum, from Mattins. He said, ‘May God bless each and every one of you; the glorious company of my fellow priests; the goodly fellowship of Churchwardens, Readers, Lay Workers, Youth Ministers, Faithful Worshippers, and the noble army of Pioneers in Paternoster Square’.

I think that is a wonderful image. There’s room in the church for a glorious company, for a goodly fellowship, indeed for a noble army; room for all those different people; and they will all do their jobs differently: and so each church is a bit different too, as we all feel that different things are important in bringing the best of ourselves in worship to God. But at bottom, we are all one.

And Trump? So, yes, also in the world outside the church, and by the same token: Trump’s immigration ban is wrong, and Brexit, if it is anti-immigrant, is wrong. ‘For [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.’ All one. Beloved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for Holy Communion for Thanksgiving at St John’s, West Hartford, 28th November 2013
Deut. 8:1-3, 6-10 (17-20), James 1:17-18, 21-27, Matthew 6:25-33

Carved on the inside of the pulpit at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge – I should say, ‘Cambridge, England’ – carved by the great preacher Charles Simeon, were the words, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ (John 12:21). In other words, the preacher’s job is not to leave you with an impression of the preacher, but to try to leave you with an impression of Jesus.

That having been said, I think I ought to tell you a little about myself, so that you can decide whether indeed I am qualified to be addressing you today. The bad news is, of course, that if you come to an unfavourable conclusion, I am standing here, six feet above contradiction …

In your notices for today, your Rector, Hope, kindly introduces me as a ‘maritime lawyer in England, a lay Reader from St Andrew’s in Cobham, Surrey’, who went to the same college as your Assistant Rector, and ‘who has charge over the chaplains at Guildford Cathedral.’ I have to admit that my legal practice ceased seven years ago now, so I’m a very bad guide to the ins and outs of the DEEPWATER HORIZON oil spill or the COSTA CONCORDIA tragedy; not only that, but it have also recently stopped organising chaplains at the Cathedral.

The reason for that is that I am now heading a team which is setting up, and will on 13th December launch, a food bank in Cobham, Surrey – from where I bring you greetings from the congregations at St Andrew’s in Cobham and St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon, which are the two parishes where I minister as a Reader. I’ll come back to the food bank in a minute.

The elephant in the room is that I am an Englishman, which probably disqualifies me from preaching to you Americans on one of your two greatest holidays, which are quintessentially American. We do eat turkey, but only at Christmas. Self-destructive urges are referred to as ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’. Christmas. Do your turkeys vote for Thanksgiving? Maybe they do. There is a Presidential pardon, I hear, so there must be votes in it somewhere.

So having said all that, which I suppose amounts to a rather laboured disclaimer, let’s turn our minds to the Word of God for today.

We are here to give thanks to God for His bountiful gifts. Although Moses in Deuteronomy speaks to the Israelites looking forward to the Promised Land, we’re already there: we have reached the Promised Land. You certainly have. Part of your history certainly involved a great journey from England to reach your Promised Land, and now here you are enjoying it. It is indeed a good land, where you will ‘eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing’, so obviously you shall ‘… bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.’

But here’s the bit which I want to talk about this morning. Moses said, ‘Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth”, but remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth.’ In the Letter of James, ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above; coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.’ We have just sung the wonderful hymn based on that passage, ‘Great is thy faithfulness, … there is no shadow of turning with Thee’.

In St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. …. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.’

The question is whether it is us who are the authors of our own success or failure. Moses in Deuteronomy says very clearly that it was not because of the Israelites’ excellence or hard work, or whatever it was, that they had been saved from Egypt; it was because God had blessed them.

When I was in Hartford last, Hope and Bill asked me whether I had seen a film about Margaret Thatcher, called ‘The Iron Lady’. They said it was a very good film, and that Meryl Streep had done a wonderful acting job.

Now one of the things that I’ve noticed in my travels is that our friends in different countries very rarely see each other’s leaders in the same light as they are seen domestically.

Actually, perhaps we would all agree about President Kennedy. And yes, I can remember where I was when the news came through. Even at the tender age of 12, I remember the feeling of shock and disappointment which those events in Houston 50 years ago caused. I think that we probably would all agree that he was a great man, cut down in his prime, and that he had not been in office long enough to realise all the things he promised.

But when Hope and Bill told me what a wonderful film ‘The Iron Lady’ was, I had a different reaction. They, like all my friends outside the UK, thought Lady Thatcher was someone who should surely be celebrated, and that the film had done a good job of celebrating her. But I surprised them: I said I had no intention of seeing the film, however excellent it might be. Far from celebrating Lady Thatcher, I really thought she did a great deal of harm.

That is perhaps rather a harsh thing to say from a pulpit, but I stand by it. I can expatiate for a long time on the reasons. In essence, Margaret Thatcher believed that everyone had the seeds of their own success or failure within them: it was up to you whether you prospered or starved. She did not care for people who were not able to be active in the market, perhaps because they were old, or ill, or disabled, or not intelligent enough, or just poor. She even said to a journalist once, ‘There is no such thing as society’. She ruthlessly suppressed the powers of the labour unions, greatly reducing the protection available for ordinary employees. Thousands were put out of work. Industry was decimated.

One of her ministers suggested that, if one was out of work, one should ‘get on one’s bicycle’ and go where there was work. This was highly offensive, because the people who were out of work – at least metaphorically speaking – had no bicycles, and there was no work for them, anywhere.

According to Mrs Thatcher, it was up to you if you succeeded. According to Moses, and indeed according to Jesus, it isn’t. As we heard from Deuteronomy, Moses said, ‘Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth”, but remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth.’ Jesus said, ‘Look at the birds of the air’.

And that brings me to the food bank. When I was preparing to come here, Hope sent me an advance copy of your notices for today, which I’ve referred to already. In it, I see that last Sunday you an interfaith Thanksgiving service, joining with the Congregation Beth Israel from down the road. The offering suggested was an offering of non-perishable food for the West Hartford Food Pantry.

It might surprise you to know that, in the UK today, there are over 400 food banks. In the Borough of Elmbridge, where my home, Cobham, is, (which is said to be the second most prosperous borough in the country after Kensington and Chelsea), our food bank in Cobham will be the third food bank in that rich borough.

In England we used to have a ‘welfare state’. We had a safety net, and we prided ourselves on it. Nobody would starve if they were out of work, or disabled, or old, or suffering from anything else which prevented you from being able to have enough money, from your own efforts, to buy food. The state would provide a safety net. You would never starve. ‘Consider the lilies of the field’. It made sense.

That has gone. The present British government has so reduced the scope and effectiveness of our welfare state that there are large numbers of people who need to go to food banks for emergency non-perishable food: in other words, they are starving. There are people starving in Britain. I hope you find that as shocking as I do.

So we are following your good example, and setting up food banks. It is a very Biblical thing to do. In his letter, James says, ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this; to care for orphans and widows in their distress’. Earlier on in the same passage, ‘Be doers of the Word, and not merely hearers.’

So after all, I think that, where I come from, we’re not that different from you. Christian people are trying to be ‘Doers of the Word’, we are trying to look after the orphans and the widows in their distress. And I pray that God will bless us – and you – in this work. At this wonderful time of Thanksgiving, with God’s help, let us all continue to ‘do the Word.’