Archives for posts with tag: Victor Stock

Sermon for Evensong on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, 15th October 2017

Proverbs 3:1-18; 1 John 3:1-15 – for the readings please see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375096631
Psalm 139 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=375096854

What do you feel about being on camera all the time? You know, anywhere on the M25; and actually, when you get out of your car, more or less all the places that you walk these days, in built-up areas, seem to be under surveillance by cameras of one kind or another as well.

Do you have an iPhone? Because, if you do, you can almost stalk your favourite people, with the ‘Find Friends’ app. I have both my daughters in my phone’s Find Friends application, so I can see at a glance where they are and not disturb them if they are working in the hospital. I also have my lodger, a young man who works at rather odd hours, so quite often he’s out when I am in, and he’s awake when I’m asleep: using the app I can keep tabs on whether he’s in or out and about. He is very welcome in my house, especially as he’s very good at feeding my cats, so I don’t want to lock him out by mistake.

But although all this stuff is very common, I expect that most of us would say that we were not too thrilled about the fact that all our comings and goings are under surveillance somewhere. Big Brother is, indeed, watching us, and we don’t much like it. We like to think that we have privacy; that it’s not the case that everybody knows what we’re doing. ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’, we say.

Now part of the attraction of being a private person must surely be that it saves you from being caught out in some misdemeanour and getting into trouble. So long as people don’t know what you’re doing, within reason you are free to do more or less anything, and there’ll be no consequences.

You can do that, when you’re a grown-up: obviously when you were a child, you didn’t have that freedom. Your parents and your teachers kept an eye on you and made very sure that you didn’t stray from the path of righteousness. When you grow up, you find that things change. You have to take responsibility for your life and it’s your choice whether you do good things or bad things, or whether in fact you just keep quiet, keep very private and try not to bother anybody. You pursue a style of life which may not be particularly good or particularly bad.

And then along comes Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me:’ ‘Thou … spiest out all my ways.’ ‘Spiest’. God is the ultimate surveillance camera. There is no hiding-place from God.

I first came across Psalm 139 properly when I went to the Cathedral to make a confession to the last Dean, Victor Stock. He used to hear confessions and I had never done it before. Indeed I had been brought up to have a vague suspicion of confession as being a dastardly Roman Catholic device.

Then I realised that the Catholics were not dastardly, and that indeed you can say confessions in the Church of England as well. So I went along and Dean Victor got me to kneel down next to him and say the words on a card to introduce my confession. He said, ‘Take your time, and think about what you want to confess to the Lord’; and I did, and the Dean blessed me, pronounced absolution and gave me a task to do, a sort of penance. You know, in the Catholic Church, and in all the literature and on the TV in things like Father Ted, the penance is often to say so many Hail Mary’s.

Dean Victor gave me a different sort of penance. He said that I should go away and read Psalm 139. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out and known me.’ Of course I went and read the psalm and thought about it carefully. Over the years since, I have gone back and thought about Psalm 139, asking myself, why did Dean Victor recommend that I should read that particular psalm after I had made my confession to him?

Now tonight we have only sung the first nine verses of Psalm 139, but there are in fact 24 verses – it’s not a very long psalm – and it is well worth getting your Prayer Book out at home (or borrowing one from here if you haven’t got one at home) and reading it again, this time the whole way through. Why do you think that the Dean prescribed Psalm 139 for me to read? It got me thinking about the whole philosophy of crime and punishment. The criminal justice system only works if criminals get caught. There is no deterrent preventing them from committing crimes unless they believe that there is a chance that they will be found out.

‘Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit: or whither shall I go then from thy presence?
If I climb up into heaven, thou art there: if I go down to hell, thou art there also.
If I take the wings of the morning: and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there also shall thy hand lead me …’

This psalm is all about God knowing all about everything we do, good and bad. So maybe that knowledge, that awareness on my part, if I am going to do something naughty – that awareness that God knows about it, will serve as a great deterrent. Our lessons today go in the same direction. In Proverbs the passage might look at first almost like a ‘prosperity gospel’:

‘Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the first fruits of all thine increase’:


That could mean, make sure that you keep up with your planned giving:

‘So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine.’

Speculate, charitably, in order to accumulate.

There’s also this sense of keeping us in order, by chastisement if necessary.

‘For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth’.

The Lord is like a good parent, not letting the children get away with anything.

‘[E]ven as a father the son in whom he

This leads not just to riches, but to the riches of wisdom and understanding, which is worth more than silver and gold and precious stones.

When this idea is translated into the world of the New Testament, as in John’s first letter, (which we had as our second lesson today), God has shown his love to us, and called us the sons of God, in that we are like his son Jesus. It’s quite tricky to understand. St John says, ‘Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.’

We have no image of God that is particularly plausible, except our knowledge of Jesus Christ, and he was a man just like us. And again the lesson from this is that, if we are to be like Jesus and therefore to be sons of God, we must behave ourselves.

‘And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.’

There was no sin in Jesus, and if we hope to be like him we must try to avoid sin ourselves. If we are to be children of God, we must uphold God’s law as best we can. Of course, most importantly, that means that we must love one another.

‘For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.’

But it can go further than that.

To show you what I mean, I’ll finish by telling you a little story about when I was training to become a Reader. My training coincided with my elder daughter Emma starting to read Medicine at Bristol University. One day I went to visit her to see that she was safely installed in her hall of residence and that she was getting to grips with university life. Indeed she was doing fine.

The following Sunday I was having coffee after the morning service at St Andrew’s in Cobham, with some other members of the congregation, and the conversation turned to my recent visit to Bristol.

‘How was it?’

‘Very nice thank you. Mind you,’ I said, ‘I think that I may have had a very expensive journey.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, just as I was turning off the M4 on to the M32, to go into the centre of Bristol, I passed under a bridge – and I realised too late that the bridge was bristling with things that must have been speed cameras.’

‘But surely, you were only doing 70 mph? So no problem.’

‘Agh! Well, I managed to get it below 100 …’

Whereupon some of the party giggled; but one of them took me by the hand and earnestly counselled me. What she said was, ‘Now that you are going to be a minister in the church, you have to change your ways. No more breaking the law by speeding – and definitely no more crowing about it!’

Oh dear; but she was right. I did learn a lesson. Fortunately there was no nasty speeding ticket in the post, so the camera must have not had any film in it on that occasion. I have tried to slow down since. I suppose that’s one way that one can ‘purify oneself’. ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me.’ I hope that I’m all the better for it, for that friendly scrutiny.

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Sermon for Evening Prayer with the Prayer Book Society, Guildford Branch, on Saturday 26th November 2016 in the Founders’ Chapel, Charterhouse

Isaiah 24; Matthew 11:20-30 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=347292826 for the text

‘Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down.’ This is First Isaiah – first of the three writers who contributed to the Book of Isaiah – gloomy, doomy; Isaiah at his gloomiest.

And then ‘Woe unto thee, Chorazin!’ Jesus berates all those places where they have ignored his teaching and have failed to mend their ways.

It’s tough stuff. I don’t know whether it’s just because I’m a preacher but, when the lessons are read out in a service, I immediately start to imagine what points the preacher will draw out from the passages in the Bible which have been set for that day.

How does the Bible speak to that congregation, I wonder. What will their minister make of that lesson? And my thinking is coloured also by what has been going on in the world. Has anything happened in the world outside which will test our faith? Are there any situations about which we need God’s guidance and help, where we depend on His grace?

What would I expect today? The lessons are full of doom and gloom. The world has turned upside down. God punishes those who have broken his covenant. Jesus says it will be ‘more tolerable for the land of Sodom, than for [Capernaum]’. Indeed, Capernaum ‘shalt be brought down to hell’.

Is there a message for us today?

Is this something which could apply to the vote for Trump, or for the USA under Trump? Or is it reminiscent of Britain, divided in the face of the Brexit referendum? Is the race hatred that has arisen in both countries, the blaming of minorities and outsiders, the move away from openness and internationalism towards a narrower nationalistic approach, the sort of thing which the prophet, and which Jesus himself, was alluding to, all those years ago?

But just a minute, you might say. There’s a time and place for everything – and this is the Prayer Book Society service immediately before Advent. We are looking forward to the joy of Christmas. Let us just take refuge in the beauty of the holiness that is the Book of Common Prayer. Never mind all that Last Judgement stuff. Look, our New Testament lesson ends with those Comfortable Words, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

And also, we are a rather varied congregation. We come from all sorts of churches, with all sorts of theological emphases. Some of us come from churches where the BCP isn’t much used, and where there is a modern, evangelical approach, emphasising the Bible as the Word of God. And some members might even rely on some of the wording in the BCP to justify not having women priests, and not accepting gay marriage.

Others of us come from churches where the BCP is used regularly, but the theology is decidedly liberal. Less influenced by John Stott or David Bracewell than by David Jenkins or the John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ – or lately, of Victor Stock. We love the language of the BCP and treasure its theological riches – but we allow that it is of its time, and it has to be read, and used, in a nuanced, undogmatic way.

Phew! That’s all right then, you might think. Nothing controversial this afternoon. Roll on the splendid ‘match tea’ in the Saunders Room. No need to worry about the awful things going on in the world this afternoon, at least. This is our Prayer Book Society meeting, and we can just enjoy renewing our friendships and celebrating how lovely the Prayer Book is.

We’re on the brink of Advent, too. Let’s not spoil it with politics. After all, the other thing that’s happened this week has been that happy holiday, Thanksgiving, in the USA. I have had the splendid experience of preaching, in Hartford, Conn., on Thanksgiving Day. Then, again, I faced a dilemma whether to link the Bible lessons for that day with some of the things going on in the world for which one would be strongly inclined not to give thanks: poverty in the midst of plenty, homelessness, wars and refugees.

I don’t think that in church we should ever shy away from political and social engagement. I agree with both our current archbishops, that Christians ought to engage with the problems of secular society. ‘Faith in the City’, [https://www.churchofengland.org/media/55076/faithinthecity.pdf] the Church of England report into spiritual and economic decline in various inner city areas in 1985, criticised Thatcherism and was itself heavily criticised at the time – but it bears re-reading now. The nonconformist churches produced a comprehensive report three years ago called ‘The Lies we tell Ourselves: ending comfortable Myths about Poverty'[http://www.methodist.org.uk/news-and-events/news-archive-2013/lies-about-poverty-shattering-the-myths]: and the House of Bishops sent an open letter entitled ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ to the ‘people and parishes of the Church of England’ before the 2015 General Election [https://www.churchofengland.org/media/2170230/whoismyneighbour-pages.pdf].

But again, being engaged doesn’t necessarily mean following a particular political doctrine. There are Christians in all the major parties, even including UKIP, in this country. Even Revd Dr Giles Fraser supported Brexit. Donald Trump in the USA gained support from the ‘Bible Belt’ of conservative evangelical Christians there.

So as I deliver my sermon to you, I can expect that, when you listened to the scarifying words of Isaiah chapter 24, and Jesus’ condemnation of the places who had ignored his teaching, I can expect that you will have brought a variety of things into mind. Does the rise in hate crimes, xenophobia and racism both here in the U.K. and in the USA have anything to do with the populist politics of the so-called ‘alt-right’, Trump and the Brexiteers? The man who murdered Jo Cox MP was shouting white supremacist slogans as he killed her. Was he encouraged to do so by the nationalist tone of some politicians?

Or would you take a different view? Would you, for instance, link the apocalyptic visions in our lessons today to the sort of things that GAFCON has made a lot of – the many clergymen in our church who are openly gay, whom GAFCON have listed publicly? Is that the sort of sin (if it is a sin) which would break God’s covenant?

Well, this isn’t Question Time, and, until the Match Tea in a few minutes, you can’t answer back, so I don’t know what links you will make in your mind. But it is important that you do try to make those links, and to reflect on what God’s Word is telling us about our lives, and our countries’ lives, today.

At least I am confident that, when I challenge you gently in this way, you won’t react like one of the congregation at St John’s, West Hartford, Conn., did after my Thanksgiving sermon there [https://hughdbryant.co.uk/2013/11/29/a-turkey/]. I had preached about food banks and poverty. This gentleman shook my hand warmly as he went out, and said, ‘I enjoyed your sermon very much. But mind you, I entirely disagreed with it. Indeed, if I were a younger man, I would have had to shoot you!’

Now Hartford is the home of the Colt Manufacturing Company, makers of the famous Colt 45. Quite a thought. I do hope you all checked your weapons in at the door!