Archives for posts with tag: welfare state

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Easter, 8th April 2018
Isaiah 26.1-9,19, Luke 24.1-12

I must confess that this week I had quite a case of writer’s block before this sermon came to me. I have been through all the Easter services: for a minister in the Church, just as for faithful members of the congregation like you, it has been a really busy time. But it all comes together in the happiness of Easter Sunday, after which point a lot of people take off for a bit of holiday.

Stoke D’Abernon and Cobham are really quiet; I went into Town a couple of times last week and I managed to park my car at the station right near to the station building, which is unheard-of normally. A lot of people are away. Now in the church we have got this period until 10th May, the Ascension, when we are in Easter time, which is the time when the church reflects on and celebrates the appearances which Jesus made after he was resurrected from the dead.

Tonight we have read about the visit of the various women going with Mary Magdalene who had been at the crucifixion and seen Jesus laid in the tomb. They had brought all the various embalming spices to prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial. Then they found that the stone had been rolled away and they met two men in shining garments – two angels.

This is St Luke’s account, which doesn’t have some of the features in the other Gospels. For example, St Peter runs to the empty tomb by himself according to St Luke, but in St John’s Gospel he’s accompanied by ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, which is presumably St John himself.

Mary Magdalene is met by two angels, whereas in another version there is a person, whom she mistakes for the gardener, who turns out to be Jesus himself. When you realise that all these Gospel accounts were written at the least 20 years and often more like 40 years after the events described, it’s not surprising that there are some minor variations in the story.

It’s all about resurrection from the dead. That Jesus died a horrible death and then somehow came alive again. When you look at the prophecy of Isaiah which is from the time approximately 750 years before Jesus, you see this picture of the land of Judah and of the city of Jerusalem as concrete expressions of God keeping his covenant, his agreement, with his chosen people. ‘We have a strong city’: I looked it up and this is not where ‘Ein’ Feste Burg’, Martin Luther’s hymn, comes from. [It’s Psalm 46].

In Martin Luther’s German it’s ‘ein fester Stadt’ here. But the idea is similar. The city of God, a protection, a bulwark, against the godless. And it’s interesting to see the prophetic vision of a fair society in the city of God. It’s almost the same train of thought as in the Magnificat. ‘… he bringeth down them that dwell on high; the lofty city, he layeth it low; he layeth it low, even to the ground; he bringeth it even to the dust.’ And then at the end of the passage that we had tonight, there is what my Bible commentary tantalisingly says is one of the only two references in the Old Testament to the idea of resurrection from the dead. ‘…. for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.
Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise.’

It’s great: it must have been a really wonderful time. It’s very inspiring to read in the Acts of the Apostles how the early Christians lived; looking after each other, holding their possessions in common and looking forward to Jesus’ second coming as though it was going to happen any day.

But is it too awful, perhaps even sacrilegious, to ask, ‘So what?’ How does that work today? How is my life and your life affected by those events of the first Easter? Granted, of course, that they were cosmic events, that the world would not be the same after them: before Jesus, people were in touch with God through the prophets, like Isaiah. And the prophecies came true, and the dead man did live; but when I look at the nuts and bolts of what I have been dealing with this week and what I have been reading about in the newspapers, I’m challenged. I find it quite difficult to see the footsteps of the resurrected Jesus in some of the things that I encountered this week.

An earnest lady came to see me this week, representing the Department of Work and Pensions, to try to persuade me that Universal Credit was going to be good for the clients of the Foodbank; I pointed out to her that, if somebody is sick or disabled, and signs on for benefits now, they will get 28% less than they used to. There are lots of other ways in which this new system is worse than what went before. 4/5 of people receiving Universal Credit are in arrears with their rent, because there is a six-week delay in paying it – and because you only have to miss two rent payments for the landlord to be able to repossess your home, they are at risk of becoming homeless.

Sir Gerry Acher was very involved with the Motability scheme, providing specially adapted cars for disabled people. Hundreds of those cars are now being returned because the poor disabled people no longer have enough in benefits to afford to run them.

Teenagers are being murdered in London; although the Metropolitan Police Commissioner says that the cuts in the police service have no effect on the murder rate, you can’t help feeling that things would be better if there was a bobby on the beat, as there used to be. But the cuts have taken them away.

So who knows? David Lammy, the widely-respected MP for Tottenham, says that a lot of this is caused by our society becoming so mean, so that single mothers have to go out to work and leave their children at home on their own. He gives an example of 12-year-olds being offered new pairs of trainers by drug dealers, and asked to run little errands – little ones to start off with – round the corner to deliver a packet. Soon they are earning more than their parents ever dreamt of, but they will have become members of gangs and they will be armed. According to Mr Lammy, the drugs that they supply end up being used by trendy middle-class people who live behind electric gates – maybe somewhere around here.

Well I can’t say this stuff, without some of you jumping up and down and saying, ‘This isn’t a sermon: it is a political speech’. But it seems to me that Jesus would be concerned. Jesus would say that so many of these things really don’t chime with the idea of a strong city, ‘for whose walls and bulwarks God will appoint salvation.’

‘Open ye the gates, that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.’ Is that a picture of an immigration policy? Somehow it doesn’t sound like it. The meanness at the heart of the idea of controlled immigration just doesn’t sound like that strong city in the land of Judah whose gates are open.

And what about the events in Palestine? 15 or 16 people have been shot by the Israeli army and 1500 people have been injured. The Israeli army has been firing bullets at people throwing stones at them. The most recent tragedy was a photojournalist called Yaser Murtaja, who was wearing a flak jacket with ‘Press’ written in big letters across the front. He was shot in the stomach by the Israeli forces. Where is the kingdom of God in any of that?

But then there were all the stories this week about Ray Wilkins, the great footballer and Cobham resident, who died this week very early, at the age of 61. There were an amazing number of stories, not only about his great goals and tremendous talent as a footballer, but also about what a good and generous man he was.

There is one I particularly like which I saw told by a homeless man, an ex-soldier, who was sitting outside West Brompton station. Ray Wilkins went over to him, sat down with him and took time to talk with him. Ray Wilkins’ phone rang, apparently, and he answered it and said that he would call the person back, because he was ‘busy’. Busy – busy talking to a homeless bloke sitting on a cardboard sheet, huddled up against the wall of the station. He gave the bloke £20, and took him across to a café to buy him a cup of tea. He suggested that the homeless man should use the money to stay in a hostel and get a hot meal. He did that, and that night, at the hostel, the old soldier met a social worker specialising in ex-soldiers. As a result, the homeless man was put on a path which brought him back to a decent life with a new job and a home.

Ray Wilkins, whom I’m sure many of us have met around the village, did what Jesus would have wanted him to do. He was a Good Samaritan – as well as a very good footballer.

So maybe things are not so bleak, and maybe the resurrection of Jesus, the Easter story, isn’t totally submerged in godless ghastliness after all.

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Sermon at Holy Communion at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, The Conversion of St Paul – 25th January 2015
Acts 9:1-22 – ‘Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.’

For a couple of weeks now, I have been going to a house group, which is not one of ours, run by St Mary’s or St Andrew’s, but it’s a sort of spontaneous house group, run by some nice people who live locally, who go to the International Community Church (the American church, that was). I was invited to go along by a friend of mine who sometimes worships here but who usually goes to St Andrew’s, Oxshott.

It’s a shame, in a way, that in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the ICC church is no longer a member of Churches Together in Cobham, Stoke, Oxshott and Surrounding Areas. They used to be, when they used to meet locally, but now they hold their meetings in Chertsey, so they are not local to us any more.

The house group is watching a series of videos made by an American evangelist called Rob Bell, who looks about 15 but who is apparently a bit older than that, and runs a mega-church somewhere in the USA. If you want to look up his videos, they are on YouTube under the title ‘NOOMA’, N-O-O-M-A, which he explains as a phonetic transliteration of the Greek word πνεύμα, from which we get ‘pneumatic’, for example. It’s a word for a wind or a spirit: so το πνεύμα άγιον is the Holy Spirit.

On the NOOMA YouTube channel there are a number of videos, which are really illustrated sermons by Mr Bell. The one that we watched this week [http://nooma.com/films/001-rain] involved Mr Bell going for a walk in the woods with his one-year-old son – whose name I didn’t catch, but it sounded like one of those American ‘surname’ names like ‘Spencer’ or ‘Washington’ or whatever – although his friends probably call him Spike, or Bonzo, of course.

Mr Bell hoisted the baby on to his back in some kind of back-pack affair and strode off into the woods, in true frontiersman fashion. It looked like a scene out of a holiday promotion video: beautiful warm sunlight coming through the trees, birds singing, and so on.

They were walking round a lake. Half way round, the weather changed, and it started to rain. The rain quickly turned into a full-blooded thunderstorm. Mr Bell and his offspring were both wearing tops which had hoods. Mr Bell reached behind him and pulled the baby’s hood up over his head, to keep the rain off, and did the same for himself. The baby, of course, as babies do, immediately threw off his hood. However, Mr Bell was oblivious to this, because he had the baby hitched to his back, so he couldn’t see him.

He strode on, at a military pace. He told us that he was about a mile from home. Obviously this was not the sort of afternoon stroll that you or I might get up to after lunch today, but something altogether more athletic. Anyway, there’s Bell, striding along under his hoodie top, and suddenly, Rufus Alexander Williamson III starts to protest – because he is now wet, not having his hood up.

He shouts and screams and generally makes all the usual baby protesting noises. Mr Bell, finally, rumbles the fact that all is not well with the baby. So he unhitches the backpack and he tucks the baby under his own coat in front, snuggling him up and getting him nice and warm again, out of the rain.

All the while, Mr Bell is gently repeating to the baby, ‘I love you, Rufus Alexander Washington III: and we are going to make it.’ Fortunately, they do make it; they get back home – and we have to imagine the scene in the log cabin, with the blazing fire, jacuzzi and fluffy towels which no doubt the returning father and son then enjoyed.

Cut instead to Mr Bell, who tells us that the story was an analogy, a metaphor, for how God is. God is with us in our darkest moments, when it is raining on us and our hood is not up. God will be there, and He will say that He, our Heavenly Father, loves us, and that we will make it together.

I thought it was a nice idea, but I wasn’t sure. It was a pity that it wasn’t a Churches Together house group during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, because I would then have got a lot of points for being outside my comfort zone, but still, with Christian friends!

The leader of the group had a sheet of questions. One was, were we conscious of God being alongside us, perhaps in times of trouble? Did we have experiences like Mr Bell and his little boy, caught in the rain?

I was rather challenged. I haven’t had an experience like John Wesley, who was going to a Bible class and who suddenly felt his heart was ‘strangely warmed’, for example. I certainly haven’t had a Road to Damascus experience like St Paul.

I felt rather stuck – because I am not given to that kind of spirituality, unfortunately. I am a rather down-to-earth person and I’m not sure that I necessarily would hear a ‘still small voice of calm’ – although what St Paul experienced would surely have got through to me.

I have, however, been reading a new book, from our bookshop – and by the way, please remember, where bookshops are concerned, you must use them or lose them, and not be tempted by the likes of Amazon. Our bookshop can get you any book you like the next day, just as quickly as Amazon. (The usual disclaimers apply.)

Well anyway, I have been reading a new book, which is a series of papers assembled and edited by Archbishop John, John Sentamu, called ‘On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain’s future’. It’s a series of essays designed to inform the debate which is going to lead up to our General Election in May. It’s not meant to be party-political in any way, but is intended to inspire all our politicians to think in terms of what Archbishop John calls ευδαιμονία, the Greek word which roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’.

The idea is that it’s not enough for us to flourish in material terms, but rather we have to flourish as men and women made in the image of God. According to Genesis 1:27: … God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

We have to flourish, to reach our full human potential, according to Archbishop John. The two greatest commandments, to love God and to love our neighbour, are to be applied to our economic and political situation. The essays explore how we can become closer to how God intended us to be, and therefore to flourish and reach our full potential, in a fair, just and loving way.

John Sentamu’s book in many ways is influenced by, and perhaps was inspired by, Archbishop William Temple’s 1942 book, ‘Christianity and Social Order’ [Shepheard-Walwyn 1976, 1987, ISBN -10: 0-85683-025-9], which was one of the key documents which led to the creation of the Welfare State and NHS after the Second World War.

Archbishop Temple, R.H. Tawney, the famous economic historian, and William Beveridge, the architect of the Welfare State, were all at Balliol College, Oxford. They were sent off by the Master of Balliol, Edward Caird, in the vacations to work in the East End of London among poor and deprived people, which gave them an insight which they would not otherwise have received. People sometimes forget that, when the Welfare State and the NHS were created, the National Debt was far greater than it is today: but the inspiration which drove Archbishop Temple and his fellow students pointed to something far more important than money, or the lack of it.

In a similar vein, Jean Vanier, the Canadian theologian who founded the worldwide network of L’Arche communities where people with disabilities live together with able-bodied people, to great mutual benefit, was interviewed on the Today programme on Thursday [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02hkfzr]. He told a story about visiting a city in South America and being told, as they drove down a main road, that on one side of the road the poor people lived, in squalor and depravity; lives full of uncertainty, hunger and disease.

On the other side of the same road were the big houses with gates and armed guards, with police patrols, in which the rich and privileged lived. Nobody from that side of the road ever crossed over to meet the people in the slums. Jean Vanier said that his whole work had been to encourage people to cross the road; to go and see, and make friends with, people who are differently situated: handicapped or poor, just not so fortunate.

It occurred to me that for me, reading Archbishop John and his contributors’ words of hope, setting out a vision according to which more things matter than just money and the market: and Jean Vanier, showing how it is possible to cross the road – they, for me, showed that God is there. For me, no bright light; no voices from heaven. Like St Paul, I haven’t been fortunate enough actually to be around with Jesus and his first disciples. But just as surely, I felt the presence of God. I’m sure we all can, too.

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.’