Please note that Podcast Garden have recently changed their backup location. If you think there should be a podcast (only for sermons from 2014 onwards) and there is not, you can still listen by clicking here

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Be careful what you wish for

Our Old Testament reading seems to me to be a prime example of the Law of Unintended Consequences! Or, indeed, the necessity to be careful what you wish for!

Up until now, Israel has been a theocracy; in other words, it has been governed by God, as ministered by the various judges and prophets, most recently Samuel. It hasn’t always gone well – there have been wars; the Ark of the Covenant had been captured and taken away by the Philistines, but then it was returned with all honour. At the time of which we speak, there was peace in the land – for one of the only times in history, it would seem.

But this peace was precarious. Samuel was getting old now, and his sons, who were his obvious successors, weren’t doing a good job. Unlike their father, who was as upright as – well, as an upright thing, they were susceptible to taking bribes, and justice was not always served as it might have been.

Also, the people of Israel had been looking round at how things were done in other countries. They didn’t have dreary prophets interpreting God’s will at them all the time. They weren’t led into battle by priests guiding an ox-cart with the Ark on it. They had a King! They were led into battle by a King on a beautiful horse, wearing armour glittering in the sun. They didn’t have to spend hours in prayer before they could get on with it….. Anyway, everybody had kings. Why couldn’t they have a king?

So, as we heard in our first reading, they went to Samuel and said, “look here, you’re getting old, and your sons aren’t anything like you – we want a King, please, now.”

Samuel is very hurt by this, and does what he always does in time of trial – he goes and prays about it. And God says to him, more or less, “Well, now you know what I feel all the time, the way people reject Me. And really, it’s not you they are rejecting, it’s Me.” And, at God’s instruction, Samuel goes and asks the people if they are sure they want a king. Sure, there is the grandeur and the pomp and circumstance – but there is also the tithes; the conscription; the droit de seigneur where the king thinks he can, and will, have any pretty girl he chooses….. there are a lot of bad things that might and will happen along with the good.

But the people are convinced. Prophets and judges are old-fashioned; they want a King. Monarchy is definitely the way to go.

And, as we know, they got permission to have a King, and Saul was appointed – and anointed – King. But as we know, he wasn’t altogether satisfactory, and there was war again, and, eventually, David became king, and then his son Solomon, but after that it all went rather pear-shaped, and the Kingdom was divided into two. And after a series of rather ineffectual, weak kings, the majority – the Ten Tribes – were taken into captivity and absorbed; the two tribes of Judah were also captured, but managed to retain a distinct identity. Mind you, we are not told what would have happened had they remained a theocracy….

So what is this all about, and what does it say to us today? I’m certainly not advocating a return to theocracy – one only has to look at so-called Islamic State or Boko Harum to see that it can and does stifle people’s freedom of choice. And monarchy itself is nearly obsolete. Our own Queen reigns, but she does not rule.

The King may well have done all the dreadful things Samuel warned against: “He will make soldiers of your sons; some of them will serve in his war chariots, others in his cavalry, and others will run before his chariots. He will make some of them officers in charge of a thousand men, and others in charge of fifty men. Your sons will have to plough his fields, harvest his crops, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. Your daughters will have to make perfumes for him and work as his cooks and his bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your grapes for his court officers and other officials.”

But a good King – and there have been many throughout history – a good King protects his people, as well as exploits them. And a good King leads by example. C S Lewis, in his novel “The Horse and his Boy”, expressed it thus:
“For this is what it means to be a king:
to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there's hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years)
to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”

Being a King is not just about privilege and luxury – but for a bad King – and probably for every good King there has been a bad one – for a bad King, it is all about privilege and luxury. The people needed to be careful what they wished for.

But one of the main problems of a Kingdom, mostly, is that it is up against others. Kings have to fight because other people want their Kingdoms. Sometimes these are kings from other sovereign states, and other times they are internal contenders for the throne; people who think that the king really isn’t doing as good a job as he might and they would do a better one. Civil War. Satan’s Kingdom divided against itself – as Jesus points out in our Gospel reading – is always going to fail and spiral down into chaos and darkness.

So let’s contrast this with God’s kingdom, that Jesus tells us so much about.

He told us lots of stories to illustrate what the kingdom was going to be like, how it starts off very small, like a mustard seed, but grows to be a huge tree.
How it is worth giving up everything for.
How “the blind receive their sight,
the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have good news brought to them.”

And some of the stories were very unsettling to his hearers. Imagine, if you will, that there is a place you’ve always wanted to visit.
It sounds as though it’s really wonderful –
permanently great weather, fantastic scenery,
lots of great places to visit,
lots of walking, or swimming,
great bars and restaurants,
you name it, this place has it!
And you long and long to go there,
but you don’t know how to get there,
and what’s more, you don’t know anybody else who has been there.
All the things you’ve heard about it are rumour or hearsay.

And then one day someone comes along who very obviously has been there, and he starts to tell you all about it.
But –
oh dear –
it’s not at all what you thought!
Weeds everywhere, attracting masses of birds which could and did eat all the crops!
And the food, far from gourmet, is rotten bread made by women!
And then, he goes on to tell his special friends in private –
but you hear about it later –
the place is so infinitely desirable that people sell all they have to get tickets there!

That’s the Kingdom of God for you. The mustard seed that Jesus spoke of – well, mustard was a terrific weed, back in the day – grows like the clappers, and still does – and nobody in their right mind would have planted it. Besides which, it would have attracted birds, which would then have eaten the other the crops. And the yeast that leavens the whole of the dough? Well, for Jews, what was really holy and proper to eat was unleavened bread, which you had at Passover.
You threw out all your old leaven –
we’d call it a sourdough starter, today, which is basically what it is –
and started again.
I remember being told in primary school that this was a Good Idea because you need fresh starter occasionally.
But the thing is, leavened bread was considered slightly inferior –
and the leaven itself, the starter –
It isn’t even the bread that is likened to God’s country, it is the leaven itself!
And did you notice –
it was a woman who took that leaven.
A woman!
That won’t do at all!
Again, for male Jews, women were slightly improper –
and who knew that she wouldn’t be on her period and therefore unclean?
And she hid the starter in enough flour to make bread for 100 people!
She hid it.
It was concealed, hidden.

Not what people would expect from the Kingdom of God, is it?

Be careful what you wish for! You wanted a King, instead of God; a King who would introduce conscription, would confiscate your bit of land and give it to one of his favourites. A King whose country would be manifestly unfair and unequal. But that was what you thought you wanted.

And then you got God’s Kingdom. A place that was totally not what you expected. A place of justice and mercy and love and forgiveness; but also a place where your most entrenched ideas are turned upside-down; where what you thought you knew about God turned out to be all wrong…. And yet, a place so worthwhile, so wonderful, that you would sell all your possessions to get there.

Perhaps, just perhaps, it was worth wishing for a King so that we could know Christ as King of the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Look and live

I really, really don’t understand what is going on in our first reading, do you? I mean, one minute you have God being absolutely livid with the Israelites for building a golden calf to worship, and threatening to destroy the lot of them, and the next minute you have God telling Moses to build a bronze serpent for people to look at to be healed of snakebite. And the snakes themselves were, we are told, sent by God because the people were grumbling! I mean, hello? If God punished us for grumbling like that, not a one of us that wouldn’t be reaching for the snake-bite serum at some time during the week! I rather suspect that this is a story that sort of crept in by mistake. Or, perhaps, they found a statue of a bronze snake in the Temple and made up this story to explain how it came to be there. And, of course, the fact that it is there means that God meant it to be there, no matter what its provenance!

Of course, the people who wrote down what’s called the Deuteronomic histories, which basically means the Pentateuch and some other bits of our Bible, do like to make a perceived punishment fit an alleged crime. Moses doesn’t quite make it to the Promised Land, so God must be punishing him for something. The people of Israel take 40 years to get there, there must be a good reason for it. And so on and so forth. And in this instance there was a plague of snakes. So the people must have been grumbling.

I suppose grumbling is a sin, really, when you come to think about it. After all, it is either futile or hurtful and can often be both. The Israelites were mooing on about how much better off they’d been in Egypt, totally forgetting that there they had not been free, and moaning on about the strict rations that they were getting in the desert. Talk about hurtful to Moses, and utterly futile, too, as nothing was going to change. They weren’t going back!

We grumble, too, most of the time. It wouldn’t be us if we weren’t chuntering on about the weather, or the trains, or the health service! Just look at your Facebook page, especially when we had that snow a couple of weeks ago! All things we can do absolutely nothing about! I dare say that’s pretty harmless.

But then, there are the times when people could do something about it, but, instead, they grumble. It is easier to expect the other person to do something than it is to get up and do it yourself. Although, quite often, if you want something done properly, it is a lot easier to do it yourself!

And sometimes we grumble about each other, which is all very well, but the things we say have a nasty habit of being relayed to the person we said them about, hurting them, and causing us all a great deal of bother. It’s best to try – heaven knows, I know how difficult it is – to try not to say anything behind people’s backs that you wouldn’t say to their faces. Which is all very well when it’s one’s spouse, because one does, as often as not, grumble at them, but one doesn’t tend to grumble at other people.

So yes, by and large, maybe grumbling is a sin. But to be bitten by snakes for it? It doesn’t sound so much like God to me. But there you are, the story got put in the Bible, and physicians liked it so much that they adopted the snake on a pole as their emblem. And, of course, one of the reasons it is important is that Jesus refers to it when he is talking to Nicodemus, as we heard in our Gospel reading: 
"And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

That, of course, is why the story still resonates with us today, as it is a type, or picture, of the crucifixion. I remember one sermon I heard on this passage where the preacher pointed out, quite forcefully, that the Israelites didn’t have to do anything with the snake – they didn’t have to go up to it, or touch it, or lick its tail, or anything like that. All they had to do was look at it, and instantly they were healed of their snake-bite. And similarly, we too, the preacher said, just have to look to Jesus, and instantly we are saved.

And so Jesus himself tells us. All we have to do is to believe. To look to the Cross.

It is, of course, God who saves us. We can do nothing to save ourselves. Nothing. The Israelites in the desert could do nothing to save themselves from the snakes. They didn’t know about anti-snakebite venom back in the day. If they were bitten, the probability was that they would die – unless, of course, they could just look at the bronze serpent.

There would, of course, be those who refused to look. They had been bitten by a snake, very well, they were going to die. Or perhaps they thought they knew better: looking at an image wasn’t going to help, was it? Maybe if they did this or that instead, that would help. You’ve got to DO something, after all.

But no, if they wanted to live, all they had to do was to look. They could do nothing to save themselves, all they could do was look at the serpent. And, similarly, we can do nothing to save ourselves – whatever we may mean by that, and I’m not always quite sure – all we can do is look at the Cross. And God does the rest.

It’s about love, isn’t it?   What we remember on Mothering Sunday isn’t just our mothers, although that, too, but above all, the wonderful love of God, our Father and our Mother. After all, there are people whose mothers have died; people who didn’t or don’t have a good relationship with their mothers; and above all, people who would have loved to have been mothers, but it didn’t happen, for whatever reason. Many of those will not be in church this morning. The Church isn't always very tactful about Mothers Day, I'm afraid – I used to find it very patronising, especially considering that for the rest of the year I was rather left to get on with it, and was told that the loneliness and isolation and lack of fellowship was “the price you pay for the wonderful privilege of being a Christian Mother!” As if....

The worst Mothers Day sermon I ever heard was from a young curate who had just discovered his wife was expecting their first child – sadly, he moved away during the course of the year,
as several of us were longing to hear what he would have had to say after several months of the reality of parenthood!

But one of the things that those of us who are parents will know about is unconditional love. We know that, no matter what our children may do, we will go on loving them. When they are young, we may have to punish them if they behave badly; when they are older, how much we see of them very much depends on them, not on us. But we never stop loving them, no matter how infuriating they are.

I am vividly reminded of Jesus saying: 
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

“How much more”! We find it very difficult to comprehend God’s love, the love that says you only have to look to live. The love that reaches out to us infinitely more strongly than we are able to reach out to God. Jesus said that
“Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
But the thing is – light! After all, if you think about it, when you are in a dark room, you switch on the light, and the darkness has gone. People might have preferred darkness, but it is easier to make it light than to make it dark. And in the light, all you have to do is look, look at the Cross – and you will live! Amen.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Whenever you see a rainbow

There’s a song they used to sing in Girls’ Brigade, when my daughter was a member many years ago, and the chorus went,
“Whenever you see a rainbow
Whenever you see a rainbow,
Whenever you see a rainbow,
Remember God is love!”

We heard, in our first reading today, how God put a rainbow in the sky to remind everybody, including God, that the world would never again be utterly destroyed by floods. It’s a very early story, of course, one of those that is probably more nearly a legend than anything else. God had made the world, but the people were so sinful that God wanted to wipe out all life on earth and start again – it’s been done before, of course, just ask the dinosaurs! Anyway, God told Noah to build the ark, and take animals in it – either a breeding pair, or 7 of each species, depending on which account you go by. There are two that seem to have got a bit mixed up here! And, as you know, the rain came down – in torrents, according to the song I quoted earlier – and only Noah and his family were saved, plus the animals. And Noah sent out various birds to see whether the waters were going down, and when they did, the Ark eventually landed on the top of Mount Ararat, possibly in modern-day Turkey, and everybody went out to start all over again.

But people hadn’t changed – Noah drinks too much of the first wine he’s able to make, and falls asleep naked in his tent, and one of his sons mocks him rather than finding a convenient blanket. That didn’t happen until after the rainbow, though. First, when they land, Noah gives a sacrifice, which is pleasing to God, and God promises “As long as the world exists, there will be a time for planting and a time for harvest. There will always be cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night.” And then God places the rainbow in the sky as a sign of this promise.

The extraordinary thing about Noah’s flood is that almost every ancient culture has its flood story. They may be a folk memory of sea levels rising catastrophically after the end of the last Ice Age, when all the waters that had been bound up in the glaciers melted and many communities were submerged forever. There’s a theory that it’s a folk memory of the Black Sea being formed when the waters burst through the Bosphorus. I wonder, even, if there is not a folk memory of the Mediterranean basin being filled – we know that at certain times in history it has been empty. Or it’s possible that the flood myths came from people finding seashells and so on far inland. Nobody really knows, but we do know that in prehistoric times some areas that are now under water were dry land, and vice versa, as the world has changed. There is even a submerged country, known as Doggerland, in the North Sea, dating back as recently as ten thousand years ago, when Britain was joined to the Continent by more than an undersea tunnel!

Of course, there have been plenty of devastating floods since then, many even here in the UK. We have the Thames Flood Barrier which is supposed to be able to stop London being flooded, at least for the foreseeable future, but there have been floods in the West Country and in the North of England within the past few years. And only a couple of years ago the shops on Herne Hill were devastated by a burst water-main which flooded the road – you may even have seen it. And we no longer think God sends the floods – what sort of a monster would we be worshipping who sent floods and other tragedies, earthquakes or hurricanes and so on? We know that there are natural causes for these tragedies, even if we don’t quite understand some of them, and we also know that God is there in the middle of them with us.

Sometimes, I know, it is easy to wonder what God is thinking about not stopping these tragedies from happening. Even the Bible is full of attempts to work out why bad things happen to good people, right back to the book of Job, a couple of the Psalms, and, of course, Jonah. It’s probably something we will never know this side of heaven!

But we do know that God came down to live among us as a human being, and to share our experience! Our Gospel reading reminded us that Jesus came to John for baptism – not, of course, for forgiveness of sins, for he did not sin, but as a sign of his submission to God, and arguably that all should see that he had gone through the formalities. And after his baptism, and the announcement that he was God’s beloved son, he was sent into the wilderness for forty days. Mark doesn’t go into detail about the temptations to which he was subject, but we know from Matthew and Luke that basically he had to learn how not to use his divine powers. He wasn’t about making stones into bread, even though he later could, and did, provide food for a vast crowd. He wasn’t about throwing himself down from a high tower, and expecting God to save him. He wouldn’t even do that when he was nailed to the Cross. And he most certainly wasn’t about worshipping anything other than God!

So Jesus spent his forty days in the wilderness, and when he came out, John had been arrested for disturbing the powers-that-be one time too many, and so Jesus began his own ministry of preaching and teaching and healing the sick. Knowing, of course, that at any time he, too, could be arrested and put to death, which probably happened some two or three years later.

This season of Lent is the time of year when, among other things, we remember Jesus in the wilderness. It’s a time of preparation for Easter, a time when, perhaps, we focus a little more deeply on spiritual things. Perhaps you go to a Lent study group, or maybe you are planning to give something up for Lent – it might be chocolate, as a friend of mine does every year; it might be alcohol; it might be meat; it might even be social networking. But why? Why are you giving these things up, if you are?

When I was little, we were only allowed to give things up for Lent if we put the money we would otherwise have spent on them to a good cause. Which, since I found – and still find – it impossible to determine how much I might have spent on, say, chocolate, which I only buy irregularly anyway, since I found it impossible, I never gave anything up! And I am quite sure that, were I to give up social networking, I'd not spend the time in prayer or devotional reading, but faffing about playing computer games!

But self-discipline is a good thing. So we are told, and so it is, of course. But if it is all about you, all about me, that's not much good, is it? And, of course,it's all too easy to do things for all the wrong reasons. If we start complaining about how much we're missing chocolate, or booze, or whatever it might be, that's not the idea at all. The idea is to keep it totally to yourself, don't let anybody know unless you have to. Keep it between you and God.

I personally prefer to do something positive for Lent, like reading a devotional book, or finding something to be thankful for each day, or something. But whatever you do or don't do, the idea needs to be that it brings you closer to God. And if it doesn't do that, if it doesn't work if you keep it secret, then leave it.

The idea, basically, is that whatever we do or don’t do for Lent, it should be a reminder of God’s love for us, and, ideally, something that helps us to grow, spiritually. It shouldn’t be just about giving up something for the sake of it – that’s worthwhile if you give the amount you save to charity, of course, but does it help you spiritually? Does it remind you of God’s love? Does it remind you, even, of what Jesus went through – perhaps a small pinprick of discomfort when you’d really like to eat chocolate, or whatever, that reminds you, however dimly, of the agony that Jesus went through on the cross?

God placed the rainbow in the sky as a reminder to Noah – and to all of us who have come after him – that the world will not be destroyed. And, incidentally, as a reminder to God, too: “Whenever I cover the sky with clouds and the rainbow appears, I will remember my promise to you.”

The rainbow is a reminder of God’s covenant with us, and of God’s love to us. Noah wasn’t any better or any worse than anybody else at that time – he did believe God and obey God when he built the Ark, but he was still a sinner like you or me. He still got drunk as a skunk when he had the opportunity! But God still put that rainbow in the sky.

Whenever you see a rainbow – whether in the sky, or a flag, or a badge – whenever you see a rainbow, remember God is love. Amen.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth

The text of this sermon is substantially the same as this one.


Sunday, 31 December 2017

St Nicholas

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a – well, not in a galaxy far away, as this story takes place on this earth, but certainly in a country far away, a little boy was born. No, not Jesus of Nazareth – this birth took place a couple of hundred years later, and the little boy grew up to be one of Jesus’ followers. He was born in the city of Patara, in what is now Turkey, and you will remember from your reading in Acts that this was one of the places that St Paul visited during his travels, so it’s quite probable that his parents or grandparents were either converted by St Paul, or by the church he established there. His parents were rich, by the standards of their day, and when they died when the boy was quite young, he inherited all their money. But because he loved Jesus, he didn’t think it right to keep the money for himself, and began to give it away to the poor and needy in the area.

He dedicated his whole life to God, and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. One famous story about him tells of a poor man with three daughters, whom he could not hope to marry off as he had nothing to give for their dowries, something that was considered vital back in the day. And the future for unmarried women back then was bleak – slavery was probably the best option. So this young Bishop, anonymously, threw three purses of gold, one for each daughter, through the window of their house, and the purses landed in the shoes the girls had put to dry by the fire.

There are lots of other stories about this man – some probably legendary, as when three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens were robbed and murdered by wicked innkeeper, who hid their remains in a large pickling tub. It so happened that the bishop, traveling along the same route, stopped at this very inn. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up, and summoned the innkeeper. As he prayed earnestly to God the three boys were restored to life and wholeness.

There are several stories of his calming storms for sailors, and one story tells how during a famine in Myra, the bishop worked desperately hard to find grain to feed the people. He learned that ships bound for Alexandria with cargos of wheat had anchored in Andriaki, the harbor for Myra. The good bishop asked the captain to sell some of the grain from each ship to relieve the people's suffering. The captain said he could not because the cargo was "meted and measured." He must deliver every bit and would have to answer for any shortage. The Bishop assured the captain there would be no problems when the grain was delivered. Finally, reluctantly, the captain agreed to take one hundred bushels of grain from each ship. The grain was unloaded and the ships continued on their way.

When they arrived and the grain was unloaded, it weighed exactly the same as when it was put on board. As the story was told, all the emperor's ministers worshiped and praised God with thanksgiving for God's faithful servant!

Back in Myra, the Bishop distributed grain to everyone in Lycia and no one was hungry. The grain lasted for two years, until the famine ended. There was even enough grain to provide seed for a good harvest.

The Bishop, of course, was made a saint when he died. And the stories of his miracles didn’t stop coming. One very early story tells how the townspeople of Myra were celebrating the good saint on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into the district. They stole treasures from the church to take away as booty. As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios, to make into a slave. The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer, as not knowing the language, Basilios would not understand what the king said to those around him. So, for the next year Basilios waited on the king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup. For Basilios' parents, devastated at the loss of their only child, the year passed slowly, filled with grief. As the saint’s next feast day approached, Basilios' mother would not join in the festivity, as it was now a day of tragedy. However, she was persuaded to have a simple observance at home – with quiet prayers for Basilios' safekeeping. Meanwhile, as Basilios was fulfilling his tasks serving the emir, he was suddenly whisked up and away. The saint appeared to the terrified boy, blessed him, and set him down at his home back in Myra. Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basilios amazingly appeared before his parents, still holding the king's golden cup!

This man became the patron saint of children, and the patron saint of sailors, too. And as the years and centuries passed, he was revered in Christian countries all over the world, both Orthodox and Catholic. In the 11th century his remains were moved from Myra, now called Demre, which was under Moslem rule, to a town in Italy called Bari, where he is venerated to this day. Nuns started to give poor children little gifts of food – oranges and nuts, mostly – on his feast day. And his cult spread right across Christendom.

You will notice that I haven’t said his name! Who knows who I have been talking about? Yes, St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. And now, these days, transmogrified into Santa Claus.

It all happened, really, because of the Protestant reformation! No, seriously. Because if you were Protestant, you didn’t revere saints, so you couldn’t possibly have St Nicholas giving you oranges and nuts on his feast day! Moreover, Christmas observance was seen as inconsistent with Gospel worship. Here in England, with our gift for religious compromise, our folk traditions changed to include Father Christmas and yule logs and things, but in many Protestant countries, particularly the USA, it was considered “just another day”. But it seems that German colonists (probably not the Dutch, as they were hyper-Calvinist back then) brought the St Nicholas tradition to the USA, and gradually he became the “jolly elf” of the famous poem. And, of course, the illustrations for the Coca-Cola advertisements began to settle his image as the fat old man we know today. A far cry, really, from a young Bishop in ancient Turkey!

But what, you may ask, has this got to do with us? How does it affect us on this last day of the year? For me, it’s about legitimising Christmas. Every year, you hear people chuntering on about putting Christ back in Christmas – as if He had ever left it! And every year, the separation between the secular festival, encompassing Santa Claus and presents and greed, and the celebration of the Birth of Christ, seems to grow wider and wider. But does it? If we remember that Santa himself was one of Jesus’ most faithful disciples, doesn’t that make a difference?

Yes, Christmas is very commercialised. Yes, it’s been secularised. But in a way, that makes it better, as everybody can celebrate, whether or not they are Christian. But the roots of the secular festival are deeper in Christianity than we often realise. Next week, we will be celebrating the Epiphany, the coming of the wise men that Matthew talks about. The time when Christ was “manifest to the Gentiles”, as they say – in other words, it was made clear that Jesus was for the whole world, not just for the Jews. And we all know that today the wise still worship him. Even Santa Claus! Amen.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Remembrance Sunday 2017

The text of this sermon is very similar to the one I preached three years ago.  You can listen to the podcast to see how it differs!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Ten Commandments

So, the Ten Commandments. Which is what we heard read in our first reading today, and which we very often hear if it is a Communion service. Totally familiar, aren’t they? Or are they?

I do wonder why they are special. If you ever read these first few books of the Bible – not Genesis, so much, but Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the ones they call the Pentateuch – you’ll know they are full of commandments and rules for how God’s people are to live. Do sit down sometime with a good modern translation – there are plenty on-line if you haven’t got a paper one – and have a read of them if you haven’t already.

But the thing about these rules is that many of them – perhaps most of them – are no longer relevant to us. We don’t see anything wrong in eating pork or shellfish, or in wearing polycotton or other mixed fibres. Many of us enjoy a cheeseburger from time to time. We think slavery is wrong – nobody should own another person – and that even the very generous laws about it in the Scriptures should be discarded in favour of a blanket ban. Why are the Ten Commandments any different?

I once saw on television some programme – it was years ago, and I can’t now remember what it was about or in what context we were watching it – when they asked random people off the streets to quote the Ten Commandments. Most people knew some or all of the last six, but nobody even thought to quote the first four!

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? The first four commandments are all to do with our relationship with God, and whatever else may change, God doesn’t. So we are told that we must not worship any other God; we mustn’t make statues or pictures and then worship them; we mustn’t make empty promises in God’s name and we must keep the Sabbath day rather special. And those are the commandments people don’t remember, unless they happen to be God’s people, because they simply aren’t relevant to them.

You know, if you think about it, the Ten Commandments are really about how you should think, and what sort of a person you should be. Most of the other sets of rules in the Pentateuch are about how a nomadic tribe that is just beginning to settle down should live. How to stay healthy and happy. Rules about what to eat and what not – no carrion, for instance. How sensible – an animal who died and you don’t know why might easily make you very ill. Rules about whether you have an infectious skin disease or just a boil or burn. Rules about what to do with your mildewed garments. But even these rules have, running through them, the refrain that it is to please God that people will do these things, and that if they do them,

The Israelites, of course, were not claiming land nobody had ever cultivated before. They were settling down among, and displacing, local tribes, and learning to farm for their living rather than be hunter-gatherers, as they had had, perforce, to be while wandering in the desert. We know that God had provided manna for them, although nobody seems to know what that is, but it was certainly their staple food for many years, supplemented by occasional flocks of quail. But now they are beginning to remember the stories their grandparents told them of what the food had been like in Egypt: fish, meat, leeks, onions, cucumbers, garlic, good wheaten bread.... and now they were settling down, they could grow things like that and enjoy the good life for themselves. But how? None of them had ever been farmers.

But their neighbours had. And for them, much of the ritual about farming involved going to their local shrine and worshipping their local god. Their god didn’t demand any kind of involvement on their part, only the ritual – but, of course, this was absolutely Not On for God’s people once they had reached the Promised Land. They must not go and worship other gods, no matter how perfunctorily. They need to be God’s people, body, mind and spirit. And so the rules are shot through with exhortations to be just that, to choose to be God’s people, to choose life.

As I said, we consider many, if not most, of those rules to be inappropriate today. The food rules went very early on – Jesus himself declared all foods clean, although people didn’t understand that until a bit later. But as it became obvious that you could be a Christian without being Jewish first, so the various rules gradually fell into abeyance among Christians who had not grown up thinking that this was what Proper People did. Sadly, some of the better rules disappeared, too – the one that said that every seven years you kept the land fallow, freed your slaves, and generally started again from scratch. The ones that applied to slavery – these days, we would not, by and large, dream of owning other people, although sadly it does still happen, even here in Brixton – anyway, the laws that applied to slavery were very lenient and although slaves must be freed every 7 years, they didn’t have to go if they didn’t want to. And if they ran away in between, it was considered not to be their fault – their masters must have been too harsh with them. Sadly, as we know, these laws, too, fell into abeyance and slavery became the horrible thing we know it to be.

But these rules that we call the Ten Commandments didn’t fall into abeyance. They were different, special. The first four, as I said, are about our relationship with God. Then come the common-sense regulations: to honour our parents (the first commandment, as St Paul points out, that comes with a promise attached – “Do this so that you will have a full life in the land that the Lord your God gives you.”). No murder, no adultery, no theft.... all societies have had some sort of rules about these things, even if not quite the same as ours. No lying about other people. And then the commandment that lifts even these out of the realm of blind obedience, and on to another plane, entirely: Thou shalt not covet!

That is the commandment St Paul talked about in his letter to the Romans: “For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.”

In other words, as soon as he realised it was wrong to covet, he discovered how much he did covet, and couldn’t overcome it himself. We can’t, either. After all, there are whole industries based on the human propensity to covet – you only have to watch television briefly to be inundated with advertising, telling you about products you might not have known you wanted. And if you watch sports channels, as we do sometimes, you’ll have noticed how many of these ads are devoted to on-line gambling sites. Gambling, if it tempts you – it doesn’t tempt me, so I’m not being virtuous not doing it – if it tempts you, it is tempting you to want something for nothing, a great deal of money for almost no effort or expenditure on your part. “We’ll pay out, win or lose!” they cry. “We’ll give you ten pounds for every pound you spend with us.” Golden rule of advertising: if it sounds too good to be true, it almost definitely is!

Mind you, some ads are good and useful – the ones that tell you when, say, an insurance company is giving special offers, or when a sale is on. At least, they are useful if you actually happen to want insurance, or whatever it is. As my mother always says, coupons are lovely if it’s something you actually want, but a snare and a delusion if you buy something you didn’t really need or want simply because you have a 20% off coupon!

But the point is, coveting isn’t really something we can help. It is part of our human nature to want what we do not have, or, worse, to want what someone else has. We can happily refrain from murder, adultery or theft, and we can at least go through the motions of honouring our parents and worshipping God – but we can’t not covet! At least, not without God’s help.

Of course, some religions – Buddhism, for instance – require one to be so divorced from the material world that not coveting is basically a matter of total disdain. It’s not like that for us. We need to be living in this world, engaged in it, working in it for justice and peace. And we will inevitably start to want things we don’t have, and to own things we don’t really want, and all the other things. In Jesus’ story he told, that we also heard read this morning, the tenants of the vineyard wanted to keep all the grapes for themselves, rather than yield them to their rightful owner, and all sorts of murder and mayhem ensued. And, if you remember, when the rich young ruler asked Jesus how he could gain eternal life, and said that he’d kept all the commandments, Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor, and then to come and follow him. But he couldn’t do that – he coveted his belongings too much.

Well then, how to stop? How do we learn to value our stuff, but not be so terribly attached to it that it would be a disaster not to have it any more? Well, if you ever find out, let me know! Seriously, though, the only way I know that might even begin to work is to become more and more God’s person, to allow God to work more and more deeply in your life, to become more and more the people God created us to be. And even then, we’ll probably still covet, because human beings do! But, thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the way of forgiveness is there for us. Amen.