Sermon for Sunday, 13th. September 2020 (M & E) Fourteenth after Trinity Readings: (1) Romans 14.1-18; (2) Matthew 18.23-35
Our first lesson today (Romans 14.1-18) has a rather topical quality. In it, you will recall, St Paul tells the Romans that they must not indulge in “doubtful disputations”. He was speaking specifically about disagreements over matters of diet and days of observance, and reading it one catches an echo of present-day dissensions between, for example, vegetarians and non-vegetarians, in which one side or the other regards itself as occupying the moral high ground. The church at Rome had converts from a variety of religious backgrounds, Jews and others, and some of them would have brought former observances with them, especially in matters like these. St Paul lays down a principle of mutual tolerance, and we can see it as a general principle that applies to all matters where opinions may differ, with the important exception of the gospel itself, that is, matters of doctrine and morals. The moral exception is implied near the end of our reading (v.17), where St Paul says that the kingdom of God is not meat and drink but righteousness and peace; and the doctrinal exception from another of his epistles (Gal.1.7-8) where he says, using strong language, “though we or an angel from heaven should preach any other gospel . . . . than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed”.
The reason for this exception is that it relates to what is vital to our Christian faith and life. It is a matter of spiritual life and death, and therefore contrary views which might harm the faithful by leading them astray were anathema, and not to be tolerated. And so it continued throughout the middle ages, with heresy being a ground not only for expulsion from the church but also, where the temporal authority would co-operate, a capital offence; and it took the horrors of the religious wars and persecutions of the two hundred years that followed the Reformation to convince the churches not to seek to crush or punish unorthodox opinions in that way. The need for social peace demanded it.
And there were other considerations that pointed the same way. Tolerance for the opinions of others rightly came to be seen as an aspect of the love Christians should have for one another and respect for their consciences and sincerely held beliefs; and again, as some churchmen had always recognised, tolerance implied a humble acknowledgment that human beings are limited and fallible, so that any of us can be mistaken and no one can claim to possess the complete and absolute truth about the things of God; and related to that, recognition that the expression of unorthodox opinions can, by provoking debate and review of the prevailing orthodoxy, help to achieve a closer approach to the truth. All these we can see now were beneficial to Christian faith and practice.
While all this was going slowly forward among Christians, secular thinkers were busy devising secular creeds. They had various names – Communism ultimately became the most widespread – but one thing they had in common was an unshakeable belief in Progress, with a capital P. They each thought they held the secret to the way mankind should, or indeed had to, go; and for them this was so important that all dissenting views, like Christian heresies in the old days, had to be crushed and the purveyors of them severely punished. An early example was the Jacobins of the French Revolution, and later, in the 20th c., oppressive communist and fascist regimes in many countries imposed this kind of censorship on their peoples and tried to force them to believe in their kind of progress. When in the late 20th c. most Communist regimes fell many of us hoped that this blight on the lives of so many people had at last ended, and so to some extent it had; but secular notions of human progress do not die so easily. They re-invent themselves in a different form and reappear with renewed vigour, together with a renewed intolerance of dissenting opinions.
The trouble with Progress is that different people have very different ideas about it. Last month John Gray, an emeritus professor of London University, gave a radio talk with the title “Tolerance: the unfashionable virtue”. Some of you may have heard it. In it he said-
“Nothing is more unfashionable at the present time than the belief that we should respect the freedom of those with whom we deeply disagree. For many advanced minds tolerance means giving way to enemies of human progress. In this increasingly influential view guaranteeing free speech to a wide variety of opinion and beliefs is actually a form of repression.”
And he went on to point out that this way of thinking rested on the idea that the world is divided between good people who know the best way forward and wicked people who resist it. But as Christians had learned long before, and indeed should always have known, the world is not like that. We are all fallible.
Today’s intolerance differs from the old one in that it is largely imposed by a body of so-called liberal thinkers, who impose a censorship on themselves and then on others, and they are supported by a kind of mob on social media and elsewhere. The state is not involved, though the laws against hate speech can be misused to inhibit free debate. But apart from state action the consequences for those who fall foul of the new orthodoxy can be serious, involving for example loss of employment or removal from a professional register.
What, then, is the Christian idea of progress? I suggest that it is to be found in the first part of the Lord’s prayer, where we pray that God’s kingdom may come, and that his will may be done on earth as it is in heaven. Christians may reasonably differ about what the advancement of God’s kingdom means in practical detail, but it gives us a valuable framework formed of the teaching of Jesus Christ; and with that we must remember our limitations and imperfections, believing always that it is possible that we are mistaken. And secondly, a related point, we must remember that Christianity is not a political programme: Christ’s message was addressed to individual sinners, exhorting them to repent and to lead a new life following his commandments. If more of us attended to that message, a transformation of our collective life would surely follow. Amen.SERMON 30
SERMON August 30th. 2020 given by the Reverend Nick Morris
The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity Readings: Romans 12: v 9-end Matthew 16: v 21-end
The Epistle to the Romans is a superb book! Comprehensive in its execution and apt for its audience. Some assert that it was written, perhaps in the way one might conceive a novel, just to be what it is in itself. Others, myself included, that it was written as a pastoral letter, specific in response to genuine concerns of real people like you and I. I suggest to you, that if you read it for yourself, you consider it as an extended answer to the question,
'if Jesus is who we say he is, then why do we not live in a world of uninterrupted peace?’.
St Paul has much to say on the matter, an answer for everything, you might say, except he writes not as a know-all, but as one who has experienced all, as almost any chapter chosen at random from the book of Acts would testify.
Last week David confessed that he almost dare not open the newspaper these days, such is the pallor of despair surrounding our world. The Epistle to the Romans could hardly be more relevant!
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be able to catch up with my family, who still live in Wales, and whilst out walking one day, my nephew, aged 11, reminded me why being a prep school chaplain is such a privilege. There is an openness and naïveté which is more often present in the young and easily opens up into conversations of great meaning.
He simply offered the opinion that 2020 was a terrible year.
This is not a statement without justification of course, Covid has wreaked havoc upon our world. The impact upon his schooling, the impact upon his home life (which has required him to complete his primary education almost on his own: my sister works for local government in health management and was particularly busy, and he has two younger brothers), his sense of isolation and the general air of negativity surrounding health, work and the economy are all real issues and widely felt.
He has known nothing like it.
To fail to talk about this would be a failure of the media, to dwell in its shadow remains an issue for all. How do we face this as a world? What does it mean to look at it head on? When there is temptation to sweep things under the carpet, how should we feel about that?
Returning to Romans in a moment, let us consider, in Matthew’s gospel, the conversation between Jesus and Peter, which we began last week. In a context of mixed messages (which must be what Caesarea Philippi stands for: built as a homage to Rome by a mixed heritage Jewish king) Jesus is very clear how he is going to face his own fate, and that is very much head on, fully aware of both detail and consequence of this course of action.
Peter, with that similar naïveté that I mentioned, refuses to believe that this is the correct course of action, and says so. Jesus has drawn out the mixed message that Peter has a hard time unravelling in his mind. The Son of Man, an apocalyptic character from the latter half of the book of Daniel, is entirely irresistible as an agent of final and irrevocable Divine justice upon the earth. If so, he cannot be subject to suffering or death. But Jesus teaches that this ‘logical contradiction’ is to demonstrate to us that despair in the face of death is the thing that is ultimately wrong. This he will prove by a bodily resurrection, which will be the foundation of the apostles’ early proclamation, and the church’s witness ever since.
The death of Jesus is not simply a divine transaction to enable a ticket to heaven, it is a challenge to our way of seeing life. We are challenged to live with hope in all things. And so when my nephew despairs I have a responsibility not to despair with him. I do not dismiss his concerns - this time is unprecedented without doubt.
To dismiss would be to further miss that St Paul likely wrote this whole Roman epistle out of concern for his fellow church. And so it is to him that we turn to find out what we should say, and what we should look for for hope in such times as these. For he gives a list for those who would live hopefully in a dark world, clinging justifiably to the eternal hope which never fades. We are destined to live in a world which yields only occasional bright glimpses of this and so let us hang on to them - and live by them - as the church continues to embody the logical contradiction at the heart of the gospel message. To quote Jean Vanier, ‘A community must be a light in a world of darkness, a spring of fresh water… we have no right to become lukewarm.’
Listen then, to what St Paul writes to a church surrounded by despair:
Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honour.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Which he sums up as:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Take these to heart, and may all people, young and old, be reminded that there is always hope. Amen
SERMON 23 August 2020 given by the Reverend Canon David Reindorp TD DL Vicar of Chelsea Old Church
The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity Readings: Romans, Chapter 12 v1-8 Matthew, Chapter 16 v 13-20
We read that Jesus came into the district Caesarea Philippi. When you visit it is extraordinary. In a dry land it is flowing with water. It has a most curious history. It was built by Herod, the father of Herod whom we know from the trial of Jesus In his book I Claudius by Robert Graves he makes Herod a Roman citizen to all intents and purposes. It makes sense because Caesarea Philippi is totally Roman in construction, complete with aqueducts and baths. It is said that Herod made it as a tribute to Caesar Augustus and that is how it came by its name. It also had associations with Greek gods, so it is a place of the meeting of faiths and cultures and that is what may lie behind Jesus taking his disciples there for the great question,:
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he asks his disciples. The great New Testament scholar Bishop John Robinson who taught me said it was akin to theology by Gallup Poll.
The disciples have varying answers. ”Some say John the Baptist but others Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the Prophets”. Jesus then asks them the million-dollar question: “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answers. Peter the fisherman who was nicknamed by Jesus, the Rock. I am sure it was part irony because when the chips were down he proved so wobbly. But is was on him the Church was founded. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.
Jesus blesses him and says that this is God-given and then says these telling words:
“You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my Church”.
Here we are today. Our Church founded upon that Rock.
You don’t need me to say how difficult the times are. We are like all society having to alter our lives as a worshipping community. Bear with us through the alterations of our worship. Spare a thought of the mechanics of baptism, marriage and funerals.
The words of our second reading stand for themselves and are worth repeating verbatim.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,
By the mercies of God,
To present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,
Which is your spiritual worship.
Do not be conformed to this world,
But be transformed by the renewing of your minds,
So that you may discern what is the will of God -
What is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you
Not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think,
But to think with sober judgement,
Each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
For as in one body we have many members,
And not all the members have the same function,
So we, who are many,
Are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.
We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us:
Prophecy, in proportion to faith;
Ministry, in ministering;
The teacher, in teaching;
The exhorter, in exhortation;
The giver, in generosity;
The leader, in diligence;
The compassionate, in cheerfulness.”
I don’t feel I have anything to add to that.
Sermon for Sunday, 16th August 2020 Tenth after Trinity Readings: (1) Genesis 45.1-15; (2) Matthew 15.21-28
Our second lesson today, from St Matthew’s gospel, records an incident when our Lord has gone into gentile territory – the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. Modern translations of the gospel speak of it as a withdrawal, implying that our Lord’s visit is in the nature of a retreat: not for the purpose of evangelism. But even here his fame has gone before him, and he and his disciples are followed by a gentile woman who, rather surprisingly, addresses Jesus as Lord, and Son of David—she must have had some familiarity with Jewish culture; and she asks him to heal her daughter. The disciples regard her as a nuisance and want to send her away; and our Lord himself says that his mission is only to the lost sheep of Israel. But she perseveres, and finally comes and kneels before him and asks simply and touchingly: Lord, help me.
What Jesus says next causes some Christians acute embarrassment. He says: “It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs”. One modern commentator has called this ‘an atrocious saying’ expressing, in his words, ‘incredible insolence’ and based on ‘the worst kind of chauvinism’. But before we let fly with thoughts and language of that kind there are a few points we should bear in mind. First, for good or ill we today have become accustomed to mince our words and speak in tactful euphemisms in order to avoid causing offence or injuring feelings; but that was not the temper of those times, and our Lord always spoke plainly and directly where necessary to make his message understood. There is an example earlier in this same chapter of St Matthew’s gospel where we are told that the pharisees were offended by our Lord’s teaching about the Jewish law, and he called them blind guides; and elsewhere in the gospel he calls them hypocrites and vipers: no mincing of words there. The woman in this story was not of course in the same position as the pharisees: she was not being blamed for anything, so for her different considerations apply. I shall come back to that in a moment.
Secondly, for reasons connected with recent history and modern politics race has become for us a highly sensitive, almost a taboo, subject, rather like sex in Victorian times. I expect most of us tend to avoid it if possible, or if we cannot we feel constrained to tread very delicately; but again that was not so in our Lord’s time. And for the Jews in particular the matter of their race was very important, because they knew from their own scriptures that they were God’s chosen nation. It was to be through them that salvation was to come to the world, the salvation of which our Lord himself was the living embodiment; and “dog” was an epithet often applied by the Jews to the gentiles, so that the woman in the story, with her knowledge of Jewish culture, probably recognised it as signifying that she was an outsider.
But the third and most important point is this. The words of our gospel reading tell us nothing about our Lord’s demeanour and tone of voice when speaking to the Canaanite woman. We know from many incidents recorded in the gospels that our Lord had a remarkable insight into the lives and characters of those he met, even for the first time. This woman had already demonstrated by her perseverance in the face of silent rebuff both her love for her daughter, and her faith in Christ. We can be sure that our Lord not only perceived that but also saw in her a goodness, intelligence and inner strength that would not be easily offended or discouraged, and that perception would surely have been reflected in his demeanour and tone of voice when speaking to her.
So he tests her, using this Jewish reference to dogs; and sure enough she comes straight back with an apt and spirited reply: “Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” And our Lord, commending her faith, grants her what she desires. To my mind, far from being embarrassing, this is one of the more moving of gospel stories.
Finally, there is one other point to notice. Although our Lord said his mission was to Israel, he nevertheless granted the woman’s request: a rare example, though not the only one, of his healing powers being used for the benefit of a gentile. It was a pointer to the future: that after his death and resurrection, Christ’s sacrifice and the redemption of mankind through him would not be for the Jews only but for the whole world.
To see previous sermons starting 29 March 2020 click here
(Sermons for 13 September, 30, 23, 16, 9, 2 August, 26, 19, 12, 5 July, 28, 21 &14 June, Trinity and Whit Sunday, Seventh, Sixth, Fifth, Fourth, Third, Second Sunday after Easter, Low Sunday, Easter Sunday, Good Friday Addresses and 29th March)
Also the Good Friday Addresses; first, second and third cycles here