THE ADVENT HOPE DURING AN ELECTION

A Sermon preached be Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mark’s, Highcliffe, on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8th, 2020, just before the General Election

Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

Lord, open your Word to our hearts this Advent, and our hearts to your Word always.  AMEN.

75 years ago this Advent, in December 1944, the German Pastor and Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was imprisoned in a Gestapo Prison in the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse in Berlin.  He was well-known in Germany, and in other parts of Europe and America, had been a Pastor to the German Lutheran Church in London, and was very involved in the Oecumenical Movement in Europe, at that time in its infancy.  He had recently been moved from the Tegel Military Prison in Berlin to the much harsher and more dangerous Gestapo Prison, from which, the following April, a few days before the end of the Second World War, he was taken to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and at the very end to Flossenbürg, where he was murdered on the personal orders of Hitler after a very brief show trial.

I’m thinking about him quite a lot at the moment, partly because it’s 75 years since all these events happened, and his martyrdom shouldn’t be forgotten, and partly because I foolishly agreed to deliver a paper on him to an academic theological society next Spring.

What was this Pastor, Theologian, Oecumenist and Teacher, doing in prison?  Since the rise of Hitler in 1933, Bonhoeffer had been part of that section of the Lutheran Church in Germany, called ‘The Confessing Church’, which had opposed Hitler and all that he stood for.  The other group, the much larger one, the so-called ‘German Christians’, also opposed some of what Hitler stood for, but felt that the way to do that was by being part of the system, and hoping to change it from inside.  That’s not an unreasonable strategy, but on this occasion it was horribly wrong.

Since 1933, Bonhoeffer had quietly worked across Europe to let people know what was happening in Germany, and that there were people who were resisting it.  He was part of the Abwehr, in effect a double-agent, pretending to be part of German Intelligence, but in effect working for those who opposed Hitler.  He also, strikingly, and felt it was part of his Christian duty, was a peripheral part of plots to kill Hitler – although this wasn’t discovered by Hitler until April 1945, which was what sent him into an absolute rage, and led to his order to kill Bonhoeffer about three weeks before he himself committed suicide.

75 years ago, at Christmas 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, and enclosed a remarkable poem, which is now sung as a hymn in Germany, the first and last verses of which read:

With every power of good to stay and guide me,

Comforted and inspired beyond all fear,

I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,

And pass, with you, into the coming year.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

Boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.

At even and at morn God will befriend us,

An oh, most surely on each new-born day.

[Bonhoeffer, Metaxas, p.497f.]

They’re so profound, and so full of faith and hope and love, I’ll read them again.

Now, as well as wanting to remember Bonhoeffer, I’ve spent some time describing him and his last poem for two reasons – Advent, and the General Election.  And there is a theme, reflected in Bonhoeffer’s poem, which joins them both; and that theme is ‘Hope’.

What sort of hope does Advent bring?  The reading we heard from Isaiah is a vision of hope for the Israel of his time.  The ‘shoot from the [root-]stock of Jesse’ is the one whom Isaiah thought of as a great leader of David’s line to bring hope to his people; and the one whom we as Christians think of as Jesus, coming to bring hope to the whole world.  This ‘shoot’ will be full of wisdom, he will judge for the poor with righteousness, and there will be such peace in the land that the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the calf and the lion will eat together, and the ‘earth will be [as] full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ [Is 11:9].  Advent is a time of hope, as we look forward to the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth.

On Thursday, I spent the day in Breamore Primary School, doing Prayer Spaces – there were three prayer activities around one of the school values, Justice, and each class was divided into three.  There are five classes, so during the day, we each did our activity 15 times!  Mine was focussed on the words ‘Your Kingdom Come’ – a prayer for God’s Kingdom to come on earth, as it is in heaven.  And the responses from the children were fascinating and delightful.

John the Baptist longs for that Kingdom to come.  ‘One who is more powerful that I is coming after me’ [Matt 3:11].  His vision is of a Kingdom where justice prevails – I’ve always thought that John the Baptist would be an uncomfortable dinner guest.  He cuts through hypocrisy and cant, and sees clearly the repentance and change which there needs to be to allow God’s Kingdom to break in.

Advent is a time of hope, as we long for the Kingdom of God to come, now, on the earth, in our own generation – a Kingdom of justice and peace and hope for all people.  And we long for God’s Kingdom to come at the end of all time, whatever that might look like, as all things are wrapped up in God’s love.

And there is a sense in which the General Election should be a time of hope.

We had an Election Question Time on Thursday evening in Fordingbridge Church.  All four candidates for this Constituency were there, and I shared the chairing of the evening with a sixth-former from our local school.  It was a good evening, and we heard about many of the concerns of voters, and the responses to them of the candidates.

If we took the words of Isaiah 11, and the preaching of John the Baptist in Matthew 3 to heart, what sort of hope would we expect from our political leaders?

We would learn that God is one the side of the poor and marginalised; that there is a concern for the quality of community life in our cities, towns and villages – we all belong together; we would hope for an economic system which is stable, sustainable, non-exploitative, and which shares its benefits with the whole of society; we would look for Justice – at home and internationally; and we would expect responsibility for and stewardship of our world in the light of the changing climate, and all the effects that that will have, especially on the poorest people in the world.  As the Bishops have written in a paper recently, we would expect our Government to be ‘working for the Common Good’, for a strong, stable and cohesive society.  And we know what an enormous challenge that is for any government.

As we come to vote on Thursday, and many people may have voted by post already, we need to pray for our political leaders, to pray for ourselves as the electorate, and to pray for our candidates.  Pray that the Election may be a vote for hope – and I think we’ll need a lot of prayer for that to be the case! 

We, as Christians, should stand for hope – because we know that Jesus, our Incarnate God, Emmanuel, God with us, came into the world at Christmas, preached a Kingdom of love and hope, died on a Cross on Good Friday and rose again on Easter Day to bring hope to all the world.  We stand for hope, and we should be working for hope, in our worship, in our communities, by our vote, and in all that we do and are.

As Bonhoeffer wrote in his last poem:

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

Boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.

At even and at morn God will befriend us,

An oh, most surely on each new-born day.

And I’d like to finish with the Prayer which the Bishop of Winchester, Bishop Tim, has asked us to use in this election time:

God of hope,

in these times of change and uncertainty,

bring together our communities

and guide our local leaders with your wisdom.

Give us courage to overcome our fears,

to be patient and compassionate with one another,

and to seek a future

in which all may prosper and share;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

AMEN.

REMEMBRANCE POETRY – Reflections at Evensong on Remembrance Day

Canon Gary Philbrick, Remembrance Sunday, November 10th, 2019, 6.30p.m., St Mary’s, Fordingbridge.

Ps. 40:1-10, I Kings 3:1-15. Romans 8:31-end

Three poems for Remembrance Sunday:

The first is in memory of Nelson French, a regular at Evensong, whose funeral is next Friday, and who asked to read this a poem year ago today at the Evening Service of Prayers for Peace and Reconciliation, as we commemorated the Centenary of the end of the First World War.

One verse is very familiar – we heard
it at the Remembrance Service this morning – the rest less so.  This is one of the poems which was written
during the early part of the War, in 1914, in fact, when the full horrors of
the war were just beginning to become apparent.

It’s called: For the Fallen, by Laurence Binyon:

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 

England mourns for her dead across the sea. 

Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 

Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 

There is music in the midst of desolation 

And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 

They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning 

We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 

They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 

They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 

They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 

As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 

Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 

To the end, to the end, they remain.

Source: The London Times (1914)

The second is the one that was on the back of the Order of Service this morning, and alluded to, but not read.  This was written in 1919, and is Siegfried Sassoon’s Aftermath. It has a particular link here, as there is a memorial on the wall, by the North Door, to William Robert Hewitt, who died at Mametz, which is near the Somme, in France, and which is mentioned in Sassoon’s poem.  Amazingly, Siegfried Sassoon, who was born in 1886, didn’t die until 1967.

Aftermath

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same—and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-gray
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget!

And the third is The Poppy, by Paul Benton.  Paul is a joiner, curiously, from Benton in Newcastle, and wrote this in 2014, after seeing a Facebook post from a friend who was a serving soldier, and who wrote, ‘It’s more than just a poppy’.

The Poppy

I am not a badge of honour,

I am not a racist smear,

I am not a fashion statement,

To be worn but once a year,

I am not glorification

Of conflict or of war.

I am not a paper ornament

A token,

I am more.

I am a loving memory,

Of a father or a son,

A permanent reminder

Of each and every one.

I’m paper or enamel

I’m old or shining new,

I’m a way of saying thank you,

To every one of you.

I am a simple poppy

A Reminder to you all,

That courage faith and honour,

Will stand where heroes fall.

1919: END OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR; BEGINNING OF THE SECOND? A Sermon at the Remembrance Day Services in Fordingbridge.

Preached by Canon Gary Philbrick on November 10th, 2019.

Matt 5:1-12

1919 – One hundred years ago.

1919 was the year that the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28th – we commemorated the occasion in the Memorial Gardens on June 28th this year when a plaque was unveiled commemorating all of those who died, and all of those who suffered, in the First World War.

The Treaty of Versailles formally brought the First World War to its end, imposed harsh requirements on Germany, and has been seen by many as France’s revenge on Germany for its defeat in the Franco-German War of 1870. 

It’s also been seen as paving the way for the Second World War – but more about that in a few moments.

1919, one hundred years ago, was also the year that Siegfried Sassoon wrote his poem Aftermath – copied to the bottom of this sermon, with its question, ‘Have you forgotten yet?’  And his reason for asking that question, ‘For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days, Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways’. 

‘Have you forgotten yet?’  Well, the answer is, ‘No!  We haven’t forgotten yet’.  One hundred years on, ‘At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, We will [still] remember them’.

In the second verse, Sassoon asks, ‘Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz – The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?’

We have a link with Mametz here in this Church.  William Robert Hewitt, who died in the Battle of Mametz, is commemorated on a plaque on the wall by the North Door.  William Hewitt was a Gunner in the Royal Field Artillery, ‘the largest arm of the artillery, responsible for the medium calibre guns and howitzers deployed close to the front line [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Field_Artillery].  He was a Gunner, the artillery equivalent of a Private, and he was just 19 when he died.

Mametz was part of the Battle of the Somme, in France, which took place in Western France from July to November 1916.  Over a million men were injured or killed in this terrible Battle.  We do still remember Mametz.

Siegfried Sassoon ends his poem of 1919, ‘Have you forgotten yet?…  Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget!’

1919 – One hundred years ago.  The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and the writing of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, Aftermath.

November 11th, 1919 one hundred years ago tomorrow, was also the first occasion of the keeping of the Two Minutes’ Silence.

It was in the Spring of 1919 that Edward Honey, an Australian soldier and journalist, working in London at the time, wrote a letter to the London Evening News suggesting a period of silence to mark the signing of the Armistice which marked the end of the First World War on November 11th, 1918 – ‘The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ – and in November 1919, George V proclaimed that there should be the Two Minutes’ Silence – and it has been used at this time every year since then – nearly 100 years.

The Manchester Guardian reflected the next day: ‘The first stroke of 11 produced a magical effect.  The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses…stopped also… Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also… Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of attention… An elderly woman wiped her eyes… everyone stood very still.  The Hush deepened.  It had spread over the whole city… It was… a silence which was almost a pain… and the spirit of memory brooded over it all’ [SCF, Festival Brochure, 2018, p. 35] [Pause].

1919 – One hundred years ago.  The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the writing of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, Aftermath, and the first keeping of the Two Minutes’ Silence.

But just move on in your minds twenty years, if you can – to 1939, when on the 1st of September, after many years of build-up, the Second World War began – just twenty years after the end of the First.  If you’re young, twenty years may seem like for ever.  If you’re older, twenty years is like the blink of an eye.

It’s impossible for me to imagine how awful it must have been for that whole generation, all of whom would have been affected by the First World War, to be going to War again.  And there are many ways in which the Second World War can been seen as a continuation of the First.

As we remember all of those who suffered through and died in both World Wars, and in many other conflicts, we should be grateful that, despite all of the problems Europe has had during the past seventy-five years, we have had three-quarters of a century of relative peace in Europe – probably longer than at any other time in recorded history.

And we do remember the past, we haven’t ‘forgotten yet’, but we remember so that we can look to the future.  Towards the end of this Service, Mike will lead us in an Act of Commitment.  We’ll be asked three questions: ‘Will you strive for all that makes for peace?’  ‘Will you seek to heal the wounds of war?’  ‘Will you work for a just future for all humanity?’

They’re quite big questions, and they might seem a bit remote from some of us.  How can we make them real?  Two thoughts as we look for an answer: firstly, the reading from Matthew’s Gospel which the Mayor read for us earlier.  These sayings of Jesus are called the Beatitudes [Matt 5:1-12].  ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the merciful’, and ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’.  The Beatitudes are Jesus’ summary of a way of living which connects us to other people, and which draws us towards God, the maker of us all.  They’re about how we live our everyday lives – are we living simply for ourselves, or are we living, as Jesus did, in service of others?

And, secondly, in answer to those three questions, we can only start where we are, and with the resources we have.  Someone once said, ‘If you want to eat a mountain, you have to do it one spoonful at a time’.  If we want to change the world, we have to do it one step at a time.  We start where we are.  Can we be agents of peace and healing and justice in our everyday lives?  And if we can change something locally, can we also begin to change something globally?  The answers are ‘Yes’, we can make a difference locally and globally, and honour the memory of the past by shaping the future in positive ways.

30 years ago, on November 90th 1989, ordinary people showed they could make a difference by doing something which had seemed impossible just a few weeks earlier – climbing over the Berlin Wall, and starting a process which led to the reunification of Germany.  We have the power to make a difference by breaking down the barriers we find between people.

Sassoon’s poem ends, ‘Have you forgotten yet?…  Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget!’

We haven’t forgotten, we won’t forget, and we commit ourselves to work for a just and peaceful future, so that all of God’s people may live in freedom, and with peace.  Amen.

Aftermath (1919)

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same—and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-gray
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget!

‘THE MOST CONFUSING PARABLE’ – Luke 16:1-13 – The Parable of the Unjust Steward

A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, and Sandleheath Uniting Church on Trinity 14, Sunday, September 22nd, 2019.

I Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

Trying to explain Parables is rather like trying to explain jokes – the risk is of ruination, rather than elucidation.

And that’s particularly so when we come to a Parable as tricky and as difficult to understand as the one we’ve heard this morning – the so-called ‘Parable of the Unjust Steward’ from Luke 16.

If you search on the internet for this Parable, you’ll find articles like ‘Oh no! Is it really time for ‘The Parable of the Dishonest Servant’’; or ‘The Strangest of them All’; or ‘The Most Confusing Parable’.

So, if you’re puzzled about what Jesus is trying to say in this Parable, you’re in good company.  And if you’re not puzzled, you may just possibly have missed something!

I wrote a dissertation on Parables some years ago, called ‘Imagination and the Parables’, thinking about Jesus’ imagination in creating them, the imagination of the first hearers, and our imagination in listening to them many times.  And one of my recommendations was that we need to try to illuminate the Parables, without trying to explain them.  We need to discuss Parables in a way which enlarges the imagination, rather than dampening it down – that’s my challenge for this morning.

And one of the chapters, a really fascinating one to research, reflected on the titles of the Parables, and where they came from – not from Jesus, of course – they started to be used once Bibles started being printed at the time of the Reformation, initially as a sort of index, at the top of the page or in the margin, and then rather more polemically; and I also looked at what effect the titles of the Parables have on the listener.

This Parable is generally called ‘The Dishonest Steward’, or ‘The Unjust Steward’.  But is that what it’s really about? What effect would it have on us if we thought of it as ‘The Parable of the Thoughtful Master’? Or ‘The Parable of the Right Use of Money’?  Or something else – you could have a go at thinking of new titles for this Parable, and see what effect it has on your imagination and understanding.

The next thing to understand is that very few of the Parables are allegories.  That is, there aren’t many when you can say that something or someone equals something or someone else.  In this case, thinking that the ‘rich man’ [v. 1] = God, or the ‘master’ [v. 8] = Jesus.  Allegories work by tying the imagination down, by explaining what is going on in a story, and there are examples of allegories and allegorical explanations in both the Old and New Testaments.

But Parables generally work differently – they are about expanding the imagination, about helping us to think about God and ourselves in a different way, in a new way.

One or two background details about this Parable.

Firstly, Jesus tends to use everyday objects – yeast, wheat, seeds – and everyday stories – the lost sheep, the sower going out to sow, and, quite possibly, in this case, an item from the Galilee Journal about a dishonest manager.  He’s chosen a story from the everyday lives of his hearers – at this point, his Disciples.  I wonder whether they’d heard such a piece of news, and been arguing amongst themselves – which we know they did – about the ethical issues involved.

The rich man is very rich!  The amounts of produce mentioned, the olive oil and the wheat, indicate a large enterprise.  The man is very rich, and he can afford to carry large debts.

The Manager, the Steward, is an important man.  He is in effect the Chief Operating Officer of the Estate, dealing with large amounts of money and produce, and in a position of considerable trust and patronage.  All his worries, expressed in verses 3 & 4, are genuine ones for a man in his exalted position.  He is worried that he would be reduced to manual labour, for which he is not constitutionally suited, and he’s worried about where he’ll live – he’s living in tied accommodation, of course.  And so he decides to use his patronage, and his authority over his master’s assets, to buy himself friends, so that someone will take him in when he’s turfed out of this job.

We might want to pause for a moment to reflect on the likely success of this scheme.  There may be someone who is grateful enough at having his large debt reduced substantially, who might be happy to welcome the Manager into his home; but I wonder how that might affect his relationship with the Master, the rich man – to whom he still owes debts, even if they are now much smaller.  And I also wonder how many others would think it a good idea to employ the Manager in a similar position, given that he seems rather free with his master’s wealth.

The twist in the Parable, and there is often a twist – the twist comes when the Master, in verse 8, commends the Manager, not for his dishonesty, but for the shrewdness of his actions.

Now verse 8 is a particularly interesting verse [See Green, Gospel of Luke, p.593f.].  As I read it, think about who is speaking: ‘And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light’.  In the first half of the sentence, it is the master who is speaking; in the second half, there is a very swift sideways step, and it is Jesus who is commenting on the story.  The master applauds the manager, not for his dishonesty, but for his acuity.  Jesus the goes on to reflect on why he told the story.  He seems to be saying, ‘[the] Children of this age…understand how the world works and use it to their benefit; why do [the] ‘Children of Light’ not understand the ways of the Kingdom of God?’ [Ibid, adapted].

Jesus is drawing on the image of time being divided into two ages – this age, and, as we say at the end of the Creed, the age ‘of the world to come’.

‘That Jesus can speak of the manager as one who is commended by one of his own generation for his having prudently taken advantage of the systems of this world and as [dishonest] is…not surprising.  [The] wisdom on the part of

[the]

‘Children of Light’, on the other hand, would take its directives from the new [age], the age [of the world] to come’ [Ibid, adapted].

That leaves us with the question, what sort of wisdom should we, as children of light, the children of the new age, be using?  If the ‘children of this age’ use money to buy influence, to save themselves, how should the ‘children of light’ use their money and possessions?

Verse 13, the famous verse which used to be translated as ‘You cannot serve God and Mammon’, makes it clear that we cannot have two masters – it’s not saying that we can’t have money and be a Christian.  It is saying that we need to choose which of the two will be the master, and which will be the servant.  Is our money to be used in the service of God, or are we going to try to use God in service of our wealth?

Verse 9, not an easy verse to interpret, seems to be suggesting that we use what we have in ways which lead to eternal life.  And verses 10-12 reflect on faithful service – being faithful in small things, so that we can be trusted with great things, the things of the Kingdom of Heaven, the wisdom of the children of Light.

What might we take from this Parable?

All of us, especially those in the rich West, need to reflect on our relationship with our money and possessions.  What’s in charge of what?  How do we use what we have in service of the present and coming Kingdom of God?

And what does it mean to be faithful and honest in the small things of life, so that we develop habits of faithfulness and trust for the large things in life?

And there is much else to be mined from this, the strangest and most confusing of all Parables – which is why you have it in Partners to take away with you and mull over during the coming week.  AMEN.

THE GOOD SAMARITAN – WHO IS MY NEIGHBOUR?

A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick on Trinity 4, Sunday, July 14th, at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge and Sandleheath Uniting Church, on ‘Rural Mission Sunday’ and ‘Sea Sunday’

Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37

If you were in a really, really difficult situation, who would be the last person you’d expect to help you?  Just ponder for a moment.  Who would be the last person you’d expect to help you?  [Pause].

That person, Jesus says, is your neighbour!

And that about sums up the parable we call ‘The Good Samaritan’.

This is such a familiar parable, one we’ve probably all known since primary school, that it’s very difficult for us to imagine the impact it would have had on its first hearers.

But we don’t always take note of the context, the topping and tailing of the parable.  Why did Jesus tell it on this occasion?   Because, I bet he told his stories more than once, even though they are usually only recorded once in the Gospels.  Why did he tell it on this particular occasion?

Firstly, the lawyer wanted to ‘test Jesus’.  He’s already in an adversarial situation.  ‘‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’  He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’’ [Lk 10:25f.].  The lawyer, of course, knows the law, so he can reply, using the formula derived from the Shema in Deuteronomy 6 [:5] and the law of neighbour love in Leviticus 19 [:18, See Green, ‘The Gospel of Luke’, p. 428], using what Jesus himself in Matthew 22 [:34-40] describes as the Great Commandments: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself’ [Lk 10:27].  Had the lawyer simply accepted that, perhaps Jesus would have told the Parable of the Good Samaritan!  But the lawyer didn’t want to lose face, he wanted to justify himself – so he asked ‘And who is my neighbour?’ [V. 29], and so the parable is told.  ‘And who is my neighbour?’

But note the question Jesus asks at the end of the parable: ‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers? [V. 36].

The lawyer asked ‘And who is my neighbour?’  Jesus asked ‘Which of these …was a neighbour?’  Jesus turns the question around, and gives it a significantly different meaning for the lawyer and for us.

The lawyer was wanting to know whom he should regard as a neighbour; what sorts of people should he regard as a neighbour?  To whom did he have an obligation under the law?  Who were the ‘in’ people to whom he had a duty, and who were the ‘out’ people, whom he could ignore?  Jesus reply turns that around: to whom should the lawyer be a neighbour?  ‘Don’t worry who your neighbour is,’ Jesus seems to be saying.  ‘Just learn how to be a neighbour and you’ll discover who your neighbours are’ [For some thoughts on this, see ‘Reconciliation’, Muthuraj Swamy, pp. 93ff].

If we could learn to be neighbours to those around, the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, would fall away.

Or to put it another way: if you were in a really, really difficult situation, who would be the last person you’d expect to help youThat person, Jesus says, is your neighbour!

It’s Rural Mission Sunday, a day of prayer and reflection on the particular ministry and gifts of the Rural Church.  How do we become neighbours to all of those living in our small towns and villages?  Who are the people we ignore in our communities, often the ones who are in most need of a neighbour?

And today is Sea Sunday?  How do we become neighbours to all of those whose work is on the seas, providing us with many of the things we need and want as they are imported by sea?

I thought one way of reflecting on these issues would be through some images, which are on the sheet sheet HERE.  You might like to have a look at them, and either think about them on your own, or chat with a neighbour – what do you see in the images?  Which appeal to you, or don’t appeal?  What do they have to say about being a neighbour?

I’ll end with an anonymous poem, which you can also read on the sheet with the link above:

Good Samaritan Poem: On the Road to Jericho

We invested in goods to sell in the trade city of Jericho

and I walked the long journey with my loaded donkey.

I stopped that last night at an inn

poised on the edge of Jericho’s wilderness valley.

The neighbours at my table did not look promising;

holy men who carried scrolls not knives,

shabby companions on this last stretch

where you need someone who will stand firm beside you,

someone good for a fight.

That next morning I left the inn alone,

the dawn just crowning;

leaving the door open in my haste,

the innkeeper slammed it as she hissed after me,

“Born in a barn, were you?”

In half-darkness I led my donkey down the steep road.

 

It was mid-morning when it happened.

I heard them before I saw them,

the six bandits clattering down the rocks.

Enough time for me to assess the situation, ‘grim’,

to muster my courage and grab my knife.

‘Give us what you have’, they yelled,

which only made me smile,

picturing my sons, and me telling them,

‘They asked for your inheritance, so I gave it to them’.

And so I fought, but the odds were against me.

They broke my arms, and beat me

and took everything, even my clothes,

and left me on the side of the road,

listening to the sound of our savings being led away.

 

I drifted in and out as the pain overpowered me,

but I knew that help was on its way.

Those holy men were on the road behind me,

an hour or two at most and I would be saved.

I woke to see that priest’s heels walking away.

My voice also deserted me, too dry to call for help.

The vultures arrived at the same time as the levite,

I was watching them trace lazy circles in the cloudless blue

as he circled wide around me,

the blood and flies too unclean for his hands, no doubt.

I lay baking in the hot son, waiting for death.

 

A man on a donkey appeared on the road from Jericho.

A foreigner, he greeted me with the words, ‘Friend, I’ll help you’.

He put me on his donkey, no mean feat with my broken arms,

and took me to the inn I’d left that morning.

The innkeeper shook her head as she looked from my wounds to my face,

‘Ah, the man born in a barn’.

They tended to me day and night,

and now weeks later I still sit here mending, on the Samaritan’s tab.

 

Last night the holy men, the priest and levite,

were neighbours at my table as they took their homeward journey.

They would not meet my eye, which is not surprising.

I do not know whether they noticed that I could not meet theirs.

I have no bitterness at what they did not do,

instead my mind is haunted by what might have been.

Had they set out first, and I came upon one of them, broken and bleeding,

would I have unloaded my donkey, left my fortune by the road

and carried them to safety?

Or would I have minded my own business?

I received mercy, but would I have given it?

Each day, I am forever on that wilderness road.