All posts by Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 14

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 14,

13th September 2020

Exodus 14 verses 19 – End    The Lord protects the Israelites Matthew 18 verses 21 – 35 The unforgiving servant

  1. Battle of Britain.  Last weekend, on Saturday 5th September I met three members of the family of Squadron Leader Philip Campbell Pinkham, who 80 years ago as Commanding Officer of 19 Squadron RAF took off with his Squadron from an RAF airfield in Essex and who was shot down by an incoming a German Luftwaffe aircraft somewhere over the River Thames, crashing on the North Downs just above the Pilgrims Way in Birling parish.  We met to remember the sacrifice of a young man of 25 who, in common with many other pilots in the Battle of Britain, lost his life in the defence of his and our country.   I had the privilege of dedicating a new memorial cross at the place where he died and saying a prayer of thanksgiving with the family members and others at this place with its marvellous view Southward to West Malling and Borough Green.  As Mayor’s Chaplain I was able to convey the greetings and the appreciation of Cllr Jill Anderson of this act of remembrance just within the boundary of our Borough.

2. Exodus.   During the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings, the Israelites lived through  a very stressful and uncertain 40 years.   As we look back on that period of the formation of the nation of Israel, with a record written from a theological perspective it is easy to miss the uncertainty that many ordinary people felt.   There were those who often criticised Moses’ leadership saying it would have been better to stay in Egypt as slaves than to endure the hardships of life in the desert.   Our first reading this morning reminds us of the early stage of that uncertain period.   The Egyptian army was pursuing the escaping Israelites and so, suddenly they were confronted with the Red Sea in front,  the Army behind and possibly soon be round their flanks as well – no escape. “Help.  We have had it now”, many of them must have been thinking and even voicing aloud.   Suddenly a dark cloud comes down between the Egyptian Army and the Israelites, the wind gets up and blows with gale force to thrust the shallow waters of the upper Red Sea out towards the Indian Ocean and the Israelites are able to move forward in the early morning light.

Sunday 15th September 1940 is regarded as the turning point in that Battle; a point when the Royal Air Force began to gain the upper hand and obtain air superiority over the German Air Force.  Hitler was intent on invading England, but he knew that he could not do that until he had air superiority.   He was taken aback as the Luftwaffe with superior numbers began to loose the upper hand.   Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command revealed in his memoirs that he attributed the success in the Battle of Britain to ‘divine intervention’.   Incidentally, on that Sunday our Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, with his wife Clementine, visited the Sector Operations Room at RAF Uxbridge, to witness at first hand the progress of the battle that day.  The operations room was restored about 25 years ago, with the plotting board as it would have been at some point on that Sunday.   Although RAF Uxbridge closed as an RAF Staion about 10 years ago the operations room has been retained and is open to the public (battleofbritainbunker.co.uk).   Usually Battle of Britain Services are held on or close to the 15th September.   This is not a full Battle of Britain Service, but it seemed appropriate to recall today that critical time in the life of our nation, a time of great uncertainty, 80 years ago. 

A word about the walls of water on either side.   They have been portrayed quite often in children’s Bibles and in films as huge vertical walls of water perhaps 100 feet high.   Quite sufficient to cause a thinking person that the whole account is either made up or grossly distorted.   In the Hebrew language, the original language of the Old Testament, there are two words, translated as ‘wall’.   One is ‘Chomah’ used of a defensive wall such as a city wall or of an enclosure such as an orchard or vineyard.  The other is ‘qir’ used of the wall of a house or other building.   The word used of the Exodus is ‘chomah’.   It therefore is describing the water as a protection of the Israelites, since it prevented a flanking movement by Pharaoh’s army.   The water needed to be only 3 or 4 feet deep to prevent such a flanking movement and didn’t have to be vertical as in the wall of a house.

Some Israelites did not share the belief of their leader, Moses, in the God of all creation.   They did not perceive that God was using his own creation, with the laws of its operation, including providing air superiority, to facilitate their escape from Egypt.  They did not see that God was laying the foundation of a great plan of salvation that succeeding generations would celebrate in the Passover Festival as God’s supreme act of salvation of his chosen people.   Such people would easily have looked back on that night and said “Phew! That was a lucky escape!”.  Such people, without faith in God, found the deprivations and uncertainity of the wilderness experience more that they could bear.  They repeatedly complained about their leaders.

3. Uncertainty.            Most of this year we have been living and are still living through a time of uncertainty.   Restrictions were easing but with the possibility of a resurgence some restrictions have been reimposed, both in this country and in other countries.   No longer is it a fight between one country or alliance of countries and another, but rather of all countries fighting an unseen, a hidden, enemy.   However the threat is also a global force for unity and even cooperation against this common enemy.   There have been plagues throughout history, there are always illnesses abounding and it is difficult to understand the causes and the working of such things.   The human race, with its huge population, is having unexpected effects on the whole natural world.   In dense populations disease spreads more readily.   It is difficult to understand the place of viruses in the created order.   The chief certainty of life is that each of us will die.   Part of the wisdom of life is to live positively, through uncertainty, towards that end,.   This in part is done by a firm belief in God our Creator, who knows us each one, who loves us each one.   The Exodus and wilderness experience was a challenging time for the Israelites.   By no means all rose to the challenge.   When the twelve spies were sent out to make a reconnaisance of the Promised Land, only two came back with a report based on faith in God and his promise.   We have the evidence of the supreme and loving God in his great saving act of the New Covenant, achieved through our Lord Jesus Christ.

I was but 4 years old at the time of the Battle of Britain and was evacuated from Kent to Devon.   For those living here in Kent, those in London enduring the nightly bombing, it must have been a very challenging time, when some lost hope.   One of the good things to come out of the Second World War was the founding of Missionary Aviation Fellowship, as three former RAF officers, two pilots and an engineer, believed that God was calling them to use the skills that they had acquired in wartime to serve him in peacetime in serving countries in Africa.   That new venture which has flourished over the past 75 years, now flies in around 26 countries in the world.   The last surviving founding member, the Engineer Officer, Stuart King, who continued throughout his life to take an active interest in MAF, died on 29th August at the age of 98.   We thank God for a humble, dedicated and visionary servant of God.

Let us, who are living in a particular time of uncertainty, not only because of Covid 19 but also not knowing how we will progress as a country, when we fully leave the European Union in a few months time, continue to trust in God, a loving and faithful God.

1418 words                                                                                                                                                  Christopher Miles

Sermon – Trinity 11

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow 10 a. m. on Trinity 11, 23rd August 2020

Exodus 1 v 8 – 2 v 10    Birth and upbringing of Moses

Matthew 16 vv 13 – 20  Peter’s confession of Christ

Introduction.       Julia and I returned 9 days ago from a two-week family holiday in Cornwall.  On the Sunday morning two weeks ago we all attended the Tube Station in Polzeath, where we were staying.   This is not a new station on London’s district line, but a Christian venture started about 10 years ago in the former Methodist Church, to reach out to surfers.   About 50 of us sat on and around a large grassy bank overlooking the beach at Polzeath for a simple act of worship.  Some guitar led music to which we were allowed only to hum, a time of prayer and a sermon.  Our preacher, Caroline, spoke movingly of how God had led her with her husband to move very recently from Orpington to take up Christian ministry in Cornwall.  I went up to her afterwards and just said ‘Christ Church Orpington’.   ‘Yes’ was her reply.   I spoke of my links, including preaching there in May 1968 and the mentioned more recent ministry including being Vicar of Leigh at which an elderly woman nearby joined in and said did I know Ken and Gladys Skillman.  I did.  The woman is Caroline’s mother and Ken and Gladys, no longer alive were her parents, that is Caroline’s grandparents.  Ken sang in the choir at Leigh and Gladys and Julia did meals-on-wheels.    Having lived for well over four score years and lived in over 30 places in 10 counties and met 1000s of people I so often find unexpected links with people.  

Today’s first reading relates the birth and upbringing of Moses the leader of the Israelites in God’s great saving acts of the Exodus.  It is fascinating to note the people whom God used in the preparation for the Exodus – members of Moses’ family and others.   In our Gospel reading we heard of the climactic point in the preparation of one of the foremost leaders of God’s people of the New Covenant, the Apostle Peter.

As then, so now, God uses the coincidences of life, the calling of the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of many people in the work of his kingdom in preparation for the climax of the Kingdom of God in Christ’s return to earth.    Let us look more closely at the outworking of God’s plan of salvation, through Moses, through Peter and through ourselves.

Moses.   ‘Call the midwife’.  It is not only The King, Pharaoh, who calls the two Israelite midwives, but the King of Kings. Pharaoh’s instructions were to kill the boys, who 20 years later might form a revolutionary army, but to let the girls live.  The midwives calling of God was to preserve life not to destroy life.  They were women of faith in the one true God and were prepared to risk their own lives in disobeying Pharaoh. It is good that we know their names, Shiprah and Puah, for they deserve to be held in remembrance as God’s agents who risked their lives in fulfilling His plan of salvation.

Next, we think of the unnamed mother of Moses, who hid her baby boy in defiance of Pharaoh and who no doubt instilled in her young son a sense of God’s promises to his chosen people.  When it was no longer possible to hide her son, Jochebed, as we learn in Exodus Chapter 6 was her name, devised a cunning scheme that involved what was technically a means of disposing of unwanted children, to put Moses in one of the many channels of the Nile Delta in the land of Goshen, where, under Joseph the sons of Israel had settled.  Pharaoh’s palace was at Rameses, Egypt’s capital city, in the land of Goshen.  If the Pharaoh at that time was Rameses II who had about 60 daughters, it was quite likely that this particular princess, possibly called Tharmuth, had a regular habit of coming to a particular place in the river.   On this occasion the baby was put in a carefully constructed basket, placed in the reedy shallows, safe from the river current.  Jochebed, a woman of faith, had an important but risky role in God’s plan of salvation.

Moses’ elder sister, no doubt carefully briefed by her mother, also had an important role in God’s plan.

We know little about the Princess, although she was a woman of compassion and with the status to exercise her compassion, possibly hiding from her father the origin of the baby.  Maybe with the large number of princesses this was not difficult to do.  God can use people of good will, albeit outside the fellowship of his chosen people, to achieve his plans.   She would have seen to it that Moses had a good education.

So, four women and a girl, who guided consciously or otherwise by His Spirit were essential agents, through the coincidences of life, through God’s call and in cooperation were important agents in preparing his chosen leader of the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to the threshold of the Promised Land.

Peter.       Let us now move forward from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, to a leader who may seem a surprising choice to take a leading role in implementing God’s plan of salvation, when Jesus would no longer be physically present with his followers.  Jesus and the 12 close disciples had gone to Caesarea Philippi in the mountainous country in the North of Palestine, close to the border with Syria and not to be confused with Caesarea, much further south, on the Mediterranean coast.  It was a time of reflection, away from the crowds, a time of Jesus preparing the 12 for his death.   The 12 had accompanied Jesus in his 3 years of public ministry, they had eaten, rested, discussed and slept together during this time.  They had witnessed Jesus healing, teaching, preaching, encouraging and challenging people throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria and sometimes further afield, with his concern for Gentile as well as Jew.   To carry on the work of the Kingdom of God, he needed followers who were thoroughly committed, who understood and believed fully in his role.  He knew that his own death would be a great challenge to the 12, including Peter who takes him to task as recorded in the same chapter of Luke, just after today’s reading.  Were the 12 just taking a popular view of him as a prophet or as the Messiah?  To start the ball rolling he asks them what people are saying about who he was.  People will often express views about a leader to his followers, his fans, that they would not express directly to the leader.

  Some surprising answers come back.   Some say John the Baptist, whom Herod Antipas had had beheaded.  What a superficial judgement, considering John was Jesus’ cousin, only a few months different in age and John had baptised Jesus!   Some were saying that he was Elijah.   There was more justification for this as the last words of the Old Testament, in the book of the prophet Malachi, state God as saying to him, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Mal 4 vv 5, 6).  Malachi was not saying that there would be a literal resurrection of Elijah but that there would be a prophet in the mould of Elijah; one who would fearlessly challenge both high and low, rich and poor and that if they responded in repentance the result would be family harmony, social wellbeing, but if not then a terrible outcome.   Jesus had made clear to the 12 at an earlier stage that actually John the Baptist was the one who fulfilled Malachi’s prophesy.  Thirdly some people were saying that Jesus was a prophet in the mould of Jeremiah or maybe another of the prophets, perhaps because he apparently foretold the destruction of the temple and frequently challenged the national leaders.

    Jesus then puts a more challenging question to the 12, “What about you?  Who do you say that I am?”    It is easy to have a general discussion, but not so easy when it becomes a personal challenge.   In their witness of Jesus’ ministry had they been able to see deeper than the perception of the generally sympathetic response of much of the population?  Only the answer of Peter is recorded, with his inspired statement of his belief, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  There is not time this morning to consider Jesus’ enigmatic response about the rock.   We must get personal.

Our response.  Today many people of other faiths or none would say that Jesus was an outstanding teacher or a prophet.   Some years ago, as the Multifaith Coordinator for the Air Cadet Organisation I had discussions with leading people of other faiths, who at that time were the appointed advisers in their faiths to HM Forces, as to how they understood chaplaincy.  This was with a view to us appointing chaplains of other faiths.  I was having a discussion with the Muslim Adviser, Khurshid Drabu, a barrister who was Vice-President of the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. After about an hour’s formal discussion, I concluded with a ‘throw away remark’, “Don’t Muslims accept Jesus as a prophet.”  I was quite surprised by Khurshid’s response, “Yes, indeed, in some respects greater than Mohammed, for only Jesus healed people.”   Let us be glad that Muslims and many others accept Jesus as a prophet. As we saw in our Old Testament reading, God can use people of good will in achieving his plans of salvation, as he did with the Egyptian princess.   But what about ourselves?   Jesus’ question comes to us today, “Who do you say that I am?”  God wants people whether lay or ordained, young or old male or female, to take forward the work of his kingdom.  The gospels record only two other people who made a firm confession similar to that of Peter, and both of those people have always had a ‘bad press’, doubting Thomas, one of the 12, and Martha, who was cumbered about with much serving.  Can you say today with the Apostle Peter, in response to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”    

Christopher Miles

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow Church 10 a.m. on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, 15th March 2020

Romans 5 vv 1 -11 Peace and joy come through suffering approached positively John 4 vv 5 – 42 Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Sychar

1. Introduction

The Duke of Sussex arrived in the French port of Marseille. When the official asked him for his passport, he had to admit that he had none. He was summarily required to present himself at the Town Hall and apply for one. He soon found himself before a municipal clerk, who was bowed over his paperwork on his desk. The clerk took out a passport form and, without looking up began to fill it in.

“What is your name?” asked the clerk.
“Augustus Frederick” replied His Royal Highness (no, not Harry, for the year was 1791).
“No other name?”
“No”
“Who do you belong to?”
“To my father and mother.”
“Are you of the department of the Mouth of the Rhone?”
“No sir”
“Of what department are you?” (Pause)
“Of the department of the River Thames”
“What is your father’s name?”
“George.”
“What trade does your father follow?”
“He is King of England.”

When Jesus arrived in the region of Samaria at the town of Sychar he was met by a woman coming to the well outside the town. After a considerable conversation in which the woman diverted attention from her personal situation, to controversial questions about the correct place of worship, the woman says:

“I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Jesus responds, “I who speak to you am He.”
The King of kings arrives in foreign territory

I think that this account of Jesus’ ministry is the most amazing account of the all four gospels, with perhaps the exception of the raising of Lazarus. This morning I want to look at three aspects of this encounter, reconciliation, redemption and the laying of a foundation.

2. Redemption and Reconciliation

I have spoken before of Jesus’ concern for the poor, the despised, the marginalised, including especially the Samaritans. Jesus could have avoided going through Samaria on his return with the twelve, to Galilee but he deliberately goes by the shorter route albeit with the risk of re-buff, as did happen on another occasion. He deliberately waits at Jacob’s well outside the town, whilst the disciples go into the town to do some shopping. The well would have been a place of meeting for many, but more so in the cool of the early evening; not at midday. A woman comes on her own, probably deliberately when others did not normally come, for she may have been ostracised from society, seeing she was living with a man to whom she was not married and that she had had five husbands. Life may have been particularly hard for her; we don’t know what had gone on before. Perhaps she was strong minded and not prepared to put up with abuse from her previous husbands. In Jewish society and probably in Samaritan society it would have been considered improper for a man to speak in public with an unknown woman. Jesus is prepared to step outside the conventions of the day. Jesus doesn’t judge her. Far from even preaching to her to repent of her sins, he asks her to draw water and provide him with a drink. In outreach we need to be unjudgmental and willing to receive as well as give. The woman is a bit taken aback by Jesus’ friendly approach. The conversation very quickly and naturally goes on to spiritual issues, using water as an illustration of spiritual refreshment and renewal.

When the subsequent conversation goes on to the correct place of worship, whether Mount Gerizim, visible to them, being about 2 miles away, or Jerusalem, Jesus far from taking up sides, gives an answer that is not localised in a particular place but is universal, relating to our inner attitude and condition. We can worship God anywhere. The principles are to worship God in spirit and in truth. Today some people say that the Book of Common Prayer is the only form of worship that they can use. Others say we must use contemporary language if we want to reach out to people outside the regular fellowship of the Church. Others go further and say we should have a greater spontaneity in our worship and be led by the Spirit, rather than constrained by set liturgies. Some like to express their worship with their whole being, praising God with their arms outstretched. Let us be open to worship God in a variety of ways whether using the Prayer Book, Common Worship or quite different, approaches such as Messy Church. Let us accept one another. As the Coronavirus progresses, we may have to limit further our worship activity. Let us whether together or on our own, worship God in Spirit and Truth.

In this account of Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritan woman, he both redeems her to God and reconciles Jew and Samaritan. He is the Great Redeemer, the Great Reconciler.

3. Church foundation

Jesus is also laying a good foundation for the future Church in its progressive outward movement and universal principle. In Acts 1 v 8 Jesus, shortly before his ascension, instructs his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That third stage was reached very quickly, soon after the stoning of Stephen, one of the seven chosen deacons. Stephen in his speech before his stoning refers to Jacob’s body being brought back from Egypt to Shechem; to land which Abraham had bought. Probably Jacob’s well was close to Shechem, a town perhaps 10 miles SE of Samaria. It was near Shechem that the returning exiles of Israel built a temple on Mount Gerizim. Both town and temple were destroyed in the first century BC. The village of Sychar, only about ½ mile from Jacob’s well, was built up to be a town, in effect replacing Sychem. Philip the deacon, who would have heard Stephen’s martyrdom speech and during the subsequent scattering of the Church from Jerusalem went down to a city in Samaria, very likely actually went to Sychar, before perhaps going on to the city of Samaria. Jesus’ ministry, a few years before, had laid an excellent foundation for people to come to faith in the risen Lord Jesus. The unnamed woman of Sychar had brought a large number of the townspeople out to Jacob’s well to meet Jesus and now they not only believed him to be the Messiah, but that he had died and risen. The Samaritan Church was founded.

The Church of England is making a considerable effort to be a missional Church, to reach out to those outside its regular worshipping community, to have a concern for the poor, the marginalised, the immigrant, the people who are in the BAME category, Black, Asian and minority ethnic origin, to LGBT+ people, We recognise now that the way we treated immigrants from the West Indies in the 1950s and 60s, the Windrush generation of people, who had been encouraged by our government to come and work in the UK, was at times quite appalling.

On 29th February I attended the Bishop’s Study Day for clergy and Readers. The title of the study was ‘Scattered and Gathered – Fruitfulness in the whole of life”.

The main thrust of the day was that we place too much emphasis on the clergy when we think of the mission and evangelistic activity of the church and not enough emphasis on all church members in the their daily occupations as they meet people uncommitted to Christ, perhaps some, like the woman at the well of Sychar with an openness to hear and commit themselves and others who will never be regular churchgoers but will be influenced for good by the way we conduct ourselves at work, in leisure activities and the other aspects of our daily life. There are normally about 60 of us here on a Sunday morning. During a week, if we each meet with only 10 people, that is overall 600 people in just one week, who have been influenced for good (or ill) by our daily life. About 6% of the population of the UK regularly attend a church at least once a month. If each person in the 6% has a significant meeting with 10 people during the course of a week then about 56% of non-regular churchgoers, over half the population of the country will have been influenced by church members.

Tremendous opportunities. In our Deanery Ash Wednesday our Area Dean, Andrew Axon, in his sermon encouraged each of us the make Lent a season of deepening our relationship with Christ. I have never met the present Duke of Sussex, albeit I have once met his grandfather, but I look forward each day to meeting with the Son of God, the Messiah, or Christ, our Lord Jesus.