One of the biggest stories of the past week was the leaking of nearly 12 million documents revealing the hidden wealth, tax avoidance, and in some cases money laundering, of the world’s rich and powerful. Known as the Pandora Papers, the leaking of the documents shows how some of the most powerful people in the world manage to secretively hide away their wealth.
What is significant about the Pandora Papers is that they name names and provide documentary evidence. They highlight the way in which the rich and powerful will do their utmost to cover up their wealth and hide their financial activities.
But it struck me that this is not anything new. The Pandora Papers might give us names and details, but they don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about rich people in general. Because generally speaking, the rich have always wanted to hold on to their wealth and avoid sharing it with anyone else. It was as true at the time of Jesus as it is now. And one person in particular was really attached to his wealth – the rich man who accosts Jesus in our gospel reading this morning.
You can always tell when you’re in a restaurant that is trying to be a better class of establishment. Perhaps a local pub for a Sunday roast with family, or an evening out with friends. Because on the menu it will say seasonal vegetables as though that’s something special. Not just any old vegetables that happen to be in the shops. Seasonable vegetables!
When I was a child seasonal fruit and vegetables were nothing special. They were always seasonal – there wasn’t anything else. No looking down the rows of vegetables in the supermarket wondering what to buy this week– you simply had what was there. Well, let’s face it – there were no supermarkets – only the wonderful old Sainsbury’s with its one long counter and lots of assistants ready to get everything for you. They could do that, because everything that was available fitted onto the shelves behind them.
And as for bread – well, for starters it was delivered to the door by a man in a van. I can still remember the man who used to deliver ours. He came three times a week. There wasn’t a great deal of choice. He could fit some of each kind of bread into the basket that he brought to the back door – large white, small white, Hovis – that was it, and all baked at his own bakery. And you had to slice it yourself. I can still remember when he proudly announced that he would be adding Mother’s Pride sliced white to his range. My mother never bought it though – far too modern!
The 15th August is kept by many Christians as the feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Church of England it is a major feast day and even though it fell on a Sunday this year we are given the option of keeping the feast rather than doing what some churches do and transferring it to the 16th. So at St John’s we kept Mary’s feast on Sunday. Here’s what I said.
Every year thousands of young people, desperate for fame and fortune, audition for TV shows such as The Voice UK or The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. They’re all apparently convinced of their magnificent voices and star quality. This year, though, they’re out of luck. Britain’s Got Talent never happened. The Voice UK has still not produced a major new star. And Simon Cowell announced on the 28th July this year that the X Factor is no more. Where will aspiring singers find their route to stardom?
Of course, not everyone has star quality. As Simon Cowell said to one X-Factor contestant: If you were the only one in the competition, you couldn’t win it. And to another: My advice would be if you want to make a career in the music business, don’t. This comment I thought particularly mean: If you had lived two thousand years ago and sang like that, I think they would have stoned you.
And my favourite, to a contestant whose day job was as a lifeguard: If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing a lot of people would be drowning.
If I were to ask you to recite your favourite part of the epic Milton: A Poem I suspect most of you would be saying, “What? Never heard of it!” Anyone know the poem?
Well, most people don’t know the poem, let alone have a favourite part! But if I tell you that it’s by William Blake, and that it has a verse that starts: And did those feet in ancient time…, then you’ll probably think, ‘Oh, that!’ because it’s the poem from which we get the two verses of the hymn Jerusalem! (Note – Jerusalem is very popular in England)
Ask most people if they know the penultimate stanza of the hymn Sacris Solemniis by St Thomas Aquinas, and their reaction is likely to be again, “What? Never heard of it!” But play them a recording of Cesar Franck’sPanis Angelicus sung by Andrea Bocelli or the Kings College Choir and they’ll probably say, “Oh, that!” Panis Angelicus is Latin for ‘bread of angels’ and links with our readings for today.
Today, after a hiatus of sixteen months, we are allowed to start singing hymns again. We can once more give voice to our praises, and sing out as we worship. And singing is such an important part of our worship. It’s something that believers in our God have always done. The Old Testament is full of hymns – not just in the book of Psalms but elsewhere as well. The New Testament too. And there are three hymns in the New Testament that the Church attaches such great importance to that they are said or sung every day, as they have been since the earliest days of the Church.
And all three are in the gospel of Saint Luke. They are Mary’’s song of praise that we know as The Magnificat which is sung daily at Evening Prayer. Then Zechariah’s song of praise following the birth of John the Baptist, sung daily at Morning Prayer and known as The Benedictus. And Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis, which he uttered as he received the baby Jesus in his arms when Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple at 40 days old.
Now, as many of you know I rather like illustrating sermons with lyrics from popular music. So how could I pass by today without coming up with a song to fit? And given our gospel reading today, Mary’s song of praise, there really is only one song to choose.
I’ll give you a clue – it’s a Beatles song. And for those of you who haven’t immediately guessed let me tell you – it’s Let It Be. One of The Beatles most famous songs, with Paul McCartney singing:
Mark doesn’t record for us how the disciples reacted when Jesus says to them: Right – that’s enough from me. Now it’s your turn to go off and do some preaching and healing!
We hear right at the beginning of our gospel reading today how, when they get back they gather around Jesus to tell him what they’ve been up to. But what went through their minds when he first told them he was sending them out two by two, with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing and a staff?
I’m not a betting man, but if I were I think I’d be on to a sure thing in betting that their immediate reaction wasn’t: That’s a great idea Jesus, when can we start?
Jesus, as we know, spent a great deal of time talking to and teaching his disciples. But there’s no substitute for actually doing the job. And no matter how much Jesus taught his disciples he knew that the best way for them to learn about the practical aspects of spreading the gospel was to send them out on their own to preach and to heal. And so off they went.
And I bet that when they first went off there was – to put it mildly – a certain degree of reluctance:
Hang on a minute, Jesus, we’re not quite sure about this – don’t we need a lot more teaching from you, first?
Not sure we know what we’re talking about really – aren’t you coming with us? We could do with a bit of support.
What if that healing thing doesn’t work? We’ve never done it before. We’ll look silly if nothing happens!
At the start of our service today I said that the theme of our service is Travelling Light. And we’re going to think a bit more about that now. But to get us started here’s a joke for the scientists among you.
A photon walked into a hotel and asked, “Can I have a room for the night?”
“Certainly, sir,” said the man behind the desk, “Do you have any luggage?”
“No,” said the photon, “I’m travelling light!”
If you’re not a scientist, and don’t understand the joke, it might help you to know that a photon is an elementary particle which is the quantum of the electromagnetic field and the force carrier for the electromagnetic force – it has no mass and travels at the speed of light. Or it might not!
Today we’re thinking about travelling light.
The problem with the weather in this country is that you can never be quite sure what’s going to happen.
If you’ve been a parent you’ll have experienced it: It’s not fair!
And I’m sure many of you can remember saying that as a child. I certainly can! And I can remember my mother’s response: Life’s not fair. Get used to it!
Interesting how children have such an innate sense of fairness. And yet how many of us lose that when we grow up. It’s been said: Sharing is fun – unless it’s your own stuff that’s being shared.
In our first reading today we heard Saint Paul talking about richness and poverty, and in particular about the need for those to whom he is writing in Corinth to give financially. It’s about sharing and fairness.
For a time in the 1970’s the British public were subjected to a great deal of industrial unrest. Some of you will remember those times well. Our daily news programmes on TV showed images of streets which were not cleaned, rubbish which was not collected, power-cuts, trains and buses which didn’t run. I worked in a bank during the seventies and I vividly remember during the three-day week of 1974 cashing people’s cheques by candlelight, and desperately trying to get the banks emergency generator running so that we had at least one computer running with which to process the day’s transactions.
The worst industrial action of that period became known as the Winter of Discontent over the winter of 1978 to 1979. There seemed to be trouble everywhere and everybody seemed to be on strike. The then Prime Minister, James Callaghan, returning from a trip abroad, was met at the airport by dozens of journalists who asked him what he was going to do about the crisis, about the mounting chaos the country was facing.
Trying his best to play down the situation, the Prime Minister responded in words that were subsequently paraphrased by The Sun Newspaper as: “Crisis? What crisis?” This underestimation of the gravity of the situation very soon afterwards cost Mr Callaghan his job – he lost a confidence vote in 1979 and then lost the subsequent election. Apparently he thought that by saying there was no crisis he would help people to feel better.
Of course, as I’m sure everyone here knows, Crisis? What crisis? is also the title of the rock band Supertramp’s fourth album released in 1975 – but that’s actually completely irrelevant to my sermon this morning! But I thought I’d mention it.