Sermon for 4th Sunday after Epiphany – Year B – 2014. “Responsibilities before Rights”

Sermon for 4th Sunday in Epiphany – Year B – 2014

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Life together – Responsibilities – not Rights

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come,
but woe to anyone by whom they come!
It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.

On more than one occasion, I’ve come close to being killed in the Scottish mountains, but it was probably the first occasion that sticks most forcibly in my mind. In the days long before OSH I was part of a school party climbing in the Cuillin Hills – the most technically demanding ‘walking’ territory in the UK. It was just Easter and large parts of the hill were covered in snow and ice. On a day with no views, our guide had led us to the highest point on the Island, the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, and we had just begun to descend by ‘The Great Stone Chute’ – a 1000’ scree filled gully, that was on this occasion full of snow in the upper reaches. The previous day, with a couple of friends we’d climbed such a gully and so I had few if any fears . . .

Moving-Together-on-a-PD-Alpine-Ridge_medium

Only two of us in the party were wearing crampons. So everyone else dutifully took their axes and started the very slow and laborious business of kicking steps in order to descend. I was one of the two with crampons. I had no idea how to use them, but it seemed straightforward enough, after all they dug well into the ice and my friend with the other set also thought so, as he (somewhat more experienced than I) set off at a fair trot down the gully. I wasn’t sure. But it was too tempting . . . so I set off after him, and after about three of four paces slipped. Covered in waterproof gear as I was, this was for about three or four seconds a far more fun way to descend, until I realised that I was accelerating at an alarming rate. I’m not sure how far I fell. All I know is that something in my head kicked in – In my minds eye, I saw the instruction manual I’d read on Ice axe breaking (I kid you not! This WAS before OSH :-) ), and performed a perfect self arrest. Our guide when he got down to me, was I guess mighty relieved, not least as he told me later because as a member of the mountain rescue team, he’d recovered the body of a man from that same place just the previous week, who’d been unable to stop . . .

And of course, reading St Paul’s junctures regarding eating meat ‘sacrificed to idols’, this incident leapt to mind . . . OK, so I might need to fill in one or two gaps :-)

Right at the beginning of our shared story, in the early chapters of Genesis, a question is asked which reveals the depths of our human predicament. Cain asks God, ‘Am I my brothers keeper?’ In the time of Jesus, human’s being rather sophisticated and advanced in their deceits, the question has evolved, progressed, and it is now – ‘Who is my neighbour?’

Cain’s question can be rephrased, ‘Am I responsible for the life of my brother?’. The question of the Rabbis, foolishly assuming we all know the answer to the first question in ‘Yes of course you are!’ sought to evade responsibility by asking ‘Yes. But Who counts as my brother? my neighbour?’ This was how rabbis worked. You asked a question and they answered with a question. It’s something we find Jesus doing all the time. At least they accepted in principle that one bore responsibility for the life of their brother . . . which is perhaps more than can be said for our age.

Back to that cold mountain. First thing to note. No-one suggested that my friend was careless of MY safety when he, with far greater experience and knowledge started almost to run down the gully . . . it must be said that my method of descent was somewhat faster ultimately :-) This in itself was somewhat of an indictment of the day as the first rule of mountaineering is that we do need to look out for the other. If for example you are roped together crossing a sharp ridge and our companion falls to one side of the ridge, you must throw yourself off the other side, thereby saving both of your lives . . .

The questions – ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ ‘Who is my neighbour?’ are indicative of our desire, having freed ourselves from God, to disconnect ourselves from one another. We most certainly don’t really consider the metaphor of a party of people roped together along a treacherous ridge to be a metaphor for life in general, let alone the life of the church.

But let us say we take as Truth, that we Are responsible for the physical aspects of the lives of one another. That we shall have to give an account of our feeding of those who are hungry, etc. Surely we’re not responsible for the state of their souls???

As I said last week, The Protestant Reformation, though in many regards well intended, was an exercise in thrashing around in the dark and did as much if not more harm than good, thus is the effect of most if not all human attempts to ‘put things right’. One of the big negatives was that it gave the impression that this Salvation Life was in essence a matter of individual beliefs, not Shared Life in and through which we are Saved, that is ‘caught up into the Life of God through Jesus Christ’. And of course, because it became a matter of belief, it was disembodied and the idea of a Soul became less and less significant.

We know how it is with souls in this day and age. We kind of assume we’ve got one, but our interest in them goes little further than posts on Facebook regarding the likelihood that animals have them as well. The idea that it is something which we should attend to – seems somewhat alien (after all, how many have been brought up in the church being taught how to attend to the sate of their soul??). The idea that we are as responsible for the state of another’s Soul!

My long term Spiritual Director was an immensely wise woman. One of the very first to be ordained a priest in the Church of England. One day talking about her own experience, she recounted her latest session with her own Spiritual Director, another woman. Christine, in discussing the trials and tribulations of parish life had said, ‘Well, at least I’m not responsible for their Salvation!!’ To which her Director came back to her quick as a flash ‘Whatever gave you that idea!!!’

Paul, unlike us, does not understand the human condition in individualistic terms. He knows that his life is with his brother. That we are all mutually and totally interdependent. This is why he is so strong in his letter to the church in Corinth on their factionalism – on their lack of sacrificial love for one another – their lack of concern for one another that they will happily make sure they are well fed and take no heed to their brother or sister who is not. And those who have no concern for the effect their actions has on the soul of the other. The Corinthians were so full of their own self importance, this message of freedom in Christ, that they imagined they were free to live utterly as they saw fit – without any thought for the soul of their brother.

As we come to it, we meet the matter of meat sacrificed to idols where Paul sets out the problem. For a devout Jew, and indeed for other God fearers, idols were to be fled! and to eat meat sacrificed to them . . . was to participate in the life of the idol. But Paul had come with this message of freedom in Christ, telling them that idols were nothing at all. And so SOME amongst the Corinthians happily ate meat even though they knew it had been used in these pagan sacrifices. And one suspects rather mocked ‘the weaker brethren’ who had doubts. Some ate with a clear conscience, but others, could not, but were being persuaded to . . . and St Paul once more, as last week shocks us. LAst week he said ‘Why not rather be wronged? If you take offence you have already lost!!’ This week he tells the Corinthians – you who are so Wise in your own eyes, You must restrain yourselves for the sake of the conscience of the other. If you are genuinely so knowledgeable, then you know that Humility is the path that you must walk, self denial for the sake of the weaker brethren. True Knowledge is revealed in laying down our lives for one another

Listen once more – I paraphrase
“Since some have become so used to thinking about idols as real,  until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8“Food will not bring us close to God.” {You say} [It is true] We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. [As Jesus our Lord said – Woe to any who give such occasion!!] 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? {They are not fully persuaded, so they partake in what they still think of as sinful action, because you are so bold} And then his language is strong “So because you are so determined to do it Your way, because you are puffed up with your knowledge, those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.  And, when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

And if we find this a strange way to think, perhaps it is because we have lost sight of our own souls, and those of those amongst whom we live. Paul puts it so very strongly, If by my eating meat, my brother’s conscience is defiled, I will never eat meat again.

Which brings us finally to the consecration of Bishop Phillip North as Suffragan bishop in what would have been my Diocese back in England. Most if not all of us are aware of the consecration this week of Rev Libby Lane, the first female bishop in the Church of England. A joyous occasion and I with many others am delighted – not least my friend Dave whom we’ve met on screen, and who will soon have the joy of the inevitable ‘first pastoral interview’ with his new bishop :-) BUT there are still some who cannot in good conscience accept this – and so the Archbishop of York who has presided at Libby’s consecration, has asked that none of the Bishops who laid hands on her lay hands on Philip North, for I assume, the sake of his conscience. Sentamu did this I understand without consulting Fr north,, whom I know is a most godly and gentle man – for which he is being excoriated. And before we all leap to our Knowledgeable barricades in defence of The Truth – screaming ‘to hell with his conscience’, as some do over this and other matters in the church, let us pause.

Really? To hell with his conscience? Surely this can only be said by someone whose conscience has been itself killed off? As I said, we think nothing of our souls in this day. For those who say, his conscience doesn’t come into it, surely you would not yourself go against YOUR conscience??? ‘Ah!! one replies – but in this I am right!! I AM RIGHT!
As St Paul says, knowledge puffeth up . . . and so the blogosphere is full of indignation. St Paul says, those who claim to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge – that is the knowledge of their own soul that leads them into the path of humble love . . . Paul himself is convinced in his own mind that eating meat sacrificed to an idol in not a sin, but for the sake of those who do not possess that knowledge he is prepared never to eat meat again, so seriously does he take his responsibility for the soul, that is the eternal life of his brother. He knows what Jesus says about those who lead little ones, the weak, into sin. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck – probably crying as they went.YES, BUT I WAS RIGHT!!!

My friends knowledge of how to use crampons had almost led to my death, as I, silencing the voice that said, that doesn’t look safe, set off in pursuit – killing off the small voice, nearly killed me. When we begin to understand a little the sinful motions of our own heart, we also learn great gentleness with those with whom we disagree, even if seriously.

St Paul once more – finally with a helpful test. He says of conscience I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.

Our hope in truth is not that we are Right but that God is. As I once said, perhaps the most frightening moment of my life was not falling down a mountain, but when my spiritual director carefully helped me to confess that ‘I would prefer that I am right and God is wrong’. It was as if the earth had opened up under me.

It is a sign of our plight that this is true of so many . . . ‘I wouldn’t want to worship a God who didn’t tell me how right I am’

Lord have mercy on us all

Bishop does something inexplicable – in other news, yellow circle of light appears in the sky

Somewhere on a small island a long way away from here, an Archbishop will do something which seems to many, if not most, to make no sense

At this point, this blog could turn into an extended reflection on the absence of Church History from what is left of ‘theological training’ in some parts of the world. Suffice to say, ‘So?’ Anyone with the slightest grasp of the history of the last two thousand years will find little of interest in this ‘event’, an observation which only goes to reinforce my urge to write on our lack of ecclesio-historical awareness, as ‘the media’ has been full of ‘it’.

But it is the lack of another, deeper and more significant awareness, which I find  inexplicable – far more so than the actions of a Bishop, Arch or otherwise. And that is the awareness of fact that the Church is a collection of sinners, and sinners do things which make no sense – Continually.

Unfortunately it appears that we are largely ignorant of this. It seems we nowadays believe that the Church is full of machines – whom like all the machines with which we are surrounded, never go wrong . . . or if they do we only need to replace them with a better one . . . We are under the demonic [sic] conceit that ‘there is no reason why everyone shouldn’t be good’ – ‘why everything shouldn’t ‘work” – ‘why bishops shouldn’t be able to fix everything’. Why else the outpouring of moral indignation etc.??

More evidence for this is seen in our (changing) approach to clergy and episcopal training. A Church on a small island a long way away from here, has decided to cherry pick promising candidates for the episcopate and put them through an ecclesiastical version of an MBA – ‘because clearly what we need are better management skills’ (the human mirroring of those ‘Oh so dependable’ machines – as we increasingly become like that which we worship . . .). No doubt to turn out bishops who look like this.

People who wear suits – whom our upbringing has taught us to trust because ‘they are obviously very clever, and of course that is what we need in the church’. If we make clever people bishops, all will be well, they will be able to fix things . . . (Of course those who hope that the decision of the Church of the small island far away to consecrate women as bishops will ‘fix’ this – probably has failed to note how, as was pointed out to me by one of the first women to be ordained in that church, ‘they all end up looking like the men’, and b) they’re sinners also.)

Yet more evidence of our ludicrous hope that somehow we can ‘fix’ the church is the inexplicable habit in some quarters of asking people to put their names forward to be bishop. Each then explains why under their ‘just and gentle rule’ the world will be a better place . . . and, ignoring the fact that they’re all sinners we tend to believe at least one of them (because we are also sinners). We pray about it, because we ought to, all the while ignoring the fact that we are sinners, and then we elect one of their number. A majority of folk say ‘Now everything will be better! Bishop John ‘is a wonderful person’ or Bishop Susan ‘has a Great plan!’ (All the while quietly complimenting ourselves on our ‘discernment’) A minority are disappointed. Some of those passed over leave in high dudgeon, because the Diocese has made ‘such an ‘inexplicable’ choice, ‘my plan for fixing everything was far better’. There is a big service at the Cathedral where words like ‘hope’, ‘future’ and ‘confidence’ are bandied around, and sooner or later the new Bishop does something ‘inexplicable’ . . .

Of course if we knew our church history we’d not be surprised, but like sheep who are disturbed every morning by that yellow ball in the sky . . .

 

Some years ago one of my former tutors at college gave a wonderful talk on false understandings of our Life in Christ. In it he compared Thomas the Tank Engine – a tale of a railway on a small fictional island, off the coast of a small island a long way away from here – to that rather wonderful and scary book ‘Where the Wild things are’. At the time I heard it as a gentle ribbing of those who understood the bible in that good old Deuteronomistic way – “Be Good! everything will be well”. A world where ‘everything works’, and when it doesn’t we say we’re sorry and everything is working properly again. (Thomas the Tank Engine was after all written by a nice middle class English Vicar in the 1950s) His point was that ‘faith in its glory’ wasn’t really like that, it was much more like the exuberant, unpredictable world conjoured up by Maurice Sendak.

Yet I cannot fail to surmise that at root so many in the Church think along Thomas the Tank Engine lines, not in terms of ‘Being Good and it will all work out’  – but because they have forgotten that we are sinners, (except in a rather nice 1950s middle class sort of way – ‘we occasionally do something naughty, or indeed ‘inexplicable”) We think that we know how it should be fixed, we think we know the faults of others, we can see how it would be better if only they listened to us, read our blogs . . . We are all busy playing The Fat Controller . . .

The Church is messy, very very messy, of course, because it is full of sinners, and no piece of legislation (think Microsoft patch), no ‘new bishop’, nothing is going to change that, except people who wake up to the reality deep in their hearts that we are all ‘under the same condemnation’, and put down their stones, and their spanners . . . that is how the true healing of the Church, and thus the World comes about

 

This run of blogs etc. on the actions of an Archbishop on a small island a long way away from here, puts me in mind of a series of articles run by ‘The Times of London’, in the days when it went under that moniker. It was entitled ‘What’s wrong with the World?’ Perhaps unsurprisingly the editor was not scratching around to find someone to opine, and numerous luminaries, men in suits, perhaps even bankers . . . wrote lengthy articles explaining EXACTLY what was wrong with the world.

Eventually it all became too much for one reader, who responded with ‘a letter to the editor’, thus

 

Sir,

‘What is wrong with the world?’

I am

Sincerely yours

GK Chesterton

 

It also put me in mind of a recent saying of Pope Francis, pointed out to me by a friend

‘We should all become islands of mercy’

 

As Someone once said

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

 

It is rumoured that he was Not a sinner, yet we crucified him

And there are even wilder stories going about that he was raised from the dead

 

Now THAT is inexplicable . . .

 

 

Sermon for Epiphany 3 – Year B – 2014 ‘Securing our own existence?’

Sermon for 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Sunday 25th January, 2014

Jonah 3:1-5,10

1 Corinthians 6:1-11 (alteration to Lectionary reading)

Mark 1:14-20

‘Securing our own existence? Why not be wronged? Why not be defrauded?’

Amongst all the giants of those who correctly diagnose the human condition, I believe it fair to say that not enough attention has been paid to one of my fellow country women. For her perception of the condition of the human soul, there are few who would dare compare themselves to . . . Beatrix Potter . . .

Farmer, award winning breeder of the best Herdwick Sheep, natives of my home Lake District – and one who has seen deep into the dark heart of the human condition. And as evidence for this perhaps preposterous claim, I offer you ‘The tale of Tom Kitten’

Now there is not time to tell all of this intricately woven fable of human existence, told in the form of a parable involving animals – so to fill in a few details – There were once three kittens, Mittens, Moppet and Tom Kitten – who loved to play in the dust, but one day, their mother, Mrs Tabitha Twitchit, was expecting friends to tea – So Moppet, Mittens and Tom Kitten had to be wash and suitably dressed, before the arrival of ‘fine company’.  Faces scrubbed – and squeezed into ‘all sorts of elegant and uncomfortable clothes’, ‘Mrs Tabitha Twitchit unwisely turned them out into the garden, to be out of the way while she made hot buttered toast . . .’ Well of course like any children sent out to play in the garden in their best clothes . . . it was not too long before all the clothes were in disarray, indeed, dirty, torn and eventually discarded, where they were espied by the puddle ducks . . . where we pick up the tale ‘Mr Drake Puddle-Duck advanced in a slow sideways manner, and picked up the various articles. But he put them on himself! They fitted him even worse than Tom kitten “It’s a very fine morning!” said Mr Drake Puddle-Duck. And he and Jemima and Rebeccah Puddle-Duck set off up the road, keeping step -pit pat, paddle pat! Pit, pat waddle pat! THEN Tabitha Twitchit came down the garden and found the kittens with no clothes on. She pulled them off the wall, smacked them, and took them back to the house.Tom-Kitten-22“My friends will arrive in a minute and you are not fit to be seen; I am affronted!” said Mrs Tabitha Twitchit. She sent them upstairs: and I am sorry to say she told her friends they were in bed with the measles; which was not true. Quite the contrary; they were no in bed; not in the least. [SLIDE] Somehow there were extraordinary noises over-head, which disturbed the dignity and the repose of the tea party . . .

How like Life :-) We’ve made all our plans – we decide what a perfect life would look like and we set about securing it for ourself – this is the way we want life to be – we’ve made a huge effort to get everything right . . . and then others mess it all up! And the dignity and the repose, the elegance and the refinement, or the quiet perfection of life as we’d like it comes crashing to the ground . . . and the question is – what do we do next?? For like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit, it is others who refuse to co-operate – it is as if we surrounded like willful children . . . how often do we hear the complaint, oh they really need to ‘Grow up!!’ for like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit, we are affronted!!! We exclude more and more others from our life, we try to secure our existence, and if that means I go nowhere near so and so, all well the good . . . and our lives shrivel as we surround ourselves with those who reflect the person we’d like to be back to us – in other words, we are lost in our selves, like Narcissus who can only bear to see himself in the world around him, who cannot bear to be wrong, who cannot bear being wronged . . .

Which is all well and good until we come to the Church, for in Christ, we are all one body, called to Life Together with no get outs. We cannot at once be close to God in Jesus Christ, and distant from those who refuse to co-operate with our attempts to secure life on our own terms, to give us what we want . . . as if that was their role, as if they existed for us . . . for we cannot bear to be wronged . . .

St Paul was not blind to this in the life of the church in Corinth and his words to us may well unmask our own attempts to secure a life for ourselves. For he finds that the Corinthians are not sorting out their disputes amongst themselves, rather they are taking their fellow Christians to court (which sounds terrible until of course we remember that in the C20 Christians went to war with each other over ‘higher ideals’ . . .) One of the glories of the Scriptures is that there is no papering over the cracks, the naughty kittens aren’t sent upstairs as if they didn’t exist – here in the Bible we read of how God’s people still forgotten who they really are – that their lives are no longer their own. So Paul asks a shocking question, I wonder if we heard it?? Rather than try and assert your ‘rights’ he asks, ‘Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?’ Why are you so insistent on trying to secure this Life you have built for yourself?? You see you cannot build a life for yourself and follow Jesus, because Jesus invitation to follow him is to leave the life we build for ourselves behind, and accept the true life he offers us . . . there is no carefully refined respectability in the Kingdom of God, there is just the life of Jesus, who sleeps in the dust, who is wronged, who gives up all rights . . . and yet whom God raises even from death.

Elsewhere Paul says to the Corinthians, ‘But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.’ In this he is entirely like Christ who

Listen to what St Peter says about Jesus . . . to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’

When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. Jesus is utterly wronged, but his security is not in his own sense of self  worth, which can all too easily be torn to shreds like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit’s plans for a dignity and repose. His security is in the very life of His Father, God. That is what fills his consciousness

When we like Mrs Tabitha Twitchit are ‘affronted’ – when we shudder for the repose and dignity of the life we have tried to make for ourselves is assailed – it is a sign that we haven’t begun to follow Jesus. We are still trying to secure our own life – and we are rejecting the life he calls us to. The disciples are called from the life they have made for themselves to a life with Jesus. A life in which we are healed from our deepest sin, our desire to have life on our own terms.  He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

And that is the heart of Baptism – the abandonment of our attempts to build a life on our terms – to follow Jesus, the one who entrusts himself entirely to ‘the one who judges justly’

Salvation – Sharing in Life, in Time and Space and Relationships. Sermon for Second Sunday after Epiphany – Year B 2015

Sermon for Second Sunday after Epiphany – Year B (2015)
1 Sam 3:1-10
1 Cor 6:11-20
John 1:43-51

Participation

‘Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said
“Surely the LORD is in this place and I did not know it!”
And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place!
This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel’
[which means ‘House of God’]
Full Participation

The TIME of heaven and earth woven together
Well, we’re just back from our family holidays – and I’m glad to say, well rested and refreshed. Which is a good thing, for our culture has a prohibition against too many holidays :-) Partly of course because, as a secular culture it does not know what to do with the Holy, and thus has little time for Holy Days, which is of course where the word comes from, but we have forgotten.
In the middle ages, those times which so fuelled the imagination of our great literary heroes, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, it is estimated that the hardest working person worked for no more than half the year, for the calendar was interspersed with many many Holy Days – days for rejoicing and feasting – and whilst in the more Catholic inclined cultures, there are still relics of this – I vividly remember a family holiday when Paris ground to a halt on August 15th, the feast of the Assumption of Mary – by and large the grim culture of Protestantism has won out and our Salvation is no longer Gift but something to be worked for, despite the fact that it is the Protestants who ‘told us’ that Salvation was by faith alone – and so work displaces holidays, for Protestants of course have little time for the Holy, it being useless . . . Catholics may have been criticised for living as if one was saved by works, but their lives betrayed the sense that they knew they were saved by Grace and our culture which is profoundly shaped by the Protestantism of Northern Europe and now of course the United States is profoundly one of what Josef Pieper calls ‘total work’ – we rest in order to work, we go to school to learn how to work. Our culture is historically the most work obsessed of all in human history, and of course the most secular, apart from the Chinese, and they are similarly obsessed with work. Different ideologies but the same secularity. Work makes you Free is the motto of our age
So holidays are no longer holy days, and they must be limited or of course the world which we tell ourselves is sustained through Grace by the Word of Christ, will obviously stop. There is some talk of Life as Gift and Grace, but our lives reveal what we really believe. And not only are they not holy, there are few of them. The great genius of the Medieval synthesis, the product of 1000 years of Christian Imagination was this weaving together of the Sacramental tapestry.  The weaving together of Heaven and Earth – So time was woven through with Holydays – and also Space was understood to be woven together
The SPACE of heaven and earth woven together
As we look around us at all the manufactured articles which fill our houses to overflowing, and will one day fill a hole in the ground, our medieval forebears would look on with horror. ‘Where did all this metal come from? And all this plastic? What have you done to the Good Earth in order to take these things for yourselves?’ In early to mid medieval Europe at least, the earth was not to be tilled with iron, for it was to do Violence to the Creation. The idea that the mining of ‘resources’ which is central to our lives in this age, is a violent abuse of the Created order never passes our minds – yet one need only to take a moment to look at the poisoned lakes of China, the leveled mountains of The United States, the tar fields of Alberta, the hollowing of Western Australia and, yes the state of our own rivers – to know that this is profoundly true, perhaps these poor benighted medieval folk saw more clearly than we do.
The earth was sacred, in the sense that all of Creation was participating through Grace in the Life of its Creator – Christ, the one in whom all things hold together, all things. All of Creation was Created to rejoice in the Life of its Creator. For when Jesus takes on our flesh – it is not merely about God rescuing human beings from their plight – it is about the Whole Created order. The Holy Spirit inhabits the material to Save it – all of it!
And the loss of this is seen even more clearly in the huge change in our attitudes to one another.  One of the strange things about that medieval culture, which was so shot through with A Christian Imagination of existence  – was how it shaped human relating so profoundly. As someone I was reading this week suggested, the loss of that view, and particularly the shift from Catholic to Protestant understanding of faith was that we completely changed our attitudes to the poor.
LIVES woven together
One of the effects of the Reformation was to disenchant the world, to not acknowledge our everyday lives as the place of Salvation. If as the reformers taught, salvation was ‘by faith alone’, then of course the Catholic churches tiresome emphasis on Corporal acts of mercy, Caring for the sick, sharing your bread with the hungry and the like were no longer necessary. A misunderstanding of Salvation Life opened the door to secularism, with private piety – or the world which we know. Faith as a private matter – you and your soul before God – it had no dimension of works. ‘Everyday life’ was set free from ‘burdensome obligations to the neighbour, and thus also to God. One only had to think right – and then go to work and make your profits.
But this Salvation is a Life, not an idea, not a worldview, not even a theology. Salvation is a Life . When John the Baptist asks of Jesus – ‘Are you the One, or should we look for another? – Jesus Response is ‘tell him what you see – The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.’ Jesus didn’t preach a message to John, he opinted to Life breaking out around Him. Where Christ is Present these things are happening and the world is Changed. Where Salvation Life is – these things are evident. By their fruit shall you know them . . . And medieval Catholic Europe, for all its failings knew this. The poor were not looked down on as objects of pity or disdain, rather they were in some regards looked up to, for did not Jesus say ‘Blessed are you poor!’. Some, indeed many embraced voluntary poverty – living by Grace through faith in the most concrete way, and the Rich – well the rich fed them. ‘I am my brothers keeper’ was a motto writ large on the medieval consciousness, for indeed most knew that if the let the poor go hungry, they would suffer the consequences of Hell, for to turn your back on your brother was to turn your back on the Life that flowed through all of Creation in   -and as we all know, Medieval Hell was a far more graphic reality then than now. As was Heaven . . . now largely they have faded from our imagination. The Word of the Lord is Rare in these days.
Salvation far from being something in which we all participated – in which we all shared – became a thing of piety – with the emphasis on the internal. Our lives fundamentally no different from those around us. Just as busy, just as rushing around, just as convinced that everything depends on us. We no longer understand our lives as participating in Creation, in the lives of one another – and fundamentally we have lost sight of the greatest Truth of all – that in Christ we are invited to become participants in the very life of God.
As everyone is aware, I’ve been going barefoot around the church these past weeks. As with many practices, it teaches you things :-) It started because I was woken up to something I had lost sight of – like the old priest Eli who was continually woken by Samuel, I’d forgotten that God speaks, sometimes in words that we can hear.  Like Samuel, who was woken from sleep, Like Jacob who also had been dreaming, God brought me to my senses. I had lost sight of the holiness of this place. So I guess it is in part an act of repentance on my place for that loss of sense of the holiness of the place, must extend to my loss of sense of the holiness of those whom I serve, and do not shake your heads in disagreement, ‘Do you not know, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit of the Living God??’ But more than that – waking up to the Holy in this place also alerted me to how out of touch with God’s good creation I’d become. Rushing from place to place – not seeing – tied up with the importance of my life. Do you know that there is the most spectacularly beautiful clover leaf outside in the grass??
Creation is so dense with beauty that it really slows you down if we but attend. You cannot live a frenetic life in the world if you attend to it as it is – we cannot be The Church and continue to live such lives – for so many Church has become little more than a pause in a busy week – we are called to the most extraordinary participation – We are Called to know our place in Holy Time, to know our place in Sacred Space, to know what it is so to participate in Life that we know amongst ourselves the truth of loving one another ‘as we love ourselves’,  . . . And why??
In Christ Everything is Woven together
Eli had forgotten that God Speaks, as the church seems to have done – Nazareth had so forgotten her vocation that the idea that Goodness might come from her that Nathaniel scoffed at the one of whom the prophets had spoken of might come from there. The idea that the Life of Christ might flow from the Church is laughable in our culture – but it is the Truth. Because in Jesus Christ, God has joined heaven and earth. Jesus said to Nathaniel “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Our Vocation is the deepest participation in Time and Space, in the lives of one another, and above all and in all and through all in the very life of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ Heaven and Earth are woven together. In Him is the fullness of Life. In Christ, the vision of Jacob comes true – Surely God is in this place. May it be said once more amongst us.

Sermon for Advent 2, Year B, 2014. ‘Waiting . . . for the Redemption of our bodies’

Advent 2 2014
Samuel Marsden
Isaiah 40
2 Peter 3
Mark 1

Waiting for the redemption of our bodies

As you can’t fail to have noticed this morning, we are celebrating ‘the best Good News since 1814’ – which raises to questions, one general one – what IS the Good News?? If a friend asked you, What is that sign on the Church drive all about? What would you say?? And secondly – waht is Anything does the Good News have to do with our bodies???

I was recently reading an article by a man who had lived through the 1930s in England. His family had been coal miners and to say his existence was harsh would be putting it fairly but perhaps also mildly. Children all sharing the same bed – a lavatory outside the house shared with several other families – poor and sometimes non-existent food – and of course disease, taking children in infancy and leading to life expentancies much much shorter than those we have come to take for granted.

When we consider the collapse of participation in the life of the church, particularly since the 1960s, one factor that I rarely hear mention of is how comfortable our lives are nowadays. After all, IF the big theological problem is ‘Why does an all loving God permit suffering?’ surely when we suffer far far far less than even our parents generations – and we do – then church should be packed with folk giving thanks to God? Surely??

And of course church has itself become  less demanding and more comfortable, as well . . .  and herein might be part of the issue. Back in England many many churches went through the business of ‘re-ordering the church’, at least when financial circumstances were better. By and large that meant making the building more ‘comfortable’. The installation of better heating and of course that perennial bane of a Vicar’s life – the removal of pews to be replaced with ‘comfortable’ chairs . . . but of course does not Isaiah 40 verse 1 say ‘Comfort ye, O Comfort ye my people . . .’ :-)

Not long before coming here I chaired a Diocesan committee which had both the Archdeacons on it. One evening we met at one of their houses, and as the second Archdeacon came into the room he said to his colleague ‘Ah! that must be your prayer chair!!’ He was pointing at one of these.

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And he was right! How did he know?? Except for the assumption that one must be comfortable to pray . . . Imagine being sat on that  or indeed your own favourite comfortable chair – losing all sense of your body, its aches and pains – almost for a moment leaving the material realm and entering into the pure realm of the Spirit . . .

This turn is one of the most ancient heresies of the Church that of Gnosticism, a retreat into the realm of pure Spirit – the denial of our bodies. Which is fundamentally a denial of the heart of our faith. Our bodies are the very realm of our Life as Christians. And as we shall see the Heart of the Good News.

This Gnostic turn is seen in what happens when we pray – together as a body. When I was young it was unthinkable that one might not kneel to pray. In other words without naming it – we were bringing all of who we were before God, and in material terms almost all of who we are is our bodies. Kneeling is of course very Anglican – Other traditions stand to pray. Again very physical and perhaps more demanding. Until very very recently, not to adopt some bodily posture in prayer would be thought most odd. Why leave so much of yourself behind when you pray?

Our Faith is at its heart Embodied. Physical and Spiritual irrevocably woven together – put another way, it is Sacramental.  And thus it cannot be disembodied. Only those who think that there are two realms, one of the Spirit an one of the body could imagine otherwise. Our bodies matter – they are the Realm of the working out of our salvation – as St Paul reminds us ‘‘do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.’ What we do with our bodies is of ultimate significance. they are no mere shells for our ‘selves’ We are our bodies, perhaps more than we are minds in that we might lose our minds yet still live, yet we have no life apart from our bodies

Thus the central outworking of our faith – Worship and Prayer must fully involve the body for us to be present – we eat bread – we drink wine – we are baptised by our bodies being immersed in water – we annoint the body with oil after baptism, for healing and in preparation for death. We stand we kneel, we turn to face the Gospel – for in this Jesus is speaking –  As we enter the Holy of Holies at the Eucharist we change our dress. We HEAR the word with our ears, we respond in speech with our mouths – we SING and action which brings so much more of us bodily into the picture – the body resonates literally with the praise of God. We confess our sins OUT LOUD. This too is why marriage is a Sacrement, because it is Known in the BOdy, the two become one flesh

One of the disciplines of faith I have been teaching our Baptism class has been to read the Bible out Loud even when you are alone. One of the marks of our disembodied existance has been ‘reading in your head’ . St Augistine once found  the Saintly Bishop Ambrose ‘reading without moving his lips’ and thought it so odd that he mentioned it in his writings and tried to explain this Strange behaviour. But as anyone who has ever read out loud and paid attention will note – it is a very different practise. the words are embodied they resnote – all of who we are in involved rather than the very very limited part of our neural pathways involved in reading in our head – ie to read in your head is barely to read at all – indeed such practices as research shows largely shut us down. In this increasingly virtual, unreal world there is a very real sense in which we need to get out of our heads in worship. Not in the Gnostic sense of contemporary charismatic worship wherein people are enjoined to lose sense of their bodies – this is no different to praying in the comfy chair. no we get out of our heads to get our faith into our bodies.

Today as we move through Advent in this the bicentennial year of the announcement of the Good News in these lands we remember Samuel Marsden. Here on Friday, the children from Kaikorai School re-enacted that story as a means of telling the story of Christ’s birth amongst us. Earlier this year with the other members of General Synod I was privileged to visit Oihi Bay. What struck me forcibly was the sense of exposure – of the harshness of what life must have been like for Marsden and his family. Few if any of us know what it is to live in dependence of the hospitality of others. Imagine literally coming ashore in acute dependence for your physical needs, your bodily need for safety, your bodily need for shelter, your bodily need for food and water. As we have lost sense of these needs, so our apprehension of who we are has shrivelled to a point where for all we say the Self is writ large in contemporary society, we have in effect made ourselves disappear, and where is The Good News in that?  Perhaps in no small part we have lost any sense of our faith, of what the Good News is, precisely because of this bodily denial?

So John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

The people left the comfort of home to meet this strange figure in the wilderness and to be immersed in the water of the baptism of repentance

one cannot help but be struck by the sheer physicality of john the Baptist. There he is in the wilderness, the place always of God’s salvation, the place of physical dependence upon God, the place where the LORD provdes the manna, the daily bread. And dressed in what he could find – camels hair – perhaps an echoe of those skins that the LORD provided for our first parents, Adam and Eve. Living on a diet of what he could forage . . .

Announcing what?

Mark wastes no time in announcing the content of the Good News. Mark Chpater 1 and verse 1 – The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Good News comes to us in a body, that of Jesus. The eternal word of God of which Isaiah spoke becomes FLESH. Born in humility, having family, having nowhere to lay his head, being hungry and thirsty, whipped and scourged, brutally nailed through sinew and bone to a rough wooden cross – the Sphere of our Salvation hope is indisputably the body of Jesus. As St Paul puts it when he is asked what is the message he preaches, ‘it is Jesus Christ and him crucified . . .’ The Good News is known in a body, and in that body God in Christ reconciles the world to himself. And through faith, God raises Jesus from the dead, not as a ‘spirit’ but as a living breathing, fish eating, walking talking living breathing human.

Both Isaiah and Peter speak of the transitory nature of our lives – But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. The physicality of our lives laid bare

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades;    but the word of our God will stand for ever. And therein lies our Great Hope – for all the frailty of our bodies, our great hope is that in the eternal Word bodily raised from the dead, we too are raised. That Christ’s triumph over death was no mere ‘vague ongoing existence’ as so many of the comfortable ‘modern’ Christians would like to think. That beyond the vagaries of mere beliefs, even our bodies are caught up in the Salvation purposes of God. So we prepare by Worshipping in our bodies, by Praying in our bodies, by fasting in our bodies, by baptising bodily,

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God . . . the word rendered comfort means better Strengthen!! Get ready – prepare yourself, body and soul for the coming of the one who Saves us, Soul and Body