The audio of a talk given in our series on The Epistle to the Hebrews
Sermon for Trinity 6, Year C 2019
Pray your Life
I wonder what you ask for when you pray? Why do we pray for the things we pray for? What is it that causes us to pray – not what deep ‘spiritual thing’ does, but what in the world we inhabit makes us pray?
These questions which I suppose we rarely if ever give thought to – but are called to mind by our gospel and also a presentation at our clergy conference this past week.
Firstly our gospel. Jesus’ disciples are being good disciples here – they are asking their rabbi to teach them. Jesus let us never forget is our rabbi also! Our teacher. We are to listen to his words for they are Spirit and they are Life. We might say ‘they are true’ – although the idea of truth is so thin in our modern world that perhaps this isn’t the best way of putting it. Better to say with Peter that they are ‘words of eternal Life’. To Hear Jesus – to listen and allow his words to shape us, is to come alive! Just like old Lazarus – this is what the Words of Jesus do! So when we hear Jesus’ words on prayer they also if we hear them bring us to Life – to Life filled Prayer.
Or quite literally a Prayer filled Life – Your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit, a House of prayer to use Jesus’ words. As Paul tells us – the Spirit prays within us – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. His Life giving words of prayer are perhaps the most clear form of Spirit filled prayer we can know. Well we shall return to the Holy Spirit towards the end
As with any good rabbi – what Jesus says – is pithy, short and memorable. His words are Life – they are bread for us – we need to be able to come back to them over and over again for our Eternal Life in the age that is passing away.
So when Jesus teaches us to pray he gives us a simple prayer. Not a set of techniques – ‘Just’ Words – but these words are Spirit and Life, for they are the words of Jesus.
We learned to pray it ‘on our mother’s knee’ – although in my case it was from my father 🙂 As we were taught these Words – the Life in Jesus was handed on to us. Do you want to know how to pray? Then listen to Jesus and say these words that are Spirit and Life. As Paul reminds us, we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit pray within us. Jesus words. Life – Spirit. Within us
But back to that question of what to ask for. We are told to pray for the coming of the Kingdom – on earth as in heaven – for bread and forgiveness. That’s it!
Christian Life is a gift from God. Like Jesus – this Life is physical and relational. Bread is fundamental to our physical existence – it keeps us alive. Eugene Peterson translates this ‘keep us alive with three square meals a day’ but I think that pushes it rather. We just need bread for the day. Give us this day our daily bread. It has an immediacy to it. Tomorrow’s bread can take care of itself – we seek bread for this day. We live too much in terms of the unknown future. A place of myths and terrors or enticements. At the moment there are those amongst us who are worried about things that lie in the future – but our prayer is for daily bread. This Life flowing from God now – our Life now. We live in humble dependence on Our Father in heaven from moment to moment.
And for forgiveness, We begin the prayer – our Father – we pray as His children his offspring in the world – He is The Provider. The Life giver – the Life of His Son. Breaking relationship is death – it is intimately connected to Bread. Bread shared – is Life shared. But sharing of bread requires relationship. So broken relationship is Death. We pray for Life. Knowing that this Life comes from the Father we seek forgiveness of our sins
But it doesn’t stop there. You see life doesn’t.
Your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit. and the dominant picture of the Temple and the Spirit in Scripture is of water flowing out from it. In the garden – that first picture of the Temple – the Temple which we have indeed turned into a den of thieves – there are rivers flowing from it
A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches.
Ezekiel speaks of the water flowing from the Temple in these terms
The LORD showed me ‘This water flows towards the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. . . On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.’
And of course, Jesus – the Temple destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days is the source of this Water – Spirit and Life ‘whoever is thirsty let him come to me and drink, for out of the heart of the one who believes will flow rivers of living water’
For that for which we pray is the centre of, perhaps the entirety of the Christian active life – as Jesus fed the multitude and forgave all from the Cross, pouring out his life, so our Life is the reception of that life and the passing on of it. Share your bread with the poor, forgive others.
indeed the prayer suggests this very flow. Forgive us as we forgive others! We are asking God to replenish our lives. Feed us as we feed others. What does Jesus say – do not worry about what you will eat and drink or what will you wear do not worry about the Life coming to you— but rather seek his kingdom and righteousness and all this things will be given you
Of course as we learn, be it ever so slowly to share what we have, to share bread, to share forgiveness – this Life Of Jesus is revealed in us, amongst us and flowing from us
And so Jesus teaching on prayer concludes with a prayer that sums up the Lord’s prayer
He asks us to reflect on our lives. Do you give bad gifts? No, though you are evil you know how to give good gifts . . . how much more than will the Father [who is Goodness] give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him – the gift of his Good being. The transformation of our inner being, that we are converted to temples of life giving spirit, spreading bread and forgiveness wherever we go
Do we pray each day for bread? Do we pray each day for forgiveness? Do we pray for the Life of the Holy Spirit? It is perplexing. Jesus gives us words to pray, but so many think they have moved on from this to more ‘advanced’ forms of prayer . . .
This brings me briefly to the talk at ministry conference. In it, Dr Tim Cooper spoke to us about most Christianity in the World – which is not Western. What is more it is a story of almost continuous persecution, of millions who imitated Jesus in their deaths. Millions upon millions of Christians over 2000 years who lived on the edge – not just materially but culturally. Our Western Tradition which has been at the heart of Western culture at least for the last thousand years is one which does not know what it is to be marginal, although there are some who would say that we are now discovering that. When you are on the edge – you depend on others for your life. You depend on people not killing you – you may well depend on them fro bread – and because you depend on them, relationship is key – forgiveness
If we think that The Lord’s Prayer – Words of Spirit and lIfe flowing from Jesus are not the Essence of prayer – the Essential Prayers – is it perhaps it is because we have become so self sufficient? After all – how many of us ever have to think about where our bread comes from let alone ask for it? If we can get by without close relationships with others then forgiveness isn’t part of our needs for our relationships are rarely Life or Death matters
Listen to Jesus ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God’ As his brother James says ‘Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?’
When we have little or nothing we live in dependence on the goodness of others, relationships matter more because of this. Life is bared down to its essentials. We who have much are much further from the Kingdom – perhaps this is why we are so quick to come up with alternative visions of the Kingdom that better suit our lives, and different forms of prayer?
With whom are we sharing our bread, that we need to pray for Bread? With whom do we share in Life, such that broken relationship is life or death?
In this respect it is sobering to consider that the absorption of the General Synod of the church in maters of sexuality over the past 25 years has been the wealthy driving the agenda, and ignoring (and I saw it happen over and again) the cries of the poor – our pasifika brothers and sisters whose lives are literally being submerged under the water, homes destroyed by tropical storms . . . but where is the church most alive in our province?
Are our lives lives Real Lives? Life flowing from God through us? Lives of Receiving and giving? Perhaps we need to hear the words of Jesus?? ‘How much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those that ask Him? Perhaps we who are so comfortable with our own lives, need most to pray this prayer that we be saved by His Life in and amongst us? Amen
Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. . . You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. Jas 5:1,5
One of the first things someone coming to these shores to live notes is how expensive food is here. And what is more food prices are going up. I know that this is probably a heresy to say so, but I think that that might be a good thing. Anything which disturbs our comfortable slumbers and wakes us up to the world in which we really live
Slumbers are of course the place where sometimes dreams intrude and thinking of the price of food will lead us to Pharaoh and other players, not least those who have ‘fattened their hearts on a day of slaughter’ – those whom James says must now ‘weep and howl’. And I trust that if nothing else that quotation woke us up at least a little?
A local farmer in one of my parishes told me how troubled he was that so very few people nowadays had ever known what it was to live in genuine want and shortage of food . . . he knew history and scripture well enough. The story of Pharaoh was one not unfamiliar to one who lived with the daily vagaries of the weather let alone climate collapse as the director of each days work, or his daily life . . .
Pharaoh’s dreams, were not just dreams – they were an awakening to reality. For so very long people lived knowing that there were times of feast and times of famine.
Our culture has for a season broken these natural cycles by our technology. Technology of course always separates us from reality and changes our perspective on it, but we have lost any awareness of this as our lives have become so divorced from The World of The Real. The cycle will kick in again, one way or another, and the longer we put it off the harder will be the fall . . .
Pharaoh’s dreams reveal a deep underlying anxiety – how do I cling on to what I have in a world of uncertainty. And as the collapse of the climate inexorably quickens, til we begin to feel its hot breath even on us which live divorced from the Real World – such dreams are being given fresh impetus to this day.
The nightmare of the Pharaohs of the modern world. A recent conference of what we have come to call plutocrats, people of immense wealth, was given over to consideration of how they would survive the coming famine, or to put it in their terms, ‘the inevitable collapse of civilisation which climate change is already bringing about’. One of their key questions was ‘where is best to go and hole up? Alaska, or New Zealand?’ As you may be aware several such people have already opted to make our country their bolt hole, some investing large sums in secure underground shelters. Another question, interestingly was ‘how do I keep my personal guards loyal?’ Options such as fitting them with electric necklaces were explored. After all, if things collapse, who can you trust in the world we have created for ourselves?
It is a dark irony that in the world we have created, friends and family are barely visible in comparison to previous socially rich ages. Who do you count on in a world of individuals? If the only thing you have is wealth and no tribe??
The Pater familias who had risen to ascendency through prowess in battle, like for example David -Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands as the crowds shouted – no wonder David took over at the top.
Yet in a world of individuals separated out by their money, we discover that it hasn’t the power with which we had invested it, especially when the so ‘economy, so-called, collapses. Family ties, blood, runs deep and so powerful local chiefs did not need to worry quite so much about those they pay to protect them turning on them. ‘How will we stop our personal army turning on us? the wealthy ask
The age of the individual has ushered in an age when the fabric of existence is shattered – who can I trust? This is in so many many ways a dystopian vision. James once more ‘you who say ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money . . . weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.’
Pharaoh’s disturbing dreams – visions of skeletal livestock – led him to a programme of self protection. We miss in our following the Joseph narrative what it is that Pharaoh with the help of Joseph does – that is accumulate everything to himself. During the fat years he exacts a tax from all the people of Egypt – and during the thin years he sells the grain he has accumulated back to the people – until they have nothing left to give him but their bodies. He has grown fat in the age of slaughter – he has enslaved his people – he is an absolute ruler . . . and this will come back to bite him, as it all come back to bite all those who live for themselves.
There is the irony that the plutocrats have no friends to rely on – but speak of chaining their security personnel like dogs with electric collars. This Pharaoh at least went to his gold encrusted tomb ‘in peace’ Later Pharaoh’s reaped the harvest of God’s judgement against them as we go on to read in Exodus . . .
What judgement we may well asked will soon be reaped on those who have accumulated in the day of slaughter. Think of how difficult for example it is to buy a house now if you are young? I wonder at the piles of money accumulated by the St John’s college trust board – the wealthiest theological faculty outside of Harvard – in excess of $500 million. A huge percentage of this accumulated off the back of the housing market – a ghastly monster which tips people into forms of effective slavery and wrecks family life . . . Have we not ourselves as the Anglican Church grown fat in the day of slaughter?
A year or so ago our Synod passed a motion calling on ‘those in power to do all they could to alleviate poverty.’ I suggested that perhaps we could do much with that $500 million. Oddly enough, or perhaps wearily predictably no one thought this a good idea. The poor are someone else’s problem.
We worry about the collapse of the church – but consider the mission impact of Christians actually emptying themselves for the sake of the poor? Ah well . . .
On a wider stage The Creation has paid a terrible price but our lives have been ones of unimaginable ease and comfort . . . we have had cheap food for an historically unimaginably long period – we are accustomed to it – but the Creation has collapsed as a result. Intensive farming which we live off the back of, before we go criticising the farmers, has all but ruined soil, water, plant and insect life. And some have grown fat in the day of slaughter. If we have been paying attention these past few years you will no doubt have heard of ‘disaster capitalism’ – wherever something terrible happens, there is money to be made – she even suggesting that countries have been deliberately destabilised in order that a few can make a quick billion. Brexit anyone? The vultures are readying themselves to feed of the carcass. But we are living now with disaster capitalism on the biggest stage. This is not the collapse of nation states, it is the collapse of the entire creation.
One think I have in common with The plutocrats, apart form coming to live here, is that I also have taken a close interest in the numerous indicators of the coming Judgement. I wonder if perhaps their underground bunkers are a manifestation of those calling for the mountains to fall on them . . .
What is the gospel in all of this? Well I have to admit to taking once more a slight liberty with the readings for there are words of Jesus which speak directly to this, which I chose for tonight.
As we read this morning ‘Mary has chosen the one thing necessary, and it will not be taken away from her’. The One thing as we heard was that she listened to the words of Jesus, which are Spirit and Life. The irony I pointed out was that whoever people fall to arguing over this story of Martha and Mary which are about listening to the words of Spirit and Life which fall from His lips, they always ignore the words of Jesus . . .
The reading from Luke we have heard this evening is to our ears a perplexing tale. We who have been brought up to accept ‘economic realities’ in terms of abstractions like business ethics etc are confused by Jesus using the action of someone who defrauds his boss to save his own skin. But then our idea of economics has nothing to do with God’s.
Economics literally is ‘the law of the household’ – put another way, it is how we live together, sharing in life together. it is little surprise that in the age of the individual, it has become the abstract idolatrous monster to which we must all bow down at any cost. China’s GDP falls and the world is terrified – our gods are crumbling. So to hear the words of Jesus, we need to understand that His words are Light and Life – not the latest prognostications of the economists and bankers and politicians and plutocrats.
Jesus it must be said says things that are not music to our ears – he has no time for money – which is essentially a technology of abstraction separating people from people. So he is unconcerned about financial ‘justice’ per se – as we shall hear in a few weeks time as we continue to read this gospel on Sunday mornings. Rather he is in the business of making friends. Use unrighteous mammon to make friends for yourselves, so that when the Day dawns . . .
Job says If I have withheld anything that the poor desired,
or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail,
or have eaten my morsel alone,
and the orphan has not eaten from it—
for from my youth I reared the orphan like a father,
and from my mother’s womb I guided the widow—
if I have seen anyone perish for lack of clothing,
or a poor person without covering,
whose loins have not blessed me,
and who was not warmed with the fleece of my sheep;
if I have raised my hand against the orphan,
because I saw I had supporters at the gate;
then let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder,
and let my arm be broken from its socket.
For I was in terror of calamity from God,
and I could not have faced his majesty.
If we hoard, like the Pharaohs we will rot with your wealth, but if we live with an open hand to those around us, we will find yourselves welcomed into many homes when things fall apart. Making friends is a lengthy task – may God grant us in his mercy time for this work of Life
And if anyone things these words not fit for the delicate ears of evensong, let us not forget the song of our mother Mary – ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away . . .
Perhaps we ought to give thought once more to that $500 million stashed away under St John’s college?
Sermon for Trinity 5 – Year C 2019
Luke 10: 38-42
Are we good listeners?
Many years ago, I was asked a rather left field question at an interview. ‘What would you say if Jesus walked into the room?’ I must admit I was not however taken aback – the question had been asked of every candidate and my interview was after lunch – I had the advantage of the incredulity of my fellow interviewees at the question to prepare an answer. Ironically, I didn’t want the job. Even more ironically, I got it and in some respects it prepared me for my life as a priest.
What do we do in the presence of Jesus?
Today’s gospel recounts the familiar tale of Martha welcoming Jesus into her home in Bethany, yet ending up on the end of a gentle rebuke. I must admit ever since I preached on this text three years ago – I have wondered about this encounter.
For last time it became clear to me that every time I had preached on it, which might be as many as 8 times over the years, someone pushed back at what I said. Occasionally I do get a ‘I’m not sure’ type of response to what I’ve said, but with this gospel reading it is every time
A few nights ago – I was having trouble sleeping – I listened to a podcast which turned out to be focussed on these words of Scripture. Not for the first time I heard it told as a tussle as it were between the life of Action, embodied by Martha, and that of Contemplation, as embodied by Mary. It’s fair to say that rather like last weekends cricket it was a close call with neither side deserving to lose, but the podcaster received pushback, exactly the same as I receive every time I preach on this.
This response is summed up in the words of one of my former church wardens, a dear soul who would shake her head each time and say ‘we can’t all be Marys, Eric’
Three years ago I was actually sent a lengthy paper on why Martha gets a raw deal . . . but . . . but . . . what if the incident has nothing to do with that . . . nothing to do with ‘the active vs the contemplative life’? Being vs doing?
I must admit than in suggesting this, I am going against pretty much all of the commentary on this text through 2000 years! But . . .
Certainly I could argue that we could do with lots more Marys. Is the world collapsing around us because no one is working? Because there are far too many people sat around contemplating? Is the problem with Donald Trump that he’s sat quietly in the Oval office meditating? Is the problem with his opponents that they’re doing the same? Is Brexit the result of too much contemplation? Are the shops and airwaves empty and the economy collapsing because we have all been overtaken by a tsunami of mindfulness? I think not. So I could make a very good argument for contemplation over action . . . but what if this incident has little if anything to do with that?
What seemed to get missed on the podcast, which worked the Action vs Contemplation angle as well as I’ve heard it worked; what gets missed in every response I’ve ever had, are the words of Jesus . . . which is more than ironic, it’s genuinely tragic. And I can’t help but wonder why we don’t listen to what Jesus says, and what are the consequences
Let’s consider the story again.
Martha is of course the one who welcomes Jesus into the house. Martha had a sister called Mary who, seated at the feet of Jesus [by the way note that this is how the healed demoniac is found, in the position of the disciple] – Mary ‘listened to what Jesus was saying’.
Note that as it happens Jesus has no issue with Martha. Martha has chosen her work. Mary has chosen hers. Yet, this won’t do for Martha.
‘Martha who was distracted by all her serving,’ comes and try to use Jesus for her own ends. Jesus is speaking, but she’s uninterested in Jesus except as one who will serve her will – She rebukes him “Lord, does it not matter to you that my sister left me all alone to serve?’ Apparently not. Indeed as we shall see again in a few weeks Jesus seems remarkably uninterested in all the things we can get very worked up about – our notions of justice and fairness. A man comes to him and says ‘tell my brother to share the inheritance with me’ – and we’re all with him, and Jesus isn’t interested in deed he tells the man not to be greedy, even though all he wants is what we would call his fair share. Is Jesus bothered because Mary is not helping Martha? Apparently not.
‘Tell her therefore that she should help me’.’Speak Jesus! put the world right the way I think it should be! Sort those people out! Again another theme which will come up – those who think they have a hold over others calling on God to send them to help. It was the Rich man in Hades calls to Abraham to send Lazarus to come and serve him . . .
I can’t help also thinking of the parable of the Prodigal here. We are not told, but I suspect that Mary is the younger of the two. Only because as an elder sibling I recognise myself in Martha 🙂 Thinking she’s in charge of her little sister.
She certainly acts in such a way towards her, albeit trying to manipulate Jesus. Her complaint has more than a faint echo of the complaint of the elder brother ‘All these years I have slaved away for you . . .’ ‘Lord, does it not matter to you that my sister has left me all alone to serve?’
It is at this point that we as it were get to the nub of it all – Jesus’ words. And perhaps there is something here which we so need to hear, that it is not at all a bad thing that we come back to it every third year in the lectionary cycle – for perhaps we haven’t heard it – or better, we haven’t heard the words of Jesus . . .
Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
What is The One Thing Necessary? What is the One thing which Mary has chosen?
Again let us pause and step back.
We miss what is going on so often. As I have said there are echoes of this story throughout Luke’s gospel, and if we have paid attention to the gospel so far, we should see threads coming together here.
What is the occasion? We are assuming that Martha is dealing with food here. I’ve never heard it suggested otherwise – yet just recently Jesus has fed 5000 people! Does Martha not know? Jesus will says ‘do not concern yourself with what you will eat . . . your father knows you need all these things . . .’ Those are his words
Jesus is in the house and he is speaking. Martha – do you remember the feeding of the 5000??? Why are you so stressed about the food???
Well that might help us be a bit more relaxed about getting a meal ready. [again an echo of when Jesus is teaching the disciples about the yeast of the pharisees and they take it as a rebuke for forgetting the bread. Jesus asks them to remember how he fed them in the wilderness . . .]
Then having fed the 5000 Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter and James and John and a voice from heaven says ‘This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him’
This is the very command of God – Listen to Jesus. One thing is necessary. What is Mary doing?
Mary has chosen the better part . . . She is listening to Jesus.
Man does not live by bread alone, Martha, but by every word that proceeds for the mouth of God. Here are words coming from the mouth of God! Jesus is speaking.
How ironic that we miss what he says. ‘Oh it’s all about the active vs the contemplative life!’ Jesus says nothing about that. What is the One thing necessary – what is the better part that Mary has chosen? – she is doing the will of God – listening to Jesus!’
When we start a conversation about the active Martha vs the contemplative Mary – not words that come into scripture at all (!!) we ignore the words of Jesus.
Jesus says ‘My words are Spirit and they are Life – the flesh avails nothing!’ But do we take him at his word? Do you know the deep sustaining life that comes from the words of jesus? Have you had your heart and soul and mind and strength set on fire by the words of Jesus? When Jesus rebukes . . . the devil! . . . he says ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds fro the mouth of God!’ D owe know the deep satisfaction and Life that comes to us through the Word of Jesus?
Jesus is our Life – His Words are Spirit and Life. Unless we think we have moved beyond this, above all, we need to listen to Jesus – not least because as Jesus says ‘there is only one thing necessary.’
As Jesus says in exasperation at one point – ‘why do you call me Lord Lord and do not do what I say? Did you not hear? this deafness to the words of jesus, exhibited in a failure to understand this incident is at the heart of our fallen condition
“The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “when I will send a famine through the land– not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.
Amos 8:11 . . . Jesus is speaking – do we hear? Do we even want to hear?
Jesus ask yourself, what would the world look like if everyone heard Jesus?
What would your life look like? What would this church look like?
Do we recognise the Life flowing from His mouth?
Sermon for Trinity 2, Year C 2019
‘Devoted – Your Salvation is not about You!’
Let the dead bury their own! You follow me!
St Matthew 8:22
I’ve always been a little puzzled by big celebrations of wedding anniversaries. Given that people are marriage is, ’til death do us part’, it seems to be a bit odd to congratulate two people for neither of them dying!
Of course to quote Bob Dylan, ‘things have changed’, and one is regularly met with astonishment should one say one has been married for over 30 years. In a sense this is because in a relationship thin world, we have come to invest so very much in finding ‘one’s souls mate’. Expectations regarding marriage are sky high as revealed in the extravagant wedding ceremonies and celbrations, where once people often did little more than turn up before a priest or at the registry office, or jump over a stick.
Ordination services too, it must be said, are extravagant affairs, where once all that happened was that a bishop laid hands on another – and the Spirit did the rest, now . . . And, in parallel with modern marriage, I think that it is beyond dispute that we have in a world where the church seems to be struggling, to invest far too much expectation in the ordained.
I remember one of my tutors expressing his unease at the implicit liturgy of ordination at a local Cathedral where the Ordination service began to the doors being flung open to reveal as he put it ‘the white robed saviours of the church’.
Those inflated ideals are all too often unexamined by the ordained who hold public services of worship celebrating the anniversary of their ordination, be it 25 years, 40 years, or in that first case, 60 years. This I have found very troubling – for it seems to re-emphasise a deep and troubling pattern within the church, that of 2 track faith. Those who were ordinary christians and those who were totally devoted. A little like the cult status that grew up around the Saints in the late middle ages. Why no special services for 90 years a baptised follower of Jesus?
And what is more it creates a comfortable division – so the idea of clergy as ‘professionals’, or people ‘doing their job’, finds a well prepared soil.
The notion of a two track Christian life is anathema. That there is a High Road and a Low Road, not to Scotland but to the heart of God, is a detestable idea. Yet it runs deep. The idea of being devoted to the service of God, given over to God is one which one finds in writing about ordained ministry, but not baptism . . .
Yet, as I will say this until they bury me, “what counts is our baptism”. Baptism is about the totality of our being. It is the total work which cannot be added to. And any understanding of ordained ministry which however unintentionally suggests otherwise, is to be shunned. In Baptism we are totally consecrated to, devoted to the Living God.
(It always struck me as a little odd that those who had concerns over the baptism of infants often had their children ‘dedicated’ – in the background was the offering of Samuel to live with Eli the priest. I never found any of these dedicated babies being left behind, dedicated as they were to God. it was most muddle headed)
No. No one Christian is more baptised than another – we become in the words of St Paul ‘living Sacrifices’. Not, that is sacrifices that got away with just donating a leg or a hand and so are still living, but Sacrifices who having died, Live! Again St Paul, ‘as dying, yet behold we live!’ Priests are called amongst the community of the church to teach this, to bear witness to this, the faith of Christ’s body in it’s totality, the Church, that we might live it out together as ‘a Kingdom of Priests’. To be a visible reminder us that we are a people, a body of Christ – given over in love and service to Him, This is Our Life. And thus, this is our Salvation. Devoted to God.
But what does it mean ‘to be devoted to’ in this regard?
I remember the same college lecturer working through with us to find a suitable metaphor for the priesthood, and his words have stuck with me – they are first in the line at the Coliseum. First in the line – OK maybe they get a certain benefit, the starving lions are likely to make much swifter work of the first meal of the week 🙂 but not that priests ‘go in place of’ . . . they lead the way that all must follow . . . there is One Lord, One faith, One church, One Baptism . . . One Way of Jesus.
We might speak of our Salvation of ‘the assurance of ‘going to be with Jesus’, or the assurance that ‘Jesus is with me’, but that is not the picture revealed in the gospels – which turn it on his head, to wit – Salvation is to go with Him. We might say ‘so and so has gone to be with Jesus’, but that is the language of those outside the Church. For going to be with Jesus is at once our death – you have been crucified with Christ as St Paul puts it – I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. He becomes our Life as the Church. If the Church has any Life at all, it is the Life of the crucified and Risen One.
Which brings us to our gospel reading today – and seemingly two Jesus’s. One who rebukes James and John (not the Evangleist by the way, that’s another John . . . but another time) – the kind Jesus, and then the Jesus who tells thos who’d follow him to leave the dead to bury their own . . Will the real Jesus stand up?
The clue is in the fire . . . Jesus reveals to his disciples that the fire must come down not on the hapless Samaritans, but on them! Certainly hearing his words, sears and scorches
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Are we going to be with Jesus?
To another Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’
Jesus does not die to make bad people good. No, he dies that in Him the dead may live!
‘Let the dead bury their own!’ What do you have to do with the culture of death? You are for Life! Jesus command to follow is a call to Life – don’t return to the place and ways of death – as the angels ask the bemused disciples ‘what are you doing looking for the living amongst the dead?’
Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
To be with Jesus is to identify with Him as our life – which is to be devoted to God . . . to be living sacrifices
Jesus is at one and the same time God giving his life to human beings, AND the human giving his life to God. As we are devoted to God, we become God’s gift to the world. This is Salvation, and Salvation is not for your own sake.
Jesus is devoted to God his Father – it is his total self giving we call to remembrance – we awaken to afresh Sunday by Sunday. His Body and Blood, Bread and wine are offered to God, and God comes upon them by the Holy Spirit and they become His Life given to us. Every Sunday we are at the Cross, we are at the empty tomb, we are at Pentecost – that Life might flow from us. The fruit of the Holy Spirit. We put aside our life that we might be temples of HIs Life flowing from us. This is what it is to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit. One where a life is laid down, and a life flows out in response.
To return briefly to the Coliseum – our forebears in the faith knew this well. As St Ignatius – an early Chrstian was on his way to his death, he urged people not to prevent it – that he ‘might become pure bread ground in the teeth of the wild animals’ As Life, blood and water flows from Jesus’ side, so Life flows from those who witness to Jesus in Life and Death.
There are many stories of Salvation, but this one is unlike any other. Some of them pass as Christian. become a Christian and you will go to heaven when you die!’ It’s subtly, all about you. Many modern churches act as therapists for troubles souls in these days . . . and of course the idea that God loves you . . . whilst there are grains of truth in all of these things, they are not the essence of Salvation – which is Life poured out for the sake the world. We enter into the work of Jesus by laying down our lives in all respects – together, all the baptised, priests and people.
And a suitable metaphor is that of fire – as the sacrifices were consumed by fire, so the fire of God is at work in devotion to God. Living Sacrifices consumed by the Fire [as incidentally Luke will go on to recount in the account of Pentecost . . .]
Just recently I came across these words which speak of this devotion in the way of Jesus
At the very first moment you decide to turn to God, your heart begins to be warmed by the action of the Holy Spirit. [hopefully we have all known something of this] Your heart is kindled with the divine flame that will transform you. This flame will consume you completely, and will melt everything of a fallen nature within you. Once this flame of divine love has been actualized within your heart, do nothing that would allow it to be extinguished. Cooperate with the Fire of God, and let it completely consume you. [That is Devotion]
In Christ Jesus, together with Him, as His Body, we offer ourselves to the refining fire of God, until God resides completely within and amongst us – and His Life flows out for the Salvation of the entire Cosmos
So our writer concludes : Put all your effort into this spiritual transformation that is beginning in your heart. Let nothing else take centre stage over this action by God that is meant to save you, and make you complete. From a little flame, this fire will burn in your heart, and nothing of your fallen nature will be able to withstand it. This flame will transform your whole being, for the action of the Holy Spirit will take you into God’s Kingdom, which resides within you.
As one of the elders of the church said – if you will, you can become all flame. That is our calling, our path, our Way. This is the Life of Jesus. Becoming a sacrifice for the sake of the whole world
Sermon for Trinity 1 – Year C – 2019
‘Clothed and in his right mind’
‘And this is the judgement: that the light has come into the world,
and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were wicked’ John 3:19
Whatever it is we encounter when we encounter the Life of Jesus, it is most definitely not business as usual. Our gospel today recounts the second of two consecutive incidents in which this life is manifested. Jesus has suggested to his disciples that they cross the lake, during which a great storm kicks up, which he orders to be quiet, and it is quiet, and the disciples are afraid – more afraid than they were of the storm.
Upon reaching shore, Jesus is confronted by the demon possessed man. Luke’s description is itself terrifying – this is not a bedtime story for small children!
As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
In the same way that we find the disciples more afraid of Jesus calming the storm than of the storm, we find a similar response to Jesus’ work.
The populace of the region when they came to Jesus, found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.
As we explored during the season of Easter, the Life of Jesus, Resurrection Life, Life of the Ages of Ages explodes our categories regarding ‘business as usual’ – or ‘everyday life’. We considered how we needed to find new words to begin to speak of such things – like Tolkien’s word ‘Eucatastrophe’ – the Good Catastrophe. We can see the eucatastrophic breaking in here – something which calls to us and invites us to Goodness, Life itself. It calls from beyond because we are held captive by the safety of the known, ’business as usual’.
What do I mean by that?
Well let me ask a question . . . what is the opposite of a disease?
There is perhaps no word in our language which is, which does the opposite of a disease. What does a disease do? It takes that which we call ‘well’ or ‘healthy’ and reduces it – makes us less well, less healthy . . . But what is our word for that which takes what we call healthy, normal, usual, wellness and improves on it??
Disease, change and decay is part of the story of ‘business as usual’ of course. At best we hope to stave off decline and ill health . . . but that there might be something which surpasses this human ideal of staying well as the world knows it – is an alien concept to us . . .
Somehow we are concerned to stave off that which is not Good – disease – but to genuinely welcome the Good? Famously here of course we might remember our brother Jack Philips and his admonition to his grandchildren when in true Kiwi fashion they told him they were ‘good’, replied, ‘you’re not good, you are well!’ But what is wellness? Is it no more than the absence of disease??
We try in many ways to stave off the ill – H&S for example – or keeping fit – or 101 other things we ought to be doing . . . but these are all examples of keeping change and decay at bay. And there are many many more examples of this which operate in far subtler ways.
Consider for example our habit of demonising others . . . what are we doing? Separating ourselves from others – casting the illness onto them . . . We can call it ‘virtue signalling’, but at root it is a way of confirming our sense of ‘being in the right’ by damning others. Demonising them
We live in an era when it might be said ‘through the agency of the internet, demonisation has gone viral . . .’ Interesting that we use a word to do with disease to explain the rapid spread of something ‘going viral’ a ‘pandemic’ . . . We have no alternative Good word
James the brother of Jesus chides us – ‘The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell . . . no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.’
Well James is writing before the internet – before Facebook and Twitter – where ‘good’ people go to town demonising those made in the likeness of God – we seem to need to have ‘enemies’ whom it is socially acceptable to damn . . . Donald Trump anyone?
How many ‘good people’ do you and I know who regularly take to the ethereal internet to damn others? Individuals and groups? And then this or group demonises back, and to use James terrifying phrase, the circle of nature is set on fire . . . by hell itself.
And in our culture this is ‘business as usual’. It is socially acceptable to demonise . . . Respectable members of society, the church even, Lord have mercy, damning left right and centre and no one considers this evil . . . ? ‘Business as usual’
I wonder how much of our discourse – of our conversation with others about ‘the pressing matters of the age’ reveal us to be full of Life and Light and how many reveal our lives to be merely the purveyors of socially acceptable demonisation?
Where do demons come from? They seem to wander around until they find a home. They seem in my experience to find a home in and between people, people who in the world’s eyes are good and respectable people, who then force them onto others.
I have never come across of acute demonic activity which wasn’t tied up with human relationships. That which is means to be light and Life and Love – is infested with darkness and death and hate. So we try to deal with the disease and come up with the demonised . . .
He dwells in the place of the dead, amongst the tombs – far from home – rejected even by his family familial rejection is a common aspect of this. ‘The black sheep of the family’ anyone? And then Jesus comes and brings one back from the dead. The Demonised is sat, clothed and in his right mind. This clearly is not simply about simply restoring someone to society – for it is the society which is complicit in the demons within the man. Rather Jesus performs what is a powerful evocation of the harrowing of Hell. Brings back a man from the place of the dead.
And the people do not see that his healing calls them to their own healing, would they had it. They are still living in fear. Terrifying Goodness has broken out and they can’t stand it. Life, business as usual is revealed as something which happens in the shadows – the Light of Life is too bright – and they asked Jesus the Light to depart from them.
It is not uncommon to hear people argue that Jesus’ healings etc. are contrary to the natural order. They offend for example against Science . . . of course we might ask what is a science that has no place for Goodness beyond goodness? Yet their real disturbance goes much much deeper than that, pressing down into the deep reality of our very existence . . . shocking and terrifying Goodness. Revealing to us the utter brokenness of what we call ‘the natural order, ‘business as usual’
He Manifests Health beyond health. Salvation beyond Safety. The formerly demon possessed man is as it were at peace. As Jesus had stilled the storm on the lake, so the agonising storms within the man have been calmed. He is Saved. Profoundly healed, inside and out. And this is not business as usual . . .
Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another. To use Marks phrase. The man is free to return home – internally and externally healed. Not least in the area of his relationships. He leaves the people who need a demon possessed man in order to maintain ‘business as usual’ and goes out to proclaim the mighty acts of God
Clothed and in his right mind. The presence of the man resonates with the presence of Jesus. In our epistle St Paul says As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ
Clothed with Christ – in our right minds – the eye of our heart – we are to be clothed and in our right minds. Sitting at the feet of Jesus (by the way this is where Mary is in the story of Martha and Mary) . . . this is our vocation as children of the resurrection – to have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness, to have nothing to do with ‘business as usual’.
At peace with one another and within ourselves. Clothed with Christ. Such lives stand out – and are light in the World, full as they are of the light of the World, but they may not be welcomed, for they remind the world that it’s end is not business as usual
You may even, indeed I hope you do, form time to time recognise this. You make a simple offer to someone – something which speaks of the reality that is the life of Christ within you. But it is too much for the person – and it is refused. ‘I couldn’t possibly’ . . .
To accept the gift would call the person into a Life beyond life as they have known it. It is too much. And a chasm of separation opens up between you and the person. The Life in you has been too challenging
Whatever else the Christian Life is, it is not ‘business as usual’. It is the Life of God
Sermon for Evensong
Trinity Sunday 2019
The Mystery of our faith
As the Modern age has progressed one can to a certain extent map a reduction in the explicit consciousness of God in our human affairs. Charles Taylor in his magisterial work ‘A Secular Age’ asks the question “Why, was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in say, 1500 in our western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” [check quote]
In our consciousness it is probably very fair to say that Man has grown larger and God smaller. For those who follow Jesus, it is becoming almost an embarrassment to speak of The Fear of the Lord. The sense that God is beyond our capacity, in greatness and splendour . . . has receded. We have perhaps reduced God to our own image, in our consciousness – perhaps this was why Freud was so quick to assume that god was merely some ego projection, for the God he encountered in Modern Christians was so human sized – as the human grew . . . so we are told we live in ‘the age of the Anthropocene. The Human stamp is stamped everywhere – human consciousness invades every moment of our day . . .
I speak of consciousness for in part Taylor’s question is a question not so much of belief, but of how we are aware of ourselves and the world around us. We live with forms of certainty – granted in small part by science and technology, couples with what we call ‘the power of human reason’, yet, it seems we are rapidly accelerating into a world where we realise how little we know.
As the Creation falls apart around us – I suspect we are becoming more and more conscious of a reality far greater than we had been led to believe in. That the human brain and intellect so powerfully advertised as of a complexity and power far far beyond that of super computers – turns out on the grand scale of things to be not much more advanced or indeed useful than an abacus in terms of its ability to discern the Truth of Existence.
Of course this huge and I suggest anxiety driven emphasis on Reason etc. has had a powerful impact on our faith where all too many either abandon faith or retreat to the ‘certainties’ of ‘what the bible says’. Biblical fundamentalists are the mirror image of the Dawkins of this world – being imbued with the same ratioreductionist [un]conscious approach to faith. We can see everything – nothing is hidden from our unseeing eye – perhaps we have in our own imagining become like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings?
This anxiety driven certainty creates a consciousness which has little time for mystery – perhaps this is why we are so obsessed with Safety – a flight from our inability to rationally calculate everything that might conceivably happen in a world which something somewhere suggests to us might Not be as it seems. If we increasingly limit the possibilities open to us, through for example highly developed H&S policies, then we might conceivably keep Reality from breaking in.
So too mystery and faith. My training incumbent, a thoughtful evangelical has an almost visceral response to the word ‘mystery’ and would endlessly quote Colossians 1:25-27 “I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” There! He would say “the mystery is revealed -there is no mystery . . . however he didn’t than qualify it with other words of St Paul, namely “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.” And of course most of Reality is in truth mysterious
Well today is of course one of the days of great mystery in the church calendar – Trinity Sunday – the day when many right thinking, or perhaps rationalist clergy decided to take a holiday and allow someone else to have the benefit of their pulpit! God as Three in One. As the cover of our font reminds us The Father is not the Son is not the Spirit – yet the Father and the Son and the Spirit are One God . . .
And no doubt here and there people are being subjected to images of God as a clover leaf etc. Trying to make it visible . . .
And of course the hyper rational age loves the visible – where mystery is done away with. We live in the age of the image – or as the French philosopher Guy Debord calls ‘the society of the spectacle’ I’m not here going to engage with Debord’s thesis but he certainly points us towards a society where our gaze is captivated by that which we see on a screen – and of course if we see it, it must be The Truth. No mystery in what we see is there, after all?
Most tragically perhaps we might apprehend this in the deluge of pornography which is freely available. The cultural critic Naomi Wolf writes on on how this deluge has changed people. On the one hand she speaks with evident envy of a female friend who converted to Orthodox Judaism, and went about with a headscarf. When asked by Wolf why she did this, she responded, ‘my hair is for my husband’. Wolf noted a new incredible erotic charge and energy about her friend, where the sexual had become ‘mysterious’ shrouded, hidden, and thus more vividly alive – Real perhaps?
Her musings closed with a young man who was speaking about the effects of porn on himself and his friends When asked by Wolf about the mystery of sex, responded thus “Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”
It is perhaps here that we see the root of the familiarity of the erotic with the deeply Spiritual. Both engage us in a deeper knowing. A knowing which cannot be rationalised, a knowing which is beyond Reason, yet somehow far more sure. A knowing perhaps which is truly Personal and hoas to do with the depths of our hearts and our Loves.
Jesus says – ‘now this is eternal life, that they might Know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ Knowledge of The Mystery takes us into the place of the powerfully personal – into the very depth of our being.
Jesus tells us ‘when you pray, go into your inner room and close the door. There, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your father who sees in secret will reward you’ Here of course the contrast is wth those for whom – its all out there! Those who stand on street corners to pray, that they might be seen by men
And so we come to our two texts for this evening – both of which take us beyond the place of the simply rational – although we must apply our minds, if only to draw us into the mystery of our faith.
Moses alone in the desert – the place of the encounter with the depths of who you are – reminiscent of the old teaching of the church fathers, ‘stay in your cell and it will teach you anything’ It is when we close our eyes to the easy lies of the visual – when the world around us is devoid of fascination, that the vast interior spaces open up. So the wilderness – the desert.
’Nothing to see here’ yet here Moses encounters the bush ablaze yet not burning – and draws aside – it is not a thing of direct vision. It is off to one side, pretty much as this Life which comes to us from God does not apprehend us in the three dimensions with which we are so familiar but comes at us if you like perpendicular to time and space
Who are you he asks? And the answer ‘I Am what I am, I will be what I will be’ An answer that is no answer at all . . . Certainly an answer which places us in a position where we cannot use God for our own purposes, for He does not allow us to touch Him, to lay hold on Him – to Close the story so that we can simply move on – rather we are called to move towards, deeper into the unseen, yet ever near.
And again – Jesus words leave Nicodemus drowning in incomprehension – You must be born again . . .what does this mean? Of course a faith which seeks to abandon mystery must make of this a simple formula. Repent of your sins, believe in Jesus and you will be born again – but with Nicodemus we MUST ask – but what does this mean? To repent is to reorient the eye of the heart . . . it is to turn our forgotten organ of perception, something perhaps akin to our intuition towards God, to Light, to fire, to a burning bush. It is to behold!
As I have been at pains to point out over the years, our English language often does not serve us well, in this case particularly with respect to Seeing. In Greek we have two verbs, one we might say is to see with the eye, as I see you and you I. Yet that that sense is one of the most readily deceived.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate
In our looking, we miss the Big picture -the relatedness of the apple to the provision and command of God.
The second verb is translated in older translations, Behold. This is the verb Jesus uses when he speaks with Nicodemus. Unless a man is born again he shall not Behold the Kingdom of God. Behold the Lamb of God says John the Baptist – when to the eye, all there is is a wandering dusty rabbi from Nazareth of all places! Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the world . . . surely in part our loss of God consciousness is our reduction of the second person of the Trinity to simply that Nazarene. The divinity of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, is largely ignored – and with it tragedy of tragedies, our own destiny shrinks
What is it to be ‘born again’? Perhaps it is to become the vessel of that uncreated Light – Wisdom – over which we have no hold – Uncreated Light . . .
One of the old fathers of the desert asked his disciples – what does the following verse mean? One after another each gave his answer – until he came to the last disciple, who answered ‘I do not know’. The Abba said ‘you have answered truthfully’
Such hiddenness, such uncertainty, such mystery is so frustrating to we Moderns, but if we are to find our way back, perhaps it is the place to start
How is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I do not know
Sermon for Easter 2 2019
‘All too much?’
CS Lewis in his stunning allegory – ‘The Great Divorce’ – suggests that the reason we do not seek the True Life of ‘The Great World we are made for’ is that it is too Real, Too much for us.
In this he imagined Hell not as fire and torment, but dark and somewhat dismal – like a Northern English industrial town on a rainy afternoon in winter. In his story, every day a bus left Hell to go to Heaven and anyone could make the journey, and anyone could stay in Heaven should they so wish, but Heaven was too Real, it was too much. Almost everyone got back on the bus to return to their lives of quiet desperation – Too Good to be True – Too Good to bear . . . perhaps their lives had not prepared them to bear the beams of Reality, to bear the beams of divine Love as william Blake puts it . . . for our lives here are meant to prepare us to Life in the fulness of the Reality of the Great world for which we are made. Each day an opportunity to grow deeper into the Life that is Life in its fullness
Here we have an echo of our suggestion of last week, that we struggle with the Resurrection of Jesus, because it is Too Good to be true . . . how can anything be Too Good? Yet if Goodness is Too much for us when we encounter it? Unbelievable – and we all too readily shape our lives to comfortable mediocrity and our perception of heaven is to say the least vague and nothing we set our hearts on – The Good. God Himself. Our struggle to believe something Too Good to be true is a sign of our alienation from the One who is Good.
And the early days after the Resurrection find the disciples struggling to come to terms with the Good Reality, to use Tolkien’s word – the Euchatastophe – the good Catastrophe – that has come crashing in , like bright sunshine rousing us from comfortable slumbers.
Yet the idea of a catastrophe, can this be Good? Can’t we keep things just as they are? Ok? Nice? Safe even? Safety having become the secular version of the Good – there is no room for Aslan in New Zealand for Aslan is not Safe . . . which means there is no place for the Good!
I think perhaps we are so insulated here – we struggle really to comprehend the Good. Evil breaks in and we cannot comprehend, but good also.
My primary school headteacher, whose class I was in – had been evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk railed against the word ‘nice’ – and I guess anyone who had survived such an ordeal – a Life and Death Reality, would want something more Real, Awake, Alive! from what we wrote.
The Reality of the Resurrection of Jesus being Too Good to be true may be in no small part the product of our desire not to believe, for if it is true, it is the announcement that the world is not as we thought – our lives don’t fit a World shaped by the Resurrection. And we have two choices, to remain as we are or to begin the long hard work of reconfirming our lives to fit the new reality.
The Resurrection calls forth from us is a life that is we had not known – New Life, in Jesus. Now and again I hear this phrase but not for some years now.
Is it just easier to doubt and hope that things will turn out ok? That the Resurrection in its Catastrophic nature isn’t true?
Is it not an avoidance of the Responsibility of walking through the door to a new life which the Resurrection of Jesus holds open to us? Perhaps when one is growing old, new life is not something we readily desire . . . I remember one of my former bishops railing against ‘it’ll see me out-ism’. He would visit dying churches and all folk could say was ‘it’ll see me out . . .’ Just leave us as we are . . . don’t disturb us with tales of New Life in Jesus
Yet if the Resurrection of Jesus is True, then like things being ‘nice’, this is a failure to walk in the new Life, to receive the Gift, a failure to take Responsibility, to Believe and not doubt
Of course here we have an echo of the words of Nicodemus who comes to Jesus in the dark, at night . . . and Jesus’ telling him that unless he is born again, born from above, born of God he cannot See the Kingdom of God’ But Nicodemus is getting on in years – ‘‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? . . .’
Being born is the greatest catastrophe – it is a Good Catastrophe – it has happened to all of us, but we forget it. There we are in the comfort and the warmth, food on tap, we don’t even have to think about it, no responsibilities, we are the centre of our own universe, everything is nicely arranged – and then the catastrophe takes place and we’re forced out into light and a place where after a time we discover that we’re not the centre of things, and then seemingly try and get back, to construct the world as it was in the womb when we knew no better . . . Too much effort, all that change. Don’t bother us with your promises of sharing in the Eternal Life of God . . .
So New Birth is highly appropriate as a means of describing the Good catastrophe that is the Resurrection of Jesus, that in Him we are raised to a New Life. A life which calls us into the full stature of our humanity – a life of Responsibility. A Life in which fear has no part, for Death itself has been trampled down. A Life that can only be lived from the clean wellsprings of faith, not doubt. A Life which comes from and is directed towards God . . . and perhaps it is too much?
So this week Jesus comes to his disciples – their door locked for fear of the Judeans. And says the most earth shattering thing to them . . . What had they said? ‘Only God can forgive sins!’ If we push it onto God, then we can cary on not forgiving because it’s God’s job not ours, and Jesus breathes on them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit – whosoever sins you loose, they are loosed, and whosoever sins you hang onto, they are hung onto . . .
There is a starkness in these words – We have the responsibility – We are now by the Life of God in us Sent into the World, as Jesus was sent by the Father – do do God’s work of forgiveness. But we are responsible . . . This is why He gives us his Life! That we might do what he does . . .
but in freedom, so the door always lies open to return to the sleep of death and sin – to hang onto sin and not release . . .
We are Sent – sent into the World as the Father sent the Son, so Jesus the Son sends us – to do the Father’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation . . . And Sent in Faith of the Risen One
Which brings us to Thomas . . . frequently over the last couple of weeks I have recounted how Thomas is badly done by. He believes in Jesus far more than the rest of the disciples – ‘Let us go with him that we might die with Him!’ He is the one who asks Jesus What is the Way you are going? He identifies with Jesus – there is no ‘I do not know him’ as with Peter. He sees Jesus as his Life . . . and he has seen that Life go . . . is it any surprise he struggles at this point?
He Loves Jesus . . . Jesus who said ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall See God’ To be pure of heart is to Love truly. Thomas Loves Jesus, and now he Sees Him for who He is. ‘My Lord and My God!’ John has thought his gospel kept the true identity of Jesus open to differing interpretation – but not now. Thomas declares the Risen Christ Jesus to be LORD, and God . . .
it is because of who he is that we go out – He has passed through death – He calls us from Death to Life – all authority is given to him and he sends us to responsibly carry that into His World. Forgiving Sins and pointing all to the Centre of Life – God, manifested to us in Jesus Christ, the one who has trampled down death by death. He is Risen indeed! Or is it all too much?
Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2019
‘Jesus came to Simon Peter who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him saying “you do not Know what I am doing now, but afterwards you will Know”’
One of the thoughts that has been going through my head of late is of how unaware we are of . . . well of anything. We are amazed by ‘the sum total of human knowledge’, yet the more I consider that, the more I realise that ‘the sum total of human knowledge’ is the merest drop in the vast ocean of the sum total of human ignorance’ Just consider you own life . . . there is so much which in truth we do not know . . .
For example, think of someone you know – do you know anything about what it is like to be that person? How it feels to be them? How they are feeling right now? How they will feel tomorrow? And then you multiply that by all the people you think you know, let alone those you don’t.
Or the effect you life has on others? Think of your car. Who works in the factories, what are their lives like – what are the true costs?? What about the land where the raw materials were mined? What is happening to the emissions our car makes? I like to say ‘you never just . . . do anything’ Certainly ‘you never just . . . buy a car’
The car stands as a metaphor of our life – a bubble of the things we know in which we feel secure as we go about the world, a tiny bubble with airbags and side impact protection – keeping us from the terrifying universe of our ignorance
This evening we See Jesus as he kneels to wash his disciples feet – Peter thinks he understands – but Jesus tells him that he is ignorant – ‘you do not know what I am doing now’
Peter stands for us all in our tiny bubble of understanding ‘Lord, you will never wash my feet . . .’ , but as ever we do not Know what we are saying . . . Jesus tells him ‘unless I wash your feet you have no part with me . . .’
Jesus does not teach us more lessons about life. If we come to Him hoping to as it were take away some useful nugget tonight to help expand the minuscule bubble of our ignorance. we would be missing the point. For it is not about Understanding in such terms – rather the Gospel that is Jesus Christ is about coming to Know even as we are fully Known. And that as St Paul reminds us is the End – the Goal of Love
Jesus is not teaching us in the sense of telling us things, he is teaching us by identifying himself with us, and inviting us to identify ourselves with Him. To Know Him. To Love Him. Not to Know about Him, but Know Him. Not to love abstract facts, but to Love Him
Jesus identification with us is total – and so it goes way beyond our tiny bubble of what we falsely call ‘knowledge’ . He identifies with he full reality of the Life we cannot see – we are so unaware of our lives, but Jesus assumes the entirety of the human condition . . . and he does this most deeply in terms of Sacrifice
Jesus tells us that Sacrifice is the Centre of Knowing – it is the centre of Love – ‘Greater love hath no man than this than a man lay down his life for his friends’ – Sacrifice is the expression of Love – sacrifice is the deep pattern of our existence . . . but we are a sacrifice averse people
Years ago I remember a British ‘agony aunt’ who happened to be a secular Jew, [Claire Rayner] saying that she thought the idea of a religion based on sacrifice was a terrible idea – backwards – medieval even . . . Yet in so saying she was displaying her profound ignorance of Life itself – she was a stranger to her own existence. For, for each of us, our entire way of life is one of sacrifice.
And so much we have has called forth willingly or unwillingly the sacrifice of others – from the moment of our birth and before, the Mother gives up so much of herself to bring us into the world – she relinquishes so much to bring us up . . . and then . . . and then . . . and as we go about in our ‘low emmission’ bubble of knowledge – who has sacrificed what, what lands, what lives have been laid down for our convenience? Gradually the perception grows that we may have even sacrificed the Created world for the sake of our comfort . . .
Our lives are actually sacrificial, through and through. Every decision we take, is a choice for one thing and therefore a sacrifice, a closing the door to many many other things . And each and every sacrifice involves not just us, but the lives of those around us and by extension the lives of all around them. Think of how the choices parents make affect the lives of their children . . . and these choices are driven by our desires. We sacrifice something today for the hope of something we desire tomorrow. Our desires – our loves – but our loves are distorted, for we do not See our lives and their effects, we do not understand, we do not Know.
From Cain and Abel on, sacrifice is the pattern of our existence in a fallen world. Indeed before that. We are driven from the Garden of Paradise, for we sacrifice Knowing God, in order to Knowing Good and Evil.
We sacrifice being the Image of God in our attempt to Be God . . .
‘Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do’ The Words of Jesus from the Cross . . .
And So, there at our feet, The image of God, Jesus the Anointed One, embraces all of our humanity. From the tiny plot of our pitiful knowledge, to the vast universes of our ignorance. He steps down into the deepest place, washing our feet – and we do not Know what this is.
Jesus comes as a Slave of all – he takes upon himself the entirety of our human condition – not in a superficial way – it’s true Jesus IS a first century Palestinian Jew – he has never played golf, or seen New Zealand – and we think these things are SO important, based on ‘the sum total of human knowledge’ – yet they are as nothing for we do not Know the Truth of ourselves . . .
but Jesus does Know – He Knows our humanness in a depths and dimensions we cannot begin to conceive – he binds himself utterly to the fulness of who we are – he Knows intimately and in every detail the Life of Sacrifice – He Becomes the Sacrifice. We all become what we love . . .
But Jesus Loves Truly. He is the One who Loves God with heart, soul, mind and strength and in dying for us, loves his neighbour as himself. The Cross is the revelation of Love of God and neighbour.
As we sacrificed being the image of God in order to try and be God, so God in Jesus re-enacts that sacrifice. The Image of God lays down his life in our place that that which we had thought nothing might be restored – returned to us in His total identification with us and ours by the tiny spark of faith in The New Creation, where we Know fully, even as we are fully Known
This is his identification with us, and then he invites us to identify with Him –
Take, eat, this is my body given for you – Drink This is my blood shed for the forgiveness of your Sins – Love covers a multitude of sins – I am the Loving cover for your not Knowing.
‘Afterward, you will know’
Sermon for Palm Sunday 2019 Yr C
‘Jesus – The Anointed’
There are words we often use as Christians which we give little or no thought to – indeed which we may not have ever stopped to wonder what they mean. Salvation – for example. But the word we use most is caught up in the very word Christian – that is Christ. What does this word mean? The apostle Paul uses it a lot – he speaks of Christ this, Christ that, Christ the other . . . What is he talking about? He says for example ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.’ He speaks frequently of being ‘in Christ’ – but what does it mean?
Well to the early Christians it would have not been a mystery at all. For Christ was the Greek word used to translate Messiah. Jesus Christ could as well be rendered Jesus the Messiah – and both Christ and Messiah meant the same thing. The Anointed one. The Messiah was of course The King, the long awaited one – and the King was the one who when sat on his throne was Anointed with oil. Just as our own sovereign is to this day in an echo of that
So when we say Jesus Christ – what we are saying as a wonderful translation of the new Testament puts it everywhere – The Anointed. Indeed when you read a translation which uses an unexpected word in this way, you really notice how frequently it crops up. The Anointed this, The Anointed that, the Anointed the other . . . but if you picked up the book without any prior knowledge and read ‘The Anointed’, you would of course be left with a question . . . Who is ‘the Anointed’?
The modifier ‘Christ’ – points us to a person – that of Jesus of Nazareth.
The title points us to a person, and cannot be understood apart from that person. It directs us to some aspect of a particular person, but the focus is on the person. And for Paul and all the other writers of the New Testament, whenever you read ‘The Anointed’, you were directed to Jesus of Nazareth . . . but as we are so familiar with Christ as a word apart from its meaning, so often we seek to disconnect Jesus and The Anointed, or rather The Christ.
The other day a friend pointed me to a new book – a New York Times Bestseller no less – endorsed by Bono!! who said ‘I couldn’t put it down!’. It was entitled ‘The Universal Christ’ which is one might say an oxymoron. For the title The Anointed points us to a particular.
We live in a world increasingly dominated by Universal Abstract thought and the end of this always is the loss of the personal and the local. Wendell Berry speaks of this as he recounts his brother going to hospital for a difficult operation. After the operation with her husband in intensive care ‘his wife Carol was standing by his bed, grieving and afraid. Wanting to reassure her, the nurse said, “Nothing is happening to him that doesn’t happen to everybody” And Carol replied “I’m not everybody’s husband”’ None of us is . . . we are all particulars people . . . and there is only a Particular Christ, not an Everyman Christ, or a Universal Christ, but Jesus The Annointed, The Christ . . . who comes to us humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey . . .
This is the true focus of what we call ‘the scandal of particularity’ By that we often mean ‘Christian faith is right and others are wrong’ – but the Real Scandal of particularity is not an idea, but a person – Jesus is the Anointed one – He is the World’s true King! As the earliest proclamation of the Church was, when the Spirit had been poured out on the gathered disciples, ‘Jesus the Anointed is Lord!’ Not Caesar, nor any other human Ruler, but Jesus. And not any Jesus, ‘This Jesus whom you have crucified!’ . . . Not only the King of Israel, but the King of all . . .
A Jewish carpenter’s son, with his band of rough and ready devotees – as Isaiah says ‘there was nothing in him that we might desire him. He was nothing to look at . . . According to the eye what do we see?
Remember two weeks ago? The elder brother does not see aright, he does not see with the heart of the Father, as the Pharisees didn’t See Jesus.
So too last week Judas does not see theLove and devotion of Mary, all he sees is in an echo of the elder brother in the parable the Waste as Mary reflects the gratuitous wasteful love of Jesus back to Him . . . so Judas will continue to See wrong.
Judas is as I said last week a universal – the one who judges, calculates . . . he lives in the sea world of numbers and money . . . 300 denarii, and indeed as he looks he asks ‘what does this crowd, this rabble Jesus has gathered around him add up to’??
He sees the powers of the religious authorities, he see the might of Imperial Rome, he sees Jesus on the colt of a donkey with the band of fishermen and other assorted nobodies. The peasant teacher with his rabble band – storming the city with his donkey and filthy footed galilean hangers on! . . . and he judges, he calculates where he is going to be safest, and casts his lot with what to all intents and purposes looks like the winning side . . .
Yet . . . what do the crowds say
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!’
Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Behold, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!’
The King! Your King!
but this weary, dusty hungering Galilean, with his unsophisticated band of disciples so called doesn’t look like much. His teaching on the perils of wealth and comfort don’t resonate with those whose lives are built on such things. His demand that unless we give up all we possess we cannot go his way . . . – and at the very end, what kind of a king is just another dead jew on a cross . . . as Pilate puts it ‘Here is your King’ ‘here is your Anointed!’ Here is your Christ . . .
So we find – and it must be said, entirely amongst the wealthy and comfortably off, those whom Jesus repeatedly warns – as we have been reading Luke we become aware that Jesus’ teaching is not comfortable listening for those with comfortable lives . . . Gnostic teaching is popular amongst those for whom the particularity of Jesus is too disruptive and disturbing – not the sort of king for the cultured elites, amongst whom such teaching is so popular getting to the top of the NYT best seller list and avidly read by pop stars – and this is an old story.
The early roots of Christianity are not auspicious – it was largely a movement amongst the poor and off casts of society. As we have said recently – Galileans are pretty much beyond the pail – certainly not the sort of folk you’d invite to polite Jerusalem, Judean Society . . . it grew as one of its most clear eyed critics put it as mainly a slave movement, a revolt amongst the poor.
Sometimes when we speak of sharing the Good News of Jesus with those around us, we uses the metaphor, ‘one beggar showing another where to find bread’. Well for many if not most of the first Christians that wasn’t simply a metaphor as they shared the little they had with one another, homes and food
Yet as ‘a new thing’ it attracted the curiosity of those who looked for a more ‘spiritual cast to life’, particularly amongst the Greeks, for whom the association of Christ with The Anointed Messiah of the Jews was not part of their story. There’s always a market for something spiritual but undemanding – These people – the Gnostics – were so spiritual that for them the body was insignificant, and so thus the particularity of Jesus an offence. They would be into ‘spiritual things’, ‘Spirituality’ would be a buzzword amongst them. They would be more than happy to talk about The Universal Christ, The Cosmic Christ or whatever – . . . but Jesus? Happy to patronise him . . .
Tidy him up, scrub out his awkward jewishness and of course don’t refer to him by name – don’t get into all that ‘Jesus worship stuff . . .’ Let’s just call him Christ. ’We mustn’t make the mistake of attaching too much significance to this one man . . . he is merely pointing the way – his teachings were about how we might be spiritual, and we shouldn’t take at all literally his words of judgement for the rich and comfortable . . . then as now despising the company he keeps, His body of disciples, the Church . . . “Spirituality is IN! Organised religion is OUT!” You will always find reason to criticise if you look with the eye of Judas . . . Jesus’ followers nothing to look at, and as for the man himself . . .
And so it goes on – As one very popular modern gnostic writer puts it, ‘Jesus is probably seeing at a much higher level than most of us’ and then goes on to explain why Jesus view is so restricted, and implicitly teach those who drink deep from this guru’s wells, that he sees at a higher level than Jesus . . .
The offence of the gospel in the early years as today is that it offends polite sensibilities – we want another King! But as we begin to walk through Holy Week we get closer and closer to The Cross . . . where our King, Jesus is Crucifed . . . will we go with Him?
Sermon for Lent 4
Year C 2019
The parable of the two sons
‘Just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.’ Gal 4:29
“Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” 1 John 4:20
‘Away from Home, in Body and Heart’
So we are half way now through Lent, and the fourth Sunday is observed in parts of the Church as Mothering Sunday. In part the roots of this are found in the practise of allowing those in service to go home to Mother for the day, and of course Mother Church.
Returning Home is the journey of the Christian Life, beginning as it does with our ‘coming to our senses’, waking up to the Reality of existence and setting out to find its beating heart.
Of course, Home doesn’t always carry positive and hopeful attributes in our minds. People run away from home. Home is where family is, and on days such as Mothering Sunday down through the years I’ve been confronted with the fact of broken homes and relationships. Mothering Sunday wasn’t universally a day of warmth and joy – and indeed returning to Church can carry similar baggage, indeed it usually does. The family of the body of Christ can be just as challenging, indeed it helps if it is . . .
As a fridge magnet we were once given by some friends put it ‘Friends are the Family we choose for ourselves’. Much as I appreciated the warmth shown by the gift, it troubled me, for of course the grounds of our salvation are not what we choose for ourselves. Our core problem is that we do not love well – so we choose poorly. Our desiring capacity is off beam, and being wrapped up in our self we tend to flock together with those we are like.
Consumers that we are trained to be – we love the idea of this – ‘have the world to your tastes’. Indeed even in the church, there are those who say we each need a church according to our own personality. Yet consciously or unconsciously to choose this path – and it is often unconscious and rationalised to suit our deep misdirected loves – to choose this path is to avoid the difficult task of renewal of our hearts and minds. Which is to avoid God himself, made known to us in Jesus.
(In this regard, as I often say, people become Vicars who have most to learn, for God puts us in a place where we don’t get to choose with whom we worship 🙂 We are given a family 🙂 )
Being a Vicar in a rural context was instructive in this regard, for there was only one (Anglican) show in town. If you were Anglican and it mattered to you, there was no choice. Indeed we were often the only church in ‘town’. And of course then we realised that as the family of the church we weren’t all with the family we’d choose for ourselves . . . as it was of course in the rest of the week. The people we didn’t want ot see on the street, then turned up in church on Sunday
Family dynamics. The Givenness of Family, the givenness of a church family – the arena for finding our way Home, the gift of God, towards the heart of God.
Confronted with the difficulty of the Command to Love those amongst whom we find ourselves – I have been told, ‘but I’m not Jesus!’ Which of course is the point. No, I am not, but to find my way Home I must grow into his likeness, to Love as God Loves, not in the partial selective way we do.
We are not well served by consumer faith, or indeed spectator faith, watching on whilst Jesus ‘does it for us’ His call is to follow, to go with Him, and to be shaped by that cross shaped journey into His Likeness.
Yes, we may well say we believe in Jesus, but to believe in Him is to Know Him – to Know His Heart – to have his heart, the heart of the Father, the heart of God. When we love God with all we have and all we are, His heart grows within us – and if it isn’t growing, we are not loving God.
Jesus said, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you . . . love one another as I have loved you’ How are we to love one another? With the Love of the Father for the Son . . .
And so in this parable, a parable about our hearts, the focus is not on the ‘Prodigal Son’, it is the elder Son. We can like him be at home in Body, but far away in regard to our heart.
We know little if anything of the heart of the Prodigal – we tend to make a set of assumptions, but they are just that. Judgements of his motives as we observe him, but that is all.
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. That’s it. We might say ‘he disrespected his Father!’, ‘he couldn’t wait to see his father dead!’, but the parable doesn’t say that. He simply asks for His share and His Father without hesitation gives it to him, and also btw gives it to the elder son . . . ‘he divided his property between them, a few days later the younger son gathered all he had’ . . . the elder son didn’t, but was welcome to . . .
There are a couple of moments when we see a little deeper into the younger son. He ‘came to his senses’, sat amongst the pigs . . . a place where the senses may well be awakened 🙂 And he tells a story about himself. If we heard well, we may remember an echo of a theme we explored last week, that of shame. And how, full of shame he doesn’t See clearly and he judges his Father.
You remember? We Sin and then for shame, judging God by our standards – we imagine that God cannot forgive – and we hide. Well the younger son decides not to hide and sets off for Home, but in expectation of at the best a place as a servant in his father’s house – yet, as we heard last week ‘your ways are not my ways, neither are your thoughts my thoughts’. We judge the Father incorrectly, we always do, until we have his heart, until we Know not just about His heart, but Know His heart. Until we Love Him, we shall not See Him, or Know Him
The Father’s response, to this errant Son? He runs to meet him! He has been looking out for his return ‘from afar off! He puts his arm around him and kisses him. He doesn’t seem to notice the shame ridden testimony, for that he knows as a cover, a fig leaf of shame – he rejoices to have his dearly beloved Son home. He sees deeper than the surface – he sees the Beloved Son.
He dresses him in the best robe! He orders a ring for his finger, a sign of restoration to full sonship, and sandals for his feet. And a fatted calf is prepared – this is going to be a feast, a great banquet with celebration! What a celebration – when the elder son returns from working in the field, he hears ‘music and dancing’ The word for music is ‘symphonie’ 🙂 But this isn’t like being sat in the town Hall for some high culture, which perhaps we might ‘judge’ – no, it is wild and exuberant! You Have to join in!! To share in the music, to share in the heart of the Father.
The Father is rejoicing! Like the man who found his lost sheep, like the woman who found the lost coin . . . a party is in order! And what a party . . . but someone won’t come in
As I said, we know nothing of the heart of the prodigal – just the odd glimpse, but even that open to misinterpretation – whilst the elder son is revealed. Quite simply, he does not have the Father’s heart for his brother. He does not look with love upon him. He cannot rejoice to have him back . . . and not having the heart of the Father he is estranged not only from his brother, but from his Father also. The two go together . . . we are left wondering if he will respond to the father’s plea regarding his brother . . . will he go in? Or will he shut himself out? As C.S. Lewis puts it ‘hell is locked on the inside’.
For as John says, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” The elder brother does not know the Father – he has no love for Him. He considers himself a slave, trying to earn his Father’s love . His Father has already given him all he has, but he cannot see it – his heart is closed to his brother and to His Father. He does not Love, thus he does not See, thus he does not Know.
He does not See – all he sees is the Sin the younger son bears – besmirched with Sin – that is all he sees. The younger Son is a scandal, a stumbling block to Him – his vision is filled with his judgement of his brother, and so he cannot See His Father in truth. He is blind by the Sin of his own judging.
When we judge another this is what happens – our eye is filled with what we take to be the truth of a situation and a person, but to See truthfully. We see the mote, and it is all we see. Think of how a single thing fills our mind about a person when we judge them. Apart from Love, we are blind. To Love is to see the other as God Sees . . .
To return to something we explored last week, the purpose of Judgement is to heal. This is the Cross, it is the judgement, it is the place where Sin is shown to be utterly sinful – and we get that far . . . but this is not to See the Cross in truth, for it is also the place of atonement – of Healing. We seeing only the Sin, as we observe the Prodigal, do not see the Cross as the place of healing
Only in the Light of the truth of Sin can healing come about – The Cross diagnoses and Heals! . . . but do we want to be healed? Do we want others to be healed? Do we Love God? Do we love our sister and brother? Are we children of God? Do we love as he loves us?
This is the command of Jesus and the way of Jesus . . . and the business of the church of the messy family we are born into, is to become like him. Loving as he loves us. Having the Heart of the Father.
Do we Know Jesus? Do We See Him? Do we Love Him?
Of course, we readily enough see God in the parable . . . the Father who throws a party for the Son who has returned, but do we see Jesus?
What is the context of the parable?
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable . . .
The younger Son comes out from the Father’s house – ‘He left his Father’s throne above . . .’
He carries the wealth of the Father – ‘So free, so infinite His Grace . . .’
He squanders it seemingly carelessly to the point of notoriety – on those who don’t deserve it – prostitutes no less!!! – ‘Emptied himself of all but love . . .’
When at the last he is emptied – he is abandoned by all – and hungers . . . then, carrying all the shame he goes to the face the judgement . . . ‘and bled for Adam’s helpless race’
the judgement – which is revealed to be the place of healing and feasting and celebration . . .
He who was dead, has come to life . . .
Do we see our sister and brother with the Father’s Love?
Do we see Jesus?
May God use this season of Lent to heal the eye of our heart, and together with our brothers and sisters, may we hear with our brother Jesus, his call to come Home.
Sermon for Lent 2 – Year C 2019
Face your healing
A couple of years ago, I watched Wolf Hall, the TV dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Henry the VIIIth, his first three wives and the political manoeuvring of Thomas Cromwell.
Amongst many things that stuck out from this elegant production, one thing speaks to our Scriptures today. it is when Cromwell is summoned to Hampton Court Palace in the middle of the night. The King is in a terrified state. He has just had a dream in which he sees his late brother, Arthur. Henry you might remember was married firsT to Catherine of Aragon, who had . . . or perhaps had not . . . been married to his brother. Henry wishes to divorce Catherine so that he can marry Anne Boleyn, and believes that the dream is a warning from God. His Spiritual destiny hangs in the balance, and He is terrified. God looms large in his dreams and thoughts.
Cromwell, ever the consulate politician of course, like the false prophets, give Henry a soothing interpretation which calms his fears, and so the die is cast.
What struck me was how unlike the age in which we live . . . I think it is not unreasonable to point out that for most if not all of us, we are far far more attentive to the state of our physical health than we are of our Spiritual situation before God! Tummy trouble may keep us awake at night, but not our eternal condition.
In this respect it is worth briefly considering what seems often to be the case in the church and its curiously paradoxical position regarding Sin. There is much smoke and heat around issues of so called ‘social justice’ – often married to a theology which speaks of a benign grandfatherly God who seems rather loathe to speak of Sin . . . one wonders what some of our co-religionists think shall be The End of all those involved in social injustices, if God is so Nice? If the state of our souls, of our spiritual condition is of no import in The End? Perhaps this is nothing more nor less than a blind unbelief in God, who may or may not be there but has at the least clocked off and left us all to ‘put the world to rights’.
Whatever, the point is that we seem less than interested in our spiritual state than our physical or material state.
Lent as we aware is a time for careful reflection, but not upon the state of the world, the ghastliness of which we are all too often reminded, rather upon the state of our spiritual life – our Life before God. In the grace of the Church it is the gift of a season of 6 weeks, and given we otherwise do little in this respect, we would do well to make the best use of each and every hour of these weeks.
The Tradition of the Church offers us three disciplines, based upon Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount; Prayer, Fasting, and giving alms to the poor (over and above any we might usually give as part of our lives as Christians). Jesus, it must be said seems curiously quiet on the subject of Lent study groups . . .
Prayer fasting and almsgiving – How much? We like to know what the standard is . . . well simply all three need to be carried out until we notice them! That is we pray, fast and give around the perimeter of what we are comfortable with,until the comfortable contours of our existence are disrupted – and then notice our discomfort. We do these things until we notice that we do have a soul and a spiritual life, and perhaps they are not in the best of order.
Last week Father Hugh spoke of Jesus being tested to destruction in the wilderness – we will not go too far in the way of prayer, fasting and almsgiving until the chasis of our spirit begins to shake alarmingly, the steering goes awry and bodywork starts to fall off! Certainly not forty days and nights
Indeed we may become aware of how spending more than a few minutes in prayer bores us – we might feel it to be pointless, and a hundred and one ‘more important things’ run through our heads. We thus wake up to a sense of our lack of love for God . . . The words of Jesus ring through our ears as they did those of the first disciples – ‘could you not watch with me one brief hour?’ Just one hour??
Or . . . to be honest, we prefer not to fast at all, if we are typical modern Christians; it seems to have disappeared from common practise, thus revealing we are hungrier for food than God. Jesus fasted forty days, yet at the end his hunger for God was greater than any temptation to turn stones into bread.
We may then hear our epistle as a call to wake up! For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.
Our lack of desire to fast that we might sharpen our awareness of God and our Spiritual situation before Him – making us aware that perhaps our real god is our belly! Our minds are full of this and that and the other, not on things above. What does Paul say of us? We are thus marked out as those living ‘as enemies of the Cross of Christ’! That is our spiritual condition.
Or we find a hundred and one rational ways to disobey Jesus and not give to all those who ask of us . . . and discover that our hearts are far from the heart of God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked and the scheming and the malingering . . . Jesus says ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ We are exposed, we argue our way out of his commandments . . . or, more hopefully we notice ourselves doing it, and cry out to God for help
All of these disciplines can and do alert us to our deep spiritual malaise . . . if we use them, but like with respect to our physical health, we often try and avoid paying attention, perhaps until it is too late.
I Wonder how many times doctors think, even if they do not say, ‘if only you had come to see me 6 months ago . . .’
We might think that with regard to our spiritual health, Jesus is always there, when we finally get round to it. This week I was with someone who has lived into their 90s and is now dying. Suffice to say that most don’t make it that far and all too often people die unprepared. A few verses before our gospel reading today, Jesus warns us thus:
‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us”, then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” . . . the grave danger of our lives is that we are so caught up in what we call ‘our’ lives that we miss The Life of God.
What are our hearts and minds full of? The practices of Lent are given to us to alert us to our Spiritual malaise – to bring us to a point of painful Realism as the penetrating Healing Light of God is thrown into the many dark and perhaps long neglected nooks and crannies of what may have become a seriously deteriorated soul . . .
Put simply, there is something gravely wrong with us – and the disease from which we suffer is called Sin. We may not have been conscious of sinning . . . or perhaps its effects, that it leads to death. When St Paul says, the wages of Sin is death, he is not saying, Death is the punishment for Sin, no! He is saying Death is the consequence of Sin.
We do not have to point at the murderous events in Christchurch to see this – indeed our concentration on them and our constant gawping at bad news stories far and wide is part of the distraction the devil uses for keeping us from seeing closer to home.
A simple example, one to which we can all possibly relate – a common or garden sin, or perhaps to use the gardening metaphor more fully a weed going up amongst the wheat – telling a lie. A simple lie. But what happens when we deceive? We cut the life giving connection between ourselves and the person we lie to. We as it were hide from them. Life stops flowing, we prefer not to be known.
Perhaps we lie because we are ashamed. So we hide. We hide from any possibility of healing, from forgiveness, from Life itself. We avoid the doctor coming to us in the shape of the person from whom we hide . . . thus is the way of Sin.
It is at root a lack of desire for the Life of God, which is in Truth a lack of desire for Life, lack of a desire to be well – which is why Jesus asks the man at the pool, ‘do you want to be well?
Sin is to use the words of one philosopher, a ‘sickness towards death’, and we are half asleep with it.
Sin is not primarily a moral problem. Think of the young man who wanted to follow Jesus – who said ‘all these commandments I have kept since my youth!’ Or St Paul who by his own admission was with respect to the law, and there were 630 of them, faultless! Yet he was exposed as neither knowing nor loving God. He loved his own life – how many of us do! We may come to the point of death saying ‘I have had a good life, yet it is not the life we have that is the point, it is the life god offered us – His Life! Materially speaking the young man Jesus met had no desire for the Life of God, as twas revealed when Jesus offered him this life, if he would only lay down his own . . .
Sin and sickness away from the Life and Light of God, towards Death.
As I have said before, Jesus does not die to make bad people good, he dies to make dead people live!
He is the Great Physician, the Great Doctor of our souls – this is why he comes healing. It is sign of his deep work . . .
So when the pharisees warn him about Herod, how does Jesus reply . . .
‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Behold!” Look! Pay Attention! See! I exorcise demons and accomplish healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.
Behold! I am Coming! I am Healing – setting people free from there demons! Accomplishing healings!
We are moving through Lent – we move towards the finishing of his healing work in Jerusalem.
Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.
Soon his work is complete and the door closes . . .
Lent and its disciplines are given to us that we might, unlike our contemporaries, pay attention to our Life before God.
Jesus is the Great physician – he comes with healing Love! Fundamentally it is Life and Love in its fullness that we are terrified of! It is too much, yet, God is too much at one go! Yet in his Grace, and with our co-operation, the lIght of Christ can shine into our hearts, drawing our attention to our plight and binding us more anymore tightly to the one who is coming in the name of the Lord.
Why is it so very costly to follow Jesus? Because our plight is grave – yet He has the words of eternal Life. In Him is light and love and mercy and compassion. We are seriously afflicted and the remedy is nothing less than the Cross, in our lives. This is the healing for the whole world, one person at a time . . .
We look out at the world around us and bewail its condition, but watch an hour with Jesus? Go without a single meal? Give to everyone who asks of us? Simply obey Jesus . . .
Learning truly to Love him, bound to Him, we do not even avoid going to the Cross, the place where Death is confronted. our plight is fully revealed, yet bound to our Healer. In the Way that leads to the fulness of Life
May God give us the Grace to stick with our healing and our Healer these weeks. May we pray, fast and give alms; may we know the healing of the Great Physician, who brings Life, even out of Death
The Orthodox scholar Philip Sherrard writes,
“ONE THING at least we no longer need to be told is that we are the throes of a crisis of the most appalling dimensions. We tend to call this crisis the ecological crisis, and this is a fair description in so far as its effects are manifest above all in the ecological sphere. For here the message is quite clear: our entire way of life is humanly and environmentally suicidal, and unless we change it radically there is no way in which we can avoid a cosmic catastrophe. Without such change the whole adventure of civilization will come to an end during the lifetime of many now living.
Unhappily we do yet appear to have realized the urgency of the need for such a change, and in spite of everything we continue to blunder on along our present path of devastation in a kind of blindfold nightmare enacted with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, planning to extend our empire of sterilized artificiality and specialist methodology even further, advancing even further into our computerized or electronic wilderness, devising bigger and better banking system, manipulating the natural reproductive processes of plants, animals and human beings, saturating our soils and crops with high-powered chemicals and a variety of poisons which no sane community would allow out of a closely guarded laboratory, stripping the world of what is left of its forests at a speed which defies belief or understanding, and behaving generally in a manner which, even if we had deliberately programmed it, could not be more propitious to our own annihilation and to that of the world about us.
It is as if we are in the grip of some monstrous collective psychosis, as if in truth a huge death-wish hangs over the whole so-called civilized world.”
Philip Sherrard in ‘Human Image : World Image’, pub. 1991
It is, to put it at its perhaps ridiculously mildest to suggest that these are sobering words, all the more so when we consider that since 1991 we have, among many many markers of this devastation, more than doubled the sum total of man-made Carbon Dioxide emitted into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.
Hope? Well on Friday across the world, children will go on strike from school – they at least seem to be waking up to the fact that there is something monstrous occurring which calls into question their very future . . . it remains to be seen of course if they will all be walking to school from now on, however it is something . . .
For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away . . . Matthew 24:38-9
‘The Timbered Choir’
Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.
I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever forward
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.
Their passing had obliterated the graves and the monuments
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten, according
to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten forget
that they have forgotten. Men, women, and children now pursued the objective
as if nobody ever had pursued it before.
The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, which was the destruction of all enemies,
which was the destruction of all obstacles, which was the destruction of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the way to promotion, to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale, to the signature
on the contract, which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation, from which nobody who ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced; the signposts had been bent to the ground and covered over.
Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.
The Feast of the Epiphany 2019
‘Seek first the Father’s Kingdom and His Righteousness,
and all these things will be given to you also’ Matthew 6:33
As we don’t have the screen this morning, I thought I’d better draw your attention to the theme of what I have to say on your pew sheet – that is ‘Becoming Theologians’. I would like to say that I’m not seeking to drum up attendance at Chris Holmes lecture courses this coming semester, although I’d never discourage that, but I do want to begin with a brief illustration of what I mean which involves a university professor. He was an Eng Lit Prof and said he was having a lot of trouble teaching his students about English literature, older than the last 50 years, because few if any of them were conversant with the Christian story as made known in the Church and through the scriptures. English literature which was not very recent, came from a culture which was underpinned by that story, and so knowing the story was a vital key to understanding the works he asked his students to read.
Well he was right, but I want to use this fairly obvious point to illustrate something far more fundamental, that to truly understand anything, we have first to become theologians. Any of the university disciplines, if they are truly going to lead us ‘into all truth’ must first be theological. Indeed if we are to begin to understand anything we start with Faith.
For The Earth is The Lord’s and all they that dwell therein. The study of anything at all is the study of that which God has Created, and so to know it, to understand it, to make true sense of it, and therefore not misuse it, we must know God . . . This was the premiss of the first universities, and so theology and then philosophy and metaphysics were considered the foundational studies, before one turned to anything else, for everything else flowed from Knowing God, because everything does come from God
And today, the Feast of the Epiphany is in a sense our door as Gentile Christians to this journey of understanding – to ‘Becoming theologians’. It is for us, our first encounter with the living God, the God of Israel, the God of the Jews who is revealed to be The God of all. As St Paul puts it ‘the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel . . . in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.’
Our entrance into the Life of God in boldness and confidence through faith in Jesus Christ, who is the One in whom all things hold together, the very centre of Creation, its beginning and its End . . . to Know Him is to begin to know and to understand the entirety of the Creation, and without knowing Him, the Truth of our existence, of our very lives is hidden from us . . .
So the Magi come to Jerusalem, and immediately we are in the language of the revealing of the deep truth of our existence – for over and again we hear the word ‘Behold!’ See the Deep Truth here – So Matthew says ‘Now, Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the Days when Herod was king, Behold! Magi arrived in Jerusalem from the East, saying “Where is the new born King of the Judeans? For we saw His star at its rising, and have come to worship him”’
Matthew grabs our attention. Behold! Look! These strange foreigners, come to seek ‘the new born king of the Judeans’ – What is happening? Pay attention! To Behold is to see ‘with the eye of the heart’. There is a surface meaning to all of this, but we are called to Behold, to Understand . . . we are called to be theologians. To ponder these things, to ask – ‘What is God doing?’
Herod of course doesn’t have a clue. He is not remotely interested in the God of Israel, just hanging on to his power under the Romans . . . the news of a new king disturbs the order of things – things aren’t as they seem. So he asks around and the chief priests and scribes tell him of the Old Story, that the Messiah, the Anointed one is to be born in Bethlehem of Judah. ‘From you will come one who will shepherd God’s people . . .’ yet here are these foreigners . . . the prophet only saw in part, now is the full revelation.
Well, we might ask, what has all this to do with becoming theologians? Well, the first step is of course to pay attention to what God is saying and doing. Why was no one keeping an eye on Bethlehem? Because they hadn’t listened to the prophets. Why were the Magi there, well they were paying attention! They were in their own limited way watching for signs, they were attentive. They were watching and waiting, and so at the appearance of the star at its rising, they set off.
So the first step as theologians is to pay attention. To be watching, but for what? Well they don’t really know, but they do know one thing. That they are come to worship. ‘We have come to worship Him’ they tell Herod . . .
There is nothing more fundamental to our human experience than worship. GK Chesterton, says this, ‘when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they will believe in anything!’ – So also when we stop worshipping the One True God, our fundamental need to worship, will be misdirected but it will still find a way out and we will worship anything, even our own selves . . . We are Created to be the recipients of Life from God and to enter into the flow of this gift through Praise and thanksgiving. It is fundamental to who we are – to be those who live in response to God, who know our lives As response to God . . .
Well, Herod as we know sends them on their way, and the Magi, and they step out of the darkness of his palace and immediately, Matthew says ‘behold! The Star, which they saw at its rising, went before them until it came to the place where the child was . . .’ They are the seekers after the Truth of things – that is in the depths of their being they desire to worship aright – and ‘Beholding the star they they were exultantly joyful!’
So we need to follow these leads – these movements of the depths of our heart – after paying attention and watching, these are the next steps to becoming theologians. We pay attention, we follow the lead, to Jesus. This is the sign that we have followed well, that we come to Jesus, to His Appearing, and here the journey both ends and begins, with the one who is the beginning and the end of all things, Here own Jesus our humanity finds its home in God . . .
For they beheld the child with his mother Mary. Here there is so much . . . Here we Behold the one who is born of God, but also of Woman. Here in this babe we see all babes. All of us, born of a woman. All of us Seeing Jesus, opening up to the power to become born of God . . .
This simple scene, yet this Universal scene . . .
Several times over the past couple of weeks as we moved through Advent and then Christmas we have seen Mary, perhaps we have beheld her, seeing something of the depth of who she is -and we have been invited to follow her example and ponder these things in our hearts, that they might take root. Now we see, and perhaps we behold the Magi Beholding ‘the child with his mother Mary’ . . . and we allow this picture to take root in our hearts. Certainly it is a picture that took root in our faith, so many icons depict Mary, the God bearer and the child Jesus . . .
And? ‘and falling down they worshipped Him. Now they are entering into the fundamental work of theology, of theologians. Without which there is no theology nor access to any Truth in its deep manifestation.
Becoming theologians – in truth by our being here that is what we are doing. We gather together, we worship, we pray and in the midst of this we hear the word – we allow it to take root within us – this is the first and fundamental work of theology, and it is its end that it bears fruit
One of the old saints of the church puts it most succinctly – ‘A theologian is one who prays [one who worships], and one who worships and prays is a theologian’
Theology is first faith, it is paying attention, watching for God, and then responding, and allowing al our response to be Worship and prayer. Theology does not lead us to faith, Theology is faith which is then led by the star of the Light od Life that is in Jesus. Being so led, it then seeks to understand For Faith is the centre of all understanding, it is the Centre of Knowing the Truth of all things, for in coming into the presence of ‘the child and his mother’ we have come to the very centre of all things.
Let us take a few moments now in silence, in the Centre of our worship to See with the eye of our heart – to Behold the child with its mother
Sermon for Christmas 1
Born of God
Well it is an unwritten rule in our household that we don’t use stories about our children to illustrate sermons, however, just this once, not least because its a story of parental incompetence and therefore I think allowable . . . as a family we can’t hear this story of Jesus being left in Jerusalem without recalling an incident which occurred some years ago in Keswick. We were there for the annual Bible convention and had gone to the local supermarket before departing for a campground with a large group of friends and family – well we hadn’t gone a couple of days walk but we had been about half an hour before we realised that Megan wasn’t with us.
Running as fast as I could I returned to the supermarket to find she had been found by some fellow campers and convention members – one of the lovely things about Keswick when the Convention is on is that the town is full to bursting with Christians 🙂 We were Mighty relieved . . and it must be said didn’t scold her as Jesus’ was scolded by his distraught Mother!
Although of course Jesus gently rebukes his mother . . . ‘“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (or about my Father’s business)
So, although we haven’t yet got to the 12th day of Christmas, Luke has moved forwards 12 years to this account of Jesus’ family – about the time of the Passover, and how he goes missing in Jerusalem, for about three days . . . surely an echo of years later when Jesus is three days in the tomb before being found in the garden . . . the scriptures are full of these allusions, of stories within stories – it reminds me of those Russian Dolls which I was always fascinated with as a child. dolls within dolls within dolls – and here stories within stories within stories – and so, to pick another incident of Jesus life with his mother Mary, we might hear the words, ‘my time has not yet come’, so Jesus does not remain physically within the Temple, but returns to Nazareth with Mary his Mother, and Joseph . . .
Yet the incident is not forgotten – Mary ‘treasured all these sayings in her heart’
This is a repeated note in the Gospel. Mary treasuring things that have been said about Jesus and now by Jesus, in her heart. She treasured them – you might say having as it were lost her son for a while, she held him in her heart through all that had been said about him and by him . . .
What is immensely clear in this story is that Mary and Joseph do not understand. If they are going to understand they will have to live with these words, these seeds in their hearts, until such time when with persistence and in a good soil, they take root and bear fruit . . .
‘I must be in my Father’s house’
I wonder, what is it that we treasure in our hearts? What finds a home in us? To pick up on the image of Russian dolls again, Jesus uses the idea of Abiding, or Living within us. Abide in me, as I abide in you. We live in Him as He lives in us, or will if we attend to Him, if we follow Mary, our Mother in faith, who for nine months says Yes to this Word of God growing within her, and bearing fruit. Who goes on even though she does not understand, for who truly can hope to fully understand, who goes on treasuring these words in her heart. As the child conceived in her comes to birth, so the Word in her comes to bear fruit in her life.
One of the things I find most odd about faith in these days is how readily we dismiss these stories, beach we do not understand. They do not make sense to us. You are not likely to find many even within the church who attest to truth of The Virgin Birth. ‘Why? This is nonsense!’
As if we understood. As if we stood in a place where all of existence and reality was beneath our feet . . . Anything which doesn’t readily fit our casual notions truth discarded, for ‘this saying is too hard’ . . . like Jesus’s words ‘Whoever eats me will live because of me’ . . . too hard. Thus the Word is snatched away and perhaps we see within the church the effect of that word being snatched away – where is the Life? – as our ‘Modern’ understanding dismisses anything we cannot fit into our own picture –
Yet if is something which fits into our picture, we may well ask, why bother with it in the first place? If it is something that we infinitely small creatures can readily comprehend – why do we consider it of worth? Do we think that the understanding of ants is rational, and truthful? On the scale of the Universe and all that is – It is as if we were ants and proudly thought we comprehended existence itself . . .
Mary, although she does not know ‘how can this be, since I am a virgin?’ does not understand, she allows the words, the announcement to find a home within her. Although she is distraught at the actions of her son which have so upset her and Joseph, actions which make no sense to her and upset her greatly, she does not dismiss them, she treasures his words in her heart. She is not proud. She blows that she doesn’t understand, but believes
We have 12 days of Christmas. Days in which we can in humility allow these words of Jesus, this story of Jesus to find a home within us – even though there is so much of it which is ‘hard to understand’, much which indeed we may find dismays us.
And I wonder what might happen were we to hear the words of Jesus and ponder them and allow them to take such root in us, that they become our words? When His life becomes ours?
‘“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ What if we became the sort of people who were so given to attending to the Word in us, that perhaps our lives became lives that perplexed others, that caused them to question, that asked questions of the very way we understand our lives in the world, that had others searching us out.
If we stopped our casual denials quoting that simple convenient ‘modern science’ or something other such thing. (It is amazing how those who so readily quote ‘Modern Science, don’t know an science, and when challenged cannot explain ‘how modern science refutes all these things) It is easier not to allow the Word to take root within us. Like Mary gives birth to the Word in patience and great labour – if we allowed that existence was at once more glorious and full of wonder than we might imagine – if we became once more little children ourselves and said YEs to God’s word.
I only do what I see the Father doing . . . I must be about my Father’s business . . . if, to quote St Paul as dearly loved children, knowing we knew very little about anything, we became imitators of our big brother Jesus, the true human, and the true God, who pours out his life for us if we would beat let it take root . . .
In the beginning of John’s gospel we read ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” To all who received him . . . who allowed his Word to sink deep into their heart, to find a home in them, to bear fruit in them . . . to become those who rise to new life each morning and say as His words become ours as we abide in Him and he in us – ‘I must be about my Father’s business, I must be in my Father’s house’.
Of course, Megan wasn’t lost in the Temple, or indeed a church, she was in the Supermarket – perhaps that has become our father’s house in these days, perhaps we have become children of the consumer age, with endless options before us, or perhaps we might again attend to the One thing necessary – hear these words of Jesus ‘Did you not know that it was necessary, – we might attend to this ‘that I must be about my father’s business’ – allow it to take root, and grow us into the fulness of Children of God
Sermon for Midnight Mass 2018
‘For we live by faith and not by sight’
As human beings we have a problem. For our most powerful sense – Sight – is also the one most easily taken hold of and deceived. We live in an age where visual stimuli assault us at every turn, increasingly so that we can be sold things. To compound matters to a significant degree, we now carry devices with us pretty much all the time, whose power over us is rooted in this weakness to have our attention stolen, to the point that we often find ourselves looking at our cell phones for no reason whatsoever.
In this age as much as any other if not mores, our Sight needs to be returned to us, that we might See truthfully.
So as when we seek to heal someone of an unhealthy addiction, we take the desire that is distorted and for a while put it to one side. To use a Christmas metaphor, we go cold turkey 🙂 When we want to speak of things that are outside the realm of our physical seeing, indeed perhaps to remind ourselves that there are things beyond the realm of sight, or better to our Sight so that we might behold the true nature of all things – there is perhaps no better time than in the depth of night.
For as the sun hides the stars and the entire Universe from our gaze, and our cell phones seem to rob us of the ability even to see those around us – thus the created lights of the World hide from us The Light, the light of Life. The Truth of our existence.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness
The Light shines in the darkness
The Light which is the Life of all people. The Light by which we Behold the Truth of our own existence – The Light by which we See clearly, by which we Behold All things – Everything.
For the message of Christmas goes well beyond anything that we might care to consider – out into the depths of space and time – filling them and completing them,
Here in the depths of the night we listen to words of John, coming to us from ‘the beginning’ When John wishes to speak to us of the coming of Jesus into the world, he opens his account ‘In the beginning’ In speaking of what we like to call The Christmas Story, John wants us to pay attention to the story of Everything. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the Earth . . . and God said . . . Let there be Light, and there was light – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God . . . in Him was Life and that Life is the Light of all people
Whilst it is true in some very limited sense to speak of the birth of Jesus as occurring 2000 years ago, that is only a fragment of a much greater truth – that the birth of Jesus, the story of Bethlehem and shepherds, and Mary and Joseph, and Angelic announcements in the night, is the Revealing, the Appearing of that which is true ‘from the beginning’ and also that which is true ‘to the ages of ages’. It is the Revelation of the entire work of God in the World . . . To See truthfully, to see Truth in its entirety, to See all things, our gaze must be restricted, drawn to a single point, a pin prick of light in the Universe, in the sign that is a child lying in a manger – to recover our sight we need to begin in the darkness in order to see Jesus
If the physicists are to be believed, and being a physicist myself I guess I have to declare an interest in physicists being believed, were we able to stand outside of the universe – an impossibility – we would see all of space, and therefore all of time. We would in a moment see everything from East to West, From North to South – from its beginning to its end. All space, all time – but we do not need to take a space ship to get outside of all space and time – for to Behold the Word made flesh is to begin to See all things – to have our sight restored, that we might truly be able to see all things
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews puts it like this in speaking of the coming of Jesus into the World ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
For the One born to us in the depths of this Holiest of Nights, He is the Alpha and the Omega, He is the Beginning and The End. ‘[The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ He is the Light that is the light of all people. He is in all and through all and above all . . . He Encompasses All things in His Being
One of the old Saints of the church says of God, ‘A circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere’ – This Word of Life which calls forth the entirety of Creation is revealed in the Centre of Creation, in the One who sustains all things
The Incarnation, the birth of Jesus we might say is the coming into the world of Centre of History, a Centre that is Everywhere and at all times. That has no boundary. A Love without borders. This is the meaning of History., the meaning of all things.
Sermon for Advent 4 – Year C 2018
‘The Word of Life’
And so, we come closer to the centre of the mystery of Christ, The Word of Life. Soon and very soon, we shall celebrate the great Feast of the Incarnation – Christ Mass – the Feast of the Eucharist of Christ himself. The Word made flesh – The Word of Life which John says ‘was from the beginning’ – being revealed within history.
Perhaps the most powerful story in scripture of this Word of Life at work is the account of the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus stands outside the tomb and cries out ‘Lazarus, Come Forth!’ Lazarus is summoned by the Word of Life from the non existence of death, to Life in its fullness.
As a favourite writer of mine likes to say, God in Christ did not die to make bad men good, he died to make dead men live!
So this Word, which Is Christ Jesus, is The Word of Life in the most profound sense . . . and in our Gospel Reading, again we observe this Word at work in calling forth life. We see it, and of course part of the tradition of the church is devotional art and ikons.
In ancient ikons and in the tradition of the Syriac Church, Mary is depicted as conceiving Christ, through her ear. This is a visual metaphor for what is happening.
So Mary’s response to Gabriel, ‘let it be to me, according to your word’, is much more than a simple, if breath taking obedience – rather it is the speaking forth of what is happening. It is according to the Word, the Word of Life, finding its place within her, that she will become the very bearer of God.
This is the How of the very creation. The Spirit hovers over the face of the Deep, The Word comes, Life springs forth. So the Word enters Mary and the Word of Life springs forth!
And so, as Gabriel greets Mary who has become a bearer of the Word that gives life, the heavenly Word is passed on as Mary greets Elizabeth – and there is Life! Mary comes to her cousin Elizabeth who is carrying John the Baptist
‘And it happened that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting . . . ‘And it happened . . .’ the Greek word is egeneto – the word from which we get Genesis – the Beginning – Creation language!
The baby leapt in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit’ We can perhaps see here the coming to Life of the child in her womb, John the Baptist when addressed by The Word of Life
So, The Spirit born Word comes to Mary to be borne by her, and now Her greeting, full as she is of the Life of God, brings Life! And the language is so very physical.
How sad that our translation removes this beautiful picture from our gaze – ‘as I heard the sound of your greeting’. For Elizabeth says ‘Behold! As the sound of your greeting entered my ears . . .’
‘As the sound of your greeting entered my ears . . .’ We are called to use our imagination to See, to Behold this Word passing into the ear of Elizabeth. as you received the spoken Word of God’s messenger, the one carrying the Word from God . . . there is something tangible about this Word, it is carried, it enters the ear – the ear which the Psalmist says in the most physical of language ‘you have dug for me’ . . . God has carefully crafted us with ears to hear – the Word of Life – this is why we should if at all possible NOT look at the screen with the reading on it, I understand that this is good for the hard of hearing, but listen – Allow the Word to enter your ear – to come into you, to bring Life. ’As the sound of your greeting entered my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy!’ How often I wonder have we known our heart leap for joy as the Word enters our ear, created for this very purpose.
And how full of bliss is the one who has faith . . . I find a recent translation of this so helpful in some regards if a bit odd on the ear, for to be full of bliss is to have been filled. Something has entered into us , has filled us 🙂
This is the nature of The Word of Life – when we hear it, when it enters into us – it produces Life in fullness. We become Full of Life, Full of Grace!
For a Word is not mere sound, or rather sound is not just sound – it is the very passage of the Life of God. This is why I think it most helpful that we Listen. That we Hear the Word. Even when we read scripture alone – read aloud – Listen to the Word
The Word written, is always one step removed from the Word spoken. The Word is to be Heard. The Creation vibrates with the Energy of Life itself – to be received into us. Life coming to find a home within us in Jesus Christ
Mary of course has already allowed the Word to take root in her – as she is addressed by Gabriel we hear, “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” – Mary as we shall hear over the next few days – powers things in her heart – she allows these words to go deep into her very being
As we prepare once more to Hear the Angelic announcement – may our ears be open and our hearts prepared for this Word of life to come into our hearts, to find a home amongst us and within us.
Sermon for Advent 2
Year C 2018
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. Phil 1:6
Back in the middle ages, a certain set of changes in how people thought about things began to emerge from the prevalent views – largely known as ‘The classical period’. What is most significant for we who live in the Modern world was the rise of the significance of The Individual.
At the same time, the significance of communities – of shared life and existence began to wane, slowly at first, but gradually accelerating. The experience of Life as something richly shared became more and more something only experienced within first family, then nuclear family to the point where relational language disappears. I was in conversation on Friday with someone discussing the increasing prevalence of children calling their parents and other family adults by their first names . . . although there are aspects of this which might be considered a positive, if you have a very negative view of family structures, one aspect of it which we found disturbing was the absence of the language of relationship. Fewer and fewer people used relational language.
In traditional societies it is still common to use extended language to describe relational links – so for example ‘my mother’s brother’s daughter’, as opposed to the Western ‘Cousin’, a word which speaks of relationship but lacks depth.
With the rise of the individual also came the gradual erosion of the significance of the Church. The idea that to be baptised was to be brought into a community, the significance of which took up but also transcended any merely human relationships . . . increasingly took a back seat. Church increasingly became a place to which you came often to be alone. The idea that the people amongst whom you sat Sunday by Sunday were people with whom you shared in a most profound way, Life, indeed Life in all its fullness, evaporated. And the idea that broken relationships between members of the church were remotely significant was dissipated . . .
And so to our readings today
For the wilderness announcement of John, son of Zechariah, is an announcement not to individuals but to a people. The people of God. For too long they had lived as if they were not a people – the rich and poor lived cheek by jowl, yet there was no sharing in life – the announcement of the Gospel is an announcement first of all to the people of God.
The Salvation of our God is something which comes to life amongst a people and it is not an easy work.
The prophet Malachi uses the language of ‘fullers soap’ – the highly caustic soap which was used to wash cloth – to bleach it – to make it Clean and white after it has been woven – again he speaks of the refining of Gold and Silver which could only be accomplished by fire – and the goal of this work? To ‘purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.’
The message is plain and clear – the people of God need straightening out . . . but why? That the glory of the Lord might be revealed, to prepare a highway for our God . . . or as Jesus puts it – ‘by this shall all people know that you are my disciples – that you love one another as I have loved you, that is with the love that the Father has loved me’
It is without doubt the witness of the Scriptures to the Christian Life, that to encounter the Church is to encounter Christ himself. So St Paul as he writes to the churches, almost without exception give thanks for their shared life and its witness as the body of Christ in the world. One of the key exceptions to this is his first letter to the Corinthians where after his customary greeting he as it were draws back and goes on to challenge them saying ‘I hear that there are divisions amongst you’. Splits and schisms, intentional breaking in the Church are literally breaking up the Body of Christ, yet in the age of the individual, such language seems odd
One of Paul’s most commonly used words is Koinonia – that is Communion, or we sometimes have it translated ‘fellowship’, or today very weakly ‘sharing’. In our epistle St Paul speaks of the Koinonia in the gospel – it is a powerful phrase. We express something of this Koinonia in our liturgy. In sharing the Peace we declare – ‘We are the body of Christ, in one spirit we were baptised into one body’, and we share one bread, and all drink from one cup’
I’ll conclude with a brief reflection on what has happened to our faith over this last millennia – and it could be summed up in the words of a bishop who told me that he would have no problem ordaining someone who considered that the Resurrection of Jesus was a ‘purely spiritual matter’, that the body of Jesus lay still in the tomb.
Such thinking is commonplace – but especially in the age of the Individual – so we no longer talk in any meaningful terms of ‘The faith of the Church’.
But there are two significant, indeed fundamental problems with such a statement, not to mention the act of ordaining someone into the church who denies its Creeds, wherein we, the Church, affirm ‘the resurrection of the Body’.
First, to affirm the resurrection of Jesus as ‘purely spiritual’ simply that it suggests that The Incarnation never happened. That Spiritual and material are inseparably woven together in Jesus Christ, that you can separate out the spiritual Jesus from his material being – and as many in the church today push it even further to deny his very Koinonia in the Life of God as the Second person of the Trinity made flesh – has become the unthinking way of the world. To separate the spiritual an the physical in this way is to deny the possibility of the work of God in the material creation, indeed even in ourselves.
But secondly, in the Separation of matter and spirit you separate the Church from Christ, who is woven into us by his Spirit, we deny our Koinonia in His Life. We end up denying that The Church Is the Body of Christ in the World, and consequently that we have any shared existence, for He is our life.
This is of course convenient belief. It is easier to stand outside of the Body of Christ, not to have to go through the process of coming to birth in this body, of having to change how we live out our common life, to give priority to this shared life. It is so easy to take the Individualist line and to participate in Church as it is convenient – for genuinely sharing in life, in having to learn to love the unlovely and as the unlovely learning to be loved in return – is a hard work. It is like fullers soap, it is like a refining fire, it is like the levelling of mountains and the filling in of valleys, it is to have our crookedness straightened and our roughness ground away as if under a sandstone. And these people amongst whom we sit this morning are the soap and the fire and the sandstone
This purification, this setting straight, is the business of being the Body of Christ – that ‘the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.’ and that the glory of the LORD will be revealed.
Later this morning we shall have our annual Advent Pageant
During it we shall use this prayer
Let us pray
O Christ, the Master Carpenter
Who, at the last, through wood and nails,
Purchased our whole salvation.
Wield well Your tools in the workshop of Your world,
So that we, who come rough-hewn to Your bench
May here be fashioned to a truer beauty of Your hand.
We ask it for Your own Name’s sake.
Sermon for Advent Sunday – Year C, 2018
1 Thess 3:9-13
‘A faith that keeps us standing . . . ?’
‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ Luke 18:8
If you’ve ever travelled to Europe and visit one of the many medieval cathedrals or churches, you may have noticed that around the walls of the nave, there are often stone benches, clearly carved to be part of the building. It is from these benches that the phrase ‘Gone to the wall’ comes from. For until the C17 in most places, the great body of the congregation would stand for the entirety of the liturgy – those who couldn’t ‘went to the wall’
Standing for the liturgy remains the practise of the Eastern Orthodox churches. There are no pews, or indeed cushioned seats . . . for why? Because we stand in the presence of God. God addresses us, and his address to us dignifies us as human beings.
When God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, he tells him to get up out of the dust – perhaps an echo of our creation from the dust of the earth – and prepare to face me! Several times in his letters, Paul speaks as one who ‘stands before God’
Jesus in our gospel for this Advent Sunday in which we begin our journey with Luke exhorts us ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
Our essential posture before God is to stand – it is the posture of our faith, of our life and of our prayer.
One of the Saints of the our Orthodox brothers and sisters, Theophan the Recluse – a C19 Russian monk speaks of prayer in this way. ‘To pray is to stand before God, with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before God to your last breath’ This is the posture of prayer, prayer is our life and it is our faith. Aside from prayer we are not – aside from faith we are not. And so we stand . . . or at least we used to.
As our lives have become more comfortable and less rigorous, less demanding, so has our prayer and with it our faith. Faith, Life and Prayer are of a whole. Looking at the history of our faith it is hard to escape this conclusion.
Take dogma, for example. Those teachings which are held to be at the core of our faith. The Virgin Birth and Incarnation, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the alarming teaching that this wandering Jewish Rabbi is the only begotten Son of God coming to us in flesh and blood, and in bread and wine.
Yet we live in an age when dogma, dogmatic, is an uncomfortable word. We are in our age apostles of Pilate, who has little time for hard realities of Truth, he has little need of Truth when after all we seem to be so in control of our own existence, even to deciding for ourselves about the very nature of reality . . . until of course we are not . . . until something unwanted crosses our path and crashes through the fog of our unconsciousness
Advent as a season is a case in point. As I have had cause to remind folk these past weeks its traditional uncomfortable focus and rigour has dissipated. So the theme of Advent Sundays even in my life time has turned to ‘Faith, Hope, Joy and Love’ as a preparation for an infantilised and somewhat saccharin version of the story of the Incarnation, one increasingly shorn of its jagged edges. Who after all will give time to consider the massacre of the Holy innocents this Christmas time? It is telling that there are few who remember the traditional Advent focus – on the Four Last things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.
Judgement, heaven and hell seem to have all but disappeared from the Christian lexicon. Well perhaps not heaven, but our ideas about it seem often to extend no further to playing rounds of golf for ever with old friends . . . And as for death?
Well, there is no avoiding it except we don’t give it much thought. Which is odd, because if there is one thing that is certain, it is our death. Despite the fact that every time we download or go to watch the latest Disney movie, we help Uncle Walt continue in his cryogenically preserved state, awaiting The Scientific breakthrough which will, pardon the pun, re-animate him . . . Death is something we cannot avoid yet give it little thought, until of course it intrudes into our existence. And that can wake us up.
A grown man stood weeping on my doorstep one day. A successful business man – Death had terrifyingly intruded on his plans for his own life. His son and nephew had died together in a road accident, and Mick told me how this tragedy had called into question his entire way of life up to that point. Why had he given himself to things that now seemed so unimportant, so ephemeral? No longer insulated and cosseted away from this most concrete fact, Life all of a sudden was thrown into its proper light. The Reality of death had been a light, a pitiless light and judgement on his life.
Sebastian Junger, a Journalist who went to war with US forces in Iraq spoke of the effect it had on those who fought around him. He spoke of PTSD – Post traumatic stress disorder – but of two types. One we may have expected. There were those who had lived comfortable lives before encountering a war zone found that experience traumatising.
But there were others, another form of PTSD he noted. Those who had lived in hard and difficult circumstances before joining the army found the return to civilian life hard, because it was so shallow, so insignificant. Faced with the Last Things – well three of them in Death, Judgement and the Hell of war – they had found deep significance in their existence – it had as it were made them more fully alive. Every moment was freighted with significance – It had wakened in them a quality of seriousness of existence – which evaporated upon their return to the comforts and conveniences of the modern world where so much came easily, where you depended on no one and no one depended on you. Where life was not something demanding to be negotiated on a moment by moment basis.
Coming back from a situation where Death faced them with the significance of life, to be faced by lives of apparent insignificance was too much for them and they broke down under the strain.
These things – these realities which we work so hard to keep out of our consciousness are those things which face us with the Seriousness of the business of our lives. And thus for us, the Seriousness of Prayer. The Seriousness of Faith.
Jesus as he speaks of the Last Things says this
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.
These words shake us – call us to Wake up. Given that such language was part and parcel of much of the language of the time of Jesus, and age unlike our own when folk felt very much as powerless against so much that happened around them in the world. Do we sense we have so conquered existence that these words no longer have such power. Has our own sense of matter of our own lives led us to believe ‘this will never happen to us?’ And if they did??
Jesus’ counsel Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near. Our temptation may well be not to stand up, and raise our heads, but to duck! Unless of course this is what we have always faced?
In many regards what Jesus speaks of here is The Cross. Much of what he speaks of here, he also speaks of with regard to his Crucifixion and the fall of Jerusalem with which he associates it. The Cross working its way in and through the entire created order. Death and Judgement combined in one place and yet ever present if we are awake.
It is this that gives our lives as Christians an deep moral seriousness. I don’t mean that we are moralists, but the How of our lives takes on tremendous urgency confronted with the Cross of Jesus. Our lives are given us, that they might bear witness to The Truth, to Christ himself.
A simple example of how that seems to have deserted us is in a conversation I once had about a married priest who had, to use the vernacular, ‘run off with’ a member of his congregation’. I was speaking with another ordained minister who said, ‘well, the timing wasn;t ideal, he could at least have waited until he’d left the parish – but then you can’t help who you fall in love with’, as if that were the last word on the matter. Vows? The abandoned wife and children now having to come to terms with a broken home? No, you can’t help falling in love . . . How we might ask does that bear witness to the Truth? What ‘god’ looks benignly down on that smiling gently at ‘falling in love’? . . .
Stanley Hauerwas, a provocative Christian writer and thinker says – ‘The reason our age has produced no truly challenging atheists [and it hasn’t], is that the ‘god’ of the mainline churches has become so uninteresting’ Put it another way, in may respects, our faith now speaks of a ‘god’ who is not worth the effort of belief . . . and if you disagree, perhaps you might care to consider the question, ‘what compelling reason if any can we give to others to share in faith with us?’
Yes Advent does us in our preparation for the feast of the Incarnation, but it is This Jesus who comes to us, the One whose presence in the world is for judgement, is for the Last Things. It is the Incarnation, the coming to us in the Flesh of the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of all things. Yet it is so easy to be lulled to sleep,and as we all know the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes to wake us
Yet the Jesus who comes to us in Word and Sacrament, This Jesus calls us to alertness.
‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.
In the Light of Christ Jesus, Crucified, Risen and Ascended and coming in Glory, Life takes on a seriousness which we have lost sight of. These Realities when we remain alert, held onto, hold us in place. Standing before Him.
Jesus calls us to Stand in the Presence of God, predominantly as His people in Worship, but also in private prayer and to be so disposed in each moment of our existence.
. . . and to go on standing, before God with our mind in our heart, to our last breath . . . that at the last we might stand before the Son of Man at his appearing.
Sermon for CHRIST THE KING
YEAR B, 2018
‘The King we didn’t choose’
The philosopher Sam Harris has a little book called ‘Lying’. It’s a brief book, but not an easy read. It’s not an easy read because its a painfully forensic analysis of why lying is a bad idea in [almost] each and every circumstance. In this analysis, without intending to, it reveals something fundamental to our human nature – we don’t like being faced with the Truth.
And it’s an uncomfortable read because most significantly we don’t like to be confronted with the truth about ourselves. As you read the book, over and again Harris exposes evasions that are pretty much common to us all, lies that is, and their unwanted outcomes.
In 2006, the former US vice president Al Gore released a film entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – it was about the impact human activity was having on the Created Order. It was and is an Inconvenient because it requires humanity to radically change the way we live together, and that is not convenient. You can’t slip it into your life as it is at present, between 3 and 5pm on a Monday, for example.
What is more it demands far more in terms of change for we wealthy westerners living in liberal democracies, than it does for so many of the world’s population. That is it is a truth that is very inconvenient for us – thus it is largely gone ignored, not just by the climate denier constituency, but pretty much by everyone else. In a sense, the truth is that we are all climate change deniers, for our lives do not bear witness to this truth.
Bearing witness to the truth in our lives is a matter of conforming our lives to the truth, and in our case as Christians, of conforming our lives to The Truth.
If small truths, like climate change are very inconvenient – The Truth is Completely Inconvenient – it requires us to change everything. Put another way, as Jesus commands, it calls us to die to our old way of existence, and to follow him . . . as we saw in the case of the rich man, this is Very Inconvenient. Put in the terms that the Scriptures put it, he was unwilling to Repent. [And if you think Climate Change is a Big truth, how recently may I ask have you been overwhelmed by the Truth of God?]
Repentance requires us to face the Truth, as the rich man did – the inconvenient truths about ourselves, irrespective of their convenience, and then act in accordance with The Truth. The Fear of the LORD is the beginning of the way of Wisdom
But we have two problems – firstly that change requires of us a degree of humility about ourselves which is all but absent in these days. We note that the truth about ourselves is the hardest to face – it is in more ways than one, too personal, as we shall see . . .
GK Chesterton’s words in a letter to the Times of London, “What is wrong with the world today? I am” are not words likely to fall from the lips of the vast majority of us. our media point us everywhere to ‘the source of our problems apart from the human heart.
Such honesty as Chesterton’s, such truth telling is as rare today as it ever has been in pretty much every sphere of life. Politics is mired in double speak – political leaders won’t speak the truth for fear of those who don’t want to face it – and it is worked out at the level of our personal lives – and that is because those whom they represent do not themselves wish to be confronted with inconvenient truths about ourselves. The Truth often embarrasses our own sense of who we are – or the person we’d like to be thought to be. Our actions before others often fall into an attempt to impress – or, put another way, to deceive
Sam Harris’ book tells the story of a friend who went to visit someone. She’d intended to take a present, but had forgotten to buy one. ‘Fortunately’ for her, the hotel she was staying in had very luxurious bathroom products in a nice bag. She picked one off them up and went to her friends - accompanied by her small child. Her friend was thrilled with the gift, and asked where it had been obtained, to which Harris’ friend replied with the name of an apartment store, only to be corrected by the child who said, ‘No mommy, you got them from the bathroom’ . Bringing a gift was meant to elevate Sam’s friend in the eyes of her friend ‘Oh how Kind, how thoughtful!’ The reality was she hadn’t been kind or thoughtful, and was exposed and such and as someone who would lie to save her own self image . . . it’s not a pretty story
Yet, honesty about who we are is rare – Groucho Marx amusingly said ‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have me for a member . . .’ – perhaps it’s an aphorism that we’d all do well to adopt.
If, the first problem with Truth, that it is Inconvenient to us, our second problem is perhaps more pernicious. For we live in an age in which it is not the words of Jesus we remember, but the words of Pilate in reply. ‘What is Truth?’ Although we say a great deal about ‘Post-Truth Society’ the reality goes much further back in time that the past few years. After all I only have to say ‘on the one hand you have scientific facts, and on the other religious opinions’ you will feel the power of this abandonment of Truth at the deepest level. Truth is relegated to ‘matters of opinion’, even within the Church.
Chesterton again puts it in terms of both ourselves and wider truth. He says that we have suffered as it were an earthquake regarding Truth – that once we took the deep Truths of our existence – say religious truths about the person of Jesus Christ, which is fundamental to our entire faith – that he is the eternally begotten Son of the Father, was born of the Virgin Mary, the Incarnation of the Divine Logos, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate and on the third day rose again – once we took such things as Truth, and questioned ourselves. Now he says we are certain about ourselves, and unsure of everything else is relegated to the arena of mere opinion.
Earthquakes as we know create liquefaction – the solid ground turns to quicksand. Much of the current malaise of the Church is that so much of what we decide in synods and the rest is built on no firmer foundation than the quicksands of public opinion. For it often seems we have given up on Truth – it being too inconvenient, not conforming itself to our lives . . .
As I said earlier, we take Pilate’s question ‘What is Truth?’ with far far greater seriousness than the words of Jesus. As if his dismissal of The Truth rested on some very firm ground indeed. Witness the ending of today’s gospel – the words of Jesus regarding The Truth. I wonder if any of us can remember them?
We All remember what Pilate said in response – ‘What is Truth?’ The tired question of someone to whom the Truth was inconvenient. The Truth is always inconvenient to those who think they are in command of their own existence – who think they are their own sovereign authority – news of another King will always destabilise the sandy foundations of our existence. If The Truth is out there, then my very existence is called into question – Jesus facing Pilate undermines him with his words
‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to The Truth. Everyone who belongs to The Truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate Must dismiss this – if The Truth is out there, then he must change and conform to it, or lose his very existence. ‘What is Truth?’ is his impoverished attempt to flee from the Truth. He tries to divert and engage in a philosophical question about Truth
when it is staring him in the face.
Pilate, the Roman, a speaker of Latin in a world where several languages would be used commonly . . . What is truth? in Latin is an anagram of ‘The One standing before you’
Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice . . . The Truth is not something inside our head – it is something we are to belong to, and if we belong to the Truth we listen to the voice of Jesus.
‘I am the Good shepherd of the sheep . . . My sheep hear my voice.’ He is the Good Shepherd, the True King – those who belong to Him hear his voice . . . they respond to Him
Jesus does not merely mouth timeless truths like mottos on cereal packets or lines from self help guides – He Is the Truth – Hearing His voice, continuing in His Word we are truly his disciples; ‘and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ . . . ‘if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.’ To Know Jesus Christ, is to know the Truth
The Truth is Personal. Knowing the Truth sets us Free, but the Truth is not an abstract thought, it is deeply personal – it is Jesus himself
I am the Way and the Truth and The Life
As Jesus says to Pilate – ‘Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice . . .’
We hear his voice, we listen to his voice. This is our way to Freedom from the deceptive voices both surrounding us and within us – the voice of Jesus is the Word of Truth which sets us free from the Deception of the Cosmos which binds our hearts and minds and imaginations and wills – yet it is Personal – and as I said earlier, all but too personal. Facing Jesus Christ is to face the Truth about ourselves, for he manifests the Truth of Everything, nothing is exempt or left out
Facing the Truth is truly Inconvenient – it calls us to profound Change, to deep repentance – – to orient our lives to the Life of the World, the Truth of the World, Jesus Christ, and to walk in that light, freed from deception without and within.
We have come to the end of the Church’s year. We have over twelve months heard the whole gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing has been missed out – our picture of The Truth, embodied in Jesus is complete. He stands before us. Christ the King – Inconvenient, almost in the extreme – not one we would choose for ourselves. But then if we truly need saving, then only one we wouldn’t choose can do this. And the Church in her Grace does not let us go at this point, rather we advance next week into Advent – we do so Looking towards the One who is coming towards us
For our lives to bear witness to the Truth as He comes to us, they need to be conformed to the life of the one who is the Truth. This is the way of Repentance, of Facing The Truth and acting in accordance with it, it is the Way of Life for us all who bear the name of the one who is the Truth.
King Jesus – not a King we would choose for ourselves, for when we face the Truth we know we need a Saviour. Facing the Truth we know we’d not take the inconvenient way. Only in following the King we wouldn’t choose for ourselves are we saved.
Sermon for the 25th Sunday after Trinity, YrB 2018
‘Passing Away, or Eternal?’
Children are great truth tellers – well until they learn other ways. (One traditional reading of the story of the Garden of Eden is that through the deceptive snake, the infant humans learn to lie, and hide from the Truth)
The other day I was on the receiving end of such truth telling. I visited a couple as they were at lunch. Their three year old son who has only seen me once or twice asked who I was, and was told by his father, ‘that’s Megan’s daddy’. I smiled at the child and said ‘I’m very old’. Quick as a flash he looked me in the eye and said ‘you’re going to die!’ (I gather that they’d just been talking about death and the story had been told them that this was something that happened to old people and I had just put myself forward as a representative of ‘old people’ 🙂 )
It is Good to hear the Truth and certainly you can’t get more truthful than ‘You are going to die’ You may escape taxes, but there is one escape none of us will make! But we try to, not least in trying to leave some lasting trace of our existence upon this earth. Like Job we complain about our lot and look for a steel pencil and rock to inscribe our words on . . . yet as any visitor to an English churchyard will attest, the years rapidly do their job of making a mockery of our attempts at permanence, erasing our name from human sight.
In a world that is passing away, we seek to hold back the years. Not least by erecting great buildings – and of all the buildings in the time of Jesus, none dominated the view more than the Temple of Herod the Great. Vast and Covered in Gold, so that one could not look at it in the full glare of the sun. Surely this would stand until the end of time!!
In that light the words of Jesus ‘‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ can be understood as shocking. Reminding us of the temporariness of even the greatest buildings. Imagine if you will how the architects stood back and admired the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York as they were completed in 1973 [The Wikipedia entry for the WTC is followed by (1973-2001) – we even memorialise our building s nowadays]. . . Imagine the first St Paul’s Cathedral in London if you have ever seen a picture of it . . . Conjure up a picture of what remains of the parthenon in Athens . . . Stand for a million years?? Tower and temple fall to dust. Dust you are and to dust you will return as the words of our Ash Wednesday liturgy remind us.
The things that are seen are passing away, yet it is an affront to the sense of our own significance to face this. ‘’Behold! These great buildings?” See them, relies Jesus? . . . not one stone will be left on another . . . In the light of this, we hear the words of Jesus afresh – ’Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust, where wind and rain, and sun and frost wither away, where thieves break through and steal where armies and men of violence and fire and flood destroy . . .’ Don’t invest in dust . . . [Even Amazon – Jeff Bezzos declared this week that Amazon would eventually folk – he gave it 30 years or so . . .] Against the inevitable we try in vain to secure our existence
Yet we fail to perceive the true depth of how shocking the words are for Jesus’ disciples. They may well have replied, ‘Yes obviously we know that, but The Temple! Surely not The Temple??’
The Temple filled not only the sight but also the entire imagination of the Jewish people regarding their entire existence. It was The Marker of their Identity as the people of God, the people chosen for the dwelling place of God. From the beginning, had not God dwelt in their midst . . . if the Temple goes, what does that say?? Their entire social and religious world was built around it. Had not Jesus just shown them the widow who put her entire being into the Temple treasury? All that she had to live on? The Temple was their Life!!! Jesus just seemed to have suggested this.
If the Temple goes, we are as good as dead . . . Our sense of Security is in these stones . . . Who we are is tied up in this . . .
Yet we still do not fully comprehend the deeper sense of trauma – for The Temple was not merely about the Jewish people – the great vision of the prophets saw all peoples streaming to the Temple, for the Temple was about everyone, and everything, everywhere!
For those who knew the old stories, the Temple wasn’t Just a Jewish religious building giving meaning to a Jewish religious world. The Temple stood for the entirety of the Creation – the seven days of Creation mapped out the Temple – The Temple held everything together . . . if the Temple goes, everything collapses . . .
The destruction of the Temple would presage the collapse of everything as they saw it . . . wars, rumours of wars, earthquakes, famines . . . the End of everything . . . Jesus’ words about the birth pangs resonate throughout the whole cosmos.
The destruction of the Temple . . . All things hold together in the Temple . . . the brutal fact was that the Temple was passing away, not merely worn away by the sands of time, it was to be destroyed . . .
We approach the end of the church’s year – we live in the last times , and our readings point towards this end. We think of Advent as the start of the New Year, yet Advent orients us towards the End of all things. We start as we mean to go on, oriented towards the End of all things.
Advent is in a sense The Church’s season. It is the season for watching and waiting, it is the season that if you like gives us our posture for the entire year ahead, waiting for the Coming of the son of Man and the revealing of the fulfilment of all things . . . in Him who is the End of all things
It is the season in which we mediate on the Last Things, Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Young Welsey’s words were a very timely reminder – I am going to die. We meditate on the our impermanence, all that is passing away – and so look to that which is eternal. Not a building built by human hands – and the destruction of a Temple built by human hands, of the human attempt to supplant the story of God, is central to all of this . . . but this is not merely about the destruction of the Temple and the Cosmos built around it . . . it is about a new Temple, a new heaven and a new Earth
The destruction of the Temple. ‘Jesus [said], ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.’
At the centre of everything – at the centre of Creation was to be The Man, the human who lived loving God above and tending to all that was below. That was what was in place in the Creation Temple, but the human rather than accepting the name given to him, chose to try and build a name for himself apart from God – disconnecting the Cosmos from her Creator. Trying to turn the things that are passing away into the things that are eternal, trying to build heaven on earth, rather than being heaven’s presence on earth . . .
But at the End this is revealed as the fraud that it is.
In the Resurrection of Jesus The True Temple is established, the Temple of his body, where everything is held together, where heaven and Earth are united. It is the breaking in of eternal Life for all who believe. We are called to be his people with our eyes set on the eternal, storing up treasure in heaven, living into the eternal life of the Risen Christ, who was from the beginning the very centre of the True Creation that is not passing away.
We have a Temple, not one built by human hands – but that of his body. He is our Temple, The Human who holds heaven and Earth together in himself. Jesus’s words are very shocking, but they are as it were the blowing away of all that is passing away, and the revealing of the eternal life which ‘was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.’
And so in the words of the epistle to the Hebrews, ‘my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, Do not be alarmed, do not be led astray – for he who has promised is faithful.’
Let us look not at what can be seen but let us desire to Behold that which cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. Fixing our eyes on Jesus, in all through all and above all – our place of Access to God, the Centre of God’s plans and purposes. Let us not get caught out seeking to secure that which is passing away and being consumed by it as surely as it will be consumed. Let us not be distracted by wars and rumours of wars, by earthquake fire and famine. Let us fix our hearts on God, the Eternal one – let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. As we see these things come to pass . . .
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, Year B, 2018
‘How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead observances to worship the living God! ‘
‘Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ Ephesians 5:1,2
The Christian Life is from beginning to end a life of Worship of the One true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, held in existences we are In each and every moment by the Love of God.
It is in God and through God that we have life, and our worship is the rational offering of ourselves as ‘living sacrifices’ to use the words of St Paul, offering that Life continually to God as He continually offers His Life to us. The Flow of Love from God and to God is the fullest meaning of our existence, revealed to us in Jesus, who only does what he sees the Father doing. His very Life lived as the dearly loved child.
This is the entirety of Life free from sin. Truly to Love is to worship. We find an echo of that in the old marriage service where the husband is called on to worship his wife. Worship is Love set free from the distortion of Sin.
Love of God in all through all and above all is our human vocation, and for many many years we knew this. It was the clearest vision of our life in the Church. After the Psalms the most preached book in the Scriptures was the Song of Songs. The Song of the Lover to the beloved and that Love returned.
Yet, sin above all, distorts our vision, and so distorts our Love. Sin fractures, breaks apart. The word diabolo, which we use for Devil means to throw apart, to separate out. Love is thus fractured. It is not One, it breaks up and turns Love into loves. It suggests as all things diabolic do, that love is a matter for our choice, or, for it is the same thing, our power.
Do I love this? or that? or the other? Will I? This is of course to understand oneself as separated from Love. Will I take up Love, will I walk in the way of Love, as if it were an option, rather than the very essence of Life, rather than its very Flow.
Through Sin, we love what we see, or we do not. We learn to love by sight and not by faith. So this or that or the other thing, this or that or the other person captures our gaze. Depending on our decisions. Of course we might blithely assert, I love everyone! Until that everyone become the person who suggests to you that love is something you can choose, and we choose not. Love in the General, doesn’t boil down of all in all and through all. We see, but we do not See, and thus we do not love.
As we remember last week, the consummate disciple is the blind man, Bartimaeus. The one who does not see as others see – but who Beholds God in Jesus Christ. He does not see a world of things which possess his sight, captivating his eye, and thus holding him back from this Life with Jesus.
But it is those who think they See who have the problem – for our eyes are captivated by many things – we are like Martha distracted by them. They hold our attention, and thus we are held by them. Like Martha we are divided, pulled apart – the literal meaning of distracted. But this is not the Love of God. For this Love is the Love of pure freedom, Love itself Free. The One Thing Necessary.
Love’s best visible examples as so often, because of course it points us in the direction of the deepest truth, is the love of a parent for a child which becomes the free love of the child for the parent. This reveals to us the deep reality before Sin gets in the way of our Life, first loved by the Father, and then ‘loving because He loves us. In those early days before Sin distorts the picture and from time to time makes love a matter of will or choice – of our power.
Just at the moment, one of our daughters’ is learning just how Lovely she is, as our grand daughter loves nothing better than to gaze at her mum, at EVERY hour of the day and night!
How has she learnt this loving gaze? Well of course the is returning the gaze of love which she has received since the hour of her birth. As St Paul puts it, ‘there is no compulsion in Love’. Love cannot be demanded. Worship, Love is the return of that gaze of Love of the Father
In a deep sense this is why God comes to us in such unlovely form. His Love manifested in the crucified One, of whom the prophet says ‘there was nothing in him that we might desire him’ God does not compel us to love him, so when he appears it is in a form which we may miss. We are to Love by faith, not our distorted sight.
Thus he reveals the true nature of Love – it has nothing to do with things that are seen, but those which are unseen. ‘You did not choose me, I chose you’ Says Jesus.
Throughout Mark’s gospel to date we have noticed how over and again, the disciples fail to see for their eyes are fixed on things seen, that are passing away, not on the Eternal One. They fail to see the hidden unseen way of Jesus, and in truth fail to see Him for who he is, except very occasionally.
Finally it is the Blind Bartimaeus who reveals the nature of true discipleship, going to be with Jesus, as Jesus fills his vision, his imaginative world. The Eye of his Heart is pure and clear, and thus he is in a sense safe to see.
So they come up to Jerusalem and we have skipped a little bit of the story – Jesus has cleansed the Temple, causing a bit of a ruckus. And then he is asked a series of questions. our gospel reading is the last of those questions. As the story of Bartimaeus brings to an end the quest to reveal the true nature of the disciple, so this last question puts an end to the questions.
Briefly the other two questions, for the illuminate the final question.
First term is the familiar question of taxes to Caesar. The Pharisees ask this. There lives are tangled up in a sensitive relationship with the Roman authorities. They depend on Rome for their power and influence in Palestine, most notably in Jerusalem. They are wary of upsetting this relationship – it fills their view. We might consider this like those who spend their time on the internet, troubled by the state of the world, constantly worrying that this or that or the other will cause things to fall apart. Living in fear.
Of course the question is also a trap, but Jesus handles it with ease, for Caesar does not fill his vision. The Pharisees do not love God – they are terrified of Caesar. Yet Jesus reduces him to his place, a two bit tyrant who feels the need to stamp his image on bits of metal . . . whose image is this? What do you see? Of course the Pharisees notoriously, like us, love money. Money gives you power, you can choose how you use it – you can giver it away, or you can keep it for yourself . . . this of course is how we think of it as well. And like the Pharisees, taxes and Caesar’s loom large in our mind. We give ourselves in devotion to them out of fear . . . better get the right government, or it will all turn to custard. We are careful with our money . . . we worship it, we love it. God disappears and our neighbour disappears – we carry devices which tell us moment by moment how much money we have . . . For our vision is fragmented, we see many things, but one thing is necessary. ‘You do not love God’
Then the question from the Saducees, not seven brides for seven brothers but one bride for a succession of seven brothers . . . They do not believe in the Resurrection – Jesus tells them, ‘you do not believe in the power of God! God doesn’t fill your view! You do not Love God!
As St Paul puts it again when he is being tried ‘Why would anyone think it extraordinary that God raises the dead?’ Of course if your eyes are not on God, then it Is extraordinary. In the same way that the rich man acted in accordance with what he saw, but acted wrongly – so the belief in the Resurrection depends on whether you See the One God! But their vision is fragmented! Seven to choose from. Whom will she love?
In the same way that Bartimaeus receives the sight that in a sense he already has – his faith reveals his Sight – so the Resurrection is also Seen, by those who See God – for to See God IS Resurrection life. Barnabas, although he is blind Sees! He leaps up – he Comes to Jesus, he Comes to Life with Jesus, he throws away his funeral shroud cloak, and sets out into Life
So Jesus rebukes the Saducees – you do not know the power of God – you do not see him – you see your thorny metaphysical and theological problems – they fill your view. We could say a great deal a this juncture about the church and her obsession with this or that or the other – no Vision of God . . .
The Pharisees see Caesar – they do not See God, the Saducees see problems, they do not See God. There are so many things, so many many things which obscure our vision – holding it captive. In the church we get consumed by issues – it is as if they hold our vision – not God.
This is what it is to give up on worship, and thus our giving up on Life itself. We invest heart, soul mind and strength in this aspect of church life, or that campaign – we are consumed by it . . . when we are called to invest our all in God. To Love him with all we are – ‘that my whole being may proclaim, his being and his ways’ It is to live The Life which is from God and for god and Too God.
So the question in todays gospel is The Question. And here we find something most remarkable – Jesus is commended for his answer by the Scribe and in a sense reveals himself to be a disciple in repeating Jesus’ answer to him – revealing that he is not far from the Kingdom of God
BUT . . . it seems to us perhaps that there is a problem. The first one is simply this – we might be tempted to think that Jesus adds to the Great Commandment. That Love of Neighbour is an additional command, to Love of God. We might say ‘well the Pharisees or the Scribes were very religious but not lovers of neighbour’. Yet the two earlier questions rule that out – their problem is that they don’t love God – they fear Caesar – they do not believe that God can raise the dead. God is Small in their eyes! In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, their religion is dead observances. They observe correctly all the feasts, but their heart, soul, mind and strength are not focussed on God. They do not Love God
It’s like putting all your effort into Christmas for the sake of Christmas and not for the sake of God himself! Dead observances
But the second problem is more worth considering – ‘if I love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, what is left over for my neighbour?’
We come back to what it is this Christian Life – it is the worship of God – it is the Life of God flowing out and returning – it is that Love which moves the stars, that Love which calls everything into being and sustains them – it is the totality of Love. To Know that Love of God, to return it, is to live in Love as St John puts it, to begin to Know Love as existence and Love as something which can only be shared. We are not held captive by it, it flows – it is like a might river flowing, we share in it – as does everything and everyone else! To Know Life, to Know Love is to Know that our life is with our neighbour. For that very Love and Life which by the grace of God Is our Very Existence, is also our neighbours. My brothers Life is my Life!
To See clearly is to See the same Life in our neighbour as is in us – ‘it is to See our neighbour as ourself’, a vision made possible by the Love of God, by the Life of Worship. It is no longer to love by choice, by an effort of will – it is to become that which we love – which is the End for all of us.
We become what we love. If we love things that are passing away, we will too pass away, but if we set our hearts and minds and souls and strength on God who IS Love, we by Grace Become Love also, and thus the love of neighbour is the most natural thing in the Universe, which is how it is Created to be
Bartimaeus reveals the true nature of discipleship – going to be with Jesus.
Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity – Year B, 2018
‘Gone to be with Jesus’
At the beginning of this past week, a friend told me of the death of Eugene Peterson, someone whose writings I’ve closely read, a most gifted pastor, but above all, in all and through all, someone who deeply loved Jesus. We Might say “he has ‘gone to be with Jesus’”, but is that really what has happened?
I was forwarded some words from his family which I think teach us something about reality as we Perceive it as Christians.
Speaking of the time of his death they said – “During the previous days, it was apparent that he was navigating the thin and sacred space between earth and heaven, we overheard him speaking to people we can only presume were welcoming him into paradise.”
I have to say that I wasn’t surprised – this isn’t the first time I’ve been privy to such accounts. I remember the death of a dear friend, whose last days according to those who sat with her, were given over to speaking with and encouraging those who were making the same passage.
In both cases, I knew that for these people, it would be perfectly natural for them to see things so clearly in their final hours, for they lived with a deep sense of the closeness of the realm of the eternal, indeed a vision of it.
I don’t mean by that that they ‘visions of heaven’, as if this was something ‘supernatural’ or ‘out of the ordinary’, but rather that their hearts and minds were naturally and in their ordinary lives set on God and the things of God. It was the natural ordinary air that they breathed - the air of the eternal woven into the temporal. In this way their lives were not only receptacles of but also pathways of Eternal Life into the world, in the pattern, in the deepest sense, of Jesus Christ, in whom heaven and earth are woven together. They lives being woven into His, the intersection of Earth and Heaven was not alien to their life. Eternal Life was something Present to them in their
It is a matter of note that so many of Jesus healings are those of the blind – those who cannot see – for it is our Vision which needs awakening. We live day to day in the world in the way that we perceive it. How we See is fundamental to how we live. To Live the Christian Life is to See the world at the intersection between Heaven and Earth, to See the rich tapestry of the Eternal pervading the Quotidean, it is to See Jesus as Present, to the end of the Age.
If like Peterson and my friend we have Seen Him and live with eyes fixed on Him, if we perceive the world freighted with the Glory of God as revealed in Christ and Him Crucified, if we See aright, then there are times when we realise that boundaries between heaven and earth are not as concrete as we might have otherwise assumed – that is that there is little but our blinded sight which ‘separates’ them.
I don’t mean by this, to repeat myself, that we go around having ‘heavenly visions’, but rather that we know the truth of our faith that in Jesus Christ, Heaven and Earth are woven together. Put another way we learn to set our hearts and minds on Jesus . . . we learn to Love Him, in all, things through all things, and above all things. And we see things as they really are - having left all things for Him, we discover that we have all things in Him. We discover that our life is in him and his in us - woven together. Following Jesus, we Know and Experience Real Life as that Gift coming to us from God in each moment of time, the eternal flow of the Spirit.
This is an act of learning to see the world aright – and as I corresponded with someone regarding Peterson’s last days a description came to me, of our Christian life as a journey of learning to see – of Imaginitiation – our initiation into the Christian Imagination. For as we See, so we Live, so we Walk to use the Greek verb for Life. In the same way as our daily path in directed by our sight, so Life in its details is ‘Walked’ in accordance with our Seeing.
This put me in mind of some words I referred to when we first came here seven years ago. They are the words of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris, Suhard.
“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
We Walk according to Sight of Jesus, we Walk with Jesus
If God n Christ is always before your eyes, if we love him with heart should mind and strength then your life takes on a different direction. It doesn’t follow the well worn world weary grooves of existence ploughed by so many around us. We find our selves in more ways than one at Cross roads, at Cross purposes. Standing at the Intersection between heaven and Earth – (St Paul uses the phrase ‘standing before God’) – Where others see barriers, we See God. Where others see impossibility, we See God, where others See anything other than God, we See God. Your life takes trajectories are unthinkable to those who do not as yet See.
If we consider the gospel from a couple of weeks ago, Jesus’ encounter with the Rich man. His actions make perfect sense if he does not See God! If we don’t See Him in Jesus then the man’s failure to give up al he has and follow him makes perfect sense, it is the height of reasonableness. Perhaps this is the sting of this story for us – his behaviour is too reasonable to us who have an abundance of possessions, which possess our attention. It causes us to ask, do We See Jesus? Do we see the Eternal woven into flesh and blood?
The man sought eternal life – yet he didn’t recognise it stood in front of him . . . He just didn’t have an imagination filled with God, he didn’t in the deep sense of the word Fear God. His possessions possessed his imagination. He couldn’t See – his Stuff stole all his attention. (Some wonder if ‘demonic possession’ is real, if demons are real – they seem not to be anything we come across, yet demons don’t need waste their desperate and limited energy with possessing those who are possessed by their possessions)
As we have been journeying with Jesus in Mark’s gospel, we have constantly come across instances of the disciples failure to see. When Jesus rebukes Peter with those stinging words ‘Get behind me Satan!’ he follows up by saying ‘you are setting your mind not on the things of God but on the things of men.’ For having acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, He still doesn’t See. God doesn’t fill His vision – you do not Know Him – you only see as the world sees.
And so another encounter. Jesus has passed through Jericho – he’s not stopping there he is on his way towards Jerusalem. And as he passes by the gate, the place where in times of old the ruler of the city would sit in judgement over the cases brought to him, there sits one Looking – Looking for Mercy – the blind beggar, Bar-Timaeus.
We come here in many respects to the climax of the journey so far, the End of the continual failures of the Disciples, brought to an end by True Discipleship. As Jesus is about to go up to Jerusalem, after all the failures of his disciples to See, and to Follow – to go with Jesus in truth, here finally is a disciple.
‘One of those little ones’. A man like a child – without any power – utterly dependent on alms from passers by, uncluttered by visions of power and possessions, for all his blindness he ‘Sees’, in contrast with all those who have think they see . . .
And just as the disciples hinder the little ones being brought to Jesus, so too many people try to quieten him. You can imagine the dynamic, like the self important disciples dreaming of power – what place does this nobody have in the story? We’ve come to watch the Jesus show, Be Quiet!But that is just it! They have just come to watch – Bar-Timaeus wants in on it – He is the one who enters fully into the story, he steps into Life.
At the command of Jesus he leaps up from the ground, throwing away his cloak, his security, his cover for the night, as day light breaks in. He abandons what is in effect his life – for Real Life.
And his cry is so unlike any other made to Jesus. ‘Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me’ – not a theological question, unlike the disciples asking for seats of authority – indeed he cries out for something Only God can do.
The words of address Jesus uses to him are exactly the same as to James and John with their request for seats of power. “What do you wish that I might do for you?” James and John don’t understand Jesus or See him truthfully for what they ask of he cannot give. ‘To sit on my right or on my left is not mine to give’ You can share my cup and be baptised with my baptism, you can share my death and so share my life – for that is all I have of mine own to give, my Life, but who gets crucified along with me, well I guess that that is in the hands of the Romans.
But Bartimaeus asks according to true sight. For all he cannot see Jesus, he can See him. “What do you wish that I might do for you?”
‘Rabbouni’ he cries out. Robbouni – the cry – heard only on the lips of Mary Magdalene in the Garden on Easter morning. The word of her shocked recognition – My Teacher! My Life – Eternal Life is Seen by Mary – it is Seen by ‘Blind’ Bar-Timaeus.
Faith has been awakened in Bar-Timaeus. Rabbouni, my teacher, he Recognises Jesus – “Rabbouni! That I might see again. And in a sense all Jesus does is to name that awakened faith – he as good as says to him, ‘There is in truth nothing wrong with your Sight – you See well enough’ Your faith has healed you. Your Vision is Fine and Good 🙂 Go!
Well where do you go? You’ve left your life behind – you’ve begun the heavenly journey, where He is your Life. You follow Him, you go to be with Him . . . think of those words – ‘gone to be with Jesus’ – Oh that that became our way of speaking of the Christian life!! In the days that follow the crowds may wonder. I doubt they will have seen – they hadn’t given much consideration to him in the past. ‘Where’s he gone, that beggar? Bar-Timaeus??’ ‘Oh, I think he’s gone off to be with Jesus . . .’ He no longer fits into the imaginative life story of the World. He’s gone off into another story.
When we look to Jesus, what do we see, but the place where Heaven and Earth are woven together, the place where the Life of Heaven, the Life of God re-enters the Creation, and we go to be with him, in the between place, the woven together place. Betwixt heaven and Earth – manifested in the Cross
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews puts it like this
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, [again a matter of heaven vision] let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
What do we Fix our eyes on? This is the great question of human Life and Death. In the garden our forebears, surrounded as they were by the Glory of God fixed their eyes on the apple. We fix our eyes on that which we love. What is our Love? Is is Love Himself?
The Rich man had so much that his eyes were fixed on. His vision was full of his Stuff. Bartimaeus has only his cloak. With so little between him and the heavenly vision, like the finest of gauzes, he threw his cloak, his old life away, he leaps up and comes to Jesus.
What obscures our vision of Jesus? Are our eyes fixed on him? Has our Christian image Initiation been growing? Has it begun?
Where do we fix our eyes? Eugene Peterson loves Jesus, his eyes are fixed on Him, the joining place of heaven and earth. It was not a sign of his piety that he was blessed with this encounter between places – rather it was a sign of his Loves.
To fix our eyes on him is to begin to See Heaven, to see it woven into Earth, to See the Eternal as illuminating the Temporal – it is to be initiated into Christian Imagination. It is to Go! To be with Jesus.
Sermon for Trinity + 18, Year B – 2018
‘More things in Heaven and Earth’
Of Metaphysics and Marriage’
Having listened to the gospel, it may be that our thoughts are on Jesus’ teaching on Divorce and Remarriage – just at the outset, let us remind ourselves that Jesus’ words about not entering the kingdom, are addressed to those who do not receive it like a child . . . We ignore the words about children at our peril thinking that it is the ‘Adult’ words which are Obviously more significant . . . and thinking of children directs us towards those words in Hebrews, about angels . . .
Listening to the reading from Hebrews I wonder how many of us pondered the place of Angels in the great scheme of things?
You may remember Jesus dramatic warning regarding the little ones from last week – words, I should add addressed to us all – regarding ‘causing these little ones to stumble’? If we followed these words in Matthew’s gospel we would read this ‘And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.’
The role of guardian angels is a mysterious one. I know of three experiences of encounters with these creatures, one my own, but perhaps the most striking was a conversation with an elderly parishioner when I was a curate. As a young mum, perhaps suffering from post-natal depression, she had gone to take her own life, and had placed her head in her gas oven when she saw ‘two enormous feet in front of me, stood in the kitchen’ She had caught a fleeting glimpse of that which lies beyond our usual sight.
Yet Jesus speaks of what we call ‘guardian’ angels in particular with respect to children, or at least ‘little ones’. ‘their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.’
Angels belong to a branch of science, largely forgotten called metaphysics. We have all heard one ‘Metaphysical question’, concerning angels, namely ‘how many angels might dance on the head of a pin’. A question which perhaps sounds ludicrous to us, but to those who asked it wasn’t unimportant – the question was essentially, do angels take up space in the world in the way we do, or could you place thousands of them in the same space, the head of a pin? What is the nature of this unseen reality which surrounds us?
Such questions are questions of metaphysics, or put another way, if we remember the famous quote from Hamlet – questions of the ‘more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio’. Questions of the very nature of our existence. Even ‘ordinary’ physics speaks of aspects of our existence which make no sense at all – are impossible to our way of understanding things.
When I trained as a physics teacher, half those training with me were Christians – perhaps as Christians we had more time for the weird world of quantum mechanics and special relativity, for the holographic nature of the universe, or the notion that every solid object is full of light . . . perhaps we were more open to the mysteries of physics, because we were comfortable with its older brother, metaphysics
Yet, as I said, Jesus speaks of guardian angels in particular with respect to children. And he speaks of children here in the context of speaking of marriage.
As I have said once or twice these past weeks, our habit of chopping the scriptures up into segments according to topic, destroy the fabric of the picture where themes are woven together throughout the gospels. They are a narrative, not a ‘collection of sayings’. So we might think that our gospel today we have ‘a saying of Jesus about marriage’, followed by ‘an incident with children’, as if, perhaps conveniently they were unrelated, but inconveniently perhaps, they are not. We may well sing that ‘love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage’, but perhaps at least as significant if not more so, do children and marriage.
We have noted these past weeks how there is a too and fro between the disciples and their assumptions about power, and greatness, and Jesus repudiation of such power, and over and again Jesus brings a child into their midst . . .
There is a discussion about marriage and divorce, we might say a conversation between adults as all these conversations seem to be, as if children don’t have a stake, yet ‘their angels continually see the face of [the] Father in heaven.’
There is an ‘adult conversation’ going on – and then the disciples try to block the children from coming to Jesus, from getting in on this adult conversation . . . it is hard not to feel the significance of this. Adults arguing – children kept out of the picture, Those with power deciding their own lives, but not only there own lives – the powerful deciding for the powerless, and the powerless the innocent victims of it all . . .
Of course our society is full of such conversations. Recently as you will be aware there have been conversations about Euthanasia going on in our country. What sticks most powerfully in my mind when this topic is raised is the look in the eyes of elderly people . . . for this is a discussion happening amongst the powerful. Those who have control of their lives as they see it, and who want to keep it, and listening in, those who sense that the determination of some to have power of their lives over their lives will have consequences for them . . . after all, in a world dominated by money and economics, by usefulness, by ‘the working life’, what we mean by a meaningful life takes on a very different hue . . . so it is the vulnerable elderly who have good cause to fear . . . despite the ‘adults’ the powerful ones saying – ‘there there it will all be fine.’ Being powerless helps one to see much more clearly what is going on . . .
Well so too, the children. But let us first look at Jesus teaching on marriage and divorce – and again we shall turn to metaphysics. Here Jesus is confronted by the pharisees – although we have skipped a verse. The context is that Jesus is teaching the crowds – so here we have a teaching session and the pharisees use it as an opportunity to place a distance between Jesus and the teaching of the elders.
‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ Of course in the culture of Jesus, that a woman might divorce her husband was simply not a possibility . . . but where in either case are the children?
Jesus answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ . . . and Jesus replies ‘Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you.’ Because you were determined to have it your own way . . .
‘But,’ says Jesus, ‘but from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.”
Perhaps the two most powerful words in Scripture, But God . . . and then Jesus quotes from Genesis. Not only have they lost sight of the children, they have lost sight of God. Perhaps when it is issues of power we lose sight of all that seems to us powerless . . .
‘but from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
And here we come to metaphysics of marriage. This is no mere human contract between two autonomous individuals – In the joining together of the man and the woman something which is at once New, and as old as Creation itself comes into being – or something Old is revealed once more – in that the two are made one flesh as of old the one became two. Where the unseeing eye might look only at two individuals who have chosen a way of life together – what is seen to the eye of God is something He has made, a marriage.
A New thing is made - there is still the man and the woman, but now they are husband and wife - a new thing has been made, has come into existence - the one flesh, the marriage - and it is God’s Creation! Thus the metaphysical significance of the declaration at a marriage which are the very words of God himself in Jesus ‘That which God has joined together, let no man separate.’
Through the self giving of one to the other, the man to the woman and the woman to the man, God creates a marriage, God does
The couple gives their consent to the marriage – marriage must always be freely entered into – but it is God who makes the two, one
As he makes the water, the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the baptism of Jesus, as he makes the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ, as in Christ he joins together things heavenly and things on Earth, so in the same way he makes of the man and the woman a Sacramental Union, a one flesh . . . a new creation – can a human undo what God has done?? Can one separate a child into two parts?
. . . and the blessing of that union? The one flesh fruit of it? The child. Here we might say is the visible manifestation of a marriage – Called forth from God.
As I said last week, Jesus constant reference to children lead us to sentimentalise his saying. Jesus blesses the little children, declares them blessed. The fruit of the marriage, is its blessing. But ‘in the real world’ . . . in the real world we come up against the harsh realities of life for children, of life for those whose ‘angels continually see the face of [the] Father in heaven.’ The disciples, the adults, want a ‘real world conversation’ – Jesus in speaking about marriage, in speaking of divorce, in blessing the children shows them The Real World, of things which we do not see, but are so very real.
In this light we must be so grateful for the words of Jesus from the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do . . .’ yet we need also to remember, that the words of Jesus are the very words by which worlds are created – when he declares ‘the two shall become one’, then he speaks that which is so . . .
We who are adults are so full of our stories of ‘the real world’, once more Jesus takes a little child, those whose angels continually see the face of [their] Father in heaven, and reveals the true nature of things – for Christ is Himself the fullest manifestation of the true nature of things
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
Sermon for 18th Sunday after Trinity, YearB 2018
‘Confess your sins, one to another and pray for one another that you might be healed’
On (not) making life difficult . . .
Years ago I remember a chance remark my Spiritual Director made to me about her own perspective and how it was changed. She had been visiting her own director and in a conversation about her parish said ‘well at least I’m not responsible for their salvation’ – to which her director shot back, ‘what on earth gave you that idea?’
As James says ‘My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.’ . . . ‘confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.’
James the brother of Jesus seems clear enough on this responsibility for one another’s Salvation life, yet, starting from Cain, humankind has tended to ask over and again ‘Am I my brothers’ keeper’, and if we listen we might hear the Lord reply, ‘his blood cries out to me from the ground’. Our lives are intimately woven together – we ignore this at our great peril, indeed the challenges we face in the world in this hour are deeply rooted in this loss of consciousness amongst us.
We are responsible for the life amongst us. And our lives can either assist the flow of this Salvation Life, or impede it, and sheer ignorance of our responsibilities in this regard lead us far more often to the latter, rather than the occasional ‘accidental’ moment when by the Grace of God, our lives intersect those of others in a way which causes faith to spring up . . .
The prophet says of Jesus ‘He grew up before the LORD like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.’ Easy to miss, easy to pass over, easy, all too easy to crush as Jesus keeps reminding his disciples, yet they seem not to get the message.
Last week we considered character of the Servant – and prime amongst the characteristics of the Servant is gentleness – Wisdom from above comes to us in humility and gentleness and it is easy, tragically easy to crush it, by following the way of power.
As we have said Jesus follows the way of powerlessness, in the way we understand it, in the way we use it without reflection. But as I was reminded by someone on the way out last week,’but we have the power of the Spirit!’ To which Yes, and Amen! The power of the spirit, gentle as a dove . . . all too easy to impede. All too easy to make life difficult . . .
We continue our readings in Mark’s gospel and the narrative of powerlessness, and of following the path of gentleness with the disciples again getting it wrong. Jesus has just put a child amongst them, he has said – ‘he who welcomes one such welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me’ Jesus comes amongst us in many ways as a little one, as a child, yet John seems not to get it. “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”
Perhaps one of them was a disciple on the edge of the group, seemingly unimportant to the apostle John, who after all has recently been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, so OBVIOUSLY is a Very Important Disciple – and he throws his weight around . . . like all those who think themselves important – the irony is that having come down from the mountain they come across some of the disciples who can’t cast out demons! So here is someone who can and they are stopping him . . . Making life difficult – opposing the power of God . . . Perhaps the one casting out demons who John stopped is literally a child – after all isn’t this what children do? They See Jesus casting out demons, and they copy him . . . in simple faith
Jesus commands them not to stop such as these, for if they are channels for the life of God, they will soon know the one from whom that life comes . . . done as it is in the name of Jesus.
But Jesus goes on to issue a warning – ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.’ Those who have any sensitivity to matters of faith in Jesus Christ know how very very easy it is to crush it . . . the words of Jesus are the starkest of reminders of our responsibilities towards those young in faith, both children and adults . . . we can permit the gentle work of the Spirit space, we can refrain from laying heavy burdens, we can seek always to encourage ad to build up . . . or we can do the other, and we are responsible. When Jesus says ‘great millstone’ he’s talking about one that a donkey would have turned . . . it is so easy to make Life difficult
What is more e often do this in a way that makes out we are helping . . . we get in the way. Often we might do this by seeking to please a third party. Why after all does John tell Jesus what he has done? The subtext is, ‘we knew you wouldn’t like this so we put a stop to it . . .’ It’s a stark warning not to act on behalf of others, especially to please them
It is so easy to snuff out this Gentle work of the Spirit – God does not impose himself. I remember speaking with a doctor friend about some wonderful healings I knew of that were taking place. She was a little sceptical – she wondered if those who claimed such things would open them up to ‘scientific’ testing . . . not understanding that this was entirely contrary to the hidden small work of the Spirit . . . Not realising that she was asking God to bow to her command . . . which is of course what is going on . . .
Finally there are Jesus’s stark words about cutting off hands and feet and gouging out eyes . . . It is so very easy to get in the way of the Spirit in the lives of others, to crush the tender shoot – and it is very easy in ourselves. If carelessly crushing the work of God in a child or young disciple bears such consequences that it would be better we were thrown into the depths without hope of return, then we need to do all in our power Not to do it – for our lives are woven together,
Jesus’ words on cutting off feet, and hands and gouging out eyes come into focus when we realise the huge responsibility we bear for one another, not putting obstacles in the life of Grace in them for the consequences for us of doing so are terrible for them – and us. This only makes sense when we see our lives are woven together
The word translated Hell here, is Gehenna – it is the name of a valley close by Jerusalem – it was until the time of King Josiah a place of Child sacrifice – although the story goes that to put a stop to it, he turned it into the rubbish tip, so the imagery of fires and worms would be very clear to the disciples.
What is Jesus saying here? That in ignoring the work of the Spirit, amongst the least of these, amongst the children and those new to faith – you would be in danger of going to the very place where at one time all the nobodies were sent for sacrifice. The announcement of the Justice of God is one of the great reversal. In the words of Mary our Mother – He hath cast down the mighty from their seat and raise up the humble and meek He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.
Jesus is saying you are so casual about getting in the way of others, but equally casual about your own sin! You should take great great care over both! Yes, we are responsible for our own Salvation and for that of those around us. The two are intimately woven together.
For everyone will be salted with fire – here the idea of Salting is that associated with purification in the old rites of Israel – the refiners fire of Malachi. Don’t lose that purifying salt in your life, for how can you result salt? Keep Salt within yourselves and be at peace with one another
The words of James point us to this peace. Peace which is no simple absence of conflict – that is no different to death! No Peace in the Scriptures is Rich fullness of Good Life, Shared life – and how is it achieved? Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. This is how we know God’s life amongst us
Like cutting off hand or foot or gouging out eye it sounds hard, but in truth it is the way to healing and wholeness – putting our lives in the hands of those amongst whom we share in Christ’s life – like Christ, allowing ourselves to be handed over
Recording of my answers to questions supplied by members of our AAW group
Sermon notes for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity – Year B 2018
“The Way of Jesus, and the way of the world”
‘Hi brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples will see the work that you do; For no one does something in secret and expects to be in public view; if you do these things reveal yourself to the World” for his brothers did not have faith in him’ John 7:3-5 DB-H
I once received a phone call from Buckingham Palace. (Not because the Queen wanted me to form a new government . . .)
My Church Warden had died and he had been a Lord Lieutenant of the County – the Queen’s Official Representative – so the now Lrd Lt was coming to the funeral, with Mrs Lrd Lt – and there were ‘protocols to be observed’ Special chairs at the front – I was expected as the Vicar to be on hand to show them to their seats – meanwhile the villagers had been crowding in from early to find a seat anywhere – cramped up at the back . . .
The Words of James seemed ‘other worldly’ – My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? . . . Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ . . .??
I was at a church gathering recently when someone said, ‘we must be careful here, or we will become counter cultural’ the person to my knowledge seemed to assume that this would be ‘NOT a good thing’ . . . but the way of culture is precisely to be enamoured of wealth and position . . . it is a human given, and we ought to ask why?
Perhaps an answer can be found in the temptations of Jesus, who throughout shuns the way of the World – once again we hear how he ‘ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’’ Of how after he had fed the 5000 ‘they tried to make him king by force’ . . . take power Jesus, step up! After feeding the 5000 Jesus comes into conflict with his brother
‘Hi brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples will see the work that you do; For no one does something in secret and expects to be in public view; if you do these things reveal yourself to the World” for his brothers did not have faith in him’ John 7:3-5 DB-H
Power – in so many different ways we all crave it. Even the idea that ‘if we just elect the right government . . . everything will be right’ – With Harry Secombe we all sing, ‘If I ruled the World, every day would be the first day in Spring . . .’ This narrative feeds the myth that ‘it is our place to build the Kingdom of God’, or ‘for the love to go on we must make it our song . . .’, or ‘Make America Great Again . . .’ All built from the same presupposition that ‘we can make the world a better place – If I ruled the world . . .’ After all, all of us know what’s wrong with the world, don’t we . . .
As we head into Diocesan Synod next week there is a motion to sell Selwyn College. I’ve listened long and hard to all the arguments, but they all boil down to the same sad old tired story – ‘Don’t sell! We will change the college culture!’ Do Sell, we don’t have the right people in these days to be able to . . . or, if we did obviously we would . . .’ All based on the World’s Sad tired story . . . the myth that if we only did this or that or the other, everything would be right . . . and it is a story that Jesus rejects. Turn the stones into bread . . . leap from the Temple, show everyone how amazing you are . . . only worship me and all this will be yours . . . well its pretty fair to say, it is all ours now . . .
The Way of Jesus is the way of hiddenness – it is the way of poverty in the things of the world – Jesus says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor now, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.’
We have a diocesan Prayer which says words to the effect of ‘we need to be doing our bit for the last the lost and the least . . . ‘ it never occurs to us that the people of Jesus ARE The lost, the last and the least . . . ‘Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?’
The poor are the rich in faith – why, because they have no power and cannot succumb to the blandishments of control – what is the prayer of God’s children? Give us this day our daily bread . . .
Which brings us to the gospel and the collision of Jesus with the Syro-Phoenician woman and it is a collision
[Jesus] went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Jesus is once again not showing himself – indeed he has left Judea and Galilee and gone into the territory of the Greeks – Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
You can almost hear the tutting – you can imagine the shock – perhaps a Synod motion requiring that we do not hear Jesus referring to this woman in this way! And I have heard many a sermon agonising over this text . . . but Jesus is the one who relinquishes power.
Firstly Jesus treats her with enormous honour! His opening remark is exactly the way a Rabbi speaks with a disciple – there is a request, he responds with a saying – he is seeking to elicit from her faith. And she acts as a Rabbi’s disciple, she responds to him. On the one hand as someone has said ‘Jesus drops his own honour code, his own honour to respond in the first place’ but more than that he elevates the woman who knows that as a gentile woman she has no call on this Jewish man. He by putting the statement, like God responding to Job, says to her – stand before me, lets have this out . . . Here’s a saying ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ – What do you say to that? And her response is so very illuminating ‘Yes, Lord; and the dogs under the table eat from the children’s crumbs . . .’
What is happening here is an act of mutual recognition – she has seen the truth of Jesus – the one who has nowhere to lay his head – who has come into a hostile world entirely dependent on hospitality – who says to his disciples I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide’ I have no call on you, and you have no call on the world . . . we are in the same position
The disciples of Jesus go out into the world in a position of vulnerability – like the dogs under the table, living off the scraps that are thrown to them. They go out into the world in the way of Jesus. The woman Knows who Jesus is – she recognises one who lives off the scraps himself – she claims kinship with him – and he shares with her what he has – LIFE – and her daughter is healed
So again he goes back towards Galilee and in the region of The Decapolis – an area not under Herod but having some autonomy – a mixed area of Jews and Gentiles. And they brought to him one deaf and mute – and Jesus heals him – and orders them to tell no one but the more he ordered them, the more they broadcast his name – after all – if he can do this, think what he can do, and after all, hasn’t he performs those works we’d expect of the Messiah? The mute speak! The Deaf hear . . .
But Jesus will not put himself in their hands, for they are consumed by the old story – ‘here is someone to rule – here is someone to put it all right’ the old story of power, vested of course in wealth
This Old Story is pretty much the story we live by – it is woven into all our assumptions.
It is a fact little remarked that we seem unable to free the tongue of the dumb, to make the deaf hear and the blind see, let alone raise the dead . . . but is this mot perhaps because we have chosen the wrong story? For ten centuries Western culture has been dominated by the story of power over as the way to ‘make things right’ ‘to build the Kingdom of God’ if you will . . . but as the Catholic philosopher DC Schindler puts it ‘Pure power and utter powerlessness now converge into one, and man becomes the abject servant of his own limitless freedom, a passive object of active power: a slave of modern liberty’
We have so much power – and as we look out on the Creation – we are helpless
Of course, that is not the end, and as always we are offered another way – Follow Me says Jesus, who empties himself of all power, to reveal the Life of the Spirit. He comes to us in hiddenness, in words we may not wish to hear – he comes to us in a crumb . . . a crumb of bread – from where did this crumb fall? He comes to us in a crumb of bread and a sip of wine – he comes to us in powerlessness – and offers to share His Life
Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – Year B – 2018
Mark 7:1-8, [9-13] 14-15, 21-23
On Life and Tradition
‘If I were a rich man, Daidle deedle daidle daidle daidle deedle daidle dumb’
So some of us may have gone to see Fiddler on the Roof – you’ll excuse me I hope for my none attendance, but I was privileged many years ago now to see Chaim Topol on stage in Leeds reprise his performance from the film . . . suffis!
I guess, if you know the film version of the play of Joseph Stein’s 1971 book, you may perhaps expect that in the light of Jesus words, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” I might reprise the words of the song ‘Tradition!’, and say, ‘if only Tevye had listened to Jesus . . . but I’m not going to, for frankly that would be a cheap shot and an ignorant one – not least because the story is written through the filter of Modern assumptions about the nature of reality, and Modern assumptions tend that ‘Tradition is a bad thing – we must throw off the past’
[Whenever we read modern books or films about ‘The Past – which as LP Hartley reminds us, ‘is a foreign country – they do things differently there . . .’ we need to remember we read books or see films, and the books and films are usually written through our own cultures assumptions about what is good . . . and our culture is not shot through with a Christian vision of the nature of Life . . . but like those of us who wear glasses we usually forget we have them on . . .]
Instead, of ‘Tradition!’ – my song text from the play would be L’Chaim – the Wedding blessing – To Life! It is no coincidence that our Jewish forbears sing ‘To Life!’ for the God of Israel who is The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Commands us ‘To Life!’ His Command is a call To Life!, to Life from death, to Light from darkness. ‘You Must be born again!’ . . . yet it is a command we resist.
Last week I mentioned our grand daughter Naomi, and how she like any young baby doesn’t like having clothing pulled on over her head, because Birth was traumatic enough – she doesn’t want to be born again . . .
What is birth but the calling forth at God’s Creative Command ‘To life!’
The Command of God is always ‘L’Chaim! To Life!’
As we heard from Deuteronomy – ‘So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you.’ . . . give heed . . . so that you may LIVE! . . .
Which is why Jesus is So angry with the Pharisees – for “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” . . . Responding to the Loving Command of God which is to Life, you reject it . . . you reject Life!
And Again we reject part of the command – the text is again butchered . . . SIGH . . .
What we didn’t hear was Jesus’ example of this – not watching hands, but the following
Jesus said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘to him who speaks abusively to father or mother, let death put an end’
But you say that if a man says to father or mother, ‘Anything that might have been owed by me to you is qurban’ (that is, a consecrated offering)— then you no longer allow him to do anything for a father or mother. So you Make powerless the word of God why your tradition which you have handed down. And you do many other things of the same kind . . .’ [Following DBH translation]
Well this sounds strange to us, a little obscure, although the command to honour Father and Mother isn’t . . . so perhaps that’s why those who devise the lectionary excluded these words, but in reality they go right to the very heart of what Jesus is talking about
The Command of God is a Command to Life – this is why Jesus is angry with the Pharisees – they have Set aside the Command that gives life – and thus they have chosen the alternative to Life, to Existence . . . death, non existence
They have done this in two ways – firstly in not honouring Father and Mother they reject their own life!
What is your Life – where does ‘your life come from?’ Can a person truly cut themselves off from their whakapapa? . . . it is like the branch off a tree cchopping down the tree – honour your father and mother, honour your Life coming to you from God.
The Command of God is not as it were a set of obscure and arbitrary demands of a lazy and capricious deity – the Command of God is the Word which calls us into Life and Love, into Grace and Mercy and it is revealed in and amongst us. ‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.’ What does parentage, whakapapa tell us – how does it help us to understand and See God?
Why did Moses say ‘to him who speaks abusively to father or mother, let death put an end’ . . . well that’s not very loving!! But all that the law enacts is the choice you have made – not because of the law itself, but you have cut yourself off from life abusing your father and mother, abusing your own life . . . the source of your existence
And we know this – we know this as Christians for it is shown plain to us in the very centre of our faith – What do we see when we see Christ dead upon the Cross? We see the outcome of our rejection of God’s Word of Life. When the human rejects the Command of God, we die . . . there it is on the Cross . . .
Well this comes back again to what we have been considering over and again these past weeks and months – that is we direct our Lives, we Orient them towards God, Life Comes to us from God. And that flows out through us
Here is the second problem with the way the Pharisees conducted their affairs – in their turning from the life giving command of God which embodied in the person of their whakapapa, they then hoarded the life – like those Israelites who clung onto the manna – they ‘consecrated it’ – they told a story about why they couldn’t obey the common of God – they spoke a death sentence not only to themselves but to those around them
Repentance is that turning from non life, a life which denies its life and hoards – towards God in Christ who Is The Way of our Life, towards God, the Truth of our Life, as Children of God, and the very Life of our Life. A Life that enjoys all things but possess nothing knowing that it is given in order to flow through them.
James speaks of The seed of the word – which is planted. it is like a tender shoot, this life giving command of God – it must be nurtured – it needs to be placed each day in the light of the Sun and thus it grows to bear good fruit – the outflow of the heart.
What is that outflow? Again we have missing verses. Jesus tells us nothing going into us can make us unclean – it is what comes out – and he refers to what happens to food when it passes out of the body – but we perhaps are a little to sensitive to think about sewage . . . 🙂 And then speaks of the outflow of the heart – the heart which is not oriented to Light and life but to darkness and death, which does not give place to the Command L’Chaim, to Life, but which is directed towards itself and death
This Life comes to us from God – it is His command – it is embodied in our whakaapa – and James the brother of Jesus and Moses in Deuteronomy echo one another –
‘take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children . . .’
L’Chaim! To Life!
On the self, The Source and what is
Going down the rabbit hole
So a recent fb thread raised the old conundrum. There ‘you’ are thinking something, then ‘you’ observe ‘yourself’ thinking this thought, then ‘you’ become aware of ‘yourself’ observing . . . (well who??? ) thinking this thought, before ‘you’ wonder who is it that is aware of your awareness of observing ‘your’ thought . . . and then to spin that on its head – in what sense is it ‘you’ thinking the thought anyway??
So we chase the rabbit down the hole, in an ‘infinite regression’ [most unhelpful – see at end of piece] to . . .?
The Source . . . where does ‘it’ all come from – where do I come from? Who am I anyway?
The Source. The singularity. the place where everywhere is Here and everywhere in Now. The Eternal . . . ‘outside of time and space’ . . . except this is another problem of our language as Modern Physics is suggesting.
Take for example quantum entanglement. So a pair of tiny wee particles, twins, are separated at birth, and sent in ‘space’ ships to the opposite sides of ‘The Universe’ (clue in the name, btw . . .) where we invade the personal space of one of them, and tweak it to make it spin. Instantaneously and in perfect accord, its twin, an unimaginable distance away spins identically. Perfect synchronisation across any distance is given our perception of time and space impossible. For the action to be synchronous, and identical, they would have to be in the same place. Where everywhere is Here . . . and Everywhen in Now . . . so they must be . . . so . . .
“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
[BTW this is why evolutionary theory is now disintegrating into fractious communities, because 100+ years after the event biology is catching up with the physics . . .]
You shall love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your should and with all your mind and with all your strength . . . Love the Source (in whom everywhere is Here and everywhere is Now) . . . and (then) you shall love your neighbour . . . as yourself . . .
The Old wisdom said – ‘my life is with my brother’
. . . or ‘my spin is with my twin’ – apologies for this, but it tickles me 🙂
As The Old Prayer puts it
O heavenly King, The Comforter, Spirit of Truth
Who art everywhere present and fullest all things
Treasury of blessings and giver of Life
Come and abide in us, cleansing us of all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One
The First Christians were so excited, because The Source had found them . . .
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
[btw – 1. we now understand that everything is made of light 2. Big Bang Cosmology is the projection of our own existence onto ‘Reality’ . Everything moving further and further away from the Singularity – the Source – We See as we are.]
On why ‘Infinite Regression’ is ‘most unhelpful’
This is the hopelessly [lit.] abstract language of mathematics. it is most unhelpful as it posits an idea that we can conceptualise ‘infinity’, something which relates in more ways than one to nothing, and that ‘regression’ is a very negatively value laden idea in Modernity, especially Anglophone Modernity, where ‘you don’t want to go back to . . .’ is the usual knee jerk reaction to any questioning of the way things are . . .and ‘are going’ (more value laden language – also ‘Progress’ which is a ‘good thing’)
On the falsity of (modern) mathematics
What is six take away seven?
I have six apples – I take away seven apples – how many apples do I have . . .
‘errr . . .’
OK try this.
You have six apples
I take away the six apples
How many apples are there?
‘none of course’
No. there are still six apples – it is just that I have them and you do not. [See above on loving your neighbour as yourself . . .]
This is called the conservation of matter and it is the reason why there is no thing we can call nothing, or put another way ‘zero’ relates to no thing. It is abstract, unreal, yet modern mathematics don’t work without non existence, nor does modern science – which we allow to become our descriptors of reality . . . hence ‘we live in a meaningless universe . . .’ because its all based on ‘nothing’
This is why 6-6 is none sense [sic]
Sermon for 12 after Trinity – Year B 2018
Where do we live?
Earlier this week we had a curious and telling juxtaposition of readings at Morning Prayer. On the one hand there was a reading from 2 Samuel where David has it in mind to build a house for God, yet through a dream the LORD speaks to Nathan the prophet, telling him, briefly, not to be so presumptuous . . . Against this we read in Acts of the martyrdom of Stephen, and his speech which led to him being stoned to death. In which he recounts this very desire to build a house for God as the culmination of his indictment of God’s people.
He concludes with words inaccessible to David – those of the prophet Isaiah – “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?”
Did not my hand make all these things??
The image that comes to mind is that of a very small child receiving a lego set, and building a house for their parents to live in – but even a toddler would at some level understand that it was insufficient. David’s problem, and to a similar extent ours is – we have lost sight of where we live . . . It is not that God is too vast to live in any house we might build him, it is We who live in his house . . . we are as it were stranger, pilgrims, passing guests . . . yet you would not know. We treat it as if it is ours
If we understood that ‘The Earth is the LORD’s and all they that dwell therein’, would we have brought the house of the LORD, his creation, to the point of destruction. God provides a house for us, and we have trashed it. As we consider the growing climate chaos, with fear and trepidation, one note absent even from Christian discourse is the fear of the LORD – any deep sense that this is God’s house. The skies are my throne, the earth my footstool? What kind of house will You build for Me?? We are perhaps the AirBnB guests from the other place . . .
This failure to see where we are – to live out our lives in the light of this is our failure to Know God – manifested in our failure to Know who Jesus us – to recognise Him. As Isaiah goes on “But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.” To the one who hears and sees me – whose vision is filled with me. This is the heart of the message of repentance – ReOrient your gaze – look to God, for your life is a breath, it is all a gracious gift, and you dwell in his house
And all this comes to a focus in Jesus, and our seeing, or not seeing who he is.
As we have explored a little over the past few weeks, all of scripture is pointing in this direction and towards the person of Jesus. As John reminds us, Jesus invites us to see where He lives – the disciples follow him and ask, were are you staying, and he says, ‘Come and See’ – his first public act is precisely to do with where we live. Destroy this Temple and in three days I will rebuild it . . . they did not understand that he was talking of the Temple of his body . . . the skies are my throne, the earth is my footstool. Life itself flows from Him.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
He Is Life! He is the Centre of all things, in Him all things hold together.
So the Words of Scripture like those bicycle wheel spokes point us towards Christ Jesus. We gather hear to hear words which direct the gaze of our hearts, that we might See Him and Love Him. Then we feed on Him in bread and wine.
As the old dialect of my home county has it – in the beginning, there were nobbut God. Nothing.
But then God, out of Love, called into existence that which was not God. The Creation. A place where he would walk in the cool of the day, and share it with all that he had made. The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatsoever moves in the paths of the deep.
And then, in Love he bound Himself to this Creation. In Christ Jesus, through the obedience of Mary, God as it were wove himself into this Creation in Love. In Jesus the human and God share in Life together, and all who believe in Him, all who See Jesus for who he is are invited to share in the Life of God, a life manifested by the banquet Wisdom has spread.
When we come together to worship as those baptised into the Life of Jesus, God feeds us with His Life, the Life of his Son in bread and wine, and we come to live truly in His house.
So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me – God has built a house – the body of HIs Son, the Church, the body which fills all things, which rooted in the Earth yet touches heaven. the home of all the baptised
Yet God condescends – not only does he invite us to live in him, as revealed through the pregnancy of Mary, in great humility he lives in us.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me – and I in them.
Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’
The Judeans then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ In bread and wine. This is my body, given for you – this is my blood shed for me – come eat and drink. In bread and wine, the divine life of Jesus is woven into the Creation. this is what we call Sacrament – it is a participation of the things of the Creation in the things of the Creator
When by Grace we are born into the World, a gracious invitation is given us, it is True Hospitality. Everything is laid on. The Banquet is ready – a table is laid for guests whom God desires to make his friends. As the old cultures knew, to accept and invitation to eat together was to accept an invitation into the life of someone else.
The word hospitality in Greek actually carries the sense of making friends of strangers. through our blindness we were strangers to God – God in Christ, heals our blindness and sets a table for us, and wet by week we take up the invitation, to sit and eat with Him. To share in the life of our Divine Host
The question as always remains, will we accept the hospitality of the living God and feed on his Life in Jesus – or will we opt for self catering?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Sermon notes for Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Year B 2018
Work, Life, and Food
‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you’ – perhaps amongst the most challenging if not the most challenging words of Jesus . . .
Why? Well because they require us to completely change our economic order
it’s interesting that they come at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, as sermon about Economics – that is how we live together, and then Jesus gets down to ‘the bottom line’ Don’t fret about that stuff everyone else is absorbed in – like what you will eat and what you will wear and what you will drink – for your father in heaven knows you need all these things – rather seek His Kingdom and his righteousness – and these things will come to you.’
Orient your life towards God, and enter His economic order
it is perhaps no surprise that Christian faith so often collides with issues of money – or it should, for money is about the world economic order . . . and it is the order of Pharaoh, or of Caesar, or of the nation state, or big business – it doesn’t really matter when we speak of this – they are all one, in their way of running things, of ordering our economy, our way of living together, which is the way they proscribe for us, in which money and food and work are inextricably linked. And its all directed towards those in power.
[As an aside – this is no clearer than in Matthew and the conversation over taxes – Caesar’s image on the Money – the link between this and ‘the mark of the beast’ in Revelation is clear -without Money, without Caesar you don’t eat, and you eat on his terms]
Well you might think that our gospel today is a world away from all of that – in a sense it is, for the whole of Chapter 6 points us away from all that, to a different economy – one entered on and drawing its life form God in Christ Jesus – but the themes are the same.
As I said last week, Scripture is like a bicycle wheel – all spokes coming together, convening on God, in Jesus Christ. All of scripture is in all of Scripture, but the focus becomes clear in the gospels, where their focus is . . . well, focussed, and most especially in John’s gospel
Some think John ‘other worldly’ a spiritual gospel, but no. It draws together all of the themes of scripture as the spokes converge.
You may remember last week – how we saw the parallels between some old testament stories and what is played out on the shores of Galilee. How Jesus feeding the 5000 on the mountain was the manifestation of that meal of Moses and the elders with God on Mount Sinai
And the event? Well if we remember, John tells us ‘and the Passover of the Jews was near . . . the Passover is near. The Passover, when God set his people apart through the blood of the Passover lamb, and rescued them from the Economics of Pharaoh.
What were those economics? Well oddly enough they had come into being through on elf God’s people. Joseph. In time of plenty he ordered that part of the harvest be put into Pharaoh’s barns. Then in times of famine, Pharaoh graciously sold it back to them, to the extent that in the end, in order to work, they sold him their labour. No longer did the people labour for their own food needs directly, they worked for pharaoh on his projects and pharaoh then would give them money to buy food from him . . . As the French say ‘plus ça change . . .’
If you want to see examples of this in the world today consider those strains of GM wheat etc which are sterile. ‘Hey! come buy our seed! but don’t get any ideas about storing some for next year, because its modified to be sterile in its second year . . . but you can always come and buy some more, at the price we set . . .’
Or Something we have become so used to – 750ml of water . . . $2.50.
The Earth is the Lord’s says the psalmist, but you wouldn’t know it – and so accustomed have we become to this story – that we spiritualise our faith. We dream of another world – after we die. Seek God’s Kingdom – Try and live life here so you get to heaven at the end of it all . . . and if we think John’s gospel is spiritual, and not about the real world, then that merely reinforces that . . .
But you might say. where is Pharaoh, or his incarnation in John 6? John sets him before us as he tells the story – staring us in the face . . . as we heard last week . . . ‘Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.’
As we heard again this week – Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.
As Luke tells us ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea . . .’
Do you want know who was truly in charge in Galilee – why they even named the lake after him, and just a few years earlier, Herod Antipas had built a city in his name . . . Pharaoh Economics, Caesar Economics . . . are in full view here. They fill the imagination of the disciples
‘When Jesus looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, Jesus has one test and one alone – ‘do you see who I am? Do you Know me?? for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip [not knowing who Jesus was] answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’
Philip only knows the order of Pharaoh and Caesar – you work for money, and with money you buy food . . .
So in the centre of Caesar and Pharaoh economics, where ‘popular acclaim has built a city in the name of the one who supplies food, at a price, on the hill above the lake named after his honour – Jesus feeds the crowd . . . for free . . .
As i said, the scriptures are like spokes – directing us to this very point .. . where the word of the prophets come true
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
And so it came to pass – When they found Jesus on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. You just thought it was a miracle – you thought to make me your king by force because I fed you – you’ll make anyone king who feeds you – you’ll vote for anyone who will set the economy right – as long as your belly is full . . . you didn’t see that the food was pointing you to ME!!
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’
What is the food that endures for eternal life?? It is the very life of God himself – given to us in Jesus – for This we are called to labour – make every effort to enter in at the narrow gate, for broad and easy is the way that leads to destruction, to the end of life and many follow it, but hard and narrow is the way that leads to life and few they are that find it.
Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ What are they asking here – ‘How do we get bread??’ Work = Money = Bread
Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’
And it is a work – all of the Sciprutres testify to this – throughout God’s perplexity is expressed thus, after all I have done for you – why do you still live under the old economic order . . .?
God rescued his people from egypt – then for forty years they were applied to learning to believe in Him, to trust him – to seek His Kingdom and His righteousness – and yet as they went into the land of promise they forgot and soon looked around them at all they had and were saying – it is my work that has acquired all this for me . . . and so they were given into the hands of another pharaoh and another and another that they might learn . . .
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
Seek after him with all your heart and mind, and all these things will be given you as well – Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life – set you heart on Hgod in Jesus Christ – desire Him in through and above all things and he will satisfy you – but do not seek him because you want a full belly or an easy life – Pharaoh is happy to sell that to one or two so that the rest can imagine that that is the way – no – seek him for himself
What is the world? to believe in the one he has sent
We have oriented our worship towards God – let it not be an empty gesture. Let us desire God in through and above all things and together let us begin to live out of a different economic order where freely sharing all that God has given us is the natural order of things
in the name of the one who has come down from heaven, Jesus the bread of Life
Sermon notes for the eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Yr B 2018
Food and Life
House prices continue to say in Dunedin . . . a good sign? A healthy Economy?
Economy – a word the meaning of which has so changed that we might ask if it has completely reversed.
The health of the economy . . .
The Economic Trinity?? GDP?? No
Economy – Oikos-nomos – the law of the household – how we live together
(Econ Trin – the inner life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit)
Rising house prices a sign that how we live together is improving ???
We’ll return to this idea again and again in the coming weeks as we listen to John 6 – Jesus feeds the 5000 and what this means
What is it to live together??
Scripture is like a bicycle wheel – all the spokes necessary for it to hold together – all pointing towards the hub – God – manifested in Jesus Christ, the Anointed One . . .
So this event, this feeding has so very very many echoes in Scripture, for here we are so close to the hub of it all
Jesus comes up on the mountain – God’s people come to the mount of the LORD – as they had come before at Sinai
So the people of God met with the LORD in Sinai – following the first passover – and there’s an incident which man of us may not be aware of – Gen 24 ‘Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.
they ate and drank with God on the mountain . . .
But the OT is but a shadow of the new – for at Sinai it was just the elders – Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him – not just the leaders, not just the elite – now the people are coming up the mountain
This is the Salvation of God! being enacted – Salvation – Life!
And at the heart of that Salvation – at the heart of Life is food
Another word distorted – Company.
Economy – about how we live together becomes about Work and money, so to Company
What is Company??? Latin- Com Panis – Together with Bread
When you share bread together – when we sit together at table – we share Life . . .
Note last week – I spoke of how we oriented ourselves to the Sun, to Life
It is the Same with Food – it give us Life and it points us to Life
Something happens when we face the Light of Life
Something happens when we share food
One of the prime house price drivers in Western countries is simply this – more and more people live alone . . . our relationship with food is distorted in so many ways, but perhaps no more than the fact that we eat for fuel, often alone – when Food is for our shared existence – for it is Life Shared!!
Food is Life Shared
Most especially when it is the life of another . . . So the lamb of God comes up on the mountain
And we are back in other scriptures as Abraham had come up onto the mountain of Moriah
Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’
Behold the Lamb of God – upon the mountain . . .
Jesus takes the bread – blesses and breaks it, and it never runs out. Indeed it overflows! We come to this table – we sit and eat with God – and the overflow, the twelve baskets full, enough for each of the disciples, flows on out into the world
All things come from God – he invites us to His table to share in life with him – this is God’s Economy – Keeping Company with God
Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2018
The Faith of the Church
in an age of Personal Faith
At a recent forum, the following question was put to a panel of priests in the Anglican Church, ‘What is your faith?’ What struck me as odd, and which disturbs me all the more, the more I think of it is this, that no one seemed to think it an odd question to put. Indeed it may be that we don’t think it an odd question to put to a priest, indeed anyone baptised into the Church . . . after all, we all have our own personal faith. Some things we choose to believe and some we choose not to, and that is ‘my faith’
We live in an age dominated by the idea that we can choose. To be free to choose is the ‘supreme good’ which we have been trained to worship. The Supermarket with its array of over 150 types of cereals, represents the Cosmos to us, it is our Temple – it places Me the shopper at the very Centre of my own personal Universe of choice, wherein we cry Glory!
Choosing tells us who we are – ‘I choose therefore I am’, and this choosing reaches even unto the most personal matters of my life, indeed of my faith. We not only shop for cereal, we even shop for churches. Is the music to my taste? What of the style of the building? Comfortable chairs or ‘traditional pews’? Is the Vicar nice? Modern emotionally moving songs with a band and a good drummer, or meaningful hymns with a robed choir and aesthetic sensibilities. The choice is yours and as to what you believe . . . If of course your Personal faith includes church going. It may be that in your faith that isn’t necessary. And who is to argue with that! Faith is after all ‘just my opinion’ – Faith on the terms you set.
We live in the Age where ‘The Consumer is King’ failing to recognise that we think this precisely because we have been trained to think that way, that we are at the centre of things with power to choose . . . Yet, Life is not something we choose – it is a Gift, not least manifested in the fact that the very thing that makes us most truly who we are, our parentage, place time of birth . . . these are things we have no choice over – yet they truly make us who we are – something we had no choice over whatsoever. Life is a Gift We are Born into it – and that is the truth of Our Faith
The Israelites cried out in their slavery and oppression in Egypt – and their cry was heard by this strange God who came and rescued them and determined that they would be his people, they would be his children, He trained and taught them his ways . . . and so we must hear the words of Jesus ‘You did not choose me, I chose you, and appointed you to go and bear lasting fruit’ . . . Our Faith – Our Life is spoken to us by Jesus.
Nicodemus came to Jesus in the Dark. In the Dark about Jesus. He was if you like in the womb of Faith – He thought it was all about his understanding Jesus, about his capacity to grasp what Jesus was on about, but Jesus doesn’t clarify things for Nicodemus, rather he seems to confuse him . . .
it is hardly surprising that often coming upon the Church of Jesus Christ, people are confused . . . for it is not about us grasping faith, it is about Faith grasping us!
You Must be born again! Unless a man be born again he cannot See the Kingdom of God! And Nicodemus at least gets the point that this is something outside his control – ‘but how can a man be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
Jesus points him to the New Birth – the Work of God in Saving you from your own personal Egypt – , ‘you must be born from above, born of The Spirit’ The Wind blows wherever IT chooses . . . So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit, they didn’t choose . . . It isn’t down to you . . . The Wond blew towards YOU, and you were caught up in this Life, this Faith – – – and this is deeply troubling to us who are children of the age of choice and being at the Centre of things . . .
. . . and how much more troubling that none of the priests who were asked the question ‘What is your faith?’ answered ‘the faith into which I was baptised, the Faith to which I assented at my ordination, the Faith of the Church which confesses The One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit as he has made himself known to the Church, which is the Spirit breathed Body of His Son, Jesus Christ, and as set forth in the ecumenical creeds of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church in which by Grace and through no dessert of my own, I have been included’
A faith which displaces us from the centre, the faith in the God who reveals himself to Isaiah in the Temple – a revealed faith, given to us. A Sacred deposit – not to be tampered with according to our tastes or our moods and whims, according to the Spirit of the Age, but rather a faith which we are called upon to declare afresh to every generation, Faith in the One God, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
This is the faith of the Church – it is the Faith into which each one of us was baptised – it is what makes us The Church, that community not ‘stuck in the past’ as some would have it, or ‘chasing to keep up with the modern world’, but Like a Tree Rooted, by a Stream, not the stream of history, but the Living Water of Eternity. We are a people Rooted in the Eternal God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. This God is our Life. We exist through Him and for Him. We worship only Him. This is Our Faith, flowing down from the Apostles and prophets
The Faith of the Church – Yet still a Personal faith – just not how we think of personal – and a Personal God – just not how we think of Personal . . .
I remember when God finally got hold of me and that faith into which I had been baptised suddenly sprang to life, through no doing of my own . . . what I noticed was how unbidden the cry of my heart instantly became ‘Father!’ It was to be several years before I noticed what St Paul had written ‘When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God’
Since then that cry arising within me from where I do not know, has been at times a reminder of whose child I am, and at times when I have to my everlasting shame strayed from Him, its absence has been a sharp reminder of my true identity and my loss of direction. I remember once, stumbling terribly, the memory haunts me, and realising that that cry had fallen silent, yet in response to its absence, I cried with my own voice, but it wasn’t the same until finally being found once more and taken hold of by the Father
You see it is Personal, Deeply personal – it is an encounter with the Divine Three Personed God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To be baptised into the Faith is to be baptised into the very Life of God, and it is no light thing, and nothing we would choose! See! Behold the response of Isaiah in the Temp
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Who in their right minds would choose that!!
This is no carefully and comfortably, made to measure faith – we don’t get to make God up, which is to some a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
Why can’t I choose the god whom I serve? Why can’t I make up a creed which suits me? And of course the answer is that nothing is stopping you, and you may have a ready answer to that question, what is your faith? But this is not The One who makes himself known to us in and through Jesus, and His body, The Church
Our Creeds set out this three personned God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Every time we recite them we are reminding ourselves of The Personal Faith of The Church as carefully handed down form generation to Generation, the faith of the apostles and prophets, the Spirit breathed, Christ embodied Faith in God . . .
We all indeed may have difficulties with this faith – we are the people of God, and we are notorious for chafing at his gentle yoke, for grumbling that He doesn’t fit what we would look for in a god catalogue, but He is not a god amongst many, He is not the god of the cereal aisles – He is the One whose voice breaks the cedars;
even the cedars of Lebanon.
making Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
flashing forth flames of fire.
shaking the wilderness;
even the wilderness of Kadesh.
causing the oaks to whirl,
and stripping the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’ And all fall on their faces and worship
Our Faith, that is The Faith of the Church SHOULD disturb, for it is not about us. From time to time, perhaps even on a daily basis we will find one person or another of the Trinity troublesome to our prideful discrimination, failing to live up to what we look for in ‘a Modern god’. (conveniently forgetting that what is today Modern is tomorrow passé and out of date.)
As I have reflected on this myself, surprisingly I found that it was the Son, Jesus himself whom I find most difficult . . . I remember a priest once complaining that the words of Jesus ‘doesn’t sound like my Jesus’ and perhaps that is true of us all, that when God faces us in Jesus he doesn’t fit our agendas. That Jesus the social revolutionary, whose attitude towards women overturned so much, still ‘blind to the Patriarchy’ called us to baptise in the name of The Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . . Jesus troubles me still – many of his words I’d rather not hear .’loving your enemies, doing good to those who hate you’
We can’t let Jesus be who he is, and still have our own faith – that is why they killed him, they wanted a faith of their own making – happy to carve yet another golden calf . . .
but The God raised him up and so still He disturbs us – even now we have to stand before him as did Nicodemus in our Bewilderment, and either flee and decide on a faith of our own which will perish with us, or fall before Him as The Son whom the Father has sent into the World, not to condemn the World, but that the World might be saved through Him, freely giving the Spirit to raise us to all who call upon the Name of the Lord.
‘when they heard this, they were cut to the heart’ Acts 2:37
That wise old sage, GK Chesterton once observed, ‘it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, rather it is that has been found too hard and so not tried’
We tend to think he may be overstating it, but did not Jesus say ‘ ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’
Matt 7:13-14 Suffice to say the words of Jesus mean little to us in these days of our ease . . .
As we have explored through Lent and on through the season of Easter, the seasons of the Church year are given that we might follow Jesus. Not admire him from a distance, but follow him where he goes. When we hear sermons on this topic we tent to romanticise this and ignore the literal command of Jesus – ‘follow me’ – where I am going, you cannot now come, but you will come after.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost. Jesus has if you will, disappeared from the scene, taken from the sight of the disciples, but in strict obedience to him, they have waited in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit has been poured out on them.
As I said this morning, Pentecost is perhaps in Truth, the Easter of the Church. That is it is the Day when the people of God, following Jesus are raised from the dead. To use Paul’s language ‘you were once dead in your sins and trespasses, but God has made you alive in Christ’ Eph 2:1,5-6
So We might ask, what of us?? Why do we not see these things?? Perhaps the answer is that the Way of Jesus is too hard. For to know the Resurrection, one must have died and descended to the dead, as The Apostles Creed teaches us.
Jesus dies on the Cross – He tells us that we too must die to ourselves – he then visits Hell, and harrows it . . . but do we follow him there, or do we merely wait for Him to return?
One of the very few who have followed the hard and narrow way that leads to life, who have followed Christ into Hell, is the Russian Writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (Other examples I could name are also Russian, it is a hard land 🙂 ) Solzhenitsyn went to Hell and came to life as a Christian, quite literally
He was in his younger years an enthusiastic party member, a Communist, so when Hitler invaded his country, he joined up to ‘fight tyranny’, not realising that the tyranny he was fighting was more than mirrored by the bloody regime he fought for . . . always beware of ‘righteous causes’. The inexorable logic of the Marxists (copied by Capitalists . . .) sought to purge the state by killing the ‘class enemies’. Eventually, having killed the middle classes and the farmers who made a decent fist of things, the beast started to eat itself, and party members were accused and sent to the death camps, the Gulags. Slave camps where people were worked to death, in their tens of millions ( story of which most of us live in ignorance of ).
Of course Solzhenitsyn was at first shocked, after all, he had been a good party member and played by the rules – in his own eyes a good man and now being oppressed by the very system he had supported. He could easily slipped into resentment and hatred. Broad and easy is the way – after all, didn’t he have a right to be angry with ‘those people’? Instead he chose the hard and narrow way.
He undertook a fearless moral inventory. He went back over his entire life with a fine tooth comb, exposed everything to the light, and what he found there at first terrified him, but later became the source of his Wisdom. He realised that he was every bit as bad as those who had sent him there. He realised that radical evil flows not through particular people, it flowed through the veins of every human being. He had been in ignorance, supposing the troubles of the world were ‘those people’ – he found the very source of Hell was within himself.
Yet, thus exposed to the Light and the Truth of himself, he faced the Light, rather than fleeing it – he found a New Life, a previously unimaginable capacity. He could look even on the camp guards with Love and Compassion, for in them he saw himself as he had been. The one who looks with judgement on others, has either not known the truth of himself, or else has forgotten it, and lost that gift of Life
For one must NOT forget . . . One would think that Solzhenytsyn, having got out of the Gulag alive, in the fullest sense would have rejoiced to see the back of it – yet that isn’t his story. He carried it with him, again quite literally. For several years in the Gulag his bed had been a rough wooden cot made of old package cases – on leaving the Gulag he finally exposed the story of the Hell of ideological Marxism writing his famous work, the Gulag Archipelago. In several respects this book played a significant role in deromanticising the Left in the eyes of many in the West, and to the very end of Communism. He went to live in America and was much in demand as a speaker, giving a famous commencement address at Harvard University . . . yet the Gulag went with him. To the day he died, he slept in that same wooden cot. Its lesson was too precious to him. It was through Hell, that he had discovered Heaven. The cot a constant reminder of the Strange Gift of the Gulag
Solzhenitsyn had been resurrected. And it was no surprise that he became a Christian . . . for that is the path to becoming a Christian, it is to Know that Hell is not as Sartre puts it, ‘other people’, it is much closer than that – it is to realise that Hell lies within us – and turn in Hope to the healer, the one who has gone before and reveals the way out. It was as Carl Jung suggests, ‘that which you most truly desire is in the place you least want to go’
Of course, realising that which is within us may not lead to repentance and resurrection if we are turned in on ourselves, if we chose the path of bitterness and despair, rather than that of facing our truth. In the time between the death and Resurrection of Jesus, Judas chose that route, but Peter did not
And so having gone into Hell, it is the resurrected Peter who addresses the crowds on the Day of Pentecost and His bright Light illumined message opened wide his hearers who ‘were cut to the heart’ – the evil of their heart laid bare.
‘let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified’
The evil of their hearts was laid bare – subjected to the dazzling brilliance of Truth and Light. From the darkness of death they cried out ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ and Peter replied ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
Repent . . . ‘turn away from your wickedness – turn towards the Brilliant light which has exposed you, for it is the Burning Sun of the Love of God which forgives yes, even you, for He has forgiven Me! Take your place with St Paul who also knows himself to be ‘the chief of sinners’ – and you will receive the Life beyond all human hope – the Very Life of God himself – The Holy Spirit, the Life which death itself is powerless to contain.
Like the Gulag for Solzhenitsyn, the Resurrection of Pentecost is a Strange and disturbing gift. Tongues of flame – burning truth in preaching from these unlearned Galileans.
We are faced with a question we never thought of – ‘do you wish to be raised from the dead? Is the Truth something to be fled from in the sleep of death, or faced in all its burning and healing Light?
These Strange Gifts come to us in strange readings. This morning we heard of the vision of Ezekiel – of the valley of dry bones and the question of the LORD – ‘Son of Man, can these bones live?’ A vision of a people coming to life beyond all human hope – a people who were saying “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Would they want to . . .
Tonight we hear from the same prophet, the Word of the LORD – ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.’ It is that promise of Resurrection, for all those who have followed Jesus into the place where in human terms all hope is cut off, into Hell . . . we may well ask, why do we not see the promise of the Father? Is it because in truth we do not want to?
Is not this us? Beyond Hope? Perhaps we need to take Jesus at his word and follow him.
Seek the Light which exposes the heart – dare to face the Light and the Truth – and you shall be saved . . .
Awaiting The Resurrection of the people of God
At Easter, reflecting on the experience of the women at the tomb who ‘fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ we were reminded that the Resurrection of Jesus dismantles, shatters and devastates all our ways of understanding the world in which we believe we live. But we should be very careful of merely reflecting, of pondering and wondering, of casual day dreaming . . . before we, getting on with our lives, before getting back to what we have become accustomed to calling ‘the real world’, and move onto the next thing. Of course we are quick to dismiss the Resurrection of Jesus, to infantilize it into a vague wish for the future and ‘a better world’ for it calls into question nothing less than our very existence
Rather we need to sit with it, to Wait on this Word of life which was from the beginning – to ask, ‘what does this mean?’ – to allow it to do its work in us. This isn’t our work – it is God’s work and we must allow that space, or ignore the Resurrection, to our eternal loss. And we have been commanded to this waiting.
Last week we considered the Lord’s command to us, to Wait! To Wait for the promise of the Father – to stay put, until we were clothed with power from on high and in the Church Year we see what happens when we are thus obedient to the LORD – the Day of Pentecost – a Day equally marked by terror, amazement and bewilderment
‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’.
Only the most casual amongst us would pretend that we understand what this means . . . indeed if we dare face the Truth, we find ourselves not amongst the disciple community, but in and amongst the crowds. Even we who unthinkingly bear the name of Christ find this beyond our Knowledge . . .
We are in the crowds who see this disciple community, declaring the mighty acts of God, each of us hearing it without any need of translation, and with the crowd we ask ’What does this mean?’
Perhaps the greatest distortion of the Christian message is to transform it into something about ‘what happens when we die’. In a sense it is, but not in the sense we have comfortably taken into our lives. Treating out faith as a pass for a nice future ‘after this life’ causes us to dismiss it entirely – it is literally a ‘grave’ deception.
If we truly seek an answer to the question ‘what does this mean’? We must go with the disciples on the Emmaus Road, and allow the Risen Christ to ‘open [our] minds to understand the scriptures’. We by baptism the people of God, have been given the Scriptures that we might know what this means. How quick we are to turn to anything except the Scriptures to come us with an explanation for ‘these things that have happened’ Perhaps we find the question all but impossible to answer from the Scriptures, for they like these things that have happened are alien to ‘life in the real world’
Of course if we are to turn to the Scriptures, we must of course first recognise who we are, the people of God, baptised into His name. That apart form Him we can do nothing, that apart from what he reveals we know nothing. That the Scriptures are not just ‘another source of wisdom we can dwell on,’ but that they are God’s gift, they are our very life support. For the answer to the question, ‘what does this mean?’ is found in the Scriptures, over and over again.
We might say, well Peter explains from the prophet Joel . . . as we have heard so many times, and become accustomed to it, yet not questioned why this Pentecost outpouring is so alien to ‘our own lives’ – so perhaps another Scripture might wake us once more. And here we come to our OT reading from Ezekiel. ‘What does this mean’?
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ Before we respond from either naive acquaintance ‘Yes of Course!, or from the cave of ‘life in the real world’ ‘no’ – we ought to pause – If the strangeness of Easter and Pentecost has taught us anything, at the very least it ought to teach us humility in the face of existence – so perhaps in humility we may respond with the Son of Man – ‘O Lord God, you know.’
Why the dry bones? What are they? Who are they? ‘Son of Man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
We are cut off completely. We have been captivated, enthralled, literally been enslaved by the lives we have made for ourselves, lives which can only wither for their source is in themselves. They are not trees by streams drawing life from beyond them. Indeed perhaps in this age unlike no other we have lost sense of life beyond us which we may draw upon
Who are they? As we have pondered often, what do we see of the church in these days? Would we not also cry out “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”
It is of note that this reading is used in the Easter dawn vigil – as we wait on the resurrection of Jesus ‘early on the first day of the week’, for it concerns mot the resurrection f an individual, but that of a whole people . . . what is the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the King of God’s people the Jews, if it is not the Resurrection of the whole people?
They lie in the dust of death, through ‘ignorance and unbelief’ – choosing ‘life on their own terms’ they have not listened to the voice of the one who addresses them from heaven, that Life, and so they are dead. Dead in trespasses and sin.
‘But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive – together with Christ’
The disciples Wait – because they know they are dead in trespasses and sin. Dry bones do not live of their own accord – they must Wait!
There is a clue to this in what we have come to call Jesus’ restoration of Peter. Actually it is better to call it Jesus confronting Peter with his sin. Why is Peter distressed because jesus asked him the third times ‘do you love me?’ because Jesus is confronting him with his sin. Peter wants to forget, wants to think that it never happened, that he really can do it on his own, if only he is given a second chance. Jesus reveals to him that he cannot. It is the Word of Jesus to Peter – so he has nothing but the command of Jesus to rest on now, to Wait till Life comes ‘from above’, till he is norm again. That Life is the source of the tongues of flame, of the proclamation of the mighty acts of God, and of Peter’s boldness in preaching, in answering the question ‘what does this mean?’ because he himself has known what it is to be raised from the Dead. He has been there, and the Lord has lifted him up
This is the meaning of these things – the disciple community, knowing themselves to have no hope apart from Christ, knowing themselves to be dead in trespasses and sin, began the journey of obedience, Waiting for the promise of the Father, and God made them alive – together with Christ. Easter and Pentecost are one. Jesus the Obedient one is raised to life in triumph, so to his people – those who show themselves to be his people by Waiting on him
Here is the dilemma we face. A problem created by the Church year – which is a gift, but can be a hindrance. For if we are not careful, we will just move on, in part we will listen to the voice which sees the Apostles clothes in power and subtly suggests, ‘move along, nothing to see here. this is nothing to do with you . . .’
But if we are the people of God, then it is EVERYTHING to do with us.
Maybe it is precisely because this Day of Pentecost is such a day marked by terror, amazement and bewilderment, demolishing our impoverished way of understanding, that we move so swiftly on . . .
May we be a people who WAIT. Wait like Lazarus for that voice that calls us from beyond ourselves and our the live we have made for ourselves, that calls us out of the illusion we have come to call ‘The Real World’, which is never more than our vain imaginings . . May we be a people who Know that apart from that Word we can do nothing. May we like Peter Know our condition and wait for the voice until it summons us forth until it Raises us.
The Voice of Jesus to Lazarus is also the voice of Jesus to all those called by His name in this day. A Loud Voice crying out to us from beyond the grave, the sleep of death which is the life we have made for ourselves, summoning us to something beyond our understanding, a world where Christ is all and is in all.
Sermon for Evensong – Sunday March 18th, 2017
‘Harden not your hearts’
As today is Passion Sunday, it is worth reminding ourselves of some words of Jesus from the cross – ‘Father, forgive them, for they now not what they do’, a saying which is echoed in our confession, ‘we have sinned in ignorance’. The reality is that we have very little idea about anything. The world is complex and subtle far beyond our imaginings. The people we live amongst, even those we think we know well, are profound mysteries to us. Not one of us has the remotest inkling what it is like to be another person, let alone a tree, or a dog, or a stone. We are phenomenally ignorant, which goes some way to explain the state of the world we inhabit – the metaphor ‘bull in a china chop’ always seems appropriate as we consider the Creation and our place in it. Strangely in an age when in a sense human knowledge has expanded hugely, it is as if this has got worse not better. The illusion that ‘we know better nowadays’ is not born out in the world as it is. Modern humans are more out of balance with the Creation than in any age in history. We know very little of what seems to matter to our very existence.
This is why the Scriptures are full of warnings. A very few, like the commandments, are explicit and clear – murdering or committing adultery, lying or failing to rest – live like this and things will turn out bad for you. But most of life is complicated beyond our capacity to comprehend, and so the Scriptures weave their deeper warnings into story – for in a sense that is precisely what we live in, Story. Reading the human story in Scripture teaches us who we are and where we are and how we should then live.
One example of these warnings is ‘beware of those things which ‘look pleasant to the eye’’ – or ‘you are not very good at judging what is good and what is not!, so learn a deeper discrimination’
So Eve ‘seeing that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, took of its fruit and ate’ . . . She saw, she grasped and she would not let go . . . and it did not turn out well
Again there is a moment in the story of Abraham where his herdsmen are falling out with the herdsmen of his nephew Lot and so they separate and Abraham gives Lot the choice of where to go – ‘Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastwards’ Despite finding himself in a short space of time in a war zone in which he and his family are taken captive and require to be rescued by Abraham, he continues to ‘sojourn in Sodom’ He sees, he grasps, and he won’t let go, and at the last when Sodom is destroyed, Lot’s wife cannot let go of this Dark place and is turned to a pillar of Salt.
Warning – beware of your ability to see well – do not grasp – choose wisely – and learn to let things go . . .
Well this evening’s Old Testament reading carries a serious warning to the one who listens, ‘who listen to the voice of the LORD’ Ps 95:8 What is the story trying to tell us, if we have ears to hear.
Pharaoh is in his own eyes ‘Lord of all he surveys’ – it is all HIs – he Possesses it and that includes the Israelites whom he has enslaved – they are his property. So when Moses and Aaron come before him with a request to ‘let go of the thing he has grasped’ he dismisses them. He will not let go and through the ensuing plagues of which we heard a little, earlier, he grasps tighter and tighter.
As the story tells us – ‘he hardened his heart’ – and Here is a very severe warning here.
If we are alert to the narrative as it goes on, repeatedly we hear ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened . . .’ It is strange that often people will not let go of something which is harming them – and the greater the harm the more we might hold on . . . it may only be a small thing – a harboured resentment perhaps, but we can all too easily cling to such a thing and its power for evil grows and grows. This is one manifestation of what the scriptures call ‘the demonic’, for all to often such things literally take on a life of their own. They become ‘the desire of our heart’
Indeed we may be able to trace something of it within our own hearts. Bitterness, greed, resentment, deception, a grudge . . . these things which we think we control, have control of us – or to use a much maligned word, Sin reigns . . . and like grasping things – it doesn’t lead us to a good place. We’ll return to Sin in a few moments, but first we need to unpack the Dire warning in the story of Pharaoh which is this
As we follow the narrative through the gradually increasing plagues we read over and over ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ but towards the end there is a terrifying change. First we read that Pharaoh hardened his [own] heart. That is it became conscious for him – to put it in the explicit and terrifyingly accurate vernacular, he says in his heart ‘I’ll be damned if I let them go . . .’
We might say that at this point, what was unconscious, knowing not what he did, became a conscious decision. After the next plague we read ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ In other words there is nothing he can now do to reverse things, his heart is ‘set as stone’ . . . and so to the denouement in Genesis 9:12 – following the plague of boils – ‘But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . .’ God gives us the true desire of our heart . . . the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . . Pharaoh will not let go and goes deeper into corruption until it is revealed that that is what he truly wants and seals the wish of Pharaoh’s heart This is one of the most terrifying verses in the Scripture . . .
As Dante sees the souls bound for perdition he sees that they curse God – no longer might they cry for mercy for they are intractably bound to that which they will not let go. It has become for them a consuming passion and leads only to death . . . and the LORD hardens their hearts. Or as CS Lewis puts it – ‘Hell is locked on the inside . . .’
So Pharaoh in all his wealth and power is set before us as a grave warning . . . What is the remedy?
BUT GOD . . . As we read in St Paul’s letter to the Romans – a remedy for Sin has been provided, in that God in Jesus, While we were yet ‘dead in sins and trespasses’ died for us . . . Paul goes on to explain how though through one man, Adam, Sin entered the world, by the death of one Man, Jesus Christ, Grace, forgiveness and righteousness abounded to many. Miracle of miracles – that which brought death to us, Sin, is overturned and Death becomes the Gate of Life . . .
So, then we might say – why worry about the story of Pharaoh? ‘if it all turns out right in the end’? This was what Paul was accused of preaching ‘What shall we say then? Shall we continue in Sin that Grace may abound? By No Means! How shall we who have died to Sin live any longer in it . . .
This is the clear teaching of Jesus. in John’s gospel, twice Jesus heals and forgives and then warns the person – ‘leave your life of Sin’ – or ‘stop sining or something worse will happen to you . . .’
It is a very false reading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – to say that because Jesus died, the overwhelming love of God is revealed – and so sin no longer matters . . . but this is a fools paradise. One moments reflection on the Hell of so much of the world, and perhaps the Hell of our own hearts reveals that this is not so. Sin, like the bull in the China shop, does untold, often irreparable damage. Rather we look to what it cost God in Christ to save us from our Sin, to save us from ourselves and we resolutely set out, in the power of God’s Holy Spirit, strengthening, encouraging ud, driving us forward, Comforting us in the true sense – no longer to live in Sin. We do not look back. We let go.
This failure to respond to the Saving Love of God is laid out for us in the Old Testament as well as the new. God in his Love and Mercy for Israel, rescues them from slavery in Egypt. From wretchedness and Hell – and brings them out into the wilderness that there they might learn of Life – rather like young children – having to learn that which leads to life and that which does not. ‘Eat Well!’ ‘Don’t put your hand in the fire!’ ‘Seek the Good everywhere and always,!’ ‘Shun that which is evil . . . ‘but they, although they had been the recipients of such a great Salvation, such a rescue, start to whine and complain and also harden their hearts and so do not enter the promised land . . . St Paul says ‘all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition upon whom the end of the ages has come’
So the psalmist having given glory to God – ‘Come let us sing unto the Lord . . . ‘ goes on
O that today you would listen to his voice!
Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.’
Therefore in my anger I swore,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’
Today – Hear his voice – harden not your hearts – for God in Christ approaches his Passion – to die for the Sin of the World, to bear its consequences, that Grace may abound.
Let us not neglect so great a salvation – rather let us set our hearts and minds on God’s Goodness revealed, reach out to take hold of THAT – and let go of al that would hinder us
Sermon for Advent 3 – Year B – 2017
1 Thessalonians 5:12-24
‘Where are you from?’ This is a question which most of us are asked at one time or another, not least if you have a ‘foreign’ accent! The other day Sarah and I were in a local shop and the owner, who was obviously English asked us this question and we took great delight in replying ‘Roslyn’ 🙂
Of course it is in a sense a not entirely truthful answer, perhaps we ought to have said, from England, but then the more you think about it, the more we realise that ‘where are you from?’ is a very deep question – a question that ought to give us pause. Like the polite enquiry, ‘how are you?’, it requires a deeper more significant answer than we often give it . . .
Of course in a sense here in New Zealand we might be aware of a sense that there is a deeper answer, for Tangata Whenua introduce themselves in deep terms of who they are in terms of where they come from, my mountain, my river, my waka, my iwi, my whanau – a sense of ‘coming from’ or having our roots in a much bigger story than ‘where I live at the moment’, a sense of coming out from a river of human history that has a source in the deep past – a way of self understanding that is almost diametrically opposed to our Modern way of understanding, where a little like the Prodigal Son our roots are something we put little store by, where we come from is a place we are trying to get away from, to forget our Home, our Source – trying to ‘make a life for ourselves . . .’ Where are you from?
Advent, a season of preparation to receive one who is coming to us – but from Where . . . ?
When Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, who is growing increasingly panicked by the crowd but also by the silence of this Galilean prophet, he asks in his anxiety, ‘Where are you from?’ It is as if he sees something in Jesus which suggests that Jesus is ‘not from around here’ . . . and so it is with the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord whom we remember on this 3rd Sunday of the season. John, John the Baptist we are introduced to him as one sent ahead . . . but from where??
Mark in his gospel, a gospel which as Bishop Steven said last week is abrupt – it pulls us up – it lacks the niceties of the other gospels – Mark introduces John thus ‘John . . . appeared in the wilderness . . .’ Just like that! It’s as if he just pops into existence – where are you from John?
But our own John, the Evangelist gives us an answer to that question ‘There was a man, sent from God, whose name was John . . .’ This question, where are you from which is so significant to our identity is one which John answers unequivocally for his namesake – John the Forerunner is ‘sent from God’ He comes from God
A couple of weeks ago I asked if we realised where we were? If we had a sense of our place in the Creation – how we fitted in – how our existence was woven into the life of the trees and the birds. Certainly on the whole, to be a Modern person is to have lost that sense. Just in the way we move around so freely, the very idea of Home is one which is disappearing from our senses. Home of course is one way of answering the question ‘Where are you from?’ – but where is Home?
Jesus comes to ‘bring us home’ To bring us to our sense, to reveal to us who we really are, and John who bears witness to Jesus, like Jesus comes from God. John isn’t sent ‘by’ God, he is sent ‘from God’
This reminds me so strongly of a story I told just a few weeks ago of an elderly lady who was dying and who was asked by her doctor, ‘where are you from?’ To which she replied without a moments hesitation ‘From God’ – and being baptised and knowing her faith well she might have used the words which described Jesus, ‘knowing that he had come from God and was going back to God.
The ministry of John the baptist is marked by a remarkable freedom – he wears strange clothes, he eats strange food, he lives in strange places. When asked who he is, He proclaims without fear that he is ‘just’ the voice of one who cries in the wilderness – or put another way, he is the mouthpiece of God himself – that the Life in Him is the very Life of God bearing witness to that Life coming into the world in Jesus Christ – a Life that comes from somewhere else – Where are you from??
We can ourselves only bear witness to that Life of Jesus, to the Good News, if we ourselves have that same life in us, or put another way, if we know from where we have come from. If like the old lady we know we have come from God and are going to God – if our Life suggests we are from somewhere else . . . to know as Jesus says that we have been ‘born from above’
As we shall hear once more this coming week – to whoever believed in his name Jesus gives the power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. . . .
To be Christian is not as the wider world puts it, to belong to a certain religious group – no, it is to be one who has been brought home, to know who we are, and where we are and where we are from, to where we are going – it is to hear the words of Scripture as God our Father speaking to us, and to know his life flowing through us – it is to know that in this sacrament of the Eucharist, God feeds us with His Life in Christ
Home – a place of rich stories, a place of wonderful meals, a place buried deep in our human memory. As this season of the year awakens so very many memories, may we Know deep within ourselves the answer to the question . . .
Where are you from?
And so, ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.’
‘The Temple in the Gospel according to St John’
‘Who is St John (the Evangelist)?’
Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, Year C, 2019
“[The Father] has delivered us from the power of the darkness and translated us into the Kingdom of his love’s Son. In whom we have the price of liberation, the forgiveness of sins.” Col 1:13-14 (DBH)
’Who is going to take responsibility for this?’
When we consider what it means to be human, in all its glory and its shame; when we consider our human condition, there is perhaps one thing that we need above all else. This need is hidden from our eyes by Pride – thus making it perhaps the most deadly of sins, for it hides from us our greatest need – our need for Mercy.
We live in a Creation of glorious and bewildering complexity. And we live amongst human beings, every one of whom is a mystery to themselves yet alone others as we share in relationships with one another.
I was with a friend this week who told me that he had recently lost a friend ‘and I have no idea what it was that I did or said’. I spoke to a young girl who was 5 and a half and we seemed to be getting on great together until I told her with a smile that she was very grown up for 5 and a half, and she burst into tears, and neither I nor her parents had a clue what it was about! Lord have mercy
We like to reduce the world to a scale and a simplicity that we can simply navigate and get it right. Sometimes we’re bold enough to call this ‘Christian ethics’. ‘Do the right thing!’ we say,is far from clear and then when it seems it is clear often turns out to have unwanted consequences we hadn’t seen.
Ironically we see most clearly when we ‘see’ that we don’t see clearly
I once went to a seminar on how Christian Ethics was taught in some of our Anglican high schools. During this we were set an ethical dilemma.
There is a train coming down a track. Ahead there is a junction, and you’re stood by the lever and can divert the train. If you do nothing, the train will plough into a crowd of rail workers that haven’t seen or heard it, if you divert the train it will run into a young child playing on the line . . . what do you do??
What a choice! A ‘simple choice’, yet unclear. Yet life’s choices, life itself isn’t at all like that – rather negotiating life is more like being stood at the control box of a million and one railway lines with fast trains moving here there and everywhere . . . if the beat of the wing of a hummingbird causes a hurricane over the Atlantic, what are the consequences of the many many tiny actions we take every day??
This I think is why we take refuge in reducing the world to simple moral codes, our own rules of life . . . to reduce our sense of responsibility. If only everyone was like me we think . . . Lord have mercy
The Pharisee, full of Pride, is blind to his need. The Tax-collector, the notorious sinner, knows it all too well. ‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner’
As I have said on several occasions, Luke makes a beautiful tapestry of threads woven throughout his gospel, and now, as we come to the Cross, one in particular, Mercy, floods into view
Mercy, of which Mary Sang in the beginning “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”, “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,” It’s there too in the Song of Zechariah “He has shown mercy promise dot our forefather, and has remembered his holy covenant”; “by the tender Mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us” The Tender mercy of our God . . . isn’t that beautiful?
These songs look out towards the coming of God in Jesus, and His Mercy
We have the tax-collector, and the blind man who call to God for mercy – and then there is the Good Samaritan.
Jesus tells this tale in respect of the lawyers question, ‘who is my neighbour’. When Jesus has finished the tale, he asks the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour’ and the lawyer answered him ‘the one who showed him mercy’.
Showing mercy makes you a neighbour. Loving your neighbour as yourself – you and every person you encounter is in need of mercy everyday of your lives, we all are.
By showing mercy we share in Life Together. And there is mutual recognition “I need mercy, you need mercy – “Hey! We’re related!!””
We recognise our common human condition, we recognise ourselves in the other in this common need for mercy.
But the Samaritan is more than just someone who recognises the person in need as his own flesh and blood, in many ways he is a revelation of Jesus himself – for he takes responsibility for the man in the ditch. He shows him mercy.
He binds up his wounds, he takes him to the inn and promises to pay all that is needed for the man’s healing. And this is called ‘showing mercy’
We’re in a mess, we need someone to heal us, to show us mercy, to take responsibility for our condition, and we’re surrounded by others ‘under the same condemnation’ and we rightly for we have conspired with the world and its allure, and we’re in trouble . . . which is why we come finally in Luke’s gospel ‘to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”’
They know not what they do . . . as we say in our confession, ‘we have sinned in ignorance’ – we have no idea of the consequences of our actions . . . ‘I never thought that would happen!’ I never thought the girl would cry – I never thought my friend would leave . . . What’s going on/ Lord have mercy.
When they first found oil and started burning it in engines, no one thought, ‘this will lead to catastrophic over heating of the earth’ . . . Lord have mercy
We don’t see. Some of the Pharisees near Jesus heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yes, the time comes, that whoever kills you will think that he does God service. Those who crucified Jesus thought they were doing God’s work – they thought they could see . . .
Physicists will tell you, if you ask, 69% of the Universe is made up of dark matter, 27% of dark energy . . . 96% of everything you cannot see! And yet we are so free with our opinions and judgements and and and . . . Lord have mercy
We don’t know, we don’t see! Jesus says this – you think you see the sin of others, but you have a log in your eye! . . . We judge and condemn others – we do not see ourselves sin them – we don’t see ourselves in need of mercy like them. It is this stance that is the thief who like everyone else rails against Jesus.
They thought they could see, so everyone rails against Jesus. The leaders of the people, the soldiers, and one of the criminals crucified with him! – If you are the Christ, Save yourself. He saved others, he cannot save himself, save yourself and us. Even one who was in the same place as Jesus, could not see . . .
Save yourself!! That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? The survival instinct? . . . Judging others is our way of trying to get out of the ditch. ’I’m not responsible’.
Yet as we explored last week, Jesus told his disciples to prepare their hearts so as not to defend themselves against the accusations but to bear witness to God in the words he would give them . . . so Jesus does not Save himself – he does not defend himself. By the Spirit he bears witness to God. Father forgive them for they know not what they do . . . the Tender mercy of our God . . .
Showing mercy is not about saving yourself, it is about spending yourself, it is about spending your dignity and pride, and forgiving the unforgivable, for we see and recognise our common humanity . . . And it is thus that the other thief on the cross speaks the truth.’ ‘Don’t you see? We’re under the same condemnation, you and I and this man, and we rightly, we’re in a mess of our own making – but this man has done nothing amiss. He sees Jesus with mercy, and so becomes his neighbour ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’
We don’t identify with Jesus to signal our righteousness, we identify with Jesus because we are in a mess, we need mercy – and he then recognises us. He knows us in that moment. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me
Jesus does not judge but has mercy – he takes responsibility – he suffers the consequences of our sins committed in weakness or deliberate fault, but mainly in ignorance for we do not see . . . and like the Samaritan he pays in full what is needed for our healing.
He takes responsibility – he shows mercy to the one in distress – Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner – and so becomes a neighbour to the one in distress. Becomes Our neighbour.
We Often talk of the birth of Jesus as God coming to share our humanity – but the truth is, it is on the cross that Jesus takes on our humanity fully. He takes it on in its entirety – he takes it to the houses of healing – he shows us his mercy . . . ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’
Go and do likewise
Sermon for Trinity 21 Year C 2019
2 Thess 2:1-5,13-17
‘On (not) paying attention’
Psalm 90 – a prayer of Moses
Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
[therefore] teach us to number our days, that we might acquire a heart of wisdom . . .
There is perhaps no more important virtue, than that of paying attention. It is such a rare thing that when we discover someone who pays attention to us, it is a precious gift. The gift of being present to, attentive to, and listening to another – discerning their hearts movements from careful and patient attention – is almost, like wisdom itself, as precious as rubies. In this age most definitely we might cry out ‘Attention, where is it to be found?’
We think of those modern conditions, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder, and Attention Deficit Disorder – two sides of the same thing. We are so distracted by many things, that we cannot give our attention fully to others, and they in their turn will do anything to get attention.
It is sobering to think, as one writer puts it, that many of the best minds of this age are giving their time and energy to ways in which their employers might grab your attention . . . Perhaps we might say steal it, for Attention is in your gift. And it is a most precious gift, for where you spend that gift is where you spend your life. We spend our very few days in giving attention – and in these days everything it seems is clamouring for it . . . and so our life is frittered away.
I am sure that I am not unique in fighting against my phones habit of drawing my attention. I have to discipline myself, not always successfully, against turning to look for the news when I first rise in the morning. Is this how I am going to spend my days? Is reading the news the fruit of a wise heart? When I look back, can I say I wish I’d given more attention to the news?
Teach us to number our days . . . if we realised how fleeting are our days, if we attended to the very gift of Life with which we had been entrusted for a season . . . to what would we give our attention? Are we paying attention to our lives?
Or indeed the lives of those around us? Do we give this gift of Attention to others? One of the markers of the deep disorder of our lives that I hear all too frequently from folk ‘I like to hear about people’s lives at their funerals’ . . . Actually, as I am all too often trying gently to remind folk, we never truly hear anything about a person’s life on such occasions.
Life, this gift of Presence – of Being with others – Relationship is what makes a life. People paying attention to one another. A Life cannot be spoken in absence. As anyone who has ever loved another human being knows, you cannot attend to their being when they are dead. Much of grief, I believe is to do with this sense of ‘there was so much I missed!’ You know I spent so many days and hours and months and years in the presence of this person and paid so little attention, to them. Perhaps we were caught up working on something, or we talked about this or that or the other, but paying attention to this Life that was present, and now is gone.
Paying attention is the Root of Wisdom – it is the source of Life itself. Not least because our Life is the fruit of God’s attention to us
And paying attention is another of those thread which keeps recurring in Luke’s gospel . . . from the parable of the sower, where we read of those from whom the Word is snatched away, to those where the Word is choked by the pleasures and cares, those attention thieves of Life . . . it is only those who by careful attending to their lives tend the seed of the word of life – who bring forth a harvest . . . or again the man who sees his corps have done well and not paying attention to the shortness of his days builds bigger barns . . . and his life is demanded of him.
I mentioned the deep sadness of hearing of those who do not know people when they are alive . . . another aspect of the same thing is those who as it were put off the attention to the future, only to find their life demanded of them. I think in my own family of those who died before a retirement for which there were so many plans . . . trips, holidays, barns . . .
Of course just being Christian doesn’t keep you from such distractions, such dreaming. Religious life has its own traps, its thieves of attention . . . There are religious controversies, and the Lord knows how easily our attention is consumed by those.
So St Paul warns the Thessalonians church ‘As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.
They’re getting caught up in this stuff – running around like headless chickens.
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? ‘Weren’t you paying attention to what you were taught?’ he berates them. Are we paying attention to what we are taught?
‘Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels’ 2 Timothy 2:23 The body of Christ, the Church – broken over stupid and senseless controversies . . . and no one seems to notice – no one is paying attention to Life, to the Life of Jesus, Jesus our Life
Jesus who teaches us to pray and not give up – Prayer is returning God’s attention of us to Him – giving our attention to God. He uses a parable the meaning of which we might miss, so tuned are we to the word justice. He tells them that even the unjust judge gives justice . . . so do not doubt that God will give you justice, but will there be faith? Will there be lives directed towards God in prayer – Lives from God? To what are we attending? Issues? Or God?? Perhaps this is what is behind Jesus’ warning – note the personal nature of this warning. Jesus is speaking ‘pay attention’ On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not do all this stuff in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
The purpose of the teaching of the church is to focus our minds and hearts on the Life that is in Jesus . . . And so Jesus’ opponents come to him, trying to trap him in his words – first the taxes question . . . there’s a controversial one . . . the Brexit of its day – do you pay taxes to Caesar, or not – in the Roman Empire or out? But the questioners haven’t paid attention to their own existence – give the image of Caesar to Caesar – but whose image do you bear? To whom do you belong? Your Life is the fruit of God’s Attention – pay attention to your Source. Don’t get cut off from Life – distracted by many things
Then what seems a clever question about marriage from the Saducees who say there is no resurrection . . . There is a deep irony of this story. Those who would deny the Resurrection have to use a story with no life in it. This pattern of a woman marrying the brothers if her husband died without an heir, Levirate marriage, focussed on marriage as the source of Life. The fruit of the Blessing of marriage – children.
But over and again fruitless marriages, seven times over – no Life. 7 deaths, no Life springing up. The argument against Resurrection Life is framed in a story which does not see Life as life but a repetitive story of death . . . a story told in the presence of the one who is Life, Jesus himself.
Finally, not paying attention to our lives, as coming to us moment by moment from God himself, we learn to make lives for ourselves. This is what it is to take the place of God.
Listen once more to those words of St Paul – The man of lawlessness opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.
We take the place of God in the Temple of God – the Creation . . . and Life departs. For the Human cannot sustain the Earth, he cannot uphold all things by the word of his power. I will not go into the myriad details of climate collapse, of the extinction of living things . . . the helpless human seeking to order the creation as he sees fit . . . apart from God there is no life
The fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living;
And we have a choice – it is a choice of attention – to attend to God and Life, or not
for to him all of them are alive.’
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, – If you give your attention to me – then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away – and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them – you give your attention elsewhere – I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life – attend to me – so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. – Those who are alive before me.
In the midst of Job’s afflictions it is his constant attention to God which gives him Hope. In the midst of death, he cries out
‘O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock for ever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
May we attend – may we too Know our Life in God
Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Trinity, Year C, 2019
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
‘The Inheritance of a Living Faith’
“yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:8
These words of Jesus seem to resonate with us in this day, in a way that perhaps they didn’t in the past. In our earlier years for example, when churches seemed so much more full.
We are all aware of declining numbers across churches in the Western world (although less aware of dramatic growth in other places), and of course the growth of the ‘Nones’, those whom when asked express no religious affiliation. So perhaps we might also ask with Jesus, ‘will the Son of Man find faith when he comes?’
Which of course begs a question – what is meant by ‘Faith’? What is it that Jesus looks for upon his return? It is here that St Paul’s second letter to Timothy suggests to us something which we may not have well understood regarding the nature of faith.
This letter is without doubt the most personal of Paul’s writings as he seeks to advise his young friend from what we assume is a prison cell, where he tells us his life is now being poured out . . . Paul sees the end of his life approaching, and looking around he is deeply concerned about how things are going in the infant church. He seeks to strengthen Timothy for what he is sure will be an arduous ministry, we assume in Ephesus. Yet as I said, it is deeply personal and herein we also discover something about the nature of faith.
Paul for example dresses Timothy as ‘my true child in the faith’, and that intergenerational theme is further made explicit in the opening verses of the epistle where Paul recounts how Timothy has come to inherit faith, wherein he writes
I am grateful to God—whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did—when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.
A faith that lives . . . From Paul speaking of Timothy as his child in the faith, to the passing of faith from Grandmother to mother to Timothy himself, Paul speaks of faith in a way that is perhaps alien to us . . .
Recently I was mulling over the question of how we teach the faith . . . it wasn’t long before I realised that we had become captive to a way of speaking of faith which had been stripped of this living personal aspect.
So I have heard more times than I wish to recount or recall of ‘learning styles’ – e.g. ‘some of us are visual learners and some learn better from a book . . .’. Notice what has gone missing, the teacher, the one who is passing on the faith. And assumed there is in some large part a faith that has been stripped of its Life, reached to a set of facts which it was necessary to recall and recount, as if they could exist as it were ‘in the cloud’ out there, apart from human beings . . . and yet Paul does not speak in those terms at all.
In his letter to the Galatians at one point he cries out in desperation ‘My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you . . .’
The handing on of Faith is understood far more as it were in terms of the passing on of life – the parallel is generative birth. As Paul addresses Timothy he sees at once that Timothy has received the Life of faith from him and also from his maternal parental line – From Lois to Eunice to Timothy
In our reading today, we may well be aware of verse 16 of the 3rd chapter of this letter – ‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ , but taking it out of context, unplugs it from the Life of faith. We might know that verse off by heart, we may have memorised much scripture, but without Life, it is nothing. It can be no more than a dead letter . . . yet that is not how Paul presents this word. we began at verse 14 wherein he says ‘as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ knowing from whom you learned it . . .
The ‘from whom’ is not irrelevant in Paul’s eyes. It does matter! The Who was it who passed the faith to you . . .
Paul in prison remembers Timothy, he remembers his tears – perhaps the tears of those elders of the Ephesian church knowing they would not see him again. And he exhorts Timothy as he recalls his faith to call to mind those from whom he learned it . . . there lives were lives of faith. Lives of faith. Paul, Lois, Eunice – people for whom Faith was their beating heart, the core of their existence, and thus it is perhaps not too much to say, those from whom it was truly Natural for this faith to pass on to the next generation along with their genes and their habits and everything else that made them up – for it was their faith that made them most fully and truly alive . . . A Living faith -inseperable from its carrier . . .
From generation, to generation . . . and then it wasn’t . . . I remember in my early childhood, busses full of children for the annual Sunday School outing, and perhaps I am not alone in such a memory – and indeed I know that there are more than a few amongst us who knew that, but have not seen faith handed down through the generations . . . I remember the first echoes of this in 1979, visiting bishops from Africa coming to the Lambeth conference asking the question of us in England ‘where are your children’ . . . and yet how many ‘Rachel’s’ lamented for their children who were no more . . .
Perhaps it was our mistaken idea that faith was nothing more than a set of ideas – that it could be transmitted impersonally, that all you needed was a bible – a bible which remember none of the early Christians had – they had to learn scripture together – or a Youtube video . . . You cannot pass on that which is not Alive to you, your life blood, your heart . . . What have our children inherited from us?? In an age when people are inheriting more materially than in any time in history . . . perhaps that was it . . . in this age, where is the Life of the Spirit of God? Where is the Inheritance of Faith
Just this week as I was pondering these words of Paul – ‘knowing from whom you learned it . . .’ I started scrabbling around in my wallet – not for money, but for something which I was sure was there, and sure enough I found it and something else beside. I found a lovely prayer from one of my daughters – addressed to Our Father, giving thanks for her father – And then A scrap of paper which I found by my father’s death bed – upon it a meditation of Cardinal Newman which contains these words
“I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught.”
These are precious to me – they place me in a line of faith, and I see now my grandchildren beginning their journey in the life of the church with Godly parents – and that gives me hope
I wonder if we have become so alienated from the Life of Faith that we no longer pass it on, because it isn;t our life? our lives speak of that chichis deepest and innermost – our lives speak our gods . . . We can get caught up in transmitting facts but f they are not rooted in our lives, our faithless lives will speak far more clearly to those amongst whom we live, if indeed we do live amongst people in this depersonalised world.
Paul encourages Timothy in the faith and calls on his to remain to the last, doing the work of an evangelist. I must admit that I was brought up in a church culture where ‘evangleists’ were special people – but the reality is that we are all messengers of one type or another – do our lives speak Faith? or some other message?
Paul as he writes is pouring out his Life, his Life which is woven through with this Lively Faith
Our faith is founded on, it is sourced from and flows from a Life poured out – the stream of living water flowing from the side of Christ Jesus himself, who emptied himself . . .
It is returning to the Source of Life – crying out to the one who gladly gives good gifts to those who ask – for the Holy Spirit which is the Hallmark of faith, the first fruit of the Life that is eternal, of the Life that conquers death, of the Life that speaks hope even in this day