Sermon for Evensong – Sunday July 16th, 2017 – -through many persecutions . . .

Sermon for Evensong
Sunday July 16 2017

On Old things in the Modern World – Losing our way
Acts 14

‘Paul and Barnabas strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’

These words of Luke in describing the life of those early disciples sound strange to our ears – a world away from our own life and experience, indeed as we may have been taught about Christian faith – no one ever said to US that ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the Kingdom of God’ Yet, did not Jesus say ‘Make every effort to enter in through the narrow gate, for hard and narrow is the way to life and few they are that find it’ Does this resonate with the faith in which we were brought up?

Well let’s try an get a bit of perspective. Preachers of course preach from 6ft above contradiction 🙂 But what about the perspective from 40000 feet? (It sounds better in feet 🙂 )

Not given as I was to much intercontinental air travel, this perspective first came to me in 2010 – when the parish flew their prospective vicar, by Emirates of course, over to NZ – Over India. As I crossed that vast sub continent, I remember watching the great clouds rising up from the baking plains below – and it struck me for the first time of the great disconnection between my experience of life and that of those ‘who toiled below’ (to pick up on the words of a well known and not entirely inappropriate hymn, for who toils below??)
As I pondered it came to me that the annual income of one who lived below me would barely pay for my ticket. Our lives were disconnected by much more than 40000 feet. My life was insulated (after all it is more than 50 degrees below zero at that altitude and the plane is flying at 1000 km an hour, fast enough truly to take my breath away were I to experience it.) Instead I sat in ‘cattle class’; ‘another bottle of wine sir? I don’t mind if I do . . .’ the warmth, the air-conditioned comfort made for a lofty perch from which to ponder existence . . . to quote someone else ‘I continue[d my] midair philosophizing on our two-level world, where the global elite fly comfortably while children of the dust fight famine and fall asleep to the sound of gunfire.’

Sayers, Mark. Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval (p. 8). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

We used to call those who flew thus ‘the jet set’, lives unimaginably separated from ours, but how many of us know it now, are We not The Global Elite? Yes we may ‘look upwards the Trumps and the Gates’ etc, yet perhaps the comfort of our lives is closer to theirs, much closer than those 40000 feet below? This separation is I think an apt metaphor for Modern Life. We sit in unimaginable comfort – with a choice of wine and food, and experience the world out there, via a screen. We know at one level that in so many ways the world is a shocking place, but we do not experience it as such . . . and if we find it hard to relate to such a tragic world in our own experience, is it not reasonable to ask, ‘has our insulated experience shielded us from the very reality of God who is known in the very thick of existence and in its darkest places’, and has is suggested to us a more amenable faith than that of hard and narrow ways, or coming to the Kingdom of God ‘through many persecutions’? Surely – coming to the Kingdom of God is no more than seeing things differently . . . as if what was really at stake was no more than a set of ideas?? Insofar as we think ‘the jet set have little to teach us about real life’ perhaps also we ought to be wary of any writers and guides who enjoy such existence, myself included . . .
For as there is such a gulf between our lives and those 40000 feet below, but there is another ‘gulf fix-ed’ to use Luke’s words, between our culture and those of the past . . . and it is with regard to our understanding of ‘The Past’ I’d like to focus my comments, and especially with regard to books 🙂

Of course I always travel with books. My Son in law, rightly and gently mocked me for my ‘small library’ when I told him that ‘because it was mainly an opportunity for visiting people as opposed to study! I’d only brought ten books with me’ 🙂
But what we read, if we read, is not unimportant and that was brought home to me when I visited a friend who had had his curiosity piqued by a Modern writer on the spiritual life. He asked me what i thought of this individual and I said that I hadn’t read them closely, so he sent me away with a book for my comments – and opening it, I was reminded of CS Lewis’ rule – ‘always read ten old books for every new one you read.’ Well I had my ten books, but how many were old?
Of course its always easy to read new books, written in our culture in our time – and of course someone is always saying – ‘you really should read this or that or the other . . . one is reminded of the words of Jesus when he says ‘If they say to you Look He is Here, or Look He is there! do not believe them . . . ‘ Certainly this writer is considered something of a modern guru in ‘spiritual’ circles. So it is easy to read new books, but whatever happened to the test of time. Why should I bet remotely interested in a book written only last year??
Just as not so long ago you couldn’t go to church without singing Shine Jesus Shine, I can’t imagine it will find its way into tomorrows equivalent of Hymns Ancient and Modern, we are obsessed with things that pass away and do not last. Our obsession with the new, the up to date etc etc as if these things were automatically Better is troubling, as Lewis amongst others points out. And another voice to whom I will return shortly who warns sternly

‘If for the love of that which does not endure,
A man gives up that love which is eternal,
He well deserves to suffer without end’ Paradiso Canto XV 10-12

But Lewis had something more in mind than just the test of time,, for Lewis Diagnosed a fracture in History, readily discernible in our culture A vast shift in which to borrow LP Hartley’s phrase ‘the past [became] a foreign country’ Or to use my metaphor, we discovered the delights of the broad and easy way of mass intercontinental travel by jet.
As perhaps two of my daughters might ask – if you suddenly find yourself a long way away, who has moved?

For as Lewis pointed out in ‘the past’ people if puzzled by various aspects of one another writings understood each other. As he said Dante knew Virgil (1300 years before) – and I’ll return to Dante in a moment. But there is a great dislocation – and Lewis locates this at the turn of the C19. Although philosophically the roots of Modern life can be traced back several hundred years earlier – Lewis locates his change there in terms of shared understanding of the world at least in the West. And speaks of the coming of the age of the machine . . . it is perhaps no surprise therefore that the person who best expressed this change is perhaps Henry Ford, the man who turned men into machines in order that men might be ruled by machines. ‘History is bunk’. We may pay lip service to The Past and ‘learning from the past, but our lessons tend to be those which reinforce our idea of the superiority of the present – as Lewis puts it, we add a negative value to words which formerly were positive, for example ‘Primitive’ – which once meant merely Radical, of the Root, the fundamental – now of course its meaning has become negative – ‘we have moved on’ (and how glibly we say this)

Now what it seems to me happens in this regard is the beginning of the decline of History as the tool which teaches us who we are, to one which ‘scientifically’ teaches us who we were and thus, vaingloriously, who we are becoming – so ‘civilization [is] converg[ing] upon a new evolutionary leap?’ according to the writer my friend was anxious to commend to me

Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice (Kindle Location 172). Shambhala. Kindle Edition. . . .

It is as if there is a discontinuation in the story of the human. If human existence can be considered as a tree, then the Modern age saw the arrival of the conceit that leaves could live without a trunk. and of course that great machine the modern airliner reinforces our sense of separation.
‘Paul and Barnabas strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’

In these Modern days, the Scriptures seem to us the stories of ‘a foreign country’ another planet even. Just this week I was at a preaching seminar where the leader asked ‘how can we relate to these words from two thousand years ago?’ as if he thought that the human was a different species then as if indeed we had evolved. Yet the question ‘what planet are you on?’ is a good one I think – in a month when 12% of the Larsen C iceshelf has collapsed, Scientists who are careful with their words tell us we are in the middle of biological annihilation of other species, we learn that if we eat fish we will incur lifetime ingest 11000 pieces of plastic in a world which makes one million plastic bottles a minute, and rumbling along, climate scientists are finally saying that a 6C temperature change is ‘within the reasonable margin for error’ . . . If we believe as modern people that we are on the cusp of a great evolutionary leap forward – all I can say is that evolution requires numberless dead ends for one advance and that humankind is looking as if it falls in the statistically highly probable category at present – Somewhere along the road we have lost the plot . . . but lets pick up with an old writer for a moment, one who doesn’t say ‘well how can I relate to Scriptures which are 1300 years old . . . Someone who realises he has lost the plot and become disconnected from reality from whom I quoted earlier

Half way along the journey we [all] have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way

This is the opening of an Old book – the basic message of which would have been as clear to those first disciples as it was to the author, both living on the far side of the great Chasm which separates us from most of History. It is known by some as the opening of the world’s greatest poem – the Divine Comedy by Dante Aligheri.
Dante lived between the C13 and C14. The first part of his life was in some regards a life from 40000 feet. He was born into a noble family and rose to high estate in his native Florence, but there, he took decisions bold and difficult decisions – including exiling one of his own good friends, which made him the enemy of the Pope and led to his being sent into exile, stripped of all he possessed and the citizens of Florence being given the right to execute him on sight. So, halfway through his Life – the journey we all have to go – he finds himself lost.

And yet, and yet . . . it is from This perspective the he finds discovers himself found. In the midst of an incredibly difficult life, he finds Life, or rather Life finds him. It is in this context that Dante is shown all that it is that has separated him from God as his guide, the poet Virgil (from 1300 years earlier) takes him on a tour, first of the Inferno – or Hell, although like the outside of the airliner it is so cold that Satan who lies at the very centre is frozen in ice up to his waist.
Dante is then led up in the second part of the poem climbing the slopes of Mount purgatory, as he begins to take responsibility for his plight and undergoes the difficult healing necessary for those who would know the Divine Light of the the Kingdom of God, finally to ascend to Paradise then and only then where he need no longer the guidance of Virgil.

At the outset of the poem, discerning the Light of Paradise her tries over and again to climb to it, but his wise guide knows better, The Way Up is the Way Down – it is only through entering the turbulence and difficulty, the ambiguity and mystery, the many many things that seem to make no sense to us, that we come to realise. And here and there from time to time, others make the same discovery.

The insulation which life at 40000 feet offers, is only at great cost – it requires great energy to maintain this, like the energy needed for air conditioning – and as the literal burning of that energy comes to an end, so too here and there by God’s grace we run out of energy, we fall to earth. Dantë, like others here and there even today discovers life amongst the ruins of his self created existence. He had had it all, and he lost it, and in losing it, found it. Jesus warns us about a life we make for ourselves, the 40000 foot life, that ‘it profiteth a man nothing that he gain the whole world . . .’ for as surely as the false gains accrue, so the loss becomes eternal . . . Oscar Wilde in a fairly old book, if not old by Lewis’ standards spoke about Dorian Grey, a metaphor I think for life at 40000 feet, where all in lovely whilst the picture in the attic decays. Our Modern disconnected life requires so much energy it is costing the literal lives of so many many others – spiritual writers who glibly assert ‘civilization converges upon a new evolutionary leap’ – miss this entirely – the state of Creation is the ruined picture in our collective attic, but here and there people fall off the plane – the plane goes down – lives seemingly fall apart, and then and there in the ruins we discover the True Life


Jesus calls us to follow him, into the centre of existence – the Cross, the place of apparent ruin which has become for us Wisdom from God – where all thing are reconciled to God – it is a call into Life in its fullest expression and that cannot but for now encompass darkness as well as light. Put another way, suffering is part of what it is to be fully human. Whilst we cannot go seek it – some in the early church had to be dissuaded from seeking martyrdom – we do need to wake up to how our contemporary culture has disconnected us from our essential human experience, and in humility acknowledge the profound lostness of the Modern condition.
Yet it is not a journey which we are called to undertake alone – it is one in companionship with one another and our Lord as we encourage and strengthen one another. Before we can begin the journey home, the plane must land – we all need to come down to earth – and follow Christ Jesus who shows us in Truth that Life is found on the ground.

Come to Me – the invitation to be with Jesus – OT Yr A 2017

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-end

“And he chose twelve, that they might be with him . . .” Mark 3:14

Being with Jesus Is the Christian Life – it Is Christian life. Through Baptism we respond to His call to be with Him, He is our food in Scripture and Eucharist, we are with Him as our teacher that at the last we might be with Him. Being with Jesus is the beginning, the middle and the end of our faith.

Yet we tend to think of ‘being with Jesus’ as purely the End – as something for afterwards – not for ‘the time of this mortal life’, as the old prayer book it. In the time of this mortal life we tend to think almost exclusively in terms of ‘Jesus being with us’. And of course it is true, He is with us according to his promise, now and to the end of the age, but he is with us because we are with him. His coming to be with us, as at the first with the disciples, was that they might be with Him. And the two are not the same. If we think of being with Jesus in terms of His being with us, then where we go, he goes. But this is not the life of discipleship, it is not the Christian life. That Life is to go where he goes. To seek Him that we might be with Him, to only want to be where he is. ‘The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ We do not know where Jesus is going, but we know that we want to be with him, so where he goes, we go also [cf John 14]
Jesus comes to us, that we might be with Him, alongside Him, as his disciples, learning from Him. In Eugene Peterson’s memorable paraphrase, to ‘learn the rhythms of unforced grace’, that way of Life that is Rest.

But the problem is this, that our lives are so fixed. It is far easier we think, more convenient to us and our lives that he is with us and goes where we go. Our schedules after all are full of ‘Important things’ . . . all these things we have to do, that we must do, that we should and ought to do . . . we find it hard to think of any life but our own and so the idea of leaving our life that we might be with him seems ridiculous, and so we may stay fixed and stuck.

“To what will I compare this generation.” John comes, the forerunner, preparing the way of the Lord. He seems harsh and austere – playing his dirge – we don’t mourn our sins and those things which keep us from their Kingdom he announces. He comes neither eating nor drinking and – not given to fasting and repentance we say he has a demon. ‘Lighten up, John!’.

Then comes the king, Full of that Life which repentance prepares us for. Jesus comes playing a flute, but Our life is a series business, no time for dancing, we can’t leave our nets – all that feasting – Who has time for partying with the world the way it is?? Neither hot or cold – Lukewarm

Jesus calls us to Life in its fulness, to be with Him, to Go with Him, to Learn from Him and perhaps to our ears it is too much. Dante in the Divine Comedy says that those who enter purgatory need to rest for they are too weak as yet to enter the fulness of God’s presence . . . and so, the world carries on in the way it always has and we search around looking for the culprits . . .

On the evening of June 3rd, I was in London. Walking with Rose and Andy, in the lowering sun on the millennium bridge, the footbridge which crosses the Thames in London from the Tate Modern to St Paul’s Cathedral, it was a `Beautiful’ evening. It was warm, crowds of people were just enjoying the view, having a relaxed time.
The following morning I returned to St Paul’s the 8am Eucharist – but now the mood was far from relaxed. About 90 minutes after we’d been on the Millennium bridge, just a couple of hundred yards away some men had driven into the crowd in a van and leapt out with knives. Before they were finally shot dead by armed police, they had killed eight people, several of them visitors – who knows, perhaps people we’d been walking with earlier. ‘Ah!! Goes the media and we join in – there are the culprits . . . if only we deal with people like that! but what is the Gospel of Jesus for ‘people like that’
Well at the eucharist, The Dean of St Paul’s, David Ison, who had once been my spiritual director, answered that question. Speaking to a congregation made up in large part of visitors, he reminded us of all that we were gathered on a site where Christian worship had taken place for 1400 years. It had seen famine, plague, fire, it had been bombed by the Luftwaffe. And yet it still stood as testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He then made reference to an earlier attack, in Egypt, where 24 Christian pilgrims, men women and children on their way to a monastery were taken off their bus at gunpoint, called to renounce their faith and shot when they refused. In response the European Bishop of the Coptic Church had written a letter in which he said he had often addressed his words to those who were the victims of such atrocities, and their widows and bereaved families, but he said, and I quote ‘This time however, I feel a need to address those who perpetrate these crimes.

You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved.

You are loved by God, your Creator, for He created you in His Image and according to His Likeness, and placed you on this earth for much greater things, according to His plan for all humankind. You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, Who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation.’ ‘You are loved by me and millions like me, because we believe in transformation’

The gospel of Jesus Christ is about the transformation of the world – a different story for a world given over to death and despair. Life and Hope in the Name of Jesus. But that story only takes root and becomes visible in the world as people let go of their stories and go to be with Jesus. People who have gone to be with Jesus bear a witness to this different Story, the Truth of our existence.

We look out at the world, seeing it needs to change, it’s as plain as the nose on your face – but do we recognise that if the world is to change, we cannot stay the same. If there is no community which bears witness to this other life, perhaps it is no surprise the world doubts that there is any alternative? Perhaps this is why when John announces the coming King and calls us to prepare ourselves and change, and when the king comes – we are curiously unmoved. Jesus is close to incredulous. He goes on, “ Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! If my miracles and been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they’d have repented in a flash! And as for you Capernaum – did you not see anything??? I tell you that Sodom, yes even Sodom would have had a change of heart if it had seen what you saw”

The Call to change comes first not to those far away, not to those who are strangers to the message – it comes to a people who should know, God’s people. This generation, Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum . . . God’s people – ‘He came to those who were his own and his own knew him not . . .’ God’s people did not recognise their King, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey . . .

Unbelief. Well not all of them. These things were hidden in the gracious will of the Father from the wise and intelligent and were revealed to to infants – to those whom the Father chooses to reveal the Son. There were some who went to be with Him, but to be frank they weren’t much to look at in the eyes of the world. Like their bedraggled King, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt the foal of donkey, they didn’t look out of place.

At the heart of the rejection of the Christian message in the early days two things stood out and in different ways continue to stand out making it unique

A dead Jew on a cross wasn’t sophisticated or intelligent enough for the Greeks and was an abomination to the Jews. It didn’t fit in with the way people saw the world . . .

And secondly, no one believed that human hearts could be changed. ‘ We need new laws!’ ‘Society must be changed!’ but human hearts??
The gospel proclaimed the ultimate miracle, the transformation of the human heart . . . and let’s be clear, we have trouble believing it ourselves. After all, who felt the deep truth of the words of the Coptic Bishop?? You people, who killed innocent men women and yes, children, you are loved . . . and we say this because we believe in transformation. Perhaps it is no wonder the world laughs

Well I told the first part of this story on Wednesday at the Eucharist and promised I’d conclude it today, so for those who have been patiently waiting, here was the end to David’s sermon. ‘We as Christians believe in the transformation of the human heart. We gather today in a building dedicated to St Paul, the first great evangelist of the Church, who spread the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ across so much of the then known world. St Paul let us not forget first comes to our attention because he gives assent to the murder of the first Christians and is converted on his way to Damascus, ‘still breathing out threats and murder . . .’ St Paul is a murderer who is transformed – by being with Jesus. It is how we are all changed, by accepting the invitation to be with Jesus – close with Jesus. Taking his yoke and learning from him

Come to me . . . all you who are weary and heavy laden . . . worn down by the effort of trying to live what you call your own life, weary of that internal conflict which Paul knew so well ‘So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ . . . Hear the words of Jesus – Come to me and I will give you rest. Learn from me. To learn Jesus is to learn Rest. It is to move from the exhausting business of trying to have life on our own terms, trying to fix the world – to simple obedience to him, learnt as we accept the gift of His yoke. it would be a familiar picture to Jesus first hearers. The young untrained ox, yoked to the older experienced one. So that the young one might learn from their elder brother.
Yoked to the one who only does what he sees the Father doing – it is a rather intimate picture. Imagine yourself as that young ox, joined to the Older one – you smell it, you feel its warmth, you hear its breath, perhaps even breathing it in yourself as you sense its strength, the yoke transmits its movements, from time to time you feel the yoke as you are still learning, but the affection grows and the rhythms of unforced grace are slowly learned. You grow to love the Yoke of obedience for you Love the one who has yoked himself to you. This is what it is like to be with Jesus, profound intimacy, learning from Him, day by day and being transformed into his likeness, feeling Him, knowing Him.

This intimacy of friendship, made possible through the Cross where God was reconciling the world to himself – the World which kills Him, the World which kills His people. In the flesh of Jesus, God takes that awkward sinful flesh with which Paul is so familiar, which seems determined to go the hateful and wrong way, and transforms it into the body and blood of the One who only does what he sees the Father doing. From the chaotic shapeless Stress and Strain and Hurt and Pain, to the rhythms of unforced grace.

John in his gospel, the one who lies close to Jesus at supper, hearing his breath and the beat of his heart puts it like this ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’ He has called us His friends – he makes us his friends and invites us to be with Him

Take my yoke – learn from me – for I am gentle and lowly of heart – and you will find rest for your souls – and the world will see its true King. Amen