Christmas 2020

St Paul says – ‘We look to things that are unseen, for the things that are seen are passing away. But the things that are unseen are eternal’

We gather upon this Holy Night in the darkness of a church lit only by candles. It is moment in time for faith, for faith looks to things that are unseen. It is when the glare of so much artificiality is taken from our eyes that we can begin to adjust to a different way of seeing that is at the heart of how we experience our Christian faith.

On this Holy Night, we gather to celebrate a Light coming into the World, a Light unlike any other, a Light which shines in the darkness, a Light which the darkness cannot overcome.

All the light we see, and think we see by, is eventually overcome by darkness. The light of these candles if we leave them will expire in a few hours. The light of our own lives, as Shakepeare puts it so poignantly, ‘out, out brief candle’. The light of the Sun – even this one day will expire.

But there is a Light which no darkness overcomes – a unseen Light which paradoxically may shine all the brighter in the darkest night. For faith does not look to things seen, but to things unseen.

The Light of Christ coming into the world  – a light in the darkness. A Light which the blind see – ‘Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!’, cries out blind Bartimaeus. The man who cannot see, sees!

But those who think they see . . . who see by the lights that are overcome, those who see by simplistic explanations for the Wonder of existence, which paradoxically remove all joy, beauty, hope and of course Love, everything that we know but cannot See . . . that which comes from the Light which darkness is powerless against

And a Voice, A Word, which the deaf hear, yet in a sea of words those who think they hear fail to detect. In the beginning was the Word, before any Light and beyond any Light.

We know much of course of false lights and voices – hopes and dreams we call them. We look forward to them, we place them in front of us to show us the way as we make our plans, but then . . . well 2020 did for an uncountable number of such illumination . . . Those lights we had lit for ourselves – Yet there is Light

The Light which shines in the Darkness . . . which shines out of Darkness

Recently I’ve been giving much thought to black holes. God has not left himself without testimony in His Creation, even if you have to look in the strangest of places.

Black holes – the centre of all galaxies from which or into which spiral untold millions of stars. Apart from which they would not exist. Light with darkness at the centre. Where does this light and life come from? Where might it go? Beyond our vision, beyond our sight – A Light in the darkness, a Light out of Darkness

Black holes in a sense are not properly named, for they do emit lots of radiation, but it is not visible radiation. It is if you like a light that we do not naturally see by, but light all the same.

We say we see, but we are blind to almost all of Reality

This theme of Light we do not see repeats throughout Scripture.

Scripture seems uninterested in Proving God to us – indeed He is the God whom no one can see and live. The God of Israel does not permit images to be made of him.  He is not to be seen by our eyes, and thus subject to our control.

And He comes into the world but hidden from the glare of the false lights . . . He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He comes unseen as a babe born in an obscure part of the world, in an age lacking in mass media . . . relying on the testimony of a few unreliable and at times unsure witnesses . . .

The world came into being through him – yet the world did not know him, did not perceive him, did not see him . . . And Scripture seems unembarrassed.

Scripture lacks that passionate ardour of the evangelist – to prove it, to show us. Jesus says ‘a wicked a perverse generation asks for a sign’ – the only sign is that of Jonah, of walking into the darkness to emerge three days later.

In the darkness which grips so much of the world in these days – we would do well to listen to the voice of the angles echoing the most repeated phrase in these obscure Scriptures – Do not be afraid.

We would so well to ponder this Christmas tide the words of the prophet Isaiah who questions the people of God thus

Who among you fears the Lord
   and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
   and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
   and relies upon his God?

It is a question which all the baptised should ask, for at our baptism we are addressed with these words –  ‘you have received the Light of Christ – Walk in this light all the days of your life.

Walk in this light

The Light no darkness can overcome

Walk in this Light

which was born into our world

Walk in this light

Even at the last as your eyes close to the light of the world

Walk in this light – which passes through the darkness of suffering and even of death,

To rise to be God’s bright new dawn

Jesus, the light of the world – to paraphrase CS Lewis – not a light to be seen, but a Light by which to see. The Light shining in the darkness . . . Eternal Light, Now and Always. Amen

Sermon for Advent 4

This week I was asked to preach at another church, and to pick my own texts, always a dangerous business! Anyway, here are my thoughts on ‘Space for God’

Sermon for Advent 4

St Matthew’s, Dunedin

Luke 1:26-38

Luke 10:38-42

Space for God

My thoughts this week are on ‘Space for God’. I wonder what those words summon up within us.

Perhaps the title of a book which was very popular about twenty or so years ago – ‘Too busy not to pray!’ by Bill Hybels, and other such ideas – fitting God into our busy lives.

In the C 17 in England, near Liverpool there was a battle in the Civil War, before which one Jacob, First Baron Astley prayed before his troops, ‘Lord you know how busy I must be this day. Should I forget thee, do not thou forget me’

We have such busy lives. How to find space for God? And I guess you might be expecting me to exhort you to find more space for God, but I’m not . . .

 We are in the season of Advent and like each of the church’s seasons, it is given to us as an opportunity to remind ourselves of essential aspects of our faith. For Advent, that is ‘Waiting for God in Hope’. Contemplating the second coming of Christ. You might say that the primary way that the Church is different, that Christians are different in the world is that our minds are elsewhere

Yet, on the first day of this month I received an email from SUNZ. It’s opening was ‘ Well, it’s December 1st, so I can officially wish everyone ‘Happy Christmas’.

We ought to forgive the Prime Minister and Mike Hoskings for exchanging their Christmas presents way too early, but when the church loses touch with its own seasons? When it misses the point, but perhaps in thinking about Space for God, we too are missing the point. Perhaps there is something much more significant and life transforming hidden in that seemingly innocuous phrase?

Nd we begin to explore it in the second of our two readings.

I must admit I have a degree of reticence preaching on the story of Martha and Mary, for however carefully I exposit the text, without fail someone fails to get it. You proclaim the Word, and someone is guaranteed to push back on it – on this text . . .

It seems that few people really believe Jesus when he says ‘Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her’ (I ought to add at this point that believing Jesus is Exactly what it means to ‘believe in’ Jesus. As he says in John’s gospel, ‘if you obey my words, you will abide in my love’. Jesus over and over says ‘Amen! Amen!’ ‘Truly Truly!’ I tell you . . . His word are Truth and we live by the words that come from his mouth)

So when Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, then that is the Truth . . . but somehow the world is full of apologists for Martha. People for whom books like ‘Too busy not to pray!’ were written. People like Baron Astley who has important work to be doing. I mean if your work is ‘really important’ – this story is a bit of a problem

For many many years, Martha has been held up as the example of the Active Life – ‘Busy for Jesus’. Like the car sticker says ‘Jesus is Coming! Quick look busy!’

Yet Jesus gently rebukes her – indeed he perhaps seems unimpressed by our work on his behalf –

After all, doesn’t He say ‘Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord Lord! Didn’t we do many wonderful things in your name?’  and he will respond – Away from me, you doers of evil, I never knew you!

Martha lets be clear has made a good start. She has noticed Jesus come to her village and has welcomed him into her house. Classic hospitality – which in itself actually was not at all uncommon, and amongst some people groups remains common. Welcoming in the stranger.

I think that to read this well, we could say – she has welcomed him into her life, the arena of her agency, her work. Yet, that initial welcome has been set aside – for her ‘many tasks’. Martha now sees Jesus not as the honoured guest, but as a means to her ends ‘Lord! Do you not care that my sister has left me to get on with all this work on my own? Tell her to help me!’

We can be ‘busy’ for Jesus in our ‘important’ lives, or we can be imploring Jesus to sort things out for us, but in both cases, we are at the Centre.

And we are empty of Life . . . There is a busyness that at the end of the day asks ‘What Was that all about?’  A good number of years ago now, I got into such a state. Working phenomenally long hours – reminding myself continually that I was ‘doing the Lord’s Work!’, until one by one, all the wheels began to fall off . . .  After 6 months away from work, I finally awoke to the realization that it was the Lord’s Work, not mine. That I was meant to be the beneficiary of His Work of Salvation. That I couldn’t save a single soul . . . left me wondering what I had got caught up in. One can easily preach grace, but live works, not least in a culture which idolizes the self made hard working individual, who is lauded at their funeral . . .

My life was full, of me. And so those who see Martha as the one who does the work that must be done, fail to realise that Christ himself has done the Work that must be done . . . and welcomes us into his rest. ‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ –  and how we need to hear those words, in Truth in these days.

We get So used to our own agency, we struggle to comprehend a life of Grace, and the Church is often dominated by those who in the world’s terms make a good show, hence I suspect Martha’s many supporters, despite what Jesus says . . .

Martha welcomes Jesus into her life, but her life is full, there is no space in it. She is Pre-occupied. Her life is meant to be a space for Jesus, but it is full of her stuff. Advent is meant to be such a space, but it has become full of Christmas . . .

That’s the point. It is not that she is to make space for Jesus, Her life is meant to be a space for Jesus, indeed that is what it is created to be, Space for the Living God.

Which brings me to the other reading, and the other Mary. Oh, yes, ‘That’ Mary . . .

Not long after Sarah and I were married, we welcomed a teaching colleague to our house to spend the night. John was unmarried but had a partner. We kindly asked them to occupy separate rooms. (Actually looking back, I’m not sure how this was possible as we had a tiny house!) John actually wasn’t put out – he rather liked the idea that people had standards which they kindly asked their guests to observe. Although jokingly he called me ‘a hot prot’ 

Well this hot prot was on the end of one of many God’s practical jokes when I was appointed head of department in a large Roman Catholic High School . . . Wherein during every assembly the pupils dutifully prayed words taken from our gospel, Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death . . .’ Well they prayed it every assembly until I became a Year Dean! And then it stopped – except once a year when the Principal walked in without notice to take the assembly, and I promptly walked out – I was a Very Hot Prot in those days.

The School as it happened was an old convent. My office was one of the former bedrooms of the nuns. One year, in a much needed building reordering, some work was being done on my corridor at the end of which stood the largest statue of Mary, in her guise as The Queen of Heaven from Revelation 12. (Funny how this ‘bible believing Christian’ hadn’t made that particularly awkward connection)

Anyway, the builders needed to move the statue and when they did, the colleague who shared my office, a Liverpudlian Catholic by the name of Paddy Devlin was the only person around. ‘Where should we put this?’ they asked. ‘Oh, I know Just the place . . .’ And so it was that The Queen of heaven spent six months right beside my desk – ‘Where our lady can keep an eye on you, Eric!’

You had to admire the sense of humour – teaching this Hot Prot a thing or two . . .

It is all too common for some Christians to have a less than easy relationship with Mary – yet from the beginning of our faith she has been held in the highest esteem, and her significance is huge.

Mary, put simply is the first true disciple and model for all Christians.

She consents to be The Dwelling Place of God. Space for God in the World

Where does God live? For many years the Jewish people had of course said that God dwelt amongst them, in the Temple in Jerusalem . . .

But Jesus opened his ministry with the declaration, ‘destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it’ . . . meaning the Temple of his body.

In his humanity Jesus revealed the remarkable truth that just as He is God amongst humans, he is also, being full of the Holy Spirit. God within the human being. As AW Tozer puts it in the title of one of his little books, ‘Man, The Dwelling place of God’

As St Paul says to those in Athens, ‘God does not dwell in a house made by human hands’ No he dwells within those who believe His Son. ‘

Abide in me, says Jesus, as I abide in You. ‘Your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit’

Mary in the early church was referred to as Theotokos – God bearer . . . and as The Ark of The Covenant – indeed that very imagery is at play in several places. There is an old story, form the first century, of how as an infant, Mary danced in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. In those days of course it was a vast empty space, the Ark of the Covenenant long lost. The Ark wherein and above which the Glory of God dwelt. And now a young girl who will bear the Word of God herself comes and dances in that space . . .

She becomes Space for Jesus

Space for God

I guess that hearing the phrase ‘Space for God’ we might well think of that holy ald hour we give to God, Baron Astley’s prayer – but he desires much more. He has been born into the world in his Son that he might live in it in those in who believe his Son, who Hear his words, who live by his words, His Life in them. As Mary sat at the feet of Jesus . . .

You and I by grace not work, have become the dwelling place of God . . . and that I think deserves our attention

As St Paul says in his letter to the Colossians

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now 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.

Christ in you . . .

As the Body of Christ, among you because he dwells in each of you

That prayer that we twitch at – ‘Holy Mary’ – That in which God dwells is Holy

We are Holy not by our own efforts, but made so by the indwelling of God . . .

Mary reveals to us the True Christian Life that we are God bearers . . . And that is I think is worth allowing ourselves to realise during this season. That we understand the centre of our existence is the living God – that it is not about finding time to pray in our busy lives, but allowing the Holy Spirit of God to pray in and through us. To discover the wonder of who we are created to be, Space for God in the World

Amen

Simple Faith that Saves

Advent 3

1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24

The Christian life is immensely simple – and paradoxically in an age of complexity, immensely difficult. We have perhaps lost sight of simplicity

The Christian life is Simple as it requires just One thing of us – that we attend to God, without distraction. That Is the Christian Life in its entirety.

Attentiveness to neighbour is simply the outflow of that life which comes to us from God in our attentiveness – as the flow of a river from its source. If we stand in the stream and look to the source, the river flows out behind us.

Jesus is the undistracted one. The Life flows from Jesus often without direct request – such as in the healing of the woman with the flow of blood . But even when it is by request it is the request of faith – which simply looks to him as the source, with nothing to give or to bring except attentiveness to Him that is Faith. Not a belief – but a direction of our life

Some understand the necessity of preparing for the return of Christ to be a call to action – Jesus is coming – Look busy!

Yet when he comes, Jesus seems unimpressed with our busyness. ‘Many will say to me on that day – Lord Lord did we not do this AND that AND the other in your name? And I will say to them – ‘Away from me, you doers of evil, I never knew you’’

I never knew you

Knowing him is what it is all about and you cannot know someone unless you attend to them – or put another way, love them It is the same thing. Attention is the one constant aspect of our lives – it is love. Our true loves are revealed in what we spend our lives doing, in that to which we give our attention.

Jesus says that knowing Him is eternal Life – it is the fount of blessings and it is the source of all God’s goodness coming into the world. As we attend to God his life flows towards us and through us

So we train ourselves in that attention, by following the advice of St Paul in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica. A church going through hardship the like of which we have but little inkling. Persecuted and weak, small and struggling – all they have is faith, which is why they are the Blessed. Yet, Paul calls them to that labour once more, to the undistracted gaze upon God in Jesus Christ in simple practice

Rejoice always,

pray without ceasing,

give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

These seem to us like counsels of perfection which in a sense they are – perfection properly understood is simplicity – but we might hear them and cry out ‘but what about . . . this or that or the other’ – Like those this or that or the others we would parade before Jesus in our concern to prove ourselves to him – to place ourselves at the centre of the story, and look in a mirror rather than gaze undistractedly upon God, our life coming towards us

Do not quench the Spirit.

Do not stop that flood of life by averting your gaze . . .

Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything;

hold fast to what is good;

abstain from every form of evil.

It is Simple. It is we who have woven webs of complexity for we are tempted all the time to think that life is about us, and not about God . . . yet St Paul closes these words with the reminder that it is All about God

May the God of peace himself sanctify you  – entirely;

The Work of perfecting your Life is God’s if we would turn to him in faith

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.

Just look to his appearing

In this season of Advent – we watch for his coming. This season is like every other season of the church’s year – given us to train us in our faith. So this watching for his coming is a daily, moment by moment work of our faith – it IS faith, you would truly say

And as we learn to watch for him, we learn to hear Him, ot despising the words of the prophets  – and we hear him say Lo! I am with you always even unto the end of the age. I am Always Coming towards you if you did but have faith

Amen

Call of the Wild

Sermon for Advent 2

Mark 1:1-8

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins

There is a not uncommon way of speaking of Christian faith that supposes one might lead what are considered by prevalent standards a respectable life and also follow Christ. One might accumulate money and honour in the world and still be truly one of Jesus’ flock.

However in this year of Mark’s gospel evidence for this is to say the least, scant. Mark  throws a bucket of cold water over any presumption that being a Christian is in any way in tune with ‘the ways of the world’, that it is a way of comfort. The Way of Jesus cannot be accommodated to our plans for ‘living a good life’. The paths diverge so radically in Mark that we are left with a stark choice – to face in one direction, into what the world calls darkness and in faith proclaim it as light, or to go along with the crowd bedazzled by its deceptive alure.

That is clear from its ending – Jesus last words in Mark are ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ After that we neither see him not hear him. Mark’s gospel ends in darkness which only faith can call light.

 If you’re going to get on in the world’s terms, the Way of Jesus is a bad joke. We might say that to be a successful Christian is to be marked out as a failure – certainly that is true of Jesus himself.

The gospel begins with what sounds like that joke. ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. Son of God. We are so used to hearing those words that we cannot begin to imagine how they sounded in the ears of those who heard them first. For they in all likelihood lived in Rome under the Emperor, the Son of the Divine Emperor. Son of God in Roman terms, was to be at the top of the pile, and Mark has the audacity to claim that a homeless Jew, one amongst countless others, crucified on a rubbish heap outside the walls of Jerusalem, was the Son of God.

This message most deliberately disorients us. It has the temerity to suggest that what we call ‘the world’ with all its power and the rest is an illusion. That its light, its glory is a sham, and that it is in the way of darkness that true light is known.

Mark above all the evangelists speaks of Jesus in terms of the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah and the words of Isaiah in the 50th chapter speak of Him, and of the contrast

Who among you fears the Lord
   and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
   and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
   and relies upon his God? 


But all of you are kindlers of fire,
   lighters of firebrands.
Walk in the flame of your fire,
   and among the brands that you have kindled!

So when the gospel opens it is with the call from outside of the world – away from the city, the place where we kindle our own fires, away even from the pastoral fields gold with corn and covered in flocks of sheep. It is a Voice crying in the wilderness, in the figure of the otherworldly John the Baptist, dressed as Elijah was in camel hair and with a leather belt round his waist, the one who had previously called power to account, who had declared that the LORD not King Ahab was God. Elijah who travelled deep into the wilderness before her met God. Away from the noise and the clamour, the deception of the world, where true encounter takes place. In the sound of sheer silence. The silence of God. And so

people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to John the baptiser in the wilderness

The wilderness is something that has all but disappeared from our consciousness and indeed the planet. The human footprint and desolation is seen everywhere. You cannot escape from wifi, from piped music. I was in Naseby last week, 2000 ft above worry level, but the sound of the chain saw, the lawn mower and hedge trimmer still filled the air.

I remember once sharing a car with Kelvin Wright and we were speaking about this very thing and he said he longed for a place that might possibly kill him. From my own experience the wild mountains of the far North of Scotland on my own, high on rocky ridges without a rope, where a slip would be my last were my experience of that, but such places are increasingly rare as we seek to domesticate the Wild. Increasingly one met folk on the mountains as if they were on the high street as GPS gave them a sense of ‘having never left home’

Here and there a few intrepid folk can still find the wilderness. A recent TV series – was about folk who were dropped off with basic survival gear in Northern Canada, to try and survive for 100 days. But even with their wilderness skills, they were competing with wild animals for the few fat rich animals which might possibly sustain them through three months of Arctic winter. Porcupine for example. And one by one, the wilderness proved too much and they had to be rescued.

In the wilderness you come to yourself – all the ways in which we hide from reality are stripped away and you are vulnerable. In the wilderness you discover your own insignificance, and in the wilderness you might possibly encounter God. As your own ‘I am’ is reduced to its meagre frame and I AM becomes Reality.

people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem

To go out from the artificiality of the city, and it is most literally artificial, to leave even the carefully tended fields – to go beyond the boundaries of what is ‘safe’ – to go off the edge of the map hedged around with warnings ‘here be dragons’ – that is where we are to go in response to John

That is the place of repentance. There you awaken to your true vulnerability. And in that awakening, awaken to the possibility of God.

Advent is a season of this stripping back

The promise is The Holy Spirit – the life of God himself, but The World noisily intervenes and distracts. Just this week I received an email from a Christian organisation. It began – Today is December 1st so I can now officially say ‘Merry Christmas’. Even Jacinda and Mike Hoskings have exchanged ‘Christmas’ presents on air.

‘Christmas’ so called invades the space – fills any void – like the relentless playing of ‘Christmas’ music. In this seaosn of The Voice in the Wilderness when we are called away from the clamour – The World pursues us relentlessly.

But for those who like the Pilgrim in ‘Pilgrim’s progress’ put their fingers in their ears, who ignore the siren cries of the world, and respond to the Voice in the wilderness, then and there they might encounter the one who will in time come and baptise with the Holy Spirit.

Unlike those TV wilderness experts, We don’t need to be rescued from the Wild, we need to be rescued from the illusion of life which the World provides. That is we will accept it is the gift of Advent

We wait for Him – For apart from him, we know that we have no good thing

Behold! Christ the King!

Sermon for Christ the King, Yr A 2020

Ephesians 1:17-18

Matthew 25:31-46

‘Now you say you see . . .’

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints . . .

With the eyes of your heart enlightened.

How we see is fundamental to our lives. So much so that we talk of understanding in terms of sight ‘Oh! Now I see!’ we say. The problem is that sight, the sense which we put most trust in, is also the one most easily deceived. Think how many magic tricks depend on that, compared with your sense of smell, or hearing . . . and of course in the age of the captivating screen this deception is amplified.

Illusion in the magic sense depends on what you think you are going to see, because that is the controlling factor. We don’t talk about ‘the elephant in the room’ because we don’t expect to see the elephant in the room, because most of the time there is no elephant in the room. We have our stories about reality and without realising, we see the world as we are. Unconsciously (?) we filter out that which doesn’t fit our way of ‘looking at’ the world.

Which brings us to our parable, that of ‘the sheep and the goats’, but first we need to return to last week’s parable – of the talents. As I said last week I want to flip it on its head. Because what we see depends on how we see.

My brother was talking to a wealthy individual recently. He knew this man well and he epitomised one way of looking at the world. He looked around him at all he had and said ‘the fruit of all my hard work’. You might say he looked at the world and said, if you play by the rules, work hard, you will do well for yourself. So, he would perhaps read the parable of the talents and say, exactly! The hard workers, people like me get what we deserve, and the idlers . . . well they get what they deserve as well . . .

It’s a common enough story. But there’s another one. My brother, who is sensitive to these things remarked upon the person who cleaned for this individual. He knew that she held down three full time jobs, just to make ends meet . . . she certainly worked hard, but . . . He went on to note that this man hadn’t worked hard for a long time, rather having got a certain amount of money, his money was doing the work.

Perhaps you have enough money to buy a second house. You let it out. Now your money is making money.

Now, imagine you hear the parable of the talents and Jesus’ final words – to those who have much , much will be given, to those who have little, even the little they have will be taken away . . . first as my brother’s wealthy friend, and then as the cleaner? Perhaps not to enjoy a long happy retirement despite working her fingers to the bone to make ends meet?? To those that have will be given more . . . to those who have not, even the little they have will be taken away . . . And we look out at the world and . . . say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.

Which brings us to the second parable . . . you see those who have much, who see the world in a particular way, will hear this. The sheep are those who shared what they had, and the goats are those who didn’t. This is the way we are pretty much set up to hear this parable.

If as we do, you live in a hierarchical society then part of the story of such a society is that those at the top are supposed to help out those at the bottom – it is called paternalism. It is the way we see the world. So we hear it and think ‘I need to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and visit those in prison . . .’ But what if you are the one who is naked or hungry or in prison?? What then do you hear?

Regarding those in prison there is an eye opening book which I recommend called ‘Reading the Bible with the Damned. It is an extended reflection on what happened when the author started regularly to go into a high security prison amongst those on life sentences and read scripture. All of a sudden his ideas were stood on their head . . . these men saw the world very differently.

As we have been reminded these past weeks, these parables of Jesus are admonitions to his disciples to be ready for what is coming. But what Is coming? Who is shut outside? Who finds themselves in the placing of gnashing of teeth and outer darkness? Or, who finds themselves, to put it another way ‘hungry, naked, in prison’? After all, didn’t Jesus start out by saying ‘blessed are those who are poor? Those who are hungry? Those who mourn?’ Did he not say ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’

Did not Jesus himself die ‘outside a city wall’?

Why is our focus on the sheep and the goats and their fate? Are we, as those who in one sense have done well set up to ‘see’ the whole story in terms of ‘just desserts’, ‘you get what is coming to you’. Is such a way of seeing, seeing in truth or is such an interpretation simply a reinforcement of our story about the way things are – to those who have much, more will be given . . . and perhaps ‘of those who have much, much will be required’?

Our attention falls on the sheep and the goats, their actions and their fates . . . which is odd, for Jesus’ says that neither the sheep nor the goats see . . . Hearing this gospel  as a moral tale about helping those less fortunate than ourselves or else . . . copying the sheep to gain a reward or avoid ‘the other place’ is then simply the blind following the blind . . .

Neither the sheep nor the goats see, but Here’s another question – Do We?

More specifically, neither the sheep nor the goats ‘see Jesus’ . . . but do we?

You ‘see’, This parable is not the judgement of Jesus’ people, it is the judgement of the nations. The Judgement of those who have not seen him, yet, who as St Paul says will be judged according to whether they have obeyed the law written in their heart. Perhaps they have seen the people of Jesus in those days when to be Christian was to be shut out from the world’s bounty, often to be ‘hungry, naked, strange and in prison’ and so tended to Christ himself in his people.

The parable assumes that the people of Jesus are those who when Jesus sits down on the mountain are those who have come to him, those who Know Him, who See Him . . . for those who say they belong to Jesus, who Know Jesus, that is the assumption, that they See Him. For they are his and he is theirs.

We have come to the end of the church Year. Christ the King Sunday. It is the end of our year of Matthew, but if we step back from Matthew and look at it not merely as a collection of ‘bits and pieces’, but in its entirety, something stands out.

Bookending the gospel is The Command which calls us to Life, a command to the people of God; “Behold!”

Behold! the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

And again, Jesus closing words to his people, even as he was taken from the sight of their eye . . .

‘Behold! I am with you always, even to the end of the Age’

And So St Paul prays for those who have faith in the Lord Jesus and their love toward all the saints,

“that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

That whenever and in whoever Christ appears, we who Behold might recognise Him in whatever guise he is hidden from the eyes of the sheep and the goats

Put another way, give up on your stories about ‘getting just desserts’ or whatever other story you have about the world, because if we can’t see Jesus, why do we think we can see anything else??

Our Duty, and our Joy – The Parable of the Talents

Sermon for the twenty third Sunday after Trinity

Year A 2020

Matthew 25:14-30

The Fruitfulness of Joy, and of Duty

So the cry goes up – get out of bed, it’s nearly time for church! “but I don’t want to go to church!”, but you Have to go to church, Why do I have to go to church? Because you’re the Vicar!

Recently I was in conversation with the pastor of another church here in Dunedin, and he pointed out how so much in this day we are told to ‘follow our heart’, and that it was important to ‘live an authentic life, and be your real self’.

He’s right. If you follow the titles of popular books there are many on such themes . . . [individualism vs shared life] but such an approach privileges the individual over the group because it starts from the presumption that I have no necessary obligation or duty towards others.

This Zeitgeist can be ‘spiritualised’, and spiritialising things is very dangerous for us as Christians although it is rampant amongst us. We say ‘oh I have no call’, or ‘I do not sense the Holy Spirit prompting me to do this’ Without realizing what we are doing, we break the third commandment and take the name of the Lord in vain, using God to back up our often unconscious biases, or our captivation to the Spirit of the Age

Doing things out of duty seems is very much against the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, which is a huge problem when it comes to the Christian life for God’s commands are at least requirements. Loving your enemy and doing good to those who hate you is not something we do because we feel a sense of call.

Of course for some, the Way of God’s commands is the way of joy,  but if we are ever to discover that joy, then we have at least to acknowledge the duty, even if we don’t understand, or ‘heaven forbid’, they don’t speak to our heart

Last week we heard the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. If you remember these parables are told by Jesus in the few days between the complete breakdown of relations between himself and his opponents and the events of Holy Week. So Jesus is warning his disciples to get ready to be ready, for The Day of the Lord is Now.

The Day of the Lord is like a wedding, and last week we thought about how getting ready for a wedding involved lots of people taking their obligations seriously . . . and to be honest, it is very rare in our familie sexperience for people who had a role to play to do so out of anything less than Joy. They en ‘joyed’ serving and stepping up to help. Now perhaps there may well have been people who only turned up because they felt they had to, out of obligation or duty, but turn up they did anyway . . .

So we are not told whether the wise bridesmaids filled their lamps with oil out of a sense of duty, or joy, but they knew what was required of them and so they were ready. The foolish knew what was required but didn’t prepare. The Lord of the feast said to them when they found the door closed, ‘I do now know you’ . . .

Which takes us to our parable this week. Again we need to remember that parables of Jesus are not simple stand alone stories. This is about The Day of the Lord, and the accounting that Jesus has already warned his disciples about.

Before he starts out on the parables he tells them Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked slave says to himself, “My master is delayed”, and he begins to beat his fellow-slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Again, there is a work to be done, and again we have no insight into whether or not the hearts of the servants were in the work . . . whether your heart is in it is not it seems the most important thing.

So the parable of the talents is part of this. It is not simply a story about using or not using what you have been given, it’s a story about doing what is necessary, or doing the work you have been given.

Last time this came up I remember noticing something I hadn’t seen before – that the first two servants both have an element of joy about their service.  Behold! I have made five more talents! Behold! I have made two more talents! They are excited about their work and how it has born fruit. They have served with Joy and their service has born fruit.

Again we remember that Jesus is merely reiterating his teaching from the Sermon on the mount – By their fruit you shall know them. The good bear good fruit, the wicked bear bad fruit and then tells them that bearing fruit is simply a matter of hearing the words of Jesus and doing them. Loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, loving one another as jesus has loved us. As Jesus says to the man trying to justify himself, ‘do these things and you will live. Whether you feel like it, or not. Whether you have a sense of call or not, if you do it it will bear fruit.

This explains the response of the master to the third servant. The third servant is clearly not interested in the work of his master. He has told himself a story about his master in order to justify his failure to do his will. Isn’t this what we do when we say ‘Oh, the Spirit has not moved me in this direction’??

He is alienated in his mind, he has become his own God, judging his master – And we do this, do we not? What we ought to do is often clear, but then we come up with a justification for not doing it . . . something along the lines of ‘oh, its not my gift . . .’, or ‘my heart isn’t in this . . .’ or some other such thing. And what we do is put ourself at the centre, not God. And when we are at the centre then we are alienated from God.

You see the master at base just asks that if for no other reason, you act out of a sense of duty. You should have put the money on deposit with the bankers . . . you work for me, you have an obligation. It seems that this grudging obedience would have been enough, but the third slave wasn’t having anything to do with his masters business, he cuts himself off from the life of his master and finds himself therefore cut off.

Jesus uses the imagery of fruitfulness a lot. We know the season is near for the fig tree is coming into fruit, I am the vine you are the branches – bear much fruit to show you are my disciples. Fruit bearing is at least a duty – may God so change our hearts that it becomes our Joy and gladness and we enter into His Joy

This is The Day! Trinity +22, Year A

Matthew 25:1-13

“Behold! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”

The Condemned man ate a hearty breakfast, we are told

On my wedding day, I ate a hearty breakfast . . . I ate a hearty breakfast because my best man, Mike, who faced a highly significant role in the day’s events, had never been to a wedding before. And he was nervous.

He was nervous because he took his responsibilities with great seriousness, as indeed he does to this day. So he couldn’t eat his breakfast

So I did . . . as well as my own

Of course a Wedding requires lots of people to show up not just in the sense of attending, but in the sense of playing their part, taking their responsibility seriously. Thus they honour the significance of the occasion. Not to do so is to fail to recognise and dishonour the significance of the day.

And the significance of the day is huge.

The condemned man ate a hearty breakfast – for to be married is to agree to die to the person you are, and to submit to the Way of love, which is to be changed. The two become one flesh. That cannot happen unless each dies to their own interests.

As we have explored from time to time, both in our evening talks and on a Sunday morning, to love is to be changed. To refuse to change is to refuse love.

So the wedding day is like a death . . . and a new birth . . . it is a day of great significance and everyone has to be ready to play the part appointed to them on that Day

Our Gospel is a Wedding Parable. Jesus has been talking about this day all along.

And now The Day has come! ‘The Rain fell, the floods came, and the winds howled and beat against the house, and the house on the . . .’ Was the house ready?? The Day will reveal it

So far in Matthew, this has been flagged up clearly in the sermon on the mount, Those who have heard his words and done them . . .’ they are ready. They are ‘The Wise’ Those who have heard his words and not done them; they are the foolish. Why? For the Day is coming

Jesus’ actions and words have drawn the attention of the Pharisees and others. They have been questioning him, over and over. By whose authority do you do these things? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? If a woman is married seven times, in the resurrection whose wife will she be? But Jesus having confounded them, then flips the tables. Whose Son is the Messiah? ‘David’s’ Really? How then does David call him Lord? ‘After this they durst ask him no more questions’

The die is cast.  We find ourselves now in a very brief window in which  Jesus prepares his disciples for what is to come, the Day fast approaching. He tells them of the destruction of the Temple, and then over and over with symbolic actions like the cursing of the fig tree, or in parables he gives them one clear message – This is Near! Be ready! You, My disciples, the day is near – it is time for you to play the part I have appointed to you . . .

Having had more than a passing role to play in weddings – there are strong parallels. The courting, the engagement, the save the date, the booking of venues, sorting out how everyone will have plenty to eat, the dress, the flowers . . .The Day is Coming! The Day is Coming!,  and all around people given roles and responsibilities. The Invitations . . . and so the day dawns, and everything is to click into gear, and it is time for those who have roles need to step up

“Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. These bridesmaids, or better ‘virgins’, have a role. They are to light the way for the bridegroom. Yet, When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them” . . . Jesus has given out this role to his disciples. 

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

This is their work – nothing else. Obedience to the teaching of Jesus. Many turn up at the end of the sermon saying, ‘Lord, Lord . . . haven’t we done all these [other] things’ He says ‘I never knew you’. So too the foolish bridesmaids – ‘Lord, Lord! Open to us.’ ‘I never knew you’

In a few moments we shall baptise Wyndelyn. Following her baptism, we shall give her a lit candle and call upon her ‘Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father’ We say to her, through Ethan and Sara, Christ has made you his own, he has made you one of his disciples, and he has given you a work

Christ gives that commission to everyone here. I am giving my Life for you, I am giving my life to you – Be full of my life – Be full of the oil of the Holy Spirit – Be full of God! To Know Him. That is your work.

It is huge. It is why we have this community the church, to encourage one another in this massive responsibility Christ has given to us. It is why we don’t baptise except into the church  – into the body of Christ.

It is where we surrender our own lives to receive His Risen Life

It is the marriage feast of the Lamb – Death for the sake of Love which rises to new life

We stand upon the great Stage – the lights are going up and the curtains are being drawn. This is the Day!

“Behold! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”

Amen

The Call – To Be Saints

Sermon for All Saints – 2020

Revelation 7:9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

The Calling

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Today is the feast of All Saints.
In a sense it foreshadows the Great Feast at the End of the Age – the collapsing of time (for to me they are alive) – when all of the Saints who from their labours rest, shall share fully in the Life of God . . . but that begs a question, who are the Saints – what does it mean to be a Saint?

Again as with last week we have a problem with language and indeed our thoughts last week on holiness fit perfectly well, for the word for Saint, could be rendered ‘Holy Ones’ . . .

Which then leads us to a further question – How does one become Holy, Become a Saint? For as Saint Paul opens more than one of his letters to the people of God, they are those who are ‘called to be Saints’. It is a Vocation, a Calling . . . Put simply it is to hear and respond to the Call of God, or as St Paul again puts it, the Upward call of God in Jesus Christ. It is to live more fully towards and into the very life of God. ‘Be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy is a Call, it is GOd’s Call towards Him, it is a, no it is The Vocation . . . God’s Call is always a call towards Him – ‘Come to me’, says Jesus . . . ’

Yes!’ You may well say, ‘but how?’ Well if you are asking that question that in itself is a hopeful sign – Hope is always directed towards the End of all things . . .

Yet in these times, one has to be very careful. We live in a world of ‘technique’, of How To . . . and as a good rule it is Wise to avoid, indeed to put into a large pile and set fire to any book on the Christian life which includes the words ‘How To’ in their title. It is a Life we are called to both individually and as a Church, there are no techniques, not ‘fail proof’ schemes in the way the world thinks of these things, except to pay attention. This is about Life – not mechanisms – So as we would be with someone we wished to know better, we only need to be attentive . . .

Or as Jesus puts it, let those with ears to hear, hear! (That is Respond! Obedience is another way of saying ‘really hear’)

Paying Attention is the great challenge of the Christian Life – no more so than in these days when everything is screaming for attention amplified by screens and literal amplifiers . . . We are surrounded by noise and images in a way unprecedented in human history, and paying attention is so difficult, especially paying attention to what is nearest to us, for Salvation, Life, healing and wholeness – or Holiness is utterly close, utterly surrounds us, and is Everywhere present . . . Just pay attention to what is present . . .

This week I was reading a powerful book on the ‘New Media Epidemic’. Written by a French Christian Orthodox Scholar, it included the following quote

When the remote gets too close, what is close becomes remote. —Gunther Anders, The Obsolescence of Man

Larchet, Jean-Claude. The New Media Epidemic (p. 47). Holy Trinity Publications. Kindle Edition.

Which put me in mind of this cartoon which you may have seen . . .

When the remote gets too close, what is close becomes remote. —Gunther Anders, The Obsolescence of Man

Larchet, Jean-Claude. The New Media Epidemic (p. 47). Holy Trinity Publications. Kindle Edition.

For it is our inattention to that which is nearest to us . . . that is God who is closer to us, than we are to ourselves. Perhaps this is why Jesus is called the stumbling stone?

For most of the time we spend in our ‘self-conscious’, and this is a form of remoteness, of alienation from others – and from ourself. There is no one more lonely than the self conscious individual – – –

We confuse our thoughts with our self. And you don’t have to be sat in front of a computer to do this. Have you ever, or perhaps this should be have you never had an imaginary conversation with someone, putting them right in your head? Or working though why you were so right and they were so wrong? Or or or . . . there are so many possibilities, so many ways in which we are distracted, and when we are distracted, we are as it were away from home . . . so the prodigal son is ‘living his dream’ . . . he needs to come home – the elder brother is similarly living a resentment story in his head, and is alienated from his father who is closer to him that he is to. Himself . . .

Saints, simply put, are those who know they are at home in God – those who have heard God’s call to be saints and respond are awaken to their home in God. They have come to the depths of their heart, and are learning to live from the deep wellsprings of life which flow from their, they have uncovered long neglected wells . . . wells of the very life of the one who is at the heart of all things . . .

So, the blessed are essentially the empty, those who do not have to dig deep to find God in their life, for they have little with which to hide themselves from him . . . you can think of possessions etc as fig leaves. Whatever fills our heart dan minds is God to us, for it fills the space that our lives are created to be, for God

These Blesseds of the Beatitudes are the empty, those poor in Spirit, they do not think themselves to be holy and righteous, those mourning, who have lost, those who are gentle who do not grasp to acquire, but are open to receive life as gIft, those who are pure in heart, who are not preoccupied with their many things of their busy life, those who are hungering and thirsting for this Life . . .

Finally the Saints Cry out “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
This is a cry of realisation – their healing, their life their salvation comes from God and the Lamb – little if anything blinds their sight, they know the source of life. To Know God, To Know Jesus IS Eternal Life

We are all called to be saints – to dig deep into God – to know and to live from his life which is present in the depths of our being

Be a tree . . . Trinity +20

Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Trinity

Leviticus 19:1,2,15-1
Psalm 1
Matthew 22:32-46

Audio of the Sermon

Being a Tree

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.
Last week we considered the question ‘to whom do we belong’. Jesus, faced with the trap question about paying taxes to Caesar asked to see the coin for the tax. A piece of metal with the face and inscription of the Emperor. (The Pharisees who were scrupulous about ritual purity sent their disciples to handle the money, which was idolatrous)

Jesus says – well if Caesar puts his mark on the coin, give it to him, it is his. But render to God the things that are God’s. ‘The people of God’, That which God has marked as his own, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit – belong to God and are identified with him.


Perhaps this is nowhere more starkly expressed in these words which the LORD speaks to Moses, ‘speak to all my people and tell them ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.

Holiness is something which is poorly understood. Like so many things to do with God, we tend to think that it is simply an amplification of some common virtue.
So you have ‘bad’ people, and ‘Good’ people and up at the top of the tree – ‘Holy’ people. But this is not what it means – it does not mean ‘exceptionally virtuous’ in the context of God. Rather it means ‘quite unlike’ anyone or anything else. God’s ‘otherness’, the sense that He is not like us, that his ways are not human ways and his thoughts are not human thoughts, is most clearly expressed in the word ‘Holy’. When Isaiah sees the LORD high and lifted up in the Temple and the Seraphs called out ‘Holy! Holy! Holy!’ This Otherness of God struck Isaiah into silence. It was the fire of God which transformed him – the coal, the Spirit – The Life of God

God is powerfully ‘Other’. And so His people are not like the surrounding peoples. They are Holy. They are different – because they belong to God. Being His offspring His lIfe is their life, life which come from God and will return to God, Holy lives.

The Psalms open with a meditation upon what such people are like.

Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers;

Happy, or blessed, or fortunate we might say whose lives don’t just go along mindlessly with the crowds . . . as the LORD goes on in Leviticus – you shall not go around as a slanderer among your people – You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin, you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself.

Don’t go around talking about others behind their back – your life is with your neighbour. Don’t harbour resentment in your heart against others, go to them and point out their fault between the two of you whilst you are alone . . . if you have an issue with someone and you do not take steps to resolve it, you will incur guilt yourself . . . This is a different life to those of the wicked and sinners and scoffers – because it is the life of God . . . It is a Life rooted in God, from God and too God. You are different – you know the nature of what it is to be truly human. You don’t talk about others behind your back. The Law of God isn’t so much prescriptive – thou must not, as descriptive, thou shalt not

but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on his law they meditate day and night.

As we explored a couple of weeks ago – the Way – their mediation is on The Deep pattern of existence which is The Way of God, the deep river flowing underneath, from which we are to draw our life. Our life comes not from the media – it rises up from God

The Holy are like trees
   planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

Like Trees – drawing their life from hidden depths – the wellsprings of Life that is God himself. Drawing on Life from God and revealing His Life then as it were above ground. Rooted in the depths and reaching to the heights . . .

Trees are perhaps the most universal image of Life, the Tree of Life is known in many cultures. Both CS Lewis, in The Last Battle, and JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings in different ways see cutting down trees as a mark of the end of the Age, of the end of Life on Earth. It is many long seasons since the Entwives were seen – the Age of the Tree shepherds draws to a close. Trees are cut down and the cry of the dryads which are their life fades on the wind . . .

But the Psalmist speaks of the person who draws their life form God – they are like a tree

It used to be a trope that drama classes began with ‘be a tree’ 🙂 But trees have much to teach us about our life as the people of God. Not least in these last days

In an age which is increasingly given over to and resigned to death, Trees are literally full of life

In an age which wants everything now – Trees observe full and fallow seasons – labour and rest – bearing fruit when the time is right. Trees teach us patience. Trees are not anxious

In an age of frenetic and haste and hurry, Trees are slow and even paced – they are never out of breath

In an age of mobility, homelessness and disconnectedness, Trees Know their place. They do not destroy their surroundings by moving around insensitive to where they are

In an age in which no one cares and we have to pay people to ‘pastor’ or as ‘carers’ for a job – In an age where ‘home’ means so little – Trees provide abundance shelter, home for flower and seed and bird

In an age where friendship means a wave on Facebook, Trees are always there as the most pleasant company

And in a world oppressed by the tyranny of words and noise they creation, Like God Himself trees speak only in silence

And as I wrote these words I wondered not only about us as individuals, but also as a Church . . .

Trees are Rooted in Life – The Holy ones are rooted in God

The wicked are not so,

Rooted rather in the illusory imaginings of a ‘self sufficient life’ a life which comes form nowhere and goes nowhere – a life which is not connected to the deep wells, dry and shrivelled – they

   are like chaff that the wind drives away.
They will not stand in the judgement,
   Or in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
   but the way of the wicked will perish.

This delighting in the law of the Lord is what it is to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength – to know and to love the source of your life

And when we rest in this, all boundaries disappear.

To return briefly to the silence of trees – we often hear the trope – ‘that which unites us is so much more than that which divides us’ And this is true, but it is hidden, hidden in the deep places. The Deep and Good Earth, the Silent place. Unity is to be comfortable with others in silence, the underlying silence which unites, which is the Life of God

When our lives are rooted in the God who is Silence, we no longer see our life as our own, but coming form the same source as that of our neighbour.

To slander our neighbour is to be blind to who we are, to hate our neighbour in our heart is to hate ourself, for at root we are all one – it is only when we are disconnected from our root – our life in God that we do not connect to others

So to Love your neighbour as yourself, is not a moral effort for the one whose life is rooted in God and stretched towards God in Heaven, who knows that the life that they delight in is the same life that is in their neighbour

Blessed are all those who Know this Truth

NB We have recently updated our course on John’s Gospel – Here is the link

Questions of Healing. A sermon for St Luke’s Day

Sermon for Evensong

St Luke

On the question of healing . . .

Today the church remembers the third evangelist – St Luke

Luke’s words occupy more space in the NT than anyone except Paul and of course our own, St John. It is widely thought that his gospel and the sequel, the Acts of the Apostles were originally one, but papyrus technology being what it was, they couldn’t be put together (There is by the way an intriguing scrap of papyrus which suggests that all of St John’s writings were once bound together as one . . .)

So we have Luke start The Acts addressed to ‘most excellent Theophilus – Lover of God, ‘in my previous book . . .’

Yet due to a single phrase in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which you may well have missed, Luke is associated with healing. The phrase?  ‘Luke, the beloved physician’, or as some preachers style him, Doctor Luke.

So the Society of St Luke is a society given to the promotion of Christian healing . . . which of course is not something straightforward. It raises so many questions for us, not least when we or those we love are not healed . . .

I remember sharing with a friend accounts of spontaneous healings in a Christian community with which I have good links, and there was a veiled skepticism as she wondered why they did not allow in a team of scientists or doctors to validate these healings. ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound . . . if a person is healed and no one validates it, did it happen . . .??’

This whole area is clouded if not with controversy, at least endless questions. Why doesn’t God heal everyone? Indeed, why didn’t Jesus?? Or did he???

I want this evening to offer a different perspective on the whole question and put it into a larger frame wherein if at least we don’t get hard and fast answers, we might at least begin to understand that the questions we bring come from a very narrow perspective on the matter.

I’ll begin with a question ‘of the moment’. If we allow that everything the president of the United States is true about his recovery from COVID, is he a well man?? In other words, what does it mean anyway to be healed? We often only understand this in terms of the equivalent to the doctor prescribing a pill which cured an illness . . . but is that what Healing fundamentally is? Or is it perhaps something too large for us, something which perhaps we cannot begin to comprehend and indeed even want to seek . . .

A couple of brief comments, a very brief historical note, and then we’ll return to the theme directly.

First, in our faith, we talk of Salvation. Fundamentally this words means ‘healing’, a most profound healing. We might say perhaps that in the narrow terms we set someone was not ‘healed’, but were they in the far deeper sense, ‘saved’? The US President seems by some accounts to be healed, but is he ‘saved’? (And I DON”T mean that in the narrow somewhat fundamentalist terms by which some of his followers might suggest)

Second, there is something close to the heart of the church which gives us this same broader perspective. When a priest is inducted into his parish, the bishop in handing him his license says ‘receive this cure of souls . . .  which is both yours and mine’ The old view of the church is that of a hospital – indeed hospitals as we know them owe their existence to the medieval church . . . These communities of faith are meant to be places of profound healing, or salvation, and those charged with episcope (oversight) are to manifest that, to be people of healing, relational healing etc. etc.

Yet, the heart of our problem with respect to healing can I think be traced to those same middle ages in which hospitals came about. About that time there arose a theological controversy, one the impact of which has pretty much formed the Modern world without most of us realizing.

            Up to that period, the world was understood as a place of profound connection. You couldn’t alter any one part without altering another . . . somewhat ironically, modern science has just come to this same conclusion, about a thousand years to late . . . BUT there was a problem . . .

The word ‘couldn’t’. This seemed to therefore limit the agency of God! How could one say, God cannot . . . Now there are many threads we could pursue at this point, but time constrains somewhat, so lets just leave it at that. ‘Surely if God is God, then God can do whatever he wishes, and so God CAN change just one element in the Creation without everything else being affected’ and in a sense if the argument had stopped there, then the world would be a very different place . . .

Because, IF God can do whatever he likes without everything else being affected . . . why can’t a human being?? So arose an understanding of the world which was foundational to Science until the late years of the C19, a world where we might as it were see things in isolation and treat them as if we didn’t have to consider a multiplicity of relationships . . . except we do.

The Environmental collapse we are living through can be traced precisely to this sense. Put another way, seeing things in separation from one another we did not understand the consequences of our actions. The World is a remarkably woven together place. Just this week I read the words of an Amazonian Chief. A people who had lived for unknown years in harmony within their surroundings. She said

In all these years of taking, taking, taking from our lands, you have not had the courage, or the curiosity, or the respect to get to know us. To understand how we see, and think, and feel, and what we know about life on this Earth.

I won’t be able to teach you in this letter, either. But what I can say is that it has to do with thousands and thousands of years of love for this forest, for this place. Love in the deepest sense, as reverence. This forest has taught us how to walk lightly, and because we have listened, learned and defended her, she has given us everything: water, clean air, nourishment, shelter, medicines, happiness, meaning.

Which brings me back to the question of healing. And a question. When we think of healing, do we do so in a sort of unreal isolation . . . In other words ‘the only thing that matters is this healing’ . . . You see perhaps that is part of our problem. Certainly I think it is increasingly clear that much of our illness in so many forms has been brought about precisely because we have not realised how one thing interacts with and changes another. Or how everything affects everything . . .

And this I suggest points us towards the centre of the truest healing and indeed Salvation as manifested in Jesus

People often ponder – why did such a good man have to die? In a sense Jesus death makes no sense – after all as Scripture amply testifies ‘he went about doing good and healing many’ . . . but perhaps that is precisely the point. The world is woven together. You can’t expect such significant change and transformation just in one place, without it affecting everything. Indeed Jesus most dramatic healing, the raising of Lazarus is the event that leads directly to his death. The world moves around this event, nothing is ever the same again.

So often when we seek healing, we want things to be ‘just as they were before’ How often and in how many different ways do we want such things. How much do we want to live in a universe where nothing affects anything else, when we can simply change ‘this’ and a myriad of ‘thats’ remain in place. But the world is not like that. If the outcome of Jesus’ healings was to bring Salvation to the World at the cost of his own life, I guess the question which faces those who seek healing is that which Jesus posed to the man at the pool of Siloam, ‘do yo want to be well?’ or, put another way ‘are you prepared for nothing to be as it was before? To die to the world you think you know, in order to truly live?

Perhaps this is the faith we need if we are to be healed