The Creation – To See Truthfully – Christmas 2018

Sermon for Midnight Mass 2018

Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

‘The Creation’

‘For we live by faith and not by sight’

As human beings we have a problem. For our most powerful sense – Sight – is also the one most easily taken hold of and deceived. We live in an age where visual stimuli assault us at every turn, increasingly so that we can be sold things. To compound matters to a significant degree, we now carry devices with us pretty much all the time, whose power over us is rooted in this weakness to have our attention stolen, to the point that we often find ourselves looking at our cell phones for no reason whatsoever.

In this age as much as any other if not mores, our Sight needs to be returned to us, that we might See truthfully.

So as when we seek to heal someone of an unhealthy addiction, we take the desire that is distorted and for a while put it to one side. To use a Christmas metaphor, we go cold turkey 🙂 When we want to speak of things that are outside the realm of our physical seeing, indeed perhaps to remind ourselves that there are things beyond the realm of sight, or better to our Sight so that we might behold the true nature of all things – there is perhaps no better time than in the depth of night.
For as the sun hides the stars and the entire Universe from our gaze, and our cell phones seem to rob us of the ability even to see those around us – thus the created lights of the World hide from us The Light, the light of Life. The Truth of our existence.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness

The Light shines in the darkness

The Light which is the Life of all people. The Light by which we Behold the Truth of our own existence – The Light by which we See clearly, by which we Behold All things – Everything.

For the message of Christmas goes well beyond anything that we might care to consider – out into the depths of space and time – filling them and completing them,

Here in the depths of the night we listen to words of John, coming to us from ‘the beginning’ When John wishes to speak to us of the coming of Jesus into the world, he opens his account ‘In the beginning’ In speaking of what we like to call The Christmas Story, John wants us to pay attention to the story of Everything. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the Earth . . . and God said . . . Let there be Light, and there was light – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God . . . in Him was Life and that Life is the Light of all people

Whilst it is true in some very limited sense to speak of the birth of Jesus as occurring 2000 years ago, that is only a fragment of a much greater truth – that the birth of Jesus, the story of Bethlehem and shepherds, and Mary and Joseph, and Angelic announcements in the night, is the Revealing, the Appearing of that which is true ‘from the beginning’ and also that which is true ‘to the ages of ages’. It is the Revelation of the entire work of God in the World . . . To See truthfully, to see Truth in its entirety, to See all things, our gaze must be restricted, drawn to a single point, a pin prick of light in the Universe, in the sign that is a child lying in a manger – to recover our sight we need to begin in the darkness in order to see Jesus

If the physicists are to be believed, and being a physicist myself I guess I have to declare an interest in physicists being believed, were we able to stand outside of the universe – an impossibility – we would see all of space, and therefore all of time. We would in a moment see everything from East to West, From North to South – from its beginning to its end. All space, all time – but we do not need to take a space ship to get outside of all space and time – for to Behold the Word made flesh is to begin to See all things – to have our sight restored, that we might truly be able to see all things

The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews puts it like this in speaking of the coming of Jesus into the World ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.

For the One born to us in the depths of this Holiest of Nights, He is the Alpha and the Omega, He is the Beginning and The End. ‘[The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ He is the Light that is the light of all people. He is in all and through all and above all . . . He Encompasses All things in His Being

One of the old Saints of the church says of God, ‘A circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere’ – This Word of Life which calls forth the entirety of Creation is revealed in the Centre of Creation, in the One who sustains all things

The Incarnation, the birth of Jesus we might say is the coming into the world of Centre of History, a Centre that is Everywhere and at all times. That has no boundary. A Love without borders. This is the meaning of History., the meaning of all things.

 

Amen

The Word of Life! Advent 4 – Year C – 2018

Sermon for Advent 4 – Year C 2018

Luke 1:39-45

‘The Word of Life’

And so, we come closer to the centre of the mystery of Christ, The Word of Life. Soon and very soon, we shall celebrate the great Feast of the Incarnation – Christ Mass – the Feast of the Eucharist of Christ himself. The Word made flesh – The Word of Life which John says ‘was from the beginning’ – being revealed within history.

Perhaps the most powerful story in scripture of this Word of Life at work is the account of the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus stands outside the tomb and cries out ‘Lazarus, Come Forth!’ Lazarus is summoned by the Word of Life from the non existence of death, to Life in its fullness.

As a favourite writer of mine likes to say, God in Christ did not die to make bad men good, he died to make dead men live!

So this Word, which Is Christ Jesus, is The Word of Life in the most profound sense . . . and in our Gospel Reading, again we observe this Word at work in calling forth life. We see it, and of course part of the tradition of the church is devotional art and ikons.

In ancient ikons and in the tradition of the Syriac Church, Mary is depicted as conceiving Christ, through her ear. This is a visual metaphor for what is happening.

So Mary’s response to Gabriel, ‘let it be to me, according to your word’, is much more than a simple, if breath taking obedience – rather it is the speaking forth of what is happening. It is according to the Word, the Word of Life, finding its place within her, that she will become the very bearer of God.

This is the How of the very creation. The Spirit hovers over the face of the Deep, The Word comes, Life springs forth. So the Word enters Mary and the Word of Life springs forth!

And so, as Gabriel greets Mary who has become a bearer of the Word that gives life, the heavenly Word is passed on as Mary greets Elizabeth – and there is Life! Mary comes to her cousin Elizabeth who is carrying John the Baptist

‘And it happened that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting . . . ‘And it happened . . .’ the Greek word is egeneto – the word from which we get Genesis – the Beginning – Creation language!
The baby leapt in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit’ We can perhaps see here the coming to Life of the child in her womb, John the Baptist when addressed by The Word of Life

So, The Spirit born Word comes to Mary to be borne by her, and now Her greeting, full as she is of the Life of God, brings Life! And the language is so very physical.

How sad that our translation removes this beautiful picture from our gaze – ‘as I heard the sound of your greeting’. For Elizabeth says ‘Behold! As the sound of your greeting entered my ears . . .’

‘As the sound of your greeting entered my ears . . .’ We are called to use our imagination to See, to Behold this Word passing into the ear of Elizabeth. as you received the spoken Word of God’s messenger, the one carrying the Word from God . . . there is something tangible about this Word, it is carried, it enters the ear – the ear which the Psalmist says in the most physical of language ‘you have dug for me’ . . . God has carefully crafted us with ears to hear – the Word of Life – this is why we should if at all possible NOT look at the screen with the reading on it, I understand that this is good for the hard of hearing, but listen – Allow the Word to enter your ear – to come into you, to bring Life. ’As the sound of your greeting entered my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy!’ How often I wonder have we known our heart leap for joy as the Word enters our ear, created for this very purpose.

And how full of bliss is the one who has faith . . . I find a recent translation of this so helpful in some regards if a bit odd on the ear, for to be full of bliss is to have been filled. Something has entered into us , has filled us 🙂

This is the nature of The Word of Life – when we hear it, when it enters into us – it produces Life in fullness. We become Full of Life, Full of Grace!

For a Word is not mere sound, or rather sound is not just sound – it is the very passage of the Life of God. This is why I think it most helpful that we Listen. That we Hear the Word. Even when we read scripture alone – read aloud – Listen to the Word

The Word written, is always one step removed from the Word spoken. The Word is to be Heard. The Creation vibrates with the Energy of Life itself – to be received into us. Life coming to find a home within us in Jesus Christ

Mary of course has already allowed the Word to take root in her – as she is addressed by Gabriel we hear, “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” – Mary as we shall hear over the next few days – powers things in her heart – she allows these words to go deep into her very being

As we prepare once more to Hear the Angelic announcement – may our ears be open and our hearts prepared for this Word of life to come into our hearts, to find a home amongst us and within us.

Amen

Salvation and the People of God

Sermon for Advent 2
Year C 2018

Malachi 3:1-4
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. Phil 1:6

Back in the middle ages, a certain set of changes in how people thought about things began to emerge from the prevalent views – largely known as ‘The classical period’. What is most significant for we who live in the Modern world was the rise of the significance of The Individual.

At the same time, the significance of communities – of shared life and existence began to wane, slowly at first, but gradually accelerating. The experience of Life as something richly shared became more and more something only experienced within first family, then nuclear family to the point where relational language disappears. I was in conversation on Friday with someone discussing the increasing prevalence of children calling their parents and other family adults by their first names . . . although there are aspects of this which might be considered a positive, if you have a very negative view of family structures, one aspect of it which we found disturbing was the absence of the language of relationship. Fewer and fewer people used relational language.
In traditional societies it is still common to use extended language to describe relational links – so for example ‘my mother’s brother’s daughter’, as opposed to the Western ‘Cousin’, a word which speaks of relationship but lacks depth.

With the rise of the individual also came the gradual erosion of the significance of the Church. The idea that to be baptised was to be brought into a community, the significance of which took up but also transcended any merely human relationships . . . increasingly took a back seat. Church increasingly became a place to which you came often to be alone. The idea that the people amongst whom you sat Sunday by Sunday were people with whom you shared in a most profound way, Life, indeed Life in all its fullness, evaporated. And the idea that broken relationships between members of the church were remotely significant was dissipated . . .

And so to our readings today

For the wilderness announcement of John, son of Zechariah, is an announcement not to individuals but to a people. The people of God. For too long they had lived as if they were not a people – the rich and poor lived cheek by jowl, yet there was no sharing in life – the announcement of the Gospel is an announcement first of all to the people of God.
The Salvation of our God is something which comes to life amongst a people and it is not an easy work.

The prophet Malachi uses the language of ‘fullers soap’ – the highly caustic soap which was used to wash cloth – to bleach it – to make it Clean and white after it has been woven – again he speaks of the refining of Gold and Silver which could only be accomplished by fire – and the goal of this work? To ‘purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.’

The message is plain and clear – the people of God need straightening out . . . but why? That the glory of the Lord might be revealed, to prepare a highway for our God . . . or as Jesus puts it – ‘by this shall all people know that you are my disciples – that you love one another as I have loved you, that is with the love that the Father has loved me’

It is without doubt the witness of the Scriptures to the Christian Life, that to encounter the Church is to encounter Christ himself. So St Paul as he writes to the churches, almost without exception give thanks for their shared life and its witness as the body of Christ in the world. One of the key exceptions to this is his first letter to the Corinthians where after his customary greeting he as it were draws back and goes on to challenge them saying ‘I hear that there are divisions amongst you’. Splits and schisms, intentional breaking in the Church are literally breaking up the Body of Christ, yet in the age of the individual, such language seems odd

One of Paul’s most commonly used words is Koinonia – that is Communion, or we sometimes have it translated ‘fellowship’, or today very weakly ‘sharing’. In our epistle St Paul speaks of the Koinonia in the gospel – it is a powerful phrase. We express something of this Koinonia in our liturgy. In sharing the Peace we declare – ‘We are the body of Christ, in one spirit we were baptised into one body’, and we share one bread, and all drink from one cup’

I’ll conclude with a brief reflection on what has happened to our faith over this last millennia – and it could be summed up in the words of a bishop who told me that he would have no problem ordaining someone who considered that the Resurrection of Jesus was a ‘purely spiritual matter’, that the body of Jesus lay still in the tomb.

Such thinking is commonplace – but especially in the age of the Individual – so we no longer talk in any meaningful terms of ‘The faith of the Church’.

But there are two significant, indeed fundamental problems with such a statement, not to mention the act of ordaining someone into the church who denies its Creeds, wherein we, the Church, affirm ‘the resurrection of the Body’.

First, to affirm the resurrection of Jesus as ‘purely spiritual’ simply that it suggests that The Incarnation never happened. That Spiritual and material are inseparably woven together in Jesus Christ, that you can separate out the spiritual Jesus from his material being – and as many in the church today push it even further to deny his very Koinonia in the Life of God as the Second person of the Trinity made flesh – has become the unthinking way of the world. To separate the spiritual an the physical in this way is to deny the possibility of the work of God in the material creation, indeed even in ourselves.

But secondly, in the Separation of matter and spirit you separate the Church from Christ, who is woven into us by his Spirit, we deny our Koinonia in His Life. We end up denying that The Church Is the Body of Christ in the World, and consequently that we have any shared existence, for He is our life.

This is of course convenient belief. It is easier to stand outside of the Body of Christ, not to have to go through the process of coming to birth in this body, of having to change how we live out our common life, to give priority to this shared life. It is so easy to take the Individualist line and to participate in Church as it is convenient – for genuinely sharing in life, in having to learn to love the unlovely and as the unlovely learning to be loved in return – is a hard work. It is like fullers soap, it is like a refining fire, it is like the levelling of mountains and the filling in of valleys, it is to have our crookedness straightened and our roughness ground away as if under a sandstone. And these people amongst whom we sit this morning are the soap and the fire and the sandstone

This purification, this setting straight, is the business of being the Body of Christ – that ‘the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.’ and that the glory of the LORD will be revealed.

Later this morning we shall have our annual Advent Pageant
During it we shall use this prayer
Let us pray

O Christ, the Master Carpenter
Who, at the last, through wood and nails,
Purchased our whole salvation.

Wield well Your tools in the workshop of Your world,
So that we, who come rough-hewn to Your bench
May here be fashioned to a truer beauty of Your hand.

We ask it for Your own Name’s sake.

Amen

‘A faith that keeps us standing . . . ?’

Sermon for Advent Sunday – Year C, 2018

1 Thess 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

‘A faith that keeps us standing . . . ?’

‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ Luke 18:8

If you’ve ever travelled to Europe and visit one of the many medieval cathedrals or churches, you may have noticed that around the walls of the nave, there are often stone benches, clearly carved to be part of the building. It is from these benches that the phrase ‘Gone to the wall’ comes from. For until the C17 in most places, the great body of the congregation would stand for the entirety of the liturgy – those who couldn’t ‘went to the wall’

Standing for the liturgy remains the practise of the Eastern Orthodox churches. There are no pews, or indeed cushioned seats . . . for why? Because we stand in the presence of God. God addresses us, and his address to us dignifies us as human beings.
When God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, he tells him to get up out of the dust – perhaps an echo of our creation from the dust of the earth – and prepare to face me! Several times in his letters, Paul speaks as one who ‘stands before God’
Jesus in our gospel for this Advent Sunday in which we begin our journey with Luke exhorts us ‘Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

Our essential posture before God is to stand – it is the posture of our faith, of our life and of our prayer.

One of the Saints of the our Orthodox brothers and sisters, Theophan the Recluse – a C19 Russian monk speaks of prayer in this way. ‘To pray is to stand before God, with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before God to your last breath’ This is the posture of prayer, prayer is our life and it is our faith. Aside from prayer we are not – aside from faith we are not. And so we stand . . . or at least we used to.

As our lives have become more comfortable and less rigorous, less demanding, so has our prayer and with it our faith. Faith, Life and Prayer are of a whole. Looking at the history of our faith it is hard to escape this conclusion.

Take dogma, for example. Those teachings which are held to be at the core of our faith. The Virgin Birth and Incarnation, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the alarming teaching that this wandering Jewish Rabbi is the only begotten Son of God coming to us in flesh and blood, and in bread and wine.
Yet we live in an age when dogma, dogmatic, is an uncomfortable word. We are in our age apostles of Pilate, who has little time for hard realities of Truth, he has little need of Truth when after all we seem to be so in control of our own existence, even to deciding for ourselves about the very nature of reality . . . until of course we are not . . . until something unwanted crosses our path and crashes through the fog of our unconsciousness

Advent as a season is a case in point. As I have had cause to remind folk these past weeks its traditional uncomfortable focus and rigour has dissipated. So the theme of Advent Sundays even in my life time has turned to ‘Faith, Hope, Joy and Love’ as a preparation for an infantilised and somewhat saccharin version of the story of the Incarnation, one increasingly shorn of its jagged edges. Who after all will give time to consider the massacre of the Holy innocents this Christmas time? It is telling that there are few who remember the traditional Advent focus – on the Four Last things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.

Judgement, heaven and hell seem to have all but disappeared from the Christian lexicon. Well perhaps not heaven, but our ideas about it seem often to extend no further to playing rounds of golf for ever with old friends . . . And as for death?

Well, there is no avoiding it except we don’t give it much thought. Which is odd, because if there is one thing that is certain, it is our death. Despite the fact that every time we download or go to watch the latest Disney movie, we help Uncle Walt continue in his cryogenically preserved state, awaiting The Scientific breakthrough which will, pardon the pun, re-animate him . . . Death is something we cannot avoid yet give it little thought, until of course it intrudes into our existence. And that can wake us up.

A grown man stood weeping on my doorstep one day. A successful business man – Death had terrifyingly intruded on his plans for his own life. His son and nephew had died together in a road accident, and Mick told me how this tragedy had called into question his entire way of life up to that point. Why had he given himself to things that now seemed so unimportant, so ephemeral? No longer insulated and cosseted away from this most concrete fact, Life all of a sudden was thrown into its proper light. The Reality of death had been a light, a pitiless light and judgement on his life.

Sebastian Junger, a Journalist who went to war with US forces in Iraq spoke of the effect it had on those who fought around him. He spoke of PTSD – Post traumatic stress disorder – but of two types. One we may have expected. There were those who had lived comfortable lives before encountering a war zone found that experience traumatising.
But there were others, another form of PTSD he noted. Those who had lived in hard and difficult circumstances before joining the army found the return to civilian life hard, because it was so shallow, so insignificant. Faced with the Last Things – well three of them in Death, Judgement and the Hell of war – they had found deep significance in their existence – it had as it were made them more fully alive. Every moment was freighted with significance – It had wakened in them a quality of seriousness of existence – which evaporated upon their return to the comforts and conveniences of the modern world where so much came easily, where you depended on no one and no one depended on you. Where life was not something demanding to be negotiated on a moment by moment basis.
Coming back from a situation where Death faced them with the significance of life, to be faced by lives of apparent insignificance was too much for them and they broke down under the strain.

These things – these realities which we work so hard to keep out of our consciousness are those things which face us with the Seriousness of the business of our lives. And thus for us, the Seriousness of Prayer. The Seriousness of Faith.

Jesus as he speaks of the Last Things says this

‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory.

These words shake us – call us to Wake up. Given that such language was part and parcel of much of the language of the time of Jesus, and age unlike our own when folk felt very much as powerless against so much that happened around them in the world. Do we sense we have so conquered existence that these words no longer have such power. Has our own sense of matter of our own lives led us to believe ‘this will never happen to us?’ And if they did??

Jesus’ counsel Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, for your redemption is drawing near. Our temptation may well be not to stand up, and raise our heads, but to duck! Unless of course this is what we have always faced?

In many regards what Jesus speaks of here is The Cross. Much of what he speaks of here, he also speaks of with regard to his Crucifixion and the fall of Jerusalem with which he associates it. The Cross working its way in and through the entire created order. Death and Judgement combined in one place and yet ever present if we are awake.

It is this that gives our lives as Christians an deep moral seriousness. I don’t mean that we are moralists, but the How of our lives takes on tremendous urgency confronted with the Cross of Jesus. Our lives are given us, that they might bear witness to The Truth, to Christ himself.

A simple example of how that seems to have deserted us is in a conversation I once had about a married priest who had, to use the vernacular, ‘run off with’ a member of his congregation’. I was speaking with another ordained minister who said, ‘well, the timing wasn;t ideal, he could at least have waited until he’d left the parish – but then you can’t help who you fall in love with’, as if that were the last word on the matter. Vows? The abandoned wife and children now having to come to terms with a broken home? No, you can’t help falling in love . . . How we might ask does that bear witness to the Truth? What ‘god’ looks benignly down on that smiling gently at ‘falling in love’? . . .

Stanley Hauerwas, a provocative Christian writer and thinker says – ‘The reason our age has produced no truly challenging atheists [and it hasn’t], is that the ‘god’ of the mainline churches has become so uninteresting’ Put it another way, in may respects, our faith now speaks of a ‘god’ who is not worth the effort of belief . . . and if you disagree, perhaps you might care to consider the question, ‘what compelling reason if any can we give to others to share in faith with us?’

Yes Advent does us in our preparation for the feast of the Incarnation, but it is This Jesus who comes to us, the One whose presence in the world is for judgement, is for the Last Things. It is the Incarnation, the coming to us in the Flesh of the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End of all things. Yet it is so easy to be lulled to sleep,and as we all know the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes to wake us

Yet the Jesus who comes to us in Word and Sacrament, This Jesus calls us to alertness.

‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.

In the Light of Christ Jesus, Crucified, Risen and Ascended and coming in Glory, Life takes on a seriousness which we have lost sight of. These Realities when we remain alert, held onto, hold us in place. Standing before Him.

Jesus calls us to Stand in the Presence of God, predominantly as His people in Worship, but also in private prayer and to be so disposed in each moment of our existence.

. . . and to go on standing, before God with our mind in our heart, to our last breath . . . that at the last we might stand before the Son of Man at his appearing.

Amen

Facing the Inconvenient Truth – Christ the King, Year B, 2018

Sermon for CHRIST THE KING
YEAR B, 2018

John 18:33-37

‘The King we didn’t choose’

The philosopher Sam Harris has a little book called ‘Lying’. It’s a brief book, but not an easy read. It’s not an easy read because its a painfully forensic analysis of why lying is a bad idea in [almost] each and every circumstance. In this analysis, without intending to, it reveals something fundamental to our human nature – we don’t like being faced with the Truth.
And it’s an uncomfortable read because most significantly we don’t like to be confronted with the truth about ourselves. As you read the book, over and again Harris exposes evasions that are pretty much common to us all, lies that is, and their unwanted outcomes.

In 2006, the former US vice president Al Gore released a film entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – it was about the impact human activity was having on the Created Order. It was and is an Inconvenient because it requires humanity to radically change the way we live together, and that is not convenient. You can’t slip it into your life as it is at present, between 3 and 5pm on a Monday, for example.
What is more it demands far more in terms of change for we wealthy westerners living in liberal democracies, than it does for so many of the world’s population. That is it is a truth that is very inconvenient for us – thus it is largely gone ignored, not just by the climate denier constituency, but pretty much by everyone else. In a sense, the truth is that we are all climate change deniers, for our lives do not bear witness to this truth.

Bearing witness to the truth in our lives is a matter of conforming our lives to the truth, and in our case as Christians, of conforming our lives to The Truth.

If small truths, like climate change are very inconvenient – The Truth is Completely Inconvenient – it requires us to change everything. Put another way, as Jesus commands, it calls us to die to our old way of existence, and to follow him . . . as we saw in the case of the rich man, this is Very Inconvenient. Put in the terms that the Scriptures put it, he was unwilling to Repent. [And if you think Climate Change is a Big truth, how recently may I ask have you been overwhelmed by the Truth of God?]

Repentance requires us to face the Truth, as the rich man did – the inconvenient truths about ourselves, irrespective of their convenience, and then act in accordance with The Truth. The Fear of the LORD is the beginning of the way of Wisdom

But we have two problems – firstly that change requires of us a degree of humility about ourselves which is all but absent in these days. We note that the truth about ourselves is the hardest to face – it is in more ways than one, too personal, as we shall see . . .

GK Chesterton’s words in a letter to the Times of London, “What is wrong with the world today? I am” are not words likely to fall from the lips of the vast majority of us. our media point us everywhere to ‘the source of our problems apart from the human heart.

Such honesty as Chesterton’s, such truth telling is as rare today as it ever has been in pretty much every sphere of life. Politics is mired in double speak – political leaders won’t speak the truth for fear of those who don’t want to face it – and it is worked out at the level of our personal lives – and that is because those whom they represent do not themselves wish to be confronted with inconvenient truths about ourselves. The Truth often embarrasses our own sense of who we are – or the person we’d like to be thought to be. Our actions before others often fall into an attempt to impress – or, put another way, to deceive

Sam Harris’ book tells the story of a friend who went to visit someone. She’d intended to take a present, but had forgotten to buy one. ‘Fortunately’ for her, the hotel she was staying in had very luxurious bathroom products in a nice bag. She picked one off them up and went to her friends - accompanied by her small child. Her friend was thrilled with the gift, and asked where it had been obtained, to which Harris’ friend replied with the name of an apartment store, only to be corrected by the child who said, ‘No mommy, you got them from the bathroom’ . Bringing a gift was meant to elevate Sam’s friend in the eyes of her friend ‘Oh how Kind, how thoughtful!’ The reality was she hadn’t been kind or thoughtful, and was exposed and such and as someone who would lie to save her own self image . . . it’s not a pretty story

Yet, honesty about who we are is rare – Groucho Marx amusingly said ‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have me for a member . . .’ – perhaps it’s an aphorism that we’d all do well to adopt.

If, the first problem with Truth, that it is Inconvenient to us, our second problem is perhaps more pernicious. For we live in an age in which it is not the words of Jesus we remember, but the words of Pilate in reply. ‘What is Truth?’ Although we say a great deal about ‘Post-Truth Society’ the reality goes much further back in time that the past few years. After all I only have to say ‘on the one hand you have scientific facts, and on the other religious opinions’ you will feel the power of this abandonment of Truth at the deepest level. Truth is relegated to ‘matters of opinion’, even within the Church.

Chesterton again puts it in terms of both ourselves and wider truth. He says that we have suffered as it were an earthquake regarding Truth – that once we took the deep Truths of our existence – say religious truths about the person of Jesus Christ, which is fundamental to our entire faith – that he is the eternally begotten Son of the Father, was born of the Virgin Mary, the Incarnation of the Divine Logos, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate and on the third day rose again – once we took such things as Truth, and questioned ourselves. Now he says we are certain about ourselves, and unsure of everything else is relegated to the arena of mere opinion.

Earthquakes as we know create liquefaction – the solid ground turns to quicksand. Much of the current malaise of the Church is that so much of what we decide in synods and the rest is built on no firmer foundation than the quicksands of public opinion. For it often seems we have given up on Truth – it being too inconvenient, not conforming itself to our lives . . .

As I said earlier, we take Pilate’s question ‘What is Truth?’ with far far greater seriousness than the words of Jesus. As if his dismissal of The Truth rested on some very firm ground indeed. Witness the ending of today’s gospel – the words of Jesus regarding The Truth. I wonder if any of us can remember them?
We All remember what Pilate said in response – ‘What is Truth?’ The tired question of someone to whom the Truth was inconvenient. The Truth is always inconvenient to those who think they are in command of their own existence – who think they are their own sovereign authority – news of another King will always destabilise the sandy foundations of our existence. If The Truth is out there, then my very existence is called into question – Jesus facing Pilate undermines him with his words

‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to The Truth. Everyone who belongs to The Truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate Must dismiss this – if The Truth is out there, then he must change and conform to it, or lose his very existence. ‘What is Truth?’ is his impoverished attempt to flee from the Truth. He tries to divert and engage in a philosophical question about Truth
when it is staring him in the face.

Pilate, the Roman, a speaker of Latin in a world where several languages would be used commonly . . . What is truth? in Latin is an anagram of ‘The One standing before you’

Jesus says

Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice . . . The Truth is not something inside our head – it is something we are to belong to, and if we belong to the Truth we listen to the voice of Jesus.

‘I am the Good shepherd of the sheep . . . My sheep hear my voice.’ He is the Good Shepherd, the True King – those who belong to Him hear his voice . . . they respond to Him

Jesus does not merely mouth timeless truths like mottos on cereal packets or lines from self help guides – He Is the Truth – Hearing His voice, continuing in His Word we are truly his disciples; ‘and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ . . . ‘if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.’ To Know Jesus Christ, is to know the Truth

The Truth is Personal. Knowing the Truth sets us Free, but the Truth is not an abstract thought, it is deeply personal – it is Jesus himself

I am the Way and the Truth and The Life

As Jesus says to Pilate – ‘Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice . . .’

We hear his voice, we listen to his voice. This is our way to Freedom from the deceptive voices both surrounding us and within us – the voice of Jesus is the Word of Truth which sets us free from the Deception of the Cosmos which binds our hearts and minds and imaginations and wills – yet it is Personal – and as I said earlier, all but too personal. Facing Jesus Christ is to face the Truth about ourselves, for he manifests the Truth of Everything, nothing is exempt or left out

Facing the Truth is truly Inconvenient – it calls us to profound Change, to deep repentance – – to orient our lives to the Life of the World, the Truth of the World, Jesus Christ, and to walk in that light, freed from deception without and within.

We have come to the end of the Church’s year. We have over twelve months heard the whole gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing has been missed out – our picture of The Truth, embodied in Jesus is complete. He stands before us. Christ the King – Inconvenient, almost in the extreme – not one we would choose for ourselves. But then if we truly need saving, then only one we wouldn’t choose can do this. And the Church in her Grace does not let us go at this point, rather we advance next week into Advent – we do so Looking towards the One who is coming towards us

For our lives to bear witness to the Truth as He comes to us, they need to be conformed to the life of the one who is the Truth. This is the way of Repentance, of Facing The Truth and acting in accordance with it, it is the Way of Life for us all who bear the name of the one who is the Truth.

King Jesus – not a King we would choose for ourselves, for when we face the Truth we know we need a Saviour. Facing the Truth we know we’d not take the inconvenient way. Only in following the King we wouldn’t choose for ourselves are we saved.

Passing Away . . . or Eternal? Tr+25 Year B 2018

Sermon for the 25th Sunday after Trinity, YrB 2018

Hebrews 10:19-25
Mark 13:1-8

‘Passing Away, or Eternal?’

Children are great truth tellers – well until they learn other ways. (One traditional reading of the story of the Garden of Eden is that through the deceptive snake, the infant humans learn to lie, and hide from the Truth)

The other day I was on the receiving end of such truth telling. I visited a couple as they were at lunch. Their three year old son who has only seen me once or twice asked who I was, and was told by his father, ‘that’s Megan’s daddy’. I smiled at the child and said ‘I’m very old’. Quick as a flash he looked me in the eye and said ‘you’re going to die!’ (I gather that they’d just been talking about death and the story had been told them that this was something that happened to old people and I had just put myself forward as a representative of ‘old people’ 🙂 )

It is Good to hear the Truth and certainly you can’t get more truthful than ‘You are going to die’ You may escape taxes, but there is one escape none of us will make! But we try to, not least in trying to leave some lasting trace of our existence upon this earth. Like Job we complain about our lot and look for a steel pencil and rock to inscribe our words on . . . yet as any visitor to an English churchyard will attest, the years rapidly do their job of making a mockery of our attempts at permanence, erasing our name from human sight.

In a world that is passing away, we seek to hold back the years. Not least by erecting great buildings – and of all the buildings in the time of Jesus, none dominated the view more than the Temple of Herod the Great. Vast and Covered in Gold, so that one could not look at it in the full glare of the sun. Surely this would stand until the end of time!!

In that light the words of Jesus ‘‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ can be understood as shocking. Reminding us of the temporariness of even the greatest buildings. Imagine if you will how the architects stood back and admired the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York as they were completed in 1973 [The Wikipedia entry for the WTC is followed by (1973-2001) – we even memorialise our building s nowadays]. . . Imagine the first St Paul’s Cathedral in London if you have ever seen a picture of it . . . Conjure up a picture of what remains of the parthenon in Athens . . . Stand for a million years?? Tower and temple fall to dust. Dust you are and to dust you will return as the words of our Ash Wednesday liturgy remind us.

The things that are seen are passing away, yet it is an affront to the sense of our own significance to face this. ‘’Behold! These great buildings?” See them, relies Jesus? . . . not one stone will be left on another . . . In the light of this, we hear the words of Jesus afresh – ’Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust, where wind and rain, and sun and frost wither away, where thieves break through and steal where armies and men of violence and fire and flood destroy . . .’ Don’t invest in dust . . . [Even Amazon – Jeff Bezzos declared this week that Amazon would eventually folk – he gave it 30 years or so . . .] Against the inevitable we try in vain to secure our existence

Yet we fail to perceive the true depth of how shocking the words are for Jesus’ disciples. They may well have replied, ‘Yes obviously we know that, but The Temple! Surely not The Temple??’

The Temple filled not only the sight but also the entire imagination of the Jewish people regarding their entire existence. It was The Marker of their Identity as the people of God, the people chosen for the dwelling place of God. From the beginning, had not God dwelt in their midst . . . if the Temple goes, what does that say?? Their entire social and religious world was built around it. Had not Jesus just shown them the widow who put her entire being into the Temple treasury? All that she had to live on? The Temple was their Life!!! Jesus just seemed to have suggested this.

If the Temple goes, we are as good as dead . . . Our sense of Security is in these stones . . . Who we are is tied up in this . . .
Yet we still do not fully comprehend the deeper sense of trauma – for The Temple was not merely about the Jewish people – the great vision of the prophets saw all peoples streaming to the Temple, for the Temple was about everyone, and everything, everywhere!

For those who knew the old stories, the Temple wasn’t Just a Jewish religious building giving meaning to a Jewish religious world. The Temple stood for the entirety of the Creation – the seven days of Creation mapped out the Temple – The Temple held everything together . . . if the Temple goes, everything collapses . . .
The destruction of the Temple would presage the collapse of everything as they saw it . . . wars, rumours of wars, earthquakes, famines . . . the End of everything . . . Jesus’ words about the birth pangs resonate throughout the whole cosmos.

The destruction of the Temple . . . All things hold together in the Temple . . . the brutal fact was that the Temple was passing away, not merely worn away by the sands of time, it was to be destroyed . . .

We approach the end of the church’s year – we live in the last times , and our readings point towards this end. We think of Advent as the start of the New Year, yet Advent orients us towards the End of all things. We start as we mean to go on, oriented towards the End of all things.
Advent is in a sense The Church’s season. It is the season for watching and waiting, it is the season that if you like gives us our posture for the entire year ahead, waiting for the Coming of the son of Man and the revealing of the fulfilment of all things . . . in Him who is the End of all things
It is the season in which we mediate on the Last Things, Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Young Welsey’s words were a very timely reminder – I am going to die. We meditate on the our impermanence, all that is passing away – and so look to that which is eternal. Not a building built by human hands – and the destruction of a Temple built by human hands, of the human attempt to supplant the story of God, is central to all of this . . . but this is not merely about the destruction of the Temple and the Cosmos built around it . . . it is about a new Temple, a new heaven and a new Earth

The destruction of the Temple. ‘Jesus [said], ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.’

At the centre of everything – at the centre of Creation was to be The Man, the human who lived loving God above and tending to all that was below. That was what was in place in the Creation Temple, but the human rather than accepting the name given to him, chose to try and build a name for himself apart from God – disconnecting the Cosmos from her Creator. Trying to turn the things that are passing away into the things that are eternal, trying to build heaven on earth, rather than being heaven’s presence on earth . . .

But at the End this is revealed as the fraud that it is.

In the Resurrection of Jesus The True Temple is established, the Temple of his body, where everything is held together, where heaven and Earth are united. It is the breaking in of eternal Life for all who believe. We are called to be his people with our eyes set on the eternal, storing up treasure in heaven, living into the eternal life of the Risen Christ, who was from the beginning the very centre of the True Creation that is not passing away.

We have a Temple, not one built by human hands – but that of his body. He is our Temple, The Human who holds heaven and Earth together in himself. Jesus’s words are very shocking, but they are as it were the blowing away of all that is passing away, and the revealing of the eternal life which ‘was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.’

And so in the words of the epistle to the Hebrews, ‘my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, Do not be alarmed, do not be led astray – for he who has promised is faithful.’

Let us look not at what can be seen but let us desire to Behold that which cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. Fixing our eyes on Jesus, in all through all and above all – our place of Access to God, the Centre of God’s plans and purposes. Let us not get caught out seeking to secure that which is passing away and being consumed by it as surely as it will be consumed. Let us not be distracted by wars and rumours of wars, by earthquake fire and famine. Let us fix our hearts on God, the Eternal one – let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. As we see these things come to pass . . .

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

Amen

The Widows Mite

Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Trinity, Tear B 2018

1 Kings 17:8-16
Mark 12:38-44

“The Widow’s mite”

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and your neighbour as yourself’

I started out in ministry as a parish priest in two villages in the North of England – from which we came here. One of them was a little unusual. Certainly to folk who don’t know England well, it didn’t fit the picture postcard idea of an English village. Cut in half by a busy trunk road along which thousands of vehicles a day poured – there was a great deal of poverty there, including our share of drug dealing and other aspects of life which don’t fit notions of roses round the door and thatched cottages. If it was the Shire, it was the Shire after Sharkey’s mob had got hold or it.

In ancient times it had been a very small settlement in reasonably decent agricultural land. Then the railways came. Hellifield grew up dramatically around the rail junction which was also the sight of a large auction Market, from which stock were loaded directly onto the trains. Many of the houses were railway workers terraces. It wasn’t a place of much wealth, but a place where a few people made their wealth.

When roads and trucks supplanted railways, the auction mart ran down and the village went into decline. It’s children, sons and daughters of rail workers who’d moved out from the town found trade in what we used to call blue collar occupations. It was definitely working class. Good honest folk many of them, running the various village institutions including the church, but struggling. Then came the government with a promise to build a by pass. The few older pretty properties became targets for wealthy folk from the towns. They of course being wealthy were used to being in control and the village institutions were quietly taken over by the ‘managerially competent’, who saw that ‘we could make this a lot better’. The village however continued its decline.

Then just before we went there, the auction mart was sold and a new set of ‘executive style town houses were built. The properties were priced out of reach of most of the locals and attracted people wanting to live in the countryside. Early retirees and folk happy to commute for an hour to work in one of the big cities. This group of people largely supplanted the previous generation of incomers who by now were 20 years older and had less energy . . . again, the folk who had lived there entire lives there were largely overlooked as ‘managerial competence’ was the name of the day.

Folk who sat on boards and got awards for this that and the other. Found themselves seated at the table with honour, and who expected to be greeted with respect for their manifold ‘good works’, and of course to have these duly celebrated in the media.
Finding ways to raise money, all too often from the pockets of those further down the pecking order. The Important people – as the older poorer members of the community were largely overlooked and forgotten, except to be dragooned for this or that project . . .

Of course this is an old story. When the church was built in 1906 it was by public subscription. A list was published of the major donors, who gave out of their abundance large amounts of money - i found an old copy of it. The list only included those who had given more than about £80. it was a printed list. The top five donors all gave £100 and had their names recorded or posterity. over the printed list a new name was added, and written at the top - they gave 100 guineas . . . no one remembers those who scraped in their purses for a few bob . . . 

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

The widows mite . . . a few years before we went to Hellifield I was serving my curacy in a typical Northern English town. Mainly working class. The church decided it needed to re-order its building – architects were employed with their big fancy schemes coming in at $3million . . . we coughed, thanked them, and paid them handsomely for their time and thought again. Eventually we came up with something more modest – and then wondered how to raise $750 thousand.

Somebody placed a box at the back of church . . . and put a label on it ‘The Widow’s mite’. I’ve rarely felt more uncomfortable about something in a church than that box. Into it we were encouraged to put our small change – cupboards were emptied, purses searched, sofas were checked out for loose coins . . . and the box filled with coppers, many many pennies – out of our abundance. No one it must be said was running to count it – it was easier to count the £10 notes . . .

The widow’s mite wasn’t her loose change, it was ‘all she had, whatsoever, her whole livelihood’

Jesus you’ll note before he sits down to watch what’s going on in the Temple treasury tells folks to beware of the scribes . . . funnily enough he’d just commended a scribe – almost. You remember last week, the scribe asks Jesus ‘What is the first commandment?’ Jesus reply we should know by heart ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and a second is you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. The scribe tells Jesus ‘you’re right!’ and recites both commandments. Jesus says ‘you’re not far from the Kingdom of God – not far. like the rich young man who stands facing Jesus . . . not far . . . but not there. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” You need to give up on your need for human affirmation and seek that which comes from God, alone.

You need to learn what it is to love God with all you have and all you are . . . like this widow here. The one everyone overlooked. A life devoted to God in its entirety is seldom seen in the world. Seldom noticed . . . like the little children whom Jesus continually places before us – what do they add to the world? Do they build fancy buildings or indulge in this or that or the other? Are they masters of ‘managerial competence’? Are the movers and shakers in the world we are focussed on?? No, but we train them up to be so . . . and all the while – not far from them is the one no one notices – wholly devoted to God. In her own way loving God with all she has and all she is . . .

As I started out by saying last week ‘The Christian Life is from beginning to end a life of Worship of the One true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, held in existences we are In each and every moment by the Love of God.’ This thing that we gather together to do Sunday by Sunday is the beating heart of our life together, but more than that it is the very means by which God in Christ upholds all things. Hidden away from the gaze of the world – un-noticed, unregarded. We feed on the Word of God, which is our life – these scriptures – held in disrespect by the wider world – to their gaze irrelevant, out of date, not much use if we’re going to manage things . . .

We pray – we enter into conversation with God. Unknown to the world this love sustains all things

We then come to the Lord’s table. The place where as the body of Christ, we are in Jesus as he offers himself to the Father and the Father offers his life to us. We go away sustained by a crumb of bread, and a sip of wine. Not seen by the world, for we have learnt to live by faith in the things that are unseen, knowing as we do that the things that are seen are passing away

The Italian poet Dante takes us on a journey through the inferno, and purgatory to Paradise. Right at the very end he speaks of beholding God and understanding – my desire and will were moved already—
like a wheel revolving uniformly—by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

When our eyes and heart are fixed on God in Christ – Loving him with all we have and all we are, we become fixed points in the Universe through which the life of God pours.

The wealthy put in large sums out of their abundance . . . and then went on to other things, to ‘Important’ occasions, in the glare of the media, making important speeches, unveiling plaques, leaving their mark – their lives full of ‘many things’.

The widow poured her whole being in – we don’t know her name – there’s no plaque. The Temple itself is no longer there – Yet it was through the widow that God moved the material universe – the love that moves the heaven and the stars.

Let those with ears to hear, hear