‘The Secret Place’ – Sermon for Ash Wednesday – Year B 2018

Sermon for Ash Wednesday
Year B 2018

Matthew 6:1-21

Treasures in the hidden place

So today Lent begins. I wonder what we are giving up for Lent? Let me ask a different question, ‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ Rule Number 1 – Never tell anyone what you are giving up for Lent! I will come back to ‘Why?’ in a moment.

I wonder what We are giving up for Lent? Let us give up telling people what we are giving up for Lent . . . either face to face, or if we are too frightened to look at real people, on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever shouts at the world ‘Look at me!’

Of course if we belonged to one of the older traditions of the church, say we were Catholic or Orthodox, I wouldn’t have any temptation to tell anyone what I was giving up. After all, we’d all be giving up the same thing, and if you [s.] think you [s.] are giving up a lot, then I suggest you go and check out ‘Orthodox fasting Lent’ on Google after this service. If anything else it will stop you virtue signalling your sacrifice of chocolate, or it would if we understood the way of humility.

So, then should we abandon the whole ‘giving something up for Lent idea’? After all, what’s the point if I can’t tell someone I’m doing it?? ( and if you think that that isn’t your [s.] problem, then why are you telling Everyone on FB??)

Lent is a season of self denial. It is a season in which we go with Jesus into the wilderness. This is what it is to be a disciple of Jesus. As he says to his disciples, ‘where I am going you cannot now come, but you will follow afterwards’ So as Jesus went into the wilderness to be tested, we newborn in the Spirit go out into the wilderness to be tested.

And as we heard on Sunday, He went there to learn to say no, no to anything, or anybody who would keep Him from the Father’s will, no to anything or anybody which would quench the work of the Holy Spirit in which he had been baptised, that Spirit which brings light and life and healing and goodness, even life from the dead, ‘for as the scriptures say ‘out of the heart of everyone that believes shall flow rivers of living water’’.

So we go there too, to learn to say no. For if we can’t even say ‘no’ to a bag of chips or a piece of chocolate, how on earth [lit.] can you say anything of value? How can you say Yes to Life? How can Life flow from us?

As we considered Jesus is being tested all the time, not only in the wilderness, but all the time. Give us a sign! Show us you are the Messiah! If you are the Son of God . . . until finally he faces the greatest Temptation of all. He was in the Desert forty days and literally starving, ‘If you are the Son of God, turn the stones into bread’. ‘No! – Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that flows form the mouth of God’ . . . But that is as nothing – it is preparation for The Great Trial.

Finally in the excruciating agony of Good Friday – this is of course what Lent is about, preparing us to face Jesus, the one we follow, on the Cross – every sinew in agonising pain, gasping for breath, his body wracked, wrecked, comes the Final Test – ‘If you are the Son of God, Come down from the Cross . . .’ and of course it is a Terrible temptation, because he could, he could stop the pain, pain beyond our comprehension, Everything within him cries out to stop the pain – he could say Yes to the Tempter. Worship Him and it would all be his, except it wouldn’t. He could Prove it . . .

and everything would be lost’ You can have everything . . . on the Devil’s Terms. Public terms – and everyone will see you get what you want – But Jesus says No to the Temptation to go public, and The Salvation of the World is hidden from our eyes

And he commands the same of us – we are following him. We are his disciples. In this testing, in the disciplines of Lent – we are commanded to hide it, to keep it secret.

Our gospel reading embraces the three basic disciplines of the Christian life – Almsgiving, giving to the poor – Prayer – and Fasting. These three are the foundational disciplines of the Christian life – they are how we bring the testing and learning of the desert, of Lent into our daily lives beyond Lent – and the instructions of Jesus, our teacher, are the same for all three. Do it in secret.
When you give alms – ‘do not [even] let your left hand know what your right is doing’ – do not do it publicly and if a all possible . . . hide it from yourself

When you pray – go into your room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place . . .

When you fast – do not put on a show – keep it secret – ‘do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place’

Jesus shows us the importance of saying no. Only a True No can give rise to a Life giving Yes. As we consider the poverty of the Church in the Western World, is it rooted in our lack of self denial? our inability to say no to anything? And so to say a life-giving ‘Yes’? Healing no one, not even ourselves?

And he ties this saying no, discovered where but in secret in the Desert, to being in secret – not to ‘going public’, not ‘letting it all hang out there’. As we cannot say no even to ourselves, we live in an age where everything is screaming at us ‘Show us! Prove it! Tell us all what you are giving up’ ‘Tell the world what you are going through’ Everything is laid bare, quite literally – there is nothing that you cannot see – there is nothing hidden . . . perhaps it is the final judgement when all the sins of the world are laid out for everyone to see . . . Having the form of religion, but denying its power – like a car tyre – we just opened the valve and let it all out, and we wonder why the Church is so weak?

But . . . in the grace and mercy of God, perhaps not yet. Not while a few persevere, and in obedience which comes from even a mustard seed of self control, say no to ‘going public’ and yes to the hidden way . . . for the power of God is revealed in apparent weakness. His ultimate Power over death itself revealed in the shattered body of Jesus, who would not come down from the Cross, but instead entered the most holy place, once and for all . . .

The Holy place, the secret place – the place hidden from our eyes.

‘Do not store up for yourself treasure upon the earth, where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break through and steal – don’t advertise to everyone what you are doing for Lent, for then you will have received your reward – whatever you get out of ‘putting it out there’ that will be your lot. Rather store up for yourself treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not corrupt, where thieves do not break through and steal . . . treasures in heaven – in the secret place

In the Temple in Jerusalem, much went on hidden form the eyes of many – but at the centre was The Most Holy Place – the Holy of Holies, and only one person ever went there. Each year the high Priest would go in to offer the Sacrifice of atonement. For what was the Holy of Holies? It was the very centre of the Temple – it was the place where resided the Ark of the Covenant, and over the Ark was the place where God dwelt between the cherubim – it was, for want of a better phrase, heaven on Earth. The secret and hidden place . . .

And so Jesus before the gaze of the public – says no – and rather goes into the hidden place, the secret place, to offer the one perfect sacrifice for the sin of the whole world

So Jesus goes and we follow him. This is what it is to be a disciple.

So let us own our sin in the ash upon our forehead, repent and believe the Good News, the Strange News of Yes through No. Of Truth through secrecy. Of Life from Death – Let us believe on Jesus.

Feast of the Presentation 2018

Feast of The Presentation 2018

Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm 24
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

The Lord shall come to his Temple

“I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”
Jayber Crow – Wendell Berry

Today we celebrate The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Hidden from the gaze of the world, the infant Jesus is brought as the law prescribed to the Temple for the purification of Mary. Bringing with them two turtle doves, as Leviticus 12:8 ‘If she cannot afford a lamb, she shall take two turtle-doves . . .’ Of course we leap to readily to the assumption that Mary cannot afford a lamb, or maybe she does bring a lamb, or indeed the Lamb . . .

Temple worship – temple ritual and rites – it all sounds very strange to our ears, after all, we’ve moved beyond rites of purification for women after childbirth – blood is just that, blood . . . Yet if we are to recapture a Christian imagination we need as I said a couple of weeks back to get rid of the word ‘just’ from our vocabulary . . . To See where we are is to have the eyes of our heart enlightened, our Imaginative world illuminated by the Truth of our existence. Blood is not just blood, the Temple is not just a religious building in Jerusalem two millennia ago. And we’re not alone in needing our imaginations opened – even Mary and Joseph marvel at the words of Simeon and Anna the prophetess – in a sense they also do not know where they are, or who indeed is this child

Over my holiday I was reading the latest essays of Wendell Berry – the farmer, poet, essayist and novelist. Having read him for some years now, I was very aware of the how his essay writing, always excellent had developed a deep maturity as he comes towards the end of his life. He writes about our relationship with the Land, with Place, with Earth and Soil – and much of his energy has been taken up writing about the despoliation of the world brought about Modern Agriculture. He reflects upon several generations of farming by his family, of how the land bears the scars even from the days of the first settlers in his native Kentucky – before the machines came – revealing a lack of sensitivity to the Creation – and with our readings in mind and pondering Berry’s writings I couldn’t help but be drawn to almost the closing words of his finest novel.

This beautiful work is the life story of a man named Jayber Crow, told in his own words, and a story richly woven together with Nature, Place, People and very very beautifully textured. It is the story of a small town barber, woven into which is the story of a secret love – of Jayber’s love for Mattie Keith, someone he watches grow up in the township, and marry Troy Chatham.
Chatham looks at the land he inherits from Mattie’s father as ‘Resource’ – he wonders how to make more money from the land – a typically modern preoccupation. As in this Rational Scientific age we’ve stopped asking the question, ‘What Is the Land?’ We now only ask – what can I use it for. . . so he gives up on the uneconomic mules and borrows money to buy tractors,. These of course he is assured will make him a better farmer. He fells the old stands of trees which are in his way as he goes for a monoculture farming. On hills and slopes that cannot bear it. Pretty much as we imagine human beings are, he treats the Land also as Tabula Rasa, a Blank slate on which to write his own story. So All the boundaries come down, and all the woods are torn up, All except for one small wood. The best of the woods, which Mattie’s father has left to her, The Nest Egg.

Troy like so many small famers caught up in the bewildering abstract world of ‘scientific farming’ and ‘high finance’ gradually ruins all the land, until all that is left is The Nest Egg.
And then Mattie falls terribly ill, she goes to hospital where it is clear that she will die. Whilst she lies in her hospital bed, in one last desperate throw of the dice Troy sells this beautiful wood to timber men to pay off some of his debts . . . but Mattie gets to hear

At the End, Jayber goes to visit her in hospital where she is slipping away. Emaciated and wired up to the machines of Modern medicine – she senses him come into the room and tells him what he already knows “Jayber, Oh, he’s cutting the woods”, and then “I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”

And one cannot hear those words from a good Christian writer without hearing the familiar words of Simeon “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace . . .” But as the words of Jesus ask us, ‘do we know what makes for our peace?’

Another book I read was the simple and beautiful ‘I heard the Owl call my name” The story of an Anglican priest living with and amongst the Inuit in Western Canada – reading that I was haunted by the constant reminder of the Deep Sadness in the eyes of the people, as they saw all that they held dear, most especially their place within the Creation, as like so many before them they too were ripped up like trees, moved out of [sic] the land by well meaning people – all in the name of progress

Well you may ask – what on earth has any of that to do with the Feast of the Presentation? With Jesus coming as a child to the temple?
And you would not be alone. Curiously amongst the several versions of the Lectionary for this Sunday our Lectionary is unique in telling us that the Psalm set is Psalm 24, but ‘just’ verses 7-10. These verses about Lift up your head you gates, lift them high. If we were paying attention we’d note that we used the whole Psalm. but surely its just these 7 verses which are about the Lord coming to the Temple – the rest is about Creation. ‘The Earth is The LORD’S and all they that dwell therein, for it is He who has established it upon the seas, and set it firm upon the rivers of the Deep . . .’

The compilers of our lectionary would have us separate out the Creation and The Temple . . . As I have said before Temples are placed in The Temple. The Genesis account of the Creation with its seven days matches the ordering of the tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple in its sevenfold structure

You cannot separate them out . . . but we have. Temple and Creation. For example how often do we hear words like ‘Well now we must get out into the real world to do the Real Work of The Kingdom . . . what exactly have we been doing here? What holds the universe together? Our efforts? Or our prayers? Does Praying actually in some True sense ‘Do’ something?
the idea that Worship is like going to the petrol station for a fill up . . . Do we realise, do we See what we are doing when we are here? I have spoken from time to time about the movement in Space which takes place in the liturgy. Is it ‘just’ a model? ‘Just’ bread and wine? ‘Just’ words? Are those amongst whom we sit ‘just’ other parishioners? What is human being anyway?? Who are we? What are we? Where are we?

And that disconnection from a sense of the Vital livingness of Worship is mirrored in our lack of Seeing where we are beyond these walls. The Creation. Do we Realise Where we are?? I think that those Native Indians with their deep sad eyes Knew and Saw precisely where they were? Mattie Keith Saw. “I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it is being ruined is hard”

To give s simple example, our rabbit sees better 🙂 I agonise I must admit over having a rabbit in a hutch(and yes I know, the Wrights let theirs run around everywhere 🙂 We are experimenting a little with free rabbit movements but where we come from there are foxes 🙂 ) Yet, here is the think, it is meticulously careful with its space – it doesn’t foul it all . . . It knows where it is, and it takes care of it and the rabbit droppings are located in a very small space.

Question? If we really Understand that we live in and are part of the Creation, the The Earth is The LORD’s, how can we possibly take it to the brink of complete destruction . . .

Simeon took the child in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

He Sees – as he looks At The LORD coming to his Temple.

This Creation is The Temple of The LORD – as the prophet says ‘The LORD, whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple . . . but who may abide the day of His coming, and who may stand when he appears . . .

Worship Matters, The Creation Matters – but as woven together – for The Earth is The Lord’s and everything in it

It is all His

As we ponder His Coming to His Temple, we may well ask, have we Cared, have we tilled and kept? Or have we been Casual?

 

Jayber Crow, his life woven into the land lies down in the soil in a clearing – he became one with the [Creation] but was anything but at peace – ‘I heard the motors speeding along the roads, and [along] the rivers, the tractors in the fields, the airplanes in the sky, and always, always that chainsaw in the woods. I heard the big trees tearing and breaking their way to the ground, and the thump of little creatures run over on the road . . .

This is the World of Faith – to SEE – it is no easy antidote to the World, it is to Know its truth and our place in it . . . and it is also to See our Salvation in Christ who as the Centre of Creation gives light to all who ask. True Faith is Woven into the fabric of Creation – for Creation is God’s and cannot be known or lived in apart from God

Let us pray that the King of Glory may come in
Let us pray that we Know the things that truly make for our peace

Amen

 

 

 

Through the Bible in a year – January 9

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Genesis 20-21; John 7:25-52; Psalm 13-14

As we read on in the story of Abraham, a theme continues – that of Abraham’s inability because of fear to live in truthfulness. Once more he pretends Sarah is not his wife – once more there are hash consequences for others

We are encouraged to ponder how our lives are so interconnected that these small hidings, deceits, fracture a much broader reality. Once more we see how Words can create and destroy world’s  – bring forth Life as the life giving promise of the LORD is revealed in the birth of  Isaac – or how deceit closes off life, as the people of Gerar suffer for Abraham’s deceit.

The face of the father of lies is not well hid, and his narrative of death constantly struggles for ascendency, finding a home in our fears, the antithesis of faith.

Abraham may well have asked “How Long oh Lord? Will you forget me forever?” But what is at stake here is not the LORD’s faithfulness but that of his people. Abraham has been stood beneath the stars and shown the future – he is called to live in the grandeur of that vision, rather than with a constant eye to preserving his own life.

The centre of God’s revelation in the age to come is the Temple – and from the Temple of his body, life giving streams of water will flow to those who thirst. Yet as for Abraham, the question for us also is ‘who will believe?’ Who will trust in the one whose Word is Life – who listens yet for the whisper of the snake?