Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity 2019
6th Oct 2019
The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity Year C.
God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control.
2 Timothy 1.6-8. 13-14.
God’s call is the one which would have us, first, first of all, abide in his presence. This is essential if we are to grow in His love. Last Friday evening I was waiting in a queue at King’s Cross Station for a rail ticket. The queue was long, and as each person intended to make enquiries before buying a ticket, and as the whole process was lengthy, so was the waiting. One man had entered the wrong queue and had probably been waiting for twenty minutes only to be told that he had been in the wrong queue and must join the other. And no, there was no way he could go to the head of the other queue as that would be unfair on those who had waited there already. His reaction was as might be expected one of controlled fury. You could sense in this long queuing a vacant space, and in it a stress, the stress of being at the mercy of a time consuming monotony, and the pent up coping with the frustration of it. There seem now to be more ways in which these stressful gaps in our existence can be alleviated. The mobile phone and the iPod are used by many where there are these vacant spaces in our existence; these places of inevitable waiting.
On the tube and in a carriage of twelve people, I noticed ten reaching for mobile phones to play music, games or attempt a text or Email. Only I, it seems was sat there gazing into space. ‘Mind the gap’ we are warned as we climb on and off the tube, but how do we mind the gaps, the vacant spaces in our existence? Is it desirable to be so often and so much distracted? Is it possible to inhabit the empty spaces and to accept them; or do they find us anxious and irritable? In his book ‘The Stature of Waiting’ William Vanstone observes that “…Our experience of waiting… comes home to us as we speak of our frustration and, in doing so discloses our assumption that the waiting role, the condition of dependence, the status of patient, is somehow improper to us, a diminution of our true function and status in the world, and an affront to our human dignity”.
There is something of this frustration in the Gospel when the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. This is a request to jump the queue. It is refreshing that the apostles are all too human in this respect. It is natural for us to want to short cut inconvenience, and to alleviate the strains and burdens under which we live. But equally there is something in the Christian Faith would have us deal with the hard facts of our existence. If we are to be called ‘faithful’, then we must indeed wait patiently while God’s purposes are unfolded in our lives in and through God’s own time, his koinonia, and not ours. He is ready to speak to us before we speak to him. We must wait on God while the deepest and most urgent questions of our lives hang in the balance. The Christian who offers the easy answer to God’s apparent lack of communication and replaces it with his own voice has not known or experienced the waiting. Our human existence is not a fast moving action packed play or film or novel, but one punctuated with proper silences, gaps and discontinuities. The play ‘Waiting for Godot’ burst onto the West End stage in 1955 and its action and inaction operates at this very level, and speaks to us from deep within ourselves as we find in our existence this very measure of meaning and non-meaning, and the unanswered question about why we are waiting, who are we waiting for and, importantly when will the waiting come to an end?
The example of Jesus Christ offers us a complimentary view – that Vanstone’s ‘stature of waiting’ is made present to us in the waiting or the Passion of Jesus Christ, even unto his own death. ‘Passion’ here does not mean exclusively or primarily ‘pain’: it means dependence, exposure, waiting, being no longer in control of the situation; being the object of what is done. This is in effect a brave, faithful stillness; a being present to the present, present to ourselves and to one another, and yes, to God. For the Christian this passion has issued forth out of silence as a prayer of contemplation, a willingness to abide in His presence for its own sake.
In this church, when the open the doors are open and the bell is rung, numbers of people come in. And this is significant. We cannot know what prayers and hopes and wishes and anxieties are contained within the silence of this place and its invitation to stay and to pray. But we do know that it is in and through the silence, the gap, the empty space, that God speaks. This offers what one writer on prayer, Alan Ecclestone, has called ‘A Staircase for Silence’. Human lives which may find in this holy place a sense of belonging and of contact both with the divine presence and the wider praying community. The well-known prayer which priests and servers say before this service ends goes like this ‘May the divine assistance remain with us always and may the souls of the faithful through the mercy of God rest (remain) in peace. May we find our true place of remaining or rest and stop and stay in His peace. Amen.
Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity 2019
22nd Sep 2019
The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Luke 16.14 “You cannot serve God and wealth”
This morning’s parable introduces us to a dishonest man who is yet cunning and practical. He excuses his master’s debtors a huge percentage of their debt as if with one bold brush stroke. He is adept at covering up his tracks and admits that even though he faces the sack, it will be worthwhile to excuse the debtors so that he might still curry favour with them. All this is done not with his own money, but with his master’s! He is the original ‘crafty Harry’ and the text remarks drily that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light”. Even his own master seems to have a sneaking respect for him.
Parables like this one can often be read through their last line, which normally contains a pithy instruction. In this case it is, ‘You cannot serve God and wealth’. The purpose of this story is not to amuse but to instruct. ‘God is before all else’ it says, ‘and wealth is ephemeral’. In the words of the Beatles song ‘Money can’t buy me love’. In Jesus own time, as with our time, the contrast between the wealthy and the poor was all too painfully experienced. And there are many parables in the New Testament about the rich and poor : the widow’s mites, Lazarus and Dives, the rich young man who must sell all he has, and the man who built barns and was rich but the following day was dead, and so on…
There may never have been a time when the rich and the poor did not live side by side, at least before some kind of monetary or capital based system of living was being practised. Last week’s feast of St Matthew reminds us that Matthew was called as a rich man. Rich because his job was to fleece the poor people with heavy taxes imposed by the Roman Empire and to ‘take his own cut’. Hence all tax collectors were hated by the people at large. But in calling Matthew to be his disciple Jesus takes a very pragmatic view of Matthew’s wealth. He knows Matthew’s true worth and is not offended by his lifestyle, but rather sees God in him and chooses him.
My great uncle on my father’s side was a Canadian who had served in the First World War and been gassed and wounded. Unlike his British counterpart, my uncle was awarded a large sum of money in compensation for his injuries and with this capital sum, married my father’s sister and bought a farm in Cornwall. Many years later I remember him speaking with my own father in one of his fields and asking my father how much did he think he was worth? I can’t remember what my father replied but it was a sorry sort of question. The following week , however my uncle died and so the question of his monetary worth was no longer either real or necessary. This goes to the heart of the question. You cannot serve God and wealth. Money has been a curse to some but for most it’s a vexation. In some cases of course, great sums of money have been given for the greater good. There is the Bill Gates Foundation and in the last century great monies donated by John Passmore Edwards to provide libraries for the poor in the east end of London and in Cornwall. His famous one liner was “Do the best for the most”. Then there were great public benefactors like Andrew Carnegie, who provided for the establishment of concert halls and parks. It has only lately been discovered that the singer George Michael discreetly donated many millions of pounds to various charities.
The ‘other side of the coin’ is of course the present state of the world and the broad divergences between the rich and the poor. Often overlooked is the poverty in our own country which is all too close at hand, and the prevalence of loan sharks, food banks and indebtedness, often owing to gambling and at the extreme end of the scale, drug habit. We must consider the purpose of a Parable like the one we have heard this morning to provide some kind of Christian pointer to the way in which any relationship with God must invariably relate to my (poor) neighbour. Churches like ours are all too aware of the need to account for the financial and material resources at our disposal, and we have spent the last year and a half considering our future course and of drawing a balance between our financial accountability and our desire to commit to a charitable mode of existence. We hope that our new tenants, offering acting skills to young people, some of whom will come from poorer backgrounds, may go some way to fulfilling our Christian brief. With the establishment of room space alongside the drama school, Holy Cross will in the New Year, be able to offer community space to local groups who themselves help to enrich our sense of local community and develop their outreach through the auspices of the local church.
The Christian Churches seek to embrace an economy in which the love of God and the love of neighbour, especially our poor neighbour, are interrelated and indispensable parts of God’s view of things. The parable today draws a distinction between the existence of God and prevalence of wealth but the distinction is not a neat or convenient one. But what emerges is the real state of things and of a God who seeks us out and knows us, not primarily for what we bring to the table, or even our own estimation of ourselves, but for the love he has for us and the hope he wishes for a present and future which finds its true worth in Him.
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
15th Sep 2019
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday of Trinity Year C
I received mercy, so that in me…Christ might display the utmost patience. 1 Timothy 1 15.
On this day, when we prepare for our Patronal Festival and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we should remember something very significant. And it is this : that there was a time during the first three centuries of the Church when the Cross was not its central sign. It was thought that the suffering and dying Christ on the Cross was too dreadful and sad and shocking a sign for would-be converts. Instead the dominant image was of Christ the Good Shepherd, and there is a wall painting in one of the Roman catacombs which is dated 250 AD which has Christ with the sheep around his neck and carrying a bucket. Christ is represented as a kind of second David, the clean shaven young shepherd who became Israel’s first King. But this image proved to be inadequate. Once the Church had suffered and lost many of its followers to martyrdom it became evident that The Cross and its message of the saving death of Christ had become by far the most meaningful symbol for the Church. The Cross was of deeper significance because it spoke not only of a bond of pastoral love and attentive care but of a love which through the crucifixion had broken down the barrier which separated life from death. It was an image which carried with it a whole raft of human emotions and weight. Above all, it was a hopeful sign because it carried the weight of human sin and failure with it. It was a potentially transforming sign because in the death of Christ on the Cross was considered life giving. The Cross was the mark, the means by which Man was restored to God the Father through the life-giving sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It was a sign of hope over defeat, of life beyond death, of sacrificial love and its outpouring. St Paul will remind us that,
…now, in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought close by the blood of Christ. So you are no longer aliens or foreign visitors, you are citizens like all the saints, and part of God’s household. Ephesians 2.19.
When Luke writes about Christ as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, we are reminded of the interdependence of human relationships : all of us are to be involved in the shepherding of one another. God is endlessly compassionate. He is after all, love. He does not just display the qualities of love. He IS love, and as love does not love partially or particularly. His love is for all humankind. And this love is not static but one which is full of life and promise, one which seeks out the lost. The three ‘lost and found’ examples Luke gives us are The Prodigal Son, The Woman with the Lost Coin, and the Shepherd and the Lost Sheep. Luke is describing an experience of the love of God as the discovery of something unexpected – the finding of new and transforming life in an experience of the love of God. The recourse to the old and much loved image of the good shepherd is very apt here. I say this because one of the greatest tests for The Christian Church lies in the call to seek out the lost, the ignored, the despised and the rejected and to offer them the love of God which is the shepherd who bothers, sacrifices his time and goes out of his way to seek out the lost sheep and to bring them home.
The images of the Cross and the Good Shepherd both have one thing in common. They both speak powerfully of the need for our reconciliation with God, and if with God, then with one another. The Church exists for the healing of humankind, for the mending of broken lives and for the bringing about of that oneness with God which was once lost and now can be found in Him. The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in all itself power and healing, is the sign of the good shepherd, crucified once and for all, and able to reveal to us in all its scope and depth, the outpouring of God’s mercy to us all, both inside and beyond anything we can confine or confound.
Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
8th Sep 2019
Twelfth Sunday after Trinity Year C 2019
“None of you can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions”. Luke 14.33
Our understanding of the life and death of Jesus Christ lies in a key Greek word ‘kenosis’ which allows us to understand the whole offering of his life as a self-emptying, servant one. In Paul’s Letter to the Philemon we have a moving account of how Paul, even while a prisoner in chains, is prepared to send away his most beloved and trusted helper for the good of the Church. And he describes this helper as ‘a part of his own self’. In Christian terms, we come to understand the relationship between the offering of love with the bearing of burdens and the renunciation of self that comes with it. No love was ever real without the life of love being in the words of a Shakespeare sonnet ‘borne out even unto the end of time’.
It is within this context that the challenge to give up our possessions is being made. And the example of Christ carries with it a call for us to take stock of what we possess and how we possess, what we use and how we use it, and what we seek to possess apart from those considerations of how this will affect our relations with others. And this is seen in the rise of a 21st century call to be responsible as consumers for the life and the health of the planet. More than ever, my actions, and the way I consume, effects the life of the planet and of my fellow men and women. The reach is global and communal. The self-emptying of Christ is not just an individual act on his part, but one which has a direct bearing upon the life of the world. And the call to dispossess lies side by side with the call for live more communally and less selfishly.
My first teacher’s name was Caroline (or as I later came to know her) ‘Carrie’ Peat. Miss Peat, who told us wonderful stories, gave us months old sweets from an old glass jar if one of us deserved commendation, awarded us sticky coloured or even silver or gold stars, and who went to church. This same Miss Peat would, we all knew, walk miles to church, come rain or shine, well into her early eighties. Never failing, walking with the elements. A woman who had remained a single, who lived alone, and walked to church, and yet a bright, shining, faithful and serving spirit. And I can see her walking as a prayer of active service and as an act of heroism. Walking in all weather, sometimes in driving rain.
The teaching of Christ comes to us through the energy and the example and the meaning of his own self-emptying, and calls us to that same willingness to offer the whole self to God in worship and service and not just the remnants of our nervous energy.
Some time ago, I read a ‘Times’ headline which said “Religious leaders say prayers as glacier begins to slip away”. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Shinto and Jewish leaders had offered joint prayers from a ship moored a few hundred yards from a huge glacier in the Arctic Circle, the probable source of the iceberg which sank the ‘Titanic’, and which is now melting, moving continually at 2 mph southwards and a powerful symbol of the speed at which global warming is advancing. It seems strange to say prayers over a melting glacier but of course something else is going on here. The melting glacier speaks to us of the planet. Our earth also remains unbelievably beautiful and we have learnt to love it and even call her ‘Mother’. The prayers are said for us to wake up; to accept a renewed responsibility for what we consume and how we consume it, and of how we relate to ourselves in relation to the world around us. Time has proved us poo custodians of the natural earth and this must be accepted, too.
Lying at the heart of Jesus teaching is the call to dispossess ourselves of those things whose possession limits our own lives and the life of the wider community. The self-emptying of Christ is no empty gesture, but is vital to our understanding of human interrelationship and interdependence – he gives himself so that we might have fullness of life in one another. In the dispossession, the letting go, the self-emptying, lies the pathway into renewal of life; of the finding in the giving away of these things the experience of a new kind of freedom. We stop being merely consumers of goods and become instead active contributors to the life of the world which sustains us.
We can only truly possess in life what we have learnt to dispossess. This is what scripture tells us. Here lies one of the many paradoxes which belong to a Christian understanding of life. It is brought to us in the self-emptying Christ, It becomes ‘the pearl of great price’ and ‘the treasure hidden in earthen vessels’. These, it is suggested, are to be bought at a different cost and in a different market. They belong to what is lasting and ultimately, real. “None of you”, says Jesus, “can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions”.
Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
1st Sep 2019
Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity Year C
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted”. Luke 14.10.
It is six years since the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney died. The Irish Prime Minister at the time Enda Kenny commented that “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as people”. He was a Catholic Irishman from Londonderry and yet he was every Irishman. A citation he was given in 1995 for The Nobel Prize for Literature read “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”. Our former poet laureate, Andrew Motion commented that to read Heaney’s poetry was to “feel the benediction of his kindness”. .
Only a humble man could be given such accolades. Only someone, who spoke the truth, as we understand it in its most profound sense. One of the strains that the Brexit debate puts upon us is that we don’t quite feel we are being told the truth but only various forms of half truth. In today’s Gospel we are given the simple figure of the instruction in humility. It is the parable of the invitation to the wedding banquet and with it two pieces of advice, the first one is to the guest to take the lowest seat, so that he may be called higher. Secondly there is the advice to the host, instructing him to invite those he would never imagine inviting, the poor, the lame and the blind; in other words beggars who could not re-pay the invitation in kind. On its own the parable would be quaint were it not for the context in which it is being delivered. Related as it is to the life of Christ and his Gospel message, it becomes for the Church a parable for Christian behaviour.
The earthly banquet equates to the heavenly banquet as the occasion which sees the gathering in of those who have been invited to the feast, the place in which the divine and the human life finds its place of understanding and rest. But this parable also has ‘teeth’. For when Jesus teaches the values of the Kingdom, and where this parable points to the quality of humility, so a strong and searching light is cast on those types of behaviour where human pride is to the fore, and where there is recourse to take, if needs be by an act of greed, or force or vanity, the higher place where we may assert our own right to be ‘on top’, our own privileged place of right, maybe at the expense of others or of wisdom.
The death of a great poet is a powerful sign for our own times. Only a life of deep reflection is capable of recognising that which is most profoundly true. It was Bishop Richard Holloway of Edinburgh instructed Christians “to live the examined life, which tests itself for its own prejudices”. At least know how many times we get things so wrong. We judge, we misunderstand we turn our backs on all kind and generous thought where it does not suit us. It is useless to gain our own kind of knowledge divorced from the lives of others whom we barely know. The invitation to the wedding fast speaks of the inclusion of those who would normally be excluded, air brushed out of things. Only a Heaney could put all this into poetry, which has at its core a language which speaks of the heart and what lies at the heart of things.
The word ‘humility’ signifies a very grounded closeness to Mother earth. It relates to the Latin word ‘humus’ meaning earth. It is not the false humility which is full of itself. As a farmer’s son, Seamus Heaney had the soil of Ireland in his finger nails, and rather than rail against the Northern Ireland conflict, which was at its height when Heaney was writing, he used the image of the thousand years old bodies, dug up in Irish bogs, to write about time and the consequences of the living out of time.
He once said he had ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head’ whenever politics was discussed. Though he left the countryside and taught English first in Belfast and then in Dublin as a young man, he did not forget his farming roots. He fondly remembered watching his grandfather cutting turf for peat, and taking a bottle of milk to the old man who would straighten up just long enough to drink it before bending over his spade again. He pictured himself working in the same way, digging out words with the nib of his pen.
This for me this is humility. Heaney was a great believer in what he called ‘learning by heart’. Especially learning poems by heart. And the Christian Faith lays great store on the heart as the place for all our decision-making. Humility is the ground, the grounded place. It is the place where lies our true centre and personal, spiritual and moral equilibrium, our sense of balance and perspective and our true humanity. It is the place where we may ‘learn by heart’. .0
When Jesus teaches the values of the Kingdom of God on this earth, his is leading where the poet follows with the learning of the essential and wise things ‘by heart’, the leading of the deeply active/reflective life, the weighing of words and elements and the wonder at their meaning and depth.
“The things of God are very deep and we must go (dig) deep to find them
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.
The Kingdom is that place where life itself, wherever it goes on, whether as kind or brutal is in God always waiting for its own transformation into his likeness and being. Waiting for that which belonged to Heaney, ‘of the benediction of God’s kindness’.