Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas
29th Dec 2013
Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas Year A
“He became their Saviour in all their distress” Isaiah 63.8
This is the Sunday in which, at the end of another calendar year, we are called to understand what faith means. There is a frequent Latin saying that was often engraved upon clocks, and it is apt on this last Sunday of the year to mention the phrase ‘tempus fugit’ or ‘time flies’. Time has certainly flown for us. Our readings now take us from the joy and the wonder of the stable at Bethlehem and now plunge us into the dangerous world in which this child has been brought to birth. As soon as the wise men leave Bethlehem so Joseph, in another sequence of dreams, is summoned to flee the deadly wrath of King Herod against the life of his child. It was never possible to stay in the place of awe and wonder or of ultimate safety. The birth of a child is not separated from its fate and this is especially true for the life of this child. For this child, Emmanuel, ‘God with Us’, is born into a fully real world and not a Christmas card one. Just as Christmas wrappings are discarded and life resumes and The New Year beckons, so the feast comes to an end and the demands of ordinary life and its routines are once again resumed. There is a stark reminder in all this that The Christian Faith is the one which does not rest in one place alone but in a world which for all of us is so infinitely variable. It is both whole and fractured. It is settled and unsettling. It is beautiful and tragic. It is full of life and yet contains auguries of death. Very little remains entirely certain, and so much remains provisional, and Christian Faith is active in the struggle to understand and to engage with these things. This is the challenge for the grounding of our faith, if it is not to be something small and vague. Isaiah reminds us of the Messiah “who became their Saviour to (the people) in all their distress”. Our offertory hymn this morning will remind us that in the acceptance life’s difficult things, we are called to place our trust in the God who exists for their meaning:
God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year,
God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.
Here is the note of hope. Its suggestion is that God’s providence and purposes underpin all our lives and the ‘hopes and fears of all our years’. A life lived in communion with God is the one which does not rest on the acceptance of blind fate but on the promise of God’s active, informing, enriching, merciful, healing and joyful presence. Faith lights our way enriched by this presence in the responding to his love which is active grace:
If I go lower in the book,
What can be lower than the common manger?
Faith puts me there with him, who sweetly took
Our flesh and frailtie, death and danger.
If blisse had lein in art or strength,
None but the wise or strong had gained it:
Where now by Faith all arms are of a length;
One size doth all conditions fit.
A peasant may beleeve as much
As a great Clerk, and reach the highest stature.
Thus dost thou make proud knowledge bend & crouch,
While grace fills up uneven nature.
George Herbert, from The Temple (1633).
We can and often do make the idea of Christian Faith seem very grand or remote, but we often forget that faith is that which is incarnated in the faithful, that is, you and me. The great strength of the Church lies in its mixture of so many people who are coming to faith from many different places in life. Then there are the persons themselves of many different personality types. Then there is The Church which is the life of all those people committed to God in one place and at one time, as here at Holy cross Church. Then there is the faith of the Church which lies in the lives of people like us who struggle with all that life brings them. We share those lives in a profound way through the worshipping life of the Church and of its prayer life and its sacraments.
This morning it is sad but appropriate that as we come to talk about the meaning of faith I announce the death of one of our own resolute faithful, Elsie Crossland, who for many years now has been coming to Holy Cross Church from Welwyn Garden City, and come it must be said with faith and with joy in her heart. We have all benefitted from her glad good humour and passion for the Faith of the Church. In her example we have been given the most ready and the most personal example of a Christianity which is manifested in the best of human virtues, and particularly the virtues of worshipfulness with good humour. She delighted in our newly founded rosary group and in keeping company with our Friday morning group. I shall miss her terribly. She was always offering me books and pamphlets which celebrated that same Anglo-Catholicism which she cherished from her childhood and which lay at the heart of what gave her life true and joyful meaning. As I mourn the loss of this dear lady I am minded of all that is best in the Christian Faith, which however you put it, will also speak more than words ever can of lives enriched and blessed by the Church, and which imparts its great goodness to us in many different and kind ways.
‘Tempus Fugit’ – times flies, of course. But it is in times and places that God’s good purposes are being worked out ‘as year succeeds to year’. It is in times and places like ours that God’s good grace fills up what George Herbert called ‘our uneven nature’ and it is in times and places such as Bethlehem, not least King’s Cross that God is calling us ever on, until in His own time he calls us to himself.
May God bless you, Elsie. Rest eternal grant unto you, dear one, and let light perpetual shine upon you. May you rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.
Some words, finally from John Wesley (Elsie liked quotes) “The best of all is, God is with us”.
Sermon for Midnight Mass of Christmas 2013
24th Dec 2013
Midnight Mass 2013.
…And here is a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger’. Luke 2.12.
The high point of the middle ages was the discovery of the fully animated human being. Christian images broke out of their standard, sombre, flat rigid postures, and suddenly something utterly wonderful happened: in the statues carved in French Cathedrals at this time The Virgin Mary began to smile. And in that smile, given its subtlest form in Da Vinci’s later depiction of the Mona Lisa, a whole new world of feeling was opened up for the faithful. The Virgin not only appears to be recognised but found to possess an inner life, an emotional life, a life which is not only experienced but also deeply felt. It is the smile of self-disclosure. It traces itself to George Herbert’s description of prayer as “a land of spice; something understood”. But this is an understanding which as it were dawns upon us to delight us and to beckon us in.
The birth of the Christ child is the sign that before ever Christmas is sold to us; it is firstly given to us as a God’s gift. In the words of ‘O little Town of Bethlehem’ it is “a wondrous gift” that is given; “…for God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his Heaven”. This touches a chord. It speaks gently and subtly to a place in the human heart for which the nativity story and its everlasting significance are met in us in God tonight.
Bethlehem is of course surrounded by high 30 foot walls and watchtowers. As you go in you have to pass several checkpoints. Voices which also watch you crackle out from steel walls and order you to stay put or to move on. Walls divide Bethlehem and now turn it into a place of perpetual siege. A place of division. These high walls are contrasted by the four foot high ‘door of humility’ through which you enter the Basilica of the Nativity in Manger Square. You have to enter courteously, with your head bowed, not under duress but in anticipation of wonder. The birth of the Christ is the gift that God has given to us at this time and he beckons us to go in and to stop and stay in awe and wonder. When you visit the place of Jesus’ birth in Manger Square you stoop down and reach your hand into a hole to touch the ground on which the manger once stood.
The sign we celebrate on this night is the same sign that was delivered two thousand years ago, and its significance has not been dimmed with the passage of time. Rather the meaning of its coming in the birth of Christ is intensified and humanised. This is the beckoning love which speaks through our defences, and which reaches and speaks to hardened and bruised hearts. It is the love which is given as to us as a vulnerable child in need of its mother’s milk. It is given at the place between the hard heart and the healing of that heart. It is as gentle and as sure a sign to us as the Virgin Mary who begins to smile…a smile which may seem inscrutable at first but which may be shared with us as a kind of understanding. Through this smile we are to know in the buzz of the Christmas festivities that something life-saving has happened. God has made himself known in this child at this time and in this place. He has become one with us. “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel”… Mary smiles because God has brought something wondrous to birth in her!
In Holy Cross Church tonight, in the centre most parish in London in the year 2013 we wonder at the sign which was given so long ago. May we find delight in it and God willing, allow it to find a place in our hearts, a place open to the possibility of the further acceptance of love. A guiding star. A place of responding to Mary’s original smile.
And is it true, and is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A baby in an ox’s stall?
The maker of the stars and sea
Became a child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie, so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single truth compare
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in bread and wine.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
22nd Dec 2013
Advent 4 (Year A)
“When Joseph awoke from sleep he did as the angel had commanded him; he took her as his wife.”
Some years ago, Botticelli’s ‘Mystical nativity’ was being exhibited at the National gallery as the centre piece of an exhibition entitled ‘Seeing Salvation’. And the painting is mystical because it deliberately substitutes the birth of Jesus as a pastoral scene for something more mind-boggling. Angels abound, they are in evidence everywhere. They come to the nativity from the heavens, which are painted in gold, and this time of nativity is the time when the heavens are ruptured and where heaven and earth become accessible to the angelic host. It is a time, in other words of extraordinary communication between God and humankind. Botticelli is telling us that the birth of Jesus has shook the world of sense and of time and placed it on a new course.
But this morning’s Gospel reading brings us to a more prosaic chapter in the Saviour‘s birth, and we are brought immediately to our senses. From Mary’s bold declaration that she has ‘seen’ God’s salvation comes also the rather inauspicious circumstances within which Joseph is to save her from public disgrace and take her for his wife. It is Joseph who earths the Christmas story in the world of practicalities, and it is in Joseph that we meet the man who will in a dream find his way to marrying Mary and avoiding what would otherwise have been a public scandal. His contribution is crucial as we seek to understand that in Jesus’ birth there is met not only the grand expectations of Old Testament prophecy and the coming of the glorious manifestation of the angel Gabriel, and the word of God made flesh, but also important questions raised for Joseph about local social custom, and with this, a re-kindling of his love for Mary and the child about to be born. There is for us the importance for Joseph, too, in making a decision that complements Mary‘s ‘Yes‘; her ‘Let it be done according to thy word‘, for Joseph shows a big love, a generous love, a practical and no-nonsense love, a detached and yet still vigorous and necessary love, that allows our age-old understanding of this narrative to move forward.
In the Christmas Nativity play at nearby Argyle School, Mary catches up with Joseph in his workshop and chides him for not finishing the chair he has been making for perhaps too long. "Hurry up and finish that chair" she chides. "You'll need something to sit on when I tell you what's just happened to me!"
The person of Joseph is always in danger of being hidden into the Gospel of the birth of Jesus, but he is no plaster cast figure. His role as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father is important in our understanding of the humanity of the situation and here especially of his character and his emerging love expressed as an act of commitment to Mary.
The Christian Faith is based on an initial act of commitment, which may as time goes by turn into further acts of re-commitment to a membership of the Church. It is in all honesty a job of work and in that we find Joseph, known primarily as a worker, but also someone who works at things. He gives himself. His act of commitment to Mary is a love and a work, and we rightly speak of relationships that need working at. But underlying this is love, through which God’s purposes are fulfilled.
The account as we have received of Mary and Joseph’s coming to marriage is not consoling or romantic. Decisions had to be made, the ground had to be prepared, social custom was being observed. Joseph was a carpenter, and in carpentry things have to worked out from different angles, worked out patiently, and planned; but then comes the moment when the cut has to be made, and this involves informed decision-making and experience.
The outcome of Joseph’s troubled dream tells us of his deep and abiding and yet practical love for Mary, and something of the man’s character emerges, too. Within the manifestation of love there belong many acts of commitment and re-commitment, even if this may involve something as absurdly simply as coming to church, or more importantly of keeping the Christian Faith. Within the acts of commitment, of praying and of getting to church, walking there, bothering to be there, lie the coming to birth of deeper levels of understanding.
On this Fourth Sunday in Advent we can see that the heavenly and the earthly realms are met both in the nativity of Jesus, and in Joseph’s and Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God. The stage is now set, and we are readied, as we commit ourselves to making that journey with Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, and to lighting the fourth Advent candle and to seeing what things will come to pass... .
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
15th Dec 2013
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year A)
The Gospel this morning couldn’t me more timely as we witness in St Matthew’s Gospel the strange dialogue that takes place between John, already imprisoned, and Jesus, who is sent messages from beyond the prison. Matthew, the gospel writer is telling us that John the Baptist’s message is an imprisoned message, it is one which is constrained and one which is continually pointing away from itself. The recent death rites for Nelson Mandela speak both of the legacy built on the enactment of truth and reconciliation, but equally the one which owes itself to the man, the man who has ‘done time’; twenty seven years of hard labour on a forgotten island. The messenger who delivers up his message from a place of intense suffering and personal dereliction. It is from this place and no other that the message he delivers is intensified and brought to the minds and the hearts of the many. In Matthew’s Gospel, this message from prison reaches Jesus as a question “Are you the Messiah?” It is a question which is answered by Christ but also given evidence in the witness of John the Baptist in the negative. He is for all time the one who is most definitely NOT the Christ. The wonderful composition of Orlando Gibbons is entitled ‘This is the Record of john’ and it outlines a supposed dialogue which interrogates John the Baptist on this very question. He always answers in the negative concerning his status in relation to Christ but positive in terms of his ministry, which is to prepare the way for Christ’s coming:
This is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou? And he confessed and denied not, and said plainly, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What art thou then? (Art thou Elias? repeated x1) And he said, I am not. (Art thou the prophet? Repeated x2) And he answered, No. Then said they unto him, What art thou? that we may give an answer unto them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? And he said, I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, (Make straight the way of the Lord repeated x2).
For Matthew this whole understanding of John the Baptist as the voice crying in the wilderness, as the preparer of the way, as definitely NOT the Christ sets up a natural dialogue, albeit from a distance, and which is taken up by Christ himself. It is Christ who adds to John’s own view of himself from the perspective of Christ’s view of John. The Gospel writer has it in mind that the Christian reader actually makes the journey into the desert to meet John the Baptist, as his followers were to do. “And what did you go out into the desert to see?” he asks them. John is neither a ‘reed shaken in the wind’ neither is he someone dressed in soft robes. He is a prophet and as Jesus tells us ‘more than a prophet’. Enigmatically he is the first of any born to women and yet also the less than the least in the Kingdom of heaven. Matthew makes plain that Jesus is the Messiah not in the scope of human status but in the realisation of the coming of God’s kingdom, for in Christ ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk the lepers are cleansed the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them’. The Messiahship of Christ is the one which is effected in the life, the kingdom which the Messiah brings into everyday life. This is why today, in mid-Advent there is a touch of rejoicing that this is the case. This is why we are, liturgically, ‘in the pink’, for this is gaudete, or rejoicing Sunday, when we come to a realisation of the joy that awaits us in the coming of the Saviour.
From what cause do we as Christians rejoice? We rejoice because we are inheritors of the Christian tradition in all its fullness here at Holy Cross Church. We trace the Christian tradition back to the apostles, the ones whom Jesus called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence as Christians. The Church’s essential character is bound up in its tradition, which is a living one, and in which love is its essential meaning. It is not to be bargained away under any circumstances or undermined by the recourse to the secular mentality or the so-called ‘new atheism’ which is a buying of ‘thin’ conveniences. This does not address us in our full humanity as free and fallible human beings. Everything belongs to the lowest or median human common denominator. This emerges as a joyless, controlling dictat which does not offer us a viable future.
In this church a cause for rejoicing lies in the many people who come here to visit, and that moment at which they find themselves in awe of what they see. This building helps us to envisage God and to anticipate, as John did, his existence as a distinct reality, conveyed in the architecture of pillars, arches, steps and the play of light and shadow, the glint of gold, and then the feeling that this is no ordinary place but filled with prayer and a sense of what is called ‘the numinous’; filled with an indefinable spiritual quality. Remember that John came as a witness to this same light. This then proves to be a place where time spent in prayer here, in often an almost empty building, proves to be one in which God is regularly found and known.
John the Baptist gifts us the Christian perspective. He is the one who proclaims the coming of the Messiah not as something vague and for the future but something which is with us in the here and now. It is a life to be lived in all its various shades and shadows, lights and glories. This is gaudete; this is our joy. That we have found God in the Church and that he was and is and will remain for us, our true life’s meaning and its ultimate worth.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
8th Dec 2013
THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT (Year A)
“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree” Matthew 3.9
Last Sunday, Advent Sunday, marked the beginning of a new church year. In this new year, Matthew’s Gospel will predominate. We learnt last week that Matthew’s Gospel began with a family tree leading back to the first man, Adam, through the lineage of King David and then to Jesus. For Matthew the past and the present are interwoven in the life of Christ. He is led after all to see Jesus as the fulfiller of the past as expressed in the words of the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be here’:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
From Matthew’s love of the past emerges something which is very present. For the redemption of which the hymn speaks in the coming of Christ, is likened to the startling image of the axe lying ready to strike at the roots of the tree, the blind allegiance to the past as an escape or divorce from present realities. His severest criticism is levelled at the Pharisees and the Sadducees, members of what one writer has called ‘the spiritual aristocracy’:
Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’
The essential call which Matthew makes is the one which is couched in the present tense. His call to us lies in the very ‘now’ of our existence. Now is the time for an awakening in Christ to the new realities which have been established in Him. And it is in the person of John the Baptist, ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, that the call to such an awakening is made at the beginning of this Advent Season. This is an awakening to the shake off the shackles of our own spiritual indifference and lethargy and to rediscover in and among us, and in and through the life of God’s Church and in the present time, that truer sense of purpose and future for which Christ gave his life.
This week we have been remembering another voice which for many years cried in the wilderness of a South African prison, Nelson Mandela. Like John centuries before him, the Man and the message were one. But they could only become one where the life which had been lived and the word which had been spoken had emerged out of a crucible of suffering and trial. The most important thing to say about both men is that they lived totally in the present and saw the present time, and not the past, as the time of transformation. This transformation did not emerge as a mere plan, an agenda a political manifesto or even an idea. It was essentially a transformation realised in every human life for the transformation of the whole of mankind. But this was a transformation which was to be offered by one citizen to another. For the Baptist the repeated expression is one of repentance, and in Mandela to the struggle for human freedom. The two expressions are not so far apart. They both attest to the healing power of forgiveness. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was the arbiter for the future of a battered and wounded and yet potentially vengeful angry and divided South Africa bore the direct imprint of Mandela’s way, which was to offer, at a time when victory over apartheid had been won, forgiveness and restoration for past criminal acts in return for truth-telling. This became the bedrock on which the new state was to be built. And its living roots lay in a Christian understanding. This understanding tells us that for life to be possible at all it must be God’s life, and God’s life is the one which seeks the renewal of hearts and minds and the restoration of mankind to the likeness and the being of God himself. For the South African Truth and reconciliation Commission, the past was a nightmare, and an over-identification with the past and its horror had the power to maim and distort the present. But forgiveness and reconciliation and truth telling in the present had the power to heal and to transform. There could be no other way. And this Way was the one followed by John the Baptist in his wilderness every bit as much as it was imbibed and founded in Mandela’s mind and body and soul in that prison on Robben Island. It is best expressed in the watchwords which emerge out of our New Testament Reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans :
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The message to us at the beginning of this Advent season is the one which sets The Christian Faith firmly in the present tense. Are there areas in my own life which would benefit some truth and reconciliation, and how might that be best expressed by us as honestly and as actively as possible. I would say here and now that it is all too easy to live a comfortable life at ease with yourself, but God is the One who, through the Baptist and through Nelson Mandela calls us out of this, out of ourselves and into active concern for my neighbour.
Here are Mandela’s own words, firstly in relation to a trial decision to put him to prison:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. (Nelson Mandela, words following the pronouncement of the death sentence against him).
And then on his release from 27 years in prison, addressing crowds from the balcony of Cape Town's City Hall on Sunday February 11, 1990
I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.
And so we are pledged on this and all days to,
Bear fruit worthy of repentance
(John the Baptist).
For even now, and for us, the axe has been laid at the root of the tree.