Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent
26th Feb 2017
Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent Year A
“And he was transfigured before them” Matthew 17.2
The Transfiguration of Christ on the mountain is not for the Gospel writer Matthew, a theatrical effect, but one which introduces notes of awe and wonder and draws us into itself, rather like an icon. Here, with Peter, James and John we are ‘falling into the hands of the living God’. This is a meeting with the Jesus who is becoming Christ. To experience such things is to witness God’s own glory. In dazzling imagery, the poet Hopkins describes this as something of shock:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
G M Hopkins
This glory of God is enveloped in brightness, and yet reveals within it a terrible dark secret amid the thick shadow and dark cloud of the world’s unknowing. The secret is the one which points us to the stark reality of the Cross. As we sing the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’, a comforting hymn by and large, there comes a strong sense of foreboding. this Transfiguration Gospel reading is deliberately set before us as a solemn key text for the Sunday before Lent, even though the Feast of the Transfiguration takes place in August. It speaks of that word ‘Redemption’, which is only to be won, as we already know, through Christ’s suffering and death:
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see.
To see Christ’s glory is to own the sacrifice of his life unto death. This stands for the encapsulation of Christian faith and witness. And in that witness lies the full weight of Jesus’ ministry with the seriousness of human suffering; of life as a struggle and of the need for forgiveness in the experience of pain and adversity. This is the Cross of Jesus and it is our Cross, too. The God who reveals himself is a vital God, whose influence upon us is as the double edged sword:
…piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart…” Hebrews 4.12
No wonder, then that this reading is set for the Sunday before Lent. There is no easy consolation offered here. The disciples are big on consolation and they want to stay on the mountain which is a supreme kind of comfort zone. The mountain is both a place of revelation and a necessary and challenging point of departure. The paradox lies in the God who draws you unto Himself and send you (perhaps unwillingly) out. This is the truth for us and for God and there is no other. The life of God is to be found beyond your own need for mere maintenance.
The power of God’s glory is the one which is transformative for our lives and not dormant.
As we approach the beginning of Lent The Church is igniting in the life of the faithful the acceptance of this challenging truth. To witness the Transfiguration of Christ is to witness the being drawn in with awe and wonder and the being called out in readiness to trace the pattern of his redemption in our own lives. We are being beckoned by the words of the disciple Thomas,
Let us go with him, that we might die with him. (John 11.16)
We have a great Lent leaflet this year which is packed with a lot if suggestions to help you through Lent, from suggested reading, to forms of Bible study and prayer, to an invitation to come to Stations of the Cross, to Lent Groups and so on. As your Church we want you to be helped to keep a good Lent. More than any other part of the Church’s year, Lent is a significant period of time, and a time too which is distinctly ‘set apart’. It is time for you to respond to what God is giving you in Jesus Chris. To inhabit the place of the revelation of God’s love is to go with it, or rather to go with Jesus Christ.
The suggestions in the leaflet are just that, but some (or one) of them may strike you as worthwhile. The great preachers and writers have always warned against an excess of duty over and above and the contemplation of the love of Jesus Himself in silence and in awe and wonder. But there is a balance and we shouldn’t neglect the opportunity to work at our apathy, either. Perhaps we approach the Transfiguration from our usual habitat, the market place, and catch glimpses of the holy mountain and its glory. It matters not. What matters is that today you are being invited in no uncertain terms to inhabit the glory which the Transfiguration promises, a glory shot through with the call of Christ to follow him more closely.. For as St Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Romans
If we have become one in a death like his, we will most surely become
one in a Resurrection like his. Romans 6.3
Was it a vision?
Or did we see that day the unseeable
One glory of the everlasting world
Perpetually at work, though never seen
Since Eden locked the gate that’s everywhere
‘Transfiguration’ Edwin Muir (1887-1959)
Of +Michael Ramsey from his Chaplain, Rev. John Andrew.
The Transfiguration and its theology intrigued Michael. I heard him several times produce a masterly summation of it in which he ‘earthed’ for us an application of this particular truth about Christ. It went something like this: “You place the events and circumstances which daunt you, and frighten you, and damage you, in the setting of the Eternal – just as Christ himself upon the Mount with his Passion and death before him was observed to be transfused with light, the Shekinah. “We are,” Michael said, “to avail ourselves of the liberation, from fear, despair, cowardice, and compromise, if we can see the things that frighten us within the transfiguring frame.”
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent
19th Feb 2017
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent Year A
“…but seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” Matthew 6. 33.
The voice of the Creator God who spoke creation into being still speaks to us now. But all too many of us remain unaware of the God who is ‘right there’ in the midst of us; who cares for us and longs for us to be at one with Him. Our world is God’s real habitat. The Gospel this morning with its mention of ‘the lilies of the field, ‘the birds of the air’ and ‘the hairs on the human head’ all remind us of those things which have already been provided by God and which remain (gratifyingly) unchanging, even though the hairs on our heads are numbered! These are figures for our return to God as the very centre of our human being and to a place of deep peace. God’s deep peace is a greeting and a blessing for a Gaelic speaking Christian who wrote this prayer from his experience of God some thirteen hundred years ago:
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the infinite peace to you.
Even with the possibility of deep peace, we remain stubbornly attached to our own worry and anxiety. Of course many our worries are real enough, and many of them are important concerns, especially regarding others, and they are by no means insignificant. Many of them do not have any ready resolution and we live with them in a state of real tension. It is understandable therefore that we should want rest from them, but perhaps not that we should escape from them. The poet Auden also wrote a prayer of instruction in the way of God’s peace:
And because of His visitation, we may no
longer desire God as if He were lacking: our
redemption is no longer a question of pursuit
but of surrender to Him who is always and
everywhere present. Therefore at every moment
we pray that, following Him, we may depart from
our anxiety into His peace.
There is a strong sense in which as Christians we work out our lives from where we are, as we are and as we say ‘in God’s own good time’. This is not always easy, especially in those times when there seems to be no let-up. We must, in God’ time, be prepared to bring the contemplation of God to bear on these matters as a kind of Cross. We may invite into our minds and hearts that same deep peace which was experienced by the Celtic Christian who most certainly experienced a physical environment which was harsh and unyielding in most of its particulars. The emphasis this morning on the created order is a distinct reminder that the whole earth and everything in it is both our environment, our world, but in a much truer sense it is God’s world. We are being called to see our world and the people and human situations around us through his eyes, for as the psalmist was most aware, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein”. Psalm 24.1 (King James Version).
Matthew is telling us in today’s Gospel to take time and to ‘consider all these things’…To really consider them…As we approach the season of Lent we will set ourselves time to come to God in contemplation:
Suppose a river or a drop of water, an apple or a sand, an ear of corn, or an herb; God knoweth infinite excellencies in it more than we. He seeth how it relateth to angels and men, how it proceedeth from the most perfect lover to the most perfectly beloved, how it representeth all his attributes. God the author and God the end is to be beloved in it. Angels and men are to be beloved in it, and it is to be highly esteemed for their sakes.
O, what treasure is every sand when truly understood! Who can love anything that God hath made too much? His infinite goodness and wisdom and power and glory are in it. (Thomas Traherne (1636-1674).
There is a situation here at Holy Cross Church which lies present ‘right under our very noses’. It’s the small makeshift shelter outside this church, on the other side of the door to the Walsingham Chapel. For the past six weeks this has been a home to two people who have no other shelter or home. We have said that they may stay provided they respect the environment and keep things relatively tidy. The appearance of the shelter outside the church draws the eye and provokes different reactions in different people. One person, from another church put this question to me “How is your problem?” I didn’t know what he was talking about until he qualified what he was saying, referring to the shelter. A passing commuter commented to me that this was a pitiable thing for these people who had nowhere else to go. In the meantime there have been advices from community police and social workers who are unwilling to move them on. As the priest of this church I have a responsibility as the shelter is situated on church, rather than public land. It is proper for me, as a member of God’s church on earth to ask “What is my duty under God in this situation? Or even “What Jesus would have done in this situation?” I (we) let them stay. I have approached this situation from the point of view of my duty under God and decided that I will not act according to any nagging anxiety but rather to ‘let things be’.
If I am to depart from my own anxiety and into God’s peace then my relationship with my physical and human environment is informed by my own knowledge of who God is and what God does. He is kind and generous. He provides beyond any simple human calculation. There is often wisdom in letting things be before we interfere. I come to understand that it is important to accept a little, give a little and risk a little. It is no great inconvenience in the eternal scheme of things. Our contemplation; our ‘consideration’ (today’s watch word) of the things of God, our prayerful responses, our thought processes come together to inform us of the hard fact of human being and of all the challenges that come with it. That applies to us as much as to them, whoever they may be. Of life as provisional. Of the need to see our life on earth as a call to live in real and caring relationship to all things and all persons. As a church our mission will turn more and toward the actual and spiritual homelessness of our own times and of the need to exercise a radical, understanding and accepting hospitality. The Church must not exclude according to its own preferences. We are called to become a Church ‘turned inside out’, out onto a world which needs the love of God and the love of his people and of deep peace more than ever before…
Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent
12th Feb 2017
Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent Year A 2017
The Collect for this morning:
O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When Christians speak of the heart they are never romantic. The heart for the Christian is the place of decision making, of conversion. The heart is the centre of our personal gravity as it finds that true centre in God. For today, now, Jesus comes to tell us who God is. God in return tells us who we are. God had of course been the mysterious, unfathomable unreachable God of the past. Now Jesus beckons us into a relationship with Him. A relationship always implies mutual acceptance abd belonging. Today’s prayer asks that we may be given grace to love what God commands and to desire what God promises. This is no romantic or idealised love but the willing response to the love of God in which ‘true joys are to be found’. It is in communion with God that we find our true selves and the true meaning of our lives. Amid the many ‘changes and chances of this fleeting world’, the collect continues in the hope that we may find our true rest in His ‘eternal changelessness’.
In describing matters of the heart there is none more peerless than William Shakespeare. This is one of his songs, which was set to music by a contemporary, Thomas Ford. He speaks of ‘fastness’ in love which we relate to colour fastness or permanence and speaks of kindness in love rather than emotional outpouring:
The sun, whose beams most glorious are
Rejecteth no beholder;
And your sweet beauty, past compare,
Made my poor eyes the bolder.
Where beauty moves and wit delights
And signs of kindness find me
There, oh there, where'er I go
I'll leave my heart behind me.
No, no, no my heart is fast
And cannot disentangle.
‘Since first I saw your Face’
A song by William Shakespeare
Set to Music by Thomas Ford (1580-1648)
It is not a quaint or Elizabethan thing to speak about our hearts, our true heart’s desires and where our hearts, the heart of us, our truer selves, really lie. Love will be as much about perseverance, of ‘fastness’ and determination, of courage and steadfastness and the sharing of kindnesses as much as anything else. It will be selfless. What it will not be is romantic, in the sense of idealized self or over-the-top. What lies at the heart of us is God. Cardinal Basil Hume, former Archbishop of Westminster once said that ‘in very human heart there is a God-shaped space’, the place of our own truth telling to be realised amid ‘the unruly wills and passions of a sinful humanity’.
This Tuesday, St Valentine’s Day, tables will be booked, millions of red roses will be given to loved ones and vast amounts of special food will be prepared and chocolates and sparkling wine and champagne quaffed. And all because of love! The great big red heart will rule supreme. And many will receive anonymous cards or notes bearing the plea ‘Be my Valentine!’. It’s all a lot of fun but falls into the same trap as the secular Christmas in its hype.
Our three readings, coming from Old to New Testament through the writing of St Paul provide a direction finder or sat. nav. In the call to love. Dueteronomy reminds the reader to be ‘steadfast’, just like the words of Shakespeare. Paul reminds his readers that beyond their petty factions, personal vanity and this worldliness they are, nonetheless ‘God’s field; God’s building.’ They are his creation and part of his plan. God has made them and the love for his own creatures never ceases, even though they are ‘still of the flesh’. Jesus points more radically to the love shown as conviction, rooted and grounded, faithful and fastened in proclaiming God’s love for every generation. This is the pattern of his Passion and the evidence of his Cross as He himself is to be radically, lovingly obedient to God the Father’s call, come what may.
It is more important than ever, when public debate over serious issues is overrun by personalities bearing opinions that are ill conceived and ill-advised or that are charged with more emotion than wisdom, more heat than light, that we need to keep our heads. Christians are not airy-fairy thinkers. Our view of life is tempered by the message of Christ which is God’s love for this world and his care for every part of it. For we are being called this morning into none other than the complete Christian spiritual life which has and always will be tested by the world it inhabits and which in strictest terms, will call us ‘out of ourselves’ and beyond our own unruly wills and affections.
“A spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this; the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. It is of course very hard to wean ourselves away from self-centredness. And people can dream of doing such a thing but that the hope should be fulfilled it is necessary that a solemn decision be made - whatever the difficulties, we are committed to the way of generous love.”
The Rt. Rev’d. Dr. Richard Chartres, Bishop of London.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent
5th Feb 2017
THE FOURTH SUNDAY BEFORE LENT YEAR A
The only knowledge I claimed to have was about Jesus, and only about him, as the crucified Christ.
1 Corinthian 2.3
In this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus conveys to us how God’s glory might be seen and known in people like you and me. We noted last week that the term ‘glory’ can exist as both a verb and a noun, and I am more interested in the verb! The two images he provides are ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘light of the world’. Both salt and light were vivid and familiar images in the time of Jesus. Salt was mined on the 700’ high cliffs overlooking the shores of the Dead Sea and was an extremely precious and valuable commodity. Roman soldiers were often paid not with money but with bags of salt! Hence we have the phrase for a poor soldier or worker as being ‘not worth his salt’. But in the mouth of Jesus, ‘salt’ speaks of the manifestation of something real – coming to birth in us through Faith in Him.
The theme of light is an ancient one. It has many rich resonances. People associated darkness and light not only as natural phenomena but also as the conveyors of deep inner meaning. Darkness is associated with blindness, night, sleep, cold, gloom, despair, chaos, death, danger and the yearning for the dawn. Light is seen as the antidote to the above, and an image of salvation. In the light, one is awake, able to see and find one's way; it is associated with relief and rejoicing that the night is over; in the light one is safe and warm. In the light there is life. Many texts in the Hebrew Bible use this symbolism. Light is associated with creation: "Let there be light" is the first of God's creative acts in the Book of Genesis. Light is a metaphor for God's illumination of the path: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." Psalm 119, v.105. Light is associated with God's acts of deliverance and for Christians, Baptism has taken us on a journey from darkness to light in Him. If glory is has truly been granted, it is one which is now made visible and apparent in Him:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has (now) shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus. 2 Corinthians 4:6
When St Paul speaks of Christ he means the Cross of Christ, or of a Christian experience which has and will never grant us immunity from pain and loss and sorrow and disappointment, even when in the one life we may be able to express gratitude and joy for those things which have been given. This is the necessary compliment to the Light…
Here is the voice of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey in one of his most well-known observations on this theme:
It may well be the will of God that our Church should have its heart broken, and if that were to happen it would not mean that we are heading for the world’s misery but quite likely pointing to its deepest joy. Jesus said to his followers: ‘You are salt to the world. But if salt becomes tasteless, how shall its saltiness be restored? He answered his own question by the blood, sweat and tears of Calvary: only from his broken heart flows out the living, life-giving water. It flows into the life of both Church and society through lives joined sometimes in painful union with him, who is the head of the Church which is His body.
In order to be ‘salt of the earth’ or ‘lights to the world’ the Christian life is in full engagement with Cross of Christ as a sign of contradiction and of the need to recognise the inevitability of this ‘painful union’ as it is lived out in its entirety. The Christian life does not provide a cosy by-way but a pathway directly into and through all the realities that face us…It is out of such a crucible that the true glory will emerge and not apart from it. This follows from the sign Jesus has given for us : The Cross.
The murder of the Ugandan gay rights activist David Cato in 2011 was testimony to the fact of a brave soul battling against bigotry and violent discrimination.. His name and address, with those of 100 other activists were published in a Ugandan magazine, ‘Rolling Stone’ with the tag ‘Hang Them!’ At the time, The Archbishop of Uganda did not attend the Anglican Primate’s Conference because he would not sit next to The Primate of the Church in the USA, Kathryn Jeffers Scolari, because he was aware that she consorted with gay men and women and thereby approved of their conduct. Meanwhile on British television at the time, Jeremy ‘motor mouth’ Clarkson made facile jokes about Mexican people. A Christian father, bringing his teenage son to one of Clarkson’s roadshows, felt the pressure to speak out live on TV, even though knowing his son was a great fan of the man and the show. These examples call us as Christians to be brave in speaking out against blatant or casual injustice. We are charged today to be as ‘salt of the earth’ and ‘lights to the world’. We must learn not only to live for Christ but to speak for Christ. In the face of so much injustice, some of it happening right under our noses, the time to speak is now, or we as a Church will risk the light being extinguished or the salt having lost its taste; an irrelevant Church detached and disassociated from the real life around us. A new and brave Epiphany is being addressed to all of us in the courageous living in ‘…the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ’. At a time when truth and relativism sit side by side we need more than ever to know what is Christian, what is for Christ and to bring this knowledge into daily conversation and to learn to bear courageous witness. To take courage in both hands and to risk being Christian.
This messaged was echoed by The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres in his farewell sermon at a memorable Mass last Thursday:
“What the Church has to offer is not an ideology or a mere critique but a community in which the Spirit of Jesus Christ dwells. In a market place of strident salesmen and of warring ideologies we seek not to add to the din but to build relationships that endure and give meaning to life. The kingdom of God is the great existing reality to renew the earth, The Church needs to recapture the kingdom in real, profound, tangible reality. Dust, dirt, bricks and mortar, sweat and blood reality.
Let this be for us the call from this great Bishop for us to be ‘salt to our earth’ and ‘lights to our world’ in our generation. Let us not only speak glory but be glory and do glory in Jesus’ name as exprience it more and more. Amen.