Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent Year C
10th Feb 2019
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent Year C.
When he had finished speaking he said to Simon ‘Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch’ Luke 5.5.
One of the first paintings I ever saw was hung in pride of place at the entrance hall of Plymouth Museum, one of the many museums of ‘civic pride’ up and down the country built by the Victorians. This Painting was of a large fishing boat stranded in wet sand, and spewing fish around it everywhere. The scene was serene and peaceful; bathed in the bright clear light of an early Summer morning. Trestle tables were laid out on the sand where fisherwomen were cutting and filleting the fish. The idea of hanging the painting there made you feel the water’s majesty, glistening around you. The effect was always to delight and to refresh you as you came in out of the busy street.
Our Gospel writer Luke has often been depicted in religious art as a painter, often with a palette in his hand and a painter’s brush and ready to paint pictures and ikons. It is not likely that he was a painter; but there is ample evidence of his ability to ‘paint’ pictures using words. His words add depth and colour and lustre to what he writes. And in today’s Gospel reading he paints a picture for us using the background image of a crowd of people away on the shore and pressing in on one another, eager to see Jesus. And in the foreground is a large lake, from which Jesus addresses the people. Between background and foreground, between land and water, lies the boat where Jesus is. This is the place where the movement of the people, the teaching of Jesus, the putting out into the deep and the miraculous catch of fish is concentrated.
Jesus’ little boat is like one of those magnets we used to use at school which lies at the centre of a force-field of energy shown by an arc of iron filings. But this particular energy, Luke tells us, is divine energy, the same energy ‘which was God’s from the beginning’. It is an energy which is essentially spiritual, though drawn from life. St Luke is getting us to read his narrative from this raised perspective, in which ‘the teaching from the boat’; ‘the putting out into deep water’; ‘the filling of the boats to sinking point’ and the command to ‘be not afraid’ have a meaning which is not just about fishing! It provides for us a visual imagery through which a spiritual message is being spoken.
We are asked to read this scene some way behind Jesus and raised high so that we read this Gospel as it were from above; from the perspective of God himself. God, then, looks down and beholds what is happening. We see this in the paintings of Salvador Dali, and especially in his 1951 Painting Jesus Christ of St John of the Cross, where the crucifixion is seen from way above Christ’s head (see over). We are asked to see what is happening from a new and thrilling perspective.
The message of the boat on the Sea of Galilee is about God and about us. It provides for a picture of the Christian calling in which we are being called to become ourselves from that place which lies both within and beyond our own wants. There is a William Blake drawing with a man looking up to the moon and a ladder which leads to it. The man looks up to the moon and cries “I want! I want!” If our lives are based solely on what we want, of ‘asking for the moon’, surely life succumbs to selfish materialism? Its spiritual counterpart is the one which begins to look out of a self-centred atomised world and toward the needs of those around us. We reach out form our own selfish world to find others and so in turn find our true selves in them. This is a mystery. “Love is the difficult idea that someone other than myself is real” said Iris Murdoch.
The ‘putting out into the deep’ suggested by Luke’s Gospel Reading is living life not by the ‘Me! Me!’ principle but by discovering deep within ourselves the spiritual resources to become as Christ would have us become; turned toward the reality of the other, from a deeper awareness of the life around us and of the necessity always of love : God’s love is as invisible arms that reach down into the deep to find what is there, and has always been there. He calls you in his Son Jesus Christ ‘to put out into deep water’ as he did in Galilee all those centuries ago. To pay out our nets into the waters both to trust in his provision and rejoice in his increase. This morning St Luke the Gospel writer has not only told us what this might mean. He has painted it in our minds and hearts.
Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
3rd Feb 2019
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2019.
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
Today’s great Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple extends and enriches the vision of the prophet Malachi that ‘The Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple’. In his prophecy lis the meeting of past and present realities; a meeting between Mary, Joseph and Jesus and old Simeon and between the Jesus who is presented to us this morning. In it, we are given a picture of the God who is close to us and who beckons us into his presence.
In London’s Cavendish Square, opposite John Lewis’ store, lies a great sculpture of the Virgin and Child covering the entrance to a narrow and winding street called Dean’s Mews. It is there to tell the visitor of what lies at the end of the street, a small Roman Catholic Women’s community, The Society of the Holy Child. The sculptor, Jacob Epstein, has Mary, standing behind her infant, with her hands open towards us in a gesture of generous giving and openness. The child at Mary’s feet has his arms open to greet us, waiting to hold us and embrace us. The image carries for us a meaning far beyond that of just any mother and child. It draws us toward it like a magnet because it speaks to us in the way it communicates the strong purposes of God in and beyond the surface meaning of stance and gesture. It has an everlasting quality in the way it promises something profoundly human and eternal. In it lies the promise of the presence of a God who is close by; very near us. He is not a God who is inert, but rather, One who beckons.
In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph and Jesus come to enter the Temple and to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The meaning of this event is made clearer to us in the telling of a second or background narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Both are elderly. This couple provide a contrast in time and in place to the young family Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus. In the meeting of these two couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was routine and traditional to present a boy child and for the mother to be ritually cleansed after the birth of her child. This purification had its equivalent in The Church of England not so long ago in the so-called ‘Churching’ of women following a pregnancy. In the blessing and the cleansing ceremony there includes a meeting and a greeting and taking place between two religious epochs…The Old and New Testament worlds are shown to us in the one time, the one place and in the one child, Jesus.
Luke paints this message on the broadest possible canvas : not only of history, but of the Divine purpose. The Old Testament man Simeon is more than a mere bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child as a prayer to God the Father: “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries “which thou hast prepared before the face of all people…” And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meeting the new born baby and witnessing the outcome of his own life’s longing. He sees his own salvation. And TS Eliot marks, in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and death in the immensity of time and sets them alongside Simeon's completed life.
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
TS Eliot ‘A Song of Simeon’.
Today is a Feast Day of Candles. There is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple. In the carrying of candles, we bring the story to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. A coming to life in us of things done and spoken long ago, and of the holding in our hands, as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people’. By these means we, after all these years, claim ownership of those things which this meeting offers, for our world's posterity.
As the Christ was presented to God, to Simeon and to the world, so we in our procession present ourselves to Christ. In turn Christ is presented to us, just as he is and just as we are, rather like that sculpture in Cavendish Square. This is ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as the hymn reminds us. This is the God who is very close to us, as one prayer has it ‘closer is he than breathing; nearer than hands and feet’. Let us then enter into this closeness with God and abide in him, as he abides in us. At least let us be open to the idea of his closeness and open our hearts to greet him. Let be present to the sureness of his being, just like Simeon.
Another sculpture across Cavendish Square and down a side road takes you to John Lewis’ store in Oxford Street where Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture ‘Winged Figure’ is also a beckoning presence. It offers a response in kind to Epstein’s 'Mother and Child'. The little walk across the square and into Oxford Street might tell us that this beckoning God is for ever present to us. We are invited now to seek him, and if possible to find him, just as Mary and Joseph and Simeon did all those years ago. Go and see for yourselves. After all, it's not too far away...