The Calming of the Storm
29th Jul 2012
“But he said to them “It is I…Do not be afraid”. John 6.20
When you visit the Colosseum in Rome its stones speak to you of the terror that was once practised within its great pock-marked walls. As you walk into the amphitheatre it is as though you are walking into the jaws of a great lion. It is a place whose atmosphere eats you up. Beautiful it is not. Intimidating it is. Like it or not, such great amphitheatres, or as we call them now stadiums, tell us something we already know about us – that we are by nature communal; and we have always needed places of ingathering, and above all places where we can feel the power and the swell and the emotion which is raised in being together in one place. And, to draw upon the image of the lion, we may speak of the roar of the crowd. The Colosseum was a place where the early Christians were thrown to the lions, to be mawled and eaten by them for the entertainment of the masses. The Olympic stadium is quite a different kind of place, but the roar of the crowd and the enjoyment of spectacle for its own sake and its emotional draw is very strong. The architectural shape of the stadium is as a cradle. It envelopes and surrounds and yet it also excites and overwhelms.
What a different scene is represented to us in the Gospel reading this morning, in which the disciples are together in a little boat in a storm and who see Jesus walking on the water and bringing calm. The Gospel writer John understood what we must know to be the case – that in life there is no one place of absolute safety and certainty. The psychoanalyst Jung would often speak of what he called ‘life’s vicissitudes’, as though they were a natural and normal part of the experience of life. We might say that life is not all plain sailing. Things don’t always go smoothly for us. Sometimes we might feel ‘all at sea’. Sometimes life has and does take us into choppy waters. The Old Testament writers experienced these vicissitudes in many ways, and the psalmists in particular sent up their cries and their sighs. They own an experience of life in which such internal turmoil is deemed natural and inevitable and to be accepted not as a part of something abnormal in us, but as a very predictable and understandable part of what makes us human. John sets up the idea of the boat and the storm as identifying with the fact of finding faith in God amid the storms of life and not apart from them. The boat is a figure for our life together and our need for one another, and the Christ who walks upon the waters is the One who has come to communicate what we have called ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’. In the church we need to begin practising a tactful kind of understanding of one another which accepts that whether we know it or not, life has not been plain sailing for any of us. It is a good paradox that it is in our shared experience of life and its vicissitudes that we may more surely understand what makes us human. The opposite of this could be a Christianity that places us at a distance from the very humanity, which in us all, cries out for compassionate understanding and for the receipt of peace. A Christianity disconnected, that is, from our true humanity, which seeks understanding and healing. The message of the gospel this morning is of the Christ who has come not to deny our own fears or to banish them for good but to recognise them. But we know that he gets into the boat with them and journeys with them and they get to their destiny together.
In the little town of Olney in Buckinghamshire there is a Newton and Cowper Museum. And this is a museum dedicated to two hymn-writers who compiled the so-called ‘Olney Hymns’. But they were more than just that. Cowper was descibed by Coleridge as ‘our best modern poet’, and John Newton wrote the words to ‘Amazing Grace’, a hymn we shall sing at the end of the service. He had been a ship’s captain, and was heavily involved in the slave trade. During a storm, the sea was so bad that for the first time in his life he prayed. The storm as it were cracked open his old self and tore it out of him like Shakespeare’s King Lear. What remained and what was revealed was also revealed to the blind man who had received his sight. Christ was revealed! Newton had come through the storm and he came to know that it was God who lay in the midst of the storm. God was in the eye of the storm. He was at the heart of the storm which is, paradoxically, the place of its still centre. At the deep heart of all our defences, uncertainties, reluctancies, vanities and stubornnesses; at the heart of all our struggles and doubts and failures there lies God, the God who has made us and who even now seeks for us that reconciliation which is our life and our soul’s true wellspring. And so it was for Newton, and the crowning expression of his experience of God as a man born blind is given to us in the words of ‘Amazing Grace’.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
And then the sobering words of his friend George Cowper:
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
May the God who visited the disciples on the choppy waters of their existence also visit you, to give you that amazing grace which was first realised on the Sea of Galilee and which held the disciples together. For they like we, in and of God, find ourselves, all of us, in the same boat…He comes to declare himself to us all in the words
“It is I…Do not be afraid”.
22nd Jul 2012
Jesus said to her “Mary!” She turned to him and said to him in Hebrew “Rabbouni” (which means teacher). John 20.15
When I was preparing to come to this parish almost six years ago I was informed by the churchwardens that the parish council had accepted a gift for the church from a painter. It was a small painting of Mary Magdalene which now hangs above the credence table in the St Peter Chapel. The little picture depicts Mary as a rather high born and sensitive woman. She wears a string of pearls and gazes wistfully down at a white flower in a pot, a symbol of purity. Her gaze is concentrated and draws us to someone with a deep inner life.
In truth both church and history has been divided over Mary Magdalene. It is as though she has become two women. The first is the very significant ‘apostle of the apostles’ and the first witness of the Resurrection of Our Lord from the dead. The resurrected Jesus had appeared to her as a gardener. He called her by name and in this name she recognized him as her teacher, ‘Rabbouni’. She had been with him throughout his ministry even to the foot of the cross. Both our own Gospels and the apocryphal gospels grant her very high status. In an early Second Century series of writings called ‘The Wisdom of Faith’ Jesus addresses Mary in this way:
"Mary, thou blessed one, whom I will perfect in all mysteries of those of the height, discourse in openness, thou, whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren."
But there remains another, less reliable Mary. She is the one in whom seven demons were cast out (Mark 16.9). She was purported to be the woman who had anointed and washed Jesus’ body with her hair. It was commonplace in the Church over the centuries to regard her as a prostitute, or perhaps the woman taken in adultery. Only in 1969 did the Roman Catholic Church silence centuries of superstition and declare her to be the a close companion of Jesus; one in whom past sins and healing had transformed her life and made possible God’s choice of her, Mary, as the first witness of the resurrection. She was truly an apostle, the influential Christian witness. Despite this, for many centuries and even among Christians today, the old mud has well and truly stuck. Mary Magdalene has been placed unfavourably alongside the Blessed Virgin Mary as another kind of woman, a fallen women; one in whom things felt less certain… In Martin Scorsese’s film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ based on Nikos Kazantzakis book, the Magdalene represents the power of the flesh that Jesus must resist if he is to be true to his divinity. Mary Magdalene looked all too like her progenitor, Eve, she who ate the apple, and we know where that led. In the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Mary is portrayed as an emotionally conflicted woman, perplexed by the passionate feelings that Jesus arouses in her, part spiritual, part sensuous. In one of the songs of the show she sings ‘I don’t know how to love him, I’ve had so many men before’.
Any estimation of Mary is therefore difficult. To many interpreters she is the archetypal fallen woman, to feminists she is the very symbol of a liberated woman making her way in a man’s world, and finally she is a powerful and crucial witness to Christ, not only as apostle but also as close friend of Jesus. Her character, even as it comes to us in the dense and formal words of scripture is full of passion and contradiction. She crosses many boundaries to become ‘the apostle of the apostles’ and she is living proof of the trust Jesus puts in women, something unaccustomed by most men. An estimate of Mary over historical time must take account of the centuries old narratives, written by men, which have placed women in a subordinate role, banishing them from the places of authority, and even declaring them insane as the fabled mad woman in the attic. Many such women were living out scenes from another film version, ‘The Magdalene Sisters’ as embarrassing and unwanted. Wasn’t Mary Magdalene after all, the one who had a history of mental illness (and had all the demons really been cast out?)
So who is she to us in the here and now? What makes her memorable is her unconventionality. She doesn't fit the image of the subservient woman in the ancient world. Her relationships were unorthodox, and her lifestyle unapproved. In Mark's spare, understated resurrection story, no-one else, and specifically, no man, sees the empty tomb. Why put the story of the resurrection at such risk? Why not suppress the awkward fact of her being the key witness of the resurrection when the story would have been much more credible had it been Peter or John? Above all, why have of all people is she sent to tell the others about the resurrection in a role that is emphatically apostolic?
Maybe it’s because the whole project of redemption is God's risk. Will it be believed, received, acted upon? Maybe God himself cannot know the answer; but in faith he sends Jesus because that is all he can do to win the human race. It begins with Mary the first witness to the resurrection. That word ‘witness' can sound passive; the onlooker who sees or observes, but is disengaged, and doesn't get involved. Yet the Easter story portrays her as the exact opposite of this. She is the passionately committed witness for whom seeing, believing, acclaiming, loving and following all merge in one great ‘yes' that transforms her entire life. When Jesus calls her by name in the garden, ‘Mary!’, she knows that she is alive again, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. ‘Rabbouni!’ she cries - and in that moment, a lifetime of passion and pain, search and longing, hunger, fear and hope, is gathered up. She recognises him on behalf of the human race, and, it must be said, on behalf of us.
Why don't we try being passionate for once, as if we believed that the resurrection of Jesus changes everything? Why not let the heart speak? This isn't a matter of formulaic answers, rather, it's about giving a reason for the hope that is within us, as the New Testament says. Hope is everything. To say yes to Jesus and yes to life is where hope began for Mary. It is where it can begin again for us. It is the hope that emerges out of faith in the One who chose Mary Magdalene, the unstable and unpredictable, the heart-stirringly complex woman who in the Christian icon, holds out an egg, the symbol of resurrection, as though she is pointing to her own life too. The message of the uncompromising woman apostle who has wended her way into the heart of the church for all time.
Sermon for the Eighth Sunday of Trinity
21st Jul 2012
Eighth Sunday of Trinity Year C
“The mystery is Christ among you; your hope of glory”. Colossians 1.27
The Gospel shows us the Jesus who is at close proximity to the people who surround him. We are left in no doubt that the presence of Christ is felt spiritually and is lasting. An encounter with him is an encounter with the Creator Father who is present in the outpouring of spiritual grace. And it is in the nature of this presence that it should be hospitable. The poet Auden once said that God is always and everywhere present to us and for us, and so there is no need seek him apart from every waking, waiting, listening moment. We seek him as he is found in the present moment; we seek him just as we are and just as we are found and we do not seek him elsewhere.
I once went shopping with my stepfather, and after several hours we finally arrived home, and I was anxious to get the bags out of the car and get in, but he stopped and said, ‘Look up at that overflow pipe. Look at that bird up there sipping away at the drips of water”. It was mildly irritating to be reminded of this stillness but even so it at reminded me of the possibility of a greater observance of the beautiful and fine detail of the created order in an attitude of openness to the elements. St Paul in writing to the Colossians expresses this as a Christian understanding. It is the close proximity of the person of Christ dwelling within you. And he likens this spiritual presence to a mystery. “And the mystery is Christ among you”… he says, “…your hope of glory”. (Colossians 1.27) The presence of Christ is an indwelling presence, which blesses and gives life.
God is a hospitable God who welcomes us into his presence at all times, and this is being outlined in two of our readings. The first is taken from Genesis Chapter 18 and details the reception of three strange guests at the Oak of Mamre. Abraham goes out to offer them hospitality but strangely addresses them in the singular, calling them Lord. And it is from this encounter that the guests promise that his elderly wife Sarah will give birth to a son. The presence of God is shown as a mysterious guest, offering us a foretaste of the post-resurrection meal at Emmaus. It remains true that the sharing of hospitality, the careful preparation of food and the conversation over the meal table can transcend the sum total of its parts. The presence of God himself, the writer of Genesis reminds us, lies at the heart of gracious hospitality, even though this may have been sentimentalised in the God who is likened to the silent guest at every meal. The Genesis account has famously been transposed into the art of the icon painter, as the Russian Andrei Rublev depicted the three strange guests spoken to as one in his icon of the Holy Trinity. Rublev gives the most powerful significance to the Genesis account, and we are permitted as we gaze upon this icon, to encounter the presence of the God whose love for us his creatures is and will for ever be a hospitable love.
In the Gospel account of Mary and Martha we have what seems like the showing of a sharp division of kinds of hospitality. Of pious Mary who ‘has chosen the better part’ and stays with Jesus and is in his presence, and the apparently distracted and overworked Martha, who is understandably angered by her sister’s apparent laziness. Is Mary pious or lazy; is Martha a put upon worker or simply distracted? In a painting by the Spaniard Velazquez, Mary and the Christ are seen as a reflection through a mirror or(or a serving hatch) from the kitchen. Standing in the foreground and pummelling away at some herbs with huge forearms and fists through a pestle and mortar is the angered Martha, much the most important figure in the picture, dominating the scene as she glowers out at us. In a fine details we see fish and eggs and bits of garlick on the table. Mary and Christ are seen from a vague distance. And Velasquez is approaching the story from Martha’s point of view. The story and its theological importance still holds good. Even Abraham got up out of the noon-day sun to serve the strange visitors, and he did this before conversing with them. Their significance as holy visitors is allowed only in the context of their being at the table and of their being waited on. Martha remains for me the most interesting figure because she matters too. She cannot sit at Christ’s side even if she would have wanted too, because she has work to do! The disharmony which Martha’s glowering presence sets up is the one which has not allowed us to see that both work and prayer are both apart of the one needful offering. In this Eucharist we “do this in remembrance of Jesus” and the doing element becomes an inseparable part of the worshipping and the adoring element. Both are part of the one offering.
To abide in the presence of the living Christ, to enter into close proximity to Christ, is to live according to the Holy Spirit rather than our own force of will. We might yield a little to the life-giving presence; to allow Christ to unlock and to heal those old fears which have inhibited us, and which require of us more than mere religious lip service but a risky melting of the human heart, a surrender to the life-giving principle which is Christ. To risk in those precious moments in which, as we wait on God we feel the rawness of that encounter, but also experience the joy of inhabiting a place of love, where old angers are, however painfully slowly, being healed. Mary has indeed chosen the better part but Martha doesn’t do badly! The promise is made to us this morning in the strangers who pass by and in the service of Mary and Martha, that before all else the love of God is for us for ever open to us, ready to meet us where we are and how we are. God is waiting for us to come into his presence that we might find in it the healing which is the mystery of Christ among us; the hope of your glory and my glory and the Church’s glory.
The Communication of Repentance
15th Jul 2012
It is now a commonplace observation that with the advent of a truly multinational London there is a sense that the world has arrived here in a way it never has before. The coming of the Olympic Games in less than two weeks’ time will serve to signify on the big stage what is already apparent in fact. It will be seen in the arrival of foreign nationals whose compatriots already live here and who already regard themselves as Londoners. We are becoming led to the vision of a future world in which will see the enlargement and the dominance of massive cities, which will become whole worlds in themselves and yet related through the communications with the greater world around them. And so the world will become in a way small and yet will communicate with itself as never before. The hope is that this will introduce a true globalisation of interests and intentions and hope and peace, like the Olympic hope. One example of this is the recent defection of the Syrian foreign minister who can speak out to the listening world about how things are in Syria. He can tell it like it is. And he will tell it through what we call ‘twitter’. In the press of a single button, messages of hope, of warning and of instruction can be delivered to millions. The scale and scope of these things is awesome. But the danger with this communication is that it will largely be communication for its own sake – it will be useful, but it will not speak to the heart and the soul.
Communications at the time of Jesus Christ were of a very different order. The Judaean society of which Jesus was a part greatly prized a tradition of religious faith and understanding which was based on an oral, spoken medium passed on through the generations and revealed in scripture. Moreover this was shared by clusters of what we would now consider to be very small communities over a very long period of time. This tradition, enshrined in the Old Testament, provided a sure guide in the understanding of a God who was unnameable and yet recognisable. He was recognisable in his dealings with men and women, and he revealed himself primary in his chosen people Israel, and in the promises he had made to protect them and provide them with a future. At the heart of this tradition of God’s involvement and promise was the existence of the Old Testament prophets. These individuals were called by God to speak on his behalf to the people. They existed as God’s voices, warning and directing the people. They were foretellers of the future : they called the House of Israel to a renewed sense of its own destiny, and this came very often in the form of dire warnings of terrible things to come if the people did not mend its ways. (Jeremiah 26.23) They would also instruct the people in their religious duty, whether and would openly voice the displeasure of God in a society that was going to bad, or turning away from what God had destined for them. When Jesus in Matthew 16.3 criticises the Pharisees he does so from their boasted ability to show the fate and destiny of people from the movement of the stars. “But” he observes “You do not discern the signs of the times”. So Jesus is saying that prophecy, once the powerful guide of the community, has become blunted and meaningless. He is calling for a prophecy which is the one which truly discerns ‘the signs of the times’ with a deep understanding of the presence of God and of how God’s present speaks to this world in its present state. The Church must surely need those prophets who can speak in this way, especially in an age when we communicate so much, but give ourselves less space and time to reflect upon the meaning of is said and shared. If words are to outlast their speaking they must speak to that part of our nature which is God-seeking.
John the Baptist put an end to prophecy as he proclaimed the coming of the Christ. It was because he, more than any other prophet, who embodied his message and died for it. He was confused in the popular mind as a Christ figure. But his communication was one primarily of command, much in the vein of the prophets before him. In this command was the stubborn and insistent message that he was not the One, the Christ, but the forerunner, ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, the one who realised his role as subordinate to Jesus “He must increase but I must decrease” John 3.30.
And what lies at the heart of St John the Baptist’s prophecy? Well, it is not possible to make this any simpler than to say that it lay in his call to repentance, the call which is the one great incarnating and humanising call. The call to say ‘sorry’ married with the call to self-examination and to the confession of sins. The call to forgive and to receive forgiveness. The call to keep it real. This was a radical departure from the old religious observances and duties and the goal of righteousness. This teaching was for the transformation of the individual soul and of whole communities. This was the communication of healing grace. This was lasting. It was a message which spoke directly to the heart and the soul of mankind. ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ ‘Repent, for the transformation of body and mind and soul into the likeness of God your maker, the merciful One, the giver of all grace and peace’.
Yesterday I visited one of our members, Joan, in a nursing home. I was led into a small sitting room where tea was being brewed. I had brought a Waitrose lemon tart and we shared it out. The women, all of whom were there for respite care, were all fairly anxious about the future. I was not dressed as a clergyman but when asked told the ladies that I was Joan’s Vicar. And then something broke into the conversation and it immediately became a conversation about God, and of how each woman in turn was able to tell the rest of us about how important Christian Faith was to them and of how much the life of faith meant to them in the present. This was very moving because very unsolicited and very honest and poignant. The fact of the experience of a life of faith, which is also a life of trusting in God and of ‘telling it like it is’ as a routine and undramatic and practical repentance. A real relationship with a real God, which even from the point of view of older age and a certain weariness and resignation, still existed for them as a light and a hope and a joy. I could tell that this was so, because as they spoke their faces shone. It was for this that John proclaimed repentance and upon which faith is sustained and enlarged. It is this, I believe, which will carry us joyfully and hopefully into our future, come what may.
The Moon in Lleyn RS Thomas
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregation
of shadows and the sea's
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
But a voice sounds
in my ear. Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint's name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth's
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.
The God Particle
8th Jul 2012
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’.
This week the ‘God’ particle was discovered. It claims to be the particle upon which all physics rests, and can be thought of as the mainstay of all creation, without which it would never have existed. But it is interesting that the Name of God should be called upon in this way. A little girl asked her father this week ‘Who made the world?’ He explained to her about the God particle and was not sure whether the earth had been created by God or sprang up out of a kind of physical chain reaction, all on its own. So then, the little girl said, with the kind of impatient finitude that young and learning children often exhibit ‘So the particle made the world, then, didn’t it?’ whereupon her mother intervened to say to husband and daughter. ‘Yes but remember who made the particle…’ The mother was speaking of course from the point of view of faith, but which nonetheless takes us beyond the limits of what can be proved.
When Paul speaks of these things he reminds us, that however we might choose to describe God, there is the realisation that he is the provider of our existence. His presence is over all his creation and yet also beyond it. His influence is both unfathomable and yet present. Yung once famously said ‘Bidden or not bidden, God is present’. When we speak like this we are seeing faith as a kind of waiting, as a gradual awakening to the possibilities that God holds out for each one of us. But above all we exist in a relationship of receptivity. There is nothing we can do or accomplish that will increase God’s love for us his creatures. As his creatures our attitude both in prayer and worship and in life is one in which we offer him as the words of the Confession tell us ‘…ourselves our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto God’. We empty ourselves in order to be receptive and to receive him. It is in this way that St Paul reminds us that the power of God is made as he puts it ‘perfect in weakness’. The reminder is always given that we are, when all is said and done, very mortal, and our life’s experience belongs to our mortality, which is also our being in is natural and vulnerable state.
This week I have encountered two experiences of this mortality at opposite ends of the age spectrum. The first is the experience of an old woman whose health is breaking down under the influence of her own age and a multitude of medical conditions. More and more questions are being asked about how much care she will need, and she now has to admit that she has become entirely dependent upon others to shape her day and provide for its basic needs, even to getting up in the morning. It is both terribly sad, and speaks of a life being reduced to less and less freedom. However the God particle might be described or designed, aging is built into the created order at every level, and there is no escaping the cycle of living and of the end to a single life, whether it be a human life or a leaf on a tree or an exploding, dead star. As one man put it ‘ageing’s not for wimps’. But because we are not living in a laboratory, but a world of life and love we do not respond to these things without being deeply affected by them. An experience of another person’s mortality is also and inescapably an experience which speaks of our own mortality and it leads us to embrace the message of these things not only with our brains but also with our hearts. For the one coming to the end of a life under conditions of great trial and suffering we would want to show the love and the understanding that we should like to receive. We would want to offer our care. Whilst the particle might explain the physics, it cannot explain the meaning of life in all its strange depth and fullness.
My other experience of mortality at the other end of the scale was of meeting a very small child whose daddy was taking her for a walk down Whidborne Street. The child was obviously not quite used to walking and though on her feet, she was still a bit wobbly, but seemingly delighted at this state of affairs. I spoke to her father and then held out my hand towards the girl for a handshake. At first she refused, a bit confused, took two paces, turned back towards me and held out her hand. There must have been a time, almost eighty years ago, when the sick and suffering old lady would have held out her hand and wobbled about on funny little legs which had started to walk.
In Jesus we believe that the divine compassion for all our lives has been made real and apparent. This is not like the scientists to speak merely of existence, however marvellously or exactingly. The Letter of Paul reminds us of the power and purposes of God expressed in our human weakness and of the God who speaks to us in and through our humanity in all its facets and perhaps especially in the truthfulness of our own being, which is also the vulnerability of our condition. ‘Bidden or not bidden; God is present’.
This saying may stand as a very proper message for the existence of this church, in which so many visitors, week by week come into this holy place to be with God, to say prayers. We cannot tell what these prayers consist of; what is their shape and form and content, but we can tell that these prayers come from the heart, from the deepest part of the person, that place where God’s own love and influence may touch those places of our deeper vulnerability, and of our love and longing.
It may suffice that these prayers are said, and their meaning and content are left behind in the form of a burning candle; a mark and sign of the reality of faith and the existence of another kind of God particle.
The Bright Field
by R. S. Thomas
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receeding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.