Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity
26th Jul 2015
Sermon for the 8th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“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 devoured by them for the entertainment of the masses. The architectural shape of the modern stadium is built 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; that is understandable and forgivable. 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. 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. In this story 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 stubbornnesses; 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…for He comes to declare himself to us all in the words
“It is I…Do not be afraid”.
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Trinity Year B
19th Jul 2015
The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
“…and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd…and he set himself to teach them at some length”. Mark 6.33,34.
One of the distinguishing features of Mark’s Gospel lies in the teaching of Jesus as an unfolding secret. And the secret is such because so much of its meaning is hidden from direct and sudden knowledge. The Christian Faith is not a philosophy or a knowledge based agenda. It is not explained in a few words or in a simple formula. It is the power of God and the wisdom of God. It must therefore be looked for and searched after. It is to be understood gradually. It contains a truth which, we might say, gradually dawns upon us, and which can deepen itself and enrich itself and renew itself in our minds and the hearts. It commonly takes a life-time to realise its meaning.
Mark’s Jesus is the one whose travelling, proclaiming ministry contrasts with being pressed-in by the crowds that follow him, and the accompanying desire to be alone and apart, to pray and to offer his life as a witness to his love of the Father. In the exercise of this movement Christ feels compassion on those who strain to know God. And we are reminded here that our membership of Christ’s Church is also a witness to Christian teaching in all that we do and all that we are, inside and beyond the walls of this church building. There is no human situation or place in time in which his gentle teaching cannot be shown and heeded.
This must be understood. Mark’s is a Gospel of human perception. For it is when we can understand Jesus in this way that we also understand that the crowds follow him as they do. They follow, not in the hope of easy answers or as a kind of crazed fan base, but as those who recognise something holy in him. That same something echoed in the words “You have the words of eternal life” (John 60.68); “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16.16) and in this morning’s first reading, in which the prophet Jeremiah longs for a prophet of real virtue, and character and honesty. He actually names him as ‘The Lord-our-Integrity’ (23.6). And so it is that the crowds are drawn to Jesus in great number. They respond as we respond to the presence of Christ as the One who draws out from us our own truest God-likeness, the soundest integrity which lies, even though perhaps somewhat dormant, within each one of us.
The crowds are drawn to Jesus and in turn his teaching demands of them a ‘drawing out’ of something that already exists in the centre of their own being. In this morning’s second reading this is explained by Paul to the early Church. He delivers a message of radical healing : “You that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close by the blood of Christ. For he is the peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart…This was to create one single New Man in Himself out of the two of them…” (2.13 -15). These are the words which proceed from ‘The Lord-our-Integrity’, the offering of the true life and its singleness of purpose.
The problem that accrues to modern, urban life is of splitting : the demands of life are stressful and insatiable; the offering of many choices, and life lived in a kind of spin or a blur. Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell tells us that “We live, I regret to say, in a world of surfaces”. Much of the experience of modern life as we live it in London in 2015 can appear as a life saturated in surface material, which engages us only at the surface level. And after long exposure to the surface life, an inner emptiness often reveals something. And that something is that though we are materially rich and full, that spiritually many have felt starved and in want.
Jesus comes to bring us not just life but life in its fullest form. He brings us into a living communion with our Maker. His is the sharing of graces human and divine. His teaching tells us that we may find in Him in ourselves. This offers an encounter with our life’s true meaning – All that once seemed scattered to the four winds may now come to true purpose and vital and sustained integrity. It is being given by the One who is endlessly merciful and compassionate, The Lord-our-Integrity, the shepherd of our souls; the life teacher…
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity Year B
5th Jul 2015
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Trinity Year B
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’.
The so called ‘God Particle’ has recently been 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, ‘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 its natural and very 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 who speak merely of existence, however marvellously or exactingly they put it. 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 has been most powerfully expressed in the recourse to non-violent forms of demonstration and the refusal to answer violence with violence. But the anniversary of 7/7 must remind us that in the face of global terrorism non-violence, wherever possible will be matched by an absolute kind of watchfulness on the part of those who are tasked with the defence of peace. It will also call for a proper speaking out against false indoctrination and the barbarity of blind violence in all its forms and a willingness to fight the forces of such destruction tooth and nail.
Finally, the saying about power being made perfect in apparent weakness may stand as a very proper message for the existence of this church as a messenger for the bringing of peace, 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 loving and longing, our most cherished hopes and our deep disappointments and frustrations.
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, one hidden and yet still very much alive.
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.