Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
31st Jul 2016
Tenth Sunday after Trinity Year C
You must look to the things that are in heaven, where Christ is… Colossians 3 .1.
The Book of Common Prayer holds within it a special emphasis upon the indivisibility of the body and the soul. Here is the Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent, and also the words for the reception of Holy Communion:
ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Chriost our Lord. Amen.
The body (blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given (shed) for thee,
To the classical Greek world the division between soul and body was commonly accepted, as unfortunately, it tends today. But to the Hebrew mind, and to the Christian mind, such division was unthinkable. For the Judaeo-Christian mind it is impossible to separate the soul from the body. The Hebrew word ‘nepes’ reminds us that the self is a whole person, indivisible into parts and it is this understanding that we must keep in mind as we turn to this parable of Christ Jesus. There is no practical teaching in Christ without recourse to the relation between body and soul. Each requires the other for holiness of life. Each must recognize, live and respond to the other.
We must remember that the Gospel teachings are just that – Gospel. They contain expressions which contain within them the deepest levels of meaning. So although this morning’s parable may refer to a character we know as ‘the rich fool’ we come to know that Jesus is offering us teaching that is both basic and of the utmost subtlety. It is basic in relation to what lies true for us, and subtle in the fact of its spiritual vibrancy. Paul confirms this when he says in our second reading that the Christian has been brought back to true life in Christ. The French word for Resurrection into new life uses the word recussité.
Synonym: revive, resurrect, restore, regenerate, revitalize, breathe new life into, give the kiss of life to, give a new lease of life to, reinvigorate, renew, awaken, wake up, rejuvenate, stimulate, re-establish, reinstitute, relaunch; archaic: renovate.
The influence of Christ is a new breath which has literally recuscitated us back in our true being and into the likeness of the Creator God. The Christian spiritual teaching emerging out of this understanding is the one which offers back the paradox: of a way in which we can come to possess those things which are truly needful for our existence only through the dispossession of selfishness. John's spiritual method of inner purgation along what he understand to be a 'negative way' :
“ To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing. To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing. To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing. To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing. To come to enjoy what you have not, you must go by a way in which you enjoy not. To come to the possession you have not, you must go by a way in which you possess not. To come to what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not”. St John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel.
This week I went across the road to a grocery store named Stephen Lee and there met its owner, a middle aged Hindu lady who with her husband and sister and sons, works very long hours and works very hard indeed to keep the shop going. But as I entered the shop last week there was a strong and lovely smell of incense. I commented upon it, whereupon she told me that she was a Hindu and downstairs the family began the day in prayer for an hour to the God Vishnu and then afterwards, and importantly, stopped before the day began to have a nice cup of tea! But it was her passing words which struck me as possessing this spirit of dispossession when she said to me, quite matter-of-factly “It’s my religion, innit?”. To spend that much time in prayer was a genuine offering promising no material gain but yet possessing the possibility of deeper and more resonant and truer life in the present. This is what the Gospel writer means when he says to us “You must look to things that are in heaven, where Christ is….”
Being dead and risen with Christ, we are become as souls, and not just animate bodies. And as souls we are to seek that which is above, not that which is on the earth. As consumers living in a consumer society we should be careful not to be consumed by what we are consuming. Christ Jesus’ Kingdom teaching is for the transformation of a fallen material world into the likeness of God. We must as individuals and as a Church allow a little of God’s light to shine on those situations that seem intractable or inevitable and commit ourselves to be world changers. In this Church in the Autumn it is a hope of mine that we will be able to look at our charitable giving, and particularly our response to the suffering world around us in a renewed light and walk toward John of the Cross’ ‘Way of Dispossession.
John of the Cross’ way is not intended to be a recipe for an other-worldly spirituality which ignores the real earthy issues. First things first: the problem is not living on earth, but living on earth’s terms. Make this earth your god and you end up with lies, anger, greed and endless and deep seated inner frustration; the property disputes of the present world. The Creator, meanwhile, serves notice of a higher calling: a full, true humanity, remade in his own image. One which is healing and sustaining.
"Love seeketh not itself to please,
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity
24th Jul 2016
Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity Year C
Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find… Luke 11.10.
1. Prayer as Awakenness
In this morning’s gospel reading we are presented with the Jesus who is a teacher of prayer. And his teaching opens up for us the necessity of prayer not only from the point of view of saying prayers but of prayerfulness as a way of being; akin to breathing. This is to say something about a sensitivity to the elements, an awakeness, a persistent waiting, and the image used of the opportunity for prayer is as a door which opens for the one who knocks. Asking and searching are suggested. And a certain amount of discipline and daring are called for, a commitment to prayer. To be truly awake to these things and active in response to them is to pray and to say to God in the words of the old spiritual: “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer”.
2. Prayer and Persistence
In the Gospels, honest persistence is rewarded. Remember the crippled man at the Pool of Siloam, The Syro-phoenician woman, those examples of people who push their way through the crowd into the presence of Jesus. And getting to him they are not afraid to make demands. They are those whose intention far outweighs the dictates of polite manners. And in their approach lies the human instinct for survival. And Jesus is always receptive to this struggle for survival and the instinct for direct language ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ “My daughter lies sick at home – come quickly. And always powerful, the blunt and angry and accusing words of Mary, the sister of Lazarus to Jesus “If you had been here my brother would not have died!”. But in all these examples God’s teaching on prayer is the one which is the reaching out for God in prayer as a life source, and issuing forth out of God’s own being of his very life. Vital stuff for the soul’s survival.
The goal of our life is to live with God forever.
St Ignatius Loyola
3. Prayer and the Vitality of the Soul.
In the London of today it is no small matter for the members of Christ’s Church to be expected to pray. It is not easy to find the right space, the right times, the time to stop, and to speak to God. Never before have we been bombarded with so many images, so much news and information, so many concerns, a surfeit of so much life and so many choices. In this context the suggestion of a prayer life might seem slightly absurd. But a life of prayer lies at the heart of how Jesus Christ functioned as a human being, and the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ offers us the profoundest insight into the being and the person of Jesus Christ. It is the prayer from which issues out of the relationship he has with the Father. And so we must learn to pray, and to persist in prayer, however fumbling or awkward it might feel. We mustn’t ignore its vitality. If we do, we suffer the equivalent of spiritual dehydration. Try in a spare and distrated moment on the tube to say The Lord’s Prayer for your fellow passengers.
4. Prayer as Work
Two years ago I spent some time in a monastery, at which prayers are said seven times a day, beginning at 5 am without let up, and in which the ringing of the bell dominates the daily existence. It had always seemed to me that the monk’s existence was a heroic one, and extraordinary. But it really is ordinary. The life of prayer is only daunting if you accept is as such. It is really ordinary. It is something which is just, well, done! Pray as you can and not as you can’t!
Above all else this is a prayer life which is dogged and persistent andsomething of a job of work, and a real sweat. This is how it can be. The attempt to erect a barrier between spirituality and reality is always misguided. The prayer of those monks, once viewing their lives from the other side of the cloister was a job of work, and it is out of the life of prayer as work, in ways beyond our knowing, that prayer’s answer is being worked out, and is being seen and heard, and however unfathomably, known. But in a vital sense this prayer is not done because of anything that can be achieved through it, but because it begins and nurtures in us a vital kind of self-emptying. If, as Ignatius says, ‘The Goal of our life is to live with God for ever’ then God, who is always and everywhere present for us, is beckoning each one of us to inhabit that presence and to live and thrive in it to our soul’s own well-being. As one of our prayers for the preparation for prayer tells us:
Closer is he than breathing; nearer than hands and feet.
5. St Ignatius Loyola : Prayer and the surrender of the self.
The idea of the persistent seeker after Christ and his healing has also become a type of Christian who seeks God in that which lies beyond his own devices and desires. In the writings of St Ignatius are various vital ingredients which are as necessary today as they were when he wrote and thought and prayed five hundred years ago. One of these marries prayer as a kind of radical attentiveness with the accompanying idea of prayer as a radical letting go or leaving off of our own preoccupations. In our self surrender we leave behind those things which so often get in the way and cause us disquiet and enter a place of peace. The attentiveness is the prayer as both a waiting and a letting go of these things. We let them go in prayer as we recognise them and leave them behind, if only for a while… It is in this state of being that we understand Ignatius’ greatest prayer in its own context. It is a prayer which knocks at the very frontier – the door that opens into the presence of God and which, if we did but know it, lies open for us at all times.
Young Toby discovers climbs the convent wall in Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Bell, and falls badly, injuring his leg. The kindly nun who takes him in and bathes his informs him that the massive doors, which seemed closed to him, were in fact always kept unlocked. The enclosure was there only to concentrate the spirit of prayer within. He had only needed to try and see…
What we seek when we knock and enter the way of prayer is something that lies open for us at all times. The way into prayer lies in our own glad surrender as betokening a real and ever more certain trust.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory,
St Ignatius Loyola from The Spiritual Exercises.
Sermon for the Eighth Sunday of trinity
17th Jul 2016
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 garlic and a jar of oil 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.
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.
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Trinity
10th Jul 2016
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Trinity Year C
The Good Samaritan
“Who is my neighbour?’
The Parables of Jesus are the way he speaks difficult messages to us while recognizing our humanity and our right to moral choice. We mistake the Bible if we think it forms a story book, or even a manual of spiritual or pious instruction, which we may regard as ephemeral. As a child I thought of the whole Bible as an exotic and glorious story book full of wonderful tales and holding for me a kind of wonder which I could not find in any other book. I took all my reading from a Children’s Bible which was richly illustrated. I marvelled at the way in which Samson brought down the walls of the Temple, and of how David slew Goliath – much better for me than ‘Batman and Robin’, or even ‘Thunderbirds’. I sang the children’s assembly hymn by Charles Wesley :
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
But the Christian Gospels do not really portray a Jesus who is ‘meek and mild’. And little children grow up and the parables of Jesus may speak to the adult mind in all their force. The teaching of Jesus communicates a Gospel which is challenging at the deepest levels of our being. No longer meek (‘piously gentle; submissive, inclined to submit tamely…’ OE Dictionary) but containing commands which find us wanting and which challenge us. They ask questions of our own self-contained worlds; personal worlds which are so often de-sensitivised to the needs of others.
However, the parables as teaching stories are also kind, because these narratives admit the great gap that exists between the desire to do good and the will to put it into practice, in other words, the parables admit human frailty. The stories attempt simply to tell it like it is but in a form which is as we say, ‘user friendly’. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is typical in this respect. Its teaching confronts the listener with the most uncomfortable truth of all as it holds up a mirror to our own self - and the danger of our acquiring layers of indifference to those outside the intimate sphere of our close regard. Yet at the same time this is a parable about ordinary human kindness.
The Road from Jerusalem to Jericho is seventeen miles long, but during that journey the road takes you 3,600 feet down. At the time of Jesus it would have been a treacherous journey, because for centuries roads carrying people carrying valuables of all kinds were prone to attack by bandits. This was why people travelled in large, well defended groups. But the Samaritan travelled alone and unfortunately he paid the price. He was robbed, beaten and left for dead.
In this church we have to regard the question “Who is my neighbour?” as absolutely appropriate for our life together. The Parable of the Good Samaritan calls us to a realization of one another not simply as signed up members of a religious organisation but as a living body of people who depend and rely upon one another’s generosity and care. If we as Holy Cross Church are not to have this care for one another, how can we show those who live around and beyond this church the love of God made manifest in us? A kind of moral epiphany is being called for, a new awakenness:
This is the true joy of life: being used for a purpose, recognized by yourself as a mighty one, and being a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. George Bernard Shaw
Yes, the Good Samaritan rises out of the ordinary, and in an extraordinary showing or epiphany of practical and no-nonsense love, he has revealed the bleakness of the Priest and Levite and their religious indifference to the manifest suffering and pain of their neighbour who lies bleeding. They are the politically correct of their day and don’t help because they refuse any kind of human involvement and the risk of ‘losing’ themselves? They lack imagination. If Jerusalem was the religious capital of the nation, then Jericho must stand for a place of radical action. The journey which has taken the priest and Levite and Samaritan down by 3,600 feet has also been the journey upon which the radical demands made to us to recognize the neighbour in our midst and to respond to him is being surely made.
How are we to respond? I do not subscribe to the view that our reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan sets a gulf between the religious Jews and the Samaritan outsider. Rather it is there to provoke us into thought and then into action. For Christians, the transforming power of disinterested but active love must emerge not just out of a will to do good, but as a response to the God we experience in the heart of our Christian worship, out of our prayer…
In all this is the being of Christ himself. This very Christ, as he is telling the great parable of the Good Samaritan, is Himself laying down his life for us. . He is going on ahead, and leading us into a profound response to the question “Who is my Neighbour?” – a question which is being asked of us as the very litmus test of our claim to be Christian at all.
Down stairs in the Crypt there are people who, like the man on the road to Jericho, lie bleeding. At one of the Trust’s Friday night’s ‘Open Mic’ evenings a woman who was suffering and crying and telling me of her terrible troubles could nonetheless then get up, take the microphone and sing a beautiful and musical ballad for the others. She had benefitted from the company she had been keeping, a healing company of fellow travellers who had been Samaritans. God help us in all these things, and may God move us toward more loving actions and may He, the giver and healer of all things, bless them. Amen.
Sermon for the Feast of St Thomas
3rd Jul 2016
Sermon for the Feast Day of St Thomas
Then (Jesus) said to him “Do not doubt but believe”.
Thomas answered him “My Lord and my God!” John 20.27b,28.
In the painting ‘The Incredulity of Thomas’ by Caravaggio, Thomas is a gnarled old peasant, who, with furrowed brow and inquisitive and amazed eyes, has placed his bloodied index finger into a wound in Christ’s side. Two other disciples look down at the implanted finger as though medical students at an examination in a teaching hospital. But they are not young medical students but rough old peasants with dirty finger nails. In a fascinating detail, Jesus guides Thomas’ finger into the wound. The scene is spine tingling. You are a witness to a startling scene, and you feel its effect viscerally, with your nerve endings, and it makes you want to shudder!
The painting takes the dialogue between Jesus and Thomas and involves us to the extent that it is WE who are made to feel the finger going into the Christ’s wound ourselves. The spiritual reality of the resurrection is to be experienced in the flesh. The Resurrection of Jesus presents for the mind of the sceptic a difficult or even impossible level of understanding. In this context Thomas becomes the hero of the piece, for he echoes that all too human incredulity which befalls the one for whom faith and wonder exist on the unreachable or neglected side of the human imagination. But Jesus is there as the abiding reality, for Caravaggio he is bathed in light. He is the one who with guiding hand, allows us to see that the spiritual and the physical, the past and the present, have become one in him. As the hymn says ‘Only believe and thou shalt see, that Christ is all in all to thee’. But belief is not a simple business. Thomas makes it look very easy.
But for Thomas the disciple, this was not always the case. Several chapters earlier in John’s Gospel, when the news reaches the ears of Christ that Lazarus is dead, Jesus speaks at first of Lazarus as being asleep, and that he must go and wake him. The apostles are concerned that Jesus will be stoned if he returns to Judæa. What follows tells us more about Thomas, and surprises us:
‘Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him. Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go with him, that we may die with him.' John 11.16.
Here Thomas is far from doubting, he is the one who is willing to follow Jesus unto death and to risk the consequences. It is the believing Thomas who cries ‘Let us go with him!” John 11.6. No wonder then, that in the eastern orthodox churches, Thomas is known not as a doubter but as ‘Thomas the Believer’. If we are honest, we might say that Christian Faith finds its centre of gravity somewhere between a kind of certainty and a kind of doubting. Many of our well-known hymns express this kind of faith, in which God is seen in hiddenness and inaccessibility. ‘Immortal Invisible God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes’, we sing. And in the hymn ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ comes a ringing endorsement of the existence of heaven with the admission that ‘I know not, O I know not, what solid joys lie there…’ Thomas sets before us the existence of faith and doubt as part of the one offering to God. This is echoed in the poetry of R S Thomas as he describes the idea of faith as both presence and absence, and as the confounding of that desire as TS Eliot put it, to ‘verify, instruct yourself, inform curiosity, or carry report…’:
Why no! I never thought other than
That God is that great absence
In our lives, the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find. He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Via Negativa R.S. Thomas (1913–2000).
The Resurrection of Jesus was only slowly realised by the disciples. The Gospels, whiknown carefully mark their misunderstandings. The disciples are not learned men. They struggle with their own intelligence and partial understandings. But the Gospel writers are able in this way to make a larger point about the nature of human perception itself. The point is that faith in Christ may be asserted only in relationship to its being something which unfolds as it is revealed to us. It is never the finished article or a final statement. It grows and develops and may in the right circumstances grow deeper and more mature. More vision and trust may be granted. It takes a while for us to come to the fuller realisation and understanding of all the things which have taken place. The fact of the resurrection is not just a romantic adjunct to the life and death of Jesus. It is the arrival at an understanding of the identity of Jesus in all its fullness. The brief and pithy dialogue between Jesus and Thomas tells us that Jesus is a truth that can only be apprehended by faith. After all, the new relationship which the Resurrection has founded is the one in which Jesus of Nazareth, the rabbi and teacher, the healer, the worker of miracles, the one who died that shameful death on the cross is now risen from the dead! He has become for Thomas and for Christians for all time, “Lord and God!” Remember that it was Mary Magdalene and not one of the twelve disciples who witnessed the Resurrection. Remember too that Thomas was not before this incident a witness to the Resurrection. John tells us that he believed only on outward evidence, the witness of his own eyes; but my understanding is that this was witness to something he had known all along. He was like us only too human…
In the final analysis, an understanding of the Christian faith does not rest on belief and doubt in a theory. It is not about supposition but about reality. It is about us and what we are and why we are alive and what we are doing with our lives and whether we are becoming what we were made to be and whether we acknowledge that we are chosen and cherished by a loving Maker, who has sent his son to live among us, to die for us and to raise us to new life. This is the belief that the Christian risks. The risk as I say to myself, ‘Let me go with him, that I might die with him”. Let us go, anyway. There is nothing to fear. God has already taken the initiative. He has made his choice and we are now to make ours. He lives! We are therefore are no longer to doubt but believe.
“Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God's loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love.” Claiming and reclaiming our chosenness is the great spiritual battle of our lives, for in a competitive, power-hungry and manipulative world, it is all too easy to forget that God has always known us, and God has chosen us – even when we slide into self-doubt and self-rejection. Knowing that we have been and are known by God, and that we have been chosen, is the first thing we need to claim as we behold what we are and become what we receive in Him.