John the Baptist's New Terrain

24th Jun 2012


Today is dedicated to John the Baptist, following the feast day of his birthday yesterday.

Our readings today from Isaiah and Luke exist as voices which proclaim the coming of the Incarnation of Christ as something alive, active and ground-breaking. Christ is for our re-making and for our transformation and an expanding of our horizons.  Change is in the air! At the heart of this there is the figure of John the Baptist who is also the forerunner; the strange and terrible ‘voice crying in the wilderness’. This voice speaks, proclaims, that Christ will come ‘in no uncertain terms’, and come to transform the terrain of this world’s imagining:

Every valley shall be exalted
And every mountain laid low.
The crooked straight
And the rough places made plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
And all people shall see it together.

In only six years of living in King’s Cross, I have seen the physical surroundings change markedly, with the building of the Brunswick Shopping Centre, the complete refurbishment of the former Grand Midland Hotel and St Pancras Station and the regeneration of whole swathes of formerly poisoned land behind the stations. The grey and frightening backdrop for ‘Prime Suspect’ in the 1990s emerges as the nation’s gateway to Europe and with it wide open, fresher, lighter and liberating spaces. We are told that a new and modern village will emerge in the area behind St Pancras International Station, and a new part of the village has opened in an area bisected by the Canal and facing the massive University of the Arts Building. And there will be more to come: I can’t wait for the demolition of the ugly dark green prefabricated shed which has covered the old concourse of King’s Cross stations since the early nineteen eighties. A new piazza will emerge and provide for the first time in 150 years, a large and airy open space. The terrain will be transformed, and what will come with it is a transformed King’s Cross, both recognisable and hardly recognisable from what has gone before it. What would Brunel have thought of the new large open areas now covered almost entirely by glass? I think he would have rejoiced in his own buildings which still stand proud and elegant five generations later and which form part of a newly expressive architectural freedom, pleasing on the eye and, as they say, ‘user friendly’.

And when we look at the Christian Church in King’s Cross we find that it, too, is markedly different from what had gone before, recognizable and yet transformed and changed and shaped by the times in which it has lived. Two important markers provide for us a good measure of hope in the present. Firstly Camden Council is restoring and enhancing the emphasis upon Christian teaching and formation in all its schools. Secondly London’s churches have risen in number and are reversing the national trend of a downward turn in numbers. Thirdly, churches are now no longer minding their own business but turned outward in anticipation outward and into the local communities that they serve. In one week, I have been involved in a theatre workshop in Cromer Street run by the YMCA and looking at the human ethical issues involved in neuroscience with a panel of scientific experts and young adults from local schools. I have also attended an ordination and a first Mass. At first sight these two events might seem to occupy two vastly different terrains, but in fact they conjoin where the abiding questions remain in a world of great change and sophistication. I mistakenly took home a sheaf of papers belonging to a visiting professor of science and an avowed atheist. He has done some scribbling on the back of these papers and he asks in the scribbled notes ‘ What kind of people do we want to be? What should we do about this? What is the difference between the mind and the brain?’

John the Baptist comes from a very particular environment – the desert. It is out of the desert that he emerges with a prophecy and an action which will be ground-breaking, and life-changing. The prophecy is the foretelling of the-one-who-is-to-come and the action in the Baptism of Jesus. We know that John has been specially chosen by god to perform these things, and the Gospel writers give him special prominence, not only as the last of the prophets, the prophet whose prophecy makes and end of the Old Testament prophecy, but also the One who even before his actual birth, kicks in his Mother’s womb as she meets her cousin, Mary. This is an echo of the Old Testament identification with the God who has known the prophet in the womb and even before he was born.

For the Church, we move from the proper acknowledgement of the physical world we live in and all its demands and constraints with the openness to the freedom which is given to the one who has come to life in Christ. What the Gospel writers and St Paul tell us is that anyone who is in Christ has become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17). The emergence of the Christ for Old Testament Man is repeated in the emergence of the Christ in the one who has truly ‘come to Christ’ and has life no longer from circumstance and fate, but through him. This for the Christian is a call to be in the world but not of the word, a summons to a terrain in which the leveling of the valleys and the bringing down of the mountains is a striking image for the transformation which Christ will bring about. This is the call for the realization of the human being before God as we are, ‘as God made us’. And as God made us we shall say we are made to be loved. The summons of the Baptist to repentance is the one which allows us to be more of what we were most truly made to be. And that ‘more’ is the more of our own compassion, the enlargement of which in the life of the Church is what I would call ‘the influence of God’ which advances us in our understanding of one another and of the world around us. Made, built, fashioned to be loved. And we as Christians are to show this in how we decide to treat one another, and to cultivate the kindness which will always make a permanent difference and establish a new terrain.


On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings.

Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.

For thou art our salvation, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without thy grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.

To heal the sick stretch out thine hand,
and bid the fallen sinner stand;
shine forth and let thy light restore
earth's own true loveliness once more.

All praise, eternal Son, to thee,
whose advent doth thy people free;
whom with the Father we adore
and Holy Ghost for evermore.

Words: Charles Coffin, 1736;
trans. John Chandler, 1837



He did not speak to them except in parables

17th Jun 2012


Sermon for Trinity 2 Year B

There are so many aspects of human life that cannot be put into words. But that has not stopped us from trying! Words can convey so much. But what underlies language is also important. The deeper resonances. When John speaks of Jesus speaking in parables, he is saying something to us that we already know. We love a story, and a story is a very good way of communicating an important truth. Much of the early Christian witness was based on this kind of truth telling or witness. The truth telling was of lives which had found their reason for being in Christ; Gospel.

So many of the bestsellers lists are of books of biography. The word ‘bio’ and ‘graphy’ aiming to combine two contrasting elements -  that of life as it is lived;  and the setting down of that life graphically, descriptively, in words. When we look at the Gospels we are not looking at the biography of Jesus, even though the Gospels have biographical elements in them, and the four Gospel writers agree on many of the same happenings in the life of Christ. The Gospels are just that, they are ‘gospel’ and the aim of they treat biography as a necessary but secondary consideration. The first consideration is that the Gospel is theology. It tells us about God, and of how we see and experience God in the life of Christ. With this lies also the Gospel as Christian teaching, and Jesus this morning likens the faith of the Christian to the planting of a mustard seed, the tiniest of the seeds, which may grow into a vast tree. This of course is a simple figure of speech, and paints a picture in the mind’s eye.  It sets forth the Christian teaching in a way which gives the individual space and scope to imagine and to assimilate. This is not dictation. It is far removed from ‘literal truth’ or ‘fundamental truth’. It does not treat the individual reader or listener as a foil or a dummy. It expects a human response which is unpredictable, like the parable of the rich young man whom Jesus advises to sell all he has. The Gospels do not tell us whether he goes on to do this!

The telling of stories has always been with us and its beginnings are lost in the mists of time. We know the Bible to be not one book but many books, and also letters, diaries and eye witness accounts. But mostly the Bible is bound by the story of human salvation as we begin with Genesis and human origins right through to the dream in Revelation of the vision of a heavenly city, a new Jerusalem. ‘It begins in a garden and ends in a city’. But what drew me as a child to the Bible was the way in which good stories are for the growing child as well as the adult a vital part of come to terms with what makes us human and what makes God God - Daniel in the lion’s den, Noah and the ark, David and Goliath, the Crossing of the Red Sea, the witness of Job, the raising of Lazarus all emerge out of a body of story-telling which provides the scale and the scope for us to imagine these as not just quaint stories.  Rather, they communicate in the endless telling and re-telling, the eternal and priceless truths concerning our existence. For the writers and readers of the Bible, they trace the patterning of the history of human salvation. The statue of David in the Accademia gallery in Florence and the Mona Lisa in the Louvre , Paris are works of art which have an everlasting quality. They stand for the truth of our everyday existence as they marry their amazing reality with their understanding of the salvation history of which the Bible speaks. And these works can only be understood when both are realised. They stand for us as ‘real presences’ which communicate a deep truth which has an everlasting quality. No amount of seeing and re-seeing, reading or re-reading can ever exhaust the meaning of what is being conveyed or intended. We see through what has already been provided for us to see.

It became necessary in a recent exhibition of reliquaries and paintings in one London Gallery to state that such and such works of art were loaned from places of worship, Cathedrals and churches, and were therefore not to be solely regarded as art objects, but as objects of veneration. It is in this sense the when Jesus speaks in parables he is communicating in a language which speaks of this world  but which also establishes the existence of faith and as that which reaches out beyond itself to find itself. It is part of our knowing and recognising but also it lies beyond this. But this also allows us to understand that we see not only with our eyes or our brains but with deeper instincts.

The Bible can be regarded as just a type of religious text or it can be regarded as The Book of Life. If we choose the former then we relegate the Bible and its teaching to one of those posh volumes, with fake leather binding that you can order in instalments and sit on your shelves trying to look grand, never read, but largely ornamental. If we see the Bible on the other hand as a Book of Life, then there is no limitation. It may speak to us in our own lives and human states as found. Many Christians I know supplement their church going and their prayers for a small booklet which can be easily ordered and which provides for daily readings from the Bible  with brief commentaries. Many have discovered by these means that Bible is not relegated to the ‘dry as dust’ section but waters and nourishes and provides a seed-bed into which the mustard seed of our growing and perhaps hesitant faith may find watering and refreshment.

In speaking in parables Jesus is admitting the need for a deeper understanding of the truths of our existence. It was Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell who observed that

We live I believe in a world of surfaces.

The speaking in parables provides a way of apprehending what St Paul described as the ‘length, the breadth, the height and the depth’ (Ephesians 3.18) of our existence and to know it through a lifetime’s study and pondering. Jesus is the One who allows someone like TS Eliot to see this as a never ceasing from exploring over a lifetime. This holds for us the promise of finding that place where we started from, the place of our own origin and truth, and of arriving at that place perhaps for the first time. But nonetheless to see the truthful things of God, whether or not embedded in mystery, whether seen through a glass dimly or whether enjoyed in the re-reading of old and worn parables, is for us the implantation of the mustard seed. In faith and intrust we pray that the Creator, the Giver and the Sustainer who is God will provide for the increase.

R.S. Thomas (1913–2000)

Via Negativa

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
Between stars. His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.



Basic Humanity

10th Jun 2012


Today on this First Sunday of Trinity we begin to return after the great feasts of Trinity and Pentecost and to ‘the wearing of the green’. This colour will symbolise for us ordinary humanity, our humanity, as we stand  before God in need of the divine understanding and mercy. I think of the refrain from ‘It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer’. As a vital part of this ordinary humanity we rightly speak of the existence of the soul and the soul’s health. For Chrstians that has meant a humanity which is both ‘outward and visible’ and ‘inward and invisible’. We addresses God in words that cannot always be spoken. There are all the exterior things to do with the running of our lives and then there are those things which are almost inexpressible : our loves and our longings and our hopes. It is in this way that Paul can speak of our outward and inner natures and declare  that

“…even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day”  2 Corinthians 4.19.
 
But for him, in the final analysis, to be ‘In Christ’ is to be most fully alive in the acknowledgement that we are not just body, but also soul. The outer and the inner person is fully heeded ‘In Christ’ and as a soul.

One of the Prayer Book Collects (for Lent 3) reads:

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 Christ our Lord. Amen.

Jesus’ meeting with so many of those he comes to heal begins with a simple throw away line or a basic question ‘Zacchaus come down, today I must dine with you”’ he says to Zacchaeus in the tree, and to the demoniac ‘What is your name? To the widow of Nain he says “Do not cry”. As a healer, Jesus is the one who ‘sees into’ the humanity of the person and stays with it before ever the healing is carried out. The healing acts are inseparable from the human encounter and the arrival at a place of mutual understanding.  And it is possible to begin to see that as humans we are made to love and to be loved. That loving may show itself in ‘being with’ a person rather than anything good we feel we might be doing on their behalf.

At theological college one of our tutors was rather eccentric. He was a big man and always seemed to be in a hurry. He arrived late and breathless to one of our house meetings and rushed towards a chair and sat himself on it with such relief and weight that it gave way immediately to gales of irrepressible laughter as we saw him gazing up at us with legs akimbo. He once visited one of our students who was full of a terribly fluey cold. This student was female and also a chain smoker. The large and chair-breaking tutor came to visit her, and feeling a bit awkward asked her whether she’d like a cup of tea? She said ‘Yes’ and he got the tea, and then sat next to her bed and fidgeted and asked her whether she had any biscuits? She said yes, there, over by the bread bin. She remembers this visit not so much by anything that was said, and even least by her tutor’s social skill, but that as he listened to her intently, he proceeded to devour the whole packet of biscuits right in front of her! Ever since, she has found the memory of this visit delightful because it was so characteristic of him. He knew how to be himself even when he found it difficult to be himself. It was, at least, very human and in a way, very pastoral.

This ‘being with’ a friend or loved one is surely a way of expressing the desire to be loving even and especially when you don’t quite know how this is to be done. It is an acknowledgement of the thin divide that exists between the caring for the outward things and leaving the inmost things to God’s good grace. It is an act of love which is done not with self-consciousness but, as one theologian would have it, ‘love seeking expression’. It is love as an action of love, like the person who did not know what to say to the woman whose son had committed suicide so he made a casserole and left it outside her door with a note and asked her permission to cook a dish for her once a week.

The Clod and the Pebble, William Blake, Songs of Experience, 1794.

"Love seeketh not Itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care;
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair."
So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet;
But a Pebble of the brook,
Warbled out these metres meet:
"Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to Its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven's despite."

English Hymnal 216:

Disposer supreme, and judge of the earth,
Who choosest for thine the weak and the poor,
To frail earthen vessels and things of no worth,
Entrusting thy riches which ay shall endure.

There is an icon in church this morning. It is a Coptic or Egyptian icon of the sixth century and features a famous saint, martyr and abbot, Menas, given the charge of his community by Christ himself, who, unusually, puts his arm around Menas in an encouraging gesture. This icon is shown by the Taizé community of young people as an icon of reconciliation and of friendship with Christ and it is charming in the details of the outstretched and embracing arm. But it is significant too, because it is not a mere painting but an icon, and painted or ‘written’ in a particular way. The figures in these icons have large heads, eyes and ears but small mouths and noses. That is because the head, the eyes and the ears were considered more spiritual than mouths (gossip) and noses (too sensuous). But this is an encouraging icon because of its humanity and for us the prevailing truth of the Christ who is with us even and especially when we  may not realise this. He is the one who underwrites our frail humanity and actively seeks our reconciliation with the Father through ‘his presence and his very self’.

We feel in this place at this time, his presence as a  guiding and encouraging one, one we can come to trust and to know despite and because of ourselves. Let us, then be the most ordinary people we can, and to love the ordinary and ordinary humanity, particularly in the God-given capacity to show love not jus as a feeling but as an active response which emanates from the source of all love, God himself…



Trinity Sunday

3rd Jun 2012


The Feast of the Holy Trinity itself forms the latest of great feasts that crown the Church’s year; Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and now Trinity Sunday. Easter focuses on the Resurrection of Christ, Ascension his heavenly glory seated at the right hand of the Father, Pentecost upon the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity upon the godhead itself. Of the four, the Feast of the Trinity, of God’s manifestation as Creator God, as Christ and as Holy Spirit is the hardest to understand because it expresses God as three ‘persons’ but as a single unity.  Despite the difficulty, it is more important than ever that we learn to speak about God. To know God as real and to communicate that reality in words as theologians.  How then are we to make God real? I want to show you how this has been done by an icon painter, a novelist and a spiritual writer, and then to show three paintings which tell us more about God.

The Holy Trinity has been painted by Andrei Rublev as an icon for a household of love. The icon is based on one of Abraham’s visions in Genesis Chapter 18, in which the elderly Abraham and his wife Sarah entertain three mysterious guests. Rublev’s point was to establish the Trinity as both a concrete reality and as a sublime mystery. At the heart of the mystery is the hospitable God who wishes to invite you to take your place at the heavenly banquet, for the place in front of you is yours. God is depicted as a place to dwell in, or as Henri Nouwen has put it “a household of love”. This is a household where there are no artificial boundaries and where all who honestly seek after the presence of God may find it and be embraced by it. Living in this household is not only a revelation of God’s love but also makes this love apparent and real. This has far-reaching implications for the Church which must both safeguard the integrity of its faith but welcome the strangers in its own midst with the completest hospitality. And this hospitality has to reach deep into its theology and its world-view and into all its own prejudices, known and unknown. The icon for Nouwen’s household of love is also Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ in which loving forgiveness and reconciliation is God’s response to our own longing to find our true destiny.

We live not one life but many lives. Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Bell’ begins with the words “Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.”  Immediately we are plunged into Dora’s inner life through this novel in a way no other medium allows. Her life is not a simple story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but like the rest of us lived out riddled with contradictions, or with what Murdoch called ‘contingency’. What could be more contradictory than a God who is at one and the same time Creator of Man, Man and Spirit? It is in the tradition of the novel to allow us to accept and incorporate both the limitedness of human understanding with the incompleteness of things.  As the hymn “And Can It Be?”  puts it:  ‘Tis mystery all, the immortal dies, who can explore his strange design…?’  It is in life’s radical incompleteness that the God of love comes to meet us. He is the one who, in Jesus Christ offers hope even in and through the gaps of our existence.

Three years’ ago I attended the funeral of a former parishoner who had been living with cancer for some years. I shall call him Michael. He had had many remissions and had fought the disease bravely until finally he died. As his eulogy was read at the funeral service I realised with a start that I had only known him as a sick man, albeit a lovely human being. But here was another man with a rich past, a painter, a diplomat, who had lived in Egypt for twenty years and was fluent in Arabic, and all I seemed to remember were our rather stilted conversations, mostly theological discussions, because he took a keen interest in that. As the service wore on, I nonetheless realised two things; firstly that the life I had encountered in Michael was put a small part of the entirety of his earthly life which spanned times and places I could barely imagine or inhabit. Secondly, I realised that nonetheless all real human encounters are spiritual encounters, and they have a quality that makes the spirit sing for joy. They involve the subtle interplay of lives apparently lived at a distance, but recognised as part of one reality. The funeral became for me a celebration of his life and of mine too. That small part of my life which was spent with him has been transformed for me and is part of my present life, and as I think on these things I know that in the middle of all this is the love of the Trinitarian God.

We can’t begin to fathom the intricacies of the meaning of all this, just as we can’t fathom the intricacies of the Trinity. Masaccio paints the Trinity as older man, younger man and dove but does this in a painting where you are left to wonder about their existence within the realm of time and space and perspective. It is not there to overwhelm you but to place before you the existence of God as both an abiding truth and a sublime mystery. The Holy Trinity does not therefore find us speculative and doubting, but beckons us to enter in and to find God ready to greet us, as we do today; to come and eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Saviour and to come ‘just as we are’, within the household of His abiding and all-embracing love.



 

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