Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Trinity

30th Jun 2013


The Fifth Sunday after Trinity

 

“Let the dead bury the dead” Luke 9.60

 

I well remember the last time I saw my father. He was mortally ill in hospital and had been given, as I later learnt, large injections of morphine. I had managed to get to the hospital at the last minute, and he was sat up in bed and looked directly at me, with an eye contact and a smile which were unexpected. When he was able to speak he said to me these words: “Don’t look back”. I shall never forget his words, which at first look like a simple terse statement. But in fact they are always meaningful. In the context of Christian wisdom and of an understanding of God they are words of significant spiritual teaching. They place our lives firmly within the scope of the present moment and of its relation to our everlasting hope. The present exists always as the moment of truth. It is in the nature of the Christian vocation to respond to God’s call and to live it out in the present and in the here and now, come what may. In this way the present moment becomes one which is also an eternal moment, one in which in which God and His providence are at one.

 

In Charles Dicken’s novel ‘Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham lives as though time had stood still at the very moment at which she was left standing alone on her own wedding day; except that she has grown much older and slouches over a wedding banquet at which the mice are already gnawing away at the ravaged and decayed wedding cake while the clock is stopped at the very moment that her betrayal had taken place. This outward decay points to the inward decay of a soul turned in on itself and unable to feel anything apart from numb pain. The present moment is a living agony and there seems nothing to hope for. Dickens suggests that this is a kind of death. Jesus says “Let the dead bury the dead” The end for Miss Havisham only comes when light is let into the wedding chamber and her enclosure is seen as a living death.

 

In today’s Gospel Jesus has already set himself to resolutely take the road to Jerusalem from Samaria. “The Road to Jerusalem” becomes a Gospel statement. It is the road all must tread in faithfulness to the Christian calling. We must learn to put self and even past aside and embrace, in trust the Christian destiny. This is what it means to respond to Jesus when he issues the words “Follow Me”. We are to follow where he leads. This is how it must be. Jesus is resolute and determined. In the Gospel of Luke it takes a further ten chapters to come to the point of arrival in Jerusalem to suffer and to die. But unlike Miss Havisham this journey is one of moment and of intensity and purpose. It is lived in the present as though the present were everything.

 

This week sees the Ordination to the Priesthood and Diaconate of many men and women for whom this moment will stand as the fulfilment of all the years of waiting and wondering as the Call of God has manifested itself. Men and women from vastly differing backgrounds and types will be Ordained; among those one year an icon painter, a research scientist, an optician, and a film – maker…. Some time ago at St Paul’s Cathedral an elderly Russian woman who had survived one of Stalin’s gulags was present at the Ordination of beloved grandaughter, now ministering in a London church. Thirty-three were ordained to the Diaconate. What stories they could all tell : and of how many situations in life the Call of the Christ had manifested itself, and in so many different ways! And for each candidate, standing before the Bishop at this moment of great calling, many would realise how their past had led them to this sacred and telling moment of Ordination.  And we like them might consider our own Christian calling in a similar way: Of those people and those incidents and moments in which the love of God has been strongly manifested. Our past as intimately congruous with the present moment – the moment when God is most present. And this might mean that some of the blessings are mixed ones, and much of what we bring to God in the present is incomplete, imperfect, unresolved and even uncertain. But God is love and he can do no other than love and bless that life to which he has shown complete confidence and trust. This is the source of the Christian Call to live in the present and to put aside those things which impede our progress into ‘the eternity that awaits us’: This is in fact not a ‘progress’ but a realisation of the existence of the love of God to us at all times and in all places, now and always.

 

Perhaps that is what my Father meant when he said “Don’t look back”.

 

“Let the dead bury the dead”.

 

 

 

 

The Bright Field

 

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 receding 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.

 

~ R. S. Thomas ~

 

 



Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

30th Jun 2013


 

The Fifth Sunday after Trinity

 

“Let the dead bury the dead” Luke 9.60

 

I well remember the last time I saw my father. He was mortally ill in hospital and had been given, as I later learnt, large injections of morphine. I had managed to get to the hospital at the last minute, and he was sat up in bed and looked directly at me, with an eye contact and a huge smile to which I had been unaccustomed. And when we spoke we said to me these words: “Don’t look back”. I shall never forget those words, which at first look like a simple statement. But in fact they are meaningful and contain great spiritual teaching. They place our lives firmly within the scope of the present moment and of its relation to our everlasting hope. The present exists always as the moment of truth. It is in the nature of the Christian vocation to respond to God’s call and to live it out in the present and in the here and now, come what may. In this way the present moment becomes one which is also an eternal moment, one in which in which God and His providence are at one.

 

In Charles Dicken’s novel ‘Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham lives as though time had stood still at the very moment at which she was left standing alone on her own wedding day; except that she has grown much older and slouches over a wedding banquet at which the mice are already gnawing away at the ravaged and decayed wedding cake while the clock is stopped at the very moment that her betrayal had taken place. This outward decay points to the inward decay of a soul turned in on itself and unable to feel anything apart from numb pain. The present moment is a living agony and there seems nothing to hope for. Dickens suggests that this is a kind of death. Jesus says “Let the dead bury the dead” The end for Miss Havisham only comes when light is let into the wedding chamber and her enclosure is seen as a living death.

 

In today’s Gospel Jesus has already set himself to resolutely take the road to Jerusalem from Samaria. “The Road to Jerusalem” becomes a Gospel statement. It is the road all must tread in faithfulness to the Christian calling. We must learn to put self and even past aside and embrace, in trust the Christian destiny. This is what it means to respond to Jesus when he issues the words “Follow Me”. We are to follow where he leads. This is how it must be. Jesus is resolute and determined. In the Gospel of Luke it takes a further ten chapters to come to the point of arrival in Jerusalem to suffer and to die. But unlike Miss Havisham this journey is one of moment and of intensity and purpose. It is lived in the present as though the present were everything.

 

This week sees the Ordination to the Priesthood and Diaconate of many men and women for whom this moment will stand as the fulfilment of all the years of waiting and wondering as the Call of God has manifested itself. Men and women from vastly differing backgrounds and types will be Ordained; among those one year an icon painter, a research scientist, an optician, and a film – maker…. Some time ago at St Paul’s Cathedral an elderly Russian woman who had survived one of Stalin’s gulags was present at the Ordination of beloved grandaughter, now ministering in a London church. Thirty-three were ordained to the Diaconate. What stories they could all tell : and of how many situations in life the Call of the Christ had manifested itself, and in so many different ways! And for each candidate, standing before the Bishop at this moment of great calling, many would realise how their past had led them to this sacred and telling moment of Ordination.  And we like them might consider our own Christian calling in a similar way: Of those people and those incidents and moments in which the love of God has been strongly manifested. Our past as intimately congruous with the present moment – the moment when God is most present. And this might mean that some of the blessings are mixed ones, and much of what we bring to God in the present is incomplete, imperfect, unresolved and even uncertain. But God is love and he can do no other than love and bless that life to which he has shown complete confidence and trust. This is the source of the Christian Call to live in the present and to put aside those things which impede our progress into ‘the eternity that awaits us’: Letting the dead bury the dead.

 

This is in fact not a ‘progress’ but a realisation of the existence of the love of God to us at all times and in all places, now and always.

 

 

 

 

The Bright Field

 

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 receding 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.

 

~ R. S. Thomas ~

 



Sermon for the Second Sunday of Trinity

9th Jun 2013


THE WIDOW OF NAIN

 

The Second Sunday of Trinity

Sunday 9th June 2013 

 

 

1 Kings: 17 v17-24

Luke: 7 v11-17

 

 

Jesus’ walks into a funeral cortege on his way into a town called Nain.

 

The Church of England funeral service poses this question from the Psalms ‘In the midst of life we are in death and to whom can we turn for help but to you O Lord?’

 

In our very diverse and multifaceted world one of the constant and universal human experiences is loss. We lose someone precious to us, someone upon which we rely and depend, and it changes us for ever. Losing someone we love is the hardest thing we may ever have to face. Loss makes us question the meaning of life. Losing someone is radically disorientating. Instead of stepping easily into each day things suddenly feel more hostile or uncertain. And the greatest loss of all can be our sense of hope

 

Such a loss breaks our heart. Hearts can indeed break and they heal slowly. The shock of discovering that someone has ‘left’ us makes daily life a struggle and one needs a lot of courage. Our first reading this morning was another story about a mother, the widow of Zarepath (in 1 Kings 17.8-24) losing her son, and we could hear within it some of the out-workings of bereavement. The mother is angry, ‘What have you against me, O man of God?’ She wants to blame someone. ‘You have come to cause the death of my son!’ And Elijah, equally shocked by the threat to this child, starts bargaining with God. There’s no formula for how we’ll each of us cope with our own sorrow but I think we all recognise that walking through the valley of the shadow of death is a terrible journey.

 

The funeral which was coming out of Nain that day, on its way presumably to the city’s burial ground, wasn’t dealing with a kind death. A woman who’d already lost her husband was now burying her son. This is a story about the power of compassion in the face of an unkind death. In Jesus we are offered the face of the Christian God whom we worship, and the chief characteristic of that God is that He is compassionate. He is merciful in dealing with human frailty. Jesus doesn’t avoid this funeral; he doesn’t avoid the widow of Nain’s anguish and he identifies with her grief. Here is not a God who remains aloof when we are in the vale of tears but very close to us, approaching, that he may draw alongside us and stay with us.

 

Jesus puts compassion first. Every society adds to death its own rituals and taboos and religious sensibilities: it’s the way we help ourselves cope: so one of the taboos of that Jewish community in Nain would have been that a dead body was not to be touched. It would have made anyone touching it ritually unclean. And so it’s hardly surprising that when Jesus steps forward and touches the structure bearing the body it stops everyone in their tracks. He touches, as we often want to touch, to recognise that this isn’t a corpse but this woman’s son. At the heart of any funeral are living relationships. Jesus will not let the conventions and expectations surrounding this death get in the way of a compassionate response. We cannot raise people from the dead but we can respond to loss with an attentive and compassionate heart. We might lack imagination, we might lack intimacy with those grieving but we can still practice compassion.

 

As a hospital chaplain at Charing Cross Hospital, a busy General Hospital, I had never stopped to wonder what the term ‘General’ might incorporate. In experiencing something of that same Jesus, who touched the bier carrying the body of the widow’s son at Nain, there were some very sad and demanding encounters. Three different kinds of funerals stay in the mind. The first, the funeral and burial of babies who had been born prematurely, then the funerals and burial of the remains of those whose bodies had been used for research and then the funeral and burial of those who had died of AIDS. Each one involved in one way or another, taboos about what was deemed clean and unclean or what was deemed worthy of ordinary human compassion and what was recognized as an immense loss. Each sad event challenged in different ways our capacity to cope and to understand to bear with these things and to have compassion. It was moving to see a small group of people attend the funeral of the remains of someone who had given their body for research perhaps up to two years after their death. It was moving to see that though they had come to commemorate a death, they had also come to respect and to give honour to that living relationship of love which was still a part of their real lives. It is hard to imagine that only in the 1980s was there a concerted effort to recognize that the loss of a premature baby was deemed worthy of appropriate funeral rites. And in another way, the funerals of those who had died of AIDS were often emotionally challenging and even angering and shaming to families who were being asked to bear a grief the like of which they had not been prepared, with the likelihood of misunderstanding and of rejection as well as affirmation and commemoration were always possible. Above all, like the widow of Nain, who, grieving her son, wonders at the awfulness of losing a member of a generation expected to survive her?

 

In the story of the Widow of Nain Jesus shows himself to be compassionate especially in that place where life and death come together. He is shown to us as truly the Son of God : who at all times and in all places is a life-giver. He is the one who accompanies us in all we are and in all we do as a compassionate friend and He is the One who alone is able to breach the chasm that separates grief and hope in life and death.

 

 

In the breaking comes the re-making.

 

Archbishop Donald Coggan.

 

 

So death will come to fetch you? No, not death but God himself. Death is not the horrible spectre we see represented in pictures. The catechism teaches us that death is the separation of the soul from the body; that is all. I am not afraid of a separation that will unite me for ever with God.  

 

St Teresa of Avila.

 

 

 

And thou, most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our latest breath, O praise him, alleluia!

Thou leadest home the child of God, and Christ our Lord the way hath trod.

O praise him, O praise him,

Alleluya! Alleluya! Alleluya!

 

St Francis of Assisi.



Sermon for the First Sunday of Trinity

2nd Jun 2013


Sermon for the First Sunday of Trinity Year C

 

Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed”. Luke 7.1-10


Here we have a Centurion, a high-ranking military leader on peace keeping work in a volatile country far from home, and he has a sick servant, or assistant. In the harsh world of Roman-occupied First Century Palestine, the centurion seems to have been an unusually kind man: not only does he care a lot about his slave’s well-being but he also has the enthusiastic support of the local Jewish leaders who say he is worthy, loves the Jewish people and has even built a synagogue for them. In a difficult and divided social terrain he has won their hearts and minds. In the political context of the day this is nothing less than extraordinary.


The Centurion knows his authority and maintains discipline – he speaks and his men act. Yet he does not come to Jesus commanding him to heal his servant, but instead tries to avoid inconveniencing Jesus, a man who in every respect his social inferior. The way he entreats Jesus is an indication of the way he has respected the rest of the local population. This is a humble and generous man. His humility and generosity of spirit have gone against the social grain and it becomes clear that he is a very unusual man indeed. It would have been normal for one of his kind to be hated, like the tax-collectors whose lives and works he was employed to protect. 


In relation to the love of his own slave the senior officer is not only concerned but decided and devoted in a way which again was most unusual. Many commentators have read the relationship between the centurion and the servant as a gay one. In those days the Roman soldiery were called ‘gay’ as an insult, so hated were they. But evidence has proved that many soldiers involved themselves in same-sex activity, and if this is so then this Gospel reading involves a comment on the way in which we see Jesus including and addressing the needs of many who were ostracized, and in particular this Centurion, a senior member of an occupying force whose religious identity lay at great variance to the Faith of Israel.  The intensity of the request for the healing of the slave would at the very least have ‘raised eyebrows’. Jesus himself would have been very aware of this and of the disparity in status between the Centurion and his slave and yet he grants the soldier’s request without demur.


The parable encourages two very important observations. The first of these is what one theologian has called the 'cardinal' of all Christian virtues, the virtue of humility. The centurion is humble in his request as Jesus is instinctive in his reaching out to one whose existence lies at strong variance to the Jewish Faith. Jesus humbles his own status as Messiah to reach out and to meet the lives of those considered intolerable or alien. Remember the woman at the well and the Syro-Phonoecian woman, and the Samaritan! The same words of the centurion are written into the rite of the Mass as we say before we receive the sacrament:


Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.


Which brings us to the second observation; of the sheer breadth of God’s compassionate love in Christ. The love of God is brought to bear in all human situations bar none. It is in this vein that the Church is to involve itself at the deepest and most responsive level to the world that it inhabits. The tendency has been for the Church to set itself apart from the world as a kind of religious cordon sanitaire and as a ‘good’ agent’ against the ‘bad’ or ‘wickedness’ of the world. But its real task is to have a care and an understanding of this world as it is found. In doing so, it is to hold fast to the Christian Faith as the love of that which it cannot always fully understand but to which it is called to respond with a good heart. It was a former Dean of Westminster, Eric Abbot, who reminded us that


The Church is where the tensions of human life have to be confronted at their deepest level.


It is appropriate to reminder ourselves that Jesus has reached out to humanity in all its variety and type, in all its forms and customs and in all its faith and waywardness and he has met this same humanity with a love which has been called ‘the love beyond all telling’; the love of God himself. And this love is not just framed as cosy liberality but as essential if humankind is to fully realize its own identity as made in the image and likeness of the creator. It is essential in the Christian understanding of Jesus as the One who reconciles us to God. He is able to be Christ because his loving expression is the one which is humble and which reaches humanity at the level of its greatest need, especially where that need is prevented or remains unspoken or opposed.



How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds

in a believer's ear!

It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,

and drives away his fear.

 
It makes the wounded spirit whole,

and calms the troubled breast;

'tis manna to the hungry soul,

and to the weary, rest.



 

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