Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity
21st Jun 2015
Trinity 3 sermon
“Who then is this, that the wind and sea obey him?” Mark 4.41.
The Gospel this morning describes a storm on a lake, Lake Tiberias or The sea of Galilee, which lies 652 feet below sea level and is surrounded by steep hills. The lake is 15 miles long and 6 miles wide. A storm on a lake does not carry the high drama of a storm at sea, and yet we are told that Jesus and his disciples were crammed into a small boat which was rapidly letting in water. No wonder they were afraid, for, for even as fishermen, they knew the dangers and sudden storms were unpredictable.
Mark is telling us what looks like a simple story, but as Gospel it contains much deeper resonances, and we come to know that when Jesus stills the storm Mark is reminding us that the Christian Faith offers none of us an exemption from hardship, difficulties of all sorts and the radical testing of faith. This is the storm to which the early Christians, Mark’s audience and we in our own time, are being asked to accept as fact. For the Church, grace, mercy and forgiveness, communion with God in Christ is promised to the believer as ‘blessed assurance’. But this does not excuse the hard facts of life and of human struggle and suffering. When the storm hits us, there is something in the Christian witness which beckons us to travel through its power to kill and destroy, to drown hope and to drag us down.
Jesus sits in the boat as the eye of the storm, which is his rightful place as the storm gathers momentum and then threatens devastation. He remains as its still centre, a place we have traditionally called ‘the eye of the storm’. And it is Jesus as the person and the place of perfect stillness who may guide us through and beyond the ravages of the storm and bring us through. For Mark, this story comes to his readers as a call to a faith in Christ which will outlast the apparent randomness of human fate and fortune. This is a faith which, in its faithful stillness, occupies the place in the boat, the cradle of life which Christ himself inhabits for all time. In this way Mark supplies the response to the Old Testament fear of ‘the deep’, called ‘Sheol’, and particularly the watery depths as a kind of real hell, particularly where the depths were fathomless, dark and menacing. In his simple story of the Jesus who stills the storm on the lake water, Mark makes Jesus the one who fulfils the promise of Old Testament scripture. He transforms the meaning of deep from one of danger and threat to the one which calls forth deeper reserves of faith and trust.
The De Profundis:
Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord; Lord hear my voice. Let Thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. If Thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities, Lord, who shall stand it? For with Thee there is merciful forgiveness, and by reason of Thy law, I have waited for Thee, O Lord. My soul has relied on His word, my soul hath hoped in the Lord. From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord. Because with the Lord there is mercy; and with Him plentiful redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities. Psalm 130.
Christian Faith matures in us when we no longer give God lip service, but when every little particle of our lives and their purposes are centred on God. When we learn to dialogue with God in prayer on a daily basis and really begin to live in the presence of God, it is as though a new world is opened up for us. Understanding is offered from a different source. It does not fall prey to our own sense of control but liberates us to love and to serve Him more fully. Hope is made possible from a place of perhaps painful and difficult stillness, which may seem to many like stoicism or blank resignation, but which is the faith which is sill and which may transform situations which would otherwise remain unheeded and unredeemed. So many people have been given fresh hope and comfort in their distress by entering a church, maybe for the first time in years. They have found the very simplicity and peace-offering potential of church and cathedral buildings powerful signs of hope amid an experience of a life that remains ‘stubbornly’ confusing, difficult and trying. Jesus words offer us words of life:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. John 14.27
In the same vein, Mark writes to the early church and to take his listeners into that small cramped boat on the stormy lake to remind them of who Christ is, a strong channel through which God the Father’s peace is offered to you and me in perpetuity, especially when the storms break upon our own lives and we too are in need of gentle and honest words of life, even and especially as we acknowledge our very proper powerlessness:
Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,
When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?
When the strong tides lift, and the cables strain,
Will your anchor drift or firm remain?
We have an anchor that keeps the soul
Steadfast and sure while the billows roll,
Fastened to the Rock which cannot move,
Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.
"Who then is this, that the wind and the sea obey him?"
Sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity
14th Jun 2015
Sermon for Trinity 2 Year B “He did not speak to them except in parables”
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 at The National 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 and an inner eye.
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 as they are 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.
Sermon for the Feast of Corpus et Sanguis Christi
4th Jun 2015
The Feast of Corpus Christi
As a young ordinand, back in 1980, I was interviewed for a job as auxilliary nurse in St Christopher’s Hospice Hospice in Sydenham. In those days there was still a matron, who was the tallest and thinnest woman you ever saw. And she had short thin hair and she wore the grey uniform of the Church Army. She was affectionately known as ‘the fuzzy felt twiglet’. The interview was not one done across a desk and nor did it take the form of a question and answer session. She merely took me into a ward and introduced me to a man who lay in bed, sick with cancer and covered in sores. But he was a man who could look at us confidently in the eye and hold out his hand and greet us with a joyous smile. The interview was the meeting with this man, which lasted only a few minutes, but which was gracious. He was the recipient of what was then a new kind of care. A care within the life of a Hospice. Today’s Feast of Corpus Christi is as real as that… By it we are to see, receive, and become the Body of Christ, in this Eucharist. The means by which this happens is for the Christian the radical identification with Jesus who is the Creator God who has come to us in the flesh. Our identification with Christ is both spiritual and physical, we might even say visceral. The rite for Holy Communion in The Book of Common Prayer placed greatest significance on the reception of the Eucharistic elements. “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul into everlasting life. The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul into everlasting life”. There is an intimate connect between the the life of Christ and our lives and their courses and their ultimate destination. Our relationship to the Christ we proclaim is one which is both spiritual, and of flesh and blood in the here and now:
“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins.
What this means for us moderns is that there is no aspect of human nature for which the self-giving life of Christ does not offer its manifest love. For us moderns we look to Picasso’s painting of the weeping Dora Marr and to his Guernica, and also to the visceral paintings of Francis Bacon. There we find this quality of a humanity which is not benign, nor is it one to which we can ever feel indifference. It is shot with its own powerful significance. It involves us as it weeps and sleeps and hurts and bleeds and worries and depresses and breaks down and laughs and celebrates and wonders and hopes and mourns and dies…. The identification with the Christ who has come to live among us and to make his home with us and to die for us vital to our understanding of the Christ who has come in the flesh. It is what we call his Incarnation. For John this is ‘full of grace and truth’. And we come closest to this fullness of grace and truth in the receiving of Christ in the Eucharist. And in this manner we receive Christ’s body and Blood for our own sanctification.
The Anima Christi (St Ignatius Loyola)
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
To celebrate Corpus Christi (‘The Body of Christ’) is to express what we believe - that the Incarnation reaches into our lives more intimately than we might be comfortable to admit. God does not behold his human creation with mild disdain, but floods into our lives, loving us back into wholeness. Corpus Christi is an answer to the doubters that this man, Jesus, does indeed give us his flesh to eat because he gives us his word that he will; and, moreover, that it will fill us with life when we open their hearts to receive the Word made flesh.
Christ was the word that spake it.
(Reputedly spoken by Princess Elizabeth when questioned on her beliefs on the Eucharist in Mary's reign)