Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity
18th Jun 2017
Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity Year A
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them”.Matthew 9.38
We are reminded this morning that when Jesus calls his disciples, he calls them from the larger perspective of his own compassion for all humankind. And though we see Jesus through the eye of faith, as through a window, we nonetheless come to know that Jesus’ calls from us too a compassionate response toward others which is to be practical; a job of work, an action.
I sat in this church yesterday afternoon, gazing at our east window. I looked up to it rather like contemplating a work of art. I wondered what this window was telling me? I marvelled at the age and the duration of the glass with its 125 years letting in the light and illuminating the sanctuary. After its recent cleaning it now reveals the faint green shadows of a large tree outside to the left, a part of the terracotta colour of the building opposite, and its own border of bejeweled greens and purples and ambers.
George Herbert, a poet and hymn writer, allows us to catch something of the Christian vision in his hymn ‘Teach me my God and King’. It echoes the words of the Lord’s Prayer which ask that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven:
A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth through it pass
And then the heavens espy.
What a different sight has revealed itself to us this week in the charred, burnt edifice that was once a happy home to 120 families. Grenfell House in Kensington. It now stands as a rebuke, a sign of death as well as a cemetery in the sky. It stands for horror and devastation. No heavens here but the sign of a kind of hell. A sign which now stands black and forlorn and colourless against the London Summer sky. Its glass is all blown out and reveals the charred skeleton of the building beneath. This is now become a death trap and a resting place for the remaining dead.
The awful truth cannot be denied, nor is there any easy explanation of the nature of such tragic events as this, even though explanations as to its cause will be rightly demanded. Where lies any possibility of human hope in all this? It must surely exist in the present. For within a burning, cavernous hell, men and women of the fire services and others went in, went back, returned to save lives, and many lives were saved by the bravery of those who were as they say ‘only doing their job’. And then on the ground, many concerned individuals, community minded groups of people from mosques and churches and individuals from near and far gave of their compassionate best to help, to shelter, to feed, to counsel, to provide places of kindness and generosity amid all that chaos. And out of this terrible situation came the writing on a great white board, containing expressions which seek to bless, to offer prayers and solidarity and tender thoughts. There are also expressions of anger and of incredulity and of profound grief, and the grief was heeded in an event, a vigil of grief, in the nearby church gardens of St John’s, Notting Hill, where people of all faiths could gather. The Vicar spoke of an experience of counselling others in grief in which the colour of green was the most significant. Some seeds of hope have been sown this week in Kensington by brave souls even while others are experiencing what might seem like the death of their hope. The contrasts are most telling but human compassion remains a balm which may always be applied with care to open wounds.
Jesus comes to us this morning in the call of his disciples. His calling is primarily to a Gospel of work in the willing response to God’s love. In the midst of human suffering and human devastation God is present and God is compassionate, and this morning his Son Jesus Christ sees the crowds and has compassion for them in the full reality of their lives. He calls the disciples and, you and me into the very orbit of his own sacred heart, to be willing agents of the divine love. The window out of which the Church looks upon the world is the one which will reflect the compassion of the One who has called us out of darkness and into light. This is a call which draws from us that which we are often so reluctant to accept and to give : the gift of ourselves for the life of the other. But it is so hard. But Christ bids us, in our own situations and in our own way, to respond. Many have unhesitatingly acted without a moment’s thought. The disciples of Christ are called to respond in similar fashion, summoned to the Gospel as a work of active and selfless compassion. Called to bring the Kingdom of God’s love near.
"Let there be a silence that is full of blossoming hints" says the praying poet Elizabeth Jennings. Let there be a love and a compassion which is transforming of the human condition, no matter where and how it is found. This is of course not a Christian message alone, but it does emerge most emphatically out of the life of Christ. We have seen so much evidence this week of how terrible tragedy can call forth real depths of self-giving which stand for the reinstatement of our common humanity as a life giving pièta. Even in life’s ruined state, may the light of love and compassion continue to shine through the darkest of places, and may the Kingdom of Heaven be realised in them.
Sermon for the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity
11th Jun 2017
SERMON FOR THE FEAST OF THE HOLY TRINITY
Perichoresis means that whenever one person of the Trinity acts, the other two are involved, that each divine person permeates the other two without being merged into them, and that they dwell in each other and communicate their life and love to One another. The Rublev icon of The Holy Trinity manages to communicate this very beautifully and simply and invites us to inhabit this sublime truth telling as being invited into the household of God’s love where a place is reserved for us and beckons us to come and eat at table as in the words of George Herbert:
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.' 10
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.
The Persons of the Trinity cannot exist or act without relating to one another and by natural extension, to us. The existence of God is a relationship. As the Athanasian Creed puts it, "And in this Trinity none is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole Three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal." That is why between them, the opening verses of Genesis and John's gospel indicate that creation was the work of the Trinity. And that is why Jesus could tell the disciples that he is in the Father and the Father in him, why he could promise that the Holy Spirit would be with them and in them. On this Trinity Sunday we are stopped in our tracks and reminded that our proper response is to worship God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And when we worship we introduce those elements of awe and wonder, and we describe our Christian Faith in the words of poetic utterance. John Donne memorably wrote,
O Blessed glorious Trinity,
Bones to Philosophy, but milk to faith.
We are confronted with a mystery and we will spend a lifetime not only pondering but living that mystery as a response to the God we experience as a real presence. Our only reasonable response lies in our true worship. As John Mason, the seventeenth century poet and hymn writer, put it, “we are best reduced to awed silence in the face of God's holy presence”. And he expresses something of this thinking in his famous hymn ‘How shall I sing that Majesty?’
How great a being, Lord, is thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
To sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and ever more,
Thy place is everywhere.
It should not deter us that the things of God remain hidden from mere knowledge and that faith demands of us much courage and staying power. In the face of so-called ‘proofs to the contrary’ by Richard Dawkins and armchair critics, of those who cannot believe in a God who would allow human suffering the response is not to become argumentative but rather to let things be. There is no need for defensiveness. Without God and without an imperfect, suffering world, where would we be? Life would have us exist as automatons and the environment we lived in would resemble a sanatorium, where our basic freedoms would be denied. There would be no human hope. That hope would be denied humankind because there would be no recourse to the life of the complete person, living not just as a machine but as a soul, as a vulnerable human being made to live in freedom in the image and the likeness of the Maker, where life is not lived in a simple straight line, but is unpredictable, and ultimately unfathomable without living from its heart, which is God.
If you visit Dublin in Ireland you will want to go and see the great treasure of Ireland, which is the Book of Kells It was a treasure even in its own lifetime, made in about the year 800, and is a Book containing the Gospels and Books of the New Testament. This was a book not written but ‘illuminated’ and reveals to us the characteristic endless swirls and twists and turns in the calligraphy, apparently leading nowhere but ending and beginning somewhere. The life of God and the life of humankind is always interrelated, as are all things. These characteristic Celtic swirls also surround and support Christian symbols, and we have a marvellous illustration of Christ as a Celtic Chieftan, an imposing and frightening figure (See illustration). But the real point is that these Celtic Christians had combined old and new beliefs and their embrace of Christianity was one which did not extinguish the difficult questions that life posed for them. They would have lived harsh, brutal and brief lives in a hostile climate, and yet the illumination of their precious Christian Gospels is a sign of their desire to cling to the Gospel message in all its truth and beauty and at the same time not pretend that life was not like it was and that the people were not as they were. Life was difficult and the human terrain intractable and unbearable. And yet the swirling maze of beautifully and intricately crafted illumination shows an inner joy of spirit, of a knowing and unknowing, and an advanced and intense spirituality. A knowledge of God sprung from the human heart and soul; and all this at the end of what we call The Dark Ages. Out of the dark, there emerged illumination; light. This was the light of faith and the one which, burning in human hearts, proved then and now to be a living flame that would never be extinguished. Proof, if you needed proof of the existence of God in a form not merely gainsaid, but fully realised in the lives of whose being finds its true hope meaning in Him.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Cor 4.2
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
4th Jun 2017
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
They were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Acts 2.4.
The Coming of the Holy Spirit marks the Church’s real birthday, though the Church was really begun as the disciples were called at Galilee. Even so, our dramatic first reading from The Acts of the Apostles describes a signal moment among those who had followed Christ. For the moment of Pentecost was singular and devastating. The Holy Spirit had come with power and it had rested upon them. It was the power which declared God to be not only real in the lives of men and women everywhere, but whose presence and Holy Spirit was to lie at the heart of all that might be fulfilled in His Name.
This Pentecost moment had emerged out of their long Eastertide. It had been an Eastertide of waiting and of wondering and of bewilderment. Something might emerge out of all this apparent mess, but what? What is most certain among the loose band of followers was this: The teaching of Christ and the experience of the resurrection had been transformative for their lives. They now knew that what they had been given by Jesus was a living Gospel of unparalleled spiritual power. Pentecost had come to them in the giving of spiritual gifts. And the Giver was the Giver of all things, God himself. And the gift was the gift of himself as seen and known in His Son Jesus Christ and in the giving of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had asked that it be sent and foretold its coming. And so it was. The original spirit of God, which had brooded over the face of the waters before the Creation had now become the life giving spirit mediated in and through the life and death of Christ. And the gift for the disciples was to be both inspirational and practical and future providing.
It is most important to the writer of the Acts of the Apostles that this is a Holy Spirit which is not wil o’ the wisp and elusive. It is a Holy Spirit which takes basic form in the life of the emerging Christian community as a gift from God in Jesus Christ. And the primary fact of this gift is three-fold:
Firstly it is a gift which calls us to think differently about the human family in the breakdown of tribal, national and language barriers. The idea of the proliferation of languages with the one singular understanding burns in our minds as the possibilities that lie inherent in the understanding of different worlds of understanding. We are here called to take on the reality of what lies before us as strange and new and embrace it wholeheartedly, for it is when we meet and greet and accept the new and the hitherto unlearned parts of our experience that we truly grow into God’s likeness.
God’s love must lead us where it wills, for the Holy Spirit and its life and operation must have us acknowledge that as a Church we do not get carried away with our own self-sufficiency. God is ever provident and the existence of the Holy Spirit reminds us that what we do we do in His name, in His Way and in His time.
Little Gidding IV
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire. T S Eliot.
Secondly, the gift of the Holy Spirit is the one which calls the Christian Church to look beyond itself and its own needs and to see the person of Christ in the eyes of the stranger, the visitor, the refugee, the homeless one, the marginalized, the gay person, the drunk, the depressed and the fatalistic. To look also to the perhaps unseen and unheeded suffering and need going on in our own midst. The Holy Spirit is holy and it is a spirit which gives inner nourishment, but its basic life is one which calls us out of ourselves and beyond the level of our normal horizons. God is to be found there : in the other. He is often called ‘The Holy Other’. In this there may come new life, for the Spirit renews us as it draws us out of ourselves, and into the place of illumination and of hope which is the presence of God and the love of God.
Unless the eye catch fire
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire
The God will not be known.
From 'Pentecost' by William Blake.
Finally, the Holy Spirit lives among us in the life of God’s Church, which is the power of God and the influence of God. This Church, in what it is and in what it manages to be for so many different kinds of people, is that place where God is known to dwell and a place of peace, the peace of God which passes all understanding and yet one which may be known and shared: that peace which may reach into and beyond the barriers of custom and boundaries set by this or that ingathered community; a tough peace, if you know what I mean… The message of Pentecost is that the Spirit of God has now entered places where doors had formerly been shut and minds closed, and where the windows of our seeing and knowing have grown opaque with wear. In the breaking down of barriers, in the love of the stranger and in the power and influence of God, The Holy Spirit is forever the living flame of God’s love for us, whomever and wherever we may be…It has come to bring all things together in the One Love; the one thing needful, the living fire in the One Livng God.