Sermon for Mothering Sunday
30th Mar 2014
Sermon for Mothering Sunday.
This morning the Church observes not just one but three commemorations, namely the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Refreshment (‘Laetere’) Sunday and Mothering Sunday. It seems eccentric that this should be so, and that a rare liturgical colour, pink, should set the tone for a Lenten Sunday which provides not for a deepening of intensity in our Christian observance of Lent but for an outburst of what in Latin is ‘Laetere’ or joy. Combine all this with Mothering Sunday and the sense of eccentricity is complete. In typical English fashion, we keep the tradition of remembering and honouring our Mothers from days when servants, many of them older children or adolescents, were allowed this Sunday in Lent to return home to their mothers. If they worked in a big house, a kindly cook might well have baked Simnel Cakes as a seasonal offering for the servants to take to their mothers and Simnel cake will be offered after Mass this morning with the usual tea, coffee and toast.
But where is all this taking us? The Church seems at first to have made things even more complicated by offering us a choice of two Gospel readings. One is Simeon’s prediction to Mary that her child Jesus would suffer and that ‘a sword would pierce her own soul’. The second Gospel takes us to the Cross and to the suffering Christ, who even from that place of agony encourages a new and future relationship between his beloved disciple John and his Mother, Mary, “Behold thy Son” and “Behold thy Mother”.
As we begin to understand these Gospel accounts we find that they are complimentary and speak of all those things which Lent, Mothering Sunday, Laetere and Refreshment Sunday express. And it is this: Any experience of a close and loving and committed relationship is at some time or another going to demand of us a costly love. The Gospel message swings between love as consolation and as desolation. Any mother or father or husband, wife or lover knows how painful it is to have to have to relinquish, to let go or to suffer the death of one who has been our life and our love. Such an experience strikes at the very heart of what we are. For parents this might commonly involve the son or the daughter who leaves home as a young adult and away from the childhood home, just like the Victorian child servant. Equally there are times when the young, having ‘fled the nest’ themselves feel homesick and very alone. For others in middle age there may come the death of a parent or parents. For some, the break-up of a past relationship continues to be painful and some of its effects do not seem to be relieved with the passing of time. For the elderly there are the many little and bigger losses that come with encroaching frailty and the loss of faculties once taken for granted, and of the deaths of contemporaries.
The two Gospels offered allow for an understanding of human loving which inevitably involves pain. But this is not to be the end of the matter. We are reminded that, even from the Cross, our Saviour Jesus Christ offers new life and proclaims aloud that even out of great sadness and even death, the possibility of new relations and new understanding and new hope is embodied by the dying Saviour on the Cross. ‘Behold thy Mother’, ‘Behold thy Son’. In the Cross life and death mixes and merges in the one sacrifice. In the same vein the prayer for the mixing of wine and water at the Eucharistic Offering outlines Christ’s sacrifice for a deepening of trust in the outpouring of time with the healing of wounds. ‘By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity’. God’s life and our lives and loves mix and merge in the one faith, the one hope and the one love. The message this morning is that we should not reject these things.
One great English mother, Mother Julian of Norwich sustains this as she observed that “The dear gracious hands of God our Mother are ever about us”. The short-lived Pope John Paul I was to affirm that God was in a real sense our Mother as well as our Father. “God is our Father, but even more He is Mother” he said. It is when the love which holds our lives together is tested that faith is challenged to the uttermost. At such times to we embrace or neglect the love that God offers us? As a loving Father or indeed Mother God is everlastingly compassionate for us and for the establishment and the replenishment of the divine love in us. We are to come to God then, and not to go it alone. To come to him, as the servants journeyed out for the day to meet their mothers and to enjoy the communion of love, the ‘laetere’, the integrated life of love which Christ speaks to us on the Cross through the lives of his Mother, Mary and the beloved disciple, John. The Cross still beckons us at this time and we are being drawn inexorably toward it. Thanks be to God.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
23rd Mar 2014
Sermon for Lent 3 (Year A)
“Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did”. John 4.39
In the Church’s scheme for our Lenten readings, the element of place or situation in the Gospel contributes to its understanding. Christ is revealed as Son of God from different locations to both enlarge and to deepen the full significance of his presence. We began with Jesus in the wilderness on the first Sunday of Lent; we are with him on the mountain top for the Transfiguration and now we find ourselves in quite a different place, beside a well outside a small town called Sychar. There we meet Jesus and a Samaritan woman who gives him water at an historic well gifted by Jacob. It is at this place that, through the witness of ‘the woman at the well’ we come to divine the presence of the Jesus once tempted in the wilderness, transfigured in our presence and now recognised as Son of God. All this happens as we overhear a conversation. The conversation dwells on the oddness of their finding one another, in which Jesus’ discloses himself as Messiah, and establishes a new teaching:
“God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth’.
This is the witness to Christ which is fully of aware and cognisant, of the reality which is the God in whose presence all other things find their true meaning. The woman at the well acts as an interrogator, and the conversation she shares with Jesus as she offers him a water from the deep well is truly sacramental. Though its outward form signifies one understanding, its deeper meaning speaks of the spiritual gift which has been given to all mankind. This is the ‘water’ ‘poured’ down upon us and is God’s response to the longing of the human soul. As St Augustine once said of God “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee”.
It is possible, given the glories of the English language to find many meanings or nuances within one word. In this instance we have two strong suggestions from the word ‘divine’. Firstly, the word ‘divine’ speaks of God. In an old and often said prayer we say ‘may the divine assistance remain with us always…’ The story of the Woman at the Well, her conversation with Jesus and its outcome allow us to ‘divine the divine’. The Samaritan woman divines Christ. Secondly, divine can mean to ‘discern’ or to ‘find out’. Imagine the water-diviner with his willow stick, plodding around large pieces of land until he finds the place where a well may be sunk. He cannot know this unless this odd piece of wood moves and shakes in a particular way. It is both a scientific and unscientific process by which water is ‘divined’ and deep reserves of water found underground.
The vocation for The Church is to ‘divine’ the meaning of our times and to set them within the life of Christian Faith.
Fr Christopher – A Meditation on Life in Central London :
Many are drawn to the idea of the City as a place of changes and yet also as anonymous. It is possible to conceive of the city as both radically anonymous and yet at the same time a place of movement and change; a place which offers a blindingly vast range of choices and encounters but with no experience of a still centre. In this lies the individual and the search for life’s meaning as a kind of longing. For many, there remains, whether consciously or unsconsciously felt, the existence of God and the searching for God... In every individual there lies a prayer. It is the prayer of life, It contains within it all your hopes and fears, your joys, your dreams, your longing… the whole of your life’s purposes and its future too. It is the prayer which makes it possible to reach out beyond what is known and to find the God who has made you and who even now provides for your future.
But for most people this prayer remains unspoken. It is unheard and unheeded. How can I know this prayer, and to speak it and to hear if it remains unuttered? Or if there is no one to whom it can be addressed? In today’s London there need to be those places, inhabited by those people, the people of God, who form a ‘divine society’. Within such a dedicated society can be uttered the prayer of my life, an encounter with the world, blessed and hallowed by its Creator and its sustainer. The prayer, which like the woman at the well represents ‘the divining of the divine’ is us like her finding that the Saviour we seek lies directly before us. He is ‘the divine assistance which remains with us always’…
The dialogue with the woman at the well is a reminder of the sacramentality of conversation. You know what I mean: English people are adept at talking about the weather. An Italian may talk about his family and a Russian about the meaning of life. We have ways of ‘entering into conversation’, and many of our conversations are very small and not full of much great meaning. But all conversations are living encounters, and over a great deal of time, the deepening of our fellowship has proved to rest on the conversation as a meeting place for the expression of our lives and what they contain. They can be truly life-giving, and through them understandings may be deepened and enlarged. Some of the people who have come to church have been as a result of getting to know them each day and merely saying ‘Good morning!’ Some have come to Christ through a rigorous process of long conversation and soul-searching. Come what may, there is a sense in which while we worship God in His Church, we come to divine the divine presence and find that it stands for the enrichment of our lives. As Jesus assures us at the well, it is the drinking of that spiritual water which satisfies a longing far deeper than we know…
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent
16th Mar 2014
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent (Year A)
What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the spirit is spirit John 3.7
As a Pharisee and an educated rabbi, Nicodemus represents the essence of Jewish teaching and religious practice. He is scrupulous and yet also a seeker after truth. The Bible commentaries suggest that he has come to see Jesus secretly, and is ready to follow Him according to the signs he has seen Jesus perform. Nicodemus bases his new-found faith on a proven set of facts and experiences. Jesus firmly reminds Nicodemus that the Kingdom of God is not to be realised on signs and proofs alone. If this were so, then a whole dimension would be missing; the spiritual dimension and the Christian vision. The promise is the one which (in Christ) implies a new life and a new hope. St Paul articulates this in his Letter to the Romans when he reminds them,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…
For the Gospel writer John, conversion is not a rigid conformity to a set of clear certainties, but a conversion of life and a renewal of hope; in short, a transformed life. The contrast between ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ outlined in this Gospel helps to set this new life in its proper context. Both ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ constitute life, but it is spirit which gives the deeper life, the life which is the breath which comes from God. We receive in Baptism the gift of life from the source of life, just as Adam and Eve received the first human life as God breathed it into them. We call artificial resuscitation the ‘kiss of life’. The French word for Resurrection is resucité. We need, all of us, and especially in the Lenten season, spiritual resuscitation, the breath of life from its source, God.
The dialogue with the canny Rabbi Nicodemus helps us to see how the Christian Church interpreted these ideas not only in relation to Genesis or to Jewish religious practice, but to Jesus himself. This represented a journeying forward from a narrower religious base toward the meeting with Christ as the One who invites a vision of the world transformed by his presence.
Here at Holy Cross Church we have just formulated a first draught of our Mission Action Plan. This at first sounds very uninteresting, and should as one person has said, warn us against a ‘tick box’ approach to Christian Mission. But following on from today’s Gospel and the presence of Jesus as transformative, we do well to listen a little longer. The question our mission plan asks is very proper to our identity as a Christian Church as well as for our task here at Holy cross Church and our hope : What kind of church do we wish to leave for those who will come after us? How can we build upon the existing foundation of faith and increase our numbers and deepen our faith and trust in the Lord in this place? How do we as a church offer spiritual resuscitation to others? The vital statistic is that a mere 29% of the 6,600 people in our parish consider themselves Christian, down 10% from 2001, 45% of our population is defined a living in low deprivation, and only 64% of our parishoners speak English as their first language. 25% of our parish residents are students; 60% of our parishoners are single and 47% of our parishoners are aged between 15 and 44. 80% of our people rent their homes.
As we might say of Nicodemus, “So much for the facts”. These statistics within set a challenge. It’s a challenge to once more take up our traditional responsibility to care for all who live within the parish boundary and the many in our congregation beyond it. The Christian Faith remains a dynamic presence in relation to the local and the wider social scene and we will be looking to those of you who have the faith and the drive to maintain and grow the church as a beacon of hope in a world which has become for so many a place of bewilderment and isolation.
This Sunday in Lent feels like the right time to issue that same challenge which is being made in our Gospel. It is for that same renewal of life and hope which was in the Christ who gave us his Word and His Life and continues to provide for our life in the here and now. At Holy Cross Church we want to activate the strong and confident kind of Christian Mission which will make a positive difference to those whose care is our Christian concern.
You will be hearing more of our plans for mission and particularly the task of opening up our church for a second day during the week. We wish to extend our welcome of visitors and find more time to allow our 6.600 parishoners to own and use this, their church and sanctuary.
We shall be holding a mission day with a lunch downstairs after the Parish Mass on Pentecost Sunday (8th June) to discuss and augment our draft Mission Action Plan and to plan for our new open day to begin in September on the week of our Patronal Festival. In order to make all this happen, we will need your active commitment and time, and will be looking for regular church sitters, who will come and represent our church to parishoners and the general public and to our regular visitors from around the world. I ask for your prayers and mission action, and I thank Tom Smith for taking a very large amount of time in getting us to this point. The loving words of the father of Anthony Wedgewood-Benn to his little son had issued out of an old Methodist Hymn ‘Dare to be a Daniel!’ And I think he was. And I think we should be, too. We can and should take courage and confidence and act for our Church and Faith. We surely have nothing to lose…
Now is the time to issue the same challenge to ourselves that Our Lord issued to Nicodemus, that in Christ there is abundant life and that this life is for the world’s salvation, mediated by this local Church which has experienced and continues to experience, pray God, its own conversion.
Breathe on me breath of God
‘til I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with the fire divine.
Edwin Hatch (1835-1889)
Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
9th Mar 2014
Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent Year A
“Then the devil left him, and angels appeared and looked after him”. Matthew 4.11
Some time ago Muslim parents from Argyle School came and visited this church. There was one man who asked lots of questions. He looked at all the statues in this church and then with some indignation, asked me why there was no statue to the first man, Adam? The question took me by surprise. For him Adam was of huge importance from the point of view of our human origins; the one to whom we are all related. The first man…From a Christian point of view this still stands but it is incomplete. For Christians, Adam represents original Man and also Man in his fallen state. Even though Eve bites the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, both are banished from the Garden of Eden. And this is the banishment from a world imagined originally to be free from human frailty.
Adam and Eve might have been the first two beings, but they appear to as victims of circumstance. Their lives are lived in a flat line. They are emotional children. Their predicament does not represent a mature or real humanity as we know it. Their world, after all, is an enclosed garden. One writer described Eden as ‘a whitewashed sanatorium’ if it is human nature to fall short of what of what God has made us to be, as it most certainly is. If it is true that life on earth has been pictured as an exile not from the whitewashed sanatorium but from the Creator’s love, then banishment from the Garden was a necessary tragedy and one which best describes Man in his fallen state. But for The Christian Church, this cannot be the end of things. The Old Testament begins in a garden and ends in the new city redeemed by a loving God. For, as Newman put it, “A Second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came”. In Jesus humanity is found transformed in the one reconciliation with the Father which Eden could not hold.
The Christian response draws human history on a large canvas which doesn’t only contain the broad and spreading human family tree with Adam as our forefather. It transforms this view of our origins as it provides for a deep reflection not only on the being but also on the very nature of Man. It is from the state of alienation from God that God out of his love for his own brings forth Jesus to rescue Man from a state of alienation from the source of God’s love. The core of Christian interest in the Genesis Creation text, and the reason for its place in early Christian education, lies in the fact that in these passages are established, once and for all, the foundations of biblical and Christian spirituality. These are the sign-posts, the basic terms and principles, of the spirit's pilgrimage. That is why this teaching was expounded to the early Christians under instruction; the catechumens. It was these lessons which decisively marked the border which they had crossed as they moved from paganism to Christianity. And it was a crossing over into a realm in which for the first time, Christians would speak of ‘the divine compassion’ and of the sacrifice of Christ, the beloved Son of God as showing and leading humankind in what was simple called ‘The Way’. New and lasting compass bearings were established from the point of view of a Christian Faith established in and through the agency of the human conscience and its heart. What is opened up is a Christian faith in the love of God can steadily “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things’ 1 Corinthians 13.7) Christ has brought us a long way from Eden! The human being is reinstated in all his real depth, and in the urgency of our longing.
Christ is the one who comes to act decisively - to come and bring humankind into a proper understanding and a proper relationship in God. The means by which this is achieved is invested in the struggle with human sin and temptation. Jesus, the Second Adam, is to work this through not in a garden of paradise but in the desert. Not present this time the fabled tree of the knowledge of good and evil but the devil himself. Jesus receives and holds for us the knowledge of good and evil as he resists the temptation by the evil one to subvert that knowledge for selfish ends. In his deliverance in the desert from the devil, Jesus offers to the world what the Orthodox have termed ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ in which Jesus grabs fallen humanity strongly by the arm and leads us across a rickety bridge which is our frailty and into that place of communion with him who has become the gateway to the knowledge and the fullness of life which comes from the Father…
It is in Jesus and Jesus alone in whom we can ‘perceive and know what it is we must do and have grace and power to finish the same’. In the Church of England Christian Faith is not the laboured following after a religion of countless rules and regulations, of dos and don’ts, even though we need this instruction. No, the importance of the practice of Christian Faith is our own acknowledgement and experience of our spiritual and actual freedom and of its vulnerability to misuse and to the subversion of our deeper and truer intentions. A ‘gap’ exists between them, and in Lent it is as though we are saying ‘Mind the Gap!’ But Jesus has come to us, and he offers us in the harrowing of hell that which Adam never could. It is what we have called ‘the means of grace and the hope of glory’. He is divine mercy. He holds us gently by the arm and gently beckons in the Way which leads to the Father’s love for us as his creatures. We respond in worship of him, our Maker, who spoke Creation into being and even now speaks to us and calls us into his own being, where he remains in Jesus Christ One God, world without end. Amen.
Philippians 2:12b-13 "...work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure"
The God of all grace,
The Blessing from the Baptism and Confirmation Rites.
Sermon for Ash Wednesday
5th Mar 2014
A S H W E D N E S D A Y
The appeal that we make in Christ’s name is : Be reconciled to God.
1 Corinthians 5.21.
Ash Wednesday comes to us as the offering of an invitation that we find difficult to accept. It is the invitation to enter a wilderness and to meet Christ there. This is the desert which is founded on nothing, an empty place. It is the place which invites the emptying of self. And it is in the emptying of self that we may discover in Jesus a way back to God, and our reconciliation with Him. And so the desert becomes the place of utmost Christian instruction. It invites the offering of ourselves ‘…to advance in the hope which God has set before us’. In a drawing by William Blake a little man looks up to the moon, connected to earth by a ladder and cries “I want! I want!” Lent asks us this question: Is my life based on the satisfaction of a myriad of desires, and if so, how is it that such satisfactions have not satisfied? The desert is the place we go to find out why this is so. A place of encounter with God and of reconciliation with Him. Lent begins here…
What might we be like if our own wanting were to issue out of God? Christ goes into the desert to decide for God and to reject those things which are not of God. The act of deciding-for-God is vital. We find it written into one of most popular English books ever written: ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. The overcoming by Jesus of temptation in the wilderness has set Lent upon its centuries old course. It sets us on our way, too. It does this not by the imposition of a whole series of restrictions, even though certain restrictions on our wanting may prove beneficial. It does it in Paul’s appeal that above all things, we should ‘be reconciled to God’. The imposition which we receive for Lent is the imposition of ashes. The ashes are a simple expression of the basic nature of our mortality, of the finiteness of our existence. We are to be reminded that ‘we are dust, and unto dust we shall return’. Notice this word ‘imposition’, an unsettling word. As the ashes are imposed upon us there is a call to act. In particular, to act quite apart from what may feed the body but in fact starve or hurt the soul. The Ash Wednesday message cuts to the heart of what we are and calls us forward to what God has made us to be. This is what St Paul called ‘the upward call of God in Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3.14). He calls us out of ourselves and the calling is divine, or ‘upward’. This is the call to live our lives in a way fashioned not by chance or of determination, but by God.
Too much of modern urban life involves an exhausting and over-stimulation of the human senses. The hectic tide of getting and spending, the billions of daily mobile ‘phone calls which introduce and reintroduce dizzying levels of talk and information stress create a cacophony. In the concrete jungle existence can pull against contemplation. There is less waiting patiently. We have not learnt to be still, and so are in some separation from where our life’s true source actually lies. And so we need to act for the sake of our soul’s survival. I once met with a group of businessmen who expressed as a matter of course their sense of living without a sense of source or centre. One of the many paradoxes of Christian Faith is that the reconciliation we seek is the one which emerges out of the desert, the place of longing, the place where God is heard to speak, the centre of our being and our life’s true heart. This is a holy place, which issues out of the recognition of our mortality and its limits with the turning to Christ in faith. For we are powerfully reminded in the Ash Wednesday imposition to remember that we are merely mortal:
Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return; turn from sin and be faithful to Christ'.
Come, then, with the Church this Lent, and let us make another beginning…Let us go to that place where he has gone before and now bids us come, too…
Ash Wednesday proffers an invitation that we receive with reluctance. The invitation to come away to a place of deeper knowing through which, through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, we may advance in the hope which he has set before us. And it is never too late to make a beginning and to start as we mean to go on, with a reminder of our mortality and to come to Jesus, the source of all life and meaning. The one who emptied himself of all but love…