Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday)
26th Mar 2017
Sermon for Mothering Sunday (4th Sunday of Lent)
This morning the Church observes not just one but three commemorations, namely the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Refreshment (‘Laetere’) Sunday and also Mothering Sunday. It seems eccentric that this should be so, and that a rare liturgical colour, rose , or 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 mid-Lenten 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.
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 the 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 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 relationships and new understandings and new hope is being promised 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. God’s life and our lives and loves mix and merge in the one faith, the one hope and the one love. 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’. This is a prayer which perfectly betokens the love of God as one which is always offered to share. The promise of this sharing is that it will be renewing and transforming.
I have been reminded, after this week’s catastrophe on Westminster Bridge, that new relationships may emerge among those who experience the terrible pain and distress of death and destruction, with those who also stand alongside and with them, ready to offer their trained and disciplined human skills and compassionate care. God’s love remains constant and present in any and every danger but it is heartening to see practical love in action. In it, we see the formation of new hope and trust in our common humanity, especially as we saw the medical team attempting to give the perpetrator of the horrors the kiss of life. We witness such actions as they counter the malicious evil with dedicated care and professionalism.
The great holy English mother, Mother Julian of Norwich observed that “The dear gracious hands of God our Mother are ever about us”. This might seem fantastical given this week’s circumstances, but nonetheless our own instinct as Christians is find love’s meaning in God and to remain steadfast in the faith to which we are continually being called. We are called, beckoned to come to God, just as the servants journeyed out for the day to meet their own mothers and to enjoy the communion of their love. This is the ‘laetere’, the integrated life of love which Christ which this morning speaks to us on the Cross through the lives of his Mother, Mary and the beloved disciple, John. “Behold thy Mother, Behold thy Son. The Cross still beckons us at this time, and through our mid to late Lenten observance, we are being drawn inexorably not toward death alone but for the sake of our souls’ ultimate salvation.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent Year A
19th Mar 2017
Sermon for Lent 3 (Year A)
“Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did”. John 4.39
On these Sundays of Lent, we began with Jesus in the wilderness on the first Sunday of Lent; we were with him on the mountain top for the Transfiguration on the second Sunday 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 old well gifted by Jacob, The Father of the Nations.
“God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth’.
The dialogue with the woman at the well is a reminder of the sacramentality of conversation. You know what I mean: On the surface, English people are adept at talking about the weather. An Italian may talk about his family and a Russian about the meaning of life. All conversations are shared encounters, and they promise the deepening of our understanding and regard for one another. They promise surprise and illumination and profound communication. Suddenly we are sharing something which means so much to both of us. This is where we meet Jesus and the woman at the well this morning. Their conversation dwells firstly on the oddness of their finding one another, and then then we realise the depth of their understanding of one another as we listen in…
The woman at the well acts as Jesus’ interrogator, and the conversation she shares with Jesus is both direct and indirect. Though the outward form of the conversation revolves around water and life, the inner form has Jesus revealing something much more profound. He assumes that in this conversation, the woman is seeking something from him. This, he knows, is the ‘water’ ‘poured’ down upon us as God’s response to the longing of the human soul. He knows that she longs for God and that her questioning is never idle. She is the woman for whom St Augustine once addressed these words to God: “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee”.
The Samaritan woman literally divines Christ. Divine can mean to do with God or it can mean to ‘discern’ or to ‘find out’, ‘to seek to find’ You have to 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 can be found underground. The conversation between Jesus and the woman is one in which the deep sources of Jesus’ spiritual authority are being summoned forth and expressed. The encounter is an architype for the encounter between the Christian disciple and the new convert. Such conversions then as now rest on both the revelation of God and conversation of persons.
The vocation for The Church is, in God, to ‘divine’ the meaning of our times and to experience them within the life which is Christian Faith.
Fr Christopher – A Personal Meditation on Life in Central London (written ten years ago, now):
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 crowded movement and change; a place which offers a blindingly vast range of choices and encounters but with little experience of a still centre. This represents a gap wherein lies the individual’s human longing. For many, there remains the existence of God and the searching for God... I believe that at the heart of every human life there lies a prayer. It is the prayer of life itself. It contains 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 there.
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 certain people, the people of God, who form a ‘divine society’. Within such a dedicated society the prayer of my life may find a source, a channel, the well spring of life. The prayer of my life, is the discovery that the Saviour we seek lies is nearer to us than we could have imagined. He is with us as ‘the divine assistance which remains with us always’…
Some of the people who have come to church have come as a result of getting to know someone 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 discovery of God in our lives. As Jesus assures the woman and us at the well, it is the drinking of that spiritual water which satisfies a longing far deeper than we know…No wonder then, that she can say to friends “Come and see a man who has told me everything I ever did”.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent Year A
12th Mar 2017
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent Year A
Jesus and Nicodemus
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Where do you come from? This question has a huge impact on the way in which we relate to people, how we ‘see’ them. It beckons the opening up of the human heart and an attentiveness to the reality of the other person. It forms part of the subtext to the conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus (John 3.1-17) in this morning's Gospel reading.
And so where do you come from? There is also another question ‘…so where are you really coming from?’ In this morning’s Gospel Reading, John points out that Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader, a religious teacher, a son of Abraham. That is who Nicodemus is, this is where where he comes from. He is a high class, knowledgable intellectual and he is interested in status, and so we find he gives Jesus status as one ‘come from God’. ‘We know you are from God’ says Nicodemus ‘because of the signs you perform’. ‘I know you are of God because no-one could do the things you do unless God were truly present’. 'I know...' But does he?
Jesus will show Nicodemus that he comes ‘from God’ in a quite unique way. He will remind Nicodemus that it is not the place and position of your natural birth that determines your relationship to God’s kingdom, but a new birth, a birth from above. The opportunity to see the kingdom of God does not depend on coming from the right place, whether by natural privilege or status or by chance, but upon God’s free gift of new birth and His offer of new being, through the Spirit.The initiative and purpose is always His.
This is unnerving for the Nicodemuses of this world, and those who in Oscar Wilde’s words ‘…know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. But it may well be good news for those who feel that life has dealt them a tough hand, for those who feel trapped by circumstance, those whom society tells they have been born in the ‘wrong’ place. Jesus proclaims that God is able to break open the seemingly closed boundaries of the present, creating hope for many. So like the wind, which 'blows where it wills', people from every walk of life are coming to see the Kingdom of God (v8). This very point was picked up by James Cone, distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York,.Writing on the powerfulness of the slave or negro spirituals, he argued that the slaves discovered a new sense of dignity in the promise that their relation to God was not defined by the circumstances in which they found themselves, or by cold fate. The luck or otherwise of birth had no influence on their relationship to God. This didn’t mean that their roots were unimportant, but that the closed circumstances of their slavery did not have the final say on who they were. They could give vent to the full range of their emotional power under great duress and could express the hope for a new kind of world articulated so powerfully in Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.
Even if we begin to accept Jesus' promise of new birth in the life of God’s Spirit, the question remains as to how this new birth occurs, how this new identity is received. Jesus words tell us that in fact it is very simple. He offers two responses in this passage. Firstly, he suggests that he comes from God in a unique way (v13). His words call to mind the Word of God in Isaiah 55 that comes to earth and returns to God bearing fruitfulness. For Jesus, the same result will see his being 'lifted up' on the Cross. Jesus refers to a story in Numbers 21 in which the Israelites are afflicted by poisonous snakes. Moses is commanded by God to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole in the camp. Any who looked at the bronze serpent would be healed. All they actually had to do was to look at the bronze serpent. All they had to do was to trust in God’s promise. Nothing elaborate, nothing especially complicated. Simply trust in God.
This is how Jesus now begins to portray himself. This is truly where he is coming from. Like the bronze serpent, he too will be raised up (v14), in his crucifixion. All that is needed is for Nicodemus and for us to look to Jesus and trust. That is the heart of our salvation. We could say more prayers, we could read our Bibles more and more, we could engage in penances. None of these things would be bad, but Jesus shows us that salvation, the heart of the Gospel, is much simpler; simply look to Jesus, especially his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, and trust in him. This is where our Gospel Reading is taking us this morning. To a place of new understanding and of conversion. It was difficult for Nicodemus and it is difficult for us because it suggests the laying aside of unhelpful defence mechanisms and a letting go of cherished and small securities.
The writer James Cone showed that for many of the slaves, the sense of their Christian dignity fuelled a real and subversive resistance and energised their struggle for freedom. Christ’s spirit secured for them a real dignity, out of reach of the fickle hands of human circumstance and the capricious rage of the tyrant.
Actor and singer Paul Robeson performed "Deep River" accompanied by a large male chorus in the 1940 movie The Proud Valley.
"Deep River" is one of the five spirituals included in the oratorio A Child of Our Time, first performed in 1944, by the classical composer Michael Tippett (1905–98):
D E E P R I V E R
Deep river, my home is over Jordan.
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don't you want to go to that gospel feast,
that promised land where all is peace?
Oh, deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.
Lent is necessarily a time focused on religious practice, but it may also be a time to recall that all Christian action grows firstly out of the unshakable dignity of being invited into God’s kingdom, however we find ourselves. So this Lent, whatever else we do, let us look to Jesus, and Him alone, and renew our trust in God. “For this” we might say “...is where we truly come from”. This is the beginning and the end of what we really and truly are.
Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
5th Mar 2017
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 but 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’ of semi-human being. 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. 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 our common 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’. The Christian Faith does not compose a religion of countless rules and regulations, of dos and don’ts, even though we it contains an instruction in ‘The Way’. . 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 takes 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 Preached at St Stephen's Walbrook for the Thursday after Ash Wednesday
2nd Mar 2017
Sermon for St Stephen’s Walbrook
The Thursday after Ash Wednesday 2017
“Your faith has made you well” 18.42b.
Yesterday, Ash Wednesday was a very revealing day for me, for by its end I was forced to recognise Christ’s presence as both openly declared and as a hidden secret. I had spent the early morning on the Euston Road, opposite King’s Cross Station, offering the many commuters ‘ashes to go’. Over a period of an hour we ‘ashed’ sixty eight people, who went away with the black smeared crosses emblazoned upon their foreheads. The sign of the cross when seen like this is so very visible, and for many, unmistakable. And then in the evening, at the Ash Wednesday Eucharist with Imposition of Ashes the gospel reading provided a strict instruction in hiding any sign of personal piety and prayer before others lest you succumb to the sin of pride and make all your acts worthless. The Gospel makes mention of the God who sees in secret and who rewards in secret. His presence is a necessarily hidden one. So why the showy black crosses?
The simple answer is this: that these are not marks of a completed or successful act of personal piety, God knows none of us have done anything deserving such a reward. Rather these strange, dark crosses, made into a balm of burnt palm leaves and holy oil, symbolise the impending Passion , Death and Resurrection of Christ. As Christ’s ultimate, saving acts, they provide the key which inhabits, informs and then crowns our own very testing experience of mortality. With characteristic boldness, St Paul reminds us in Romans 6.3 that “If we become one in a death like His, we shall certainly become one with him in a Resurrection like his”. The crosses are marks of our shaky, mortal faith and not our vanity.
In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus discloses his own going to death as a kind of secret. I say a ‘kind’ of secret because for Jesus, this disclosure is an open one and even claims its veracity via the ancient prophets. But touchingly, maddeningly, the disciples do not understand that this dire prediction concerns their Lord and Master, their teacher and rabbi. Remember the old saying, best spoken in a Yorkshire accent, ‘There’s nowt so blind as them which cannot see’. The disciples’ misunderstanding is to lead to a turning away from the Saviour at the crucial moment. It contributes to their status as fair weather friends. But they are not to be so easily diminished, and our Gospel reading saves them from any kind of summary dismissal. This is because the Gospels will always convey, in no uncertain terms, the radically compassionate, constant, merciful and forgiving God who never withdraws his favour or retracts his Call from them or us, even though from the human point of view circumstances and persons stretch this trust almost to breaking point.
Our Gospel shows this radical compassion in the healing of the blind man. He addresses Jesus as ‘Son of David’ or ‘Messiah’. He, this blind man, knows something that the disciples do not, that Jesus is The Messiah, the One who is to come. The man has done nothing more to deserve the restoration of his sight than that he believes this to be the case. Nothing at all. But for Luke this is the new reality, the one in which God the Father’s endless and unsurpassable love and mercy is recognised in the Son. The blind man’s ‘yes’ to this is enough. The inner seeing capability of the blind man is in Christ transformed by Christ into actual, physical sight. But the inner seeing is presented to us as primary.
The Gospels all allow us to see that the disciples and we too, inhabit the place of both seeing and unseeing. Our understanding of Jesus Christ helps us all the more to consider how and in what manner their understanding of Jesus, though partial and unheeding, is to be radically and painfully and finally joyfully fulfilled in his suffering, passion, death and resurrection. Lent calls us out and calls us forward, beckons us to realise something these things in forty days and forty nights.
Jesus, occupies the place of the suffering servant. Jesus’ Messiahship and the pain and the tension of unwanted, unheeded disclosure must echo the frustrated message of the prophet Isaiah when, in the experience of its rejection he would say, “You will listen and listen, but never understand. You will look and look, but never see”. Isaiah 6.9
But now, in Jesus, Luke is reminding us that even given our partial sight, our incomplete faith, and our own tendency to fall away from the Christian faith, God nonetheless believes in each one of us and in this we are never lost or confounded. In his Son Jesus Christ we are never forsaken. Thus He may still say to us, even now: “Receive your sight, your faith is making you well”. Wear your cross with pride.