Sermon for Advent Sunday 2015 Year C
29th Nov 2015
Sermon for Advent Sunday Year C
“Be alert at all times, praying that you may…stand before the Son of Man”. Luke 21, 35-36.
Advent reminds us that God comes to us not only at the end of time, but also from time to time, in gentle visitations that we may miss for our preoccupation with making a secure world apart from him. Let’s not miss Him! The Advent word is not just a word of reassurance, but also a word of judgement, a word of challenge and an invitation to change. It demands our response. There are things about all of us that need shaking to the foundations, and surely things in our society that could well be shaken loose to make the world a more just and Godly place.
Our attempts to find security can be idols. There are idols of race and clan and class that tempt us to find security there. There can be a fearful clinging to a secure past which is not open to the renewal of life that is a mark of God’s indwelling presence and the work of his Holy Spirit. In our own time, we come to recognise a world where the solidities that have reassured us in the past times are now in the present being shaken to their core. The debate on immigration and the new realities which populations face in the wake of mass migration pose such a challenge. The language of Advent is the language of anticipation for a God-shaped future.
But this is not a future we can make for ourselves. It may not be something we cannot readily see or imagine. Through thick and thin, through trying times and good times, faith waits and watches, alert for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so above all else on this Advent Sunday we are being re-called to a Christian Faith which is watchful, imaginative and fearless in its integrity. But this can only be possible if we are living a spiritually disciplined, and therefore a centred life. And in order for this to be possible we must follow some kind of contemplative path, which enjoys the reality and the power and the presence of God both as both a gift and a dialogue. In such a way the power and presence of God does not become either a figment of our feeble imaginations or a tired and faded image projected onto a blank screen. It is the reality in which you eat and sleep and breathe. And the psalmist most strongly puts this contemplation into words.
Listen to the witness of Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Advent, then, is the Church’s call to order, a call to watch and wait for the coming of Christ and the realisation of his presence in all we are and all we do. Significantly, our Advent bible study groups, which will take place after the Parish Mass over the next four Sundays, feature the life and the theology of one Thomas Merton, whose dramatic conversion to Christ occurred only after much grief, loneliness, disillusion and anger. He became aware of himself in new way :
I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul, and I was pierced deeply with a light that made me realize something of the condition I was in, and I was filled with horror at what I saw…The one thing that seems to me morally certain however, is that this was really a grace, and a great grace.
What is important here is that God’s grace, his active love in the life of this man did not depend on any intention on Merton’s part. He had been overtaken by God, and this leads him to observe that life is not as they say ‘what you make it’. Real life is the life that is being made by God in YOU’.
This is the message of this Advent Sunday, and though the Gospel writer for this new church year, Luke, envisages ‘distress among the nations’ and ‘the powers of the heavens shaken’ in his own time, he nonetheless encourages his listeners to be strong in the faith which has been established in them. “Be alert at all times” he says “…praying that you may stand before the Son of Man”.
As Merton became responsive to the God who must break him down before building him up, so the Advent message holds before us the promise of Christ’s coming with an unflinching realisation of the ways of the world and of its tendency toward corruption. The response to this hard fact is the life dedicated to God. For us this must not necessary feel like the conquering of a spiritual Mount Everest, but what one spiritual writer has called the ‘practising of the presence of God’. I meditate in silence and use an egg timer to time my silence. You can begin with as little time as it takes to boil an egg, 4-5 minutes, and then add more time as you wish, but do try it out, and see…
For Thomas Merton, the violence of the call from God led to what he later termed an ‘elected silence’ and this resulted in a call to the monastic life and the laying of the foundations a stronger witness to the world and to posterity.
Silence (he said) is the country where the saints learned their language.
Silence creates space and we find God in the space.
In the silence we can hear ourselves think,
We can listen to the words that come from our hearts,
The anxieties we have been avoiding, the questions we need to ask.
Thomas Merton will be helping us on these Sundays of Advent, build ‘Bridges to Comtemplative Living’ He will make his voice heard. He will challenge us to ‘Taste and see how gracious the Lord is’ (Psalm 34.8), “Your life”, as Merton would have said, “depends on it”. The Advent call will always move us forward as it 'searches us out and knows us', but it will, by God's grace, encourage us to stand before the Son of Man.
Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King Year B
22nd Nov 2015
Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King.
"My Kingdom is not of this world" John 18.36.
Today’s Feast of Christ the King always occurs on this the last Sunday of the Church’s Year. It provides a powerful reminder of the kind of authority which is known in Christ. Instead of a much vaunted climax to the Church’s Year, the Feast of Christ the King bids us consider a kingship which is not proud and vainglorious but which challenges us to the uttermost.For this King has come as a suffering servant, and the suffering and the serving has been carried to the uttermost.
Jesus has established through his Passion and Death a Kingdom founded on his self sacrifice and which calls forth resources of human generosity above the interests of acquisition or self-will. It’s rule is not dictatorial. It invites us to recapitulate the life and death and resurrection of Christ by our own response to his bidding and by our own example.
This way has became immediately recognized in the ministry of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who, even though experiencing as we now know, dark and difficult periods of emptiness, nonetheless articulated her care for the poor and dying always in terms of the realization in their faces, their lives and even in their diseases, of the person and the being of Christ himself. Christ’s is a kingship whose reign has been borne out of the Cross. It is a sovereign gift which is always to be given, poured out, even and perhaps especially so when the cost of that giving is great. It is radically humanitarian. Jesus is the king who reigns from the cross. As you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisers, you did it to me.
The Jesus, crucified, who says, 'Father forgive them'; the Jesus as an executed criminal who can promise heaven to a thief. This is the jesus who is a ruler, a man in charge of himself, ruling from the cross. So Jesus is a new kind of king, whether Pilate understands this, or whether the crowd approves or not. 'For what,' Pope St. Leo the Great asks, 'could be more royal than a soul which by subjecting itself to God becomes ruler of its own body?'
We have a king who hopes we will follow him and so follow His teaching, but Christ the King never coerces us. It is always the mark of true love. This love will wait, it will hope, it will never dictate, it will never interpose, it will always allow for freedom of choice. It rules, if rule is the right word, from a place of absolute stillness. This is unlike President Assad of Syria who has often said that only violence can restore order. And it is for this so called order that he has been prepared to kill his own people. His rule is akin to the terrorist-run "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria which is fighting for a mythical memory that they constructed for themselves, in their thwarted minds, centred on the strong man, the Caliph, who will restore former imagined glories. Unfortunately for Iraqis and Syrians coming under ISIS fire, it is the rekindling of this false myth which automatically sanctifies murder and suicide and death.
When Jesus laid aside His garments to wash the disciples feet John 13.4 . He was symbolically laying aside the external outer layer of personality covering his inner being. Only then could the transformation take place. In the shedding of those things no longer necessary. Our outer actions transform us for good or evil, but will come from decisions made within our own hearts. This King we follow, Jesus Christ, shows us that we are not to tread down or doubt or do violence to the good that is already in us, so that his transforming love might be enabled in us. We are not to take ourselevs or God for granted.
We understand the Kingship of Christ as one that is a Kingship both of this world, and importantly beyond it. It is one which receives its proclamation and anointing from the place of his own offering and his own kingdom teaching. But fore mostly it is in the obedience to the father that his sacrifice of himself makes any sense. His teaching and instruction, coming from the wisdom of the cross, is the one which offers our world its highest ethical standard. It is one which is rooted in active and committed love. Only in this way can the Kingship of Christ be deemed credible. Only in this way can it be prove itself other than just another false myth. ‘As you did it to the least of these my brethren you did it to me’, says the wise and gentle ruler. Christ the King rules through vulnerability, His own and ours. This is the King whose outstretched arms embrace His death as he embraces us in ours. This is the king who longs to be with us in every aspect of our lives, but allows us not to invite Him into our lives. This is the king who never gives up on us and has mercy upon us at all times and in all places and in all ways. This is the just and gentle rule of the Son of God. This is the great message at the end of the Church’s year and the Gospel’s final flourish before we turn again and wait for the promise of his coming in Advent.
Almighty and eternal God,
you have made of one blood all the nations of the earth
and will that they live together
in peace and harmony;
so order the course of this world
that all peoples may be brought together
under Christ's just and gentle rule;
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who is alive and remains with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Christ the King
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2015
8th Nov 2015
Remembrance Sunday 2015
‘Put your trust in him always, my people’ Psalm 62.8
My home town of Plymouth was a war ravaged or blitzed place and I spent my early childhood playing on bomb sites. This was before the era of health and safety, and we would cheerfully stumble across the rubble and twisted metal, broken bricks and glass and build dens in old cellars. I well remember you could see the sides of houses blown away and catch sight of wallpapered rooms, their insides turned eerily outside. It was only gradually that I came to realise that a generation before, all was death and devastation, and my generation caught glimpses and experiences in what had gone before through the remembrances of our own parents, and the greatness and the awfulness of the endeavour, where for the first time, the great Mass of war dead were not soldiers but civilians. The bomb sites were scars on the landscape and providing an outward manifestation of the scars that war had left behind in human lives.
I once felt sure that as the years passed this Day of Remembrance for the War Dead would spend itself with the deaths of the combatants of the World Wars. But this has not been the case. For this Sunday strikes a chord in the human heart. Remembrance Sunday is much more than the sum total of the observances that take place. It occupies a sea of human experience which spans life and death and the life beyond. It brings us in touch, with the brutality and the futility of war and yet at the same time with the dignity and the eternal worth of human sacrifice. And the promise is there of the God whose presence, even amidst the horrors of suffering, is seen in the many acts of self-giving.
These are of course Christian figures of speech – the reaching out beyond the life here to the life beyond, and the transformation of the human condition in a life which gives of itself to the other. But in a simple way it is the valuation of every human life. Yes, in the many war memorials across the world with the giant stones and the seemingly endless rows of names, each name has been a whole life, a life of hopes and dreams and cares and joys and pains. And as the poppy petals fall down into the Albert Hall each year at the Festival of Remembrance each petal represents one life lost. Each one counts; each one was significant; each one gathered up and made present in the falling of red petals.
Always God’s initiative is manifested in the living world and among us now. And in a world in which war and the waging of war remains a reality we ask ourselves as Christians how we are to understand this Remembrance Sunday in relation to life in the early twenty first century? We commemorate this Sunday only days after the Christian World commemorates All Souls, for others the Day of the Dead. Days too after remembering the lives and deaths of the saints. In London the dead leaves fall to the ground and crunch underfoot as nature accompanies the hallowing of the dead and the poppies are seen everywhere.
The way forward for us the living ones is through a proper honouring of the human condition as it is found, and a patient preparedness to sacrifice our own selves for the good of the greater whole. Therein lies the best of what may happen to people in war, which is, as one American General, termed it “all hell”. The Christian Gospel and the teaching of Christ is before all else a summons to attend to these things in a kind of spiritual watchfulness. Deadness is there in the life which has withdrawn into itself and which takes no risks and avoids having any demands made upon it. Life it is which is held for us in Jesus Christ. The life of Jesus has shown that victory over the powers of death is won through the laying down of our lives; in lots of perhaps little ways. Sometimes what seem to be intolerably large amounts of self-sacrifice might be given for the sake of the good, and even for peace of the world. The sacrifice of the many in the past leads us on to a powerful and moving and effective understanding of the power of human self-sacrifice in every age. Jesus is our guide in all these things. He mediates the love of the Father and holds out the promise of renewal of life, in whatever circumstance.
My upbringing in a ravaged and rebuilt city has always reminded me of the life that may come out of death, and the way in which the death and resurrection of Christ tells us what we know about the right kind of hope for our sometimes troubled lives. In the porch in Plymouth’s civic church, St Andrew’s, which was bombed to the ground during the blitz, there is a large sign which declares the word – ‘Resurgam’ - I will rise again. This is the message for Remembrance Sunday, which surely takes us in two directions – in the embrace of past remembrances and in the sure hope of the life which will emerge out of them.
Sermon for All Saints Day 2015
1st Nov 2015
Sermon on All Saints Day 2015
Tom Smith, (Licensed Lay Minister, Holy Cross Church, Cromer Street WC1H 8JU.)
The Gospel reading today is the most powerful act of all performed by Jesus. Apart from the resurrection of Jesus himself it's the biggest miracle recorded in the Gospels. The two are linked, of course. They show the life-changing and revolutionary message that God overcomes death. They reveal the Christian path to understanding life beyond death.
The gospel reading today is a good one for All Saints Day. It encourages us to understand death from a Christian perspective and it reminds us that Jesus has the power to raise us to new life. It reminds us that life doesn't begin and end on earth. On All Saints Day we celebrate in different ways the lives of those before us and their continuing influence. We keep people alive and we relate to people who have left this earth. We are a community made possible by God. On this day we think of the community of Saints and all those who followed the Christian path.
Today I want to talk about The Saints and how they are understood. Like many things the concept of The Saints means different things to different people. And they're all valid. Different ways of understanding The Saints gives us the multidimensional perspective we need to get close to understanding this mystery. Originally All Saints day was about remembering the early Christian martyrs whose names aren't recorded. People who literally died for their faith. There may not be books or even paragraphs written about them but they are important. A more collective sense in which The Saints are understood is as a mass of souls from our history and past who have followed Christ. These people are so numerous that they remain mostly nameless. Yet we are conscious of their being a foundation of our faith.
I find consolation in this. A Holy family of souls on earth and beyond the earth. I imagine myself as part of a massive clan. I said The Saints were mainly without name but a big and important sense of The Saints is individual and intimate. Through the year we celebrate some key figures: St Jude and St James, the apostles. Martyrs like St Pancras and St Stephen. Founders of our church, St Paul and St Peter, wardens of our faith, St Francis and Saint Benedict. Great evangelisers like St John and St Patrick. The recorded Saints are people of all kinds.
For those with a missal or familiar with it and other books will know that almost every day a Saint is remembered. Some days have multiple saints. There is a sense, isn't there, that Saints are perfect, souls that never make mistakes? But the stories of The Saints soon dispel this myth. They are NOT all perfect but they ARE all remarkable. These individual figures AND their stories can help us to understand and deepen our faith. They are an inspiration. We all have our favourite saints. MINE is St Thomas And that's not just because I share his name. It's because he asks questions. Because he yearns to understand.
These saints in the reformed tradition are remarkable people, models for us to learn from, to be inspired by. Another part of the historical tradition around All Saints was to remember our friends and family, to pray for and remember those who have passed. In the Catholic tradition there is a particular emphasis. The Saints are great models, sure, but they are not just historical. The Saints live on. They're souls already reawakened. They are active intercessors, part of God's spiritual force. We pray to them.
This links to yet another conception of the Saints; as a Holy spiritual army. Not a military force but a spiritual one. They help us in many senses but more importantly their collective prayer adds force and strengthens God's mission. I rather like this sense of The Saints. It makes me feel connected... Strengthened... Part of something more powerful than myself.
A final way of seeing the Saints is to remind you of the different ways St Paul wrote of them.
Yes, as great people. Yes as a spiritual army. But he also speaks of US as saints or as aspirants to be saints.
US! 'so you are no longer strangers but part of the community with The saints'. We are the church. The church is more than a building. It is US together with the saints. When we thank God after communion, for feeding us with the body and blood of Jesus we pray that God will send us out on the power of the holy spirit to live and work to His praise and glory. This is the attitude of the saints. Not to be perfect but to be determined to serve God, recognising the many and varied ways The Saints have shown us. They are people who know their need of God. Paul urges us to be serious about our faith and to number ourselves in the spiritual army of Saints.
There are a lot of ways to understand The Saints. It is true that the concept of The Saints means different things to different people. And people will emphasise different aspects as they experience this day. There will be preachers all over England - all over THE WORLD - talking about the Saints in different ways. When people have different conceptions of things they can quarrel about whose understanding is the right one. Yet these expressions of The Saints are not contradictory. They are connected in a few important ways.
First, that the central Christian message is a promise of life beyond death and all conceptions of the Saints have this. Second, that God is at the centre of our experience. In all the senses I've described God is central. His victory over death makes everything possible. The third connection is remembering and remembrance and the part we play in this. Remembering is about drawing things together and not allowing important parts to be lost.
I'm a bit of a crossword nut and because of that I am used to play around with words. So I think of the word remember. And if when we take something apart we dismember something when we remember something we are putting it back together. What can we do? We remember the faithful and aspire to deepen our own faith. We are recalling the feats, sacrifices and commitment of the nameless martyrs of the past. We do not ignored or forget these people who die for their faith now. We can learn more about saints and be inspired by them. We can join with the Saints in prayer, by sharing their prayers and adding our voices or by praying to them as we do to Mary when we say the Angelus. We can remember and pray for those that have departed the earth as we will tomorrow. When we remember The Saints as we do today we emphasise hope and life, on any of the senses we favor.
What this day means most of all is that God is life that he has defeated death. Christ's life meant love overcame death. His legacy to us is to Christ is too share the victory of life. The gospel reading today is the most powerful act. Jesus resurrects Lazarus and shows he had power over death.
Jesus' resurrection is THE revolutionary act of all history. It depends the way we view death. Our gives us a way of relating to the departed. We see ourselves and them as part of a single community, God's people, past, living and future.
It is serious stuff. It is powerful stuff. It's life changing stuff.
Happy All Saints day!