Sermon for Advent Sunday 2016

27th Nov 2016


ADVENT SUNDAY SERMON 2016.

 

“Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour”

Matthew 24.36

 

The season of Advent involves us in a waiting mode of being as we prepare for the Coming of Christ at Christmas.  I overheard a child in Waitrose the other day saying to her brother “I can’t wait for Christmas!”  In her eyes I could glimpse how children are caught up in the excitement of waiting. It’s a wonderful, suspenseful kind of waiting, peppered for the child with all kinds of excitement and promise.

 

But for adults waiting can be a much less ecstatic business, especially when it places us in situations over which we have little or no control. When I think about waiting my mind turns to the hospital as a place of waiting. Patients start the day waiting for early breakfasts, for the bed to be made and for the doctor to come on his rounds. They wait for the result of tests and appointments and surgery or to be sent home; some are even awaiting their own death. This is waiting of a kind which is never easy. One of the great theological books written on the theme of waiting is Bill Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. In it Jesus is seen above all else as one who waits. He is waiting in the midst of his own vulnerability and exposure and helplessness for what is to come. When we think of Jesus, we think of him waiting, of him trusting, of his being open, vulnerable, and exposed to the elements.

 

None of us wait in a vacuum and nor did Jesus. Christians wait in God’s time even though the poet Auden reminds us that  “…time will have its fancy, tomorrow or today”. But it is as time goes by that we experience some of the greatest challenges to our sense of who we are, and of the need, as the Gospel reading for this morning puts it, to be in a strong state of readiness – awakened to what lies all around us and with re-awakened sense of trust in the loving mercy of a God who is most present. The writer of Ecclesiastes (3.1) reminds us both reassuringly and forebodingly that ”there is a time for everything under the sun”. Though the passing of time brings new challenges, some of them emotionally trying, even so we are asked not to be afraid. To pray to God for strength to survive is an act of survival in itself. Though time may seem to be so attached to mere fate, Auden can nonetheless remind us that God's loving and merciful presence reaches beyond it:

 

Because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if he were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following him, we may depart from anxiety into his presence.    W H Auden. 

 

The promise of the coming of Christ demands our faith and trust. As the Advent Season progresses we are making a journey from darkness to light. We are being led to it by the wisdom of the prophets, the voice of John the Baptist, the message of the angel Gabriel and the guiding of a star. But that is for later…

 

For now, Advent is pointing us to the hard fact of patient waiting; the waiting in faith while something greater is being unfolded. Mature waiting. Waiting in God’s time. In an age in which a vast amount of choice is available to us. In an age in which temporary gratification is satisfied in so many ways and in an age in which communication is instantaneous and abbreviated we are too often urged to live our lives without the inconvenience of costly waiting. The Advent summons is not one of 'click and collect', for Advent speaks to us of a gradual unfolding - we have lit only the first candle candle this morning on the Advent wreath. This is a sign of the time it will take to get to the coming of the birth of Jesus. And we will get there. But first we are to wait. So let us now accept the challenge this Advent offer us, to wait and pray; to wait, and then, hopefully, to see…

 



Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2016

13th Nov 2016


Remembrance Sunday 2016

 

Their hope was rich in immortality.       Wisdom 3.4

 

Remembrance Sunday remains with me as a very vivid memory from my childhood, some fifty years ago. In my home town of Plymouth the Act of Remembrance took place on the vast esplanade which provides a dramatic high platform overlooking a wide expanse of sea. And it was on this platform and from a Plymouth that had been completely rebuilt after the ravages of the blitz, that the old soldiers marched. The guns from the nearby barracks on the Hoe boomed out to sea and their echoes returned. The two minutes’ silence was held in an intense atmosphere which was full of human dignity in the deeply felt remembrances and the sorrow. 

 

Standing back from this memory, I had once felt sure as the years passed, this Day of Remembrance for the War Dead would spend itself with the passage of time and 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 particularly suffering and loss with the hope 'rich in immortality'. It brings us in touch, yes with the brutality and the futility of war and the sorrow of loss and at the same time with the dignity and the eternal worth of human of human life and of human sacrifice. If we were to speak of God’s presence in the face of such tragedy, we might own that, even amidst the horrors of suffering, there emerge so many acts of amazing self-giving. The word ‘sacrifice’ is brought strongly to mind not only as the giving of life unto death, but also the daily offering of dedicated and willing service in many acts of willing self-sacrifice which constitute another laying down of life.

 

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. The book of Wisdom declares this an expression of a hope ‘rich in immortality’. The many war memorials across the world call to us today with their seemingly endless rows of names, with each name 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 given. Each one counts; each one was significant; each one gathered up and made present to us in the falling of the red petals.

 

God’s very being, ‘bright with immortality’, is with us now. And in a world in which war and the waging of war still 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, the Day of the Dead. 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 present day vocation for the Christian is to proclaim a life that has not secumbed to the deadliness of a world turned in on itself, with a closed mind and a stone hear, but to the bright hope that resides in our co-dependency, and and in the call to serve one another as Christ has surely served us.

 

This is our way forward. It lies in the 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. The Christian Gospel and the teaching of Christ is before else a summons to a wholehearted response. Deadness is there in the life which has withdrawn into itself and which takes no risks and avoids having any demands made upon it. Abundant life is there when it is given away, sacrificed in disinterested love for the other. The life of Jesus has shown that victory over the powers of death is won through in the offering of our lives for the greater good which is God. We may do this in perhaps in little ways. But they are all of them nonetheless significant.

 

Sometimes large amounts of sacrifice have had be given for the sake of the good, and for the peace of the world. This day reminds us that the self-sacrifice of the many in the past may lead us on to an understanding of the power of human self-sacrifice in this and every age. In this way we contribute as they have in the past to the eternal worth of human sacrifice for a hope 'rich in immortalty'.

 

 

 They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

 

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

 

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

 

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

 

And death shall have no dominion.

 

 

‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ - Dylan Thomas 

Written between the wars in 1933,

Thomas's poem takes on a broad theme of remembrance and the eternity of the human spirit.

 



Sermon for the Third Sunday before Advent

6th Nov 2016


The Third Sunday before Advent

Jesus is God of the Living and the Dead.

 

Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to Him all of them are alive”.

Luke 20.38

 

In today’s Gospel we have Jesus’ debate with the Sadducees, who denied resurrection, and it is revealing. It is written by Luke, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. He writes for the life of the very early church.  Luke is certain that the Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead is crucial for the life of the church. His thoughts echo those of St Paul who had written before him. In his Letter to the (1Corinthians 15.17) Paul declares “…and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching is in vain, and your faith is also vain.” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the Church’s birth right and its bedrock.

 

This strong certainty is not one subject to some ‘knock-down’ or irrefutable argument. It is the revelation to the faithful of the divine will. The resurrection of Jesus Christ becomes the transforming event and makes The Church possible.  The life of the world to come is unimaginably different from what we know in the here and now. The difficulty lies in the span between these two seemingly separate worlds. But Jesus is firm in his knowledge that the life to come is as sure as ‘the angels in heaven’. 

 

The defining story of the Old Testament is the one in which God reveals his sacred name in the burning bush. Moses speaks about God as ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.  Jesus replies, centuries later, “Now he is God not of the dead but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”  (Luke 20.38). In God, life and death are not separate; they are seen and understood in the one light. But ultimately it is Jesus who will bridge the unfathomable divide separating the living and the dead through his own Resurrection; and if His Resurrection, then our resurrection. And so in his Letter to the Romans, Paul can say that “If we are one with Christ in a death like his, we shall certainly be one with him in a resurrection like his”. (Romans 6.3).

 

Jesus is saying that to view the dead as, well, just dead, is a mistake.  We need to see them as God does, in the light of his resurrection. ‘For to him all of them are alive’.  Are there any words more comforting on the day when the dead are so much in our minds at this time?  ‘In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their going from us to be their destruction.  But they are at peace, and their hope is full of immortality’.  (Wisdom 3.1-9). So if those we loved and honoured are forever alive and present to God, then they can and should be to us too.  We were reminded of this strong fact in the Commemoration of All Souls, which we observed last week.

 

In the Christian Church, we not only remember the dead, we pray for individual souls, too. This is our way of continuing to care and to recognise the bonds of love that death can never break.  Death shows us God’s way of gathering up the fragments of human life so that nothing is ever lost.  All is becomes one, all is truly completed, in Him.

 

We come to this Eucharist to celebrate the risen Christ here among us.  And because of the word he speaks to us today, we do not come here alone, but in the company of all who are in heaven, who rejoice with us.  In bread and wine, we are one with that innumerable company we do not see, but who are our companions in faith, and who travel with us towards the perfect vision of God. And that vision has already been granted to us.

 

The great crucifix in All Saints Church – The Church of the Ognissanti in Florence, Italy has been cleaned and restored. It lay for many years in a storage room in the church, collecting dust and dirt until it was almost unrecogniseable. But now all is revealed. Revealed in fact to have been an original work by the painter Giotto. What was remarkable about Giotto’s genius painting was the layering of colour and also the painting of mood and emotion to an extreme degree, even though in matt and where the colours invariably appeared very flat.

 

The cleaning has taken four years and now it appears to us as it did over seven hundred years ago, as a minor miracle, a vision of the glory of God shining in the body of the crucified Christ. Giotto would have argued about the resurrection and the last things as did the Saducees. But One look at his painting, a crucifix, offers you both the terribleness of the Cross with the promise of the life to come burnished in its gold and deep blue lapis lazuli. Meditate upon this Cross, he seems to say, and in and through all its meaning, even unto death, the resurrection hope is already being revealed to you in no uncertain terms. Life, death and resurrection become in Christ one single unity, one expression,  and for us who believe, one reality for now and for always.



Sermon for the Commemoration of All Souls

2nd Nov 2016


The Commemoration of All Souls Sermon 2016

 

“Praying for one’s departed loved ones is a far too immediate urge to be suppressed. It is a most beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death”.                                                                                 

Pope Benedict XVI.

 

At this particular time of the year in the first days of November, the Church seems to wrap itself in the lives of those who have gone before us: and the dead in particular. On the 1st November in the lives of all the saints, which we celebrated last Sunday. Then as the days in November wear on, we come to that moment on the 11th hour of the 11th month as Armistice Day is observed. And then there comes Remembrance Sunday and the wearing of poppies… Today’s All Soul’s Day is the Church’s Day of the Dead, and forms an inseparable part of the general commemoration of the dead. Its purpose is to keep us in mind of what we know already. That there is a fine veil that separates life from death and from those who have gone before us; those whose lives we have known and loved. They are a part of us and their loving influence is remains with us for all time. Marked for Philip Larkin on an Arundel Tomb is the telling phrase ‘What will survive of us is love’.

 

For the Christian, life is of God’s making and it is sacred. And all is vital for our understanding of who God is. As God’s creatures we stand in awe of the grandeur and the mystery of what he has made and how he has made it. The true meaning of life lies beyond mere speech. No wonder, then, that the appropriate response in the remembrance of the dead is one of silence. The Two Minute’s Silence speaks to us clearly in this busy world more than ever in ways words never could. In the silence is communicated that place where the living and the dead hold communion. Yet another tradition in the remembering of the dead is the writing down or the reading out of the names of the dead. We may imagine the war memorials, with their thousands of names, the books of commemoration and condolence, as well as the engravings for those known and unknown on countless memorial stones. And at his All Souls Mass, the long list of the names of the dead, known by you and I both individually and severally is solemnly read out. It is stands both as a list of the dead and a declaration of our faith in the one who has risen from the Dead – Our Lord Jesus Christ.

This Solemn Commemoration of All Souls on this day each year, 2nd November is, as Pope Benedict has said,   “…a beautiful manifestation of solidarity, love and assistance, reaching beyond the barrier of death’. However faint our powers of recollection, we nevertheless feel in our own lives the influences of those who have gone before us. We feel there is more here than words can express, for ‘what will survive of us is love’.

A Poem :  Love is the bridge    

 

Love is the bridge that links two worlds:

this world in which we mourn and suffer loss

and the fair world of eternity’s dawn.

 

Love is the bridge which helps us cross

and love itself our crossing,

for in the love with which we hold our dear ones still

we find the promise of a bond without a losing.

 

Nothing is stronger than the force of death but love;

love is the eternal gift that knows no end -

it springs up in our hearts we know not how,

its music through our lives befriends

And at their requiem love breathes hope

for God is love;

 

God is love, and so our loves are held most safe

in the eternal arms

where all things are made new, made perfect

healed, and whole.

 

Holy is the One who heals and perfects us through love

And to this loving there is never ending.

 

                                                                   Alan Amos



 

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