Sermon for the last Sunday of Trinity
27th Oct 2013
Sermon for The Last Sunday of Trinity
The humble man’s prayer pierces the clouds. Ecclesiasticus 35.12-14; 16-19.
We come to realize that the saints of old and the characters we find in the Gospels come to us as flesh and blood, three-dimensional characters. They are not plaster saints or mere cyphers. In bringing them to life Jesus expresses a radical criticism of the religious people of his day. This was the very religious bloc, the chosen people Israel, which had prided itself on having been called, chosen and elected as God’s Own. But their faith had become dimmed – the people had felt cut off from that promise and confused about their place in the world. They then became aloof and defensive toward the world around them. And so they rewarded themselves with badges of righteousness. Jesus rails against the existence of a ‘spiritual aristocracy’. They have no Incarnate God. In fact he stands before them, but they do not recognise him. It must be that the righteous sinner, the tax-collector, is given higher status for Christ than the pious Pharisee. He is the one who knows himself to be but a part of the human race, a flesh and blood creature, a fallible one, too.
The play ‘The Country Girl’ is about that kind of flesh and blood reality. We meet her husband – Frank Elgin - an alcoholic who is an erratic but brilliant actor. The writer of a play wishes him to try for the main role but in the act of placing this wreck of a man centre stage, he also has to encounter his weaknesses and his falling down and in this we see not only someone to pity but a situation which must make us think. It must surely draw from us a deeper compassion than the one which is merely reactive? If we are to feel and show compassion we must be led to throw in our lot with the rest of the human race, and risk our own thwarted attempts to make the world in our own image rather than the one which is made in God’s. This is to gaze into the mirror and to see what is both there and not there and yet still to realise the very necessity of love and compassion: in your own life and in the life of others while it may last and provide for all our futures:
W H Auden ‘As I walked Out One Evening’.
'O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
'O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.'
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
In the Church, a prayer has emerged in the long centuries since Jesus first told this old parable. It lies in The Eastern Orthodox Jesus Prayer; the prayer of our human grounding. This is the prayer in which we throw in our lot with flesh and blood living, emerging out of an utterance from the heart:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…
The terms for ‘sin’ used in the in the Eastern Orthodox tradition are less legalistic (to do with exactitude and punishment) than we find in The Western tradition – for we have been weaned on the idea of sin and punishment and guilt. The Eastern understanding is more medical (speaking of sickness and of its healing and for the offering of hopefulness). The two traditions seem to merge in the Old Prayer Book Act of Confession with the eventual promise, once again, of God’s mercy:
We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and we have not done those things which we ought to have done, and there is no health in us. But thou O Lord, have mercy upon us…
As the hymn says,
‘Tis mercy all, elect and free.
But O, my God it found out me.
The Eastern Tradition does not carry with it the guilt for breaking a rule, but rather the impetus to become something more than what we usually are or can be under our own steam. One repents not because one is or isn't virtuous, but because of the possibility that human nature can change. Repentance (μετάνοια, metanoia, "changing one's mind") isn't remorse, justification, or punishment, but a continual enactment of one's freedom, deriving from renewed choice and the promise of restoration, and with it, of surer hope. In this way Jesus’ parable echoes the words in the Old Testament reading from Ecclesiasticus. The grounded, humble persons; the ones who have known what is real. Thesew are the ones we need: They are the ones whose prayers ‘pierce the clouds’!
But this is not achieved as though it were a skill, or a piece of religious piety. The parable makes that very plain. The emergent understanding in these matters is that we begin to enjoy our shared world and shared church when we acknowledge our complete dependence on each other. And in that interdependence lies our own strength and stability. ‘Cut off from me you can do nothing’ says Jesus in John 15.5. But with this comes also the realisation of the way in which our own lives crisscross and inform one another. We might say they need and depend upon one another as we depend on God. Christian hope depends on a great deal of honesty—on the acknowledgment of our being connected together, like the parts of the human body. Out of this may emerge that mercy and compassion which is God’s being and His everlasting promise. In God’s mercy there lies the basis for a Church which cannot atrophy, for its lives its life from its true source : from the ever-present love of the One who is both merciful and deeply liberating for us in the condition in which we find ourselves.
Sermon at St Peter's Church, Vauxhall, First Evening Prayer for Saints Simon and Jude.
27th Oct 2013
Sermon for the First Evensong of SS Simon and Jude
St Peter’s Vauxhall
Sunday 27th October 2013
“I will not leave you orphaned” John 14.18
The Last Sunday of Trinity this evening coincides with this first evensong of Saints Simon and Jude and we are moved to consider the apostolic legacy in relation to the posterity of love which is Christ's gift to the Church. Ten days ago I was in St Peter’s Square Rome attending a general audience of Pope Francis. We had arrived late and were only just able to get a place, standing in blazing sun. The Pope was seen as a bright white shape in the distance and as the pope mobile got closer you felt the roar of the crowd coming across the square like a wave on a great sea which had become a ‘breaker’ crashing on to shore. The centre piece of the whole morning was the Papal sermon, based on the theme of ‘The Apostolic Nature of the Church’ and it is to this same theme that we turn this evening on this eve of the Feast of the apostles Simon and Jude.
So little is known of Simon and Jude, apart from the fact that Simon was called ‘the zealot’ and Jude was not called ‘Iscariot’. Other than that legend attests to their both having being martyred as witnesses of the Christian Faith in Persia. What we know of Simon and Jude is what they have always been to The Church; apostles. They are the ones who were ‘sent’ and their apostolate is co-terminus with ours. The Church is indelibly apostolic, and it is in its very dna to be firstly united in Christ, secondly to be called by Him and thirdly to proclaim him to be at the heart of our lives. In this way we are all of us in a direct line of Christian succession, we are for our own time and place the ones who have been sent. Christ has called and we are responding. He is there as the foundation, the root and the growth of all that we are and of all that we are to become. The term ‘apostolic’ is the one which unites us with Simon and Jude in the calling and the sending out which had come from Christ himself. They and we are living witnesses to this one apostolic call and its outworking. Crucially this witness is not to be driven by a sectarian church, nor is this witness part of a kind of ecclesial skills base. The language which John writes is the one which is familial and intimate. Christ, the shepherd of our souls is the One who will not only instruct us but also as he puts it ‘send the advocate who will teach you everything’. He speaks to us in the first person singular as the great ‘I’, and this ‘I’ is not the ‘I of the iron will but the ‘I’ of the one who tenderly assures us that he will not leave us orphaned. The apostolic call is the one which invites us all into a new kind of belonging and which empowers us to live in the world in such a way as to transform that world into the likeness of Christ.
A tall order, you may think, except when we realize that the call of Christ to the apostles was given to ordinary men in ordinary situations. They are not special cases so much as those who are called out of the one basic community of faith and hope. Simon is a religious zealot, Jude a follower. They were both agreed that the meeting with Christ contained both the elements of chance and coincidence and yet also of utter inevitability and then of life-offering, life sacrificing love. So much of what we experience as Christians is not the citizenship of a specialized, spiritualized and pious world, but one which is all too ordinary and even all too painfully aware of its awkward place in a western society grown used to the marketing of what are called ‘life style choices’. The first century apostolic witness of a Simon or a Jude in direct verbal and heartfelt communication with the Son of God might seem light years away from a church challenged to proclaim that same apostolic faith both within, beyond the prevailing cultural milieu. It would have been an absurd suggestion to Simon and Jude that two thousand years later groups of people would meet for prayer, singing spiritual songs and proclaiming Christ in situations world’s apart from the Palestine of the First Century. They would marvel that they, Simon and Jude were regarded as forever chosen and elect, like living stones, foundations upon which a great Church would be built and would manage to survive for twenty centuries. But we wouldn’t allow their stupefaction to rest, would we? We would say to them as the twenty-first Century Church that we are pledged and committed as they were, to live for Christ in our own times and to work passionately as they did for the Christ who had not left them orphaned. We would remind them of the prayer from The Book of Dueteronomy as inimicably apostolic, elegant and awakened:
Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak;
let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching drop like the rain,
my speech condense like the dew;
like gentle rain on grass,
like showers on new growth.
Going back to St Peter’s Square, I stood there in the baking heat while the sermon was translated into so many different languages, but at the heart of the Pope’s sermon was the fact of the apostolic calling as a living, breathing witness to the surrounding realities at all times and in all places. The apostolic call is not benign but the call to spiritual awakenness, to courage in the Christian Faith and to the joyful hope of its outworking in ordinary lives and ordinary situations.
Last night I was praying in our newly refurbished Walsingham Chapel, which is really carved out of an old porch with a great blue damask curtain over an old heavy door, through which I could hear a conversation taking place in Arabic through the false wall. It should have irritated me and disturbed my silence but in fact it was a marvelous evocation of an interior speaking to an exterior, conversations of prayer and purpose taking place on opposite yet complimentary sides of a thin wall. It is in such a situation that the idea of the apostolic, of the divine message and its ordinary messenger is realised. It was for me the realization of the divine utterance as communicated through thin walls ‘condensing like the dew and like gentle rain on the grass, like showers on new growth’.
And then in St Peter’s Square I looked at Pope Francis himself, who had put down his notes and begun to speak from the heart. Who was this man? Was it because he wore so much white and sat on a throne that we listened so attentively? The event was certainly a triumph of stage management. But no, it was the power and integrity of the message that was the thing. The apostolic nature of the call, the message and the messenger still holds good as a kind of apostolic succession. I am reminded of Rome as the home of the painter Caravaggio and of his genius in placing the Call of an apostle in a tavern or a counting house just around the corner, in a grimy and dimly lit hovel just around the corner from his digs. There, in the ordinary, in the revealing lights and deep shadows of Counter-Reformation Rome, he re-instates the apostolic message in the ordinary, in the chance meeting, the dangerous, the awkward as a kind of new theatre for the communicating of the presence of God in ordinary life both as brilliant and as startling, instructing us, inhabiting our very being, sending us out and reminding us that God has not left us orphaned but provided for our everlasting future in the present.
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
6th Oct 2013
The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity Year C.
God’s gift was not a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control.
2 Timothy 1.6-8. 13-14.
Last Friday evening I was waiting in a queue at King’s Cross Station for a rail ticket. The queue was long, and as each person intended to make enquiries before buying a ticket, and as the whole process was lengthy, so was the waiting. One man had entered the wrong queue and had probably been waiting for twenty minutes only to be told that he had been in the wrong queue and must join the other. And no, there was no way he could go to the head of the other queue as that would be unfair on those who had waited there already. His reaction was as might be expected one of controlled fury. You could sense in this long queuing a vacant space, and in it a stress, the stress of being at the mercy of a time consuming monotony, and the pent up coping with the frustration of it. There seem now to be more ways in which these stressful gaps in our existence can be alleviated. The mobile phone and the iPod are used by many where there are these vacant spaces in our existence; these places of inevitable waiting. The railway carriage of people has most of them reaching for mobile phones other devices. Only I, it seems, gaze into space. ‘Mind the gap’ we are warned as we climb onto the tube, but how do we mind the gaps, the vacant spaces in our existence? Is it possible to inhabit them in some way, undistracted, and to accept them; or do they find us instead anxious and irritable and out of sorts? In his book ‘The Stature of Waiting’ William Vanstone observes that “…Our experience of waiting… comes home to us as we speak of our frustration and, in doing so discloses our assumption that the waiting role, the condition of dependence, the status of patient, is somehow improper to us, a diminution of our true function and status in the world, and an affront to our human dignity”.
There is something of this frustration in the Gospel when the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. This is a request to jump the queue. It is natural for us to want to short cut inconvenience, and to alleviate the strains and burdens under which we have to live. And it is refreshing that the apostles are all too human in this respect. But there is something in the Christian Faith, which would have us deal with the hard facts of our existence, in the sense of both its meaning and its sense of non-meaning. And we must wait while God’s purposes are unfolded in our lives in and through God’s time and not ours. We must wait while the deepest questions relating to our lives hang as it were in mid-air. And the Christian who offers the easy answer to God’s apparent lack of communication can only short cut and also trivialise the sense in which human existence is not a fast moving action packed play or film or novel, but one which is loaded with silence and with gaps and discontinuities. The play ‘Waiting for Godot’ burst onto the West End stage in 1955 and its action and inaction operates at this very level, and speaks to us from deep within ourselves as we find in our existence this very measure of meaning and non-meaning, and the question, which can never be answered about why we are waiting and who are we waiting for and when is it or he coming?
The example of Jesus Christ offers a complimentary view – that the stature of waiting is a noble stature, and that this kind of waiting is made present to us in the waiting or the Passion of Jesus Christ, even unto his own death. ‘Passion’ here does not mean exclusively or primarily ‘pain’: it means dependence, exposure, waiting, being no longer in control of one’s situation, and being the object of what is done…And this is in effect a kind of stillness and a being present to the present, to ourselves and to one another. And for the Christian this passion has issued forth out of silence as a prayer of contemplation. This prayer the poet RS Thomas describes as a ‘leaning over an immense depth, letting your name go and waiting somewhere between faith and doubt for the echoes of its arrival’.
During the week I come into church, open the doors and ring the bell and sit in silence. And there is rarely a day goes by in which I am not joined by another person, sometimes a small number. At the sound of a bell, at the sight of an open door and the fact of the church being here, this place invites its holy silence. And as I sit here in silence and am joined by others in silence, I cannot know what prayers and hopes and wishes and anxieties are contained within it, but I do know that it is in and through the silence, the gap, the empty space, that God speaks. Lives which often confound and disappoint may find in this church a sense of belonging and of contact with a wider praying community in the divine presence. The well-known prayer which priests and servers say before this service ends is the one which would have us abide patiently in God’s presence:
‘May the divine assistance remain with us always and may the souls of the faithful through the mercy of God rest (remain) in peace. Amen.