Sermon for the last Sunday after Trinity Year B
25th Oct 2015
Sermon for the last Sunday after Trinity Year B
‘Rabbuni’ the blind man said to him, ‘Master, let me see again’. Mark 10.50.
As you emerge out of the south exit from King’s Cross Station, and into the open air, you often meet a blind person. Someone who has been to the RNIB in Judd Street. Climbing the stairs you are then slowed down. You make way; you give way to someone who tentatively makes their way into the human maelstrom downstairs. The idea of seeing and not seeing, and of knowing and not knowing is basic both to the Bible and to the works of William Shakespeare. If there is a theology of sight in the New Testament, it is one which remains both evident and yet veiled. This is especially the case in St Mark’s Gospel where we have the very partial misunderstanding of the disciples with the setting forward of the Gospel as an unravelling secret; the so-called ‘Markan Secret’. ‘Seeing’ is another way of showing forth faith with understanding but real ‘seeing’ is an outcome of faith.
Jesus informs the disciples in 4.12: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand…” We understand through the glories of the English vocabulary that seeing relates both to plain sight and also to human understanding; and of what Mark terms ‘perception’. We see not only with our eyes but with our whole being, in an experience of the illumination of the mind or perhaps in a movement of the heart.
Mark is not writing his theology to be clever but to set down for posterity those things that lie at the heart of a Christian understanding of life. The blind man Bartimaus calls out to Jesus: ‘Rabbuni…Let me see again!’ The sight that Jesus gives is the second sight that establishes and stabilises our (ordinary) first sight. This is the sight that is given when Jesus is seen for who is really is. He is seen and known to be ‘The Son of the living God’. Spiritual insight is shared. Each act of Christian healing is set forward by Mark as an experience of conversion, and with the conversion, the deepening of human perception and the outpouring of healing grace on the part of the recipient. This is also a summons from the Christ who provides deliverance to a place of new life.
The Church celebrates the gift of new life through our shaky, ordinary experience of faith in Christ. We are just like Mark’s disciples and that is the point of his Gospel. The old Cole Porter song, ‘Every Time we say Goodbye’ guages life in relation to the singer’s own emotional register and ours, too…Hence the genius refrain ‘How strange the change from major to minor’. And indeed, the grand, major theology of human seeing and knowing from Mark comes to us only as it has been played out in the minor key. That is, in the ordinary, in the everyday, in ways that surprise, perplex and confound us, and especially in those times when we have had to suffer, to experienced failure, disappointment, emptiness and loss. We have learnt only gradually and we have misunderstood much. But we have grown when we have, despite our own blindedness, struggled to see things as they really are. I was watching a documentary this week about the late American novelist and social commentator Gore Vidal, whose boyhood was kept very largely in the company of his grandfather, a United States Senator, who was blind. Gore describes himself as (literally) his grandfather’s page, reading to the old man for hours on end. It gave the boy a sense of there being no room for self-pity, and the of the man who had to develop another, sixth sense, a whole way of seeing, a renewal of vision, to compliment the loss of the merely physical sense of sight. The old senator remained the moral lode star for Gore Vidal to the end of his life.
Mark’s story of the healing of the blind man is a call to develop a similar sixth sense, the one which we may describe as faith seeking understanding. The faith that has foundations and which is informed and visionary. We may say with blind Bartimaus, ‘Lord, that I might see you in all things’, and this would like be a very fitting prayer for us. A prayer (the best formal prayers are brief and to the point!) which is a summons and a celebration of faith.
Yesterday afternoon I visited a very sick woman, semi-conscious, who is an old friend of Cat Stephens, Jusuf Islam, whom some of you will remember singing ‘Morning has Broken’. Her one remaining powerful sense remains that of sound and hearing, her sight having gone. Yesterday morning he came to her bedside at the hospice and sang to her his ‘Morning has Broken’. Though almost blind, she was able to see and feel their powerful friendship in the simple beauty of the lyrics.
Morning has broken,
like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken,
like the first bird
Praise for the singing,
praise for the morning
Praise for the springing
fresh from the word.
Seeing is more than outward sight or looking or even of close observation. It is a deep well and a place of passionate knowing. It is to this passionate knowing that St Mark invites us to comprehend the full meaning of the life and death and resurrection of Christ as a summons to see the world transformed in his image and to work toward that end.
And so let us join blind Bartimaus this morning. Let our prayer be ‘Lord, that I might see you in all things!’
The Prayer Book Collect for the Baptism of the Lord adds a formal charge: ‘Grant that we may both perceive and know what things we ought to do, and also may have the grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
Sermon for the Feast of St Luke 2015
18th Oct 2015
Sermon for St Luke’s Day
It is fitting that our healing service this morning takes place on St Luke’s Day. For we know that St Luke was a physician, and our opening prayer uses two phrases to tell us more about Luke. The first speaks of him as a physician, not only of the body but also ‘of the soul’. The other speaks of ‘the wholesome medicine of the Gospel’. In understanding these expressions we are faced with a very different kind of physician and a very different kind of medicine than the ones that we have become accustomed in the NHS. To admit to the life of the person as a ‘soul’ states something about us all that is not immediately obvious: that we find our life’s meaning only in relation to the God who gives us life. God, in other words, is our true nature. St Augustine once said of God: ‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”.
To admit to the Gospel of Christ as ‘medicinal’ is to allow for its power to sustain; to prove a life and to provide for its hope. This is a medicine which Luke the Gospel writer was to pour forth from the Christ who has ‘the words of eternal life’, another expression which we can only understand beyond the confines of our own experience of medical practice in the twenty first century. These expressions are either dead ones, stranded in the past and useless for our understanding in the present time, or they still speak the truth about us and about our human condition. It is not accidental that the bulk of the Christian Gospels was written by Luke, a man who was a ‘general practitioner’ in his own day, and one trained in the understanding not only of the human body but also of the human soul. For him, medicine and medical practice acknowledged the needs of the body just as it accepted a basic and sure understanding of the placing of the human body and soul within the context of time and eternity, between the ‘now’ of this life and the ‘for ever’ of God’s life beyond it.
Christians to this day similarly acknowledge the intimate relationship in our own lives between time and eternity. Sickness and dying is therefore placed in a different context from the one which would see them as medical problems. The role of pastoral and spiritual care can be seen at work in our hospital chaplaincies, where the care of the body and the soul do not exclude one another. It is heartening to know that even though financial constraints threaten hospital services and chaplaincies in particular, that the chaplaincies in the London Hospitals are providing a much needed and used service which acknowledges that the patient is more than a diagnosis or a treatment problem or indeed a ‘bed’ or an item of expenditure. A particular kind of care is being effected whose source is God. And this care is as we say ‘mainstream’ for our hospitals for the most part.
I know from recent experience that the calling of the priest to anoint my dying mother was as important a part of her care as was the so-called ‘end of life care plan’ in which the prescribing of strong and controlling drug treatments were to be the dominating feature. In that simple anointing ceremony was the realisation of the presence of the loving God and the establishment of God’s place in the life of this woman. It also brought into life the fact of this woman’s life-long faith in Christ with the strong response from the Church and with the assurance of past sins forgiven. It acknowledged the fact of the life’s journey with the journey still to be completed. It was a natural adieu.
This morning in this church we acknowledge the life of the soul with the wholesome medicine of the Christian Gospel as we are being offered Christ’s anointing for our own healing. When we acknowledge our own need for healing with God’s forgiveness we are at the same time admitting an eternal truth about ourselves; that a life may suffer real sickness if it does not find renewal from within itself and as Christians will say from the source of all life, God Himself. If there is for us no possibility for the renewal deep spiritual healing then the life of the soul remains ‘stopped up’. The Church proclaims the Rite of Anointing with the Laying on of hands with healing as a direct means of communication with the Christ who was Himself ‘raised up’ and who in turn may ‘raise us up’ to new life and new hope for the renewal for our lives.
On this Feast day of Luke, ‘The physician of the soul’ let us allow God’s own power to flow into us as we receive his healing power for our life and for the life of His Holy Church. Amen.
Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise,
Take my hands, and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love;
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee,
Take my voice, and let me sing
Always, only, for my King;
Take my lips, and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee,
Take my silver and my gold;
Not a mite would I withhold;
Take my intellect, and use
Every power as Thou shalt choose,
Take my will, and make it Thine;
It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart; it is Thine own;
It shall be Thy royal throne,
Take my love; my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure-store.
Take myself, and I will be
Ever, only, all for Thee,
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
11th Oct 2015
Nineteenth Sunday of Trinity
Everything is possible to God. Mark 10.27.
This morning’s Gospel reading continues to ask the same question. “Can I afford to be more generous?” The story of the rich young man appears to be one of the most straightforward and indeed the easiest to interpret. Jesus challenges the young man at the point of his greatest possessiveness. His wealth. And this is surely a story about the acquisition of money for its own sake and of greed? The reading and interpretation surely falls easily to hand? But the story has a more profound meaning: What might it mean to live the life we are made by God to live? The Gospel writer Mark places alongside finding and gaining material wealth the challenging idea of renouncing and of losing one’s self. It is with the idea of ‘unselfing’ rather than with that of calculated acquisition that life is made rich and productive and Godly. It is when we can give from within ourselves toward that which lies beyond ourselves the transformation of life in God’s image is made possible. For Christians, this is the basis of all our service in whatever capacity.
The rich young man enjoyed his time of spiritual ease. He came to Jesus as the religious dweller of a good post code. Churches are now growing across the world, containing congregations of great number, in which a new Gospel of ‘Rich is Godly’ is preached, while the minister might well own a private jet and is drive about in a limousine. There is seen to be no irony in this… He is a kind of hero. But his riches cut him off from himself. The rich young man lives in the spiritual equivalent of a gated community away and apart from the spiritual mainstream. Jesus stands before him as the presence and the voice of God. He lacks one thing, this young man : the spirit of self-emptying or unselfing. To ‘move on’ he needs to ‘move out’ and even to ‘get rid’.
London is one city which bounds many towns and villages, each with their own identity. It is like a giant patchwork quilt of differing communities, and you can get this delightful sense of wandering through districts as they appear to you in their distinctive character. There is much speculation about where and how these identities are located and where they meet; where and what is King’s Cross, where and what Bloomsbury, where and what the romantically sounding Fitzrovia. And the estate agents talk this up. They like to talk up easy access to the Brunswick Centre, with its ‘shopping opportunities’ and now the King’s Cross identity begins to take on a veneer of luxury living with mention of the St Pancras Chambers, the new 5* hotel. A cold and derelict tract of wasteland has been turned into a gleaming mini-metropolis. A London postcode for estate agents can tell you all you need to know about a distinct where WC1 sounds and means something different from NW1, as the Euston Road separates them and where this separation was once known as ‘The Dead Sea’. But inhabiting the fascinating patchwork of districts are countless lives being led, and all of them asking, whether they express it or not, deep and searching questions about the meaning of life and of its truer purpose: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is the great unuttered, unanswered prayer of modern life. Its exaction holds for us now just as it did for the rich young man.
Mark tells us that the rich young man went off ‘on his own way’. The story is left open ended. Did he or didn’t he sell what he owned to follow Jesus? The story suggests that he didn’t. We are told that he left ‘disconsolate’. Jesus had been the sun breaking through to illuminate the field of his dreams but it was felt as a bright obscuring light. It was the cold light of day, and more than the young man could bear. Christ’s command is not coercive, arguing the believer into a corner. No: ‘it knows of what we are made’ and expresses what is true to our existence and to the love of God. .
Finally, this story comments upon this offer of eternal life in the present by sticking on to it two post-it notes : the first that it is hard to see or to enter this Kingdom and to realise its beauty if you are ‘hurrying’ or ‘hankering’ after that which does not bring ‘eternal life’. Today’s gospel reading is a call to a radical and interior dispossession and a trust in what remains – a continuing call to enter into a relationship with him to manifest the true purposes of God in our lives and through us into the lives of others. Jesus tells us that ‘…everything is possible with God’. God can use our indifference, our desire to domesticate and tame him and use him for our own ends. He can use our weaknesses, our good and bad faith and our base passions and transform them. We are not as self-sufficient as we suppose. In fact it may be our brokenness and our vulnerability that brings us closer to the Kingdom of God than our self-possession. The gift was always greater and more valuable for its having been given. The gift was all the greater because given freely, not thinking of the self only.
How can it be possible to ‘sell all that we have?’; to take that risk on what might feel like self-annihilation. The One who knows is the teacher, the Saviour, Jesus Christ. He is the One who has gone ahead and died for us. He is the One who has made possible the transformation of our human condition as we look beyond ourselves to find ourselves - in Him!