Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
14th Oct 2018
Sermon for 20th Sunday of Trinity Year B
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Mark 10.18, 19.
Our Gospel reminds us that we like the disciples before us, are not only to understand or ‘see’ the Christian message but also respond to it in person. We are being called into a deeper relationship with God and ourselves and our world and this is not to be ignored or set aside distractedly. It is God and not ourselves who initiates that movement of faith which brings us closer to the Kingdom.
To begin the new millennium in London, in 2000, a landmark exhibition was staged at the National Gallery. The coming third millennium provided the opportunity for a celebration of Christian time, and the title of the exhibition ‘Seeing Salvation’ showed ways of seeing and realising the centuries old Christian witness through its best paintings.
The first of these paintings shown was to be was a startling and unusual one. It was a Spanish picture, painted in around 1630 by Francisco de Zurburan and depicting a lamb trussed and placed on a slab. The title of the painting, ‘Lamb of God’ or ‘Agnus Dei’ told you what you needed to know about the subject, whilst the lamb you saw had a halo above its head. The image of the lamb is moved the audience because it appealed directly to their sense of compassion.
Christian paintings have been important in helping us to understand some deep and complex theological truths. The Mona Lisa, The Light of the World, The Last Supper, The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…These images are generous. They give us the time and the space and allow our imagination to rest upon them and to feel them. They help to make difficult truths real and understandable for us. Words cannot convey the meaning that images can. And so what might seem a pathetically simple image, of a lamb bound and ready for slaughter (or sacrifice?) becomes one that speaks of a deep sense of mortality and of loss, but here bound inevitably to the life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Zurburan’s gaze and his intention is unrelenting and searching. It echoes the words of the Old Testament Reading from Isaiah, who spoke about a Messiah who would be a sacrificial lamb.
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53: 7-8)
Jesus is for ever the Lamb of God. We sing about every week in church at the Agnus Dei.
“Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi….” ”Lamb of god, who takes away the sins of the world….”
We have another ‘Lamb of God’ image in our stained glass window in this church, designed and made by Martin Travers in 1920. He created this image three hundred years after Zurburan and yet the message is still rather similar. Travers has the Christ in poor majesty wearing an amber coloured cloak and carrying a lantern, the light of the world, and this time the lamb is carried on his own shoulders. The lamb Jesus bears as the good shepherd also alludes to the lamb of sacrifice. His cloak is riven with thorns and nails. The Christ wears a crown of thorns, his hands bear the stigmata or wounds and a single tear appears out of the corner of his eye.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows? Isaiah 53.4
Today’s Gospel message is that it is not sufficient just to ‘see’ salvation. It also has to be acted upon. In our Gospel reading the paintings and their meaning are given owe a necessary debt to Christ’s teaching for a discipleship which is sacrificial. We understand this in terms of servanthood and service. If the saving death is sacrificial then the Christian action is also sacrificial. It is a radical message because it reverses accepted notions of status and rank. It calls us out of ourselves and toward the other. The rich young man goes away shocked and then depressed because though he obeys every bit of the law Jesus suddenly challenges him to sell all his possessions. We do not know whether he did so, only that he went away from Jesus disconsolate. It is by the way of self-giving that we lose ourselves to find ourselves. It is by costly self-giving that lives are transformed into God’s likeness. It is by these means that the Christian Church becomes Christian at all. Here is a twentieth century interpretation of these words by Dr Martin Luther-King:
“He (Jesus) transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, “Now brethren, I can’t give you greatness. And really, I can’t make you first.” This is what Jesus said to James and John. “You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favouritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared. Prepared to serve. ( Amen)
And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That’s a new definition of greatness.
The Church of Christ in the new third millenium must proclaim this ‘new definition of greatness’. But so that this proclamation doesn’t become two dimensional it must be a true proclamation which is continually informed and enriched and enlivened by that Christian vision of the Christ, the Lamb of God, the one who has known suffering and who is therefore able to contain it, transform it and bring it to its true fruition through forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of the self and the soul. The Church is to be one of the vital places where this service of self-giving is to be seen and known and trusted. It is the visible reminder of the Christian salvation at work, alive and active in those, like you and I, who have seen salvation and have now been called to act upon it, but not in our strength or will alone, but by God’s grace and through his mercy.
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
7th Oct 2018
THE NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF TRINITY YEAR B
‘God…for whom everything exists and through whom everything exists’.
Today is set aside for us to spend some time thinking about the creation. Our readings speak to us about God as our Creator. We are reminded that God ‘has given everything its place in the world, and no one can make it otherwise’. Never before have the questions surrounding the created order and the earth’s manner of survival been more urgently sought and expressed with the effects of global warming, deforestation and the spending of irreplaceable fossil fuels. These represent permanent losses. They are very uncomfortable realities because they challenge our sense of place as inhabitants of planet earth. They challenge us to become more aware of our true place in the created order and to a recognition of our proper responsibilities. If we bear within ourselves the likeness of God then so does our earth and now it seems we are witnesses to its becoming scarred and diseased. For Christians this offers the reminder that we inhabit this earth and we see it as God’s creation. It seems we must care.
It is possible to crack open a piece of unpromising rock and to gaze upon the skeleton of an animal that lived on this planet 500 million years ago. This is truly awesome! Charles Darwin gazed in awe but also came to a scientific conclusion: he realised that the created order was in a continual state of becoming and adapting, and that each species grew and changed according to its environment, and it grew and changed over impossible stretches of time. It was therefore possible to trace the origins of Man’s existence back through millions of years of development from ape-like creatures. Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ rocked the certainties of the Victorian Christian mind-set. It lay bare, like that 500 million year old skeleton, a reality that was raw and uncomfortable and yet strangely awesome. The foundations of the thinking about who you were and where you had come from were well and truly shaken. The questions of our existence were bigger and tougher than anyone had ever thought possible. But nonetheless this new science did not shake the minds of those who, through faith in God, were seeing the world from a deeper perspective and that our existences were not to be explained by science but understood it and through the light of faith in the Creator, God.
The language of ‘Genesis’ a name which signifies the tracing of our origins, speaks of where these true origins lie. And when we have traced the outline of our origins in God, we discover one thing about our existence and its meaning : that we are not the sole providers of our existence. We can work out how things are but there remain many unanswered questions about why we are here, who we are, and what we are in relation to one another. These questions belong uniquely to the human race, and they are questions which remain only partially answered. There are questions we ask ourselves which only find their answer through the passage of time. Life presents itself as factual (remember ‘The Facts of Life’) and yet it is also mysterious and strange. Even the person we know and love the most can seem a mystery to us at times. What would human existence feel like if in our relations with one another there were some complete kind of knowing? It wouldn’t somehow be human, would it, even with artificial intelligence!? Likewise human existence cannot be explained away in a theory. St Paul reminds us of this in his ringing hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 that,
“Now we see through a glass darkly, but then, face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood”.
If the proof for all human living is not exacted out of mere scientific enquiry but emerges out of God, then we come to see things in a new perspective. It echoes the words of George Herbert’s famous hymn ‘Teach Me, My God and King:
A Man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth through it pass
And then the heaven espy.
It offers a way of describing the Christian Vision which are offers a deeper sense of things, drawn not from reason but from contemplation. There is much that cannot be certified or proved. So much must be understoood other than just the provable. The Christian way of seeing things is a special way of seeing. It is a kind of sustained gaze, a sustained examination and contemplation of things so that in this seeing, ordinary understanding may deepen faith.
There has been one rare example of a person who managed to convey this deeper things in his own manner of living. St Francis, whose feast day we celebrated a few days ago, is important to Christians as a radical. As a child I remember our church and its statue of St Francis stroking the feared wolf of Gubbio, the one he had tamed. St Francis was for any child a favourite saint because of his love of animals and of the natural order. But underlying this was Francis’ gift of seeing and experiencing the natural order as bearing the likeness and the love of God. He was intensely aware that written into the created order was the image, the imprint of the divine likeness. He often gave the earth’s elements a gender as in ‘brother earth, sister moon’ because for him an experience of creation could only be a deeply personal experience. Where there is deep prayer so there is a certain sensitivity to the fine details of our created order. As you looked upon the creation, care for it, and learn to love it, you are in a sure way at one with its Creator. This is a spiritual response.
For Francis this went further, to acts of charity to the poor, the homeless and the hopeless which were encounters with the divine love as it was found in Jesus Christ. This was a putting into action that Christian vision which made God real and apparent in the present. In such an exchange God could be known and recognised for his own sake. He could be made visible. This was an incarnating of the love of God in a way which was recognisable. It was radical because it was uncompromising. And it is still radical. The call we still have, centuries later is the one in which through our own acts and decisions we can make God real in and with and through the One who has made all things as the writer of the Hebrews puts it in our second reading ’God’…’for whom everything exists and through whom everything exists’.
Let us make a pledge in this Eucharist. As in our worship we give ‘worth-ship- to God, so too may we give ‘worth-ship’ to those all those with whom we have contact and to all those we have to deal, so that God may prove indeed to be our ‘all in all’. For God is no theory, he is as real as you are and as our world is.