Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity
24th Sep 2017
Sermon for 15th Sunday after Trinity Year A
Christ will be glorified in my body, whether by my life or by my death. Philippians 1.20.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross has roots that go back as far as the fourth century. No less a person than St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine was a woman ahead of her time. She made the great journey from Rome to The Holy Land, and had teams of people excavate the site of the little hill in Jerusalem, believed to be the place of crucifixion. Legend had it that three crosses were unearthed, and a large church was built over the sacred site. The Church of the Holy Sepulcre remains there to this day. The wonder of this piece of history is that The Emperor’s mother, three centuries after the death of Christ, should have been an such an ardent Christian and amazingly, an archaeologist. The larger point is something that we must admit. This is what theologians call ‘the scandal of particularity’ in relation to the life of Christ. He was born at a certain time and in a certain place. The same stones which surrounded Jesus two hundred centuries ago can still be seen and touched today. The same terrain and horizons, beckon, with the city of old Jerusalem sloping down toward the temple and the deep Kidron Valley, over which Christ wept over the city.
The most shocking aspect of this ‘scandal of particularity’ is the means and manner of Jesus’ death on the cross. It really was like this, that the Lord of life should die should an ignominious death. How strange in a way that people wear the Cross, the instrument of human torture, around their necks. How odd it is today that you can reach the hill of Golgotha even by a short cut which leads you through a shop selling meat and spices, and trace old passages and which bring you to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcre and then into to a small community of Ethiopian Orthodox monks, whose poor, bare cells inhabit the roof space. The feeling of disclocation is very much with you as you trace these routes around what was once called Golgotha, and at the same time commune with the Christ of faith.
For Jonah in our first reading it is the dislocation of knowing that the being and the mind of God lies beyond anything he can possibly fathom and yet God is close and loving. It ill behoves us as Christians who call ourselves ‘Christian Church’ to suppose that we have somehow domesticated God, fixed Him or put him in a kind of box. For God shows Jonah is beyond any attempt we might make to place him, or identify him as a kind of Christian formula. And yet God is Jonah’s closest friend, because he knows him better than he knows himself and still holds out his love for him. Despite all human signs to the contrary, Jonah is the one whom God has chosen to love and to call. His calling is particular and sure.
This sense of powerful calling is taken up in the second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul is writing this letter from prison. In it he meditates upon his own life and death. The dislocation for him is the one which makes him feel that Christ has overcome the ancient superstition which separates life from death. The Incarnation is about our life and death. For Paul, to live is Christ and to die gain. But while this might seem high-flown rhetoric, Paul is realistic, resigned and philosophical about the life he must leave, with all its responsibilities and duties. His dislocation is presented as a dilemma which will not have its resolution in this world. This is echoed in Hamlet’s speech ‘…to be or not to be…?
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.1
Our Holy Gospel tells of the workers in the vineyard who started work at different times but who each a paid a denarius. Here Jesus presents us with another part of the dislocation. This is the one in which the effect of our own calculated judgements about our status and worth is thwarted by the God who is other than what we might make him out to be. Rather like Jonah. We does not need to worry or fret about these things. Where there is dislocation, there also has to place, which for us is God’s Way, that offering of worship in which we are leads us to know ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as Blessed John Henry Newman put it. We are in this Eucharist being nourished by his presence. God reveals himself and gives himself to us in this Eucharist as fully as he imparted his presence and grace to Jonah and to St Paul. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard Jesus points the way, through the labyrinthine paths of the wanderings of the mind and heart and will, to Christ himself, and in being surely led to Christ and called into his service.
For Paul in prison, this must mean that he is passionately and joyfully resigned to whatever life, or rather God, might have in store for him. For Jonah, this must mean he must continue to hold faith in the God who remains above and beyond anything or anyone that can be imagined. For both these men these are no mere factual observations. They emerge out of a faith which accepts the particulars of life while holding to the God who reveals himself to them through ‘the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to…’.
This week I have seen the same film, ‘Victoria and Abdul’ twice. In it Queen Victoria befriends a Moslem servant, who brings to her life a refreshment and girlish joy so lacking in her court life and her duties as Queen Empress. In one scene she berates her existence as an old woman who is sick and sorrowful, anxious, power driven and saddened and depressed by life. What to do and where to turn. The servant Munshi Abdul reminds her that all these things are there, but they are as nothing to the call to not waste time worrying and fretting about these things in a depressive way, but to continue on our way obedient to the call of service, the reaching beyond ourselves to find ourselves. This is what, after all, lies in the message of the Cross of Christ. Jesus is the One who went willingly unto death, passing through and beyond all the arguments that might have prevented him from achieving it. In his obedience to the Father’s will he makes the once and for all and vital disclosure of God’s love. In turn this is a revelation of the kind of faith which is required of us. It must surely be a faith which can withstand the tests that both time and chance and dictate. It must be a faith which has not domesticated or put into a place of convenience that same God who is at one and the same time both known to us and yet importantly beyond our knowing. This is the place where we find the God of our beginning and our true end, our life and death. “Christ will be glorified in my body”, Paul says ….”….whether by my life or by my death”.
Let it be for us, too…
Saint Teresa of Avila
Lines Written in Her Breviary
Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee
All things are passing;
God never changeth;
Attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth
In nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth.
—H. W. Longfellow (translator).
Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
17th Sep 2017
Sermon for The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
Peter went up to Jesus and said “How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?” Matthew 18.21
The question Peter puts to Jesus concerning forgiveness is a piercing one; it startles. Peter knows that there is a whole lot of difference between token forgiveness and the kind of forgiveness which comes from the heart : the forgiveness which transforms and renews our humanity. He will one day be in need of such forgiveness from Jesus Himself. Peter makes mention of ‘seven times’ and ‘seventy times seven’ and of how many times we must forgive… The very mention of these numbers, the latter signalling an infinite amount of forgivenesses, presses in upon the mind, and invites us to consider the kind of active forgiveness which is presented to us in the sacrificial life of Christ. We need to think long and carefully on these things. We might think that there seems to be two ways only we can follow, both in opposite directions. One is the way of stubborn self-justification and the other living that part of The Lord’s Prayer which asks that God forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. One turns inward - the heart and mind pickled in aspic, and the other responds to the hope of new life, the mark of the influence of Christ, and demands moral bravery.
Rowan Williams, The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a book ‘Written in the Dust’ about his own experiences of evacuating a dust filled building in Manhattan amid the terror of 9/11. This book carries with it a plea for “language that brings into the world something other than self-defensiveness,” language — or maybe silence — that creates (and the author knew from being on the scene how paradoxical was this chosen image) a “breathing space.” And this is the place where understanding and forgiveness can emerge. Understanding always begets forgiveness. It exists as a breathing space… Peter’s recall to the forgiveness to the mark of ‘seventy times seven’ opens up such a breathing space because it recalls the infinite love of God with a human willingness to understand only God can bring together that which has been separated and alienated.
Into the breach of these thoughts for me come the figures of two priests. The first was a 68 year old Franciscan Priest and Chaplain on 9/11 to The New York Fire Brigade. He died from falling masonry and dust inhalation. He was labelled ‘victim 001’. His name was Fr Michal Judge. A photograph was taken of New York firemen carrying his body away from the scene of death in an improvised stretcher rather like a hammock. It is a powerful image because it reminds the Christian so much of the deposition from the Cross. But the photograph is also an icon for the priest on duty, the one who was doing only what he was meant to do, the one who died doing what a priest in such a situation would do: anointing the dead. He had written in his journals his many inner struggles; not least as not being able to express his fuller humanity in the course of his duties. The presence of Fr Michal in this terrible scene, and among so many other helpers, points us to the place of ordinary, deep humanity which brings hope even while the terrible fall-out is suffered. It is this kind of deep humanity which is being demanded of us as God’s Church. It is the action which challenges the world to be a better place in the manner and the meaning of its truer existence. It is the action of the forgiveness seventy times seven in the re-making and re-instatement of the good.
We have in this church over the past eighteen months been praying for another priest, Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, a Catholic priest from Kerala, India, who was captured by ISIS terrorists and has this week been released. Father Uzhunnalil was kidnapped on March 4, 2016 from a home for the aged and disabled run by the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, Yemen. Four of those Missionaries of Charity and 12 others were murdered in the attack. Father Uzhunnalil was rescued last week by Omani authorities “in coordination with the Yemeni parties. Recalling his time in captivity, Fr Tom told Pope Francis last week that although he was unable to celebrate Mass, “every day, I would repeat to myself, in my heart, all the words of the celebration. Father Uzhunnalil said he continues to pray for all those who have been spiritually close to him, particularly for the four nuns and 12 people murdered when he was abducted.
In all the bewilderment that this priest must have felt, the powerlessness and the deprivation and uncertainly, his faith proved to be a reconciling one, one which was not wasted in negativity, but always keeping to that which he was taught, The Christian faith. He was able to offer his condition in prayer for the life of the Church and in thankfulness and solidarity with his fellow workers, many of them already dead. This is the triumph of God’s grace over despair and the true response to the forgiveness seventy times seven. God’s power being made perfect in the powerless state, the one which, beyond all calculation and self-regard, of blame and resentment, determines to be an agent of God’s transforming grace. Let us be determined to show that we can, in our own way and by remaining faithful to our Christian calling, be agents of that same grace, too…
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
10th Sep 2017
The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“Love is the answer to every one of the commandments”. Romans 13.10
It is so important to proclaim the existence of The Church as a community of the faithful which is not-self-selecting. When we read from St Paul’s Letter to The Romans, we understand this to mean that all Romans were being addressed. All the people, no matter where they were coming from. It is never a Letter written to a select group. The genius of St Paul lay in his ability to communicate to the largest number of people while remaining true to the basic meaning of the Christian Gospel. The language he uses is direct and basic. What binds the Church together from within itself is no secret or complex set of religious rules. ‘Love’ he says is to be the Church’s meaning and the true mark of its identity. And once he declares this to be so then he lays a great demand upon his listeners everywhere. For there can be no love among us unless there is self-examination and repentance, and the awareness of our own need for healing. God’s intention is sure, and in this is offered Christ’s mercy and the promise of newness of life and the refreshment of our relation both with ourselves and God.
The preeminent ministry of Jesus Christ, the mission given Him by God the Father, was the ministry of reconciliation. To be a Christian is to live in that ministry of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. Forgiveness and healing doesn’t say that there was no sin. It doesn’t excuse hurt or sin. What it does do is heal us. And this is the task we are to set for ourselves as God’s Church. The recognition and the obedience of the call to be active reconcilers. And the best way of understanding the call to reconciliation is to see Christ as the One who takes into himself energies of all different kinds, many of them malevolent, distorted and vain, and through his own being transforms these energies into the good and the true. In human terms, this movement must derive from our own willingness in to be honest with ourselves and honest to God. We must not see our neighbour as a barrier to our own attempts to assert ourselves and our desires apart form them.
Certainly, given the times in which we live, that ways of healing and reconciliation are desperately needed, both in our personal lives, in our national life, and globally as well. If you want to know what God's will is for you, it all begins with the power that Jesus is giving us. The ministry of reconciliation is clearly and centrally God's will for you and for me. We are called to love. And we are called to forgive. Not just as a community of believers, but also as a community of mankind.
2 Corinthians 5:18-20
King James Version (KJV)
And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.
Some time ago, I attended a meeting in the Town hall at which two hundred Camden folk were gathered in the aftermath of riots in Hackney. The meeting was marked by contributions from police, politicians and community leaders. It gave different constituents time and space to express their general opinions and grievances concerning our modern society and life in this part of London. There didn’t seem to be a consensus as to what was really wrong; whether blame should be attached to the parents, the looters, the rioters themselves, or the state of our society. And there was a vital ingredient missing in the debate. This was some comment on how people behave if they have no recourse to those moral, spiritual and hopeful influences which enrich and inform an inner life. And particularly, I mean the influence of an active and hopeful faith. One of the tenets of the Twelve step Alcoholics Anonymous is that “I will give my life over to a power greater than myself”. Though this does not explicitly mention God, Christians know this to be the case.
They know it not just as a piece of knowledge, but in the person and the love of Jesus Christ. What the meeting did and perhaps could not address was the question of what a person looks like when they have abandoned any hope in a living, loving God. When this happens a vital dimension in the human experience is lost – the need to ask for and to receive forgiveness. The need to ‘tell it like it is’ and to confess our sins. The need to worship and to acknowledge that power ‘greater than myself’. To acknowledge that we are creatures made in the likeness and being of our Creator. To see the influence of Christ in the life of the world and to enjoy his presence for its own sake. All these elements are healing and reconciling elements. They give shape and body and inner wisdom to lives which without them are fragile shells, falling prey to hopelessness and then where inner disquiet is great, even to violence against their neighbour.
The message this morning is of a love which beckons us in and which draws us together. It is a reconciling love because it demands we see God both as He is and in our neighbour; who is made not in our image but in the image of their maker. Only then do we begin to experience the fullness, the abundance and the plurality of God’s love. Only then can we recognise our neighbour for the persons they really are.
So then, as we approach the Lord’s altar this morning, let us pray for a deepening of love — love for the Lord, and love for the gifts He has given to us, including those neighbours He has placed into our care. Let us pray for a continual re-awakening of that spiritual facility, coming from God, from which love expresses itself from source and from which God’s love can be expressed. Let us never lose sight of the gift of love from the original giver, God Himself….
St Augustine’s Confessions Chapter 10, 27:
Too late have I loved Thee, 0 Beauty so ancient and so fresh; too late have 1 loved Thee! For behold Thou wert within me, and 1 outside; and 1 sought Thee outside and in my unloveliness fell upon those lovely things that Thou hast made. Thou wert with me and 1 was not with Thee. I was kept from Thee by those things, yet had they not been in Thee, they would not have been at all. Thou didst call and cry to me to break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and 1 drew in my breath and did not pant for Thee: 1 tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace.