Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
15th Sep 2019
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday of Trinity Year C
I received mercy, so that in me…Christ might display the utmost patience. 1 Timothy 1 15.
On this day, when we prepare for our Patronal Festival and the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, we should remember something very significant. And it is this : that there was a time during the first three centuries of the Church when the Cross was not its central sign. It was thought that the suffering and dying Christ on the Cross was too dreadful and sad and shocking a sign for would-be converts. Instead the dominant image was of Christ the Good Shepherd, and there is a wall painting in one of the Roman catacombs which is dated 250 AD which has Christ with the sheep around his neck and carrying a bucket. Christ is represented as a kind of second David, the clean shaven young shepherd who became Israel’s first King. But this image proved to be inadequate. Once the Church had suffered and lost many of its followers to martyrdom it became evident that The Cross and its message of the saving death of Christ had become by far the most meaningful symbol for the Church. The Cross was of deeper significance because it spoke not only of a bond of pastoral love and attentive care but of a love which through the crucifixion had broken down the barrier which separated life from death. It was an image which carried with it a whole raft of human emotions and weight. Above all, it was a hopeful sign because it carried the weight of human sin and failure with it. It was a potentially transforming sign because in the death of Christ on the Cross was considered life giving. The Cross was the mark, the means by which Man was restored to God the Father through the life-giving sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. It was a sign of hope over defeat, of life beyond death, of sacrificial love and its outpouring. St Paul will remind us that,
…now, in Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought close by the blood of Christ. So you are no longer aliens or foreign visitors, you are citizens like all the saints, and part of God’s household. Ephesians 2.19.
When Luke writes about Christ as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, we are reminded of the interdependence of human relationships : all of us are to be involved in the shepherding of one another. God is endlessly compassionate. He is after all, love. He does not just display the qualities of love. He IS love, and as love does not love partially or particularly. His love is for all humankind. And this love is not static but one which is full of life and promise, one which seeks out the lost. The three ‘lost and found’ examples Luke gives us are The Prodigal Son, The Woman with the Lost Coin, and the Shepherd and the Lost Sheep. Luke is describing an experience of the love of God as the discovery of something unexpected – the finding of new and transforming life in an experience of the love of God. The recourse to the old and much loved image of the good shepherd is very apt here. I say this because one of the greatest tests for The Christian Church lies in the call to seek out the lost, the ignored, the despised and the rejected and to offer them the love of God which is the shepherd who bothers, sacrifices his time and goes out of his way to seek out the lost sheep and to bring them home.
The images of the Cross and the Good Shepherd both have one thing in common. They both speak powerfully of the need for our reconciliation with God, and if with God, then with one another. The Church exists for the healing of humankind, for the mending of broken lives and for the bringing about of that oneness with God which was once lost and now can be found in Him. The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ in all itself power and healing, is the sign of the good shepherd, crucified once and for all, and able to reveal to us in all its scope and depth, the outpouring of God’s mercy to us all, both inside and beyond anything we can confine or confound.
Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
8th Sep 2019
Twelfth Sunday after Trinity Year C 2019
“None of you can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions”. Luke 14.33
Our understanding of the life and death of Jesus Christ lies in a key Greek word ‘kenosis’ which allows us to understand the whole offering of his life as a self-emptying, servant one. In Paul’s Letter to the Philemon we have a moving account of how Paul, even while a prisoner in chains, is prepared to send away his most beloved and trusted helper for the good of the Church. And he describes this helper as ‘a part of his own self’. In Christian terms, we come to understand the relationship between the offering of love with the bearing of burdens and the renunciation of self that comes with it. No love was ever real without the life of love being in the words of a Shakespeare sonnet ‘borne out even unto the end of time’.
It is within this context that the challenge to give up our possessions is being made. And the example of Christ carries with it a call for us to take stock of what we possess and how we possess, what we use and how we use it, and what we seek to possess apart from those considerations of how this will affect our relations with others. And this is seen in the rise of a 21st century call to be responsible as consumers for the life and the health of the planet. More than ever, my actions, and the way I consume, effects the life of the planet and of my fellow men and women. The reach is global and communal. The self-emptying of Christ is not just an individual act on his part, but one which has a direct bearing upon the life of the world. And the call to dispossess lies side by side with the call for live more communally and less selfishly.
My first teacher’s name was Caroline (or as I later came to know her) ‘Carrie’ Peat. Miss Peat, who told us wonderful stories, gave us months old sweets from an old glass jar if one of us deserved commendation, awarded us sticky coloured or even silver or gold stars, and who went to church. This same Miss Peat would, we all knew, walk miles to church, come rain or shine, well into her early eighties. Never failing, walking with the elements. A woman who had remained a single, who lived alone, and walked to church, and yet a bright, shining, faithful and serving spirit. And I can see her walking as a prayer of active service and as an act of heroism. Walking in all weather, sometimes in driving rain.
The teaching of Christ comes to us through the energy and the example and the meaning of his own self-emptying, and calls us to that same willingness to offer the whole self to God in worship and service and not just the remnants of our nervous energy.
Some time ago, I read a ‘Times’ headline which said “Religious leaders say prayers as glacier begins to slip away”. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Shinto and Jewish leaders had offered joint prayers from a ship moored a few hundred yards from a huge glacier in the Arctic Circle, the probable source of the iceberg which sank the ‘Titanic’, and which is now melting, moving continually at 2 mph southwards and a powerful symbol of the speed at which global warming is advancing. It seems strange to say prayers over a melting glacier but of course something else is going on here. The melting glacier speaks to us of the planet. Our earth also remains unbelievably beautiful and we have learnt to love it and even call her ‘Mother’. The prayers are said for us to wake up; to accept a renewed responsibility for what we consume and how we consume it, and of how we relate to ourselves in relation to the world around us. Time has proved us poo custodians of the natural earth and this must be accepted, too.
Lying at the heart of Jesus teaching is the call to dispossess ourselves of those things whose possession limits our own lives and the life of the wider community. The self-emptying of Christ is no empty gesture, but is vital to our understanding of human interrelationship and interdependence – he gives himself so that we might have fullness of life in one another. In the dispossession, the letting go, the self-emptying, lies the pathway into renewal of life; of the finding in the giving away of these things the experience of a new kind of freedom. We stop being merely consumers of goods and become instead active contributors to the life of the world which sustains us.
We can only truly possess in life what we have learnt to dispossess. This is what scripture tells us. Here lies one of the many paradoxes which belong to a Christian understanding of life. It is brought to us in the self-emptying Christ, It becomes ‘the pearl of great price’ and ‘the treasure hidden in earthen vessels’. These, it is suggested, are to be bought at a different cost and in a different market. They belong to what is lasting and ultimately, real. “None of you”, says Jesus, “can be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions”.
Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
1st Sep 2019
Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity Year C
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted”. Luke 14.10.
It is six years since the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney died. The Irish Prime Minister at the time Enda Kenny commented that “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as people”. He was a Catholic Irishman from Londonderry and yet he was every Irishman. A citation he was given in 1995 for The Nobel Prize for Literature read “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”. Our former poet laureate, Andrew Motion commented that to read Heaney’s poetry was to “feel the benediction of his kindness”. .
Only a humble man could be given such accolades. Only someone, who spoke the truth, as we understand it in its most profound sense. One of the strains that the Brexit debate puts upon us is that we don’t quite feel we are being told the truth but only various forms of half truth. In today’s Gospel we are given the simple figure of the instruction in humility. It is the parable of the invitation to the wedding banquet and with it two pieces of advice, the first one is to the guest to take the lowest seat, so that he may be called higher. Secondly there is the advice to the host, instructing him to invite those he would never imagine inviting, the poor, the lame and the blind; in other words beggars who could not re-pay the invitation in kind. On its own the parable would be quaint were it not for the context in which it is being delivered. Related as it is to the life of Christ and his Gospel message, it becomes for the Church a parable for Christian behaviour.
The earthly banquet equates to the heavenly banquet as the occasion which sees the gathering in of those who have been invited to the feast, the place in which the divine and the human life finds its place of understanding and rest. But this parable also has ‘teeth’. For when Jesus teaches the values of the Kingdom, and where this parable points to the quality of humility, so a strong and searching light is cast on those types of behaviour where human pride is to the fore, and where there is recourse to take, if needs be by an act of greed, or force or vanity, the higher place where we may assert our own right to be ‘on top’, our own privileged place of right, maybe at the expense of others or of wisdom.
The death of a great poet is a powerful sign for our own times. Only a life of deep reflection is capable of recognising that which is most profoundly true. It was Bishop Richard Holloway of Edinburgh instructed Christians “to live the examined life, which tests itself for its own prejudices”. At least know how many times we get things so wrong. We judge, we misunderstand we turn our backs on all kind and generous thought where it does not suit us. It is useless to gain our own kind of knowledge divorced from the lives of others whom we barely know. The invitation to the wedding fast speaks of the inclusion of those who would normally be excluded, air brushed out of things. Only a Heaney could put all this into poetry, which has at its core a language which speaks of the heart and what lies at the heart of things.
The word ‘humility’ signifies a very grounded closeness to Mother earth. It relates to the Latin word ‘humus’ meaning earth. It is not the false humility which is full of itself. As a farmer’s son, Seamus Heaney had the soil of Ireland in his finger nails, and rather than rail against the Northern Ireland conflict, which was at its height when Heaney was writing, he used the image of the thousand years old bodies, dug up in Irish bogs, to write about time and the consequences of the living out of time.
He once said he had ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head’ whenever politics was discussed. Though he left the countryside and taught English first in Belfast and then in Dublin as a young man, he did not forget his farming roots. He fondly remembered watching his grandfather cutting turf for peat, and taking a bottle of milk to the old man who would straighten up just long enough to drink it before bending over his spade again. He pictured himself working in the same way, digging out words with the nib of his pen.
This for me this is humility. Heaney was a great believer in what he called ‘learning by heart’. Especially learning poems by heart. And the Christian Faith lays great store on the heart as the place for all our decision-making. Humility is the ground, the grounded place. It is the place where lies our true centre and personal, spiritual and moral equilibrium, our sense of balance and perspective and our true humanity. It is the place where we may ‘learn by heart’. .0
When Jesus teaches the values of the Kingdom of God on this earth, his is leading where the poet follows with the learning of the essential and wise things ‘by heart’, the leading of the deeply active/reflective life, the weighing of words and elements and the wonder at their meaning and depth.
“The things of God are very deep and we must go (dig) deep to find them
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.
The Kingdom is that place where life itself, wherever it goes on, whether as kind or brutal is in God always waiting for its own transformation into his likeness and being. Waiting for that which belonged to Heaney, ‘of the benediction of God’s kindness’.