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).