Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
1st Oct 2017
A Sermon for The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
Be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind. Philippians 2.3
Some time ago I attended two separate but complimentary events. The first was a Roman Catholic Mass in celebration of The Sisters of Mercy and for the anniversaries of the life vows of two of our sisters who work in the parish locally as ‘women at the well’. The second was a book launch. An old priest friend of mind has just published a book reflecting on a Christian mystical work named ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ whose anonymous writer does not mince words:
For I tell you this: one loving, blind desire for God alone is more valuable in itself, more pleasing to God and to the saints, more beneficial to your own growth, and more helpful to your friends, both living and dead, than anything else you could do.
Both parties expressed the need to balance an active with a contemplative life. This is to live the balanced inner life which can adapt to what the old prayer book called the ‘changes and chances of this fleeting world’. And in the medieval period there was a sudden upsurge in a movement toward this contemplative way, in which ordinary, active life includes, as part of ‘one loving blind desire for God’ the prayer of the heart. Figures such as Mother Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton and Marjory Kempe were writing down their experiences of contemplative prayer in the emerging English language made popular by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales. Their passion for God was earthed the in their everyday lives, that is in their ordinariness. Their piety was not otherworldly and affected. These were earthy figures and not plaster saints. Margery Kempe was plagued by sexual temptation and ran a brewery! The author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ is clearly a ‘tough cookie’, Julian of Norwich has survived a life-threatening illness and the Last Rites of the Dead and had plenty of life wisdom. It is to these people, honest in their view of themselves and yet rugged seekers after God, who startle us with their spiritual witness. Here is Margery Kempe:
She greeted the Vicar, asking him if she could—in the afternoon, when he had eaten—speak with him for an hour or two of the love of God. He, lifting up his hands and blessing himself, said, “Bless us! How could a woman occupy one or two hours with the love of our Lord? I shan’t eat a thing till I find out what you can say of our Lord God in the space of an hour.”
Through live experience, these very English mystics have passed on pieces of Christian wisdom hammered out of hard and struggling lives. Jesus refers to such individuals in this morning’s Gospel when he tells us that many surprising individuals are entering the Kingdom of God before the wise, the pious and the all-knowing. Our Christianity is always predicated on ordinary life, but we must wake up to the fact and the presence of God or deny Him.
This morning’s parable of the two brothers is the simplest and shortest of all parables. Jesus uses it to harangue the crowd of whom some have been apathetic followers, blind and stubborn in their unbelieving towards John the Baptist. He tells them, shockingly, that tax-collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before they do. Not only does Jesus say that the roots of their supposed faith have no depth. He declaims them in favour of rank sinners and outsiders. The meaning of the Incarnation, of Jesus coming in the flesh, is to make physical and plain the true purposes of his being as God in human form, and his is a wake-up call. The Christian calling is for us to become most truly alive. And to be truly alive is to be alive in the true likeness of God in what we are and what we are made to become. For we are God’s creatures, made in his own likeness; made to find our life’s true reconciliation in Him. We must not neglect such a gift!
In Carl Jung's psychology, what he calls metanoia indicates a spontaneous attempt of the psyche to heal itself of unbearable conflict by melting down and then being reborn in a more adaptive form. This is the very issue that Jesus addresses in this small parable. Of the Christian calling to adapt to the ways of God’s love, to be open to the possibility of adaptation and change. The two brothers both reveal different parts of our nature – the one active and responsive and the other sluggish, and careless. Jesus awakens us to the possibility of contemplative communion with God for the transformation of our minds and hearts.
Today, there is more need than ever for us to live life which contains a contemplative element, so that life does not blow us apart. It is necessary for us to find our own still centre. ‘ In every human heart there is a God-shaped space’ said Cardinal Hume. There are many groups set up in London to help you to embrace that process. And I am most willing to put anyone interested into the way of these life-saving, contemplative, prayerful groups, which engage more closely with the Word of God and strive to be more responsive to what God may be saying in their lives.
In this respect we either grow, we respond to God’s grace going before us in the ordinary and the everyday, or not bother at all, in which case, as for the refusal of love, a vital part of us actually dies…