Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
20th Jan 2019
The Wedding feast at Cana.
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory. John 2.11
This holy season of Epiphany contains a natural kind of exuberance, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. For Epiphany is the coming into being of Christ as the glorious manifestation of power and presence. Outward and seemingly ordinary events become charged with the presence of the Creator God and burst into life. The Baptism of Christ which we observed last week was accompanied by the opening of the heavens and the voice of God crying ‘This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased’. We understand the Season of Epiphany as the beginning of several epiphanies or glorious manifestations. The coming of Jesus Christ as our Saviour has its own unstoppable momentum,
You go to my head,
And you linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning round in my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.
Writers Teddy Randazzo, Bobby Weinstein.
You may think this champagne image a bit frivolous, until you realize that today’s Epiphany happening, the turning of the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, is the first of Christ’s miracles. And because it is the first miracle it has great significance for the Christian Church in the manifestation of God’s glory. It comes to us in the writing of Archbishop Michael Ramsey:
The glory of God is the living man
And the life of man is the vision of God.
St Irenaeus, inscribed on Archbishop Ramsey’s gravestone.
Christ’s life is to be our example, and it is to be a life lived to the full, brimmed full of expensive and exuberant love. It is to be a life of intimate connectedness and friendship and personal understanding and generosity. And this is revealed, sensationally, at the Cana wedding feast in the miraculous supply of wine. This is Christ’s epiphany as loving provider and life giver, or in the words of one of modern hymns, as ‘The Lord of the Dance’. “I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance,” said he... The psalmist puts it in more elevated terms when he says “With you, O God is the fountain of life, and by your light we see light”. (36, 7b,8). God is the fountain of life and the waters of life dance to the tune of his voice. He is, before all else, a life giver.
Parties of whatever kind, and specially wedding parties, where members of different families are meeting in an intimate atmosphere as strangers, need some social ‘oiling’ to get them going. In one of Alan Bennett’s plays, ‘Single Spies’, none other than our Queen Elizabeth II is featured, and we overhear a conversation that she’s having with the curator of her paintings. ‘Of course’ she says dryly, ‘When I meet people they’re always on their best behaviour, and when people are at their best they are invariable at their worst, and this is so fatiguing...’ The provision of good wine or drink is both an emollient, an ice-breaker, and also an act of celebration in itself, a toast to the bride and groom.
In the wedding feast at Cana, we are being given us a foretaste of the life that he has come to bring. His ministry is to be intimately bound up with the lives of those around him, and he is to promise his followers as he promises us in this Eucharist, not just life, but life in its fullness. His and our cup of life through the Holy Spirit is to run over, and promise deep and unspeakable joy.
In Christ we have fullness of experience at the earthly level. The fount of life is also the God who refreshes us within the very heart of ourselves, and warms our hearts with his gracious and generous love. There is no part of our lives that cannot be loved back into union with ourselves, with others and with God. However stubbornly we play dead with those parts of our nature that need healing, God beckons us into loving union with him through the life of his Church. This is why the Church has been referred to as ‘the bride of Christ’ : The Wedding Feast at Cana speaks of Christ’s willingness to espouse his ministry to the guests then and to us now, as he calls you and I into union with our maker. The only joy worth having is the joy of union with the Creator, and not with artificial substitutes.
Christ meets us and we meet him in this Eucharist, and as we say our prayers to God here and elsewhere and as we continue our journey in the Christian Faith, and as we encounter God here we become aware too that there is a joy to be experienced which lies beyond momentary pleasure or satisfaction. There is a life to be lived which takes us beyond existence for its own sake. We have, after all come to church because we know that this deeper, richer seam of life is available to us in the worship of the Church and in union with Christ. We are living not for ourselves alone but for him who gave himself for us. For Him who reconnects us and our lives with our Maker. With him who, even though we still have to struggle with all that life throws at us, nonetheless is our ’all in all’.. It is in Christ that God can, in us, accomplish more than we can imagine or ask. And the sign that this joy, this glory, is present, is a sure one. As Isaiah says to us in this morning’s OT reading, “As the bridegroom rejoices in the bride, so God will rejoice in you”. (62.5).
But in the meantime we struggle with what we have to bear in the knowledge and good purposes of his grace...
Some words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, scribbled in note form on the days leading up to his ordination to the priesthood in 1929:
‘My grace is sufficient for thee’. How do I need to look away
From self to God; I can only find satisfaction in Him.
My heart to love Him; my will to do His will;
My mind to glorify Him; my tongue to speak to Him and of Him;
My eyes to see Him in all things;
My hands to bring whatever they touch to Him;
My all only to be a real ‘all’, because it is joined in Him.
And this will be utter joy – no man can take it away.
Self, self-consciousness, self-will, the self-centre cut away,
So that the centre which holds all my parts is God.
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2019
6th Jan 2019
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2018 (Year C)
Depiction of the Magi from The Church of St Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, 550 AD.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
TS Eliot The Journey of the Magi.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and this word is taken from the Greek epiphanos, which means ‘the showing of a sign’. The sign here is the manifestation of something startling. This is followed by a sudden and new perception of realities. We can see that one epiphany leads to the other. The first and obvious one is revealed in the birth of the Messiah, the one which draws our three wise men to travel to see the sign which had been announced by the angel Gabriel and promised by Isaiah; of the appearance of the Messiah as a baby, “wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger”.
The second epiphany tells us about the effect that the showing of the sign has upon those who witness it. The sight of the child in the manger at Bethlehem is the one which changes the understanding of God’s identity and purpose for the world he has made. He has done this in becoming human himself:
The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands
And in a manger laid.
All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace
Good will henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.
The Story of the Three Wise Men is not just one which has been ‘tagged’ onto the Nativity for extra effect. It is has a crucial significance in the message of the coming of the Son of God. We continue to remember that the divine name given to Jesus is ‘God with Us’. His coming to birth has caused a rupture in what Eliot calls ‘the old dispensation’ . It has challenged the fixed separation of heaven and earth; and of the existence of God and his relation to us as remote. No; God has in Jesus come to us in flesh and blood, has come to earth as a pauper child, has come to raise us all into the likeness of God Himself.
Thirdly, Jesus’ epiphany is a disturbing sign. For Jesus is the sign “…destined to be rejected…” In the words of the high priest Simeon this sign is set “…for the rise and fall of many in Israel”. Luke 2.34. The picture we have of Christ’s birth is both pastoral (the shepherds) and mystical (the wise men) but it is also foreboding. It is one which falls within the range of King Herod’s destructive mania. There is real and mortal danger here. Just as the wise men ‘depart by another way’ so Mary and Joseph will later flee to Egypt in the wake of the slaughter of the innocents. There is already in this epiphany the strong suggestion that the Christ-child comes into a world which is very ambiguous about this coming. It is not one which is ripe and breathlessly expectant for The Good News.
Like the wise men who have travelled from afar to see the Sign, we too trace that same journey in our own Christian lives. It is the journey we make in our hearts as we come to the place where we see and know Jesus and where we stop and stay. We may, out of the joy and the peace of his appearing, offer him the best gift we have to give, the gift of ourselves and of our own being; of the deepening of our witness and our time.
To speak like this is to speak of this Feast of the Epiphany not only as a Feast of Signs and mystery and forboding . It becomes a time and a place in which the divine presence is revealed to us as vitally necessary for us if our lives they are not to be sapped of vital spiritual life giving energy. Christ’s Epiphany is ours, too, a necessary re-kindling of faith at a time when the refreshment that the Christian faith offers our world today, its spiritual oxygenation, is needed now more than ever.
Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas
30th Dec 2018
The Feast of the Holy Family 2018
Bear with one another… Colossians 3.13
It is natural at Christmas for The Church to be observing this Feast of the Holy Family. For Christians celebrate at Christmas the coming of Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God With Us’. God sends us his only begotten and beloved Son. And the Christmas story unfolds in a journey made by a family. Significant events mark the way: the arrival at the stable in Bethlehem, the delivery of the child, the visit of the shepherds and the wise men, Joseph’s dream and the decision to escape from danger and into Egypt. All is held within the bond of love and courage that exists within that one small Holy Family.
This morning’s Gospel reading has us fast forward twelve years to the loss of the boy Jesus in the Temple. This, you might think, seems a strange and sudden departure from the Christmas narrative. But its purpose is sure : it places the life of Jesus, the Jesus we proclaim as God, firmly within the patterns and the rhythms and the events of life within a human family. And it’s within the experiences of a close and loving family, that deep veins of life are lived out. Our sense of identity in adulthood is inescapably shaped by our experience as members of our own family. And family history has played its own part, and contributed, to our adult existence for good or ill. There is much evidence of how families have failed and have left brokenness and sadness in their wake. Many families are divided by misunderstanding and an unwillingness to forgive. But equally family life has given strength and joy and hope and we have carried the goodness of it forward and been glad for it.
It is not possible for us to find our true identity as solitaries. Some kind of interdependent life is necessary if we are to grow as persons. And the attempt to fix our lives according to our sole wishes and gratifications often proves joyless and useless. Many who have driven themselves into this way of living nonetheless reach out (perhaps very tentatively) toward some kind of communion with others. It becomes necessary that there exist communities of hope, which welcome in those who seek to find a place of belonging. We are as a human race, made for community. It is the Church’s task to be the ‘Body of Christ on earth’ and to offer to our members places of honest welcome and real belonging. And in this endeavour there is the desire to respect the individuality and the true worth of every person who comes through the door. On this feast of the Holy Family please pray that The Church may offer a place of big and broad family life and a truly open community. This is a family that we have not chosen but one which we believe God has chosen for us.
The second aspect of this story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem grows out of the first. Jesus grows in stature as he is nurtured by what we may call his three families; the first as son of Mary and Joseph, the second, held within the Jewish family of faith of which the Temple is home, and the most important, and the third the relation Jesus has, even as a twelve year old boy, with God. It is revealed in the Temple with the elders as Holy Wisdom, and it becomes clear that this is no ordinary boy, but one with a manifest destiny. The story of his being apparently ‘lost’ by his parents and then found in the Temple serves to further emphasize that Jesus is destined both in the ordinary life of a carpenter’s son in Nazareth and as the bearer of Godly wisdom. He is ‘found’ by his parents while at God’s service, which will take him away from them. This story echoes the one which refers to Samuel hundreds of years before Jesus who served God in the Temple and whose life was dedicated to listening to the Word of God.
As we enter into a New Year, 2019, it seems entirely appropriate for us to be honoring the Holy Family and spending time thinking about the idea of family. In our own time, the idea of family has become enlarged and made both more simple and complex. But its identifying marks are ones which speak of nurture and love and understanding and belonging and stability, and sharing and forgiving – ‘…bear with one another, that you may fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6.2) . There is a call here for the Church as the family of God on earth to be more of the kind of society which encourages our co-creative potential. A place of healing and of transformation. ‘Better Together’ was the title of a book written out of a potentially divided city, Liverpool, in the 1980s.
It’s a good message for the coming New Year, both at the local and global level.
Sermon for Midnight Mass of Christmas 2018
24th Dec 2018
Midnight Mass 2018
It is refreshing that we should all be here in church at midnight. Tonight we join Christian congregations of billions around the world, as the night deepens, and we welcome a new day which brings to us all a sense of renewal and refreshment and enjoyment as we witness the Birth of Christ. Even the House of Commons takes a break from the agony of Brexit to observe Christmas as a time to stop and, most importantly, to rest. Amid all the uncertainty that we have to live with we, like the shepherds, we now ‘stop and stay’ to wonder at those things that came to past two thousand years ago, and which come to life for us in tonight’s liturgy of Midnight Mass.
It is difficult for us all to know in each of our own lives how precisely things will turn out. We may often find ourselves fretting about the future. I remember the one great regret expressed by someone of one hundred years old that they had spent so much time worrying and wasting energy and time over things beyond their control. Even so, the world’s cup seems perpetually to be half full and half empty, and we, as its citizens are called upon to accept more and more dire uncertainty as a fact of life. A grace once said in Yorkshire after dinner could well be spoken in homes up and down the land this Christmas:
Thank you Lord for what we’ve had/ It could ha’ been better, but times is bad.
And yet like those things in our own personal lives which remain unresolved or incomplete Christians are being called as we pass through things temporal, so may not lose sight of things eternal. This is the broader picture which places our lives and the life of our world in the profound context of God’s creative, purposeful and everlasting love .
There is uncertainly in the story of the birth of Jesus. Mary and Joseph are themselves travelling to Bethlehem as displaced persons, and there is no certainty that they will find a place to stay for the night, there is no telling how Mary’s confinement will take place or under what circumstances, and no telling how things will turn out for them in the shorter and the longer term. King Herod poses a perpetual threat even to their lives. And yet it is within these circumstances that God chooses to reveal himself. The child, whose coming was predicted by the prophet Isaiah is to be born in this way and in no other way. The travails of this and of every age will find in this birth a place of truth. From the carol ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear’:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing!
That place of truth is to be found in the stable at Bethlehem, in the sight of the babe, wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger; in the journeying and the vision of the shepherds and of the wise men and in the company of the angels. In the name Emmanuel, too, the name which means ‘God-With-Us’. For Christians this is iconic and permanent: for it is through the child Jesus that ‘the woes of sin and strife’ and all that remains unresolved will find their true outcome in God’s deep and lasting peace. .
Such peace is not bought cheaply but at great cost. It is brought about in and through the constraints of the time and not apart from it, as in some kind of spiritual dream. It is established in all the uncertainties and struggles of our existence. This peace is experienced in the glory of God shining in the face of the infant Jesus. It is come as sure and recognisable. The medieval theologian William of Saint Thierry once said that God – from the time of Adam – saw that his grandeur provoked resistance in Man, that we felt limited in our own being and threatened in our freedom. Therefore God chose a new way. He became a child. He made himself dependent and weak, in order that love might manifest itself vulnerably. Now – this God who has become a child says to us – “You can no longer fear me, you can only love me”.
In the birth of Christ the human soul, long suppressed, weighed down, burdened by the fear of the unknown and the woes of sin and strife, may now find joyful utterance as it reaches out to God in faith and in joy:
Hail, thou ever blessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethleh
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2018
23rd Dec 2018
Sermon for Advent 4 Year C (2018)
“The almighty has done great things for me and Holy is His name”. Luke 1.49
As a child I remember my Sunday school teacher. She was very short and stout and used to sing from her hymn book using a very large magnifying glass. This was because she was partially sighted and wore a glass eye, which seemed always to gaze at you with the completest and fiercest attention. She looked rather like some portraits of Henry VIII with a face that was at once big strong and determined, but she could be gentle and kind, too.
This same woman taught me the Christian Faith and was tireless in her determination that we children should know the contents of the Bible. When we returned to church there was a question and answer session with the curate, and we were awarded stamps for correct answers, and stuck each stamp in our attendance books with the name of the particular Sunday on it. It often falls to the most unlikely of persons to be given the title of ‘magnifier of the Lord’ – someone whose example and bearing brings God and God’s love nearer.
In this morning’s Gospel we learn of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, in St Luke’s Gospel. How like Luke the physician to include the fact of the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s greeting! The baby’s kick draws from Elizabeth a blessing and a prophecy; that what has been promised to Mary by the angel is to be fulfilled, and that Mary is ‘Mother of my Lord’. The exchange between the two women contrasts the ordinariness of their meeting in the little Judean hill town with the coming of salvation promised by God spanning across past, present and future time. Mary responds not meekly and demurely as with the annunciation from the angel Gabriel. Here, in Elizabeth’s company, she bursts into song, and the song is called ‘The Magnificat’. St Augustine once said that to sing is to pray twice, but to sing is also to experience a deep joy and the sense of the spontaneous joy in Mary’s Magnificat is very apparent. Mary sings of the favour God has shown to her, and of her own lowliness. She boldly declares herself to be most blessed over future generations, and then she speaks of God who through her own ‘yes’ makes immediate and present something that is expressed in the past tense:
‘He has scattered the proud’, ‘He has raised up the lowly’, ‘He has brought down the powerful’ ‘He has filled the hungry with good things’ and ‘He has sent the rich empty away’…
The Magnificat is a songful cry from a lowly peasant girl who has recognised and accepted God’s call for her life. Mary not only magnifies her God like my teacher with the glass eye; she sings the Magnificat in the joy of the fact that God will, through her and through the child she will bear, magnify God to the world ‘throughout all generations’. Though we are still in purple, though Advent is still with us, the note of impending joy is well and truly struck.
‘Of the Father's Love Begotten’
Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore! Prudentius (348–413)
As we continue to reflect on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, two things emerge. The first the idea of the visit or visitation offering something momentous and surprising. The second is the idea of a relationship that emerges between the divine and the human disclosures. During the Christmas season, there will be many visits to friends and relatives. People will be travelling to get back to family or friends, or travelled to get away on their own. The promise with a visit is that the encounter will be gracious. Visiting has been very much a staple of the Christian ministry, and it would be a pity if our Christian ministry, both ordained and lay, were to forgo home visits and replace them with grand mission strategies which did not touch the hearts and lives of the many.
As a priest, I find myself visiting many people whom I hardly know and am welcomed unquestionably into people’s homes. I am invited into a special place of trust and it is a privilege to be shown family photographs and to talk in the comfort of the home in a way not so easily possible in other environments. The promise with a visit, and its encounter is what I understand to be ‘the sacramentality of conversation’, and of good conversation allowing for trust and understanding in our knowing of one another. Mary’s sings her Magnificat as a song of joy in the experience of the God whose presence is rich in loving mutuality. St Athanasius reminded the Church that “God became human so that we might become like God”. He visits us through Mary’s child-bearing – He expresses himself in ‘lowly’ form so that we can understand our own relation to Him as one of beckoning trust and of intimacy.
As we come to the end of this Advent Season, typified as one of hopeful waiting, we come also to its climactic point this morning in the Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat. A simple visit to a cousin in a small village in the Judaean hillside leads us into the joy of Christmas as the divine presence and the simple humanity of the narrative mix and merge. “God has become like one of us so that we might become like God”. God’s disclosure of himself is not only one of word and song but also of life, a life which is about to come to birth, as Emmanuel, God-With-Us. The Almighty has done (and is doing) great things for us, and Holy is his name.