Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
20th Aug 2017
Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all”
The graphic story in today’s gospel tells of a Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman who as a foreigner, successfully challenges Jesus’ own intention to minister only to ‘the lost sheep of Israel’. This woman is a rank outsider. She crashes into the party where the invited and the included are those deemed to be strictly righteous and for whom the inheritance of faith in God was given and sacrosanct. These are the Jewish inheritors of a covenant which had given them exclusive rights and access to Rabbinic teaching. But the woman’s presence also reveals the down-side of this righteousness. For it excited feelings of ethnic cleanliness, and exaggerated and hardened itself against any who stood outside the community of the chosen. An obvious contemporary example of this is the caste system in India, which is still excludes.
Jesus, as a rabbinic teacher, stands awkwardly in the middle of these racial tensions both as a Jew himself and as an inheritor of the Jewish tradition. But crucially we discover that he is ready to give ground. He knows from deep within that the gift of faith is generic. It is for all and has not been parcelled out to the practising religious alone. This is evidenced in the case to this mere woman who comes from a territory unvisited by strict Jews. She comes to the gospel text as a rank outsider. Nonetheless she gives Jesus due respect, using the title ‘Lord, Son of David’. And in a gentle play on words like ‘dog’, which were and still are in the middle east used as insults, she turns the joke to her own good use and appeals to the witty idea that even the (real) dogs are permitted to eat the scraps that fall from the master’s table. Jesus commends her for her faith. The word faith here is being used as a kind of forthrightness, a kind of keen wit and intelligence borne of necessity. One comedian once said that in order to have a sense of humour and to make humour work you need also a strong sense of proportion. The place of this woman in this context is to put the ancient and well trusted idea of the Jews as God’s elect in its proper, that is to say human, and wider and more embodied, context. She might be saying, even to Jesus, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me’.
This Gospel reading and this strange, insistent woman provide a timely reminder of the need to challenge the forces of hatred and fundamentalism that carry out threats to life and limb and sanction righteous murder. In Barcelona this week there was repeated the same murdering of innocent pedestrians in a built up, tourist area, and follows on from similar attacks in Stockholm, London, Paris Manchester, Nice and Brussels. It was telling that in the people gathered the next day in the city’s main square that, after a silent vigil, applause broke out with the words in Spanish “I am not afraid” ‘No tink por’.
The challenge to what terrorism must lie in the defiance of those who will not allow its threat and fear to override the beauty and worth of life lived in one united bond of honour and trust. The summons to defend basic human freedoms is as urgent now s it was at the time of Jesus. In a multicultural and perhaps fractured world, Jesus, like us, was immersed in the potential conflict of interests that such a situation threw up.
The Canaanite woman prompts Jesus to the enlargement of the household of faith. She reminds us that such enlargement, such widening of sympathy, is necessary to the very integrity and honesty of the Christian Way, and ultimately for the freedom of the world. Her intervention begs important questions regarding the nature of religious faith and the commonness of our humanity, and acts as a break on those forms of ethnic purity which have already led to so much horror and brutality.
Jesus is manifestly Son of God. In him, we come to know that it is the Creator’s will and purpose that all are given free access to his love and mercy, beyond the imposed confines of human will and vanity and fundamentalist ideology. As the hymn reminds us, there “There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy”, not just for we of the household of Christian Faith but for all who, whether consciously or unconsciously, seek God from the bottom of their hearts. Human freedom, the freedom to live and to thrive, in peace and harmony, must never be taken for granted. It must be proclaimed daily, defiantly and fearlessly. All are ultimately included.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice,
Which is more than liberty.
F W Faber (1814-1863)
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
30th Jul 2017
Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity Year A
The God who gives himself for us and who feeds us…
In Matthew's account of the feeding of the multitude, Jesus is moved with compassion to heal the people (v. 14). In Mark he is moved to teach them (Mark 6:34). Both aspects are important and interrelated. The Lord loves us and wants to heal and teach us. This he does supremely in the Eucharist. He feeds and teaches us at the altar of Christ’s sacrificial love. We cannot grow spiritually unless we are being taught - through the Word of God and through the teaching of the Church. And this is a teaching which may prove healing, too.
Christians of the 4th Century period built monasteries, churches and shrines in Galilee and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to commemorate the ministry of Jesus and the miracles ascribed to him. Tabgha – an Arabic corruption of the Greek name Heptapegon (Seven Springs) – is the traditional site of the Miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes. (Matt. 14: 13-21) It is situated in a narrow, fertile valley on the northern shore of the lake, watered by several springs.
The earliest building at Tabgha was a small chapel (18 x 9.6 m) from the 4th century CE; only a part of its foundations was uncovered. This was probably the shrine described by the pilgrim Egeria at the end of the 4th century:
In the same place (not far from Capernaum) facing the Sea of Galilee is a well watered land in which lush grasses grow, with numerous trees and palms. Nearby are seven springs which provide abundant water. In this fruitful garden Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The stone upon which the Master placed the bread became an altar. The many pilgrims to the site broke off pieces of it as a cure for their ailments.
The monastery and church at Tabgha were destroyed in the 7th century, probably during the Arab conquest of the country, and buried beneath a thick layer of silt and stones. In the 1980s, after excavation, the church was restored to its Byzantine form, incorporating portions of the original mosaics. The existing church is called ‘The Church of the Multiplication of Fishes’ and stands as a powerful reminder of the way in which God provides for our basic and essential need.
Our experience of the one great act of worship in this church is of the receiving of the sacred elements of bread and wine at the Sunday Eucharist. In it there is a promise. It is that we become what we received, bearers of Christ himself. As we end the Mass we pledge our willingness to live and work to God’s praise and glory. To share that which we have received and so to multiply the means of grace so that it may be transformed into glory.
I knew a woman who had lost her son. He had committed suicide. She was beside herself with grief. She was a devout churchwoman and this seemed to make her grief not better but worse. She was in a state of great confusion. She felt the expectation that she should be able to bear all these things as befitted her well-known status as ‘a pillar of the Church’ and a proper Christian. But this was not the case. She felt the loss of her beloved Son the more keenly. People kept on asking her about how she felt. This soon proved difficult to accept. In her grief there was to be no known or ready-made set of consolations. But at a crucial point, early on in her grieving, her Vicar, whom she had known for many years, came to her home one day while she was out shopping. He left on her doorstep a beef casserole which he had made and with it a small message. The body and the soul are not so much different, are they? Neither are our need for physical and spiritual sustenance. Both need feeding from their true source, which is God and from his helpers.
That woman recounted to her kindly Vicar many months later that it was that gift, of the casserole dish with its food waiting on her doorstep, which spoke louder than words could at that time, and remained for her human and memorable, and yes, God given. Its kindliness stood for that sharing of loves, that staple diet, informed by the Word of God and of his teaching, which blesses us, sustains us and gives us hope.
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday afterTrinity
23rd Jul 2017
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“…And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit”.
In today’s reading we come to know that The Church from the beginning had always considered its authority to be a spiritual authority which governed the hearts and minds of the faithful. All other earthly authorities were considered significant but secondary to the one which acknowledged God as first before all things. In our first reading King Solomon asks God not for riches or power but for wisdom. He is granted wisdom because he understands wisdom. And this wisdom is the one in which consideration of God’s presence and purpose in life lies foremost in the mind and the heart and colours and shapes all life. But in contemporary society and in the wake of Richard Dawkins and his idea of ‘The God Delusion’, faith and trust in God is undermined by ill-conceived doubt and cynicism. More than ever the Christian Church needs to be seen and heard for the joyful faith that its practices bring and for the deep wisdom that is embedded in the Christ who has offered himself unto death in the service of others.
St Peter’s Church Belsize Park is a very large mid-Victorian Anglican Gothic Church. I was some years ago there to attend an Ethiopian Orthodox liturgy on their own Feast of St Gabriel. The church was full to bursting with at least 3 or 400 people, almost all dressed in white and already hours into a liturgy that had begun with fasting at 3 am that morning. The place was stiflingly hot and as soon as I entered the building I was asked by a veiled woman to remove my shoes, and then I was led to the sanctuary where many deacons and priests and bishops presided over a liturgy which was both formal and informal. Formal in that it was purposeful and full of song and dance and prayer with drums and cymbals. Informal in that the clergy seemed to decide upon what they should do next through a series of facial and hand gestures. One of the priests took me aside and explained to me that this Ethiopian Orthodox Liturgy was practised in the first century after the Resurrection of Christ, and it had not changed. This ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church pre-dates the Latin Catholic church by centuries. I had arrived at a certain time but the liturgy was to continue for longer than I think anyone expected, with a Eucharistic sharing and even a wedding taking place with bride and groom wearing crowns and dressed in white as virgins. It though one was entering a church which had never lost its sense of itself with the passage of time. It was like stepping into another world and another place in time. The joy and the sheer passion and fervour with which the liturgy was celebrated was deeply inspiriting and very moving. It provided for me a reminder of the holiness of the Christian Church and of its obligation to remain true to its holy calling. Its worship should be a heart-felt expression of thanksgiving for the love of God and not, as may so often happen, an event which may engage the mind and certain surface attention, but not feed the soul and the deeper sense in which God’s holy presence is offered to us as a living miracle. It should exist of itself before ever our own moods, meanings or responses are attached to its actions.
I hear the words from our epistle this morning, the words of encouragement and instruction which St Paul gives to the embattled Christian community in Rome. They are words which direct the believer to a surer knowledge and experience of God who lies closer to the heart of our being than we are ever prepared to allow. These words direct us to attend to the existence of God whose presence and purposes lie in the here and now and yet who is all mystery and who is sensed in ways and places subliminal to our ready knowledge of things. “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the spirit”. “Bidden or not bidden”, said Jung, “God is present”.
For God’s presence is truth-bearing and truth-making. And as such it is liberating and refreshing. It gives newness of life. This is not the kind of truth which is self-justifying, but the truth which liberates you from your own vanity. No wonder then, that Solomon when asked by God what he might be given asks merely for ‘the discernment to judge between what is good and evil’. In his existing wisdom, Solomon’s request is the one echoed in an old and often recited prayer. This is the one which says “May the divine assistance remain with us always, and may the souls of the faithful through the mercy of God rest (or remain) in peace. This, I once thought, was a prayer for the dead. But it is a prayer for those of us very much alive. Peace is the gift given to the one for whom real life is the one lived in co-habitation and co-operation with the Creator God in Jesus Christ. The blessed life is the one which remains open to the possibility of the divine assistance. This is a call to see God in all things and in all people, and to see the world as it is and find that everlasting presence which divines the world’s true being.
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity
16th Jul 2017
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace” Romans 8.5
The contrast drawn between flesh and spirit is ancient and certainly not accidental. Language relating to ‘the spirit’ will suggest an invitation to come to know and experience God as a reality. More than ever Christianity finds itself set within a sea of unbelief and is confronted by a whole new generation which remains, by and large, unchurched. Many find the idea of spirituality positive - but mere religion delivers a negative charge. Many baulk against what they call ‘organised religion’ and even those who call themselves Christian-minded, do not necessarily want to go to church. In response to this many clergy choose to ‘dumb down’ Christian services to appeal to the lowest common denominator and offer distraction, emotion and a sense of security. This approach might yield some increase in human numbers but turns out to offer ‘thin’ experience. It satisfies at the ordinary level but does not feed the soul in the longer term. It offers a sense of security and uplift and even ecstatic and emotional experience but its expression is sensual rather than spiritually grounded. It refuses to be confronted by the God who is not biddable.
I don’t think any of this is new. The impetus of Jesus’ teaching regarding the sower and the seed is the one which responds to the very real and existent spiritual ambivalence of his day. But it also reminds us of the gift of faith which is as present as the seed is to the sower. Jesus knows at the very least that he is not ‘preaching to the converted’ but to a people whose lives are tough and whose outlook is realistic and who will not be fobbed off by religious platitudes. Having said this they are a people do seek after God, in their own way they have ‘ears to hear’ – they like us, have an instinct for a spiritual teaching which rings true both for their lives and for their understanding of God. The Church in our own time must not ignore the fact that its central task is not to find numerous ways to attract new followers but to teach and to practice the Christian Faith that from the perspective of the spirit rather than the flesh. It must learn once to be a Church whose actions and outreach emerge out of a contemplative and prayerful base. The pattern of Jesus’ teaching is the one which understands the realities of life but which offers no easy consolation, not a way out but a way through all that comes our way. It is for Christ that the Church sustains its life and this is Good News for all who come to seek God.
If the spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his spirit that dwells in you. Romans 8.11
The recourse to the Church is not as a bunker but as turning a key to a door that leads out to new life. A sure pathway has been provided by Pope Francis. It is the one which expresses the never ending presence of God’s mercy. There is a ready acknowledgement here that Christian lives, are not different from any other lives. Christians who have found faith have not been magically relieved of life’s pain and conflict and complexity. Pope Francis found the image of the Virgin who unravels knots a particularly compelling one since it does not simplify our view of the Christian life but makes it more complex and interesting. It acknowledges the many ways in which we experience our own past as a rough, tough terrain which is in sore need of understanding and healing. Our human nature is understood NOT from the starting point of its perfectability but from an understanding of its vulnerability and hence the need for God’s loving mercy. We come to God, we turn to Christ from the starting point of the little that we are and the need we have of understanding and healing. The words from our Gospel ring particularly true That which is of the flesh is death, and that which is of God’s wellspring of mercy is spirit and is life.
Paul Vallely’s biography of Pope Francis is entitled ‘Untying the Knots’ and the writing of this biography is not from the point of view of an ascending scale of achievement but instead sees his life’s ministry as a flawed one in which grave mistakes have been made and owned. Pope Francis admits to all this in a spirit of repentance, sure in the mercy of God, and ready to come to God each day as a Christian who is both penitent, and as the hymn says, ‘ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven’. Refreshed and healed. Made new to serve Him. The ancient breach between the flesh and the spirit is being healed through Christ’s merciful future providing love.
We are being called to set our minds on that which is of the Spirit, and which brings life.
The parable of the sower and the seed is a reminder that the Word of God comes to the individual’s often faltering Christian faith in a rough, tough human environment. The seed of Christian Faith, planted in human hearts, is the one which, in the face of the dead hand of atheism and the sure measurements of social science, stands for lives which may find a real feeding and a real meaning from their very source, God himself.
From the Didache (1st Century)
Father, we thank Thee Who has planted
Thy holy name within our hearts.
Knowledge and faith and life immortal
Jesus Thy Son to us imparts.
Thou, Lord, didst make all for Thy pleasure,
Didst give man food for all his days,
Giving in Christ the bread eternal;
Thine is the pow'r, be Thine the praise.
Watch o'er Thy Church, O Lord, in mercy,
Save it from evil, guard it still,
Perfect it in love, unite it,
Cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
Was in this broken bread made one,
So from all lands Thy church be gathered
Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
9th Jul 2017
Fourth Sunday of Trinity Year A
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart’.
There are three qualities our Blessed Lord seeks in those who would be his followers. Jesus looks for simplicity, he looks for faith, and he looks for trust. It’s clear that he values simplicity in his disciples when he says, "I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and have revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will." God’s grace is given in humility: simplicity of heart and mind. This is the foundation of our understanding of the nature of God in relation to us his creatures.
Gentle Jesus meek and mild
Look upon a little child
Pity my simplicity
Suffer me to come to thee. Charles Wesley.
The event which was the occasion for this remark of Jesus was the return of the 70 disciples after they had been sent by the Lord to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick and to cast out demons. They were ordinary folk like you and me; but in all simplicity, they opened their hearts to God’s grace, allowing him to work through them, so that his mercy might be made manifest in them. When they return, they are full of wonderful stories of success. "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" Jesus gives praise to the Father for revealing his power through them and the effectiveness of their witness.
True simplicity is not only for those who live in humble circumstances. Simplicity is an attitude of mind. It means wearing your gifts and talents lightly, ascribing all that you have to the goodness and providence of God with a thankful heart and a spirit that knows peace. In this lies are true freedom, for without this we remain ungrateful or as one hymn puts it “frail earthen vessels and things of no worth”. We have been made in God’s image and we reflect that image in our own readiness to be open and seeing and hearing and in our dealings with others. In short, this means imitating the humility of Jesus as he is described by the prophet Zechariah in today’s first reading: "See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, Meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass." It means that we return to the old Sunday School hymn and find in the gentle and meek Jesus that docility of spirit whose mind and heart is listening and alert and receptive. St Paul can say that this is a garment we must wear:
Put on therefore, as God's elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering… Colossians 3.12.
Our Gospel reveals that Christ looks also for faith in his followers. He makes a tremendous claim in this passage. He claims to be the Son of God: "All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him." Nowhere does Jesus make a greater claim than this. It is a sublime truth that the man Christ Jesus is in fact God the Son, the second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. But to receive this truth requires the gift of faith: no one can know this unique relationship between God the Father and his only-begotten Son except those "to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."
I always find hymns very encouraging, and particularly the singing of hymns, and even more particularly my favorite hymns are those which express something of our own unknowing in the face of the greatness of God. “How shall I sing that Majesty”, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”, “Jerusalem the Golden” and others have all been written to express the strong sense of our own unknowing. But this is not a place where all hope and longing is excused. No, in the faith of Christ our hope and our longing is mixed and merged with what in God we know and what we cannot know. Faith makes it possible, but not just faith alone, blind faith, but faith in and through Our Lord Jesus Christ and in and through his promise of mercy. Ours is a faith seeking understanding.
The Lord Jesus also looks for trust. He wants us to trust him enough to give him our burdens and to receive his refreshment in return: "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
This image of a yoke is a very beautiful one. A "yoke of oxen" was always a pair of animals joined together by a smoothly shaped piece of wood. This was the yoke. It was placed on the shoulders of the animals and fastened under their necks. By means of this simple apparatus, two oxen (with minds of their own) could work together, accomplishing with half the effort a difficult job such as plowing a field or pulling a heavy load. Typically, the two beasts of burden would be matched in strength and temperament and share the burden together. The yoke is that which is emblematic of a burden shared “bare one anthers burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ”. In this we adopt the servant’s role, and the gentleness and meekness, especially in the face of human antagonism or resentment if transforming of relationships because it is a transforming of their understanding.
Today, once again, we hear this generous invitation from our Blessed Lord: Learn from me to be simple, "for I am meek and humble of heart." Learn from me to have faith, because I have revealed my Father to you. And learn from me to trust, because "my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Let us then learn these things, that we may fulfil the great words of St Augustine “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless ‘til they find their rest in thee’.