Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
15th Oct 2017
Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4.5,6
It is a commonplace for us to hear of ‘St Pauls’ Letter to the Philippians’ or to the Colossians or the Corinthians. The second Reading of the Parish Eucharist is often called the ‘Epistle’ or ‘Letter’. We have to imagine St Paul communicating to the far flung early Christian community as he dictates long letters via a secretary, companion or scribe like Timothy. His letters contain formal teaching, warning, moral instruction. They contain exhortation and greeting. We read Paul’s letters, even after two thousand years and their words leap out of the pages with passion and love. He begins his letter with a greeting : ‘My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for’. It is so interesting that the kind and intimate letter greeting ‘Dear so and so’ has now been replaced with the impersonal and screechy ‘Hi!’ Paul is ready always to convey the sense the there is such a thing as the Christian character, whose stamp and mark is mutual love, both of God and neighbour, and perseverance and bravery in the commitment to the life of Christian faith.
With the advent of the PC and the laptop, of Emails and of countless other instant message types, all characterised by their brevity, it has become a rare joy to receive a hand written letter. I remember our Post Office when I was a boy. It was a large modern and airy building, but along one bank of its long walls lay a whole row of ink pots set into the wipe-able Formica surfaces upon which were large framed mats of neat blotting paper. People would patiently dip pen to ink many times before a few lines had been written, but here was a kind of patient ceremony which is now lost to us.
I have here my grandmother’ Parker Pen. The fountain pen is at least 60 years old and it was used to write countless neat letters written in real ink on thick laid paper. The letter of course had to be stamped, enveloped and then hand posted. The giving and receiving of letters becomes an important part of the plot in old films and novels, and somehow an Email doesn’t quite measure up in terms of the quality and the beauty of these former communications. It is so pleasing to see a hand written letter as it raises its head above the junk mail.
St Paul’s letters are known for their beautiful greetings, which in this morning’s letter take up 29 lines of prose. From his letters we get a very real sense of St Paul as communicator and we realise that only twenty or so years after the death and resurrection of Christ, Paul’s Church is one in which mutual love abounds, in which there is a sense of real joy and confidence in believing, but equally the struggle and the determination to prevail. There is, too an abiding sense of the reality of God in Jesus Christ, and that he is ‘very near’. Then there is Paul’s fearless and powerful self-confidence and strength of leadership as he urges his followers to cast all worries aside and instead to offer prayers and supplications to God. This is echoed in the words of Teresa of Avila, whose saint’s day we commemorate today:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
The same intimate connection with St Paul’s followers is to be the intimate connection they are to maintain with their God. This is to be their strength. Above all they are to persevere and to prevail in and with what he calls ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’, that strong inner peace which is the evidence of their personal connectedness with God rather than with the ‘passing’ things of this world.
Of course it only human to find yourself preoccupied or worried about things. We are sometimes confronted with what seem like strong tests to our usual feeling that everything is more or less OK. Shakespeare termed the famous phrase ‘the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’, which is the legacy of pain and worry, whether by reason of ill health, loss, the disappointment of our hopes or the painful challenge to our complacencies, or past sorrows. To all this we may express due sympathy but for Paul’s corresponding call to ‘the higher Way’ where God is peace which ‘passes human understanding’. It’s all very tough, and not easy or consoling at all. But our correspondent Paul has been through it; is going through it in his cell in Philippi. His letter is known as a letter of exhortation, urging us all on to find our security in that which has already been established in us, the love of God, meted out through his humanity and the gathered church. In his gentle and beautiful cadences, every bit as mellifluous as Shakespeare’s, Paul’s final words of our letter section from Philippians reach their moving crescendo:
Finally, my beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and is there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of Peace be with you.
So much better than the very English ‘Yours sincerely!’
A similar prayer was gifted to me by an old Australian priest friend, long since dead and former Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome. It is simply a prayer to the loveliness and awesomeness of God. God is, in this prayer, as God is in the Letters of Paul, our truest and most loving correspondent.
O MYSTERY MOST BLESSED MOST HOLY
MOST MERCIFUL MOST LOVING MOST MIGHTY
MOST TRUE MOST HONOURABLE MOST BEAUTIFUL
UNFATHOMABLE ABYSS OF PEACE
UNUTTERABLE OCEAN OF LOVE
FOUNT OF BLESSING
GIVER OF AFFECTION
FATHER SON HOLY GHOST
ONE GOD IN THREE PERSONS
EVER TO BE WORSHIPPED AND ADORED
BE THOU TO US
RECTITUDE FORTITUDE BEATITUDE
REFRESHMENT LIGHT PEACE
THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD.
Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
8th Oct 2017
Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“The Lord is my Shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing” Psalm 23.1
“Christ has made me his own” Philippians 3.12.
If you search the Bible for a passage which stands sure and strong as a complete evocation of faith and trust then it must surely be Psalm 23, which is set to words and music as the hymn, ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’. It describes the individual’s relationship with God as one evidenced by fullness, rest, refreshment, guidance, fearlessness, consolation, comfort, generosity, thankfulness and hope. It is a psalm favoured for use at funerals as a summary of the gifts of faith, and it is a psalm full of hope. The Christian believer does not believe in a vacuum, but in the light of our experience of the living God, whose presence and whose love is sustaining and gives hope. It is both ‘refreshment for the soul’ and the experience of ‘goodness and mercy’ from its very source, God Himself.
There is much evidence brought by those who do not believe in God that all this is a kind of flight of fancy, or wishful thinking. Those who hold to faith are in the words of Professor Richard Dawkins, ‘deluded’. Christian Faith for many is not able to withstand the test that time imposes upon it, especially in the present day. The old Christian certainties have given way, in the face of a world grown more diverse, more communicative and more complex than ever, to an encroaching fatalism. If the Christian is to ‘walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil’ then she or he is to be a Christian who does not find themself in antagonised reaction to the new forces which shape our contemporary world. The Christian witness urges us on to refreshed and revitalised understandings of what is to be human, what it is to be British, what it is to be a Londoner, what it is to be a Christian today, what it is to be me, a citizen of the world. And we will need, to heed the words of Psalm 23, which calls for an impassioned all-embracing faith.
Some time ago a seventeen year old schoolgirl was called out of her chemistry class in Birmingham to be told that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. The youngest Nobel Laureate ever. A few weeks ago she was offered a place at Oxford University, to read politics, philosophy and economics at Lady Margaret Hall. Imagine on her CV ‘Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize’ Malala Yousafzai, described in the press as a ‘child education activist’ has now been educated in Britain, having survived being shot in the head in her Pakistani home town by the Taliban whilst travelling on the school bus following a school exam. Now she is fully recovered, though with marked signs of her wounds, she has spoken out against the way girls in Pakistan are denied educational advantages, and of how in comparatively advanced societies like her own, children are commonly reduced to slave status from an early age by their families and supported by the political system. This young girl has been a great presence and a great voice on the world scene, because her experiences and outspokenness have speak to us all of as a voice of God. It has broken through the clarion voices and vested interests which would treat their fellow human beings, in this case children, as mere commodities, just like the wicked tenants in today’s Gospel reading.
As Christians, we must hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches, a spirit which does not confine itself to the Church alone, but which may express itself as the resounding voice of God in a troubled world, which may even be heard in the life of a seventeen year old school girl. If the promise of Psalm 23 is not to be one founded in religious romanticism then it must be a call to a Christianity which contains the three ‘C’s which we are aiming for in the Diocese of London ‘Caring, Compassionate and Confident’. It must be a Christianity which does not speak from a narrow and culturally confined space. Much of the New Testament emerges out of the clash of cultures and political ideologies and religions and Christianity must realise that this is still very much the case.
I was privileged last week to overhear a Christian priest welcoming a Hindu convert to Christianity. How could it be possible to understand all the world’s religions in relation to Christianity? The priest described a large tree with many branches, which are the religions of the world. He went on to say that for Christians, Christ is the root and sap of that tree, the necessary human/divine love out of which the whole structure grows and develops. It is above all else humanitarian and peace making. The existence if ISIS and other extremist/terrorist groups are a reminder its opposite, of negative, life denying, person denying, murderous intent.This is again echoed in today’s Gospel parable. God is not mocked.
The seventeen year old schoolgirl, Malala, shot in the head, called out of her Birmingham Chemistry lesson, and taking her place at Oxford while decrying man’s inhumanity to man is the reminder which we are given in today’s Gospel of the invitation to the heavenly banquet, where murderous intent and selfish disobedience has given way to a willingness firstly to recognise God and secondly, to live in God and to co-operate with God's purposes and then to speak for God. In this way we advance a reconciliation of all humankind with the one God, who in Jesus Christ is the Lord, our shepherd, in whom, in the words of Psalm 23, “we lack nothing”. Or as Paul puts it in today’s letter to the Philippians, we “…press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” which for Paul is an experience of Christ’s Resurrection. He goes on to say “I press on to make this my own, because Christ has made me his own”.
“Therefore…” replies the Psalmist, “…can I lack nothing”.
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…
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).
Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
17th Sep 2017
Sermon for The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
Peter went up to Jesus and said “How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?” Matthew 18.21
The question Peter puts to Jesus concerning forgiveness is a piercing one; it startles. Peter knows that there is a whole lot of difference between token forgiveness and the kind of forgiveness which comes from the heart : the forgiveness which transforms and renews our humanity. He will one day be in need of such forgiveness from Jesus Himself. Peter makes mention of ‘seven times’ and ‘seventy times seven’ and of how many times we must forgive… The very mention of these numbers, the latter signalling an infinite amount of forgivenesses, presses in upon the mind, and invites us to consider the kind of active forgiveness which is presented to us in the sacrificial life of Christ. We need to think long and carefully on these things. We might think that there seems to be two ways only we can follow, both in opposite directions. One is the way of stubborn self-justification and the other living that part of The Lord’s Prayer which asks that God forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. One turns inward - the heart and mind pickled in aspic, and the other responds to the hope of new life, the mark of the influence of Christ, and demands moral bravery.
Rowan Williams, The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a book ‘Written in the Dust’ about his own experiences of evacuating a dust filled building in Manhattan amid the terror of 9/11. This book carries with it a plea for “language that brings into the world something other than self-defensiveness,” language — or maybe silence — that creates (and the author knew from being on the scene how paradoxical was this chosen image) a “breathing space.” And this is the place where understanding and forgiveness can emerge. Understanding always begets forgiveness. It exists as a breathing space… Peter’s recall to the forgiveness to the mark of ‘seventy times seven’ opens up such a breathing space because it recalls the infinite love of God with a human willingness to understand only God can bring together that which has been separated and alienated.
Into the breach of these thoughts for me come the figures of two priests. The first was a 68 year old Franciscan Priest and Chaplain on 9/11 to The New York Fire Brigade. He died from falling masonry and dust inhalation. He was labelled ‘victim 001’. His name was Fr Michal Judge. A photograph was taken of New York firemen carrying his body away from the scene of death in an improvised stretcher rather like a hammock. It is a powerful image because it reminds the Christian so much of the deposition from the Cross. But the photograph is also an icon for the priest on duty, the one who was doing only what he was meant to do, the one who died doing what a priest in such a situation would do: anointing the dead. He had written in his journals his many inner struggles; not least as not being able to express his fuller humanity in the course of his duties. The presence of Fr Michal in this terrible scene, and among so many other helpers, points us to the place of ordinary, deep humanity which brings hope even while the terrible fall-out is suffered. It is this kind of deep humanity which is being demanded of us as God’s Church. It is the action which challenges the world to be a better place in the manner and the meaning of its truer existence. It is the action of the forgiveness seventy times seven in the re-making and re-instatement of the good.
We have in this church over the past eighteen months been praying for another priest, Fr Tom Uzhunnalil, a Catholic priest from Kerala, India, who was captured by ISIS terrorists and has this week been released. Father Uzhunnalil was kidnapped on March 4, 2016 from a home for the aged and disabled run by the Missionaries of Charity in Aden, Yemen. Four of those Missionaries of Charity and 12 others were murdered in the attack. Father Uzhunnalil was rescued last week by Omani authorities “in coordination with the Yemeni parties. Recalling his time in captivity, Fr Tom told Pope Francis last week that although he was unable to celebrate Mass, “every day, I would repeat to myself, in my heart, all the words of the celebration. Father Uzhunnalil said he continues to pray for all those who have been spiritually close to him, particularly for the four nuns and 12 people murdered when he was abducted.
In all the bewilderment that this priest must have felt, the powerlessness and the deprivation and uncertainly, his faith proved to be a reconciling one, one which was not wasted in negativity, but always keeping to that which he was taught, The Christian faith. He was able to offer his condition in prayer for the life of the Church and in thankfulness and solidarity with his fellow workers, many of them already dead. This is the triumph of God’s grace over despair and the true response to the forgiveness seventy times seven. God’s power being made perfect in the powerless state, the one which, beyond all calculation and self-regard, of blame and resentment, determines to be an agent of God’s transforming grace. Let us be determined to show that we can, in our own way and by remaining faithful to our Christian calling, be agents of that same grace, too…