Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
10th Dec 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent Year B
“The beginning of the Good News…” Mark 1.1
I said last week that this Advent Season opens up for the Church a new liturgical year with Gospel readings from St Mark. His Gospel is defined by its abruptness and brevity. The beginning of the Good News is for him a stark editorial marker. He ‘cuts to the chase’ and immediately introduces us to Christ by way of John the Baptist. There is no greeting, no preamble or eloquent or stylish opening verses. If in St John’s (later) Gospel we have the immortal and poetic line ‘…In the beginning was the Word’, here, Mark is writing in the immediate present rather than for the eternal past or for Christian posterity. “The Good News” for him is no less important than for John, but his writing is one which will be passed around the Christian community, providing the skeleton, the structure and the basic content of the Christian story; the kerygma. Mark’s is a proclamation of Good News before it’s a meditation or reflection. He is concerned to set the record straight concerning the coming of Jesus and of what this means to the average Christian. This requires direct language and an account of things which has the feel of immediate, eye-witness observation.
His first chapter might be entitled ‘preparation’. He introduces us to Jesus Christ through John the Baptist and so helps us to see that Jesus’ coming emerges out of a centuries old tradition of prophetic utterance. The one dominating piece of information for John the Baptist is the one which speaks of Jesus as the one who has been promised. John is also very emphatic in his need to place himself as less than Jesus, as the forerunner, and with a distinct role to play as the one who Baptizes Jesus. His life as the baptizer and Jesus’ life as Son of God mix and merge in the narrative of Christian salvation and yet are not to be confused.
Here lies the unravelling of the hope which had been promised long ago and which echoed down the centuries before Christ by the prophets and particularly by Isaiah. It is the promise of the coming of the Messiah, and this coming will be decisive:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,
The eve ground shall become level, and the rough places plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…
Isaiah 40. 3-6.
The promise is to be ground-breaking but which can only be awaited in faith as a kind of longing. The subtle tension this represents is expressed by Isaiah the prophet and by George Frederick Handel’s in his famous ’Messiah’. Both produce words and music of unparalleled beauty and splendour. The prophet and the musician each combine to provide a sublime evocation of the idea of the coming of salvation as the fulfilment of a long held but barely understood promise. This sense of the fulfilment of past promise and of the wonder of the coming of Christ and are elements which make up the true meaning of this season of Advent. The message of St Mark’s ‘Good News Gospel’ sets the ‘known’, the whole, world upon a distinctly new course. All time now becomes God’s time, in which we no longer wait for him. Rather, it is He who now waits for us to come to Him, our source of life and hope. God is the One who desires to comfort us in our need, He is gentle and merciful and forgiving. He is to send Jesus to bring us back to Him.
As we recognise the Advent hope, so the beginning of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah provides the appropriate contrast to the abrupt beginning of Mark’s Gospel. In it, God is seen foremost as the Comforter, the One who is gentle and kind. The ‘Good News’ story is the one which envisions a relationship with God not of duress but of a gentleness which comes from love.
If Christianity is to be a religion marked by kindness, forgiveness , understanding and compassion it will be a religion which is most surely reflected in the image of the Messiah. The advent of the extreme Muslim groups like ISIS is but another manifestation of the way in which certain religious or political affiliations become fanatic, intransigent, fundamentalist, homophobic and violent in their outward manifestation. Theirs is an essentially defensive mentality which replaces revelation with the fantasy of their own God-like status. Their own triumph of the will, if you like. Such a fantasy has led to a ruthless and cruel inhumanity. The Advent hope and the signal note it brings of the transformation of human lives comes to us as a new kind of strength. The Gospel writer Mark, whose words we will be following in the coming Church year, reminds us that amid the many human tragedies that beset our world, not least the tragedies of our own misunderstanding, there is brought before us the promise of a new world made possible in the likeness of God who reaches out to find us and to find his home in us, whomsoever and wherever we may be.
Good news indeed…
(On A Theme by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Look how long
the weary world waited,
locked in its lonely cell,
guilty as a prisoner.
As you can imagine,
it sang and whistled in the dark.
It hoped. It paced and puttered about,
tidying its little piles of inconsequence.
It wept from the weight of ennui,
draped like shackles on its wrists.
It raged and wailed against the walls
of its own plight.
But there was nothing
the world could do
to find its own freedom.
The door was shut tight.
It could only be opened
from the outside.
Who could believe the latch
would be turned by a pink flower —
the tiny hand
of a new born baby?
Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King
26th Nov 2017
The Feast of Christ the King
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit
on the throne of his glory”. Matthew 25.1-2.
When we speak of ‘Christ the King’ we admit to a Kingship whose authority is a necessarily hidden one. But its substance is clear enough. Jesus rules from the Cross and he rules as a suffering servant. It is in the life of service both to our fellow creatures and in the natural worship we owe to God that underpins our true place on this earth. Jesus speaks as God when he says, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren (the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick person and the prisoner) you did it to me”. There is an authority at work here, but unlike the authority of the human will it is one which strikes at the heart of the human condition and calls forth the recognition of God not as something or someone ‘other’ but as incarnated in Jesus and by extension in my neighbour. This is an authority which is borne by Christ on the Cross as the ultimate in the giving of self for the other. The Jesus rules who rules from the Cross calls from us not blind obedience with threat of execution, but the just and gentle rule of the One who draws from us our real humanity and all its tremendous possibility. Human Kings in the past have been successful, doubtful or terrible in quality. The Jews in Jesus’ time in would have longed wistfully for the return of a great King like David or Solomon. Instead they got Jesus, who was to declare his Kingship in response to the questioning of Pontius Pilate. It was a declaration of the truth about ourselves, the truth that so often lies buried and denied and maimed and which God longs us to express and enjoy:
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” John 18.37.
Many Kings and Rulers have been tyrants and truth deniers. On 5th December 1931. The Russian leader Stalin ordered the blowing up of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, and even had it filmed. Built on the banks of the great Moscow River, Stalin had decided that it was to become the site for a new Palace of Supreme Soviets, and the winning architecture looked like a giant multi layered wedding cake. It was massive, and on top of its highest tower was a huge statue of Lenin, conveniently just a little taller than New York’s Statue of Liberty. But it never came to be built. The official Soviet History owed this to the coming of The Second World War, but the real reason was that the site for its construction, on the banks of the river, consisted of sand. Sand could not hold a building of such immensity. Stalin, was the man of steel had attempted to build his house on sand! He had attempted to fill the apparent ‘void’ left after the destruction of a holy site, with a concrete monstrosity. The Cathedral has now been completely rebuilt on the same site, a site, yes, of sand, but on it built a the new holy church whose proportions lie in harmony with its natural surroundings rather than in opposition to them.
What the Collect for Christ the King expresses is the just and gentle rule of Christ based upon an experience of God which is a communication of at one ness with both the divine and the human. And so the collect for Christ the King has this put into a succinct form of wods:
Almighty and eternal God,
you have made of one blood all the nations of the earth
and will that they live together
in peace and harmony;
so order the course of this world
that all peoples may be brought together
under Christ's just and gentle rule;
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.
The Divine Liturgies of the Russian Orthodox Church were resumed in the restored Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2000. The Cathedral stands as a testament to ‘just and gentle’ rule of God and to the resilience of the Russian spirit, and the light of truth with proportionate blessing.
I was speaking to someone yesterday who is ready to be quite frank about his Christianity. Without being awkward at all, he will, when the occasion feels right and natural, speak about the importance of Christian Faith. But he has admitted that most often he is met by a wall of indifference and even antipathy. Christianity is not deemed to carry authority. It seems not to command attention. This is often because his listeners are convinced they have no use for it. The connection is not made with the life of the human soul. This is because the framework around which modern life revolves is so often a surface one - the one bound to self-sufficiency and its partner consumerism. It is often difficult for the modern day enquirer to engage in a conversation regarding Christianity because it lies out of the range of possibility, and too many people no longer have an inner spiritual mind or practice from which to understand The Christian Faith.
In the Twenty-First Century, it will be more important than ever that the Church is a servant church, one in which church communities are places of understanding and of sanity, of community, of truth-bearing and of prayer, who witness to Christ through the offering of their time and patience and who are seen in the wider community to be places of natural ingathering. In such a way the presence of Christ is seen and known, and churches become the natural places of enquiry and inhabitation. They are above all to be hospitable places where all receive welcome, where all are included and where all may find space to be themselves and to spiritually prosper. Above all churches exist to unite all people in the coming together of the divine and the human agencies.They live under the just and gentle rule of a different kind of King.
Sermon for the Second Sunday before Advent
19th Nov 2017
The Second Sunday before Advent Year A
The Parable of the Talents
“For we consume away in your displeasure”. Psalm 90.7
“For you are all children of light” 1Thessalonians 5.5
The long series of Sundays which have all been after Trinity have now become Sundays before Advent. Following the many Sundays ‘after’ Trinity’ there is now comes a slowing down, and then a call to listen to what it is to live the Christian faith in a state of alertness, of readiness and of expectancy. The well-known parable of the talents is placed within this framework. Christ is come to transform our lives in relation to one another. He has come to challenge those who, as the Psalmist puts it ‘consume away’ in God’s displeasure. I have here single words used to describe Holy Cross come from a group of us meeting here at yesterday’s Vision Day. Each word was offered by each individual group member as a deep reflection on what this Church means to them. Each word is an expression of trust and hope. We are called to be watchful against those elements which undermine The Faith and try not to succumb to a ‘knock down’ view of the Church which has fallen prey to a lack of trust. St Paul reminds us that “We are all children of light” and so we walk with Him who is Light.
The parable of the talents tells the story of three men, all slaves of the one master, who is about to leave the country for some time. He gives each of them different sums of money: one five, one two, and one only one talent. The first two slaves make money by trading and investing. The third simply digs a hole in the ground and buries it. On the master’s return, he readily rewards the first two for their trustworthiness. For they have doubled the original gift. The third answers him back with cheek, deriding the way in which the other two have gained money but refusing to respond to the master’s original request. He, the one with the one talent, surely had the least to achieve to warrant the same approval as the other two? But he refuses. He is obdurate and makes nothing of what he has been given. This is a difficult parable with no obvious interpretation since it seems to reward the making of money for its own sake.
But there is a deeper meaning. Here is a warning against the squandering of the life we have been given. Jesus is calling us into life’s true meaning, which is in right and loving relationship one with another. The getting of any selfish gain which denies or ignores the need to respect human relationships is a doomed endeavour because it based on greed. The gifts which God has given to each one of us are for our own sakes and not to be squandered. They are most squandered when we work from selfish motives which ignore the obvious and necessary demand for the greater good; the moral and ethical demand. The economic depression of eight years ago was a result of such behaviour, and things have not changed a great deal, and the lure of cheap gain remains seemingly unrelinquishable.
I have been watching a marvellous documentary from the American Public Broadcasting Channel which details the life of the American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his early presidency in the 1930s he was tasked with leading the United States through an unprecedented economic depression, which devastated the country’s former prosperity and placed 14,000,000 unemployed. ‘Depression’ became the byword for all the country’s ills, economic, social and psychological. Many thought, like his predecessor, that nothing could be done. Many thought that Capitalism and democracy would wither on the vine and that anarchy must follow.
Roosevelt’s genius lay in placing human understandings and relationships before simply moving money around. This gave accountability and probity. Roosevelt’s New Deal was to involve the whole country and to imply an understanding and a trust and a working together, hand in hand, to rebuild the country’s social and economic and physical infrastructure from the ground up. He was fond of saying that the trying out of the ‘alphabet spaghetti’ initiatives he instituted was at least better than doing nothing. The enemy was atrophy borne of fear. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” he said in his first inaugural address as president:
Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
Many things have emerged from yesterday’s Vision Day, one of which was the declared readiness that this Church should advance and grow, not out of an interest in gain for its own sake, but out of our own glad and confident responsiveness to the Christian Call. As we acknowledge the privilege of the custodianship of this Church at this time, each one of us is being called to do what we can to secure its life and future for posterity. This is not just to be an act of caretaking but of active compassion. It was significant yesterday that a lone Russian wayfarer, Roman, (accidently) came into the crypt while we were having lunch. In the middle of our mission discussion we were able to offer him a place at the table and some food, a small gesture for us, but a significant marker of our express desire to continue to offer welcome and sustenance to the local poor and not to ignore the stranger at our door.
Roosevelt’s greatness lay in his understanding of the suffering and the difficulties of the common American, with whom, in the midst of devastating depression, he had embarked upon his New Deal. He was to lead his country through The Great Depression while recognising the negative aspects of blind human consumption. He had vowed to restore America to its own people. The message of the Second Sunday before Advent is that we, The Church are called to be watchful and active in restoring the Church in the likeness of the active and mindful compassion of Christ. This is the trust that we have been given in this church of ours under God.
It is to a ‘new deal’ that the Second Sunday before Advent now points, even to our Saviour Jesus Christ. He it is who calls us away from mindless material consumption and into in the full life of his freely given grace; ready to find ourselves in one another and in Him, for the sake of His Kingdom on earth, where his true likeness may be readily recognised.
Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2017
12th Nov 2017
Remembrance Sunday 2017
‘Our hope is rich in immortality’ from Wisdom 3.4
I have here a silver pyx, a small box into which are reverently placed the little wafer breads, the consecrated hosts, Eucharistic breads brought to the sick and the housebound. But this pyx is different. It has an inscription on its reverse side which simply says ‘In Memoriam 1940’. I have no idea what lay behind this inscription. Perhaps this pyx had belonged to a chaplain in the forces during the Second World War, or was donated to a church in memory of a loved one; or perhaps given in memory of someone who been suddenly killed? I shall never know. What I do know is that here is a silver pyx inn which is inscribed a date which is enormously significant to the donor and intended always to be remembered.
Remembrance Sunday catches something of this poignancy. It occupies a sea of human experience which spans life and death and suffering and loss with the promise of a hope 'rich in immortality’. It brings us in touch, with the brutality and the futility of war and the sorrow of loss. At the same time we begin to recognise the dignity and the eternal worth of human life and of human sacrifice. If we are to speak of God’s presence in the face of human tragedy, we might recall his presence in so many acts of self-giving. The word ‘sacrifice’ is not only the giving of life unto death, but also the daily offering of dedicated and willing service as another kind of ‘laying down of life’.
The Christian Faith is predicated on sacrifice - the reaching out beyond the life here to the life beyond in the giving of oneself for the sake of the other. The many war memorials across the world with the seemingly endless rows of names, with each name a whole life, a life of hopes and dreams and cares and joys and pains. And as the poppy petals fall down into the Albert Hall each year at the Festival of Remembrance each petal represents one life given. Each one counts; each one was significant; each one gathered up and made vivid in the falling of the red petals. Each one always matters…
In a world in which war and the waging of war still remains a reality we ask ourselves as Christians how we are to understand this Remembrance Sunday in relation to life in the early twenty first century? We commemorate this Sunday only days after the Christian World commemorates All Souls, the Day of the Dead. In London the dead leaves fall to the ground and crunch underfoot as nature accompanies the hallowing of the dead and the poppies are seen everywhere. The present day vocation for the Christian is to proclaim a life that has not succumbed to the deadliness of materialism and cynicism but instead rejoices in the Christian hope which is ‘bright with immortality’, and which stands as a rebuke to the closed mind and the stone heart.
The Christian way forward lies through the proper honouring of the human condition as it is found. It lies in the preparedness to sacrifice our own selves for the good of the greater human whole. The Christian Gospel and the teaching of Christ is a summons to attend to these things. Deadness is there in the life which has withdrawn into itself and which takes no risks and avoids having any demands made upon it. Abundant life is there when it is joyously given away, sacrificed in disinterested love. The life of Jesus has shown that victory over the powers of death is won in the offering of our lives for the greater good which is God. We may do this in perhaps in little ways. But they are none of them insignificant in the outworking of God's purposes for this world.
Sometimes large, unbelievable amounts of sacrifice have had be given for the sake of the good, and for the peace of the world. This day reminds us that the self-sacrifice of the many in the past may lead us to an understanding of the power of human self-sacrifice in the present and in this and every age. Christ has shown us the Way and in Him our hope remains, a sure hope, which, in the words of the Wisdom writer, is ‘rich in immortality’.
‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ - Dylan Thomas
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
Written between the wars in 1933, Thomas's poem takes on a broad theme of remembrance and the eternity of the human spirit.
Sermon for the Feast of All Saints
5th Nov 2017
A Sermon for All Saints 2017
'Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven'. Matthew 5.12
The Feast of All Saints is one of the most important of the Church’s year. It is what is called a ‘moveable’ feast, and can be ‘moved’ to the nearest Sunday, where it can be given its due honour. And as we honour the Christian saints so we honour the Christian calling, which is to a life consecrated and dedicated in the service of Jesus Christ.
The other day I was staying in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, from where you can see the tallest spire in England. The Cathedral is a stunning sight, and walking around the west front, you see before you hundreds of saints, each contained within their own apse, and all looking vaguely alike. And perhaps this is the image we have of the saints, mostly bearded men, gazing down at us from their isolated places and lost in time. In the south east corner of our church we have a statue of St Jude, who was rarely prayed to on account of his unfortunate name. But because of this he became known as ‘the patron saint of lost causes’. And he gives us the clue we need to fathom something of the meaning of the lives of the saints in everyday life in all its many facets.
The saints remind us that the Christian Faith belongs neither to a ‘goodness religion’ nor to a religion for super humans. Sanctity issues out of lives which have been marked by doubt, disillusion, suffering and struggle. The saints remind us that the Christian journey is real and loaded both with possibility and perplexity. These were never ‘plaster’ saints but real human beings. They remind us of lives lived in a very real and challenging circumstances. In the film “Nixon”, Anthony Hopkins plays the former president as a tortured and ruthless power maniac. In one scene, Nixon gazes up at a painting of John F Kennedy. He speaks to the painting thus “When people look at you they see themselves as they want to be, when they look at me they see themselves as they are”. Perhaps our working definition of a saint must combine both these observations?
The idea of the saint came from a tradition of venerating the mortal remains of Christians who had left their mark on the memory of the Christian community. The first of these were the early Christian martyrs who died in Rome, including St Peter and St Paul. Once churches were built they were called after saint’s names, and in Cornwall there are strange names like St Ennodock and St Neot who are known to us only in legend. The most famous English saint, St Thomas à Becket was made a saint only four years after his death. RS Thomas the poet reminds us as he looks upon his old church in remote West Wales that
‘The parish has a saint’s name that time cannot unfrock’.
The saints remind us that the Christian Faith may not be an easy faith to live out but it is an essentially human way and not a conveyor belt for the turning out of plaster saints. It is a way which can be tough because it expresses itself counter-culturally. Do not believe the certain kind of Christianity that makes faith seem guaranteed and easy; it is not. I do not find being Christian easy at all. The Church teaches, however, that we are here not for short-term spiritual gain but for the long haul, in faith terms ‘till death us do part’. Christian witness is about the sanctification, the blessing and dedication of lives that seek and find God over years and years as a single act of witness in Jesus Christ. The expression of this consecrated life have been many and various: displaying the kind of faith that came to St Augustine as the guilt over the enforced separation after 16 years from the partner he never married and the later death of their sixteen year old son. Then there was St Benedict, who wrote a rule for the community we call the Benedictines and it has long been valued as a Christian model for its understanding of human limitations and its love of unity in the Christian fellowship. Nonetheless his basic rulings on human behavior are forthright:
Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way: the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love.
The saints are human, just like us. The call to Christian sanctity is the call to live lives which are generous and loving and which reveal the Christian Faith to be transformative of the human condition because they are God immersed and God-led. But they rely, importantly, not on their strength alone, but in the mercy, forgiveness and healing they receive at God’s hands. Of course talking of sainthood and sanctity is always difficult. Holiness is a quality of experience we sense strongly and intuitively. Perhaps, as well as the saints of Christian history, there have been people you have known who have revealed in their lives something of that holiness and that strong purposefulness and selflessness which are the signs of the sanctified life. Or perhaps you have found sanctification in the love of another, or in an experience of God’s love in a place or within a community of prayer, like this church.
I never enter this building without feeling a sense of awe. I always feel my heart miss a beat. This is a place, a sanctified space, where I have, maybe like you, found and re-found a sense of belonging in the love of God, and a true sense of spiritual refreshment. The holiness of this place reveals itself apart from the matter of its architecture or of furniture, light or proportion. It is something felt to exist beyond the sum total of its parts. It lies in the prayers that have been made in this place for well over a hundred years, the prayers of many thousands of lives for which this place has been a house of God, a sanctuary, and a place of encounter with the God who has speaks and who calls. The outpouring of so many hopes and fears in this place, the human activity and the worship go to make up the strong sense of this place as a holy place, a place of truth. The presence of God in this place which seems saturated in the bricks. The saints and the idea of the sanctified life is a reminder that here we participate in that which is holy, and we hope that this holiness becomes folded into our everyday lives as the influence for our own healing and transformation. St Paul called his church members ‘saints’ as a way of encouraging them more fully to live the life to which they were being called and to establish, once and for the fact of the holiness of the Church.
The following great prayer, simply called ‘The Sanctus’ or ‘Prayer of Holiness’, embedded in the Eucharist, is one which tells us that our worship of God is a participation in that which is holy. For God is holy, and the worship we offer Him is for the sanctification, the transformation, the making holy of the ordinary stuff of our lives. And so we say:
Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord God,
Who was, and is and is to come!