Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent Year C
10th Feb 2019
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent Year C.
When he had finished speaking he said to Simon ‘Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch’ Luke 5.5.
One of the first paintings I ever saw was hung in pride of place at the entrance hall of Plymouth Museum, one of the many museums of ‘civic pride’ up and down the country built by the Victorians. This Painting was of a large fishing boat stranded in wet sand, and spewing fish around it everywhere. The scene was serene and peaceful; bathed in the bright clear light of an early Summer morning. Trestle tables were laid out on the sand where fisherwomen were cutting and filleting the fish. The idea of hanging the painting there made you feel the water’s majesty, glistening around you. The effect was always to delight and to refresh you as you came in out of the busy street.
Our Gospel writer Luke has often been depicted in religious art as a painter, often with a palette in his hand and a painter’s brush and ready to paint pictures and ikons. It is not likely that he was a painter; but there is ample evidence of his ability to ‘paint’ pictures using words. His words add depth and colour and lustre to what he writes. And in today’s Gospel reading he paints a picture for us using the background image of a crowd of people away on the shore and pressing in on one another, eager to see Jesus. And in the foreground is a large lake, from which Jesus addresses the people. Between background and foreground, between land and water, lies the boat where Jesus is. This is the place where the movement of the people, the teaching of Jesus, the putting out into the deep and the miraculous catch of fish is concentrated.
Jesus’ little boat is like one of those magnets we used to use at school which lies at the centre of a force-field of energy shown by an arc of iron filings. But this particular energy, Luke tells us, is divine energy, the same energy ‘which was God’s from the beginning’. It is an energy which is essentially spiritual, though drawn from life. St Luke is getting us to read his narrative from this raised perspective, in which ‘the teaching from the boat’; ‘the putting out into deep water’; ‘the filling of the boats to sinking point’ and the command to ‘be not afraid’ have a meaning which is not just about fishing! It provides for us a visual imagery through which a spiritual message is being spoken.
We are asked to read this scene some way behind Jesus and raised high so that we read this Gospel as it were from above; from the perspective of God himself. God, then, looks down and beholds what is happening. We see this in the paintings of Salvador Dali, and especially in his 1951 Painting Jesus Christ of St John of the Cross, where the crucifixion is seen from way above Christ’s head (see over). We are asked to see what is happening from a new and thrilling perspective.
The message of the boat on the Sea of Galilee is about God and about us. It provides for a picture of the Christian calling in which we are being called to become ourselves from that place which lies both within and beyond our own wants. There is a William Blake drawing with a man looking up to the moon and a ladder which leads to it. The man looks up to the moon and cries “I want! I want!” If our lives are based solely on what we want, of ‘asking for the moon’, surely life succumbs to selfish materialism? Its spiritual counterpart is the one which begins to look out of a self-centred atomised world and toward the needs of those around us. We reach out form our own selfish world to find others and so in turn find our true selves in them. This is a mystery. “Love is the difficult idea that someone other than myself is real” said Iris Murdoch.
The ‘putting out into the deep’ suggested by Luke’s Gospel Reading is living life not by the ‘Me! Me!’ principle but by discovering deep within ourselves the spiritual resources to become as Christ would have us become; turned toward the reality of the other, from a deeper awareness of the life around us and of the necessity always of love : God’s love is as invisible arms that reach down into the deep to find what is there, and has always been there. He calls you in his Son Jesus Christ ‘to put out into deep water’ as he did in Galilee all those centuries ago. To pay out our nets into the waters both to trust in his provision and rejoice in his increase. This morning St Luke the Gospel writer has not only told us what this might mean. He has painted it in our minds and hearts.
Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
3rd Feb 2019
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2019.
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
Today’s great Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple extends and enriches the vision of the prophet Malachi that ‘The Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple’. In his prophecy lis the meeting of past and present realities; a meeting between Mary, Joseph and Jesus and old Simeon and between the Jesus who is presented to us this morning. In it, we are given a picture of the God who is close to us and who beckons us into his presence.
In London’s Cavendish Square, opposite John Lewis’ store, lies a great sculpture of the Virgin and Child covering the entrance to a narrow and winding street called Dean’s Mews. It is there to tell the visitor of what lies at the end of the street, a small Roman Catholic Women’s community, The Society of the Holy Child. The sculptor, Jacob Epstein, has Mary, standing behind her infant, with her hands open towards us in a gesture of generous giving and openness. The child at Mary’s feet has his arms open to greet us, waiting to hold us and embrace us. The image carries for us a meaning far beyond that of just any mother and child. It draws us toward it like a magnet because it speaks to us in the way it communicates the strong purposes of God in and beyond the surface meaning of stance and gesture. It has an everlasting quality in the way it promises something profoundly human and eternal. In it lies the promise of the presence of a God who is close by; very near us. He is not a God who is inert, but rather, One who beckons.
In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph and Jesus come to enter the Temple and to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The meaning of this event is made clearer to us in the telling of a second or background narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Both are elderly. This couple provide a contrast in time and in place to the young family Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus. In the meeting of these two couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was routine and traditional to present a boy child and for the mother to be ritually cleansed after the birth of her child. This purification had its equivalent in The Church of England not so long ago in the so-called ‘Churching’ of women following a pregnancy. In the blessing and the cleansing ceremony there includes a meeting and a greeting and taking place between two religious epochs…The Old and New Testament worlds are shown to us in the one time, the one place and in the one child, Jesus.
Luke paints this message on the broadest possible canvas : not only of history, but of the Divine purpose. The Old Testament man Simeon is more than a mere bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child as a prayer to God the Father: “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries “which thou hast prepared before the face of all people…” And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meeting the new born baby and witnessing the outcome of his own life’s longing. He sees his own salvation. And TS Eliot marks, in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and death in the immensity of time and sets them alongside Simeon's completed life.
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
TS Eliot ‘A Song of Simeon’.
Today is a Feast Day of Candles. There is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple. In the carrying of candles, we bring the story to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. A coming to life in us of things done and spoken long ago, and of the holding in our hands, as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people’. By these means we, after all these years, claim ownership of those things which this meeting offers, for our world's posterity.
As the Christ was presented to God, to Simeon and to the world, so we in our procession present ourselves to Christ. In turn Christ is presented to us, just as he is and just as we are, rather like that sculpture in Cavendish Square. This is ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine’ as the hymn reminds us. This is the God who is very close to us, as one prayer has it ‘closer is he than breathing; nearer than hands and feet’. Let us then enter into this closeness with God and abide in him, as he abides in us. At least let us be open to the idea of his closeness and open our hearts to greet him. Let be present to the sureness of his being, just like Simeon.
Another sculpture across Cavendish Square and down a side road takes you to John Lewis’ store in Oxford Street where Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture ‘Winged Figure’ is also a beckoning presence. It offers a response in kind to Epstein’s 'Mother and Child'. The little walk across the square and into Oxford Street might tell us that this beckoning God is for ever present to us. We are invited now to seek him, and if possible to find him, just as Mary and Joseph and Simeon did all those years ago. Go and see for yourselves. After all, it's not too far away...
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
27th Jan 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany Year C
He rolled back the scroll, gave it to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to speak to them “Today in your hearing this text has been fulfilled”. Luke 4.21
Our Old Testament and Gospel readings all ‘read into’ one another. The Old Testament Reading (Nehemiah 8.2-6,8-10) and Gospel Reading tell us of the awe and of the wonder associated with sacred scripture. When Jesus reads the text out of the scroll and of bringing ‘Good News to the poor’ he is not speaking as a journalist but as the Messiah, the chosen one. He declares that in him this piece of scripture has been fulfilled. St Luke adds two lovely details, of how he handed back the scroll to the assistant, and of how ‘all eyes were fixed on him’. No wonder! In Jesus, what has been written as sacred now stands before them as the real thing. But there is more. There is the fact of what the Messiah has come to bring : Good News to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the downtrodden. Our second reading from St Paul (1 Corinthians 12.12-31) advances the idea of a church as ‘The Body of Christ’, which though having many parts, is not a disparate community but is actual the physical embodiment of Christ who is for the Church its source of life, its embodiment and its beating heart. It is in this respect that Christ ringing declaration of himself as ‘fulfiller of the past’ is now made present before their eyes as he is present for us in the Church.
Fulfiller of the past,
Promise of things to be,
We hail Thy body glorified
And our redemption see. (From ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’)
Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
compassion on this world
Christ has no body now on earth but yours. St Teresa of Avila
It is important firstly that we understand the age-old importance attached to the written word, and of the importance associated with sacred scripture as containing the ‘proof’ texts for the believing community. That remains true for the great mono theistic religions – Judaism (The Torah) Christianity (The Bible) and Islam (The Koran). All exist as religions of the Book. And the texts that lie within them are deemed sacred, holy and inviolable, even though they come under critical scrutiny and interpretation from theologians and the faithful. And we have examples of how these texts are rendered truly precious in the Book of Kells, and in the beautiful calligraphy that decorates some of the world’s most famous mosques, and of the Jewish Torah still housed in beautifully decorated scrolls of parchment.
In this church, the whole first third of the Mass is taken up with that is called ‘The Ministry of the Word’, at whose heart lies this sermon but more formally our three readings from scripture, which enjoy an ascending hierarchy, from the Old to the New Testament, and then to the Gospel Reading, containing the words of Christ himself. This reading is given greatest importance, having its own organ fanfare, a procession with candles with the Gospel Book held aloft both at the beginning of this service and before the Gospel is read. The Gospel book is censed and alleluyas sung in its presence. In liturgical terms the Gospel reading is designed to emerge out of the Mass like the tolling of a bell. The Gospel is a ringing declaration of God’s purposes, just as it was in that synagogue so long ago. In our Gospel Reading all eyes are ordered to turn toward the Book even as they were turned to Christ in the synagogue. Only now the text from the Gospel reading is to be fulfilled in our presence and in our own life together as Christ’s Body, The Church.
And so this Gospel reading from St Luke takes us in the person of Jesus Christ from TEXT to CONTEXT. The scriptural texts and The Gospel Readings are not there for their beauty and instructional value alone. They are read solemnly and with fanfare because they are to awaken us to the realties that face us in the current time. Scripture texts are there to be ‘fulfilled’ and to be ‘revealed’ as new life.
The Collect for Advent (From The Book of Common Prayer):
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Do we read the Bible as though it mattered to us and to our lives? The Reading of Scripture has been described as ‘Lectio Divina’ ‘Divine Reading’, but this is not like reading a newspaper or a novel. This is reading as prayer and contemplation, in which words and phrases become infused with the divine. It is through our reading of scripture, and in its ‘inward digesting’ that we become alive to the truth that would both grant us wisdom and at the same time set us free. In such a way, scripture can and has surely been fulfilled in our presence?
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.