Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemass)
28th Jan 2018
The Feast of the Presentation of ur Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2018.
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph and Jesus come enter the Temple to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The meaning of this event also concerns a second narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Simeon and Anna provide a contrast to the young family of Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus. In the meeting of these two oddly matched couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was traditional to present a boy child to the priest and for the mother to be ritually cleansed. 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 Jewish blessing and the cleansing ceremony there takes place in this story a meeting and a greeting 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. The meeting is expressed as the fulfilment of ancient prophecy and brought to bear in the prophecy of Simeon. He tells Mary that her child “is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel,; a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”. And then the sting “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too”.
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. We bring back into life 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, we claim real ownership of those things which this meeting offers and proclaim them as Epiphany.
Last week I was in York, and waited on a cold morning for a free guided tour, which was to take place at 11 am. The tour guide came up to us and sais “You are an exceedingly privileged group. You are the first group of pilgrims who will see this morning the newly restored great East Window since it was covered some ten years ago. You will see this glorious miracle, the largest medieval stained glass window in the world, all wrought in glass, as the medievals saw it. Well, we couldn’t believe our luck, and nothing could have prepared us for what we saw; this miracle in glass. We were told that Medieval Church glass is exceedingly rare, and that York Minster has 40% of the Medieval glass contained in the whole country. It is, literally, a wonder of the world, and a wonder to behold. It tells in stained glass the story of the Christian salvation from Creation in panel after panel of images shot through with animation and narrative power and luscious colour.
On that day, standing before this immense, miracle window, my eyes were ‘seeing salvation’ through the same human eyes, minds and souls of those for whom this window was the expression of a passionate avowal of their Christian Faith. This same passion is uttered by Simeon to literally ‘bring down the curtain’ on the Old Testament and ancient prophecy. Now the promise is made in Jesus. The Light which illumines the light and dark places of this world’s being and which shines on me, now, in particular.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
21st Jan 2018
Epiphany 3 Year B
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 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 realise 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 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 Keeper 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 mere pleasure or satisfaction. There is a life to be lived which takes us beyond mere 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 find their meaning in Christ. 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 sure. 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
7th Jan 2018
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2017 (Year A)
"When they saw that the star had stoped they were overwhelmed with joy". Matthew 2.9.
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, the appearance of God in the form of Jesus. The sign is the birth of the Messiah, the one which draws the three wise men to travel to see that which had been and promised by Isaiah and announced by the angel Gabriel; of the appearance of the Messiah as a baby, “wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger”. Of the impossible possibility of a child who is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.
This sign then has its effect 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 for ever:
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.
We are not see the Story of the Three Wise Men then, as 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 as all powerful and yet remote.
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.
It suddenly begins to change lives and whole outlooks. The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians proclaims the new epiphany to include the gentiles (all people) who have, as he puts it ‘become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Jesus Christ’.
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 lives; of the deepening of our witness and our time in the service of the Church. In this respect, the Methodist Church marks this time with an act of determined renewal in the life of faith, as it recites its own Covenant Prayer:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessèd God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
To speak like this is to speak of this Feast of the Epiphany not only as a Feast of Signs and mystery but also of self-dedication. Epiphany occupies a time and a place in which the divine presence is revealed to us. Then we are called to respond wholeheartedly. Christ’s Epiphany is our epiphany too, a necessary reminder of the need for daily conversion and the continual and joyful re-kindling of faith. This is needed so much at a time when the refreshment that the Christian faith offers our world; its spiritual oxygenation, is needed now more than ever.
Sermon for the Christmas Mass of Midnight 2017
24th Dec 2017
Sermon for Midnight Mass 2017
And this will be a sign for you: You will find the child wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger. Luke 2.12
In London’s Cavendish Square, opposite John Lewis’ store, there lies a great sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Child covering the entrance to a narrow and winding street called Dean’s Mews. The giant image, fashioned in lead, 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. But the sculpture also speaks to London and the world. Its sculptor, Jacob Epstein, has Mary, standing lovingly behind her infant, directing us down to the little child, while Jesus has his arms held out to us in a gesture of exuberant openness. Here, Jesus opens his arms to greet us, as if waiting to run up to us hold us and embrace us. We are drawn toward this image because it promises something profoundly human and yet is directed away from itself. I well remember as a four year old meeting by own mother outside the hospital following the birth of my little brother, and she, while holding the baby, managed to clasp my shoulders for a great hug.
In this little child Jesus, God has come to show us that he has become one of us as we are beckoned closer to receive his embrace. And we are being called simply to respond. It’s ironic that as the crowds stumble out of the back of John Lewis’ Store in Oxford Street, laden with Christmas goodies, the divine embrace is being offered to them on the other side Square. I am minded of the words of Shirley Temple, the child star who once said, “I stopped believing in Santa when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph”. And yet John Lewis continue to remind us, unlike Shirley Temple, that their goods are ‘never knowingly undersold’.
I have here a plaque which is a copy of similar plaques which decorate the walls of a 500 hundred year old foundling hospital in Florence, Italy. It is called ‘The Hospital of the Innocents’ the Ospedale degli Innocenti, where, as at Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital down the road in Bloomsbury there was a place provided, a ledge where unwanted babies were to be left in its care. The image of the baby Jesus is inspirational and stands for all of us. It’s an image which is all embracing. But we notice two things about this particular image. First, the way in which the baby, Jesus, is depicted as open armed and in a generous gesture of greeting. God’s love is open and boundless, it seeks to find us. It is the love ‘beyond all telling’ which is saying to our world “However you may mess things up, however you may put up barriers against my love, however you might betray me in little or greater ways, I love you and I will never forsake you. I will show my mercy to you and I will forgive you. You are mine and I am yours, and in this you can trust; in this you can place all your confidence and hope.This is now the message of Christmas. This is God’s gift to us tonight. God is not strange and distant but close to us. As this church enters upon its 130th year, it can tell stories of countless individuals for whom this church has felt for them that God has come that bit closer.
The second thing we notice about this image is that the baby is bound by swaddling bands, and this is an image for God’s Son, who as becoming human, will be bound by his fate. As the giver of God’s love, the grown man Jesus Christ will experience human love returned in some kind, but also his love, the love of God, rejected even unto his own death. He will be ‘bound in setting others free’. And yet the prevailing energy in the coming of Christ to an ambivalent world is one in which we experience God the Father’s love as an open one. It is a love, like all true loves, which takes a risk on love and its possible rejection for the sake of that same love.
Tonight the Christian world celebrates the God who offers the world himself in the shape and form and being of this little child. Many more people than Christians realise that the birth of Jesus speaks also to an understanding beyond the confines of the Christian religion and into a truer understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive, what it means to take a risk on love. Christmas is a necessity. There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we’re here for something else besides ourselves. The open arms of the Christ child are that ‘something else’. God’s sign. They beckon to us now as we sing in the words of the well-known carol (with some excitement):
‘O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel’
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
17th Dec 2017
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year B)
John 1.6-8; 19-28.
He came as a witness to speak for the light. John 1.7
In today’s gospel we again meet John the Baptist. John is for ever defined by what he is not: he is not the light; he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. He is ‘unworthy to tie the sandal’ of one coming after him. While he baptizes with water, the one he proclaims will baptise with the Holy Spirit. And he knows who this person is, for he is standing right there among the priests and Levites sent to question him; and yet the priests and Levites do not recognize him. The English court composer Orlando Gibbons composed a breathtakingly beautiful piece entitled ‘This is the Record of John’ which pictures John in an interrogation about his identity which is answered in the negative. And the emphasis on the negative identity of John alongside his passionate avowal of ‘The One Who is to Come’ serves to make his prophecy even more suspenseful and powerful.
John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from the 'being not' all the things that Jesus is, John is refreshingly certain about what he has to do. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word ‘testimony’ to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.' No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John did.
In acknowledging that he stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, John links us to the prophecies of our first reading today, that joyous vision of the good news of deliverance. The whole passage overflows with joy at the vision of a just king who frees the oppressed, comforts those who mourn, repairs ruination, and hates all the sin and wrongdoing which disfigure the world; a God who makes an everlasting covenant with his people, and promises them that they are the people whom the Lord has blessed. John's task as a witness, is to give expression to this glorious message: the time has come, the time is now, the Messiah is even now amongst you, prepare the way for His coming. This note of joy and rejoicing is so apt for today, as the wearing of this pink vestment signifies a rejoicing in the midst of the glorious solemnity of the Advent season. The Latin word ‘gaudete’ is one which signifies rejoicing.
From what cause do we as Christians rejoice? We rejoice because we are inheritors of the Christian tradition in all its fullness here at Holy Cross Church. We trace the Christian tradition back to the apostles, the ones Jesus called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence as Christians. The Church’s essential character is bound up in its tradition of unity and discipline. An essential part of this discipline lies in its faith in and obedience to the person of the Bishop. The existence of the Bishop is a block against any church becoming a sect.
St Irenaeus the first of the Christian theologians in c.160 wrote “Against The Heresies”. One of these heresies was that which ignored the authority of the Bishop.
Let nothing be done without the Bishop:
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the priests as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no-one do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Church. Whatsoever the Bishop shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
We have spent this year putting together our Vision for the future of this church and doing what John the Baptist bids us urgently do – to envisage the Kingdom of God on this earth and to work to bring it about. This coming year will, I predict, be the most momentous of our church’s recent history as we begin to harmonise the upstairs and downstairs uses of this great and holy building, enabling us to effect new ways of being the local church and forging new working relationships, new partners in the faith and reaching new constituencies. We will be restating our claim to be a church active in the service of our local community as these new opportunities for service open up. John the Baptist calls this morning for an opening up of the pathways that lead to and from God through an active willingness to make them plain. John’s voice may be seen as one still ‘crying in the spiritual wilderness’ but it is also resonant and life giving. It is the voice in harmony with God’s voice, a voice for our time and for all time and especially for this church at this God given moment in our history.
This is emphatically our present and forthcoming gaudete; our joy. We have found God in the Church and that he was and is and will remain for us, our true life’s meaning and its sure direction here, at Holy Cross and in the exciting time to come. My friends, watch and wait, as you must do this Advent, but rejoice now because the promise to come is also the promise which is being continually made in the active present.