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!
Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (Bible Sunday)
29th Oct 2017
Sunday 29th October 2017
Sermon for Bible Sunday (Year A)
At the Queen’s coronation more than 64 years ago, she was presented with The Holy Bible upon which to make a solemn oath to defend the Church. The following words were said by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland:
We present you with this Book,
The most valuable thing that this world affords.
Here is Wisdom;
This is the royal Law;
These are the lively Oracles of God.
The three major monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity are all religions of the Book, for which the Koran, The Torah and the Bible stand as sacred texts and bear supreme authority for the faithful. As we observe Bible Sunday this morning we will be acknowledging its authority, and cheering on that significant number of Christians for whom daily Bible study has become a regular part of their routine. Over 2 million copies of Bible study notes are published each year, and Archbishop Cranmer, the author of the English Prayer Book instructs the faithful to immerse themselves in their Bible and to ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest’ its contents. The Bible is not only to read or studied as a sacred text. The Bible stands as the physical evidence we have of the human experience of the God’s Word. If ever we are perplexed by theologians or the difficulties of understanding the intricacies of Church teaching, the Bible stands for the revelation of God’s Word, which was spoken at the beginning of Creation and is seen and known in Jesus Christ. And it is Jesus himself who reminds us in this morning’s Gospel that, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away’. (24.35) The words ‘These are the very lively oracles of God’ boomed out of the Coronation Service in 1953 and they tell us that the Bible stands a supreme authority for all Christians and its words and content are alive with possibility and transformative for our human condition in the present.
This week the worldwide church commemorates the 500th Anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s Theses on the doors of Wittenburg Cathedral and so symbolically the beginning of the Reformation. We have also been remembering the form the Reformation took in this country, and at the heart of its English version lay the introduction of the Bible translated for the first time in the English language by William Tyndale. By the early 1550s Bibles were chained to great old wooden lecterns in parish churches up and down the land and the ‘lively oracles of God’ made available to the ordinary man and woman. With the advent of printing this represented an explosive new change in the way Christians related to their churches. The Word of God had become accessible, with the possibility for its indwelling in the lives of the faithful and its rich application to the stuff of lives amid overwhelming difficulty and challenge.
In our own time, the evidence for the misapplication of Biblical and other religious texts is all too obvious. Many choose to treat the Bible as an instrument of judgement or exclusion, and cite texts to justify their own prejudices, particularly against those who do not fit into their own Christian scheme of things. Gay men and women have fallen particularly foul of this kind of interpretation. The Bible becomes the proof text for a particular kind of moral code and this fits in neatly with the urge to define the Christian elect and to exclude those whose don’t fit into its neat parameters. The so-called ‘Bible belt’ in the southern United States’ has become a byword for this kind of senseless bigotry and in this context, the Bible has supplanted God and the words of the Bible used as a kind of moralising attack dog.
‘Here is wisdom, this is the royal law, these are the very lively oracles of God’. These words invite us to come to scripture with our hearts and minds open to the possibility of its meaning and to allow it to speak for itself and to us. That will means that Cranmer’s injunction to ‘inwardly digest’ its contents (not literally of course!) will have us contemplate that meaning in isolation neither from its historical context nor as it may apply to our diverse and problematic world today. In this church we really do do a lot of Bible – each day there are Masses and prayers and the words of scripture are paramount. They continue that life-long conversation we have with Him and remind us of where we are coming from and where God is coming from. Here is a check list of those elements which the Bible delivers, a kind of life cycle:
The Bible tells us who God is.
The Bible helps us to trace our origins, from the beginning of Creation, and to speak of them.
The Bible helps us to understand what it is to be human, and how prone we are to getting it wrong.
The Bible teaches us that even though this is true, that God is understanding merciful and forgiving.
The Bible traces a certain history, of God’s chosen people, the Jews, and their story over centuries.
The Bible helps us to understand how this story, the story of our own Christian salvation, contains many twists and turns, many high and low points, but the importance of a living faith in God and of God’s faithfulness is a constant theme.
The Bible introduces us to the Psalmist and the Prophet, to the Patriarch, the almighty King, and to the people in safety and in exile; the people faithful and faithless.
The Bible leads us through the Old Testament and onto the New through the expectation of the coming of the Jewish Messiah.
The New Testament of the Bible is come through Jesus, who is not to be the Messiah that the Jews entirely expect.
The Gospels reveal Jesus to be the Son of God. That is, God in human form. He is to show us who God is while standing for the fulfilment of all that had gone before.
In showing us who God is, Jesus is to defy all expectations of ‘success’ in the matter, instead dying on a Cross, rising from the dead and instituting the transformation of faith in God in the life of self-giving love.
The Bible evidences that same God who is always with us even to the end of time.
I can’t quite present these elements as a ‘plotline’ but you can see that a distinct pattern is formed which is an ever increasing movement toward and in favour of the salvation of all souls and the transformation of lives held in captivity by their self-determination. And, following the resurrection and the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, energy of this salvation history moves ever outward and nourishes the life of God’s Church for all time. As I explain these things to you, a little voice beside me says to me ‘Is all this lively enough for you?’ I reply, ‘Yes, certainly’. The contents of Holy Scripture provide the dimensions, the scale and the living scope for my own salvation history.
May we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the lively oracles of God, 'for here lies true wisdom and this is the royal law'. May God’s Word be for us that much needed illumination, instruction and refreshment. May it be for the feeding and source of life for which are souls are in such profound need.
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
22nd Oct 2017
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God's’”.
This morning’s message rests on the toss of a coin and concerns Jesus’ identity. The whole focus now turns to Jesus Himself and who He is, and importantly where his political and religious allegiances lie. Jesus is answering a trick question put to him by the Pharisees, the religious elite. They question him about his allegiance to God and Caesar, to the the call of God over blind allegiance to the powers that be.
The Jews had to pay their taxes to the Roman authority with a special coin with the hated head of Caesar on it. Hated by the ordinary citizen because his empire necessitated a permanent state of high taxation, even among the poor. Hated because the Emperor had set himself up not only as Head of State but also as Divine. Hated because his was the occupying ‘foreign’ power. The Jews were allowed their customs and religion but under strict orders not to cause trouble. The allegiance the Empire called for was a total one – mind, body and even soul. This of course, reminded the Jews that theirs was a Roman occupied territory with a puppet King, Herod. To speak against the Emperor was a capital crime punished by death. In our passage, the Pharisees consider Jesus as something of a contradiction, suspect both as an orthodox Jew and as a political subversive. They set a trap for Him, thinking he must either declare himself as an anti-imperialist and so be arrested by the Romans, or declare himself subservient to Rome and so offend his fellow religious Jews.
The key to this passage lies not just with Jesus’ political or social allegiance, but points to the unique authority which God discloses in the lives of the people. This is best understood in what St Paul terms ‘conviction’, or for us, ‘Christian conviction’. Such conviction emerges out of lives which, among the competing claims of conscience, consider the authority of God in Jesus Christ as primary, and as possessing a primary voice for the greater advancement of the world we inhabit.
In answering the question about God and Caesar indirectly (giving both their right due) Jesus makes plain that the Word of God does not possess special privileges but will be heard among all the other voices, and especially among what Paul was to call ‘the principalities and powers and rulers of this present darkness’. God’s is a unique and particular kind of authority, one which is both John the Baptist’s ‘voice crying in the wilderness’, and also the Word which is possessed of Godly dignity and Godly integrity:
The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4.12
The effect of God’s Word may be as “…a stone being rolled from the mind” and its power for good will be manifest (RS Thomas).
An example in our recent history of this great good lies in the thinking behind the establishment of our Welfare State and The National Health Service on 5th July 1948. The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, offers these words from Archbishop WilliamTemple on the passing of the acts for the establishment of the welfare state in 1948:
“This is a once in a lifetime expression of a Christian ethic embodied in an act of parliament”
Temple and the author of the Report on the Welfare State, William Beveridge spoke of the sound establishment and the solid expression of ‘social insurance’ in the life of the nation and the relief from sickness and penury. The coming of the NHS, in the light of the devastation of war, was a significant, timely and miraculous thing. It lives with us, in its present form, still sanding brightly as an expression of the willingness to meet the ordinary citizen at their point of greatest vulnerability and need.. ‘A Christian ethic embodied in an act of parliament’. And all this because in the thick of war there existed among influential minds a truly Godly vision for a dynamic and socially just peace.
When such things happen they stand alone, as great political landmarks. Another act of genius, this time initiated by the Americans, took place only a month earlier as The Foreign Assistance Act was passed by the US House of Representatives on 3rd June 1948. The Marshall Plan pulled the rug under Stalin’s grab for Empire in Europe by equipping the western European countries for recovery and stability. It came to be known as “The most unselfish and unsordid financial transaction in history” and allowed peace with freedom to break out after years of violent bloodshed and devastation.
In our own time, things are somewhat different. We now have to consider, especially in King’s Cross, what is the Christian response to the great gaps left in state provision for the poor and needy. Our upcoming Vision Day will not only involve us in envisioning our future life here at Holy Cross and how we can continue the tradition of this church’s active commitment to working alongside the poor, not as neat piece of social work, but as a work of solidarity and trust with those who come to a Church building and find personal and human responses in lives which have been devastated and marred and made fearful or lost. The Drop In has not had its day, and there will still be a need to giveone to one care for those in dire need and so render to God the things which are God’s. The State run social welfare system must, more than ever, be augmented by the voluntary sector and groups of people such as churches, actively committed to compassionate and involved social care. We will not let go of this need to continue the Holy Cross tradition of strong Catholicism driving a purposeful social Gospel.
Jesus had to answer the trick question of the Pharisees, and his response to serve both God and Caesar is the call to serve God in his world just as it is.
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are Gods’”.
‘Rendering’ requires that the ‘things of God’ are not left unheeded, but, by our actions and decisions and active compassion, and in a world of dizzying and demanding challenges, they are continually being made evident.