Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent ('Gaudete')
16th Dec 2018
The Third Sunday of Advent 2018
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year C)
In today’s gospel we once again meet John the Baptist. John is invariably 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 be baptized 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 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 a series of questions about his identity, most of them 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 suspenseful and telling.
But John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from his 'being not' what Jesus is, his prophecy is passionate and embodied. The man and the prophecy are one. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am one the voice of one crying in the wilderness’. No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John has.
And in acknowledging that he stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, he 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 is 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. This is John's task as a witness, to proclaim, to testify to, this glorious message: the time has come, the time is now, the Messiah is amongst you. And this note of joy or 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 whom Jesus called. We proclaim the existence of The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as utterly defining for our existence. The Church’s essential character is bound up in its living tradition, in which the love of God is its meaning.
This tradition is not to be bargained away or undermined by the recourse to the secular mentality or the so-called ‘new atheism’. This is a buying of conveniences and does not address us as free and fallible human beings. It is because everything belongs to the lowest or median human common denominator. It is a joyless, controlling dictat, what Pope Emeritus Benedict has called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ in which everything except God is addressed and there is no message addressed to us in the deepest part of our being.
In this church a cause for rejoicing lies in the many people who come here to visit, and that moment at which they find themselves in awe of what they see. This building has real drawing power and helps us to envisage God and to anticipate, as John did, God’s presence as a close and distinct reality, conveyed in the architecture of pillars, arches, steps and the play of light and shadow, the glint of gold, and then the feeling that this is no ordinary place but filled with prayer and a sense of what is called ‘the numinous’; filled with an indefinable spiritual quality. Remember that John came as a witness to this same light. This then proves to be a place where time spent in prayer here, in often an almost empty building, proves to be one in which God is regularly found and known. But equally John the Baptist sounds in Advent the note of coming judgement, and that it is right for us to call for ‘a church turned inside out’ and onto the community we serve in our mission plan.
John the Baptist gifts us the entire Christian perspective. He is the one who proclaims the coming of the Messiah not as something vague and for the future but something which is with us in the here and now. It is a life to be lived in all its various shades and shadows, lights and glories.
This is gaudete; this is our joy. That 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 ultimate worth, our freedom and our hope.
Sermon for Advent Sunday 2018
2nd Dec 2018
HOLY CROSS CHURCH, CROMER STREET 2018
Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen. Luke 21.36
The season of Advent, unlike any other season in the Church’s year, involves us in a waiting mode of being. I overheard a child in Tesco the other day saying to her brother “I can’t wait for Christmas!”. In her eyes I could glimpse how children are caught up in the excitement of waiting. It’s a wonderful, suspenseful kind of waiting, and a prolonged wait, peppered for the child with all kinds of promise and of course, gratification.
But for adults waiting can often be a much less ecstatic business. Gratification must be deferred or refused for the sake of the good. When I think about waiting my mind turns to hospitals. Patients (well named) start the day waiting for early breakfasts, for the bed to be made and for the doctor to come on his rounds. They wait for the result of tests and appointments and surgery or to be sent home; some even await their own death. One of the great theological books written on the theme of waiting is Bill Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. In it Jesus is seen above all else as one who waits; most clearly seen in the Garden of Gethsemane as one who waits and holds on with all the fearfulness and the terror of his own position in the waiting. He is waiting in the midst of his own vulnerability and exposure and helplessness. When I think of Jesus, I think of him waiting, of him trusting, of him waiting, open and vulnerable and exposed.
But we do not wait in a vacuum. We wait in time and we wait on God. As time goes by we experience some of the greatest challenges to our sense of who we are, and of the need, expressed ominously in this morning’s Gospel, to ‘pray at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. I think we would rather not know what might happen to us, yet we must face the possibility that we might be severely tested. The writer of Ecclesiastes (3.1) reminds us that ”there is a time for everything under the sun” and the Season of Advent has a quality of expectation of what is to come. We are urged not to be afraid. Praying for strength to survive may be seen as an act of human survival itself. Remaining faithful in a real and spiritual awakenness to the surrounding realities is the mark of the Christian character. It echoes St Paul's definition of that faith which will outlast the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and which "...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things". (1 Corinthians 13.7-8).
When Christians wait they wait in faith and hope, and not as though it waiting were useless. Advent is calling us to wait in the hope of the coming of Christ. We have, in the words of Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘great expectations’ and so as we begin this Advent season we are already catching small glimmers of what is to be revealed to us. And our weekly Sunday Bible class this Advent of 2018 will remind us of those who in scripture tradition have committed themselves to waiting. Waiting while God has seen fit to bless their destinies from what seem at first hidden starting places. But their very modest circumstances combine with the magnificence of their utterances. Their witness enlarges our knowledge of who God is and what his purposes reveal in Abraham and Sarah, Isaiah, John the Baptist and ultimately Our Lady, Mary, Mother of God and bearer of God.
For now this Holy Season of Advent points to the hard fact of patient waiting; the waiting in faith while something greater is being unfolded. Waiting in God’s time. In an age in which a vast amount of choice is available to us. In an age in which temporary gratification is satisfied in so many ways and in an age in which communication is instantaneous and abbreviated we are too often urged to live our lives without the inconvenience of contemplative or useless waiting. Instead we are bewildered with the luxury of too much choice and gratification which turns out to be unsatisfying. The refusal of waiting can lead to a numbing of the senses. A kind of awful dulling or sleeping. There ought to be times when we lay this refusal to one side and consider the place where truer life is to be found. Meister Eckhart wishes for expression of God’s affirmation to make sense, and so he says,
"Nothing is so like God as silence".
When we appreciate this we awaken ourselves to God’s presence. Advent speaks to us of the gradual unfolding of the divine disclosure as this morning one of our children lit the first candle on the Advent wreath. This is a small but vivid marking of that time which will lead us back to God. We are being called to wait. Not in a state of dull abjection but on the God who speaks to us in silence and who awakens the soul.
So, then let us wait; and let us pray; let us wait, and thus awakened, let us see…
Because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if he were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following him, we may depart from anxiety into his presence. W H Auden.
Sermon for the Feast of Christ the Universal King
25th Nov 2018
Sermon for Christ the King Year B
“My Kingdom is not of this world”. John 18.36
It seems so odd that we should be celebrating this Feast of Christ the Universal King for two reasons. Firstly because this is the last Sunday in the liturgical year and next Sunday sees the coming of Advent, the Season of waiting and hoping. Secondly, the idea of Kingship seems such a weak one, with most monarchs; nowadays constitutional monarchs, who tend to wield little or no political (and therefore real) power to determine and shape great events. At home as a child there weren’t many books, but we did have the complete works of Charles Dickens and ‘The Concise Home Doctor’. One of Dickens’ least known works is simply entitled ‘A Child’s History of England’ in which Dickens charts the reigns of all the Kings and Queens of England and offers the enquiring child either a character assassination of the monarch in question or guarded praise. Either way the child is left feeling that English monarchs were a motley lot, even though they possessed huge power and though there were some exceptions, the brand was a somewhat tarnished one.
I find it difficult to see Jesus as a traditional monarch, loaded with orb and sceptre and with a crown upon his head. We remember that the crown he did receive was the mocking crown of thorns from which blood poured down his face. Jesus himself reminds us in today’s Gospel that “my kingdom is not of this world” a statement at variance with Pontius Pilate’s own question of whether Jesus is indeed come as a traditional or radically different kind of king. “So you have said so” is the non- committal reply.
Some words from the Passion hymn “When I survey the wondrous Cross” lead us to look closer at the crucifixion:
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down,
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?”
The wisdom we receive from the Passion narratives and from posterity is that if there is a kind of kingship in Jesus, it is one which emerges out of extremes of self-sacrifice and in a willingness to embrace a state of utter powerlessness. The dialogue with Pilate concerning his apparent kingship is responded to largely in silence.
The important response to the strangeness and newness in Jesus’ kingship is the one which sets his authority in relation to the manner of his death and resurrection. The spirituality of this festival must never be forgotten or understated. No one recognised this more than Henri Nouwen in his Sabbatical Journey: "…on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Christ is presented to us as the mocked King on the Cross as well of the King of the universe. The greatest humiliation and the greatest victory are both shown to us in today's liturgy. It is important to look at this humiliated and victorious Christ before we start the new liturgical year with the celebration of Advent. All through the year we have to stay close to the humiliation as well as to the victory of Christ, because we are called to live both in our own daily lives."
That presents the Church with quite a challenge. A kingship which is also profoundly challenging to the kind of people we think we are. Jesus says, ‘If there is no suffering and pain and struggle and life change there can be no glory. Equally, if the Church is not a servant church then it has lost the plot. This is the kingly status of the Christ to which we understand this morning. It is a tough reality, a calling to a deeper appreciation of what life truly consists. It is a new and radical kind of authority which comes from the very source of life, God, himself, but it brings news that we would not wish to hear.
But we must say ‘No’ to ‘Black Friday’ and ‘No’ to a Christmas on big expenditure. The only worthwhile Christian witness of the contemporary Anglican Church is the one which would willingly offer something back to the poor, the lonely the discarded ones, the ones for whom even within our own sophisticated political status quo are crushed down in the name of necessary austerity and beaten down by an injurious benefits system, and forgotten by those who will embrace Christmas with gusto, oblivious of those for whom Christmas parades before their eyes as a nightmare scenario.
We are, by and large, comfortable in our Christianity. The Kingly authority of Christ beckons us to act with joy and confidence in his promises as though our own poor Christianity were waiting to more truly reveal itself. We wait for God’s glory to be revealed in us and in Christians like us. There is no better cue for me and you in the coming of Advent than this one. The call to enter a Kingdom not quite of this world's or our own satisfaction.
‘Christ the King’
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2018
11th Nov 2018
Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2018
Wisdom 3.4 ‘Our hope is rich in immortality’.
The readings which have been set for Remembrance Sunday this year seem a little strange, and they seem only to provide subtle hints on the meaning of our Remembrance commemoration this morning. But if we are to see biblical literature in broad brush strokes, two of our readings, from the Old Testament the Book of Jonah and the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews represent an expression which is direct and unyielding. Jonah is a Jesus like figure in that for all time his rescue from the belly of the whale offers a signal pointer to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross is the one true sacrifice which emerges out of God’s own love and from which all other loves depend.
For Christians the figure of sacrifice is not just a figure of speech but central to our identity as human beings. Our understanding of God is that in sending his own Son to die on the Cross we come to know what ‘the full extent of his love’. We cannot speak of God or of Jesus without recourse to the language and the acceptance of real sacrifice for the sake of others. Remembrance Sunday dares to imagine that human sacrifice on such a great scale must never be forgotten, must be always remembered, since it has the power to reconcile ourselves to ourselves and the world as it is. It is the hope of life which emerges out of death.
On Thursday of this week I was in the company for some eight hundred primary schoolchildren at the Quaker Meeting House on the Euston Road. The children had spent some weeks immersing themselves in all the material out of which this Remembrance Sunday draws its abiding strength. Out of their own witness came a great commemorative event in which wreaths of poppies and origami birds, cranes, were laid at their own giant cenotaph, after which they held their own two minutes’ silence, pledging that they become peace makers and that they walk confidently into a future in which dedicated peace-making was to be actively pursued. The schoolchildren of Camden paid homage to the dead and at the same time drew strength from the enormity of their example and sacrifice.
On this piece of paper is written the seventy-two names of mostly very young men from our own small parish who died during the Great War. We can hardly imagine that the deaths of these young men, who had no doubt come to Sunday school here at Holy Cross, and perhaps joined the Church Lads’ Brigade impacted upon this small community in King’s Cross. We may imagine the parish priest, Fr Baverstock and his curates visiting the bereaved wives and offering help to the families in their loss. The life of this parish would have been devastated by such a great dense amount of local grief. The lives of the young men who had hardly begun really living; literally cut down even before they entered their prime. And the Church had to continue to proclaim Christ and live out its God given vocation in the midst of it all.
With all the remembering of the dead the numb feelings of grief and the feeling of the utter waste of it all, which was so well and necessarily expressed by the war poets. As it is hard to imagine how it was, so it is hard to imagine the great gap between the lost hopes and dreams of the dead young men of the trenches and the hopes of the schoolchildren of present day Camden. And yet a thread runs through them which is a strong thread of hope for our common humanity and in which the grim events of the past give way to the persistence of faith and of hope. Above all the willingness to serve the greater good in the giving of oneself to the tough maintenance of active and self-sacrificial peace in whatever shape or form that might take. Discovering this vocation in our own lives in our own way and in our own sphere of activity and involvement.
A Remembrance Sunday sermon could so easily give way to pious words or empty theological assurances. This is perhaps why a silence forms the centre piece of our Remembrance Sunday observances. A silence shared by so many millions across the world and which proves more eloquent than all the words which surround it, even though these words can be important and help us in understanding of things that are very difficult to fully fathom. But the pledge and the expression; the hope for our future must be expressed and enjoined even while we remember the dead.For our hope is as the Wisdom writer reminds us, 'rich in immortality'.
Let our prayers this morning be joined with those who have gone before us and particularly our parish men who laid down their lives over one hundred years ago. May our prayers echo the hopes of today’s Camden schoolchildren, and may our own prayers today reflect something of the Christian call to diligent service and sacrifice which is the mark of the One God and of His Son Jesus Christ, who with the refreshing Holy Spirit are one God, world without end. Amen.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Advent
4th Nov 2018
THE FOURTH SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT YEAR B
“There is no commandment greater than these”. Mark 12.
I am a child of the 1960s, and I am old enough to remember what Beatle mania was like. And the song we children loved to sing, I think because it was so repetitive and catchy, was ‘All You Need is Love’. We have today to consider the well-known statement of Jesus on love. It becomes immediately obvious that he does not speak abstractly or vaguely. Instead he takes two separate statements and makes them one. The first statement concerns the being of God and the second our own being in relation to God. “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and you must love your neighbour as yourself”.” On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets…” This message of love, which Christ both teaches and embodies, is the crucial turning point for human civilisation. It is a leap forward for a truer understanding of the meaning of our existence.
The Gospel writer John was to declare God to be One who not merely shows his love in the created order and in Jesus Christ. He IS love!
John’s appeal is philosophical - God is love, and in God there is nothing that is not love. He cannot be other than love. Christians understand in this way that such love is regenerative. It has in turn been given recognisable form in Jesus Christ, the One who incarnates love. He makes it flesh and blood and gives himself in love to common humanity. He can do this because He and the Father are One.
This love of God is not to be expressed in the abstractedness of a Beatle’s song; with the strains of the sitar or the advices of the Maharishi! No, it is expressed as an action which proceeds out of the human heart and towards our neighbour. But it is given and exercised freely. It is passed on from the Father to the Son to us and then to others…It is a sharing of God’s trusting charism. The radical nature of Jesus’ message is that Faith in God can make no sense without its interrelatedness to what we call ordinary or common humanity. Christianity is not a mystical eastern religion providing a spiritual way for those who are the initiated ones. Neither is it individualistic. God and neighbour exist within the one unbreakable bond of God’s love for us, his creatures. And in communion with him, this is what we come to know ‘by heart’.
But how are we to respond to what have been called these ‘impossible commandments?’ Of the commandment to love? After all we have no ready recognition of human love in which human frailty is not also powerfully at work. And that is how it must be. It is recognised in St Paul’s famous hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 in which he professes the very limitedness of our capacity to love. And his statement comes to us as a crie de coeur : “For now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known… But there remains for us only three things: faith and hope and love. But the greatest of these is love”.
Some lines from a poem by WH Auden ring in my ears “You shall love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart”. And then a prayer from a former Dean of Westminster,
How can I love my neighbour as myself
When I need him as my enemy –
When I see in him the self I fear to own and cannot love?
How can there be peace on earth
While our hostilities are our most
Cherished possessions –
Defining our identity, confirming our (apparent) innocence?
But equally there come to us the words borne out of St Augustine of Hippo in a declaration of confidence in the informing and influencing power of Christian Faith, and this gives us the hope we seek – The initiative remains God’s, as Augustine knew: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless ‘til they find their rest in you’. .
It may be that we can only love in small ways, but even these can be significant. I once knew in King’s Cross of a Christian woman, Juliet, who was an inveterate letter writer, and a giver of beautiful cards, which express everything she hoped for in her God but were written and directed toward those she met. And they were hand written in real ink! Then there was that Dean of Westminster, Eric Abbot, a great spiritual director, whose handwritten letters and postcards to those in his care were legendary. But these are the ones who worked and made evident something we already know: It is the miracle of the nearness of God and of his love to us. These witnesses and their like make that nearness a present reality. They have always known, perhaps through painful struggle, that none of us can believe or hold to a Christian Faith in isolation. The commandment to love God and your neighbour has been termed ‘ the impossible commandment, but we must try nonetheless.
Today Jesus proclaims the inseparability and the nearness of God in the one reality of love. For Jesus the Faith is always relational. It is expressed as our longing for God and God’s longing that we become what we were made to be.
For God is Love.
The Church’s prayer is that God’s love for us comes to be, in the words of The Beatles song,
“All you Need”…